Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Those Frequently Asked Questions

            It’s been another six months and a few things have happened, so I thought it’d be worth updating this...
            One aspect of being on social media a lot is getting asked questions.  Which is overall fun and cool.  But some times I get asked the same questions.  Again and again.  I suppose you could say they’re... frequently asked.  This is less fun and cool.
            The ugly truth is it can really wear on you to answer the same questions again and again because some folks won’t scroll down two or three posts or up through the comments.  Between this blog, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook... well, it adds up to a lot of people repeating the same questions.  Again and again.
            (No, I’m not singling you out because you just asked a question. You just did it once without thinking.  You’re cool, no worries. 
            (I’m talking about that other guy.  Him.  You know who I mean...)
            Anyway... rather than get testy and frustrated with someone for asking the same question I already answered three times this morning in the same thread, I figured I’d scribble up answers to the most common questions I get and pin them on a lot of my social media pages.
            Then when people ask me anyway, I can point them at this.
            Or maybe I won’t say anything, cause... look, there’s an FAQ pinned right here.

1) What’s out next?
            Well on Valentine’s Day you’ll (hopefully) be listening to Dead Moon, a sort of sci-fi horror story about zombies on the Moon and stuff like that.  No, seriously.  It’s kinda fun and pulpy and creepy.  That’s exclusively with Audible for six months, sooo... we’ll probably talk more about that when I update this FAQ in July or August.
         And speaking of July, late this summer, if everything times out, you should see another Audible exclusive from me-- another beautiful Threshold book.  It’s got a few threads, one of which involves a lonely guy named Murdoch who’s trying to deal with his childhood sweetheart, Anne, coming back into his life, and also her family... which is technically his Family, too.  Also a guy named Chase who’s, ironically, on the run from something.  And there’s some other characters in it you may recognize, too.
            No, I don’t have a title for it yet.  You’ll know when I do.  But later this summer—maybe early fall—you should see that.
            And if all times out well, I’m already roughing out a new standalone book that you (hopefully) will see... maybe this time next year?  It’s still far out, so it’s hard to say.

2) Is Ex-Isle the last Ex book?
            Not 100% sure, but... yeah, looks that way.
            The truth is, every series has a limited life.  Very few people decide to start on book three of a series—they go back and start at book one.  So book one always sells the best for almost every series.  Attrition says not as many people show up for book two, even less show up for book three, etc, etc.  It’s always a downward slope heading for that red line where things aren’t profitable.  None of the Ex-Heroes books have ever lost money (thank you all for that), but all the numbers say book six...  Well, things don't look great for book six where that red line's concerned.
            The nails aren’t all in the coffin (do they still nail coffins shut?).  Any number of things could make the series surge in popularity and get the publisher interested in putting out another book or two.  Depending on how things work out, I might even be able to apply a little leverage.  But for now...  Ex-Tension is going to stay on that back burner.  Sorry.

3) What if we did a Kickstarter or a GoFund me to continue the series?
            Okay, look, I love the Ex-Heroes books.  Hopefully you all know that.  Those characters and stories got me where I am today.  I love that there are so many fans who feel passionately about it.  I had tons of fun writing them.
            The simple truth is, if there were enough people willing to pay for another book, the publisher would still be willing to put it out.  Sure, some folks might pay twice as much to get one more book, but experience tells me three or four times as many people wouldn’t pay anything (for one reason or another).  There’s pretty much no way this works out.
            Plus, my schedule’s set up months in advance.  As I hinted at above, I already know what projects I’m working on into 2020.  Doing something like this means I have to plan on said Kickstarter succeeding and put it into my schedule, which then means a gaping hole in my schedule when it doesn’t.
            Again, sorry.

