Thursday, September 23, 2021

Just Accept It

Oh, hi there. It’s been a while. Sorry about that. Piles of stuff going on. I won’t bore you with it all now. Not when I can save some of it for later ranty blog posts...

I have, as some of you know, gotten back to my Saturday geekery. And a while back, during one particularly clumsy movie, I tried to explain a few thoughts about basic storytelling. Twitter’s not always great for nuance, though (sorry you had to find out this way), and I realized pretty quick I wouldn’t be able to talk about this in a way that did it justice. Or didn’t invite a few dozen people to leap in and say “Well, actually...

So let’s go through this real quick.

I’m sure most of you have heard the whole “there are only seven basic plots” thing. Or maybe it’s nine. Depends on who you ask. Thing is, when we really get down to the bones of it, there’s only one plot. Ultimately, it all comes down to something makes today different from every other day. Something happens to make today noteworthy and forces my hero to do something different than usual.

I’ve talked about this here on the ranty blog before, and from a few different directions, so I won’t get into it too much. It’s pretty straightforward though. Something happens = story. Nothing happens = no story.

If I’m writing a longer-form thing—maybe a book or a feature-length screenplay—I’m probably going to have more than one moment like this. My hero’s day will be different and just as they’re adjusting, getting used to things again... something else happens. Like, we found out what was really going on, but then later we found out what's REALLY going on.

Believe it or not, I just slipped a really important thing in there. And it’s the thing I was trying to talk about on Twitter, but knew I wouldn’t be able to without someone jumping in before it was fully explained. And probably accusing me of hating art or loving Hitler in the process. Because Twitter is also very impatient.

Anyway...

The really important thing is that once the thing happens (however many things I have), my hero needs to accept it. They can have a few scenes, maybe a chapter or three of shaking their head and denying things, but ultimately they need to admit this is the new normal. It’s really important they move on, for a number of reasons...

First, if my characters never adjust to the new normal, they get annoying. Fast. Heck, the real world’s spent a year and a half now showing us how much people in denial can get on your nerves. We’ve all seen films where the vampire drops out of the sky, kills somebody, drinks their blood in front of their group of friends, explodes into a cloud of bats... and yet there’s still that one guy insisting vampires aren’t real. Can’t be real. Nope. What, Yakko’s dead too? Still not vampires! Nineteen people killed in front of us one by one? This isn’t happening. Not happening and definitely not vampires.

I’m betting you started to skim that, right? Because that character’s a bit eye-rolling. And this was just a couple of lines. Imagine three hundred pages of that guy. Yeah, there are times I may want an annoying character in the mix, but there’s usually not more than one and it’s very rarely my protagonist.

Second, if my characters don’t adjust and get accustomed to the “new normal,” my increasing challenges are going to be more and more difficult (because my challenges are increasing, yes?) If my character’s not growing and changing, they’re quickly going to be outmatched by the world around them. I’m going to find myself writing things that just aren’t believable. Sure, Dot took out one hitman by sheer luck, but if she never accepts she’s now part of the assassins’ union and develops past that, how are my readers supposed to accept her lasting ten seconds against the Grand Emperor of Death? One of the reasons challenges grow and increase in stories is because my characters are growing and becoming more capable of dealing with things.

Third, is that we all instinctively feel this progression of story and plot. We’ve been trained by years of reading and watching stories. So if my character doesn’t change and grow and adjust to this new view of the world... their story kind of stalls out. And that throws my whole structure off balance. We can’t always identify it, but we can feel it. Something in this book or movie has dragged to a halt. At the very least it hasn’t progressed as far as it should’ve. You may remember we talked about when this happens in television shows--they call it the Moonlighting curse.

So...

Hopefully it’s clear why this moving on is important, but let me toss one more thing into the mix for you to mull over. Why this is so very important in longer works. And to do this... I’m afraid I’m going to have to use some terms that may make some of you uncomfortable.

I’ve talked before about three act structure. We establish the norm, we introduce conflict, and we have a resolution. You remember all that, right?

Okay, well that moment we introduce conflict? More-or-less the start of Act Two? Guess what? That’s when something makes today different than every other day. We could even call it... the inciting incident.

