Monday, March 30, 2020

Topical Solution

Random post with some thoughts. So very sorry about the title, but it was too perfect not to use.

A friend of mine got in touch lately. Should I say friend? Someone I talk to fairly regularly and have met in person? I don’t want to put too much pressure on anyone... Anyway, she got in touch because she and a few other writers she knows have hit a problem with their stories. Essentially, they’ve all become a little too on the nose. Possibly even questionable.

There are folks right now who are in the middle of books and stories about pandemics. I don’t mean they’re rushing them out, trying to take advantage of current events. They’d been working on their stories for months and suddenly there it is on the news, getting shoved in their faces every time they go online. And there are folks writing stories about deadly genetically-engineered monsters coming out of China, maybe even specifically out of Wuhan. There’s somebody writing a story about health care professionals dying as they try to save patients and probably a few somebody elses writing about corrupt politicians who ignore a threat as they try to consolidate power and enrich themselves.

These aren’t specific from the writing group, by the way. This is just me riffing on things based off the general problem. But you get the idea, don’t you? Sometimes the world conspires to dump a ton of extra baggage on your story, and now people are going to look at it--and maybe you--with a much  more critical eye.

Here’s a 100% true story that’ll help get it across.

As some of you know, I used to work in the film industry, and about twenty years ago I was working on a SciFi Channel show called The Chronicle. It was about the reporters at a tabloid newspaper that actually printed true stories about vampire Elvis impersonators, alien diplomats, demonically-possessed ovens, and so on. One episode we did was about a very low-level telekinetic who wants to be a superhero, so he stages crimes and accidents across Manhattan that he’ll be able to stop with his meager powers. His big one that our heroes rush to stop is he’s planted a bomb in a New York skyscraper, and they have to stop him and also stop the bomb before it blows up the building.

I’ll always remember this episode 'cause we finished filming it on September 10th, 2001.

Dead serious.

Look... the world sucks right now. It’s sucked for a couple of years, but the past month has thrown everything sideways. And it sucks even more if it’s spilling into your writing. This should be our chance to escape a bit, as writers and readers, and suddenly we’re finding out that the thing we’ve been working on for weeks or months is... well, it’s very topical. Not in the good way. In the “people point at you and scream like body snatchers” way except they’re all just screaming “Too soon!” and “What is wrong with you?!” and “J’accuse!”

And let’s be honest. It’s tough to write now without imaginary people shouting at you. It’s so much easier to crawl into a bottle or a bag of Doritos or that little thatch roof cottage Tom Nook loaned you money for. I’m not going to lie—I’ve lost more than a few days recently just reading news articles and texting friends and building little toy soldiers because... well, you know. I’m sure a lot of you are there, too. So once you add in that extra pressure of an idea that’s suddenly super-topical (and may be for a while)...

So. What do we do? I’ve written what I thought was going to be a really cool/creepy/thought-provoking story about a super-virus sweeping across the world, and now I’m sitting here staring at the screen thinking “ I the baddie?” Do I toss it? Do I keep going? Do I tone it down or change a couple key elements?

Okay... look, I wish I could reassure you and give you a solid answer. I think we’d all love some reassurance and solid answers these days. But the truth is, what I do when I find myself at a point like this is going to be a very personal choice. It’s going to depend on how confident I feel about my abilities. The parallels between my work and the real world events. Honestly grasping how people will view my work in light of those events. How much conflict I want to deal with. How much of my artistic vision I’m willing to compromise. And probably more things. This is just what came to me while I’m writing in a sort of train-of-thought manner.

In some ways, this is like dealing with any similar idea cropping up. It doesn’t matter if it’s another writer or, well, reality. The way I deal with something and talk about it is going to be unique to me. My story isn’t going to be like real life because it’s my story.

And I’m not so sure about changing things. I mean, if you’re honestly inspired to alter some aspects of your story, cool. But I think forcing a change is always going to feel... forced. Especially if I’m kind of doing it under duress. I wrote this story this way for a reason, and if I compromise that reason it’s going to show.

Ultimately, this all comes down to an art vs. business discussion. If I’m just writing for me, I shouldn’t worry about what’s going on in the world. I should just tell the story I want to tell. The story I, hopefully, need to tell. Don’t compromise, don’t bend at all, just be bold and brave and beautiful and let that story out into the world.

However... if my long-term (or maybe even short-term) goal is to sell this story, I may need to keep a few things in mind. Like I mentioned up above, there are those writers who leap on every trend and news event, so there’s a good chance the market will be glutted with pandemic stories in the next month or three. They may be rushed, they may be bad, they be self- or traditionally-published. One thing we can say for almost-certain is they’ll be there.

