Thursday, December 28, 2017

A Year of Writing

            And just like that, 2017 is almost done.
            Well, okay.  Not really “just like that.”  For a lot of folks (me included), this has been a very long, stressful year.  Maybe for you, too, although I hope you managed to dodge some of it.
            It can be tough to write under these conditions.  When you feel like the world’s crumbling around you and you’re lunging to grab your favorite parts before they hit the floor... suddenly getting 1500 words written doesn’t feel like the best use of the day.  It can even make you feel worse.  Things may be collapsing, people are scared, but I’m going to go write this funny dialogue bit in a zombies on the moon story...
            Anyway... deep breath. 
            And if the deep breath doesn’t calm you, maybe a stiff drink.
            Okay.  Let’s talk about what we did get done this year.
            Why?  Well, I like laying this out because I’ve somehow stumbled into the position of being a “pro,”  and I think there’s a lot of bad information out there about what being a pro entails.  Some people think it means writing four hours a day and getting paid very well for it.  Other people think it means typing twelve hours a day, every day, and making about the same as a retail worker.  And still other people honestly think it means living in some gigantic New York penthouse apartment (and wintering in your Los Angeles one), where you barely ever write but still constantly make the NYT bestseller list and have enough free time to help solve about twenty-two murders a year.
            True fact.  I’m still living in the same apartment I lived in ten years ago when I was a terrified, starving writer.  Was driving the same car up until this March (when it finally wouldn’t pass inspection anymore).
            Anyway.  Getting off track. Too much eggnog with too much rum in it...
            As I have in the past, I wanted to go over everything I’ve written this year.  Partly for me. Partly for you.  Let’s get a sense of what a (supposed) pro does...
            I spent the first three months of the year finishing up work on Paradox Bound. As I’ve mentioned in other places, it was very tough writing a story about America and the American Dream right now.  There were many rewrites for tone and message that continued right up until the very last minute. And even then I look back at it and see things that slipped past me, things I wish I could’ve tweaked a little more.  But many of you have enjoyed it, and I’m very glad.
            During this time I was also working on a rough outline for Ex-Tension, what was going to be book six of the Ex-Heroes series.  I even started some of the heavy lifting when Paradox Bound wasn’t sitting in front of me.  But I was maybe a month or so into it when my editor, agent, and I had some talks and, well... it’s been set aside for now.  More on that later. 
            But it actually meant I could launch into Timestamp.  It’s been tickling my mind for a while now.  I wrote about 15,000 words of it and, on request, wrote out a huge exhaustive outline.  I was a little worried, because it’s one of those complex, character-heavy stories that comes across as a bit simplistic if it gets broken down past a certain point.  But after another six or seven weeks... this got set aside as well.  And, in retrospect, I’m okay with that.  My editor and I got to sit down one night at SDCC and talk about it over whiskey and apple pie, and he made some really good observations about the story (as he always does).
            Of course, at this point the year was more that half done and I hadn’t really gotten momentum on anything. Every time I started to prick up speed, my legs got kicked out from under me.  So I made the decision that I was going to write... well, a zombies on the moon story.  Something fun that I was excited about.  Because I needed to write something before the year drove me even crazier. 
            And I just finished up a first draft of that.
            Plus, my agent and I focused on a few ideas and I wrote up three other super-detailed outlines earlier this month.  Well, two “super-detailed” and one “fairly solid” outlines.  And I’m really excited about these and thinking they’re going to end up being most of next year for me.
            I also did a lot of promo stuff for Paradox Bound.  A few mini-articles, maybe a dozen written interviews.  Maybe a solid week of writing if you added all that up.
            And there was this blog. A record breaking seventy-six posts this year but... let’s be honest.  At least a dozen of those were just Tom Gauld cartoons or memes, and maybe another dozen were random promo posts for Paradox Bound or the Dead Men Can't Complain collection.  Still, that means these were around fifty rants on one topic or another.  I think I could call this year a tie with 2009, previously the most successful year of the ranty blog.
            There were also nine or ten posts on my little geeky blog, and I came to the realization just last night that I’m probably going to end that one.  It requires a lot more of a time investment than I can give these days, between the hobby side of it and the instructional/ writing side. I love those projects, but I can’t work on them and document to the extent they deserve.  I may try to find a happy medium somewhere...
            Anyway... that’s what I got done this year. 
            How about you?
            At the end of it all, we have to keep writing.  It’s what separates us from the non-writers. And the great apes.  We keep pulling stories out of our head and scribbling them out for other people to read.  This is the only definition of being a writer—writing.  People can make any argument or excuse they like, but if I’m not doing that one basic part of the job...  well...
            Anyway, I hope the holiday season is going fantastic for all of you.  See you all next year.
            And if you get a chance... maybe write a bit.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Happy Ending

