Friday, January 31, 2020

A2Q Part Two—The Plot

Hey, here we are back with the A2Q. Sorry this is a day late. Yesterday was a big day for me, and it ended up eating a lot of my time. In a good way.

Anyway, last time in the A2Q we talked about ideas. How to find them, collect them, and clean them up for later use. Now I want to talk about plots. We’ll go over what they are, why we need them, and how to put one together using that big pile of ideas we’ve gathered up and had sitting on our desk for a few months now.

In my mind, a plot has three basic parts. It establishes a norm. It gives us some kind of conflict. And then we resolve that conflict. Again, just me, but I think if my plot doesn’t have these three identifiable components, it’s going to be tough to get anyone interested in it.

Let’s go over each of them.

First, we need to establish what passes for “normal” in the world of my book. Maybe it’s the modern world as you and I both know it. Maybe it’s the historical world of the 17th century. Perhaps it’s a future world where planets settle all their grievances and negotiations with gladitorial games. Or possibly it’s the modern world but werewolves exist and everybody knows about them.

I know a lot of folks push for diving right in as quickly as possible, but there’s a reason this step is important. If I don’t establish what’s normal and natural in this world—or at least what my characters think is normal and natural—I can’t have anything unnatural happen to them. This can be a little tough if “normal” means living in a world with space elevators and moonbases, or a Victorian steampunk world, or a modern world where werewolves are real, but I really believe it’s vital. If I don’t establish what’s possible, everything that happens in my book becomes questionable, as do all my characters’ reactions to it.  Yeah, you and I might freak out to see a werewolf run in front of our car tonight, but for the residents of WereWorld this is just another Thursday. It’s normal.

Second, we need to establish some kind of conflict. Whatever that norm is our characters are used to, something has to break it. By its very nature, today should be something out of the ordinary, because if this was a regular, day-to-day challenge our characters would already know how to deal with it, right? And if they know how to deal with it, it’s not that interesting. We want to see the day things change, the day our characters have to deal with something that knocks them out of their comfort zone and forces them to impress us somehow.

Now, throughout the course of our book, there may be a bunch of challenges my characters need to deal with. If a werewolf murders my character’s lover but nobody believes in werewolves, she could have a ton of people after her—the police, the FBI, her psychiatrist, maybe even a werewolf hunter who thinks she was bitten. But there should be a main, overall conflict that’s driving everything. In this particular case, it’s our character trying to prove werewolves are real and she’s innocent. Almost everything builds off of that.

Third, we need to resolve this conflict. We can’t tell our readers there’s a ravenous werewolf storming through my hero’s hometown killing everyone it can and then just... never refer to it again. If Dot’s dream all this time has been to ask out the cheerleader, then she needs to ask out the cheerleader (or at least address why she doesn’t need to ask out the cheerleader anymore). A big part of any book’s success is how we tie things up at the end which means... well, we need to tie things up at the end. When was the last time you or someone you know praised a book for not resolving anything?

Something else that kinda needs to be addressed. When the conflict’s resolved, it needs to be my hero who resolves it. I don’t want to follow Wakko for 300 pages and then have Phoebe step in to save the day at the end. All that tells me is we should’ve been following Phoebe all this time. Which means I write a book about the wrong character.

Now, with all that in mind, let’s talk about how we can fit a bunch of ideas together to make a plot.

And before we get into that, I want to go over something I mentioned last time. It’s one of the early obstacles we need to overcome in this book-writing process. And that’s understanding that one idea won’t become a book. An idea is just a single, lonely thing, and we need a couple of them together to make a plot.

F’r example, let’s go with this idea— There’s a werewolf in the forest.

Now, I bet your brains are already hopping with this, right? Thinking of ways it can go. Well, that’s just what I mean when I say one idea isn’t a book. We all immediately, instinctively understand there has to be more than this. I just mentioned that a plot has three parts, so it stands to reason that it needs at least three ideas. A lone idea should force us to consider other ideas. Is it a hungry werewolf? Is it intelligent? Is the forest close to our characters? Are they in the forest? Do they know about the werewolf? Does anyone else know about it? Are they hunting the werewolf? Is the werewolf hunting them?