4) Will there be another book set in the Threshold series?
            ... I just answered this in question #1. 
            This is what I’m taking about!  You’re not even really reading this, are you?  You’re just skimming.  Come on!  I wrote all these out.  You could at least put a little effort into this.
5) What’s all this ‘Threshold’ stuff, anyway?
            Threshold is the overall, umbrella name for the shared universe I kinda-sorta inadvertently kicked off seven years ago with 14.  There are some books that are definitely part of an overall linear story, a “series” if you will, and some that just fall under the umbrella.  Every Marvel movie is part of the MCU, but not every Marvel movie is a direct sequel to The Avengers.  Or if you prefer, lots of Stephen King books tie into the Dark Tower mythology, but they’re not all part of the Dark Tower series.  Does that make sense?
            This makes things a bit awkward for me, because marketing folks love series  (book one, book two, etc--heck, I've seen places where Rogue One is marketed as Star Wars Book #18) and some of them are reeeeeaally pushing Threshold as a pure, straightforward series, even though I’ve said again and again it isn’t.  This may give some folks false expectations of what some books are going to be about, and I apologize if that’s you.  I don't want to lie to you, but I also don't want to have to explain every book in advance (see #10).  So I’m just trying to make things extra-good and fun so you won’t be too bothered that maybe you went in expecting Avengers: Endgame, and you ended up getting Ant Man and the Wasp. 
            Again, if that makes sense.
            As a name, Threshold fits in a few different ways.  It’s part of a doorway, and doorways figure big into most of this series. It also refers to reaching a certain critical level—another recurring issue in these stories. And, finally, it’s also a reference to an old H.P. Lovecraft short story.
            Which has nothing to do with anything, but I thought it was kinda cool...

6) So how does Dead Moon fit into this?
            As it happens, I wrote a whole book explaining this.
            (see #1, above)

7) Why do you keep saying “Audible exclusive” ?
            There’s a very solid argument to be made that the majority of my fanbase is audiobook listeners.  Odd, I know, but there it is.  Audible knows this, too, and because of this they made me an extremely generous offer for exclusive rights to those two Threshold books (Dead Moon and that other one I mentioned up above).  Both of these are going to be audiobook only for the first six months they’re out.  After that, we’re talking to some folks, and (as I said above) I should have some answers for you by the time I update this FAQ.
            And, yeah, I know this is going to make some of you grind your teeth. I’m very sorry if you’re die-hard against audiobooks and this leaves you out of the loop for a bit. My agent and I talked about it a lot, believe me (even with that generous offer).  Every other day on the phone for about six weeks. 
            In the end, I really wanted to tell these stories and—for a couple different reasons—this was the best way to do it. Again, I’m sorry if this puts you in a bad spot.

8) Will there be a sequel to The Junkie Quatrain?
            Very doubtful.  I think a lot of the fun of The Junkie Quatrain was the overlapping- interconnected nature of the stories.  It’d be tough to replicate that without feeling kinda forced and awkward.  I think we’ll probably have to draw our own conclusions about what eventually happened to those characters.  Well, the surviving characters.
            Although, one of them may have already shown up somewhere else...

9) Do you make more money if I buy one of your books in a certain format?
            This sounds like an easy question, I know, 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, The Fold may not be true for Paradox Bound.
            TL;DR—just buy the format you like.

10) Why don’t you like people talking about your books?
            To be honest, I’m still thrilled people talk about anything I wrote. Seriously.  What I can’t stand are spoilers.
            I’m thrilled Yakko enjoyed it so much when the protagonist found that and discovered this and learned about them.  When he tells people about it, though—no matter what his intentions—Yakko’s ensuring that other folks won't have as much fun with the book as he did.  It's like if I tell you how a magician does all her tricks and then take you to see her performance.  You’re not supposed to see a magic show being aware of the resolutions in advance and knowing how all the tricks work.  It kills most of the fun, because you’ve destroyed the structure that created a sense of wonder and discovery.
            That’s why I avoid those questions in interviews, and why I always delete posts that reveal information from the back half of a book (yep, that’s probably what happened to your post).  It doesn't matter if the rest of the post was positive or negative—spoilers get deleted.
            And not just my stories!  You shouldn’t mess up other stories, either. Movies, TV—if you enjoyed it, try to give other people a chance to enjoy it the same way.
           If you suffer from the heartbreak of spoilers Tourettes and absolutely must discuss your fan theories about my books, there are a couple secret groups on Facebook.  There’s one for the Threshold books here, and one for the Ex-Heroes series here.
11) Do you have any plans to attend ******Con?
            Right now...probably not
            To be honest, last year was such a mad jumble with working on books and going to cons and moving that... well, I didn’t make a hell of a lot of plans for this year.
            At the moment, the only thing on my schedule is WonderCon at the end of March.  Absolutely nothing else.  Not even sure I’m going to wander down to SDCC this year, to be honest.
            But—things change all the time.  If you want to see me at your local con, you need to let them know!  Yeah, them, not me.  I’m willing to go almost anywhere I’m invited, but if I’m not invited... well, there’s not much I can do.  So, email them, tweet them, post on their Instagram account.  Reach out and let your voice be heard.
            And keep in mind that most cons finalize their guest list five or six months in advance, so if your local con’s in three weeks... odds are not in your favor.  Sorry.