Also... geeez, am I an insensitive monster or what? People are dying from this. Right now. And—sad to say—there’s going to be a lot more dead people by the time I get my book out. Do I want to be rubbing it in people’s faces? Do I want to profit off their pain and suffering?

This one’s tough, and how I deal with it’s going to be personal, again. What I’d ask you to keep in mind is that people wrote war stories during pretty much every war fought at any time. They’ve written disaster stories during every natural disaster you can imagine. They’ve written AI stories during all three (failed) robot uprisings. People tell stories. Storytelling is art. Art reflects life.

But that reflection brings conflict. There are always people who want to comment on stories, and a topical story is going to get more comments than most. Some people don’t want to have current events pushed back at them, even in a fictionalized form. Some folks don’t want to be reminded of what they’ve lost. And, in all honesty and fairness, some publishers would prefer to avoid that conflict.

And I know nobody wants to hear this but... there’s a time issue, too. Maybe I’ll finish my story and just need to put it aside for a while. Things that are horrifying and taboo today will be mildly scandalous in a year and blasé two years after that. I mean, twenty years after WWII we were making sitcoms about Nazi prison camps. Actual sitcoms. That ran for years.

And that episode of The Chronicle I told you about? They put it on the air. Just five months after 9/11. My story might feel inappropriate now, but in a year or so... people might smile at the idea that I felt nervous about it.

We’re going to get through this. You’re going to get through it. And—if you want it to—your story’s going to get through this. So be true to it where you need to be, change it if you think it needs to change, and write the story you need to write.

Thursday I’m going to continue the A2Q and talk about first drafts.

Until then... go write.

And wash your damned hands.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

A2Q Part Seven—Outlining

Here we are yet again. Welcome back, my captive audience. How’s everybody doing as we enter week... two? Three? How long have you been social-distancing at this point? Yeah, it sucks, but he way these numbers are going there's a good chance you're saving someone just by staying at home and... well, reading this.

Anyway, I know originally the A2Q was going to be an every other week thing, but we’re getting to some of the meatier stuff so I just wanted to continue with it. If anyone has any complaints, let me know down in the comments what you’d rather have me prattle on about. But for now... more A2Q.

It’s finally time to start putting things together. We’ve talked about plot, characters, story, setting, and theme. Now let’s talk a bit about how to put them all together and take a few big steps toward a manuscript.

Also, I’m going to warn you right up front... things are going to get a little vague here. As we get deeper into this it gets harder and harder for me to write out advice because you (yes, I’m talking to you, specifically) are your own person. You’re a writer with your own quirks and habits and preferences. And your story is your story. Nobody knows it like you do. Nobody knows how it should be told better than you. Which means a lot of this is going to be on your shoulders. I can offer you some general guidance, but it’s going to come down to you.

Think of it this way—and this actually ties in well to today’s topic. Let’s say you want to go on a road trip and ask me for advice. I've taken a bunch of road trips, but there’s only so much I can tell you without knowing about you, your interests, what kind of trip you want to take, in what direction, and for how long. My advice and experience might not line up with what you want to do. Doesn’t mean what your idea for a trip is wrong, and it doesn’t mean my advice is bad. It just means we all have different ways of doing different things

Also-also... this is kind of a huge step. It might not seem it, but it is. We’re going to take this huge pile of elements, arrange them, connect them, and try to do it all in a way so this contraption of words creates specific emotional and intellectual reactions from people we don’t even know.

Nervous yet? Don’t be. Well, I mean, you can be, but you don’t need to worry about it. We all get nervous at this point. Yeah, seriously. Everyone. Yep, even her. Him too. And her. Okay, no, not him—he’s kinda delusional. Nice guy, but take his advice with a grain of salt.

Also-the-third... speaking of fear, there’s one other really important thing to keep in mind at this point. Absolutely nothing we’re doing is set in stone. It’s not like once I put this element here and connect it to that it’s fused solid and they can never be moved or separated again. They can and they will. Nothing’s locked. We’ll be changing things now, and while we write it, and while we’re editing it. So I don’t need to stress out too much while I’m doing this.


I thought about this for a little bit, and I think there are four big pieces of advice I want to offer you at this stage. Plus a dozen or so links to earlier posts where I’ve talked about some of this stuff in much more detail. When the A2Q gets a book deal, I’ll make sure more of that stuff’s right here, but for now—links.

So, when we’re talking about arranging and connecting all these elements, there are four things I think we need to keep in mind.