Sorry if that made your skin crawl a bit.

And remember how I said longer-form stories generally have another moment like this? A second time my protagonist gets their legs kicked out from under them? What to guess when that happens?

That’s right! It’s usually as we transition to act three. It’s the sudden shift, the last-minute twist, that makes bringing this to a close so much harder than my hero thought it was going to be. And they already thought it was going to be pretty tough.

But if my protagonist isn’t accepting the thing that happened, if they spend all of act two in denial... well, that gets messy. Because there’s going to be that annoyance factor, yeah. But also we’re going to hit act three and, well... out hero’s not really ready for it. They’re still shaking their heads and refusing to believe that inciting incident stuff (again, sorry).  The bulldozers are out front and heading for the barn, but my protagonist is still insisting there’s no way Jerry from the bank would’ve foreclosed on our farm...

When this happens... well, it usually means one of two things. Either I’ve picked the wrong character to be the hero of my story... or I don’t really have a story. I mean, that growth and progression is pretty much the defining aspect of a character’s story, so if my hero’s spent the last hundred pages with their head in the sand, it’s probably a warning sign something’s gone really wrong.

It’s pretty hard to deny that.

Next time, I’d like to address another geekery issue and talk about really stupid attempts to save the cat.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

FAQ XVI – The Sweet Sixteenening

In the before times I tried to update the frequently asked questions every six months or so. Last year kinda blew that habit out of the water. A lot of this year, too. With all the disruption to, y’know, everything. Some things slowed to a crawl. Others came to a grinding halt.

And that meant I had a lot less news to share and/or questions to update.

Folks are finally getting used to this new normal, though, and enough things are getting back in motion that I figured it was finally worth updating this.

So here’s fresh answers to some of the most common questions I get. So now 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 just point you at this document, most likely pinned near the top of my social media pages and this blog (look, there it is in the right-hand-column). Which means the answers are all right here.

Or in the books. There’s lots of answers in the books. Really.

1) When are we going to see something new?
Next up for me is going to be The Broken Room, coming out in early March 2022—about six months from now! We technically have an exact date, but I want to hold off sharing that just in case things go wonky sometime between now and then. As a lot of things are right now. I wrote The Broken Room over lockdown last year and it’s a bit different for me. After a couple phone calls and discussions, my agent pitched it to publishers as “Jack Reacher meets Stranger Things.” And it turns out, hey, that sounded interesting to some folks.

After that—possibly before depending on how a few things go—I’m going to (finally) put out my short story collection as an ebook. Yeah, just an ebook, sorry. Dead Men Can’t Complain + Other Stories has been an audio collection for a while, but it really needs to get out more. And (if I can pull this off) there may be some cool bonuses for this version.

And, after some strategizing, my agent and I are talking about two more ideas you might like and he may be talking to certain folks about over the holidays...

2) Why did you do all these “Audible exclusives” for the past few years ?
First off, I only did two. Well, okay, four, since they offered to release some previously-published, out-of-print stuff nobody else was interested in anymore—The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope RobinsonCrusoe and a bunch of short stories we combined into Dead Men Can’t Complain, but those two weren’t even exclusives.

Second, there’s a solid argument to be made that the majority of my fan base is audiobook listeners. Audible knows this, too, 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. Then I’d be free to do what I want with them.

Yeah, I know it made some of you grind your teeth. Sorry if you weren’t 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 of those deals. In the end, I really wanted to tell those stories and that was the overall best way to do it. Again, I’m sorry if it put you in a bad spot.

3) Do you make more money if I buy your books in a certain format?
This sounds like an easy question, I know, but there’s a bunch of conditionals to any answer I give. A huge chunk of each and every book contract is just all the different terms and conditions for when and if and how people get paid. Lots of “ifs” and “excepts” and “unlesses.”

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 actually had the sale (publisher or distributor).  And all of this changes in every contract.  What’s true for, say, Paradox Bound isn’t true for Terminus. In some situations. Usually.

TL;DR—just buy the format you like. It'll all work out fine.

4) So still no paper version of Terminus or Dead Moon?
No, sorry. There’s a couple of different reasons for it involving different business and PR things. If you’re really interested, I went over all of it about a year or so back. 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 these (and a few of my other older books) are only going to be ebook and audio. Sorry.