This is where we shall deploy our most powerful plot building tool... conjunctions! Yes, just like in that old Schoolhouse Rock cartoon? Am I dating myself with that? Never mind, you all know what conjunctions are.

When I’m assembling a plot, I’m going to be stringing ideas together with and, but, and sometimes or. Think of one of your favorite books or shows or movies. If I asked you right now to explain it to me, you’d end up using lots of conjunctions describing it as the ideas stack up.

We’re out for our evening walk but there’s a werewolf in the forest and the werewolf’s terribly hungry for human flesh and the forest is right on the edge of town and the werewolf is a time-travelling cyborg and the werewolf is also a Sagittarius  but there’s still a chance we can stop the werewolf. We just need to get some silver bullets and shoot the werewolf with them or the werewolf will kill us all and getting killed would be really bad.

Let’s talk about that little pile of ideas I tried to make into a plot..

First off, hopefully you can see what I was talking about. Each little bit is a separate idea. On their own they’re not much, but as we tie them together they become part of the larger whole. I established a norm, I introduced a conflict, and I’ve floated at least two possible resolutions. It’s very basic and no frills, but it’s a pretty solid plot.

Second, plot is almost always about doing something. To be more specific, the attempt to do something. My characters are doing something. The werewolf is doing something. Plot is active. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, our plot is going to boil down to “X is trying to Y.” Kamala is trying to balance superheroics and schoolwork. The Mandalorian is trying to protect the Child. Benoit Blanc is trying to solve a murder. Detective Pikachu is trying to find Harry Goodman.

As I mentioned above, the thing our characters are doing should be something out of their wheelhouse, something that puts them in an uncomfortable place. If everyone knows werewolves are real, Phoebe’s a professional werewolf hunter, and she’s out there in the woods with a quiver full of silver crossbow bolts... again, this is just a Thursday night in WereWorld. But if she puts three of those silver crossbow bolts straight through the werewolf’s heart and they do nothing... well, crap, what’s she supposed to do now? She only really had the one trick and that werewolf looks very much still alive and super pissed now.

Third is taking that second point a necessary step farther. Plot is almost always (again, about 99% of the time) about the attempt to deal with an external problem. Enemies. Society. Corporate banks. Androids. Aggressive jocks. Harsh professors. Werewolves. They’re external things that affect our characters, and simultaneously they’re things our characters need to deal with or address, one way or another.

Also, just because somebody always takes things too literally, when I say external, I’m referring to the characters as people—their consciousness, not their physical forms. If Wakko wakes up with a bomb implanted in his stomach or Phoebe gets a sudden case of super-lycanthropy, yes these threats are inside their bodies, but they’re still outside forces. They’re things that aren’t part of them, that they have no control over. We’re going to get to internal things later, don’t worry.

Make sense? Okay, lemme throw out two more plot-related things. A warning and a consideration. And I’m going to use a different metaphor for each one

First is a warning. Last time, while were talking about ideas, I said we could think of ideas as puzzle pieces. Like building puzzles, we need to get a sense of what ideas fit best where, and also... which ones don’t fit at all. With puzzle pieces, we can look at the tabs and the slots, as well as what’s on the puzzle piece itself, and get a good sense of what goes where. The piece that’s all off-white moon and the piece that’s all night sky most likely don’t connect directly to each other. There’s going to be one or two pieces between them. Heck, maybe a lot of pieces. And that one with the flat side is clearly an edge—it’s not going to end up in the middle somewhere.

Likewise, that smaller bright green piece with grass on it and the notably smaller tabs... well, odds are prety good that’s not even part of this puzzle. We can see that it doesn’t belong and get rid of it pretty quick. We don’t want to spend a lot of time wrestling with something that clearly isn’t going to fit anywhere.

Look at my sample plot up there. Two of those plot points probably stood out to you. One is the werewolf being a time traveling cyborg. I mean, it’s a cool idea, but does it belong right there? Should it maybe be something we know from the start, or something we figure out at the end? Just dropped in right there it feels a bit jarring, yes?

