Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Tally of the Plague Year

Well, here we are. The last post of the year. Finally.

Normally, when I get to the end of the year, it’s a chance to sit down and list off all the stuff I got done over the past twelve months. But wow... here in the US nine of these past twelve months have been pretty awful. Made even worse by the fact that it feels like certain parties/persons in the government really don’t even care if Americans live or die. I understand the UK isn’t much better. Hell, is it even still the UK?

It all combined to make a pretty rough year.

If you didn’t get a lot done this year as a creative person, you’re not alone. We all had a big shift in priorities and schedules, not to mention financial shifts. And just lots and lots of stress. If you weren’t worried about things this year... honestly, I don’t know what to say. For the rest of us, it was just brutal.

I know I got waaaaaaaay less done than I’d wanted this year. Pretty sure I lost the back half of March through early May to doomscrolling as the pandemic found its legs and took off. And then, just as I was getting back on my creative feet, the summer protests kicked into gear—some of them very close to me. And it’s tough to work on weird, entertaining stories when you know just a few miles away people are risking their lives trying to end... well, pretty much a reign of terror.

Okay, this is spiraling into despair, so let’s talk about good things. Because there were some good things. There’s no way you can tell me you didn’t have brief moments of creativity this year.

The big thing for me was The Broken Room. Still not sure about the title, but I’m very happy with the book itself. I started it last year, got the first draft done before, y’know, everything, and then spent the summer cutting and editing. And then my agent had some good thoughts (a few of which had already been gnawing at me) which I’m in the process of implementing now (not right now obviously, but for the past few weeks). If all goes well, you might get to read it next year.

I also wrote a massive outline for what will hopefully be a six book series. Not an ongoing universe or anything, but a large story told, beginning to end, across six books. A hexalogy or sextet, depending on your preference. This is something I wouldn’t’ve even thought about a couple years ago, for a few reasons, and even as it is my agent’s warned me it might be a tough sell. But I’ve been playing with this for a while and it’s finally all come together and... well, hopefully I’ll get to tell you more about the Creatureverse in the near future.

Speaking of things I’ve been playing with for a while... There’s an idea I bounced off an editor about six or seven years ago (over whiskey and apple pie late one night at San Diego Comic-Con), and he pointed out I basically had a well-thought out idea, but not much of a plot, really. Well, about two weeks ago that whole knot just unsnarled in my head. Or got cut in half, depending on how you like to picture tough knots getting dealt with. I ran to my computer and typed out a little over three pages of notes for that. Who knows when I’ll get to it, but when I get the chance I know I can write it.

I also pitched a dream project to a comics editor. I think I’ve got a solid take, but I can also admit (in retrospect) my pitch was pretty weak. I should’ve done a better job figuring out how to pitch things for this particular format and for that particular editor. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll get to try again in a year or four, when the shame of this bad attempt has faded from both our memories.

Oh, and there’s the ranty writing blog itself. Seventy-three posts here, although probably a dozen of those were cartoons or quick notices about new books or something. And a quarter of it past that was all the A2Q series, which hopefully one or two of you found semi-useful.

I also managed to read thirty-one books this year, despite all the doomscrolling. Nowhere near my usual amount but... hey, doomscrolling. As it is, most of these were either for the Last Bookstore’s dystopian book club or blurb books for friends/editors/ my agent. But I might get one more done before New Year’s! Which is also a blurb book.

I read a lot of comics for fun. Shadow Road. Transformers. GI Joe. Vampirella/Red Sonja (which is amazingly good). There’s also a Transformers/Terminator crossover book which I’m only two issues into but it’s very clever.

And that’s what I got done this year. A lot of time lost, but I think I used the remainder pretty well. I’m happy with how it all turned out, anyway...

How about you? I don’t think any of us got as much done as we’d wanted, for a bunch of reasons. but hopefully you got something down you’re happy with. A few chapters, a couple of pages, or maybe some notes to work with once everything’s just a little calmer. The important thing isn’t how much you did—it’s that you did it.

Seriously, if you managed to get stuff done in 2020, think what you’ll be able to do when the world’s not on fire.

And hey, speaking of things not being on fire—sorry, quick segue—Georgia residents, I know you’ve been battered with this but please vote in your Senate runoff next week, and please vote for Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. The simplest way to get the government working for you again is simply to remove Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader. And voting for Warnock and Ossoff will do that. Plus, added bonus, it’ll get rid of two incredibly corrupt members of the Senate who’ve blatantly used their positions to enrich themselves. So really it’s a win-win.

I hope all of you have the absolute best New Year’s you can with the state of things right now, and that 2021 brings all of us peace, relief, and maybe a few clever plot lines.

See you again in the future.

Until then, go write.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

It's Not Christmas Without...

And here we are, at that wonderful time of year when a young man’s thoughts turn toward... Nakatomi Plaza.

I wanted to do a holiday-ish post, and then (while watching a favorite seasonal movie) it hit me I could address a fierce debate that’s surged up over the past few years. And maybe I could even make it semi-educational. From a writing point of view.

Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?

Now, let’s be honest. If you’ve got strong opinions about this, I’m not going to change your mind. But if you're somebody who cares a lot about stories (and if you’re reading this, I’d guess there’s a semi-decent chance you are) maybe this week’s little ramble will make you look at Mr. McLane’s late December adventure a little differently. And maybe some other stories, too.

With that disclaimer out of the way... let’s start by talking a bit about the difference between an element and a genre. I’ve mentioned this before, so I won’t go into it too much. Simply put, there are a lot of labels we can slap on both story elements and genres, but the presence of one doesn’t automatically create another. For example, there’s a strong romance element in Bloodshot, the Vin Diesel movie that came out earlier this year. It’s also got a few funny moments. But I don’t think any of you would be surprised to learn Bloodshot isn’t considered a romantic-comedy. Romance, comedy, suspense, mystery, horror, sci-fi... all of these things can be in a story that’s not in that same-named genre.

So let’s talk about Christmas as an element and as a genre.

As an element, Christmas can be a couple things. Easiest is the setting—it’s a specific timeframe that pretty much everyone on Earth knows and can understand to some extent, even if they don’t celebrate the holiday themselves. Also worth noting that Christmas is one of those (if you think about it) rare holidays that has a very fixed date, unlike lots of other that slide around the calendar a bit each year.

Christmas is also in the details and descriptions. Christmas trees, wreaths, presents, garland, lights, a Santa on every corner and a snowman in every yard. These are things I can mention in my story (or show in my movie) and they create an immediate association for people.

