Thursday, February 27, 2020

A2Q Part Four—Story

Hello, again. Welcome back to this special series within the ranty blog, my ongoing attempt to show how we can go from a few basic raw ideas all the way to a finished book manuscript. Ready to dive back in?

This time I wanted to talk about my character’s story. Yeah, this is why I’ve been reluctant to describe the *cough* ongoing narrative of the manuscript as a story. For what we’re doing here, that word’s going to mean something specific.

If you’ve been following the ranty blog for any time at all, you’ve probably heard me make this distinction once or thrice. Plot is what happens outside my characters, story is what happens inside my characters. My plot is a progression of external changes, but the story is a progression of internal changes. You may have heard people (maybe me) toss around phrases like “character arc,” and that’s closely related to the story.

Plot takes us from normal events to amazing ones and then gives us some kind of resolution, right? Well story is going to take my character from the person they start out as at the beginning of my manuscript through some kind of growth and development to a new normal. The person they’ve grown into, the more educated, wiser person they’ve become.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean some massive, epic change. I don’t need Republicans to become Democrats, villains to become heroes, saints to become arch-heretics. I think if people change too much, especially over a short period of time, it’s tough to make it believable.

But if my characters don’t grow and change at least a little bit during the story, I think things tend to feel a bit flat. Our heroine realizing Wakko isn’t really the one for her is growth. Dot finally standing up to her abusive boss is change. Yakko realizing maybe it’s not all about the money is an arc.

I’ll also toss out that when I’m getting hung up on stuff in a book, I'd guess maybe four out of five times I realize it’s because I’m neglecting the story. My characters sort of flattened out because I haven’t figured out how they’re growing. or I haven’t done anything in the story to make them grow. I rewrote the end of one book because I realized the first ending completely neglected the main character’s story.

Let’s start breaking this down...

I think there are four parts to a person’s story. They’re not super-solid, and they kinda flow and overlap a bit. That’s only natural. We’re talking about who people are on the inside, and most people (the interesting ones, anyway) tend to be a big mess of overlaps and contradictions. Plus, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but right now is the first time I’ve tried to put it all down. So, yes, this post you’re reading has been rewritten and tweaked a hundred times or so.

In my opinion, the first part of a character’s story is who they are when the story begins, which we could think of as their history or backstory. Second is why they decide to take action, a lot of which is their motivation. Third is how they’re made to change, which leads into the fourth and final bit—who are they in the end.

Worth noting right now that if I have multiple heroes in my manuscript, they’re all going to have their own story. Maybe even some of my supporting characters, too. And my antagonist. I want my characters to be real, interesting people, which means they need to grow and learn things. So when I’m writing a book, I’m going to be going through these beats more than once, with different characters each time.

Let’s talk details.

The first part of the story is... the starting point. Who is my character when my story begins? Are they mean? Submissive? Stingy? Self-absorbed? What about them stands out and what makes them blend in?

Another way to think of it is why are they this character when the story begins. What’s happened in their past to make them the person they are on page one? Because unless I’m starting very, very early in their lives, they had an existence before page one. They had incidents and events and relationships.

To be clear—and I've said this a few times before—this doesn' t mean I need to spell all these details out. If they're relevant, they're going to come out naturally as I tell my story. I don't have to do a massive infodump and get every little fact of my character's existence on the page. But, as the writer, I need to know them and be sure my characters are consistent throughout the story, always reflecting the experiences that made them the people they are... and not the bit of backstory I just thought to bring up a hundred pages in.

Let’s use Phoebe, for an example. She’s our lead character, right? Well, when we first meet her, she’s maybe going to be a little on the uptight side. Because of her parents’ death a few years ago, she’s been shouldering a lot of responsibility. There’s her sister, Luna, who’s she responsible for. There’s also carrying on the family tradition of werewolf hunting, which maybe also wasn’t what she grew up wanting to be, but... it’s tradition. Imagine getting both of these things thrust on you when you thought you were going to be heading off to college. And it’s an inherently dangerous job, so doing it is constantly reminding her that if she gets hurt, Luna’s going to lose everything.

Phoebe probably focuses a little too much on money because of all this. She doesn’t exactly earn piles of money for hunting werewolves, and she’s supporting her sister, so it’s going to be something she focuses on a lot. Heck, maybe she’s even got a second job? Make a note of that somewhere—in a world where everyone knows werewolves are real, maybe she still has to run a cash register twenty-seven days out of every month.

And would it be that shocking if... well, maybe she’s carrying some anger and resentment, too. Yeah, she loves Luna. She loved her parents. But, if they hadn’t gotten themselves killed, if they hadn’t stuck her with Luna, if they hadn’t made her part of this whole family dynasty going back 400 years... jeeeez, where would she be now?

So that’s where Phoebe’s starting from.

The second part of story is why my characters decide to take action. What about who they are right now motivates them to take part in the plot when the opportunity arises? Why aren’t they one of the thousands of people who aren’t taking part in the narrative?

This one’s going to be important because this’ll probably be the first significant decision we see our character make. And we’re going to expect a lot of the decisions that follow (this is just a simplified version of the story after all) will all line up and make sense with the character as we know them. So I need a solid, believable motivation behind this bit of in-character reasoning. The last thing I want is a plot zombie (very cool term, copyright 2018 A. Lee Martinez) who’s only acting in service of the plot, not out of any actual developed character traits.

I’ll also toss out that there are very basic motivations it’s tempting to fall back on. We all want to survive, so running away from a lunging werewolf makes absolute, perfect sense. Boom—we’re in the story, right?