Still, not as bad as the werewolf being a Sagittarius. It’s a funny bit, but funny doesn’t really fit with anything else there, does it? Maybe if the tone of the book was kinda different. But as is, it feels a little too goofy alongside talk of a flesh-eating werewolf charging out of the forest. I may really need to think about getting rid of it. Or changing some other things to make it fit better.

Plus, let’s be realistic—any decent monster is a Scorpio.

This is a really tough thing to get a handle on—the idea that an idea can be good but not good for my book. We tend to think that a good idea is good no matter what, and in a way that’s true. But we’re not talking about ideas as individual things. We’re talking about them in that greater, interlocked pattern that’s our plot. And sometimes a really cool idea just doesn’t fit. No matter how amazing that little piece of green grass looks, it just doesn’t go with the other pieces in this puzzle.

Now, here’s my other thing for you to think about—a different way to consider plot.

Raise your hand if you’ve played Dungeons & Dragons. C’mon, we’re all geeks here. If not D&D, I’m sure you’re familiar with some sort of pen-and-paper roll playing game. Gamma World? Vampire: The Masquerade?

Okay, since some of you are still feeling shy, a common element here is for a Dungeon Master (aka “the DM”) to draw out a map of the town/castle/catacombs/crashed spaceship our adventurers will be exploring. The DM draws out every room, tunnel, antechamber, hidden staircase, and so on, usually with a few extra details about what can be found in each area. This is the rough framework of the adventure.

This framework is very similar to how we build a plot. Lots of conjunctions, right? The adventurers will travel through an archway and a hallway and a thick oak door and a room and a hidden door behind a tapestry and a tunnel or a staircase and then a vault. Each element we add takes us further along the path, moving us toward some kind of conclusion. Hopefully one where our rogue, Yakko, doesn’t end up dead again.

Now, with this metaphor in mind, let me ask you this. Have you ever sat down for a night of D&D with that person who’s just a little too enthusiastic that they finally get to DM? And they’re going to design the most amazing dungeon ever? We hit that first room behind the thick oak door and there’s twenty skeletons and they all have +2 swords and +3 shields and there’s a werewolf and she has a +4 flaming axe and the helm of disintergration and the floor is really a giant Trapper and the ceiling’s a Lurker Above and...  

I’m guessing most of you are familiar with this kind of DM, in theory if not in personal experience?

Here’s what I wanted to point out. Notice how this version of the dungeon has just as many conjunctions, but it doesn’t actually go anywhere? After all those conjunctions, we still haven’t moved past the first room in the dungeon. We haven’t progressed at all.

This is something we need to watch out for. Not all of the ideas in our big pile are going to be part of the plot. Some of them are going to be details, and we don’t want to confuse details for plot points. My conjunctions shouldn’t all pile up in one place, just building and expanding this one area. They need to keep moving us into new rooms and new halls, all of which are leading us, again, toward that eventual end. We can add a lot of things to our plot with conjunctions, but do they actually move the plot along? Do they force our characters to make decisions and take actions?

So, to sum up a few points. My plot establishes the norm, introduces conflict, and then resolves conflict. It’s more than one idea, all with solid connections. It’s an active attempt to do something, and that something is almost always going to be some kind of external issue. And plot is moving our characters through the book.

After all this, you’ve probably guessed what I’m talking about in the next A2Q. Characters. How we come up with them. How we develop them. How we fit them into our plot.

But that won’t be for three weeks—next time here I want to talk about an old favorite, and the week after that is a little Valentine’s Day advice. And then back to the the A2Q for maybe two sections in a row.

Oh, and if you somehow missed it, my latest book, Terminus, just came out as an Audible exclusive. Go check out that beautiful landing page they set up on the other side of the link. It’s got a bunch of clips, a video chat between me and the narrator—the wonderful Ray Porter—and of course the book itself.

So until next time... go write.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

A Lull in the Action

I know the A2Q thing just got started, but I wanted to pause for a few moments to talk about action.

I’m a big believer that action—especially dynamic action--shouldn’t take much longer to read than it would take to happen. Swordfights, shootouts, fistfights, even sex scenes—all of these are events where we kind of expect people to get caught up in the moment and not focus too much on minutiae. When I’m telling these events as part of a story, it creates an odd situation where I want to advance the action, but I also need to explain what’s going on. It’s especially tough in first person narratives, but really it can happen anywhere.