It’s also a mood, and a lot of traditions. If I’ve got a story set at Christmas, it’ll probably show up in dialogue. Let’s face it, people interact and talk a little differently in December, no matter which way they feel about any particular holiday. Scrooge is a little nastier. That super-peppy woman at the coffeeshop is almost scarily happy and peppy.

I think there’s a lot of movies and stories out there that get marketed as Christmas tales, but really just have a few random elements tossed in. We could move said movie to Memorial Day weekend or a random bank holiday and nothing notable would change. The romance would have the same meet cute, the comedy would have the same awkward moment at the dinner table, the zombie movie would have the same stupid montage of our protagonist fighting the horde witha baseball bat.

And this would bring us to Christmas the genre. There’s a lot of thoughts on defining genre (I’ve shared some too) but I think one notable thing is how abundant those elements are. Eventually the romance or the comedy becomes a dominant aspect and we think of this story as a romance, a comedy, or maybe a romantic comedy if it’s got both. The horror or sci-fi elements are so intrinsic to the plot my novel would crumble without them. 

What marks something as part of the Christmas genre? The setting, absolutely. Sometimes the characters. It’s really hard to do a movie where Santa or Rudolph’s a main character and not have it be a Christmas story. And we see a lot of common themes in the Christmas genre. Joy. Peace. Happiness. Love. Togetherness.

Simple, right?

However...

There’s another aspect to this, and it’s something I hinted at up above and once talked about with (shameless name drop in three... two...) Shane Black. Christmas, maybe more than any other Western holiday, is an amplifier. Everything hits a little harder at this time of year. Romance is great, but Christmas romance is even better. Friendship is wonderful, but being with your friends at Christmas is fantastic. Family squabbles can be funny, but during the holidays they’re even funnier. And, yeah, puppies are great, but have you ever seen CHRISTMAS PUPPIES?!?

(seriously, you just grinned at the thought of Christmas puppies, didn’t you? See?)

And, yeah, this goes the other way. If something’s tense, it’s three times as tense at Christmas (scientifically measured). When something horrible happens, it’s even more horrible because it happened at Christmas. And to touch on a serious issue, depression’s never great, but depression during the holidays is just awful.

So I think it’s fair to say there are stories that may lean heavily toward non-Christmas elements, but the Christmas setting amplifies these stories. It inherently makes them more than they would be without it. Not a coincidence how many Christmas stories involve finding true love or reuniting with your family. And there’s a serious glut of Christmas horror movies. No, seriously. They’ve been a thing for decades.

Now... keeping all that in mind... let’s talk about Die Hard.

Die Hard is loaded with Christmas elements. I mean, 90% of it is set at a Christmas party gone very bad. And it’s a high-end party so decorations are everywhere. Really, look at a lot of these scenes and check out how often there’s a wreath, a garland, a Christmas tree, something. I’d bet half the scenes in this movie have a direct, visual tie to Christmas. And the music! It’s all Christmas music. All of it.

Plus, this setting is a big driver for the plot. John’s out in LA to see his kids and maybe patch things up with his wife. The Christmas party is why there are so many people conveniently in the building after hours to be taken as hostages. The watch she got as a Christmas gift from her boss is a point of contention (and a great Chekhov’s gun). When the FBI wants to shut down power to the building, the main reason there’s a fight is because it would mean shutting off the electricity to ten blocks of LA on Christmas Eve. Hell, John’s last minute surprise for Hans Gruber and his Huey Lewis look-alike pal? Remember how he pulls that off...?

Finally... the amplification factor. Realizing your relationship is collapsing is always bad, but on Christmas Eve? Sweet jebus, that’s a gut punch. Getting taken hostage absolutely sucks, but when it happens at the company Christmas party? And issuing ominous threats to the bad guys is badass, but when you get to tag on Ho-Ho-Ho...? Seriously, it’s one of the most memorable moments in a movie filled with great moments.

And so many of those moments get cranked up five or ten percent higher ‘cause we’re constantly reminded... it’s Christmas. 

So... is Die Hard a Christmas movie? I mean, I think it is. And if you want to argue it isn’t then I think there’s a lot of other movies (many of them with Christmas in the title) that we’d have to toss out as well. ‘Cause if we’re saying hitting all these benchmarks doesn’t matter... well...
Look, nobody likes a grinch, okay?

With that, speaking of grinches, I give you one last shameless capitalist reminder that you can give people ebooks as last-minute gifts, and I happen to have a ton of them out there. 

I hope this long weekend is wonderful and peaceful for you, no matter who you are, whatever you believe, and whatever you celebrate this season.

And maybe we’ll squeeze in one more chat before 2021.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Where to Begin

Look, taking all the requests and granting wishes in the holiday season.

A few weeks back a friend of mine from the Burbank Writers Coffeehouse (and hey, have you bought anything from Dark Delicacies during this rough time?) asked me about when you begin a story. To use his example, if 98% of my story takes place on Mars, but we need to know just how our protagonist got to Mars... what do we do? Do we start on Mars and do flashbacks? Do we start on Earth and have a slow burn to our main story on Mars? Where does the story actually begin?

I’d been mulling over how to answer this for a few days when I sat down with my partner to watch a Christmas movie or three. And one of them had...a lot of beginnings. It had a frame story. Then an introductory story. Then we jumped ahead a couple years to (I guess) the main story. And each new beginning forced us to ask is this when the story starts...? And if so, what was all that earlier stuff for?

So, hey... let’s talk about beginnings.

First and foremost, this is all going to be kind of vague and loose. Not in a hand-wavey “don’t think about it” way, but just acknowledging the fact that every story is going to have different needs. If I (or anyone else) tried to set down a hard rule for “always begin here” we could all come up with a dozen or more well-known examples that break that rule. Every story (and every writer) is unique, which means every starting point is unique.

That said...

One of the first things we should be clear about is that “where to begin” is a structure question. We have the linear structure of the story—A to B to C to D—but we also have the narrative structure, the order I’m choosing to tell this story to my audience. A lot of the time A is an acceptable starting point, but it’s not uncommon to start at B or maybe even D. It depends on what I’m trying to do as the writer, and being able to recognize that telling a story in a different way creates a different story.

Second, there’s one or two things we can say with a lot of certainty shouldn’t be my starting point. I talked a while back about the problems a lot of prologues have, one of the big ones being that describe-and-die thing that tends to show up in a lot of B-movies. Not saying these things will never, ever work as beginnings but... wow, it’s going to be a tough hill to climb, y’know?