12) When are you going to make a movie/ TV series/ cartoon/ graphic novel/video game of your books?
            Okay, there’s a misunderstanding of how Hollywood works in this sort of question.  When you 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 the writer saying “hey, make this into a movie,” wouldn’t most books be adapted by now?  Everyone would be doing it.
            Alas, I have zero say in whether or not Netflix wants to do an Ex-Heroes series or SyFy does a Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe movie.  They’re looking for things that have piqued a certain level of interest, and so far these stories of mine have only just scraped that threshold. 
            No, me (or you) writing the screenplay won’t make a difference, unless your name happens to be Shane Black, James Gunn, or David Koepp—and even then it’s not a sure thing.  Because in case you forgot...

13) Wasn’t there going to be a TV series based on 14?
            Yeah, in theory.  A few years ago I was approached by Team Downey, the personal production company of that guy from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.  Turned out he’s a fan of 14 and he wanted to do something with it.  So a deal was struck with his company and Warner Brothers TV.
            But... there are no sure things in  Hollywood.  It’s all a big game of if.  If a pilot gets greenlit, if it gets shot, if it turns out okay, if the assorted executives like it, if it gets picked up...  Plus, some of these ifs are on a time limit.  WB paid to extend that time limit once (which got a bunch of us very hopeful), but... in the end, it just didn’t happen.
            Which all kinda goes with what I said up above in #11.  Robert Downey, Jr. had signed on as an executive producer and that wasn’t enough to get the show made. 
            I still get to say he liked one of my books, though.

14) So, is there anything we can do to help?
            Well, buying books is always a good step.  Hollywood likes to see big sales numbers and interest.  If you want to see something—anything—on the air, talk about it a lot on social media.  Write reviews on websites.  Producers/ directors/ actors all hear about this stuff the same way you do.  If #ParadoxBound or #DeadMoon started trending on Twitter tomorrow, there’d probably be a film deal within a week.
            (true fact—an easy way to help do this?  Don’t buy books from Amazon.  Write reviews there, sure, absolutely, but Amazon doesn’t report sales figures, so they don’t get included in things like the NYT Bestsellers list.  Yeah, I know, a purchase from your local bookstore might cost a buck or three more, but it’s a purchase Hollywood is more likely to notice)
            (Plus, then you’re one of those cool people who supports local businesses...)
            (Yeah, Amazon owns Audible, but Audible reports audiobook sales.  I don't know why.  Nobody does. It's a mystery of the universe...)