An example I’ve used before is when a ninja leaps out of the shadows to attack me. On the one hand, I want to mention the mask and the gloves and the sash belt and those special shoes that ninjas wear. Plus maybe they’ve got weapons in their hands or tucked in their belt or strapped to their back. Maybe even cursed weapons with extra barbs or weird auras. And wait... is that long red hair? Is this ninja a woman? Holy crap, the robes are kinda loose but, yeah, I think she is.

Of course, during all this time... what’s the ninja doing? They leaped out of the shadows and... froze in the air? Are they waiting to punch or kick or maybe skewer me with their short sword or something like that?

Heck, did you even remember the ninja was in the process of attacking me while you read through all that description?

Which is the problem in these situations. Once I’m in an action moment, I’ve got to be careful about bringing it to a pause for descriptions of other characters, weapons, fighting techniques, heck sometimes even overly-describing the action itself. I can blow the rhythm and wreck the flow, knocking my readers out of the story right when I want them desperately turning pages.

And it’s not just descriptions that can do this. Another thing I’ve seen is people trying to do funny, snarky dialogue in the middle of action sequences. Sure, this can work to an extent, but when every other character is making one or two quips during every gunfight or car chase or building collapse, these events begin to stretch out. It doesn’t take long for them to start dragging.

Another common one is the sudden need to share information, either between characters or sometimes the narration relaying these facts directly to us, the audience. I think a lot of the time when this happens it’s the writer feeling the sudden need to remind the readers of something important. The potential double whammy here is this can be breaking the flow of my action and it may just be a bunch of noise that we already know and don’t need to be reminded of at this crucial moment.

The worst of all of these has to be the introspective moment. That point when the arrows are flying and plasma bolts are crashing around us and my character pauses to dwell on how fragile the connections are between all of us, and the series of decisions that unknowingly brought him to this moment. And this place. Of all the possible places he could’ve been right now. One different choice and maybe he’d be on a date with that cute barista, instead of here, pondering the threads of destiny...

Anyway, where were we. Right! Raw plasma exploding everywhere and whoa when did Wakko get fried? How’d I miss that?

Other popular introspective topics that can disrupt action may involve lost loves, found loves, children, aging parents, the ephemeral nature of beauty,  and a single raindrop, frozen in that moment of impact that so perfectly symbolizes the inevitability of death...

The real killer for all of this? Lots of stuff counts as action. There've been a few times I’ve mentioned that often-misunderstood chestnut, start with action. It doesn’t mean my book needs to begin with a ninja leaping from the shadows, it just means I need to start with something happening. With my characters doing something. Anything. And all those things that count as action are things I want to be careful about disrupting and slowing down.

Now, yeah, of course, there’s always going to be exceptions. There are lots of reasons why my character might have an unusual, unrelated thought in a moment of peak action, or why they might get distracted by that single raindrop. But I need to remember that exceptions are rare.

So don’t break the flow of your story by letting your action get bogged down.

And speaking of action and doing things... have I mentioned that my new book, Terminus, comes out next week? Like, one week from today. It’s an Audible exclusive, and if you wanted to preorder it now that’d help further convince the people who pay me that my books are a good investment. Which mean more books down the line. Which means we all win.

Next time here on the ranty blog, we continue with the next part of the A2Q, where I’m going to try to explain plots and how to put one together.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

A2Q Part One—The Idea

Wow. Between the last post and Twitter, the response to this series idea has been amazing. Thank you all for your interest. I think the last time something got this much response I was explaining why I thought you should always use the Oxford comma, almost ten years ago this very night....


Welcome to the first of what will hopefully be an amazing and not-too-rambly twelve part series about book writing. Well, really this is going to be about how to tell a story. So these concepts we’re talking about are going to apply across a lot of different storytelling formats.

Why am I calling it A2Q? Well, first off it makes me look all hip, swapping in the 2 instead of to. Second, it’s because we’ve all heard A to Z so many times our eyes slide right past it, while you’ll remember A to Q because it’s weird sounding and absurd. I mean, the last time Q was even remotely worth paying attention to was back when John DeLancie played him. Everything since then’s been utter nonsense. So we’re taking Q back, people!