The catch here is that we don’t want characters who are going to do what anyone would do. We want them to make an active decision, not a reactive one. This doesn’t mean I can’t begin with my hero running for their life, but I’m going to want a little more to it than that.

For example, on one level this part is a little easier for Phoebe. She’s a werewolf hunter and there’s a new breed of werewolf out there. It’s a different element in her job, but it’s still pretty clearly her job. There’s a werewolf, she goes to hunt it, boom—we’re in the story.

But we want her to be making active decisions, so how can we tweak this a bit? Well, when she tried to dispatch this werewolf, a silver crossbow bolt to the heart did nothing. What if nobody believed her? Her shot probably just missed, right? That’s what everyone’s going to think. Hell, that’s what that bastard Luc is going to tell everyone. So this is a matter of pride for her to prove the super-werewolf is real

Maybe there’s even a little more to it than that. Maybe someone at the lodge believes her, or is at least willing to humor her for now. And maybe they’ll pay an extra $2500 dollars for the bounty if she brings in a lycanthrope body that shows a definitive mutation. Well, now Phoebe’s got serious motivation to get that werewolf... and to get it before Luc. I mean, $2500 is two months rent and utilities covered. Like, full utilities. Leaving some lights on and taking lots of hot showers. Really long, hot showers.

So now Phoebe’s got a good reason to get into my plot.

Our third part is change. What’s going to happen in the plot that’ll make my character rethink things? I’ve brought up this idea before, that I think plot tends to be active while story overall is reactive. My characters can act on the outside stuff, but a lot of internal stuff is much harder to control.

Look at it this way. Nobody wakes up one morning and spontaneously decides to change their view on gun control or open relationships or Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four movie. Outside forces affect and influence them. They experience things, and these things help them—often force them—to change their opinion.

In the same way, the things my character experiences within the plot are going to change them internally. That change will be part of their story, which then means they’re going to be making different decisions and reacting in new ways as the plot continues. It’s kind of a feedback loop. Make sense?

Let’s look at Phoebe again. Last time I mentioned that her sister’s going to be a legal adult soon, and that’s probably causing some friction in the household. Phoebe’s been responsible for Luna for years now, and that’s coming to an end. Is it a relief? Does she feel guilty that she’s relieved? Has she done a good job raising her sister?

We also talked about the other big issue. Luna is the super-werewolf. Why? How? Phoebe’s whole job—that whole big family tradition—is killing werewolves. So is she protecting the family name by killing Luna or by not killing Luna. And this really drives home that all these werewolves have been somebody’s kid sister or big brother or loving parent. Yeah, some of them were actual, secret monsters, reveling in what they’d become, but how many of them were just victims? Her victims?

And this will also introduce some conflict at the lodge. We can guess how most of the elders think her “purely hypothetical” problem should be resolved. Or how Luc would deal with it.

Also, maybe something else at the lodge. Maybe we should be looking at the work/family overlap of exactly what happened to her parents. This could be another place to wedge in some conflict and break some trusts. Let’s make another note to poke at this some more. I think this could be something really world-changing for Phoebe.

Also-also, do I want her to change on a more personal level? I’d mentioned possible love interests last time, but as I’ve been thinking about it... no, no I don’t think so. She was already thinking relationships were going to overcomplicate things before all this happened, so during it? No, I don’t think so. I’m not against planting some seeds for much later (hey, this might start a series), but I think in the interpersonal department, Phoebe’s just going to keep doing things (and random bar patrons) the way she’s always been. For now, anyway.

Our final part is the end of our character’s story. Who have they become? Who did this series of events turn them into? How did it help them grow? In some cases this might be really clear. In others, it might be more subtle. But I’m a big believer that in most good books we need to see some change and growth in our characters.

The reason for this, I think, is that it’s tough for us to believe as people (and readers) that someone can go through a major, life-altering event and not, well, have their life altered. After I’m recruited by that nymphomaniac heiress to fight cyborg ninjas from the future for two weeks, it’s tough to believe I’m just going to go back to my life as an insurance risk analyst. Even if I want to, I’ve seen and experienced things that’ve changed me and probably made it impossible to fall back into that same old rut. I no longer think or react like that person I used to be.

Now, I don’t have a ton to say about this part for a couple of reasons. Really, it’s all the same reason, but I want to come at it from two different angles. Hopefully that’ll make it easier to see.

One is when we talk about these changes, we’re talking about a butterfly effect sort of thing. Tiny differences then can make big differences down the line. I may have a general idea how I want my character to end up, but I probably won’t know exactly how they end up until I’m writing this. That end change is going to depend on all the different experiences and talks that come before it, and I may realize that writing out this key bit of  dialogue with a few different words and a slightly different tone leads to a somewhat different take at the end. It’s easy to plan out the end of a plot, not quite so easy with story. That’s what I’ve found anyway.

The flipside of this is that if I absolutely 100% know what I want that end change to be (“...and so Wakko became a proud defender of the second amendment for the rest of his days...”) there’s a good chance I’m writing a story with a message. By which I mean the message is probably more important to me than the story itself. There’s nothing wrong with this, in general, but I don’t want to end up twisting my story to make it all fit the story ending I want. That almost always makes things feel artificial, forced, and unearned.

Looking at Phoebe again, I know I want to end with her looking at her sister in a new light, possibly a full role-reversal for them (yeah, her sister’s going to survive). I also know I want to end with her estranged from the lodge and feeling very different about her job as a werewolf hunter, but being okay with that. So I know she’s coming out of this in a better place mentally even if some of her initial worries haven’t been dealt with.

Story in four parts. Make sense? Any questions?