            Oh, get your mind out of the gutter...
           Well, it’s been a brutal week on a couple levels. And it’s the holiday season, I think we can all use a little cheering up, don’t you?  So let’s talk about some good stuff.
            And I’ll start by talking about what happens in the grim, dark future...
            As I’ve mentioned once or thrice here, I’m a bit of a geek.  One of my biggest geekery hobbies by far is Warhammer 40K.  If you’re not familiar with the game, it takes place in the distant future (around the year 40,000—surprise!) where mankind has risen, fallen, risen, fallen again, risen one last time... and is now pretty much on the way out.  Not immediately. Not in our lifetime.  But the glory days are gone and the Empire of Man is well past middle aged and fighting to hang on to its driver's license, if you get my drift.
            When my lovely lady and I first started hanging out, she expressed interest in this silly toy soldiers game, and—being a geek—I immediately started telling her about the different armies and the massive back story and setting of the game.  And after a few hours of listening to stories of the waning Imperium, she finally laughed and said, “Why would anyone want to live in this world?  I’d just kill myself.”
            Which is a fair point.  To be honest, I hadn’t been fond of some of the earlier stories myself.  They were just bleak as hell. You may have heard the term “grimdark” used for some fiction.  It actually comes from this game.  That phrase I used up above, “in the grim, dark future”—that’s part of Warhammer 40K’s tagline.
            Of course, it’s not just the little toy soldiers.  The grimdark label ends up on a lot of things these days.  Urban fantasy stories.  Post-apocalypse stories.  Superhero stories.  And this isn’t just about genre books.  People try to do “serious” books all the time that are nothing but sadness, misery, and death.  There’s a common belief that making things gritty and dark, and edgy automatically makes them more “mature.”   I’ve mentioned once or thrice before how some writers think having bleak, depressing endings is artistic because it’s more “real.”
            I’m sure you can think of plenty of examples of this.
            The catch is, this gritifying of stories rarely works.  Usually making something grim and dark just makes it... well, grim and dark.  That’s it.  Seriously, check out bestselling books or big box-office movies.  The popular stuff almost always leans toward lighter and fun.  A lot of it has (gasp) happy endings.
            As another famous sci-fi icon once said, it’s not enough to live.  You have to have something to live for.
            Again, why would anyone want to live in my fictional world?  Seriously.  Take a moment and think about it.
            What saved the world of Warhammer 40K for me was the writing of folks like Dan Abnett and Sandy Mitchell.  They added a human element.  They told stories that involved jokes and drinking buddies and love and people just enjoying their lives.  Heck, Abnett had a whole subplot in one book about a toymaker saving his business by building wind-up robots.
            I’ve gotten a lot of praise for my Ex-Heroes series.  It’s a series that’s lasted through five book so far, and across six years. Long after when many people said zombies were... well, dead.  And I believe a lot of that praise and success comes from one simple thing.
            It’s a post-apocalyptic story, but it’s a hopeful one.  Yeah, things are overall awful, but the characters are actively trying to make life better.  They choose to move forward rather than do nothing or wallow in the past.  They laugh.  They love.  They play games.  They flirt.  They celebrate.  They have fun.  A lot of their life is stressful and difficult, but it’s not every-minute-every-hour-every-day stressful and difficult.
            And it’s important to see these other moments because now we know why the characters are going on.  We know what they’re living for.  Deadpool is a story about hopelessness and terminal diseases and bloody revenge, but it’s also a story where Wade and Vanessa pretty much screw each other silly for an entire year before he proposes with a Voltron ring
            Resist the urge to have nothing but grim darkness.  Don’t be scared about having a good thing or three happen in your story.  Don’t think you can’t have any light-hearted moments. 
            Believe in the happy ending!
            On which note, I hope you all have a fantastic weekend and (if it’s your holiday) a very Happy Christmas.
            Try and get a little writing in before then.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Critical Hit

            Okay, first of two posts this week, as promised...
            So a while back at the LA Writers Coffeehouse we were going to talk about criticism.  All the directions it can come from.  What it’s like from either end. How to put it out there.  How to receive it.  We never got around to it there, so I thought I'd talk about it here.
            Just to be different, though, let’s approach this from the tougher angle, in my opinion.  Giving criticism.
            I know that’s hard to believe—that giving criticism can be the hard part.  I mean, just check out any social media site.  Over the past week or so there’ve been tons of people offering critiques of... y’know, different stories.  Often for free. Usually unasked for.
            And, most of the time, not very good.
            Criticism—actual, constructive criticism—is a bit more than ranting online.  It’s being able to state quantifiable, true, relevant facts about a work.  There are a lot of folks who consider themselves critics who really just... spout their opinions a lot.
            I saw one of these recently.  Directed at me.  Someone had read one of my books, loved the first two thirds, but then it had an “action-packed, nonsense finale” that the reader didn’t like.  Which was a shame, because the rest of the book had been pretty good.
            I’ve talked a bit about this before, one of the first things to learn about giving criticism..  Me liking or not liking something isn’t really criticism.  It’s irrelevant.  That’s just a subjective opinion.
            This can be a tough thing to figure out sometimes.  It took me years to be able to separate my opinions from actual facts and observations about the story I was reading.  There are a lot of books and movies I didn’t like, but I can also acknowledge that doesn’t make them bad.  It just means they’re not for me. 
            So that’s lesson one in offering good criticism. Separating my opinion from actual facts.  Anyone can say “this sucks.”  If I’m trying to offer valid criticism, I need to be the person  who can explain why it sucks.
            And remember—“I didn’t like it” isn’t a reason.
            This should bring us to the second point about giving criticism.  It should be constructive, not destructive.  The goal isn’t to rip something apart, it’s to explain why and how it can be better.  Yes, sometimes this might mean a couple blunt, harsh truths will need to come out.  But even these don’t need to be designed to make the writer cry for weeks.  If that’s why I offered to critique someone’s work, well... I’m doing this for all the wrong reasons.
            Here’s a good rule of thumb.  I shouldn’t point out problems if I can’t offer some kind of actual solution.  This is also a good way to figure out if this is an opinion-vs.-criticism issue.  It’s tough to change opinions, but if something’s actually wrong, it shouldn’t be hard for me to figure out some way to fix it.
            Keep in mind, this doesn’t have to be a good solution.  My editor—a very high ranking editor at Random House—freely admits he’s great at spotting problems, awful at coming up with solutions.  But he’ll always have an answer whenever I ask about something.
            And I shouldn’t offer these solutions unless the writer specifically asks for them—it’d be rude of me to start explaining how someone else should be writing their story.  I mentioned helping a friend with her travel book a while back, and twice or thrice in the notes I’d point out an issue and say “I have an idea that might help with this—let me know if you’re interested.”
            Which is a great lead in to my third point.  If I’m going to offer criticism, I should know what I’m talking about.  This is a tricky one, because it means a lot more than “I read a book every week” or “I’ve seen every Best Picture winner.”  It especially means more than “I just want to read it early.”
            Being able to offer a good critical analysis means being able to juggle a lot of hats.  I need some actual knowledge and understanding of different structure forms and grammar.  I need to have read more than two or three “how to write a bestseller” books.  It wouldn’t hurt if I’ve sat and thought about this knowledge and absorbed it a bit.
            And just book-learning isn’t going to cut it.  I also need a lot of practical experience.  Lots and lots of reading.  Not just the classics. Not just the NYT bestsellers.  Not just the "good" stuff.  I need a broad-yet-solid background in the subject matter—no one should be asking me to read their hospital-based romance, and if they do I should be clear up front this isn’t quite my area of expertise.
            There’s also an empathy issue here, too.  I’ve mentioned a few times that writers have to have a good sense of empathy—if I can’t put myself in other people’s shoes, I’m going to have a tough time as a storyteller. Same goes for critiquing a story.  I need to be able to see what effect the writer’s going for and be able to predict how people are going to react to it.  If I can’t do this, my whole critique is going to collapse.
            And that brings us to the fourth and final point.  This one’s going to sound obvious.  If someone’s going to trust me with their work, if I’m going to tell them I’ll critique it... I should.  They’re asking for feedback and I should make an honest effort to give it to them.  There’s few things more frustrating for a writer than waiting weeks for feedback and getting a one line email that says “Yeah, I liked it.  It was fun.”
            You may laugh but...  I’ve had beta-readers do that.  Which is why they’re not beta-reading for me anymore.
            Likewise, comments that are too vague to help... don’t really help.  I shouldn’t be writing things like “I saw a couple typos—you’ll probably catch them next time through.”  Again, if I’m doing a critique, I should be noting all this stuff.  Getting caught up in it isn’t an excuse—I’m not supposed to be reading this for fun.  I should take my time and do it right.  As the man says (paraphrased), treat them the way you’d want to be treated.
            Now, with all that said... here’s two positive things about giving criticism.
            One is that it doesn’t need to be stiff. Unless I’ve been hired as a professional, I’m reading/critiquing for somebody I know.  Possibly someone I even consider a friend.  I can have fun with this.  It can be conversational.  It can be funny/snarky/flirty whatever.  I don’t need to change my relationship with someone to offer them criticism.  They want it from me, not from Professor Huffy von Formalnotes.
            Two is that... well, I don’t have to read it all.  No, I don’t.  Really. I’m not getting paid, I’m not doing this as part of a formal submission... I don’t need to read all 815 pages. 
            At least three or four times I’ve read books for friends who wanted feedback and forty or fifty pages in it was clear there were... inherent issues.  Things that weren’t going to change.  Things that were going to kill the book’s chances if an editor or agent read those first fifty pages. So I stopped there.  I gave them all the notes I’d made up to that point, and then explained the bigger problems I was seeing.  And that was it. My time is valuable—and so’s theirs.  They don’t need to read twenty pages of notes from me repeating the same things over and over and over again.
            And again.
            There you have it.  Some tips to giving better criticism.  Maybe even a few tips about dealing with it if you read around the edges a bit (and follow some of the links).
            Next time... well, we’re closing in on the holidays, and after all this criticism we could probably talk about some good stuff, yes?
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Family Tree