Third, I should really be clear when things happen in a story has a lot of bearing on how we receive those things. Doing this now looks brave, while doing it then just highlights my cowardice. Putting this here is somewhat interesting, putting it there makes people shriek with excitement. There’s probably a whole post’s worth of stuff in that to discuss, but for now I just need to consider what this starting point is (or isn’t) doing to some of these first bytes of information I’m giving my reader.

Fourth is kind of the unspoken one under all of these. I can’t really figure out  a good starting point until I’ve got a story more or less assembled. It might not be written out in full, but I should have at least a rough sense of my plot and story. Maybe it’s a rough outline or just a good set of character ideas and plot points in my head. I can’t decide where to start telling my story if I don’t have a story, right?

I think this step trips some folks up. They come up with a cool opening, or they want to mimic the structure of a cool opening they saw somewhere else, but ultimately this opening doesn’t work for the story they’re trying to tell. It might be the coolest hat ever, but it just doesn’t go with this outfit. And if I keep insisting it does, I won’t notice that my little Kangol cap would go perfectly with that tie and really help bring out some subtle colors in the jacket.

(writing tips and fashion tips!)

But all of this still leaves us trying to figure out what makes a good starting point. Again, it’s tough because our stories are all going to be unique to us. I can’t really say “do this” and think it’s going to work for... well, maybe for any of you.

So here’s two thing to try.

Thing One—look at that rough draft or outline or framework and just lop off the first chapter (or its equivalent). Whatever you were thinking of using as a starting point, go past it and start there instead. As I mentioned above, a lot of us develop bad storytelling habits because we got hit too many times with the “start with action” stick. So our gut reaction is to create an artificial starting point that has a boxing match or a car chase or a two-headed shark attack.

And a lot of the time, if I snip off that artificial opening, what I’m left with is still a very solid opening—usually a better one. It gets me right to my characters. It gives me a stronger dramatic structure. It works better for reveals. Does it always work this way? Not always, but a surprising amount of the time... maybe 83%...

Thing Two—I’ve mentioned the idea of an elevator pitch before. Lucky me, I’ve just ended up in an elevator with a high-powered Big Five (is it Big Four now?) editor. So I’ve got one, maybe two sentences tops, to tell them my story and get them interested. No run-ons or rambling. One solid

Do that right now—how would you pitch me your story in one sentence? Yes, now I’m the high-powered editor. Surprise twist!

Where did you start your pitch? Did you skip over anything? And if something wasn’t important enough to mention in the big sales speech... does it need to be there? 

And in both of these, please keep in mind I’m not saying I won’t ever need these bits I’m cutting loose in my story. They might be things to come out in backstory or flashbacks. I’m just saying maybe I don’t need to start my story with them.

 So go forth and find new beginnings! Or confirm the old ones are solid. That’s cool, too. Just as long as you’ve got a great opening.

Next time...

Holy crap. Next time is Christmas Eve. I’ve got to get these last few cards in the mail. And wrap stuff.

But maybe next week, as we’re all settling down for our long winter’s nap, we could talk about something seasonal. 

Like Die Hard.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

What Not to Ask For...

Before we dive fully into the gift-giving season, I thought it might be a good time to talk about something that it might be... well, a little rude to ask for. It can be forward under the best of circumstances, and even more so with someone you barely know. 

What? No, not that. Get you mind out of the gutter.

These days it’s easy to get in touch with people. Especially famous (and semi-famous) people. Social media.  DMs. Email. Appearances. And I think we’ve all had that moment when someone we like or admire has favored us with a like, a response, maybe even a follow. Yeah, it’s just social media, but I think most of us get a little thrill from these moments.

That said, we also need to be honest about what these relationships are. Joe Hill retweeted me once, but I don’t think we’re best friends or colleagues or anything like that. Leslie Jones, Diedrich Bader, and Tara Strong all follow me on Twitter, but I’m pretty sure it’s just because I’ve made each of them laugh once or thrice. That’s all it is and I know it. I shouldn’t expect anything from them. Or be asking for it.

And with that in mind, consider this. I'm just a higher-end-midlist author, but every two or three weeks, I’ll get contacted by a complete stranger or sort-of acquaintance, and asked if I can read a few chapters of their manuscript or maybe the final product for a blurb or, hey, who’s my editor at Random House or contact at Audible and is that Andy Weir in that picture with you? Do you have his email address? Many of these are polite. Some are... not as polite. A few are flat-out arrogant.

And it's not just me. Other writers have told me tales of request (or demands) for help. Sometimes they're quiet. Sometimes they're awkwardly public.

Past of the problem here is the misunderstood idea that all writers must help less-successful ones. Under any circumstances. No matter what they’re being asked to do. Read a manuscript? Pass said manuscript on to your agent? Donate a kidney? This is your obligation as a writer once you’ve had any level of success. Countless guru-types push this idea, and spin it so the professional’s the one being rude or unreasonable if they don’t immediately leap to assist me (note that frequently, said guru is not the person who can help, even if I'm paying him). And because the internet makes it so easy, just spam every writer you can find contact info or a Twitter account for. Sure, I'll annoy 999 people, but it's all worth it if one might help me, right?

Right?

(Narrator--no, it is not)

This isn’t to say I—or any professional—won’t help other writers. I seriously love helping people. What do you think this blog is? I’ve got writer-friends who help me with projects and I’d gladly help any of them with theirs. I’ve done the Writer’s Coffeehouse for years now. A few folks have standing offers from me to read their hopefully-soon-to-be-finished manuscripts. I don’t think I’m out of the ordinary here, as writers go

But let’s put some of this in perspective. Writing is my full-time job. It’s how I pay for food, bills, the mortgage, everything. I work forty to fifty hours a week. Sometimes closer to sixty as deadlines (contractual and self-imposed) loom. I know a few professional writers who have unrelated full time jobs, and then they’re still putting in twenty or thirty hours writing on top of that. There’s also time on social media and *cough* writing blog posts. Plus, I already get sent stuff to read by editors, publicists, and my agent. That’s part of the job, too.

So—even on the very low end—we’re looking at a 55-60 hour work week. I don’t think that’s out of the ordinary for a professional writer. Heck, it might be even a bit sub-par, by the standards of some folks I know.

And when, as a more-or-less-stranger, I ask someone to just look at my manuscript, I'm asking them to cut into that time. To cut into the “this is how I make a living” time. Or to cut into their free time, instead. If I ask them to pass something on to my agent or editor, I'm telling them they're nothing more than a conduit to me.

If I’m going to be that person asking you to give up some of your free time or expertise or experience... here’s a few tips on how to improve my odds. I’m not saying they’ll guarantee success, but—and I bet this is true for most writers—the more of these that apply to me the better.