Want another example? Okay, let’s take a quick look at Phoebe’s sister, Luna, who’s going to be one of our other major characters. Luna’s basic four part story would probably be something like this...

Luna starts as a pretty typical teen. Big dreams, good-sized rebellious streak, and a wild mix of interacting hormones. Had a serious boyfriend or two. Maybe a girlfriend, too. She and Phoebe have a love-hate relationship that’s been more or less forced on them by the situation they’ve been forced into. They both want the fun, loving relationship they used to have, but also know why they can’t right now. Also, I think I’m going to say right up front that Luna is the werewolf at this point but doesn’t know it. She just knows there’s some weird changes going on in her body that she’s writing off as end-of-puberty hormones and/or end-of-this-phase-of-you-life stress.

Her big actions, closely related, are admitting to herself she’s a werewolf (with all it implies), hiding it for a while (because she’s a teenager who knows what her sister does for a living), and then confessing it to Phoebe (with all it might mean). She’s not in the family business yet, but she knows enough that eventually she can’t deny what these weird mornings mean. There’s only so many times you can wake up naked in the garden with dirty feet—you’re either a werewolf or you have a serious drinking problem (maybe both). When she hears her sister talking about the hunt, how dangerous the beast is, Luna’s going to realize how much of a risk she poses, to herself and to Phoebe, if she’s allowed to run free.

How will these decisions change her? Well, at first she’ll become much more secretive and nervous, which can get interpreted a bunch of different ways. Once she confesses to Phoebe, there might be even more fear, but this will eventually become relief, and she’ll be a lot more open with her sister than she’s been in ages. About a bunch of things. She’s also going to feel better about herself once their discussions confirm she’s not a doomed-to-be-evil monster. She’s going to have a purpose.

Who does this make her in the end? She’s going to be more mature, a little more responsible (in some areas, anyway). And she’s going to have a very, very different view of all these lodge folks she’s known for most of her life. “You know who your real friends are when X happens and most people...”

So that’s my completely untested, four step guide to story, our character’s internal journey. If you want a little more, it’s a topic I’ve talked about a few times here (as I mentioned up at the top). Please feel free to hit the assorted links and hopefully I haven’t contradicted myself too much anywhere.

Also, there’s a good chance you’re already doing a lot of this without thinking about it.

Next time on the ranty blog, I’d like to talk a bit about length.

Next time for the A2Q, which will be in two weeks, I want to talk about my book’s setting.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

A2Q Part Three—Characters

Hey! Welcome back to the A2Q method. Thanks for your patience while I tossed down a bunch of other stuff.

Anyway... let’s get back to it.

Actually, before we get back to it, I want to mention something I should’ve brought up before. When this takes off and I combine it all together in a book, I’ll make sure this ends up back at the start of the plot post. Or, really, on the tail end of ideas.

We’re all creative in slightly different ways. We’re always going to start with ideas, yeah, but where we go from there is going to be different for all of us. And probably for every project. For some folks, ideas initially spark plots, for other people, ideas lead straight to characters. These are all correct, because storytelling is an art, and in art “correct” is what works for you.

So plot, characters, story, setting... these are all things you might come up with in a different order than I’m laying them out here. To be honest, because this is all early stages stuff, I’m just kinda tossing it out in the order it feels natural to me. A different order might feel a little more natural to you. We’re still early in the process and it’s all going to be a little different for everybody.

Here’s a way to think of it. When we’re following a recipe, it’s going to have a bunch of things in it. Two eggs, a cup of sifted flour, half a cup of sugar, and so on. There’s no reason I can’t start by measuring out the sugar. Or sifting the flour. Or maybe I’ll crack the eggs and put them in one of those little steel prep bowls. They’re just the ingredients, and the order we prepare them isn’t important, just that we have them ready and on hand when we start to cook.

Make sense?

Okay, so... characters.

Characters are the people who populate my world. They’re the ones who live in it every day. One way or another, they’re going to be our entry point and our guides into that world. Maybe we’ll be looking over their shoulders. Maybe we’ll be in their heads, hearing their thoughts and experiencing everything with them. However we do it, everything is really going to come down to them. I can have the coolest mystery ever, but if the people trying to solve it are annoying idiots my readers won’t even make it halfway through.

So, let me toss some character stuff at you.

First off, we’re going to have a protagonist. You may have heard them called the main character or the hero. I’m probably going to go with this because it’s a lot quicker to say (and type) than “protagonist.” We may have more than one hero in our book. I’ve seen some with a half a dozen or more, but those tend to be larger manuscripts. I think it’s harder (but not impossible) to have a lot of really good, well-rounded heroes in a smaller book, just because we’ve got less space to develop them. Not saying it’s impossible, but it’s going to be a lot harder to have ten main characters in a three hundred page book than in a nine hundred page one.

Even with fewer heroes—even just one—it’s important to remember right up front that I might have a lot of ideas about this character that never make it into the book. I can have a five page character sketch about their childhood, school years, music preferences, religious beliefs, sexual history, fashion sense, life goals, and retirement plans. That’s fantastic, and it’s never bad to know all these things about my characters. But it’s important to remember they might not all be directly relevant to the plot of my book, the events happening right now that stand out from every day events for my hero.

Consider it this way—you know all that stuff about yourself, right? All those things I just mentioned above? But how often do they come up? Pick one and think about the last time it was an important point in a given day. When was the last time it was important before that? Some might be important to bring up in a job interview, others will be more relevant on a date. But it’s really rare that they’re all going to be important.