            Ugh.  Completely missed last week.  So very sorry.  I was trying to get a pile of outlines done. 
            Yeah, I know.  Me doing outlines. The world really has turned upside down.
            So, a few weeks back and I asked about possible topics and I got one request that seemed... well, it could be very relevant.  I’ll know in a couple hours, but I won’t say anything.
            Most of us are related to someone.  It’s really rare for someone to have no relations. So rare that it’s usually a major issue—for someone to have no parents or grandparents, no siblings or cousins. It’s almost off-putting, isn’t it?
            Likewise, most of our characters are going to be related to someone. Because our characters are realistic, relatable people.  And again, if we’re introduced to a character with no family at all... it usually says something about them, doesn’t it?
            Over the past ten or fifteen years, maybe, it’s become a big thing to have notable relations. Everybody is someone’s daughter, the brother of that guy, or the second-cousin of her mother-in-law.  Historical figures, mythological figures, other fictional characters.  How often have we seen a character who's descended from this line or heir to that empire?
            Now, there are some plusses to me doing this sort of thing.  The quickest one is that it’s an easy connection to previous stories and can save me some worldbuilding.  Just by telling you my next book is about King Arthur’s secret daughter, I’ve established a timeframe, the general world, some potential history,
            Plus—it can be a bit of fan service—which isn’t always a bad thing.  If you’re a comic book fan, you may be familiar with the Huntress.  In a simpler time, the Huntress was living proof that Batman and Catwoman hooked up (something we now just kind of take for granted).  So her parentage was very important to her character.
            Which is kind of the big point with this sort of thing.  If I’m going to bring up these relations... well, there should be a reason for it.  If I decide to bring up Wakko’s uncle and tell you he was the guy who invented lasers, yeah, it’s neat, but so what?  Likewise, if my peasant Dot is secretly the illegitimate daughter of the king, this better be a story about bloodlines and inheritance.  Because if it isn’t... well, why does it matter that she’s the illegitimate daughter? Why did I waste precious time and word count telling you this?
            I’m stressing this because there’s also a bit of a trap with this device, and I think the trap is what people tend to think of when they gripe about this sort of thing.
            Y’see, Timmy, sometimes this relationship to another person is all the character development someone gets.  Characters get defined by their relationships to other characters rather than by actual, active traits of their own.  Or the relationship’s a stopping point—once we know this, we don’t really need to know anything else.  They cease developing at that point because... hey, look who his mom is.  What else could you possibly need to know about him?
            I’ve seen this happen a lot.  If I had to guess, I’d say at least a third of the time when I’ve seen a big “relative reveal,” that’s pretty much it for character development.
            And I’d guess another, somewhat overlapping third of the time, the relation’s completely irrelevant to the story.
            That overlap’s a bad place to be.
            Just sayin’.
            So don’t be scared of giving your characters a family.  Even ancestors, if it comes to that.  Just make sure there’s a reason for it in the story you’re telling.
            Next time...
            Okay, I still feel bad about missing last week, so I’m going to try to make next week a twofer.  Tune in Tuesday and we’ll talk about getting feedback from your (former) friends and how to avoid being disowned when you give it.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