I’m not asking for something I could find out on my own
When I started out, to get any writing information you had to dig through magazines, make phone calls, send request letters, then go dig through more magazines, make different phone calls, and send different letters. These days all of this information (and more) is available with a few keystrokes and a bit of thought.  Honestly, the fact that we can all see this post means we all have access to Google, yes? If I want to make writing my career, part of the work is... well, doing the work.

I think a lot of time when this happens, people are looking for the “real” answers. They don’t want to know how to select an agent—they want to know the agent who has a direct line to Simon & Schuster and takes unsolicited submissions and always gets six figure advances and movies deals. Because there has to be one, right?  All those big authors didn’t spend time in the junior leagues. They went straight to six-figure incomes and movie deals... just like I want to do.

I’m not putting them on the spot
With social media (and in the olden times, signings and cons and other such gatherings) it’s easy to speak with pros. It’s also easy to call them out and ask them something very publicly in front of a large audience. So it’s tempting to just ask for blurbs or reads right out in the open, giving them the chance to help me out and look good in front of everyone.

The catch is, this messes with a power dynamic. Said writers very rarely can say yes (for the reasons above and others), but being published and even semi-successful puts said writer “above” me. And now I’ve put them in the position of looking like they’re punching down when they say no to me. It’s a lose-lose that just makes everybody annoyed, so I just shouldn't do it.

I’m literate 
We’d probably have serious second thoughts about a doctor who thinks viruses are caused by aliens, a mechanic who says gremlins are why your car won’t start, or a  lawyer who doesn’t seem to understand any aspect of the law. If someone’s trying to convince us they’re a professional, we expect them to show a basic understanding of their field. We definitely don’t want them displaying ignorance of it.

If I send a DM to pro-writer Phoebe full of weird references or txtspk or just tins of spooling mistakes and typos, I’m showing her I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know the basics of writing.  And if I’m telling her I don’t know the basics right up front, why should I expect her to spend several hours wading through my manuscript? Or even part of it?

I’ve known them for several years  
Just to be clear, if I’ve followed someone for two years on Twitter or Instagram, this doesn’t really mean I’ve known them for two years. This also holds true for being a regular podcast listener, a longtime fan, or saying hi and shaking hands three years ago at a convention. Sorry. Do you remember that guy you met at a con three years ago and then never spoke with again? No? Wouldn't it be weird if he got in touch tomorrow and asked you to take a day or two off from work...?

We communicate on a regular basis
The key thing I need to remember here is we. Communication is a two-way street.  Me spamming Phoebe with messages and responses through multiple channels does not count as communicating. Neither does elbowing into another conversation. Or just following someone on Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok.

Communication is talking. Back and forth. Conversations. Discussions. Usually about a multitude of topics that have nothing to do with writing. If I’ve never done that with someone, asking them to read 450 pages is a rough icebreaker.

I’ve lived with them
This should be self-explanatory. Not in the sense of “on the planet at the same time” or even “crashed on the couch for a week,” but more in the “sharing rent and chores around the kitchen for several months” way. After our months together in the same house/ apartment/ hostel, I shouldn’t feel too weird about asking Phoebe to take a quick look at something I wrote. 

Unless... I really screwed her over on the last month’s rent or the security deposit. Or punched holes in the walls. Or was really loud while they were trying to sleep. If I’m not aware I was the nightmare roommate, that’s another whole issue I need to deal with.

I haven’t asked before
I think we’re all familiar with the idea of spam. Getting hit with ads and requests and offers again and again and again and again. I don’t want to come across that way, as the guy asking for favors again and again and again. Gets annoying quick, doesn’t it? I don’t want to be the guy pestering Phoebe until she says yes. Again, a bunch of other issues there I need to work on.

Also, with all the conditions and time limits I’ve mentioned above, it’s kind of arrogant to assume I’m going to get a second chance at this. I definitely don’t want to send off a manuscript with three mistakes in the first two pages. To quote a semi-famous musical, I don’t want to waste my shot, so I don’t want to take it until I’m sure I’m going to hit. 

I actually want to hear what they have to say 
This is the big one, and I'd guess it’s the reason a lot of writers end up reluctant to respond to these requests. If you’ve been following this little collection of rants for any amount of time you’re probably heard me talk about it before.

Lots of folks say they want feedback, but what they’re really looking for is to get back wild praise and promises their manuscript will be passed on and up to agents, editors, publishers, and whoever makes the big Hollywood movie deals.  In my experience, not a lot of folks actually want to hear criticism of their work (even if it’s constructive).  They just want to skip to the next step.  

Reading takes time. Writing up notes and thoughts takes time. Honestly, if all I want is praise and a handoff, I’m wasting Phoebe’s time asking for feedback. And she’s a pro, so her time is worth money.
 

Y’see, Timmy, if a lot of these apply to me, I’m probably in a good place. Feel free to drop Phoebe a note. I'd be fine with someone who ticked a lot of these boxes contacting me. I’m sure most professionals would feel the same way.

If not... maybe I should reconsider that email or DM before hitting send. I don't want to look bad or put someone in an awkward position. It's just not worth it in the long run.

Next time, I’d like to talk about starting points.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Our Binding Contract

Enough holiday stuff for now. Let’s get back to what you’re all really here for—the thing you specifically came here for. Half-assed writing commentary! That’s the deal, right? You keep showing up, I prattle on for far too long and maybe make one or two useful points.

Which is, ho ho ho, what I wanted to talk about.

The act of telling a story is sort of an unspoken agreement between two people. Kristi Charish has called it “the invisible handshake.” As audience members, we expect certain things from our story. As storytellers, we expect certain things from our audience. When we sit down together, even if we’re separated by a few months and a printed page, we’re both assuming the other half of this experience is going to follow certain conventions.

So let’s talk about this contract between writer and reader. Or storytellers and audience, if you’d like to keep it a little broader. I think this agreement is kind of universal in that regard.

As the writer, what am I promising you?

This Is Readable
I think we can all agree books come with different levels of reading difficulty. They get aimed at different age groups or demographics. So it’s not impossible to believe we could stumble across a book that seems too simple or too difficult for us.

But this should never be my goal as a writer. Nobody should struggle to get through a book, fighting through convoluted, never-ending sentences filled with obscure words that describe dozens of irrelevant characters. And if I’m writing specifically to exclude people (“Only the people who really understand art will enjoy this...”) I’m doing this wrong. If you pick up one of my books, I want you to feel welcome, and to actually enjoy the act of reading it.