Finally, it’s an easy overall tag I can slap on this whole series that’ll end up right at the top of the tag cloud over there on the right (yeah, check it out—never noticed that before did you), so you can refer back to all of these later.

Also, I’m starting this off with the idea that all of us are working with the same basic tools here. I’m not going to talk much about vocabulary, spelling, grammar, or any of that (though they may come up a bit somewhere down the road). Nobody’s going to fault me because I didn’t bring a conduit bender to the job site, but if I don’t even have a hammer and a pair of pliers in my toolbag... well, maybe I’m not ready for this quite yet.

Also-also, from this point on in the series, I’m probably going to be saying book and novel a lot here. Like I mentioned above, the basic storytelling ideas we’re going to be talking about can apply to a lot of different formats—books, short stories, comics, movies, and more. But for this discussion, story is going to mean something very specific, and I don’t want things to get confusing. So book or novel is going to refer to our overall manuscript, while story is going to refer to... well, we’ll get into that in part four.

So with all that said, let’s begin where most books begin... with a basic idea.

Ideas are the foundation of all of this. Pretty much every story—sci-fi, horror, mystery, romance, whatever—begins with us asking “what if...?” and running with it. Some stories have really basic ideas behind them. Some have really wild ones. Both types can work great in stories.

It’s also worth mentioning that ideas are super common. Like, so common they’re pretty much worthless. They’re like rocks. It’s really important to understand this, because that understanding’s going to let us take our first big step.

Yes, an idea on its own is worthless. An idea is not a story or an epic and it’s definitely not worth a $50,000 advance from a publisher. It’s just an idea. And every one of them starts out as a raw, blobby thing on the edge of our mind.

This causes problems for all of us when we’re starting out because we want good ideas. We want that $50,000 advance and the Nobel for literature, so our ideas have to be the best ones we can think of. No half-baked, crappy ideas for us, right?

Except... that’s how all ideas start out—as half-baked, crappy blobs. An analogy I’ve used before is diamonds. In their natural state, they’re crusty, dark, lumpy things. It’s only after lots of cutting and shaping and polishing that we end up with what we think of as a diamond. Over the years, I’ve noticed when most people sit down to start writing (physically or metaphorically) they do one of two things when they encounter these idea-diamonds.

One group of aspiring writers—the larger group, I think—finds those crusty idea-lumps and gets frustrated that they’re only finding... well, lumps. We end up tossing them aside to look for the good ideas. We want to find the shining, sparkling thing that everyone immediately is going to recognize as a brilliant idea.

The other group finds that crusty lump, mounts it on a ring, and asks for the $50,000. Heck, we can find these things all over the place. Here’s five, six, seven—heck, I’ve got so many ideas you should probably just give me half a million to start. And somebody call the head of Hollywood. They’ll probably want to offer a briefcase with a million in it for movie rights. Heck, tell ‘em to bring two briefcases—I’ll have some more ideas by the time they get here.

This is really the same misconception seen from two different sides. One group’s assuming the idea isn’t any good, so they’re just leaving it on the ground. The other group’s assuming the idea must be good just because they picked it up. But really, whichever group I’m in, I’m ignoring the fact that ideas need work before they’re worth anything. I’m going to have to look at them, weigh them, and consider them from a bunch of angles. Maybe even make a few preliminary cuts and shine it up a little, just to get a good sense of them

With me so far? I know, the diamond analogy wobbled a bit in there. Hang on, I’m going to use it for a few more paragraphs.

So this brings us to the next big question which is... how do we know? There are all these rocks and only some of them are diamonds in the rough, and only some of those are going to make good gemstones. What criteria should we be using to tell which is which?

Well, y’see Timmy, here’s where it gets a bit ugly. The truth is, a lot of the time we can’t tell. Because, again, an idea on its own is kinda worthless. We’re not just cutting and polishing diamonds—we’re making diamond puzzle pieces. A lot of what makes this idea good and worthwhile is going to be how it interacts with this idea or that idea. As we do this more often and get more experienced, we’ll be able to spot the ones that fit into the puzzle easier, and even have a sense where they go. And, likewise, we’ll be able to see that the tabs on this piece are too small and don’t match any of the others, and to say “Wow, this piece of King Tut’s mask shouldn’t be in here with the world map.”