One Of You... Is A Murderer

            Sorry for the blast of posts this week.  Feel free to blame it on my love of storytelling—my own and other peoples.  Or rampant consumerism.  Or on me wanting to pay rent in January.  Any one of these answers is true.
            But now... let’s get back to some plain old writing advice.
            Readers tend to love a good mystery.  It’s kind of like the original VR game, where we get to see all the same clues and evidence as the protagonists and try to piece them together first.  We do it with books. We do it with TV shows.  Hell, there are some fantastic comic books you can do it with.  Alan Moore made a compelling argument once that comics are the perfect medium for mystery stories.
            As writers, let’s be honest.  Mysteries are tough.  They need to be in that perfect sweet spot—not so tough they’re impossible, but not so easy that my reader solves it before my character does (and then my character looks stupid for the next 150 pages for not figuring this out yet).
            Plus, there’s so much to keep track of.  Who saw what.  Where they saw it.  When they saw it.  These are all super-important, because readers hate it when they get to the end of a mystery and find a gaping hole there.  It’s probably the second-most annoying thing I can do when I’m writing a mystery.
            (And now I’ve got you all wondering, don’t I...?)
            At the Writers Coffeehouse a few weeks back, one of our regulars, Hal Bodner, offered a brilliant tip for writing mysteries. It eliminates this issue almost altogether.  Honestly, it’s so clever... it’s the whole point of this little rant.
            If you’ve ever seen or read an older mystery, they almost always have a chapter near the end when our fearless detective (or sleuths or investigators or what have you) bring all the suspects together and walk them through the crime.  They’ll go over the evidence, the clues, the alibis.  They’ll explain what each one means, which ones were red herrings, which ones they immediately discounted, and which ones pointed, Widow Humphries!  Or should we call you, Isabella, the Viscount’s estranged sister!!
            You know this scene, right?  I’ve heard it called the parlor scene, the tea room room speech, the summation gathering, and other titles along those lines.  Hal called it the detective's speech.  You might still catch it today on shows like Elementary, although it’s often pared down to just the detective and the guilty party.
            So... here’s the tip.
            Write that scene.  Even if my hard-boiled action story doesn’t really call for it, I should spend a day or three and write it out before I get going.  Have my investigator pace the room and point at people and say how he noticed this and saw those and learned about this.  Explain how this theory was discarded and where that idea came from.  And then point that finger right at the guilty party and scream “J’ACCUSE!!
            Or maybe your detective plays it cooler than mine and just stands there with her hands in her trenchcoat.  Maybe she gives a little nod and a faint smile when the murderer gets hauled away. And then she pulls out her flask and crawls deep inside until she can re-bury all those memories about Jenna that this case dragged up again...
            I don’t need to keep this scene, mind you.  Very likely this will just be one of those things I write that doesn’t get used.  Probably best if it isn’t.  Like I mentioned above, it’s kind of an archaic, cliche scene, and on the off chance it shows up it’s really pared down and tight.
            But once I have it written out, I have a mini-outline for how the mystery is revealed in my story.  Literally, who knows what when.  When they met the suspects.  What they see.  When they see it. When they make which connections.  It’s all right there in that speech—what my investigator needs to solve the crime.
            So gather your suspects—yes, even the butler—get them all seated in the parlor, and tell us about the first thing you noticed when you saw the crime scene.
            Next time, I wanted to talk about Luke’s father.
            Until then, go write.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Other Awesomer Books

            Monday I posted the usual ego-stroking Cyber-Monday list of my own books and some anthologies I’m in.  Today--as I have in the past--I thought I’d toss out some other books I’ve enjoyed this year that were written by much more talented people than me.  They’re not really in any order, and a few of them aren’t exactly new, but if you’re looking for something for that special somebody (or for yourself), it’s going to be tough to go wrong with any of these... 
            As always, you can prove you’re a morally better person by visiting your local bookstore.  There’s still plenty of time for them to order something for you if they don’t have it in stock.  Plus, some of them have connections and can get you autographed copies and stuff like that...

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire—the short, simple explanation is that this book is about all those kids who find mystic gateways or enchanted wardrobes or interdimensional touchstones, have fantastic adventures... and then eventually end up back in their normal, mundane homes again and having to cope with real life. The best thing I can think to say is that I’m so ridiculously jealous of this book. It’s just magnificent.

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig – I am super-late to the table with this one, because Wendig’s been writing this series for five years now.  Miriam Black is a foulmouthed alcoholic who’s gifted (or cursed) to immediately know how and when everyone she touches is going to die. After years of dealing with said ability, she’s seen someone’s future death that involves... her.  It’s funny and dark and fantastic and I think there are five of these books now.

Heroine Complex/ Heroine Worship by Sarah Kuhn –superpowers are real. So are superheroes.  The two aren’t always connected.  Oh, demons are real, too, and they can possess all sorts of things.  Evie and Aveda are such crazy-fun -lovable-exciting characters that you’ll devour each book in a day.  I did.

Killing Is My Business by Adam Christopher—I mentioned the first book in this noir-robot-detective series a while back. Adam’s written more of said series.  They’re still amazing, and now there are mysteries-within-the mysteries.  You should read them.

An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King – I got to read an early copy of this and it’s just brilliant.  A dystopian tale set in future-China, where the one child policy has gone... well, just like everyone predicted.  Our four protagonists are trying to form a family while also each hiding an array of personal secrets and deciding who to trust with them.  It’s a fantastic, slow-burn book that reads like the wonderfully twisted love child of The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Love.

Sleeping Giants/ Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel—another one I was late picking up (but got caught up quickly).  A fantastic epistolary tale about the discovery of a giant alien robot and the team that comes together to figure out how they use said robot to defend the Earth.  It’s Contact crossed with Pacific Rim, and if that idea doesn’t excite you we have nothing else to say to each other.
            Good day to you.
            I said good day.