15) Will you read my story and tell me what you think?
            Short answer... no.
            Part of this is a time issue—if I say yes to some folks, in the spirit of fairness I have to say yes to everyone. Now I’m spending all my time doing critiques instead of writing. Not to sound too mercenary, but... writing is how I earn my living.  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 blog sitting right here, y’know, with over a decade of writing advice and tips.
            It’s also a legal thing.  Some folks are lawsuit-crazy, often for no reason,, and the bad ones ruin it for everyone else. Let’s say Phoebe gives me a piece of fanfic to read where she has Harry and Eli showing up at a certain post-apocalyptic film studio.  And then, a few years from now, I decide to do a big crossover story. 
            That’s when Phoebe sues me for stealing her material.  
            Yeah, it sounds stupid, but I’ve seen this happen so many times.  Seriously.  Hell, I’ve actually been subpoenaed and deposed over a case with less behind it than that example I just made up.
            This is why I’m verrrry leery when I get a long message along the lines of “Hey, you know what should happen next with the Ex-Heroes series...”  It’s why some writers have responded with cease & desist orders when they get sent stuff like this.  It's also why I'm not part of those above-mentioned spoiler groups.
           So, the long answer is also... no.  And if you send stuff without asking, I’ll delete it unread, just like spam mail. Sorry.

16) Will you at least be my friend on GoodReads?
            Nope.  Nothing against you (well... most of you), I just don’t like Goodreads.  I’d explain why, but I’m taking the Thumper approach.
            I post nothing there and spend as little time there as possible (which usually works out to “no time”).  If you see anything there from "me," it's something someone else posted.  I understand a lot of folks love the site and if it works for you, that’s fantastic.  Glad you like it.
            I won’t be there.

17) What’s up with your Facebook page?
            Man.  Facebook.  What a mess, huh?
            I started that Facebook fan page ten years ago, dreaming of a day when maybe—maybe—I’d have five hundred followers. Now it’s closing in on twenty times that and I have kinda regular thoughts about deleting the page.
            Simple truth is, Facebook’s made it almost pointless to have a fan page.  They’ve tweaked their algorithms so my posts have gone from being seen by 70-85% of fans to barely scraping 20% most of the time, all with the goal of having me pay to reach the people who’ve already said they want to see my posts.  They’ve overcomplicated pages so it takes more time to do the same things I’ve always done.  Hell, they’ve actually made it faster and easier to schedule posts than it is to live-post and directly interact with people.
            And sure--it’s their site.  They have the right to do what they want with it and run it the way they like.  And of course they absolutely deserve to make money off it.  I’m a progressive, but I still believe in (regulated) capitalism.
            But then that brings us to all Facebook’s little side ventures.  Which all seem to boil down to the buying and selling of... well, us, at the core.  As many folks have pointed out, Facebook’s real product is us, and their real customers are the people buying and using everything about us. 
            Maybe I’m old fashioned, but when someone talks casually about buying and selling people... it makes me uncomfortable.
            So I’ve scaled way, way back on Facebook.  Personally and professionally.  I have no plans to change this in the near future.

18) What about Twitter or Instagram?
            I’m @PeterClines  on Twitter.  Fair warning--as some of you may have figured out, I’m progressive and I’m a bit more political there.   On Saturdays I also drink a lot and live-tweet bad movies so...  hey, you know what you’re getting into.   I’ll also say right up front I don’t believe in Twitter high school, where I’m supposed to follow someone just because they followed me. So if that’s your approach, I’ll save you time now...
            Instagram (also @PeterClines) is probably the geekiest of  my social medias.  How is that possible, you ask?  Well, there’s little toy soldiers, LEGO, classic toys.  And cats.  Can’t have an Instagram account without cats.
            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 that should answer about 90% of your questions, yes...?

Thursday, January 24, 2019

A League of Their Own...