5) When are we going to see a movie/ TV series/ graphic novel/ video game of your books?

Well, first off, I hope you understand I have pretty much zero influence on Netflix making a Threshold series or Disney+ doing a Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe movie. When we see a TV series or film adaptation, it means the filmmakers went to the writer, not the other way around. Think about it. If the writers just had to say “hey, make this into a movie,” wouldn’t most books be adapted by now? Everybody’d be doing it.

That said... yes, there’s a potentially big thing going on right now. But like so many Hollywood things, it’s moving along at its own pace and hasn’t quite hit the point where I feel good talking about it yet in anything more than vague terms like this. Once there’s something solid to tell you, I’ll tell you.

Really, you’ll probably hear me shrieking from wherever you are on Earth.

6) Well, is there anything we can do to help?
Buying books is always 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, and social media. If #ParadoxBound started trending on Twitter tomorrow, there’d probably be a film in pre-production by the end of the year. Really.

So talk about books you like (anyone’s books, not just mine). Mention them to friends, write reviews (always good), tag online streaming channels if you want to talk about how this or that should be a movie. Word of mouth is the best (and easiest) thing to do.

7) I thought you don’t like people talking about your books. Now I'm confused.
I’m always thrilled and amazed people talk about anything I wrote. Seriously. I think most writers are. What I can’t stand, personally, are people who blurt out spoilers that ruin 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? Especially these days when release dates/airdates aren’t the ironclad things they used to be. Even if you didn't enjoy it, they might.

8) Do you have any plans to attend ########-Con?
I’ve been doing a lot of virtual stuff, but I’m hoping the world will be in a place where I can get back out there next spring and say “Hi” to folks. Really, I’d love to do a lot of stuff in February-through-May to help promote The Broken Room. So if you want to see me at your local con, let them know. Email them, tweet them, post on their Instagram account. Reach out, vote, and let your voice be heard.

Also, generally this is a sooner-is-better type thing. If you’ve got a convention near you that plans to go ahead in February, there’s a good chance they’re putting together a guest list now. So don’t wait—let them know right now that you want K. Arsenault Rivera there!

And me. Let them know you want to see me. Y’know... if you do.

9) Could you explain the whole “Threshold” series?
Threshold is the umbrella label for the shared “cosmic horror” universe I unknowingly began a little over nine years ago with 14. It refers both to doorways and also things reaching a critical point--common themes in many of the stories. There are some books that form a more linear story, a “series” if you will, and some that stand alone. Which. in all fairness, makes things a bit awkward sometimes. I know the marketing folks sometimes pushed Threshold as a pure, straightforward series even though I’ve said many, many times that it's just a shared universe. I know at times this gave some readers false expectations for some books, and I apologize if that was you.

10) Is Ex-Isle the last Ex book?
Yeah, Ex-Tension is on the back burner for the foreseeable future.  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 may happen to give the first book a boost (and all the other books after it) but they’re always 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 when the publisher looked ahead to book six... well, hitting said line was pretty much unavoidable.

11) Have you considered a Kickstarter or a GoFundme?
Yeah, sorry, the answer’s still no. I love these books and had tons of fun writing them. I’m still amazed there are so many fans who love them so much. 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 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 usually got a good sense of what I’m working on for at least the next year, sometimes even longer. If I do a crowdfunded project, I have to schedule my time under the assumption it’s going to succeed, which means telling my publishers any other projects need to be put off and scheduled accordingly. And that 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.

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

Long answer... look, if I said yes to even a third of the requests I got, I’d be 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. And buy food and booze. And I really like food and booze. And my house. So when someone asks me to read stuff, they’re asking me to give up a few hours of work. Would you want 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, sad truth is some folks are not too bright and lawsuit-crazy, and they ruin it for everyone else. Somebody shows me a piece of bland, generic fanfic, then 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 with less 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. And probably block you.

13) What’s up with your Facebook page?
Ahhhhh, Facebook. Where we’re the product and the target audience. 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 so my posts went from 70-85% engagement to barely scraping 10-15% most of the time. All to make me pay to reach people who were already following me. Which I won’t do for a few reasons, a big one being folks pretty solidly showed years ago that paying for views on Facebook actually decreases your reach. Seriously.