We Are Wormwood by Autumn Christian – a beautifully surreal tale about a young woman growing up with insanity and then... well, descending into it herself with a few nudges from her demon girlfriend.  Christian also has a fantastic collection of creepy/scary/sexy short stories called Ecstatic Inferno that I wolfed down in about a day.  I befriended her on Twitter just so I can constantly prod her to write new stuff for me to read. I'm selfish that way.

Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black—okay, this glorious space opera’s kind of tough to explain, because in the future Earth has shifted over to an entirely new form of technology.  In short, its about a group of people developing new weapons, learning to use them, and learning to be them.  It may take a little bit to get into this one, but it’s sooo worth it.

Revolution –by John Barber and Cullen Bunn—I was a die-hard comic fan for years, but got driven out by the constant (and often substandard) crossover events.  I started reading some of IDW’s “Hasbroverse” books last year and was frustrated when they announced Revolution, their own upcoming crossover event.
            Holy crap.  This was my favorite comic book event in at least twenty years. It begins with a conflict between the GI Joe team and the Autobots which gets disrupted when Rom the Spaceknight shows up and uses his Neutralizer to incinerate General Joe Coulton before flying off again. If you were already a fan of IDW’s GI Joe or Transformers books, you can guess how a silver robot showing up and killing the Joes’ CO goes over.  If you’re a fan of Rom... you know what this killing implies.  Revolution is honestly suspenseful and dramatic, and has amazingly solid ties to all the books involved.  It’s clearly a crossover that was planned far in advance, and it made me a regular at my comic shop again.

            And anyway, those are some of my favorite things I read this year.  Any one of them would make for a fantastic gift.  And if you’ve got some suggestions of your own, please mention them in the comments down below.
            Tomorrow... regular old writing advice.  Thanks for your patience.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Cyber Monday VI: The Consumering

            So, we’re officially in the Christmas season now.  And the marketing people at Crown—who are truly wonderful folks—have dropped certain... hints my way.  Sooooooo, much as I dislike doing this here...
            I have to ask you all to buy stuff.
            I’m so very sorry.  I'll be quick.
            Here’s a few of my books and also some collections and anthologies I’ve got stories in.  Put them on your holiday wish list or get them as gifts for friends and family members.
            And really, go to your local bookstore.  They’re cool and they could use the business. Plus, now you’re not one of those conformists falling for all this Cyber Monday capitalist nonsense.
            The big thing this year, of course, is Paradox Bound, available in hardcover at all your favorite bookstores.  Also in ebook and a wonderful audiobook read by Ray Porter.  If you haven’t heard me drone on about it yet, it’s got history travel, road trips, creepy bad guys, and a really cool train. F.Paul Wilson compared it to Doctor Who crossed with National Treasure, and I really couldn’t ask for a better description than that.
            I also had a short story collection come out this year—Dead Men Can’t Complain.  It’s a bunch of stories from various anthologies and journals, plus a few original ones.  This one’s an Audible exclusive, and it’s read by Ray Porter and Ralph Lister.
            Many of you are probably here because of the Ex-Heroes series.  Ex-Heroes, Ex-Patriots, Ex-Communication, Ex-Purgatory, and Ex-Isle! All of these are available in a number of formats and a number of languages.
            Early on someone described The Fold as a horror-suspense novel disguised as a sci-fi-mystery, and I’ve been using that ever since.   It’s also loosely connected to another semi-popular book I wrote...  Ray reads the audiobook for this one, too.
            At least a third of you have probably found your way here because of –14— my weird Lovecraftian-sci-fi-urban-horror-mystery novel.  There’s a paperback (although it’s ridiculously hard to find these days), an ebook, and another audiobook narrated by Ray Porter.
            You can pick up The Junkie Quatrain as either an ebook or an audiobook (no paper, sorry).  It’s my attempt at a “fast zombies” tale, a series of interconnected stories I’ve sometimes described as Rashomon meets 28 Days Later
            I also have a ton of short stories out in anthologies right now.  The newest one is MECH: Age of Steel, which features “Projekt: Maria,” a new WWII pulp adventure featuring Carter & Kraft from me (and stories by more talented writers like Jason Hough and M. L. Brennan).  Plus, you can still pick up Kaiju Rising, which contains “Banner of the Bent Cross,” the first Carter & Kraft team-up
            Naughty or Nice is a collection of twisted holiday stories which cover... a lot of genres.  Don’t get it for your nine year old.  Or probably your parents. 
            There’s also The X-Files: Trust No One, edited by the wonderful-in-so-many-ways Jonathan Maberry and with stories from Gini Koch, Tim Lebbon, Heather Graham, and more.  My story here is “The Beast of Little Hill,” a classic Mulder and Scully tale about roadside attractions and fake aliens. 
            Finally, there’s “The Apocrypha of Gamma-202, ” a story about robots and religion, which appeared in Bless Your Mechanical Heart.  You’ll also get some great stories from Seanan McGuire, Ken Scholes, and Lucy Snyder.
            Also, I’ve said it in some other places, but if you’d like to get something autographed for the holidays, get in touch with Dark Delicacies (either by phone or online).  You can place an order with them (they’ll order the book you want if they don’t have it in stock) and tell them what you’d like to have scribbled in it. I stop by the store, personalize those scribbles for you, and they ship the book(s) to you in time for your end-of-year-holiday of choice. Everyone wins.
            And thus ends my shameless Cyber Monday appeal to capitalism.  Again, so very sorry, but please tell the marketing folks you read it.  I’ll also do another list later this week with some great books I’ve read by other, much better authors.  And of course, our usual Thursday blog post about writing.  And please don’t forget my Black Friday offer if you happen to be someone who needs it.
            Please feel free to resume your internet shopping.  Surf responsibly.  Clear your browser history on a regular basis.  
            And don’t click on that—it isn’t really from PayPal.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Black Friday V: The Silent Nightening