But a lot of it—for writers at every level—is just sitting down and working with the ideas

Short version of all this—we shouldn’t get paralyzed right at the start wondering if our ideas are phenomenal. Odds are they aren’t. But we’ll find some diamonds in the rough, and once we get used to spotting them it’ll be an easier (and quicker) process to find them next time.

On a related note, we also want to keep in mind that at this very fine, granular level, a lot of ideas are going to look similar. An idea is probably the basic building block of any book, and a lot of basics are similar. One brick looks a lot like every other brick. This cup of flour looks a lot like that one. I shouldn’t freak out if somebody has already thought of “they’re all clones” or “high school outcast dates the cheerleader” or “they were dead the whole time.” Some of you may remember the tale of how John Scalzi and I once both came up with the same basic idea at the same time, but the way we used it and connected it to other ideas was pretty different.

And this is a lot more than I intended to blab on about ideas. But hey, the idea is our basic building block. We’re going to keep coming back to this. It’s not bad to really be clear about it right from the start. Right?

Next time for A2Q, probably week after next, I’m going to talk about how we take a couple of these ideas and line them up into a plot.

Next time here on the ranty blog, I wanted to talk about where the action is.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Never Mock The Process

So, I figured I’d start the year—y’know, really start it—by talking about a word that gets tossed around a lot in writing circles. I also think it gets kinda mystified a lot and sometimes talked about in hushed tones like it’s some secret, sacred thing. The word is process, and I wanted to babble for a few minutes about mine and yours.

Really simply put, process is how I write. It can refer to using elements like outlines and character sketches, but it can also refer to where I write and when. Maybe even what shoes I like to wear (or not wear). All of this is part of our process. I’ve talked about the Golden Rule here a bunch of times, and it covers a lot of what we’d call process. It’s a lot of the personal aspects of writing, the preferences and rituals we all have.

For example...

I think I’ve mentioned my mom’s old electric typewriter once or thrice, the machine I wrote some of my very first stories on. It was this massive Smith Corona, probably weighed fifteen or twenty pounds, and the hum when you turned it on would actually make the table vibrate. The typebars hit the paper hard enough that a letter with a closed loop (like o or p for example) had maybe a 30-40% chance of punching a hole through the paper.

I had this little toy monster I’d always perch on top of the typewriter. I’d bang out words (literally), and every ten minutes or so the monster would shake its way down , and bounce off the keyboard. I’d have to stop typing, pick it up, and put it back in place. It was with me for all those early short stories and very bad comic book scripts and embarrassing attempts at a novel. I wrote all of them in little ten and fifteen minute bursts, pausing to put the monster back up on his perch.

Weird as it sounds, that was part of my process as a little kid. It was just something I did that made it possible for me to write—or write easier. I’m not saying I couldn’t write without said little toy monster (eventually I did), but at the time it was part of my regular ritual that let me get to the actual writing part faster and easier.

You may have heard about people who only write at night or early in the morning. Some folks where comfy sweats or bathrobes, others get fully dressed, and I know some who claim they don’t even bother with pants. There are people who can write absolutely anywhere and others have their writing space set up exactly how they like it. Some folks have coffee before, during, or after writing. Some have water. Some have booze.

And of course that’s not even getting into the more technical stuff. Do I like outlines, and if so how much of an outline? Do I use notecards? Do I make character sketches? What software do I use? Or maybe I’m old-school and use a legal pad. Or an old electric typewriter. I used to know a guy who blocked out all his scenes with action figures and Matchbox cars. We all have our own feelings about these things and use them (or don’t use them) in our own way.

Because that’s what process is. It’s whatever gets me to the actual act of writing while causing the least amount of stress. And it’s unique for each of us. We all have our own process. There may be overlaps. You may notice commonalities. But my process will always be mine, yours will always be yours.