            Sorry for missing last week.  Just had a couple of those jumbled days where I kept getting called away for other things.  And while I had a topic for this week, it never quite gelled the way I wanted it to in my head.  Although four or five others did, so I’m set for a while here.
            (topic suggestions are always welcome in the comments, though)
            I wanted to talk a bit today about godlike characters.  Not just in the sense of robes and brilliant auras and hurling thunderbolts.  Sometimes it’s that rugged, locked-and-loaded man or maybe the tall, super-competent blonde.  Really, it’s anyone who is, for one reason or another, way beyond the level of every other character in the story.
            Which really means they’re out of everyone’s league.
            Quick segue.
            One thing that I see come up in discussions of different open-play, MMPORG type games is a balance between players.  For purposes of this discussion, it’s when the overall population of the game has hit a level where it’s essentially unable to support new players.  If everybody’s level 72, it makes it tough for anybody to interact at level one. All those 72’s are using their bigger, badder gear to go on bigger, badder missions, where they’ll face bigger, badder monsters and get even rewarded with even... well, you get the point.
            Meanwhile, I’m over here in the goblin village, poking at things with a knife and hoping I can get my dagger skill up to 65%...
            And if we actually have to fight each other?  Well, I don’t have a prayer.  I mean, we can argue that statistically there’s a chance, but really... there’s no chance.  And from the 72’s point of view, I mean, can we even call it a wasted three seconds?  Yeah, there may be some jerks who just like beating up the noobs, but for everyone else... yeah, this gets to be kind of boring, right?
            See where I’m going with this?
            Stories need this kind of balance, too.  We want characters to have a chance at achieving their goals, but we also don’t want it to be easy.  If the story leans too far one way or the other, it just gets dull.  For everyone.
            F’r example... 
            If my antagonist is all-powerful, my hero never has a chance.  That’s boring as hell.  There might be a few dramatic moments, if the writer really knows what they’re doing, but probably not.  We all know how it’s going to end, and if we know where it’s going... well, then this is all just noise.
            Plus, it’s discouraging.  We identify with the heroes.  That’s why we’re reading.  And to see someone we identify with get beaten down again and again by an opponent we absolutely know they can’t beat...
            Well, it doesn’t make for a lot of repeat reads, let’s say that.
            Keep in mind, too, my antagonist doesn’t have to be a seven foot-tall somebody in body armor and a chrome skull mask.  The high school mean girl, the abusive drill sergeant, even society in general-- any of these can be the antagonist.  And, again, if there’s no chance whatsoever of beating the antagonist, my story isn’t going to hold most people’s interest.
            I’ll also point out that beating the antagonist doesn’t always mean bringing about their ultimate, final defeat.  But as far as our immediate story’s concerned, the bad guy needs to have a chance to succeed at their immediate goals.  No chance means no interest.
            Now, as I hinted above, the flipside of this is also true.  If my main character has absolutely no chance of ever being stopped or hindered in any way, that’s not very interesting either.  I’ve talked about this once or thrice before.  When Yakko can effortlessly deal with anything the antagonist, nature, or the universe itself throws at him, it gets boring really fast.  If Dot’s prepared and trained for everything, to the point there’s little or no chance of failure, that means there’s no challenge.  And no challenge means... well...
            An analogy I’ve mentioned before is me getting a glass of Diet Pepsi.  Not exactly something epic stories are built around.  You’re not going to see teams of people stealing ships, racing down city streets, or forming Fellowships around me as we undertake the great adventure of going to the kitchen and opening the fridge.  Because it’s mundane.  It’s easy. There’s absolutely no challenge in it.
            Even if something might be challenging for us, personally, it doesn’t mean we want to watch someone else do it with no effort.  I’m pretty sure if a zombie plague ever descended on the world, I’d be one of those folks gone in the first week or two.  But I don’t have any interest in reading three hundred pages of someone who walks through the undead apocalypse like it’s a guided tour.  Yeah, no matter how colorful the descriptions are of zombies being blown apart.
            Y’see, Timmy, if there’s no challenge—because either my protagonist or antagonist are too powerful—it means there’s not much of a plot.  As I’ve mentioned before, no plot makes it really tough to have a story.  And you may have noticed there’s not a big market for high-stakes character descriptions.
            I also want to toss out one other downside to nigh-omnipotent characters. Gods are boring as hell.  Seriously.  They’re tough to relate to, and if people can’t relate to my characters, they’re probably not going to make any investment in them.  Good characters have needs and desires and flaws, but godlike powers tend to nullify most of those things. 
            Even if it’s not actual powers, it can be dull.  When you have characters who can do anything and succeed at anything... it just gets boring fast.  We like reading about problems, not about potential problems that were planned for and avoided.
            True fact—one I worked very hard at.  My Ex-Heroes books have a super-competent character named Stealth.  She’s their version of Batman.  Every book in the series has at least one example of her demonstrating how she’s hyper-trained and/or four steps ahead of everyone else.
            Every book also has at least one example of something getting past her. Something she didn’t catch or didn’t think of or somebody else figures out first.  She’s world’s greatest detective, but she’s still fallible.  She not perfect.
            If you’ve got a powerful, competent character in one of your stories, take another look at them.  Do they need to be that strong?  Would they be more interesting if there were two or three scenarios they hadn’t been planning for over the past six months?  Isn’t your story going to be a bit more interesting if success and failure both seem like viable outcomes?
            I think it would. 
            But that’s just me.
            Next time I want to talk about something a little more campy.
            And maybe update the FAQ.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning...