            Hope you all enjoyed your big meal yesterday. And if you didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving... well, I hope it was still a great and peaceful day for you.  Maybe you at least had a day off.
            Anyway, before we all dive into the capitalist nightmare of the day, I’d like to take a moment or three to discuss some personal history and--as I have in a couple other places on past Black Fridays--make an offer to those of you who may need it.
            Over a decade ago, when I chose to become a full time writer, I knew it meant some changes.  I’d been working in the film industry, and even as a non-union crew member, I was getting pretty solid wages.  Not fantastic, but I was living on the lower edge of middle class.  The decision to write full time would mean a pay cut, and I accepted that I’d be living tight for a while.
            It only took about a year and a half for the usual unavoidable expenses to pile up.  Car repairs, a very sick cat, and then the economy crashed so prices went up on a lot of things.  On top of that, the magazine I was writing for gave all its freelancers a 20%  pay cut.  After that, well...  In the space of another year I went from “living tight” to “way under the poverty line.”  And that's considering the poverty line in this country is much lower than it realistically should be.  My bank accounts were always empty (sometimes overdrawn when things processed in a weird order—which meant fees).  My credit cards were maxed out (which was a trigger to the credit card company to raise all my interest rates). I spent way too much time figuring out how each 20%-lower paycheck could be spread across three or four bills.
            My girlfriend and I went through three years like that.  Always stressed. Always sick with despair.  Always waiting for that unavoidable, inevitable expense that’d crush us.  We couldn’t turn the heat on for two winters in a row.  Our phone got shut off.  We went to the library to use the internet, and while we were there we’d steal rolls of toilet paper from the bathroom.  Because we were that poor.
            See, some folks like to whine about “handouts” or “entitlements,” but the truth is most poor people are just trying desperately to survive with a small degree of dignity.
            Oh, speaking of which--guess what?  The holidays suck for poor people.  It’s just more anxiety.  I hated the holidays.  We could’t afford to give out candy so no Halloween.  Thanksgiving was a few cans from the 99 Cent Store.  Christmas was awful.  We couldn’t even afford cards, let alone presents.  Nothing for my girlfriend or my mom and dad.  Nothing for my brother, sister in law, niece or nephew.  Nothing for my friends.  Being poor at the holidays is like when you forget to get something for that one person at the office party and you kind of squirm for an hour or so.  Except you feel like that for every hour of every day for the entire season.
            All that said... these days I’m in a better position, and I owe a good part of that to all of you.  So if I can help some of you avoid feeling that miserable this holiday season, I’d like to do it.
            If you’re in that same kind of bad place right now, where you can’t afford to give gifts to your family or friends, shoot me a note at the old address.  I’ve got fifteen or sixteen random books saved away.  I’ll scribble in one and mail it out to you.  I’ll even throw in wrapping paper if you need it.   It’s not much, but it’ll be a present you can give someone so you don’t have to feel low.  You can request a specific book, but I can’t promise anything, sorry (I have what I have).  I’ll send them out for as long as the books last.
            Again, this is only for those of you who need some help getting gifts for others. The people who are pulling unemployment, cutting back on everything, and feeling like crap because they can’t afford gifts for family or friends.  It’s not so you can recommend someone who might like a free book.  You could do that for them—go buy them a book.
            I’m also doing this on the honor system, so if you’re just trying to save some cash or score an autographed book, I won’t be able to stop you.  Just know that you’re a truly awful, selfish person and you’re taking away what might be someone’s brightest moment this season.  And you’ll burn in the pits of hell, if you believe in that sort of thing.  If not,  Krampus will probably feed you to a squale.  Violently.
            So... Happy Holidays.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Not-That-Bad Guys