—What parts do and don’t belong in my book
—The starting point
—The end point
—How I’m going to tell my story

Let’s talk about each of these and how they relate to that big pile of elements.

First, which of these elements do and don’t belong in my book. Which ones are part of the tale I’m telling and which ones are backstory or character details. I need to sift through them and figure out which ones belong in which pile.

Now, I know the first instinct is to say “it all matters,” and in one sense that’s true. All of these backstory elements and little nuances are going to affect my character and shape the kind of person they are. But that doesn’t mean they all need to be in my book. Some of these things will just stay in my notes or in my head and shape things from there.

Also, we mentioned weeding them out earlier but even so there’s a good chance some of the elements we talked about before that just don’t fit anymore. They’re good ideas, they just don’t work for this particular book, or maybe the book it’s become as I gathered all the different elements and polished them off a bit. The werewolf being a cyborg from the future? Really fun, I bet I could do it well, but it’s not going to fit here. Part of doing this is realizing that and accepting it. Not every idea works for every book.

Don’t worry—if Tor picks this up for a series, we’ll definitely see the time-traveling werewolf by book three.

Second is the starting point. Where am I going to begin my book? What is page one going to be? I think this gets messed up a lot, for a couple different reasons....

One is that, as the writers, we know all the lead-up events, and the impulse is to put them all in. But this quickly becomes a trap, because there are always going to be earlier events that lead to these events. I don’t want to start with the police detectives at the crime scene, I want to start with the jogger finding the body. Except I don’t want to start with finding the body, I want to start with the murder. Except I don’t want to start with the murder, I want to begin where the murder was being planned. Except I don’t want to start with the murder being planned, I want to see the event that pushed her into killing him. Except I don’t want to see that event...

See what I mean? We can always go further back. So one of our jobs is to figure out where do things actually begin for my heroes.

Another way this gets messed up feeds a bit off the last one, and it’s the old “start with action” thing. I’ve talked about this at length before, but essentially it’s a piece of advice that gets misunderstood a lot by people starting out. They twist their outline to begin with exploding cyborg ninja conflict when it might just need two people arguing about laundry from different ends of their house.

Finally, feeding off both of the last points, I think there’s some other bad advice out there that usually takes the form of “get into it as quickly as possible.” Again, this advice isn’t wrong, it’s just lacking context. Which is kind of my point—if I dive into the story too fast I won’t have time to establish any sort of norm for my heroes. Without that context—the bar to measure everything else in the book against—things won’t have the proper weight and I’ll just be confusing my readers. So I don’t want to spend five or six chapters on my hero’s normal, day-to-day life, but I can’t neglect it, either.

Third is the end point. No matter what kind of road trip I’m planning, I need to have some idea where I want to end up. Maybe this is just a long weekend away and we’re going to end up back home. Maybe it’s a longer-than-necessary trip to visit a friend. Maybe I’m moving cross country.

Whatever kind I decide it is, it’s hard to have any sort of structure if I don’t know where I’m going. I can’t tell if I’m going the right way when I don’t know what direction the right way is. It becomes less a book and more of a firehose with nobody holding the end, just thrashing around and spraying water everywhere as it slams into things.

Keep in mind, I don’t need to know exactly where I’m going. For road trip purposes, I can just say “I’m gonna drive to Los Angeles.” I don’t need a specific part of town or  a street address or the name of a nice restaurant for dinner. I can figure out the details when I get there. But I want to have enough sense of my ending that I can say “I need to head north-west from here.”
And also... there’s nothing wrong with deciding to change destinations halfway through. Maybe I’m going to shoot straight through LA and head for San Francisco. Maybe I’m going to veer off and spend a long weekend in Las Vegas. Or out a Joshua Tree. But at any given point, I should be able to say “I’m trying to get to there.”

Fourth and last of these key things is how I’m going to tell my tale. How am I going to arrange things in an interesting, compelling narrative that also creates ongoing, climbing tension? Do I want to use a straight linear narrative? A series of flashbacks? Am I going to have a completely non-linear structure?

All of these are big questions. In the past I’ve talked about structure and it usually covers three pretty big posts. I’m not going to go over them all at length here, but in my opinion it’s always best to make sure my linear structure makes sense before I try to work in lots of flashbacks, time shifts, or the like. There haven’t been a ton of studies that I know of, but I think readers always know, on some level, if a book doesn’t make linear sense.

But past that... a lot of this is going to depend on you and your tastes. It’s how you want to tell your tale, after all. Maybe you want to start simple, or maybe you’re going straight to the most complex, interwoven plot you can manage. That’s all going to be your choice, and you’ll need to think about it as you start outlining.