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 part of capitalism is you have to make something I want. I don’t have to use your product.

Plus 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. Or, y’know, the USA. And these aren’t fringe articles—they’re from major news sites.

So, yeah,  I deleted my Facebook account almost two years ago (long overdue). There’s still a fan page there, but it’s just sort of a zombie page (zing) with no administrator.

14) What about Twitter or Instagram?
I’m @PeterClines on both.  Fair warning--as I mentioned above, 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 lots of toys and LEGO and model robots. And cats. Can’t have an Instagram account without cats. Sometimes there are overlaps in these things.

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

 

And I think that should answer about 83% of your questions, yes...?

Thursday, August 26, 2021

When I SAY You Can Know It

Despite the pandemic, there’s still been a lot of fantastic storytelling going on. Books. Movies. TV shows. Some of it’s been fun, some of it nostalgic, some of it... well, let’s be honest, some of it was greatly delayed because of said pandemic. Regardless there’s been a lot of enjoyable stuff.

BUT...

As Uncle Ben taught us, with great storytelling comes great spoilers.

As I’m sure you know, spoilers are a matter of great contention. Is it my fault or your fault if I post spoilers to something and you see them? How much time has to pass before spoilers are acceptable? Does getting them really affect my enjoyment of the story? Do spoilers even matter?

I’ve talked about (and in some cases, argued about) all these before, here and on the wider internet. But it’s that last one I wanted to blather on about today. Specifically, a certain angle some folks take with it you may have seen. It goes something like this...

”If knowing a spoiler ruins your story... maybe your story’s not that good.”

This one always makes me grind my teeth. Partly because it’s kind of an inherently smug thing to say, but also because it shows a basic misunderstanding of storytelling. Which is why it’s doubly annoying when I see it from... well, storytellers.

So let’s talk about narrative structure for a few minutes.

I’ve talked about this before at length, so I won’t do too much here (hit that link if you want a lot more). For our immediate purposes, narrative structure’s the order I’ve decided my plot points and character elements need to follow. It’s the sequence I want my audience to receive information in so they’ll get a certain dramatic effect. Simply put, narrative structure is the way I’ve chosen to tell my story.

If I want to tell my story in a straight A-to-Z fashion, that’s my narrative choice. If I want to use a bunch of flashbacks, that’s also up to me as the storyteller. Heck, if I decide to go completely nonlinear and change timeframes every other page without any apparent rhyme or reason... I mean, that’s my call. I’m the one telling the story and I (hopefully) have solid reasons for why I’m telling it in this specific way.

But whichever way I do it—assuming I do have a reason and I’m not just skipping around wildly because I thought it’d be cool—I’ve made a specific choice for my audience to get this piece of information first, this one second, this one third, and so on and so forth up to my five hundred and fortieth piece of information.

Yes, all real novels contain exactly five hundred and forty elements. No more, no less, just as Plato said in his many treatise on storytelling.

Anyway...

Now, that order’s important because my narrative structure is one of the thing that defines my story. If I put them in a different order, it’s a different story. That makes sense, right? An example I’ve used before is The Sixth Sense. If you’ve never seen it before and somehow avoided hearing about it... well, first off, seriously, good for you. Go see it right now. Go! Now! I can’t believe you’ve made it this long. And I’m about to spoil it, so please don’t keep reading.

Did you go away?

Okay, spoiler-filled explanation...

The Sixth Sense is the skin-crawling story of child psychologist named Malcolm who's trying to treat a little boy named Cole. Cole’s haunted by ghosts that only he can see, which leaves him constantly traumatized and in shock. Malcolm helps Cole realize the ghosts are, in their own way, equally scared and asking for help. And as Cole begins to understand that his powers are a gift, not a curse, Malcolm comes to realize that he’s a ghost—that he died over a year ago in an encounter we saw at the start of the movie.

What’s great, though, is that—like I said up above—if you watch the movie a second time (or if someone spoils the twist for you), it becomes a very different story. In fact, knowing the truth about Malcolm and the other ghosts, the story becomes less scary and much more tragic. Almost goofy at points. Now it’s a story about a kid and his ghost friends solving mysteries. It’s pretty much Paranorman.