            So very sorry I missed last week.  I’ve been trying to get this draft finished before Thanksgiving and last week just kind of sped by before I realized it.  My apologies.
            Also, thanks to all of you who sent me suggestions for topics. I think the rest of the year is filled up kind of nice, but if you happen to be reading this and still have some things you’d like me to blab about, feel free to mention them below.  I’m always up for more writing-related ideas you’d like to hear about.
            On which note...
            Thanksgiving.  A holiday we in the U.S. equally love and dread.  Love because... well, lots of food, friends, and family.  Maybe some booze and a lot of old black and white movies, or football if that’s your thing.  Perhaps a Twilight Zone marathon.  All wonderful things to enjoy on this feast day of thanks.
            Dread because... okay, let’s be honest.  The in-laws are kind of political zealots.  It’s almost impossible to have any discussion with them that doesn’t hit “those crazy liberals” within five minutes.  Your cousin’s significant other, the would-be-chef, is going to have lots to say about the turkey (and the stuffing, and the pie, and the potatoes, and...).   And if Uncle Randy has a third glass of wine (he says it’s just wine, anyway)... well, that’s when all the dark family secrets start coming out.  Some of them are even true.
            Granted, it’s not like these people are actually evil.  They’re not villains.  Okay, yeah, Uncle Randy had a brief stint in jail but that was over parking tickets (he says he was protesting the state government).  And two-thirds of the sentence was reduced to time served.
            But, seriously, they’re not villains.  They’re not what we’d think of as “bad guys.”  They’re just... kind of annoying.  Closer to obstacles than enemies.
            So let’s talk about antagonists for a few minutes.
            I’ve talked before about bad guys and antagonists.  About how my story often needs someone to oppose my hero or heroine, even if that someone is just standing in for a larger, less defined opponent.  An IRS agent can represent the government.  A junior executive can represent big business.  A doctor can represent a debilitating condition or perhaps even death.
            These people aren’t necessarily villains, though.  They may be working—or seem to be working—against my protagonist, but it’s not like they’re up to some nefarious plot.  Oh, sure, they could be, but in most of these examples, they’re probably just people doing their job.  I’m sure pretty sure most IRS agents aren’t gleeful about telling poverty-stricken people they messed up some forms and owe thousands of dollars.  I have a good friend who’s a doctor, and she’s never mentioned getting overly excited about telling people they’re going to need an organ transplant.
            And yet... we still tend to see these people as a challenge to overcome.  Someone we have to beat or prove wrong.
            This isn’t exactly a unique thing.  Having antagonists who are also (on some level) good people is a very common plot device.  Especially once we bring in police, soldiers, doctors, and even government agencies. Yes, even in this day and age.  So my hero has to deal with antagonists that are basically... well, heroes in their own right.
            For example, let’s take a look at a classic antagonist from one of America’s iconic folk tales, one that’s been produced for film and television.
            Captain Gantu from Lilo & Stitch.
            Gantu (voiced by the super-talented Kevin Michael Richardson—seriously, check out this guy’s resume) is the chief antagonist in the movie.  He imprisons Stitch at the beginning of the movie, tried to ship him off to what amounts to eternal exile on an asteroid, and then—after Stitch escapes—Gantu hunts him down to make sure that sentence is carried out.  Although his attitude at this point could loosely be described as... well, it wouldn’t be stretching things a lot to say “dead or alive.”
            But... is Gantu really a villain?  He is Captain Gantu, after all.  He’s risen through the ranks to be an officer of the Galactic Federation, and he’s the right hand man of the Grand Councilwoman.  When he goes after Stitch, it isn’t a personal vendetta—he’s following his leader’s orders to enforce the law.  Stitch is, after all, a fugitive from justice who’s broken even more laws by escaping to Earth.
            So Gantu’s definitely the antagonist of Lilo & Stitch.  And he’s a bit overzealous, yeah.  Maybe even a bit prejudiced against lab-created life forms.  But he’s not exactly a villain.
            Which means... what, as far as we’re concerned?
            Well, first off, this is an empathy issue.  As the writer, I have to be able to see things from Gantu’s (or Uncle Randy’s) point of view.  There has to be more to them than just “opposed to my protagonist,” especially if they’re not a villain... I might want it to be more on the positive side.  Is my antagonist doing this out of a sense of duty—even a misguided one?  Are they a reluctant antagonist?  Maybe it’s a lesser-of-two-evils situation?
            Keep in mind, this doesn’t have to work both ways.  While my readers need to have some empathy for the antagonist in this case, my antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to have any for my hero.  After all, in their eyes, there’s a good chance my hero is “the villain,” and should be treated as such.
            Second is that these antagonists actually need to be good people. If we find out Gantu’s in charge of the Galactic Federation’s concentration camps, or that the in-laws regularly firebomb Planned Parenthood offices and burn crosses on people’s lawns... well, they really are villains, then.  Again, empathy. If they’re going to be good guys then they need to be good guys.  Their actions may be antagonistic towards my hero or heroine, but it should still be clear to my readers they’re decent people at heart.  At the least, they're just trying to do their jobs.
            Also, something related to keep in mind here—something a writer-friend of mine was recently wrestling with.  If my antagonists are secretly good guys, if this is a twist that comes out somewhere in my third act... well, like any good twist, things still have to line up.  It’s going to be hard to reconcile a last minute “we’re actually the good guys” after 300 pages of murdering innocent bystanders and torturing supporting characters.  If I need my readers to misunderstand the antagonist’s earlier actions... they need to be actions that can be misunderstood.  It’s really tough to come back from shouting a bunch of racist, xenophobic slurs at strangers or shooting schoolteachers in the head.
            Y’see, Timmy, all I have to do is make them good people and have a little empathy.  If I have a real conflict, everything else should fall into place.  Or pretty close into place.
            Assuming I have solid characters.  And an actual plot.  And good dialogue. And... you know.
            Happy Thanksgiving, if you’re here in the states.  Hope tomorrow’s a peaceful and pleasant day for you, wherever you are.
            Next time... a great mystery tip.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Bully Balance