            Sound of Music reference for the WIN!!!!  
            Okay, maybe not
            So I’ve been thinking about what would make a good first topic for the start of the year.  Which made me think of a topic that comes up a lot at the Coffeehouse or at different con discussions.  And that topic is “how should I start my book?”
            Now, right up front, here’s the catch.
            I can’t tell you.
            I mean, it’s not like it’s a secret and I want to make you beg or pay for it.  I can’t tell you because I don’t know.  Nobody knows how your book needs to begin except you.  It’s because every writer is different and every story is different.  We each have our own styles and preferences, and each story has its own needs and narratives.
            Heck, even if we’re telling the same story it’s going to be different.  If I told you to write a modern take on Frankenstein (the monster, not the scientist) you’d be telling a different story than me and we’d both be telling a different story than her and a much different story than him.  I mean... seriously, what the heck is that guy doing?  That’s a seriously weird take on Frankenstein.
            But the point is, even though we’d all be telling more or less the same story, we’d also be telling very different stories.  I might decide to start with the lightning storm, the night the monster awakens, but your version might start with Victor in medical school and she might decide to begin with the event that inspires Victor to create the monster.  All of these are completely valid ways to begin a narrative about Frankenstein.
            And this is why nobody else can tell me how to begin my story.  There are so many elements to consider, it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to know but me.  You and I could talk for an hour about your story, and I might get a vague sense of where it should start.  But that vague estimate is still based off a very limited amount of information, and it only applies to that one specific story.
            So... yeah.  I can’t tell you where to start.  Sorry.
            (you didn’t think I’d leave you hanging like that, did you?)
            I can offer you a few general ideas of what you should and shouldn’t use as starting points.  Not things specific to a story, but things specific to storytelling.  As a wise man once said, the code’s more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.
            I’ve talked about a lot of these things before, so be prepared for links.
            So, when I consider how to start my story...

            DO start with action.  I’ve talked about this one before, so I won’t go into too much detail here.  “Starting with action” often gets misunderstood as “my manuscript needs to begin with a ninja stopping a hostage situation on a high-speed train with his explosive throwing stars.”  This is, of course, a really weird way to begin a romantic fantasy novel, but people try to do it anyway.
            All starting with action means is that I need something to happen.  Being fired from my job (or written up, or promoted) is action.  Getting beaten up (or asked out) by the quarterback in high school is something happening.  Buying groceries is something happening.
            And, yes, so is having a ninja stop a hostage situation with explosive throwing stars.

            DON’T start with someone writing their novel or screenplay.  Seriously, don’t.  Yes, technically, it’s someone doing something, but it’s a minimal, inactive something that involves one character sitting alone at a desk.  Plus, it’s an opening every editor, agent, and producer has seen at least a thousand times.  Seriously.  One thousand times, minimum.  I don’t want to begin with something everyone’s already bored of seeing.