This Makes Sense
It doesn’t matter if my book’s set on a cruise ship, in a Victorian mansion, or on a space station—it has to have an internal logic. Characters need to make decisions and take actions that fit within their world and their personal experience.

A simple test I always try to give myself is “would this book be enjoyable to read again?” If twists aren’t earned, if betrayals aren’t set up, if explanations don’t line up with what I’ve said before this... my story probably doesn’t make sense. And you deserve better than that as a reader.

This Finishes Arcs
Nobody likes getting to the end of a book and finding out ha ha maybe everything will get answered in the next book. If we’re going to get immersed in a story, one thing we’re inherently expecting is some kind of resolution at the end. That sense of closure is a natural part of storytelling. We expect the heroes to have a final showdown with the villains, for this year’s Hunger Games to end, or for them to perform the last exorcism. And when they don’t and everything’s left unresolved... it just doesn’t sit right.

And sure, there might be dangling threads or even an overall arc that needs to continue. But when we get to the end of this story we expect, well, an ending. Some aspect of this story has to be done and wrapped up in a satisfying way (to the reader if not the characters)

This Was Worth It
This is a twofold thing. One ties back to an idea I’ve mentioned before—we want our hero to win, even if it’s a pyrrhic victory. We need to see them have some level of success, because if not we’ve just read a book where the hero, the person we’re supposed to relate to and empathize with... loses.  Or doesn’t do anything. Or just has a textbook ending we’ve seen dozens of times before. After three hundred or so pages, these things can really make a book feel like it wasn’t worth reading.

Two is that, well, we want to feel like it was worth it financially. Nobody likes shelling out ten or fifteen bucks for a book that just wasn’t their thing, but shelling out that much for a book that’s incoherent, filled with typos, and half-copied from an old Doctor Who plot? And then has a bad ending? I mean, even a buck can feel like too much for something like that. If I’m trying to get you to give me money for this story, this story should be worth money.

In my opinion, that’s all the big promises we’re expecting on the writer side of things. Yeah, there might be more expectations depending on the genre, the author, the intended audience, but I think this is probably a good contractual boilerplate. From this direction.

Coming from the other side of the negotiating table, what should I expect from my storytelling audience? If someone’s willing to engage with the story, there should be a few basic things they’re promising me, the storyteller. Things like...

The Benefit of the Doubt
If I’m going to pick up a book, I should at least begin with the basic assumption the writer knows what they’re doing. They meant to use this word or that term, and yeah, there’s a reason these people have a collection of HD-DVDs and not Blu-rays. If something isn’t clear on page two, I should be assuming there’s a reason things aren’t clear on page two, not that the writer has somehow screwed up telling their story.

This doesn’t mean there can’t be problems in those first few pages or minutes. But if I see something I don’t understand I shouldn’t be immediately labeling it as a mistake or a problem and using that to guide my ongoing interpretation of things. There’s a term for that—it’s called hatewatching.

The Time to Tell Their Story
Related to the above, if I pick up a murder mystery, I shouldn’t be complaining that we still don’t know who the murderer is in chapter three. Those two cute folks may not have kissed by page forty-two. There’s a good chance the aliens’ true motives could still be unclear a third of the way in. 

Stories take time to unfold. We need build-up. We need to establish things. Some narrative devices just won’t work at certain parts of a story. If I’m reading a book, I need to be willing to accept that not everything’s going to be given to me in the first hundred pages—and that’s okay.

Judging It for What It Is, Not What I Want It to Be
It’s not uncommon to pick up a book not being 100% sure of what it is. What I thought was a sci-fi story might be more of a horror novel. This romance might involve a lot of historical drama. This superhero book might really be more of a superpowers thing. And sometimes this shift of genres and/or perspectives might be really annoying for us as readers.

But that doesn’t make the story wrong. Maybe it was poorly marketed or maybe I just don’t like horror novels. Maybe I wanted Dot to find true love or Yakko to go on a revenge-fuelled killing spree, and neither of these things happened in the book. But these things aren't inherently flaws in the story. The writer told story A, it isn’t wrong because I wanted story B.

That’s what I think we should be expecting from the other half of the contract. And again, we could probably add other things depending on the book, the genre, the author. That’s why contracts get adjusted. This is, as I mentioned before, the basic starting form that you get for free on the internet.

And I’m sure some of you think this has just been some silly, meta-writing thing that you skimmed over. But y’see, Timmy, when this doesn’t happen—when one side or the other breaks the contract—we get frustrated. As audience members, we hate it when we need to struggle through a story, not getting the relevant details or getting buried in irrelevant ones. As authors, we grind our teeth when someone gives negative criticism because “I didn’t know this was a horror novel” or “I quit reading after three chapters” or “Amazon delivered this with a folded cover.”

Okay, that last one has nothing to do with our storytelling contract, but we all still grind our teeth when we get a one star review for that kind of nonsense.

So remember the contract. Make sure you’re holding up your end of it. Because nobody wants to be known as the person who breaks it. That’s just not a good look from either side.

Next time... well, I want to talk about what you’re not getting for the holidays.

Until then, go write.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Cyber Monday 2020

This has been a brutal year on creativity, and I think it might’ve been even harder on escapism. This has just felt like the year we can’t escape from. I know my reading was way up at first, but by June I pretty much had to force myself to relax. Or if not relax, at least decrease my tension a bit. My to-read pile didn’t budge much, and I’m guessing about 2/3 of the books I’ve read this year have either been for blurbs or for the dystopian book club.

Anyway, it’s Cyber-Monday and the world is feeling a tiny bit brighter these days, and I thought I’d tell you about a couple books by other authors I did manage to read this year and personally enjoyed a lot for one reason or another. Maybe you’d like to add one or two of them to your holiday wish lists, or one of them might sound just right for that certain someone you know.

Also, these are in no particular order. They’re not even all new. So don’t read too much into where something appears. And, yeah, about half of them are by friends. Again, I real a lot of books for blurbs this year (and still have two more to go)

The Future Is Yours by Dan Frey – I’m starting the list with a cheat because this book isn’t coming out until February—it’s something I got to read early and it’s magnificent. Two guys (well, maybe three) create a machine that lets you look at the internet of one year in the future (news articles, interviews, blogs, and more), and now they have to decide what to do with it. This book seriously blew me away with its characters, its story, and how it told that story. I read the whole thing in one day. Put it on your list now.

The Children of Red Peak by Craig diLouie—It takes a lot to make my skin crawl, but Craig’s newest definitely did it. David, Beth, and Deacon are the only survivors of a religious cult’s suicide pact when they were children. Now they’re slowly facing the fact that they don’t actually know what happened back then... I called this book “Heaven’s Gate by way of IT” and I stand by that.