Also it’s important to note two things when we say “hero.” One—which is hopefully obvious, but just in case—is that I’m using hero in the gender-neutral sense, not the masculine one. My protagonists can be whoever I want them to be. Second is that we’re using it in the classic literary sense, not in the “saved a busload of Chechen orphans” way. My hero doesn’t need to be someone who rappels down buildings or fires two guns whilst jumping through the air. “Hero” in this case just means they’re the focus of our attention.

Now, besides our hero, we’re probably going to have some supporting characters. These are the folks who, well, help support the character’s journey through the tale I’m telling. They’re the best friends and co-workers and werewolf hunting lodge-mates of our hero. In some cases they might actually help support the main character’s journey. In others, they’re helping support the journey itself, giving more flavor and detail to the world.

It’s key to note that, by their very nature, my supporting characters aren’t going to be as well-developed as my main characters. They can still have fun quirks and odd habits and backstories, but I’m just not going to be spending as much time with them. So I need to be aware of (sorry to bring math into this) what percentage of the book they’re actually going to be in, and what percentage of that is going to be devoted to furthering the overall plot or my hero’s journey.

Wow. Did I just say “hero’s journey” in a non-mocking way? I’m so sorry. We’ll deal with that later.

We’re also going to have some background characters. These are the folks who, like in a movie, sort of drift in and out around my protagonist, but rarely interact with them in any meaningful ways. Bartenders. Taxi drivers. The 108 other people who work in the department store. The twenty-three artisans at the lodge who make werewolf-hunting equipment. We may get quick descriptions of these folks, they may have a line of dialogue here or there, but they’re rarely key to anything past filling out a room... or maybe a few lines on a casualty report. Most of them won't even get a name.

In my humble opinion, it’s really important to remember the hierarchy with these people. If my supporting characters are a tier below my heroes in terms of development, these background folks are going to be a tier below that. They’re not going to have a lot of description or backstory because... well, they’re just not that important. Nothing hinges on them. Think of those percentages I mentioned for supporting characters and apply it here. We all love rich, well-rounded characters, but do I have the time or space (heck, do my readers have the patience) to spend half a page on someone who’s not going to be at all relevant to this book? Once for the really cute cashier with the magenta hair. Maybe one more time for that archivist with the interesting accent and the hat. But these really, really need to be exceptions.

And there’s a reason for this. Readers automatically assume that if I mention someone in detail, they’re going to be important to the narrative. They take note of these characters, file them away for later reference. Time I spend with someone (or someones) who isn’t important is time I’m not spending with the characters who are important and, probably, time spent confusing my reader. I don’t want them taking notes on two pages of Andrea’s backstory only to find out she’s just here to say “You can go in now.” I might get away with it once, maybe twice, but this is something that'll burn patience really fast.

Now, one last type of character we’re probably going to have is the antagonist. This is the person (or persons) who are between my hero and whatever they’re trying to do—you remember, that plot we were talking about last time. Often they’ve got a vested interest in my hero not doing that thing, in failing to achieve their goals.

It’s important that my antagonist be an actual character, not just a cliché obstacle going “Muah-ha-hah” while they kick sand in my hero’s face. They’ve got a history, a life, that led them to end up in this position now. In their own way, they need to be as well-rounded as my hero or they’re just going to look like a cliché. And clichés are boring

A few quick things to keep clear. First my antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain. They can be, but they may just be somebody doing a job. They me be a good person trying to do the right thing, but that still puts them against my protagonist.

Second, my antagonist may not be a person. It might be a system or a society (or a secret society). It could be a disease. It could be a species, like invasive ants or super-werewolves. Even if it is, though, I’ve found there still tends to be an individual we can focus on. An embodiment of the issue. The foreclosing banker who represents how society screwed us. The infected member of our family we’re trying to treat. That one super-werewolf hunting the woods out on the edge of town.

Finally, I think it’s worth being aware that there are different levels of antagonists. There can be supporting characters on this side of the equation, too, so we need to think about those percentages again. Store managers, henchmen, random prison guards, and so on. I've heard them called “the officious chaff” (and if you know who called them that please remind me because my mind's gone blank). These folks can be propelling parts of my narrative, but I still don’t want to spend too much time with them.

I may have ideas for a bunch of different characters, and I need to figure out which of these categories they’re going to fit in. As writers, this is a big part of our job. Figuring out who my hero is (or maybe who they are) and making them an active participant in my plot.  Really, the plot should be happening because of my hero's actions.  If not, they’re just a bystander watching someone else’s narrative unfold.

Got all that? It’s a lot, I know. And I’ve been trimming a lot of this as I’m writing it. There’s a few more things I want to touch on.

I’m a big believer that good heroes always share three traits. They’re likable, they’re relatable, and they’re believable within their world. A key thing about all these—I’m referring to the reader’s perception of them, not other characters. This is something I think gets overlooked a lot when people talk about writing. They’re two very different viewpoints, and it needs to be clear which one we’re referring to.

That said... let’s talk about these three traits real quick.

When we say a hero needs to be likable, I don’t mean they need to be pleasant or cheerful or re-home shelter dogs or bake cookies for new neighbors. But they do need to be someone I, as a person holding the book, like reading about. I have to find something about them attractive or enjoyable or admirable. If there’s nothing to like, there’s no reason to keep reading. If you follow me on Twitter when I watch my Saturday geekery movies, an all-too common complaint is “who am I supposed to be rooting for?” Every character is boring or a jerk or annoying or misogynist or racist or a combo of several of these things. Why would I like reading about someone like that?