There’s a kinda-joke I tell at the Writers Coffeehouse a lot. If the only way you can write is on one Sunday out of the month you strap yourself into that “enhancing” corset you got at the ren faire last summer, stand on your head, and then use voice dictation software, but you write 30,000 words that day... well, that’s fantastic. Power to you. You’ve found a process that works friggin’ amazingly for you. Granted, it’s probably not going to work for anybody else but it doesn’t really have to. It’s your process.

Now... all that being said...

I think one of the reasons process gets mystified sometimes is because... well, there are folks who use their process as a reason not to write. Not so much a reason, really, as an excuse. Consciously or not. I mean, I can’t wear the corset twice in a row. Plus that’s a specialty item, y’know it’s dry clean only. I’m not going to have time to get to the dry cleaners until next week at best, and then they’ll have it for a couple of days and, look, next month is going to be all about the writing, okay?

Yeah, that’s my goofy joke again. But I’ve heard some folks describe a process that’s so specific, so elaborate, or so both that it’s almost impossible for the conditions to ever be met. “I can only write on days that have an R in their name, and only after being served rare Himalayan tea boiled at precisely 100 degrees centigrade and served to me by a left-handed supermodel. No, not one of those Victoria’s Secret trollops. At that point I’ll be ready to begin my research into possible dietary limitations of the supporting character’s great-grandmother. I might not need it for this bit of flash fiction, but I feel it’s important to know than not know...” These folks need 200 page outlines for 35 page short stories. They wait for inspiration or the mood or the right lighting at their computer. They always have one more book or article to read for inspiration or education or clarification.

And again, to be perfectly clear, if this is what you need to get words down—and you happen to know a couple supermodels who like serving tea—again, power to you. Your process is your process. It’s whatever helps you write.

But, I’d suggest that if overall my process stops me from writing more than it starts me... I may want to reconsider a few things. Because to my mind, that’s a bad process. It’s not making things easier, it’s putting up obstacles.

Now, speaking of process... I had an idea I wanted to bounce off those of you reading this

(analytics tell me there’s a couple hundred of you, although I’d guess a percentage of those are bots with no real interest in improving their dialogue or story structure).

I was thinking of doing a kinda-series-thing here on the blog, something with its own keyword or whatever so it’s easy to find, and going through the whole process of writing a book from beginning to end. Start with a raw, basic idea and finish with something ready to send off to an agent/editor. It’s all stuff I’ve talked about before, but I figure this is a good excuse to revisit a lot of it in order and freshen up my takes a bit. It’d probably be every other or every third post, so there’d still be space to talk about other topics as they occur to me (or you).

Would that interest anyone? Please let me know down in the comments (or over on Twitter) with a yay or nay or something.

Oh, and by the way--my new book Terminus is up for pre-order over at Audible (and maybe Amazon?). It comes out in three weeks, but please feel free to add it to your lists and carts now. You can read more about it over at Audible and I also talked about it a bit in the FAQ (which I really need to update sometime soon...)

And one last note. The Writers Coffeehouse is this weekend at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. Sunday, noon to three. Come join us.

Next time... well, I guess we’ll see.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 2, 2020


Welcome, travelers, to the far distant future of 2020. After orientation, each of you will be assigned a robot butler, a flying car, and a seasonal moon-bus pass.

I like to start the year with kind of  a quick reminder for all of us. How the ranty blog started, what it is, why I’m still doing it.

Easiest first. I more or less started this back in (gasp!) 2007. I was writing for a screenwriting magazine, and by nature of it I’d see tons of articles and websites about “helpful” tricks for networking, getting stuff in front of agents, producers, editors—all the sort of stuff you worry about after writing.  I’d guess at least two-thirds of the “writing” articles, even in our own magazine, fell into this category.

So I went to my editor with a few spec columns about... writing. Dialogue, character, just some thoughts based on my own years of many failures and a few successes (or, as some folks call it, experience). And they were rejected.  A few months later I went to another editor, he passed my would-be columns up the chain... and they were rejected again.