            Hey, everyone.  Hope you’re all doing well after the brutal temporal shift out of Daylight Saving time.  It can be pretty rough.
            Speaking of being rough... I wanted to babble on for a couple moments about some rough types we’ve all probably run into at one point or another. And maybe even written about.
            Lots of people—including fictional people—have dealt with bullies.  They are, unfortunately, a constant across all ages, cultures, genders, sexualities, and industries.  There’s a wonderful line in Paranorman--“If you were bigger and more stupid, you’d probably be a bully too.”
            Bullies are kind of common in fiction for two reasons.  The first, the easy one, is because it’s a type of person we can all relate to.  We’ve all had to deal with  that jerk at school, at work, online, or somewhere in our lives.  And every now and then, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not, maybe we’ve even been that person.  It’s an archetype we all know.
            The second reason is that bullies make a great low level antagonist for my protagonist to deal with.  They can drive a subplot or even just be a warm-up for the main plot.  While investigating drug smugglers or human traffickers, it’s not unusual for Jack Reacher to run into an obnoxiously stubborn town sheriff who likes to throw his weight around.  Countless villains have their lieutenants or top henchmen.  Steve Rogers had an actual bully that followed him from civilian life to boot camp... where said bully got punched out by Agent Carter.
            And that’s kind of what I wanted to talk about.  We all kind of giggle and maybe even cheer a bit when Peggy decks Hodge.  It’s a nice moment, because Hodge is an ass and flat out misogynist. 
            But what if it had gone a little differently...?
            What if Peggy decked him, and then kicked him a few more times in the ribs while he was on the ground?  Then maybe stomped on his hand to break some fingers.  Hell, maybe she stomps on his head.  Kicks him in the teeth.  Breaks his nose or maybe the orbit around his eye.
            This just became a very different scene, didn’t it?  Hodge isn’t getting his just deserts, he’s suddenly become the victim in this scenario. He punched Steve in an alley, made some crass and sexist remarks... and so Carter mauls him, possibly leaving him crippled?  Heck, does she even know he punched Steve at this point? She just put this guy in the hospital for being obnoxious to her.
            What if she’d shot him? One round to the head, right between the eyes. He smirks and then he’s dead, his brains sprayed out behind him. Or maybe she goes big—grabs a rifle from a nearby soldier and shreds Hodge’s chest with a dozen bullets. That’s an ugly way to go, isn’t it?  Broken ribs, punctured organs, equal chance of bleeding out or drowning as your lungs fill up with your own blood...
            We can all agree this is kind of an extreme response. Hodge is an asshat, absolutely, but he doesn’t deserve this level of punishment.  Hell, if anything, we feel a twinge or two of sympathy for him.
            I’ve talked about this effect a few times before.  Something extreme happening to a character can help shape how we feel about them.  If it’s extreme enough, it might even override how we felt about them before.
            For example (flipping things again), what if Hodge was an utterly reprehensible person?  Physically and emotionally abusive to men, women, children, and animals.  Now what’s supposed to be horrible can suddenly becomes great because it’s happening to such a completely sadistic person.
            Seriously, think about it?  How often have you watched a scene of nightmarish violence in a movie and cheered—out loud or internally—because of who it’s happening to?  This isn’t horror, it’s justice.  This person deserves what’s happening to them, and we’re glad we get to read about it (or watch it).
            I’ve talked about this before, too, in regards to killing people, because this is a really common mistake I see in low-end B-movies.  As audience members (or readers), we don’t care when unlikable people die.  In fact, if someone’s aggressively unlikable (sexist, misogynist, racist, alcoholic, hypocritical, deliberately ignorant)...  we may even be kinda happy when they get killed off.  No amount of patting the dog will change our view on this.  And suddenly this death means something very different.  It’s not building tension in the story—it’s releasing it.
            There’s a careful balance that needs to be struck in these situations.  My bully needs to have enough unsavory traits and moments to make them a good antagonist. But if they have too many, it’ll affect how that bad scene gets received by my readers.  Likewise, if the bully isn’t that bad and catches the bad end of some truly horrific things, it’s going to make my readers empathize with them,
            Y’see, Timmy, I need to be aware of what I’m trying to accomplish with moments like this.  It can’t just be violence and/or death—there needs to be a greater purpose to it in my story.  When Carter lashes out at Hodge, do I want the audience to be rooting for Hodge or for Carter?  When Freddy Kruger murders another child, am I going for scares or for laughs?  When Jason Bourne tortures someone for information, should I be cringing or cheering?
            Because what I’m trying to achieve is going to depend on more than just that one moment.
            There’s a bully in my new book, Paradox Bound. His name’s Zeke.  He starts off as a childhood bully, ends up being an adult bully—a bad cop who abuses his position.  Alas, it happens sometimes.  We’ve all seen it, or at least heard of it.  Zeke does a lot of bad things and... well... no spoilers in case you haven’t read it, but bad things end up happening to him.
            This was a really tricky balance to achieve, though.  Y’see, in an earlier draft, we actually see Zeke violently beat a woman.  And my editor’s assistant pointed out this made it really hard for us to have any sympathy for Zeke.  And because of this, when the bad things happened to him, what I’d hoped would be a very creepy, cringe-worthy moment actually became... well, more of a “serves him right” moment.
            But Zeke needed to be a serious bully in order for other aspects of the story to work.  More than just an annoyance, we needed to believe Zeke could potentially be—on some level—an actual threat.  So there was a lot of back and forth as I tried (with some help from my editor and his assistant) to find a point where Zeke would be unlikable and dangerous... while still not coming across as so unlikable that we’d automatically cheer when something awful happened to him.
            And we found that balance.
            Find your own balance point. Make sure that when that character gets punched or tortured or killed, I’m feeling exactly what you want me to feel.
            And not... something else
            Next time...
            Y’know, nobody’s left a comment here in a while. What should I talk about next time?  Somebody offer a suggestion, just so I know I’m not ranting into the void.
            Until then... go write.

Monday, November 6, 2017

NaNoWriMo Tip

            Hey, y’know what I realized over the weekend?  It’s NaNoWriMo!  Who’s trying it this year?
            I’ll be honest. I’ve never tried it myself.  By the time I first heard of it, as it was just starting to gain popularity, I’d already been writing professionally for a year or two.  Might’ve even already been writing full time (non-fiction, but still).  For the past eleven years... well, every month’s been about word count for me.
            That doesn’t mean I don’t have some ideas and thoughts on NaNoWriMo.  In fact, a lot.  At this early point in the month, I have one very firm reassurance, and one solid tip.
            Which I shall share with you now.
            First piece of reassurance.  No matter who you are, I can tell you with absolute certainty, you are not going to sell the manuscript you write this month.  No agent will consider it.  No editor will look at it.  It’s just not going to happen.
             HANG ON!  This isn’t a kick-in-the-gut thing.  This is liberating.  It’s freeing.
            I’m not saying nobody will ever buy this book.  But what we’re doing during this month is a first draft.  A rushed first draft at that.  It’s going to have plot holes and factual errors and typos.  It will, trust me.  It’s a fantastic starting point, but it’s going to need more work after November 30th. No question about it.
            Again, this is a good thing.  Stop worrying about if an agent or editor or your significant other is going to like this. They’re never going to see it.  This draft is for you and you alone. Be selfish.  Go crazy.  This is the “dance like nobody’s watching” part of the process.  Let your creativity run wild, eat nothing but chips, drink nothing but whiskey, run naked in the coffeeshop, and don’t worry about anyone else and what they may think.  They can see the second or third draft, maybe, but not this one. Do what you want to do with it.  Do anything.  Because this is just the first draft.
            Okay, don’t actually run naked in the coffeeshop.  Yeah, I know they smile at you a lot there, but they’re paid to be nice to you.  They don’t want to see that. Especially not in a place that sells food.
            Second thing—the solid tip.
            That’s it. Just write.
            I know that sounds kind of flip and arrogant, but stop and think for a moment.  Like we just said, this draft isn’t for anyone else.  We’re not going to worry about spelling, research, current hot genres, book advances, any of that. All that matters for this month is getting words on the page.
            Sooooo... get the words on the page.
            In my first drafts, I change character names halfway through.  I snip off plot threads and remind myself to pull them out later. I snip off some characters halfway through, and then jump to the alternate timeline version of the book where I killed them sixty pages ago (like I now know I should’ve done in the first place).  And I can do all this because this is going to get another draft.
            For now, the most important thing is to just write.  Put words on paper or on the screen or on your arm or your friend’s shirt or whatever medium you’ve decided to work in. Stop trying to filter or rein in your creativity and get it all out.
            So for now...
            Go write.