When we say a hero needs to be relatable, it means we need to identify with them somehow. We should see ourselves in them and some of their struggles and hopes and dreams. We don’t know what it’s like to live in a poverty-stricken future dystopia, but a lot of us can relate to Katniss Everdeen’s impulsive need to protect her family and her basic desire to survive. Likewise none of us know what it’s like to be a professional werewolf hunter, but most of us can probably relate to having to stick with a job that doesn’t pay that great. Some of us may even understand Phoebe’s ongoing frustration with her younger sister, who she’s had to raise since their parents died. As I mentioned up above, our hero’s going to lead us through our story, and they’re going to have a hard time doing that if we don’t understand them and empathize with them to some degree.

Finally, our hero needs to be believable within their world. Sure, if Harry Potter tells some bloke on the street he’s a wizard, it makes sense that they wouldn’t believe him. Even if he shows them some magic, it’s understandable said bloke would just think it’s a trick. But we believe Harry's a wizard because we’ve seen the wizarding world behind the curtain, so to speak.

At the same time, that doesn’t make Harry a believable character if we suddenly drop him into the world of The Expanse. Now it’s ridiculous that we’re trying to say magic exists in that hard-science narrative. If I tell you that my story’s set in the real world and Phoebe’s a professional werewolf hunter, well, either she’s a bit unbalanced or this is some kind of marketing gag for a movie or game. But if I tell you it’s a world where werewolves are real—even if most people don’t know about them—well, then it makes sense there’d be people who hunt them, on a professional level and maybe amateurs, too.

So, all that said, let’s consider a few character ideas for our novel and maybe give them a few quirks and traits. Heck, maybe the quirks or traits were the initial ideas and now we’re kinda working backwards. It all works.

Let's just admit Phoebe’s our hero. We know she’s a werewolf hunter with money problems, because it doesn’t pay great. She’s part of a werewolf hunting lodge, so maybe this is an inherited position or a “legacy” thing. Her parents are dead and she’s been raising her younger sister, which has probably had at least as much of an impact on her life as her job has. That's about 95% of her day right there.

We’ll call her little sister Luna. Right off the bat, we know she’s young enough that she’s not out on her own, which also gives us an age range for Phoebe since there’s probably a believable age difference between two sisters. Let’s call it eight years difference for now. We’ll put Luna at seventeen—right on the brink of legal adulthood, so they’ve got lots to talk about—and that makes Phoebe twenty-five (pencil that in up above).

Let’s combine two supporting characters up above and say Andrea has the magenta hair and she’s the public face of the werewolf-hunters lodge. You don’t get in without getting past her. I picture her with  big round glasses, just because. She’s probably a bit dismissive because she has to deal with everybody at one point or another, so the less time she has to deal with someone, the better.

Now, by nature of the story we’ll probably need a few more supporting characters. There can be Luc, another werewolf hunter from the lodge. He’s a rival for Phoebe and maybe a romantic interest for Luna. Yeah, keep her age in mind, that’s going to be important issue. Or maybe this is a romantic triangle? Or maybe they just both hate him. We'll all figure it out together. One way or another, she needs to talk to somebody at the lodge.

We can also have Quinn, who makes most of Phoebe’s weaponry and armor. Not sure if Quinn’s a man or a woman yet, but it’s someone else for her to talk with at the lodge and I just love the idea of someone who makes weapons and yes, my name begins with Q, I get it. No I’ve never heard that before. Can we move on now?

Phoebe and Luna’s parents are going to come up, one way or another, so I should probably know something about them. How did they die? Did they die together or separately? Random accident? Tragic backstory? Does it have something to do with being werewolf hunters? I’m going to say it was a werewolf attack, but the lodge has kept some of the details from Phoebe and Luna. That's a good start for now.

I should probably come up with one or three people in town, too. Other folks Phoebe will have to deal with who aren’t part of the lodge. We know she has money problems, so there’ll be two or three discussions with the landlord. Maybe a friendly bartender she confides in, because this is a friggin’s stressful situation she’s in and she’ll need some downtime away from Luna (plus, a friendly bartender will give her a drink or two on the house). Who else would she end up talking to in town? Another person making gear or training her on the side? Is there someone else she owes money to? If Luc isn’t a love interest, does she have a friend with benefits?

Plus, let’s not forget our antagonist—that werewolf out in the forest on the edge of town. They’re hungry and dangerous and Phoebe shot them with a silver crossbow bolt and it did nothing. That’s something we really need to deal with. Plus... I’m using a neutral pronoun but is this werewolf neutral? Is it male or female? Maybe more importantly... who is this werewolf during the day? Someone we know? Do they know they’re the super-werewolf? Do we know they’re the werewolf?

For our purposes, I’m going to say right now that Luna is the super-werewolf, but she doesn’t know it herself until a little more than halfway through the story. Knowing this up front is going to help me shape a lot of scenes and structure my narrative. The readers aren’t going to find out until Phoebe does, because Phoebe’s my protagonist and we’re more or less learning things as she does. If we learned Luna’s secret too much before Phoebe, it could potentially make her look dumb and it means my reader’s going to be waiting for her to catch up. Also, this is going to set up some great conflicts between Phoebe and Luna, but also with Luc and the rest of the lodge. After all, their job is to kill werewolves, so where does that put Phoebe?

That’s a nice cast for now. We may add two or three more as we develop the plot and the narrative a little more, but this gives us something to start thinking about. It even helps us shape our plot a little more because it’s given us some new elements to throw into the mix.

And I think I’m going to stop here because this has gotten huge. There’s so much more to say about characters in general, but I think this is a lot of the key stuff we need to think about as we’re playing around in these early stages. You may notice I dropped a lot of links to previous posts about characters, so feel free to explore.