            DO start with something relevant.  Relevant to this story.  Relevant by at least a third of the way into the story.  An opening scene that makes no sense until the end of my book is an opening scene that makes no sense (and we’re going to forget).  Which means we don’t need it.
            My opening pages should hook the reader right into my story.  They should pay off soon, and that payoff should draw them in even further.  The goal is always to draw them in, not to push them away or hold them at arm’s length.  If I’m trying to distance the reader in the first chapter... that’s not going to work out well.
            DON’T start by killing everyone.  Nine times out of ten, if every character from chapter one is dead by the end of chapter two, it means chapter three is where my story really starts.  No matter how cool chapter one and two were.
            A lot of folks stumble into this trap.  They “start with action” (see above) by having a bunch of nameless, unimportant people get killed by some threat, and then they introduce their actual characters and get on with the story.  Which tells right me there that those opening bits are just more wasted pages.

            DO be aware that the story started long before page one.  There were events in my protagonist’s (and antagonist’s) life that made them the person they are now.  They already have relationships and jobs and histories. We all instinctively understand and acknowledge this (Clive Barker wrote a beautiful introduction about this idea in his book Weaveworld).
            Right from the start, I need to keep in mind that my characters are in this world.  They’ve been there for a while.  It doesn’t surprise them or catch them off guard.  Neither does the existence of their siblings, lovers, employers, or their own body parts.  If my opening is my protagonist expositing about her apartment, her girlfriend, her own body, or the dual nature of this amazing futuristic world she lives in, my readers are going to be rolling their eyes.

            And that's a few things to keep in mind when deciding how to start my story.  Again, these are just guidelines, but... y’know, guidelines exist for a reason.  I should think long and hard before ignoring them and declaring that my story’s the exception they don’t apply to. 
            Because odds are... it’s not.
            Oh, in other news for SoCal folks, this Sunday is both the Writers Coffeehouse (at Dark Delicacies in Burbank) and the dystopian book club We're All Gonna Die (at the Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles).  Please stop by and hang out.  Although for the book club, you may want to pick up the book first...
            Next time, I’d like to talk about something really powerful.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

What Are You Looking For?