The Diabolical Miss Hyde by Viola Carr –this was the very first book I read in 2020 and I’m still not sure how it ended up on my Kindle (a sale, I’m guessing?). This is a wonderful steampunk mystery starring the daughter(s) of that famous literary pair, and it does some very clever things with point of view. Plus it's just plain fun.

Ghost Money by Stephen Blackmoore—pretty much every year Stephen ends up on this list and it’s because every year he writes a new Eric Carter book. Honestly, the series was already great and the past three books (this is the most recent) he’s just outdone himself again and again. So pick up all of them, if you haven’t already.

Part of Your Nightmare by Vera Strange a.k.a. Jennifer Brody—this is probably the youngest-aiming book on my list, but Jennifer did a wonderful job of bringing Ursula into the “real” world as she makes yet another deal with a young woman with a dream. Plus, no joke, there’s a scene with a goldfish in this that will creep you out, no matter what age you are.

The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes—the book that answers the question, what happens to imaginary friends when you grow out of them? And the answer, of course, is that some of them become noir detectives. If they were a triceratops named Tippy, anyway. Despite the light premise, this book has a lot to say about trauma and coping and dealing with the bad things. It’s fun and sweet and I liked it a lot.

The Unstoppable Wasp: Built on Hope by Sam Maggs- also a little younger-aiming, Sam’s written an amazing book about Nadia, the newest Wasp in the Marvel Universe. It’s fun and very clever, and (much like the movies) Sam reminds us how friggin’ cool shrinking powers would be for a smart person.

The Oracle Year by Charles Soule—slightly older book, so I’m late on this one. If you don’t already know, it’s about a man who discovers he’s made hundreds of predictions (large and small) for the coming year, and then how he comes to navigate that year as they all start to come true. If you love stories of prophecy and future knowledge, this book is absolutely magnificent.

Shadow of the Batgirl by Sarah Kuhn—a reimagining of the Cassandra Cain story, which gives her an origin that’s just as dark, but maybe not as gritty. Raised by an assassin to be the ultimate weapon, she has to decide what she really wants to do with her life. It’s got action, drama, a little romance, and a few laughs (I’m still saying “Be with your sequel!” whenever a cat wants to be somewhere high up). It’s another solid pick for the comic-lover in your life.

Ballistic Kiss by Richard Kadrey—is you haven’t been reading the Sandman Slim books... jeeez, you’re missing out on so much good stuff. Richard Stark was banished to Hell and spent a decade as a living soul in the demonic gladiatorial pits, where he earned the nickname Sandman Slim. Now he’s back in Los Angeles and fighting evil. Or anyone he just doesn’t like. This is the penultimate book in the series and he’s already finished writing the last one, so if you’re one of those people who *sigh* won’t start reading a series until you know it’s “finished”... well, you’ve got no more excuses.

And there you have it. Ten books I really enjoyed. I may add one or two more in the comments depending on when I get done with them. And please feel free to add anything you’ve particularly loved this year down there, too.

Also, I’ll remind you again (shamelessly) of all of my own books you could grab as gifts, plus the Black Friday offer I make every year

Happy Holidays, take care of yourself, be safe, please wear your mask.

And go write.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Black Friday – The Capitalismizing

Well, it’s that time again. We’ve made it most of the year, but now I’m afraid I need to shill some books. Lots of books.

Yeah, it makes all of us uncomfortable, but it’s also how I make a living. Which is, y’know, writing more books. And which gives me time to make all these ranty blog posts, some of which are about things you’ve asked me to write about.

So really, all of this is on you.

Anyway, here’s a bunch of things I’ve written that are out there for you to enjoy. Or maybe for you to enjoy giving to friends and family members. So they can enjoy them.

Terminus is the latest book set in the Threshold universe of stories. It’s about a bunch of people who all end up at a strange, uncharted island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Chase is running away from things, Anne is running towards them, and Murdoch is slowly coming to realize he probably shouldn’t’ve stopped running. They all start to explore the strangeness there, their paths begin to cross, and the end of the world begins to unfold around them. It’s currently available in ebook and audiobook (no paper, I’m afraid).

Dead Moon is also about someone running away from their past—a young woman named Cali Washington. And Cali runs all the way to the Moon, where she works as a cemetery caretaker... until the dead start to rise, anyway. Zombies on the moon. Can’t beat that. This one’s also available in ebook and audiobook format.

Paradox Bound is the history-traveling tale of Harry and Eli as they keep bumping into each other and finally start traveling together as part of a fantastic treasure hunt through American history. This is probably one of the most positive, hopeful books I’ve every written, and I’m still ridiculously proud of it. It’s available in pretty much every format you can imagine, and there may even be a few hardcovers kicking around if you check your localbookstores.

The Fold is still a favorite, the story of how Mike, a man with some extraordinary gifts he really doesn’t want, gets dragged into evaluating a government teleportation experiment which goes... well, guess. It’s available in many formats, in many places. Check out your local bookstore and see what they’ve got.

The Ex-Heroes books are the superheroes vs. zombies series that began my career. The ongoing adventures of St. George, Stealth, Zzzap, Cerberus, Captain Freedom, The Driver, The Corpse Girl, and more. Ex-Heroes, Ex-Patriots, Ex-Communication, Ex-Purgatory, Ex-Isle. Available in any format you want, in numerous languages.

14 is my creepy-mystery-cosmic horror-thriller. The book I never thought anyone would like that somehow launched my career up to the next level. If you’re a fan of mine and somehow haven’t read it, all I can tell you is it’s about a guy who moves into an old apartment building in LA and starts to notice some strange things. This one’s currently in audio and ebook formats, but there may still be paperbacks lurking out there somewhere in the world.

The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe – is my attempt at a “serious” mashup novel, rather than just being kind of, y’know, goofy (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I tried to clean it up a lot, but it still hews fairly close to the original, stylistically—consider that a warning some of you might deal better with the audiobook. This one’s currently in audio and ebook formats, but again—your local bookstore might have one of the last wave of paperbacks from a few years ago.

The Junkie Quatrain is a sort of novella/ mini-collection of four intertwining short stories. If you picked up Ex-Patriots as an ebook back in the day, you probably got one of the stories. This is basically Rashomon meets 28 Days Later and its one of those odd little things I’m still very proud of. You can find it on audio or ebook.

Dead Men Can’t Complain is a collection of assorted short stories I’ve written over the past dozen years or so for various anthologies and journals, plus a few extras. There’s zombies, time travel, lizard men, an overprotective ghoul, a noir detective, a lot of creepiness, and maybe a few laughs. At the moment this is only on Audible (and the narrators are amazing), although I’m looking into putting it out as an ebook under my Kavach Press line.