That’s the key thing here—The Sixth Sense becomes a different story. Not the one Shyamalan intended for us to see. Definitely not the one he narratively structured. The audience learning the truth about Malcolm is intended to be element five hundred and nine, not element one that we knew before we even sat down. Knowing the big twist changes it into a different story.

So the whole “...maybe your story’s not that good” argument doesn’t make a lot of sense, because if I see a bunch of spoilers it means I haven’t seen your story. I saw a different story that had all the same elements, but in a different order and thus with different dramatic weights. It had a completely different narrative structure. I got Paranorman, not The Sixth Sense. Not that there's anything wrong with Paranorman (I love it) but... it's not the initial experience Shyamalan was trying to create for us.

Now, there’s another, related point we can make here. By their nature, spoilers tend to be some kind of reveal. It’s a piece of unknown or unexpected information. Maybe it’s a cool twist. Maybe it’s the identity of the murderer. Maybe it’s just a little cameo/ crossover beat. And sometimes, once that information’s been revealed, we realize this story didn’t have much else going for it. Once we know who the murderer is, we realize it was our own desire to know the answer carrying us through the story, not really the story itself. The story’s not flawed, it’s just... well, also not that great in any way.

Or maybe the answer just wasn’t quite worth the build up. Maybe the murderer turns out to be... well, exactly who we thought it was. Or someone we absolutely never could have considered (“Chris? Who the hell is Chris?”). Maybe the big twist happens and it... doesn’t make a lot of sense? Maybe it doesn’t change anything or doesn’t mean anything (“Chris is actually Pat’s long lost cousin? Well who the hell is Pat?”). In these cases the story beat might land with some impact in the moment, but not so much after the fact.

And, yeah, these stories have problems. I mean, a twist by its very nature should sort of retroactively rewrite large swaths of my story. If it doesn’t do that... well, that means I screwed up. If my flashback doesn’t make linear sense within my story, then I’ve done something wrong. My reveals aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do.

But problems with something flawed doesn’t mean the principle is flawed. I can’t say narrative structure doesn’t matter because a couple stories have crappy narrative structure. That’s like saying all sushi is bad because I bought sushi at a gas station once and it made me sick. Or, y’know, that Sharknado5: Global Swarming has a dumb twist that doesn’t change anything, therefore I can give away a bunch of stuff from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

I mean, maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense...

Yes, a really good story will still work once you know the big reveal. That’s why there are books we like to re-read and movies we watch three or four times. The storytellers were very careful to make sure  their narrative would still work even when it was forced to switch tracks because we knew things. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t want us to see the original story they planned out.

I know in my own writing I love having a good twists and reveals. Things that’ll make people sit up and go “WhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAATTT???” or maybe even shriek a favorite curse word or two. And I try very, very hard to make sure my books hold up on a second reading, that you’ll catch the little clues and maybe even realize I left some things sitting out in plain sight for you to catch on your second or third read, so that other story is still a fun one for you.

(like page 115 of Paradox Bound, for example. I don’t think anyone’s caught that. Not many people, anyway)

But that’s not the story I want you to read first. There’s a reason I put these things on page one and not page fifty, those things on page one hundred and not on page one, and why I was slightly vague about that so it’d be right where it was supposed to be... but you wouldn’t register what it was until a second or third time through.  Because this is the effect I’m trying to create, not that.

And the awful thing about spoilers is they make sure someone can never read this story. It’s almost impossible to unlearn something, so that experience gets lost forever. They never get to read this story... only that one.

And that’s a shame.

Again, as I mentioned above, still many issues about spoilers past this one. But hopefully—for now, at least—we’ve put the “do they even matter” question to rest. And also the “maybe your story’s not that good” defense of them.

Also-also, that Plato thing about halfway through was a joke. Please put that to rest too. In fact, forget it, just to be safe. Wipe it from your mental hard drive.

Next time...

I’ve got to be honest, I’m juggling four different projects right now and (at the moment) none of them have inspired a ranty blog post. So next week may just be some random cartoons or something unless any of you has a pressing question you’d like me to blather on about.

Until then... go write.