Next time, we’re going to expand out characters a bit more and talk about story.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Picture Everyone in Their...

In the spirit of the day, here’s a quick, odd idea I bounced off someone a while back.

Underwear choices say something about us. 

I mean, think about it. Who’s going to see my underwear? Who’s going to know about it except me? Sure, a lot of us may have that special someone in our lives, and they’ll get to see it, but for the most part our underwear choice is a little, personal secret, like a password that changes every day. Hopefully.

In a way, underwear is kinda like a tattoo—it’s something we get more for us than for anyone else. Depending on what else I’m wearing some other folks may see my tattoo, and they might enjoy it or be scandalized by it. But that’s not why I got it. It’s a very personal choice.

Some folks spend the bare minimum on their undergarments. Others spend a lot. Some might want to spend more. There are people who wear incredibly sexy underwear every day and some people... okay, look, there’s only a couple holes. It’s good for at least another wash or two. Sometimes it’s a style choice, sometimes it’s about comfort, and sometimes it’s just about what’s at the top of the drawer because who the hell puts any real thought into that sort of thing.  I’ve known people who’d be horrified by the idea of going commando or braless and others who wouldn’t think twice about it. 

Goofy as it may sound, think of your latest cast of characters.  Picture them all in their underwear. What are they wearing? Why? Boxers or briefs? Thongs or bikini? Mens or womens? Cotton or silk? Fancy or bulk-pack? Would they care if someone else saw their underwear? Whether or not they were in it?

Now, just to be very clear—none of this means I need to talk about underwear choices in my story.  If I’m introducing Wakko, there’s not too many circumstances where we’d have to know what he’s wearing under his jeans.  Or not wearing. I don’t need a random scene of someone changing in a locker room or walking around their apartment without pants.

But—like a lot of character details—it still might be a good thing for me to know. It gives me a sense of what kind of person they are. How they think and how they might act and react to different situations. And that’s all good stuff to know, because it help make this person more real in my head. Which makes it easier for them to be real and distinct on the page.

No matter what they’re wearing.

And speaking of characters, next time I’m going back to the A2Q to talk about characters.

Until then... go write.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

FAQ XIV – The Appropriately Numbered One

Another six... okay seven months have passed us by and I promised I’d update this when there’s more news soooooooo....  Updates!

One element of almost semi-famous authordom on social media is questions. I generally like questions and  interacting with folks. But a lot of these questions come up frequently  You could even call them... frequently asked questions. This is less fun and cool. Sad truth is it gets exhausting (and kinda frustrating) to answer the same questions again and again and again.

(And before you panic, person who probably asked a question yesterday, no, I’m not singling you out. You just did it this one time without thinking. You’re good) 

(For now)

Anyway... this is me continuing the somewhat futile practice of scribbling up answers to a dozen of the most common questions I’ve been getting lately. Then when people ask me those questions (again!) I can just say “hey, check out the FAQ pinned at the top of the page!”

Or maybe I won’t say anything, cause at this point... I mean, there’s an FAQ pinned right at the top of the page. And several dozen interviews floating around the web. Plus a bunch of books I wrote. Most of the answers are already out there.

(if your teacher’s making you ask an author a bunch of questions... just give them a link to this)

1) When are we going to see something new?
Seriously? It’s barely been two weeks since Terminus came out. Enjoy it for a minute...

But, yeah, hopefully you’ve all found Terminus and enjoyed it. For those of you who don’t do audiobooks, for whatever reason, I should have at least an ebook version out in six months so... very early August. Possibly late July, if I’m super on the ball, but we’ll see. I think the Dead Moon ebook was a week or three past the end-of-exclusivity date.

I’m also looking at bringing one or two other things to ebook (at least) that have been kinda out of wider circulation for a bit. News on that as they get more solid/ closer.

Past that... we’re  a little bit in the wild west right now. I’ve got a few things I’m working on, but nothing that’s been sold or I can really talk about right now. So the next few months might be a little quiet in that sense. I’ll try to let everyone know about things when I can and well... when  I redo this later in the summer I may have a lot more to say.

2) Wait, no paper version of Dead Moon OR Terminus?
At the moment I’d have to answer that with “no.” There’s a couple of different reasons for it, and most of them involve assorted business things I’d rather not get into right now. There’s a chance both books may still become available, but for the foreseeable future Dead Moon’s just going to be ebook alongside the audio.  Sorry. And I don’t know for sure about Terminus yet, but it’s looking that way.

3) Okay, can you explain the whole “Threshold” series?
Threshold is the brand name/ umbrella label for the shared universe I kinda-sorta inadvertently kicked off seven years ago with 14.  There are some books that are definitely part of an overall linear story, a “series” if you will, and some that just fall under the umbrella.  Lots of Stephen King books tie into the Dark Tower mythology, but they’re not all part of the Dark Tower series.  Does that make sense?

And, yes, this does make things a bit awkward, because I know in the past the marketing folks reeeeeaally pushed Threshold as a pure, straightforward series (Book One, Book Two, etc), even though I’ve said several times that it isn’t. This may give some people false expectations for what some books will be about, and I apologize if that’s you. I’m doing my best to make the books as great as they can be, and hopefully you won’t be too bothered that maybe you went in thinking this was going to be a fourth season of Trollhunters when it had always been a third season of 3 Below.  Again, if that makes sense.

4) So how does Dead Moon fit into the Threshold series?
As it happens, I wrote a whole book explaining this called Dead Moon.  Also check out #3 up above.