And that’s pretty much everything I’ve ever written. Most of what’s out there anyway. Maybe there’s something you didn’t know about to add to your wish list, or something you really liked that you think somebody you know might like too.

Also, since it’s Black Friday, I’ll also take this moment to remind you of my standard Black Friday deal for those of you who need it. And please—if you need it, don’t hesitate to ask. I’ve been there and I wish someone had offered something like this to me.

Also-also...I’d like to remind you of the other gift you can give authors. Purchases are fantastic, but the next-best thing is reviews. If you enjoyed one of my books, please feel free to throw a few stars and kind words at your favorite online review aggregator of choice. It’d thrill me to no end (and on multiple levels) to look and see a hundred new reviews on Paradox Bound. This kind of things makes books much more visible and helps more people find them. And it’s not just me—all authors feel this way. If you want to spread some joy among your favorite writers, spend an hour some night writing up seven or eight reviews for books you like.

Anyways... That’s Black Friday. I now return you to your post-feasting day of numbness. Be safe. Wear your mask. 

And go write.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Shouldn’t Throw Stones

There’s an aphorism about writing I heard a while back—“get your character up a tree and throw rocks at them.” It’s one of those fun, quick statements with a lot of truth behind it. A complex idea boiled down to something simple.

There’s another one, part of Pixar’s rules of storytelling. “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”  Because we’ve all seen that, right? The character who randomly finds the exact thing they need just when they need it.

Put these two together and my character’s picked the worst tree to climb up. Because it turns out that’s the rock-throwing tree! Since our town was founded, people have always thrown rocks up at that thing. The local little league uses that specific tree for pitching practice. Young couples throw rocks at that tree to see if they’ll live happily ever after. And they say if you throw rocks at it under a new moon, you can speak to a lost love one final time.

Okay, maybe going a bit overboard there. It’s kind of silly to believe this one tree has so many legends and habits and traditions of rock-throwing associated with it, right? Especially because some of them, you’ve got to wonder... why? How the heck did this become a thing? Why would all these people one day choose to throw rocks at this tree?

Which is what I wanted to talk about.

We’ve talked about the need for conflict before. If there’s no conflict—or an utterly minor, negligible conflict—I can’t have much of a plot. And without a plot, my characters are just kinda standing around without any. So this idea of throwing stones—of putting lots of obstacles between my character and their goal—is a solid one. We want our characters to have something to do, and we don’t want it to be easy for them to do it.

BUT...

Kind of like with the rock-throwing tree, we need to feel like there’s a reason behind this. If our character was stuck up in a tree and people just happened to randomly decide “hey, let’s throw rocks at that!”... we’d probably call foul. It’s just not terribly believable.

Okay, it might be believable once. Our minds will give a little leeway (especially in fiction) for a single bizarre coincidence. To quote the esteemed philosopher Elim Garak, however... I believe in coincidence. Coincidences happen every day. But I don't trust  coincidences.

If I’m going to have a lot of rocks thrown at my character, I need some solid, in-story reason why they’re being thrown. Because after my characters lose their keys or forget the password or drop the flash drive or run into a third mugger... well, it starts to look less like coincidence and more like weak writing.

Because even coincidences have a reason behind them. Why this person showed up early. Why that battery isn’t charged. Why Dot forgot to bring the incredibly important goober that this entire mission hinges on.

Even when it’s less coincidence and more an active thing—if it’s the same mugger chasing my protagonist across the city and popping up again and again—I have to ask why. Why is Phoebe so obsessed with mugging Yakko? Why does she keep doing this? Or how does she keep ending up just where he is again and again and again. or why does Yakko keep ending up in places where he’s going to get mugged when it just happened to him the other day.

Get your character up that tree and throw stones at them. Throw boulders at them. And handfuls of loose gravel. But know, within the story, why they’re all getting thrown. Is there a real reason for it?

Or is the only person the reader sees throwing stones... me?

In other news, in case you missed it, the A2Q now has a table of contents, so you can find all of it quick and easy. Also, with everything going on in the world I made my usual Black Friday offer a little early this year, so if you’re someone who could use it, please get in touch with me.

Next time here on the ranty blog...

Holy crap, it’s Thanksgiving. How is this year moving so slow and so fast at the same time? The barriers have been shattered! All time is existing at once!

Seriously, though, unless someone’s got a specific, pressing question I’ll probably take the day off and maybe throw some Cyber-Monday gift ideas at you. And next time I’ll talk about binding agreements...

Until then, go write.

And throw some stones.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Black Friday VIII – Black Friday the 13th

I do this every year, but I figured with everything going on in 2020 some folks might need some good news a little early. Plus, with the way the post office is going... well, I figured giving everyone an extra two weeks wouldn’t be bad, either.

That said, I’d like to take this almost-holiday Friday the thirteenth to offer you a little hope. With some depressing facts as a lead-in.

If you’re new to the ranty blog or to me and my writing in general, you may not know that I had a prolonged bout of poverty during my path to becoming a writer. I’d been doing okay in the film industry, and then was doing okay as a freelance journalist, but when the economy crumbled in 2008, the magazine I did most of my writing for started to flounder. Within two years lagging paychecks and a few fairly mundane surprise expenses (car repairs, a sick cat, a lost filling) had emptied my savings and maxed out my credit cards.

I had nothing.

And to be clear, I mean, nothing. My partner and I lived right at the poverty line from 2009 till about mid-2012. In Los Angeles. We shopped pretty much exclusively at the 99¢ Store. Our phone got shut off. We had no internet at home, so we used the library’s wifi for everything, and while we were there we’d “borrow” a roll or three of toilet paper, tucked away in our bags. We didn’t turn the heat on for two winters in a row. I missed out on potential work (and meeting some Hollywood legends) because I couldn’t afford gas anywhere (which didn’t help things). Hell, for one assignment I had to beg one of my editors to loan me gas money so I could drive to a screening.

Three. Years. Like that. Constantly stressed. Constantly feeling like crap.

Especially at the holidays.

The holidays are awful when you’re poor because you feel isolated at a time when people are supposed to be coming together. You can’t afford to travel. You can’t afford to buy gifts for family or friends. Hell, there were times I couldn’t go to a couple nice Christmas parties because we couldn’t afford to park there (friggin’ LA).

And you feel guilty about it. You spend time stressing about if maybe there was something else you could’ve done. About the people you love who you feel like you’re neglecting. About what people think about you, being so poor you can’t even get something for your significant other or your family. 