            Welcome to 2019!  A dystopian world unlike any you could’ve imagined...
            I wanted to start the year by just tossing out a couple introductory thoughts for you about writing.  Or why we’re writing, really.  Maybe something to consider while those resolutions are still firming up.
            Really, it all kinda boils down to one question.
            Why are you doing this?
            It’s a question I think a lot of folks don’t ask themselves, and it’s kind of important.  What I actually hope to get out of an activity should really effect how I approach said activity.  Is writing just a hobby for me?  Is it a form of artistic expression?  Do I just want to make a little money on the side with it or am I hoping to make a career out of this?  Do I just want all the little side perks that come with being a famous writer? Maybe some combination of some or all of these things?
            Almost all of these are valid ways to approach writing.  But if I don’t know—or I’m not honest with myself—about where I want to end up, I can waste a lot of time on the wrong path.  And when I don’t get where I wanted to go... well, there’s only one person I can blame.
            Now, I’m willing to bet some folks reading this are already grumbling.  Internally if nothing else.  Experience has taught me that a lot of people don’t like talking about writing in a concrete way like this.  If I had to guess why, I think it’s because keeping things vague and soft is comfortable.  It’s easy. If I don’t declare what my goals are, it’s pretty much impossible for you to tell me I’m not getting closer to them.  I can just keep doing whatever I want in this big hazy cloud of possibilities and declare success.
            So let’s not talk about writing.
            Let’s fall back on one of my favorite parallels—cooking.  We can talk about cooking without anyone getting mad, right?  It’s a safe, simple topic.
            Why do you cook?
            I mean, we all cook to some degree or another.  Maybe it’s just using the microwave or the toaster, but I think everybody reading this can at least feed yourself without resorting to ordering a pizza, right?   Some of us might even be able to make pizza from scratch.  Or maybe go all the way to ravioli in vodka sauce with homemade garlic bread.
            (I might be a bit hungry while I type all this—just warning you now)
            So yeah, some people might be happy just having those bare basic skills and maybe some folks want to do a bit more.  Maybe you’re just really into pasta or baking or soups and you have a lot of fun experimenting with them.
            Or maybe I want to go all the way with this.  I want to be a chef.  Like, a trained and accredited chef.  Do they accredit chefs?  You get the idea.  I want to wear that white jacket and the apron and work in a restaurant.  Hell, maybe I want to own a restaurant! 
            It’s possible to approach cooking a lot of different ways, depending on where I want to go with it.  And there’s nothing that says I can’t change direction at some point.  I can just play around with pies and cakes for my own amusement and maybe one day decide I want to open a bakery.  But I need to acknowledge that’ll mean a big shift in how I approach things.  Baking cookies for me and my friends is not the same as baking them for the Wednesday lunch rush.
            Another thing about cooking—we can all agree there are some rules to it.  There are tons of recipes that’ll have flexibility, sure, but in the end, it needs to be edible.  Some ingredients need to be cooked certain ways.  Yeah, breaking these rules is possible, but it’s really important that I know how to break them.  Like, I can do things with raw eggs, but it’s risky.  If I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, I might make someone sick.  Like full-on poison them.  Fatally.
            And that’s not going to get me a lot of repeat dinner guests.
            Or repeat customers, if I’ve decided to go pro with this.
            That’s a nice lead in for my last point about cooking.  The business side of it.  Yeah, maybe you don’t want to go that way, but it’s worth at least thinking about for a minute.  I think the vast majority of us wouldn’t mind making money at our cooking, right?
            (everybody remembers this is an extended metaphor, right?)
            The minute I decide to start thinking about cooking in a business sense, I need to start thinking about it... well, like a business.  If I want to open a restaurant or a bakery, I need to consider what my customers want, sales numbers, investment returns, and more.  It’s painful to say, but at this point I need to ignore the art side of things for a bit and start looking at hard numbers.
            Like, okay, cooking’s always going to have a personal edge to it.  I really like things on the spicy side.  My partner’s a vegetarian.  Maybe you hate anything that doesn't include bacon.
            But once we’re talking about cooking as a business, it’s not all about us anymore.  It’s about them—my potential customers.  What do they like?  What are they going to spend money on?  What are they going to take a chance on?  Yeah, my maggot brulee might be the most amazing (and carbon-friendly) dessert you’ll ever have, but I shouldn’t be too shocked if nobody wants to try it.  Customers probably won’t want to eat it (not enough to support a restaurant, anyway) and investors probably won’t want to back my little writhing cafe.
            And again—this doesn’t mean the maggot brulee is bad.  This isn’t about good or bad, it’s about making smart business decisions.  Cooking professionally means not doing as many adventurous things, and being very smart about the risks I take and the rules I break.  It means finding that perfect sweet spot where I can make my customers (and investors) feel very safe and comfortable while also getting them excited about trying something new.
            It’s tough.  That’s why so many restaurants fail.  Depending on which numbers you look at, it’s generous to say only one out of five restaurants lasts three years.
            Which, honestly, is still better numbers than most writers.
            That’s what we’ve been talking about, remember?
            Y’see, Timmy, there’s no “correct” endgame with writing.  You wanting to do it just for the art isn’t any worse or better, decision-wise, than me doing it for a living.  They can do it for fun, she can do it as therapy, and he can do it as an ongoing social-psychological exploration as what it means to be a brilliant mind trapped at the mall food court serving orange chicken to capitalist sheeple every day (it’s too deep for you to understand, just deal with it).  Whatever I want to do with writing... that’s the right choice for me.  And whatever you want to do is the right choice for you.
            Just make sure you’re on the right path to get to that goal.  Or at least headed generally toward it.  Path A could be a smooth, unchallenging run, but it doesn’t lead to D.  And path C lets me take the moral high ground, but it’s not going to get me to E.
            I freely admit, this blog is overall about getting on a career path with writing.  Or maybe getting over some of the rough parts of that path a little easier.  And you may find some tools here you can use on other paths.  Rope’s very helpful with mountain climbing, but you use it a lot in sailing, too.  Some writing advice is like that.  It can get you closer to publication, but it can also make your Dungeons & Dragons blog really pop.
            So... that’s what we’re going to do this year.
            And maybe a tiny bit of self promotion for a couple projects coming out.
            Next time, well... we should probably talk about getting started.
            Until then, go write.