5) Why do you keep doing all these “Audible exclusives” ?
Well, I’ve done two. And there’s a very solid argument to be made that the majority of my fanbase is audiobook listeners. Audible knows this, too, and so when they heard about Dead Moon and Terminus they made me an extremely generous offer for exclusive rights, meaning both of them would be audiobook only for the first six months they’re out. 

Yes, I know this makes some of you grind your teeth. I’m sorry if you’re not an audiobook listener (for whatever reason) and this leaves you out of the loop for a bit. My agent and I talked about it a lot and the pros and cons of doing it. In the end, I really wanted to tell these stories and this was the best way to do it. Again, I’m sorry if this puts you in a bad spot.

6) Is Ex-Isle the last Ex book?
Not absolutely 100% sure, but for now, yeah, Ex-Tension is going to stay on that back burner.  Sorry.

The truth is, every series has a limited life. Book one always sells the best, not as many people show up for book two, even less show up for book three, and so on. Something may happen to give book one a boost (and all the other books after it) but they’re still all going to be on a near-constant downward slope heading for that red line where things aren’t profitable. None of the Ex-Heroes books ever lost money (thank you all for that), but they were on that slope and when the publisher started looking ahead to book six... that red line was pretty much unavoidable.

7) Have you considered a Kickstarter or a GoFundme?
I have and the answer’s no, sorry. 

I love these books. I had tons of fun writing them. I’m still amazed there are so many fans who feel so passionately about them. But the math is pretty simple—if enough people were willing to pay for another book, the publisher would be willing to put out another book. All the numbers say that’s just not the case. Sure, some of you might be willing to pay twice as much to a Kickstarter for one more book, but I think we can all agree there’s at least as many people (probably more) who wouldn’t pay anything. Again, the math just doesn't work out.

Plus, I already have a pretty good idea what I’m working on into 2021 at this point. Doing a crowdfunded project means I have to schedule things as if it’s going to succeed, which means neglecting a lot of those other projects.

Again, sorry.

8) Do you make more money if I buy one of your books in a certain format?
I know this sounds like an easy question, but there’s about a dozen conditionals to any answer I give.  Figure a huge chunk of each contract is just all the different terms and conditions for when and if and how people get paid.

For example... format matters, sure, but so does where you bought the book.  And when.  And how many people bought it before you. And if it was on sale. And who was actually holding the sale.  And all of this changes in every contract.  What’s true for, say, The Fold may not be true for Paradox Bound.

TL;DR—just buy the format you like.

9) Do you have any plans to attend ########-Con?
As I write this, my con schedule for 2020 includes WonderCon, Denver Pop Culture Con, and SDCC. There still may be one or two getting added to that list over the next few weeks—we’ll all find out together.

If you want to see me at your local con, let them know! Yeah, them, not me. I’m willing to go almost anywhere I’m invited, but... if I’m not invited, there’s just not much I can do.  So, email them, tweet them, post on their Instagram account. Reach out and let your voice be heard.

Also, please keep in mind, most cons finalize their guest list five or six months in advance. If your local con’s in three weeks... the odds are not in our favor. Sorry.

10) When are you going to make a movie/ TV series/ graphic novel/ video game of your books?
Okay, there’s a misunderstanding of how Hollywood works in this sort of question.  When we see a film adaptation or TV series, it means the studio went to the writer, not the other way around.  I have pretty much zero influence on Netflix making a Paradox Bound series or the Hallmark Channel doing a Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe movie. I mean, if it was just about writers saying “hey, make this into a movie,” wouldn’t most books be adapted by now? Everybody’d be doing it. 

11) Well, is there anything we can do to help?
Buying books is always a good step.  Hollywood likes to see big sales numbers and interest.  If you want to see something—anything—on the air, talk about it a lot on social media. And write reviews. Producers/ directors/ actors all hear about this stuff the same way you do. If #Terminus or #ParadoxBound start trending on Twitter tomorrow, there’ll probably be a film deal within a week.

(easy way to do this?  Don’t buy books from Amazon if you can avoid it. Write reviews there, sure, absolutely, but Amazon gets iffy with sales figures, so they don’t get included in a lot of bestsellers lists. Yeah, a pre-order or purchase from your local bookstore might cost a buck or three more, but it’s a purchase Hollywood’s much more likely to see)

(Plus, now you’re one of those awesome people supporting local businesses. Be awesome)

12) Why don’t you like people talking about your books?
I’m thrilled and amazed people talk about anything I wrote. Seriously. What I can’t stand are people who blurt out spoilers that can ruin these stories for other people. It’s why I avoid those questions in interviews, ignore them on Twitter, and why—where I can—I delete posts that reveal things from a book.

And not just my stories! You shouldn’t mess up other stories, either. Movies, TV—I’m just saying, if you enjoyed it spoiler-free, why not try to give other people a chance to enjoy it the same way? I still haven’t watched the last season of Game of Thrones or Doctor Who, dammit!

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

Long answer... if I say yes to some folks, in the spirit of fairness I have to say yes to everyone. Now I’m spending all my time reading and doing critiques instead of writing.  I don’t want sound mercenary, but... writing is how I pay my mortgage. So when somebody asks me to read stuff, they’re asking me to give up a few hours of work. Plus, I do have this ranty writing blog sitting, yknow, right here with over a decade of advice and tips.

Also... some folks are lawsuit-crazy, and the bad ones ruin it for everyone else. Somebody shows me a piece of bland, generic fanfic and a few years from now they sue me for stealing "their ideas". Yeah, I know that sounds stupid, but I’ve been subpoenaed and deposed for lawsuits with less behind them than that. It’s why I’m verrrry leery when I get a long message along the lines of “You know what you should really do next with the people from 14...”  Heck, some writers respond with smackdowns or even cease & desist orders when they get sent stuff like this.  