It’s that feeling all the time. Pretty much from mid-November to mid January. Guilt and dread and shame and self-doubt. Yay! Why don’t we ever hear that holiday song?

Being poor at the holidays absolutely sucks. Believe me, I know. The past seven years have been good to me, but I still get that twist deep in my gut when the credit card reader makes the angry buzz instead of a beep.

All that said... these days I’m in a better position, and I owe a good part of that to all of you. Because for some reason you like these odd stories I tell. And if I can help some of you avoid feeling miserable this holiday season, I’d like to do it.

So here’s the deal. If you’re in that bad place right now, where you can’t afford to give gifts to your family or friends, shoot me a note at my old PeterClines101@yahoo.com address. I’ve still got fifteen or sixteen random books saved from last year (when nobody took me up on this), and I might be able to scrounge up two or three more if need be. I’ll scribble in one and mail it out to you (postage is on me, too). I’ll even throw in wrapping paper if you need it. If you know your gift-target would like a specific book, feel free toask, but I can’t promise anything, sorry (I have what I have). I’ll send them out for as long as the books last.

It’s not much, I know. But it’ll be a gift you can give someone. And maybe you can feel a little less stressed at the holidays.

Again, this is for those of you who need some help getting gifts for others. The people pulling unemployment (or not!), cutting back on everything, and feeling like crap because they can’t afford holiday gifts for family or friends.  It’s not so you can recommend someone in a bad spot who might like a book. You could do that for them—go buy them a book. And buy locally! Support your local bookstores! And comic shops! And toy stores! And state that could flip the Senate (a gift that will keep on giving).

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 you’re a truly selfish, deplorable person and you’re taking away what might’ve been someone’s only bright moment this season. And Krampus will probably feed you to a squale.

So... Happy Holidays.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Not THAT Kind of Action...

How’s everyone’s week been? Anything interesting going on in the world?

Today I’d like to dissect one of those chestnuts of bad advice that keeps floating around the internet and showing up in different writing-related groups. Well, it’s not so much bad as really misunderstood. Which is what happens when a lot of these things get distilled down to quick little buzzphrases instead of, y’know... explained.

So, an explanation.

The advice in question is start with action. I’m sure you’ve heard it once or thrice before. I’ve mentioned it here a couple of times and why it isn’t the best rule to follow.

Because starting my story with action doesn’t mean explosions and automatic weapons firing.  We don’t need to have dinosaurs in mech suits fighting vampire kaiju while SEAL team sixteen  (the best of the best of the best) blows up the Washington Monument to take out the ninja lizard men trying to steal the Declaration of Independence. No boxing matches, no car chases, none of whatever other type of wild action scene might grab the reader immediately.

Just to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those things. But it should be clear there’s a lot of genres they won’t work in (although I do think a lot of Hallmark’s Christmas rom-coms could be improved by introducing kaiju). Heck, even in genres where this kind of high energy intro could work, they might not fit in the particular story I’m telling.

Trying to force these high-action openings into every story is the misunderstanding I mentioned up above. It makes for a lot of clumsy openings that often don’t match up with the tone or plot of the actual narrative. When we say a story should start with action, what we’re really saying is that characters should be active from the beginning. A story should start with something happening.

But... and this is why I’m revisiting this...

I’ve had a few people point out to me (with a few different tones to their voices) that lots of things count as something happening. Right now I’m typing. And pausing to re-read a bit as I go. And digesting lunch. And breathing. I mean, technically, sleeping is me “doing something.” So is walking from room to room. Taking a shower. Lying in bed staring at the ceiling, deep in thought. Yeah, those are all actions, no question. But none of these make for really compelling openings. They’re not exactly what I’d use to kick off a book.

So we don’t need to begin with gigantic, all-caps ACTION, but we also don’t want to begin with a light breeze making a few strands of my character’s hair drift side to side while she naps. 

I’ve been trying to think of a simple way to explain this better, that level of action that falls between explosions and mundane. And the other day I came up with what I think is a pretty solid one. With two small provisos.

So here’s your new rule to replace start with action.

Start with someone’s life changing.

This sounds big, but hear me out. It doesn’t need to be a permanent, scarring change. It doesn’t need to be gigantic. It just needs to disrupt the flow of their life to some level. It should be something that they notice happening if it’s going to be worth us using it as a starting point for the story.

Wakko finding out he’s got a flat tire when he’s heading into work is a change to his life—it’s going to affect his whole day. Same with Dot spilling her coffee and having to stop and clean it up. Phoebe finding out her ex thought she was “comfortably dull” (yes, no matter what they were doing) is going to change her life. And to use an example I’ve mentioned before, Sam Wilson realizing the guy he’s trying to run laps against is Captain America is definitely going to make some ripples in his life.

Keep in mind—the big change in Sam’s life comes much later, when Steve and Natasha show up at his place looking for a place to hide and learn Sam has some skills of his own. But the action of that opening scene... Sam’s just met an actual living legend and had a moment of bonding over their experience as returning combat vets. If nothing else ever happened, if Sam and Steve never saw each other again, we still know this moment would’ve had some affect on Sam, for the rest of that day if nothing else.

Simple enough, yes?

Okay, here are my two little additions/provisos to this rule.

One is that this life changing event doesn’t need to be connected to my main plot in any way. Or even a subplot. It can be, sure, but it doesn’t have to be. It's more about giving us a first impression of the character. Wakko’s flat tire doesn’t need to lead to the bigger overall story. The opinions of Phoebe’s ex don’t have to tie into a larger arc about relationships. And honestly, if you snipped that morning jog scene off The Winter Soldier and just began with Cap rescuing the ship at sea... what would really change, plot-wise? 

Two is a little trickier, but... it’s definitely worth keeping in mind. I’ve blathered on a couple times about the idea that characters should be used to things in their world. To the point that what would be amazing to us might be almost boring to them. With that in mind, I can start with something that might not be life-changing for the character as long as it would definitely be for the reader. Taking a gravity elevator-shuttle to the Moon is normal for Cali and Kurt, maybe even boring, but we can still appreciate the idea of kids bouncing around the cabin as people glide through the aisles and over seats. It’s nothing to them, but it’s something to us.

And one more time, just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with explosions, car chases, and vampire kaiju. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with dinosaurs in mech suits. But these big action pieces need to work with my story as a whole. They shouldn’t be something I just wrestled into place so I can say my story starts with action.

Look at the opening of your book. Does it change somebody’s life? Because that’s the big goal here, right...?

Next time, I’d like to hit you with a rock.

Until then... go write.