Eventually, I tossed them up here just so it felt like I’d done something with them. I thought they were fairly well-written and I didn’t want them to languish on my computer.  As I moved further into the full-time writer life, I was exposed to more and more people’s work. I read scripts for a couple different contests, which got me 400+ pages a day of exposure to it. And it struck me that I kept seeing the same basic mistakes being made again and again. So posting here became a regular thing.

It didn’t take long to realize a lot of aspiring writers fall into one of two groups. The first group thinks writing and storytelling are mechanical, quantifiable processes that can be broken down into definitive rules and formulas.  They quote pieces from Writers Digest and the MLA Handbook to show why their novel deserves to be published, or point to screenwriting books as proof their script is perfect.

The other group thinks spelling, formatting, and structure just hamper the creative process. People always ignore those things once they see the inherent beauty in the prose, right?  Nothing matters past the art flowing out of the writer’s fingertips, and anyone who says otherwise is a sellout who doesn’t understand what writing’s supposed to be about.  Don’t know how to spell that word?  Don’t know what the word means? Not in the mood to write? Someone said bad things about their writing? Absolutely none of it matters except being happy about their art.

Both of these groups are wrong, for the record. A lot of folks think writing’s all-or-nothing. The truth is, though, writing’s much more of a middle ground.

Y'see, Timmy, there are correct and incorrect things in writing. I have to know how to spell (me—not my spellchecker).  I have to understand grammar.  I need to have a sense of pacing and structure and format. As a writer, I can’t ignore any of these requirements, because these are things I can get wrong and I’ll be judged on them. By editors. By agents. By readers. 

On the other hand, there’s no “right” way to develop a character or outline or start my writing day. There’s only the way that’s right for me and my story.  Or you and your story. Or her and her story. This is the Golden Rule I’ve mentioned here once or thrice. If we ask twenty different writers about “how to write,” we’re going to get twenty different answers.  And all of these answers are valid, because all of these methods work for that writer. 

Again, that still doesn’t mean I can ignore every convention or rule I don’t like. I need to understand the rules if I want to break them successfully. Yeah, maybe there are ten or twenty people I can point at who broke the rules and succeeded.  But I need to remember there are thousands, probably millions, of people who broke the rules and failed miserably.

And that’s kinda what the ranty blog is about. I talk about writing.  Not the after-the-fact-stuff, just...writing. I talk about the rules we all need to learn and follow (until we’ve got the experience to bend or break them). I offer various tips and suggestions I’ve heard over the years that may (or may not) help out when it comes to crafting a story or shaping a character or sharpening some dialogue. If there’s something you’ve been beating your head against that you’d like me to blab about, let me know down in the comments. I’ve been doing this for a long time now—there aren’t many topics I haven’t had a painful learning experience with, and I’m always willing to share.

Which I guess leaves “why.” And that’s pretty simple. Like I said, I’ve made lots and lots of mistakes on my path to “published, semi-successful, quasi-known author.” If I can help some of you get past them—or maybe just not spend so much time splashing around in them—I’d like to do it. I mean, people helped me, I should pass it on. And it’s not like writing is a zero-sum game. Helping you improve your chances doesn’t lessen anybody else’s chances. Really. I can show you the math if you like.

Simply put, I want you to succeed. And I’ll do what I can to help make it happen.

And that's why I'm posting writing advice here every Thursday, and a bunch of stuff on Tuesdays too.

On a semi related note, I’d also like to recommend the Writers Coffeehouse to you.  It’s a monthly meeting of writers of all types and levels to talk about... well, writing.  All aspects from first ideas and editing to pitching and marketing.  It’s completely free—no obligations or requirements of any kind—it’s kinda fun, and it’s open to everyone. If you’re in the LA area, I host it on the second Sunday of every month (which would be ten days from now) at the wonderful Dark Delicacies bookstore in Burbank.  If you’re closer to San Diego, Jonathan Maberry (the guy behind V-Wars and the Joe Ledger books) hosts one on the first Sunday of every month (for example this Sunday) at the Mysterious Galaxy bookstore. And I think at this point there are a dozen others scattered across the country. Boston, San Francisco, Durham NC, Sacramento... I should really dig up the full list. Please check one of them out if you’re in the area.

Next time, I’d like to talk about the process of writing. Your process, actually.

Until then... go write.