And if you send stuff without asking, I’ll delete it unread, just like spam mail. Sorry.

14) What’s up with yo—wait, foureen? Didn’t you say top twelve?
What are you, the number police?

15) What’s up with your Facebook page?
Ahhhhh, Facebook. Where we’re the consumer and the product. Just like Soylent Green.

Simple truth is, Facebook made it pretty much pointless for me to have a fan page there.  They’ve drastically altered their algorithms over the years so my posts there have gone from 70-85% engagement to barely scraping 10-15% most of the time. Why? Well, so I’d pay to reach people who’ve already said they want to see my posts. Which I wouldn’t do because folks pretty conclusively proved years ago that paying for views on Facebook actually decreases your reach. No, seriously. It does.

And yeah, sure--it’s their site.  They can do whatever they want with it and run it the way they like.  And yeah they absolutely deserve to make money off it.  I’m a progressive, but I still believe in (regulated) capitalism.

But then that brings us to all of Facebook’s little side ventures. Collecting countless amounts of personal data. The spread of misinformation. Social engineering on unwitting subjects... which has led to more than a few deaths. If you think I’m exaggerating, look up articles about how Facebook shaped perceptions or spread propaganda in Myanmar or Sri Lanka. And these aren’t fringe articles—they’re from major news sites. Do you know how many Facebook fact checkers have quit—internationally—because Facebook won’t actually let them check facts? They’re told again and again to let lies and falsehoods stand because of who’s posting them.

So I’ve quit Facebook. Deleted my personal account, which means the fan page is cut loose with no administrator. I think this FAQ will be the last thing I post there.

16) What about Twitter or Instagram?
I’m @PeterClines on both. Fair warning--as some of you may have figured out, I’m progressive and I’m a bit more political on Twitter. Most Saturdays I also drink and live-tweet bad B-movies so...  don’t say you didn’t know what you were getting into. I’ll also say right up front I don’t believe in Twitter high school, where I’m supposed to follow someone just because they followed me. So if that’s your approach, I’ll save you time now...

Instagram is probably the geekiest of  my social medias. How is that possible, you ask?  Well, there’s little toy soldiers, LEGO, classic toys. And cats. Can’t have an Instagram account without cats. Sometimes these things mix.

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

And I think that should answer about 90% of your questions, yes...?

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Vocabulary Time Again...

Holy crap this is post #600 here on the ranty blog. Six. Hundred. Take that, some other blog with less posts.

Anyway, we’re overdue to discuss that most favorite of topics... spelling. I know it seems silly that I keep revisiting this again and again.  But there’s a reason for it--I’ve simply got to have a solid vocabulary if I want to be a writer. I need to know what words mean. I have to know how to spell them. I have to be able to tell them apart.

Over the course of my writing career, I’ve talked with lots of editors, a couple of agents, and a double-handful of directors for screenwriting contests.  Pretty much across the board, they named spelling as the most common mistake they saw. Not subject matter. Not formatting. Spelling was the problem they saw again and again and again.

Which is why I tend to bring it up here at least once a year. If I’m spelling and using words correctly, I’ve just eliminated the most common problem from my manuscript. Seriously, think how many people that puts me ahead of in the selection process.

Check out this little list of words... and the words they were supposed to be. They’re from assorted books and articles I’ve stumbled across. Things that we can consider published (I’m not going to give anyone crap for typos in a tweet). The important thing is all of these are from people claiming to be professional writers.

going or gong
canon or cannon
fair or fare
right or rite
taking or talking
possible or posable
root or route
milk toast or milquetoast

Personally, I think certain technologies have made spelling a hard problem for some folks to acknowledge. If you’ve been following the ranty blog for a while, you might remember me using this sentence a few times before...

Inn odor two kell a vampire yew most half a would steak.

While the first instinct is to say pretty much every word in that sentence is spelled wrong, the truth is—like the list above—none of them are.  Oh, most of them aren’t the right word, yeah, but they’re all spelled correctly.

That’s what I’m talking about with technology. I ran this post through a spellchecker and it leaped right over that sentence. Because there aren’t any spelling mistakes in it. And so technology leads a lot of people to believe they’re much better spellers than they really are.

If I don’t know the difference between they’retheir, and there, I’m going to have a tough time as a writer. Same thing with its and it’s.  If I think I know what anathema means (deadly poison, right?), but never bother to actually learn what it means (something I really dislike), odd are I’ll be using it wrong a lot. 

And again, when I make these mistakes, my spellchecker’s still going to tell me my manuscript is fine. So some folks who are really awful at spelling never improve.  They see no need to. After all, the computer’s got them covered and it told them all their words were correct.

That kinda blind faith is when things can get ridicules. Sometimes the spelling will be so off on a word the spellchecker flails for a second and throws out its best guess. And if I don’t know how to spell or what words really mean, I’ll probably just accept whatever the computer tells me. 

Like up above. I meant ridiculous at the top of that last paragraph, typed out radekulos to make my point, and the computer thought the best match was ridicules. Because it doesn’t know what I’m actually trying for. I’ve mentioned once or thrice the manuscript I saw where the writer was trying for corpulent but assumed the spellchecker had made the right choice when it gave him corporeal.

I need to be able to spell. I need to understand the words I’m spelling. I can’t depend on my computer to do it for me because at the end of the day, computers are idiots. And idiots make lousy writing partners.
Next time... it’s Valentine’s Day, so let’s talk about what you’ve got on under there.

Until then... go write.