Speaking of which...

With those four things in mind, let’s try to make some kind of outline. Again, this is something I’ve talked about a couple times before, so I don’t want to talk too much here (look how big this is already). But let’s try to address a few things.

You’ve probably got a ton of plot and story points piled up so far. Little snippets of dialogue, cool action moments, neat reveals, maybe some good character beats. For now, let’s just deal with plot and story elements. Try to get them more or less together in one document. What do you have, two or three pages? More?

What I generally do at this point is start rearranging things. I want to put all these in some kind of order pretty close to my story. I think a quick, easy tool here is basic three act structure. Beginning, middle, end. Grab any plot element out of your pile. Seriously, look at your list, close your eyes, point your finger at something.

Now, gut reaction, is this element from the beginning, the middle, or the end of your book? Is it one of those basic establishing/introducing/setting-things-up points? Is it one of the last big twists? Don’t think about it, just drop it where it goes. You’ve probably already got a sense of where these things belong, so don’t overthink it for now. Remember—if it doesn’t work, we can always fix it later.

Once you’ve got them all arranged, read through it. Does it make sense? Does it feel like it’s lacking anything? If there’s stuff you’ve kept in your head (there’s always a few things) feel free to jot those down now, too. If you want to swap a few things around, that’s cool too. Just poke at it for a day or three until it feels like a loose summary of your story. Not a complete one, but I want enough of one that I can see the shape of it.

That thing in front of you is an outline. A simple one, but that’s what it is. If we’re talking about a road trip, this is our rough map. Or maybe an itinerary? Little of both, really.

And this brings us back to another “up to you” moment. Maybe this simple outline’s enough for you. Your brain’s buzzing to get to work, to start writing. If that’s the case, go for it. But if you want a little more that this—if you want a more detailed map or a few more things locked down on the itinerary, that’s cool too. Start pulling in your character elements, maybe add a few setting details where they’d be relevant.

For my first book, Ex-Heroes, I barely had an outline. One page of random notes, most of them about characters, a lot of stuff still in my head. For my last book, Terminus, the outline was 23 pages long. And for this new thing I’m working on, I think I had three pages of notes when I launched into it. It’s going to be different for every writer and it’s going to be different for every book. So don’t worry if yours is “right” or not. Just work with it until you think it’s enough to keep you on track from the beginning to the end.

All that said... let’s toss down a few elements of our werewolf story, move them around a bit, and see what we end up with. It's going to be rough because it's just for me. You’ll probably recognize a couple of these elements from earlier A2Q posts...

Start with Phoebe and Luna at home.  Both getting ready to go out for the evening, but Luna’s heading out to another party and Phoebe’s going hunting. So they’re looking for things, asking who borrowed what, warning each other to be safe, and so on.

Phoebe’s going to be out hunting and encounter the super-werewolf (although she doesn’t know it’s super yet, or who it is). She’s going to put a silver crossbow bolt in it and it’s going to ignore it and run off. This will also give her a chance to grumble about losing a silver bolt because they’re expensive. She can track it for a while, find the bolt... but no body.

The next morning Phoebe goes to the lodge and we meet Luc and talk about hunting last night, if he saw anything noteworthy. Maybe some one-sided flirting?

Intro. Andrea.  Maybe Andrea’s actually the head of the lodge. Warden? That sounds Masonic without going all weird with “master.” She’s willing to entertain the ‘super-werewolf” idea, and will pay an extra $2500 bounty for proof.

Down to check in with Quinn. Crossbow took a beating last night. One knife needs a nick ground out of it.

Gets a call from her job at the bar—she’s late, supposed to be there for deliveries.

Go to the bar, intro. her “norm” boss.

Work night.

After work??

Breakfast with Luna the next day. Talk about the bounty, using it to pay for college?

It’s very, very loose, but I think that’s eight or nine chapters right there. Into the second act, easy. It’s also very straightforward and linear. I’d write out more of it, but as I mentioned... this is getting ridiculously long.

One thing that immediately occurs to me—and I’ve come up against this before—werewolf stories have an inherent time limit built into them, especially if I want to go “classic” light-of-the-full-moon werewolves. And that is... the full moon only comes out every four weeks. So I’m looking at a lot of time here with, well, no werewolves in it. I’ll need to space a few things out and skip over some time. Which won’t be a huge problem since I’ve already said Phoebe’s stuck with a normal job and Luna doesn’t know she’s the werewolf.

What I might do, right now, is take the bit with Quinn and drop it down to the bottom of this little outline fragment. So that just became another day. Plus, now it means Phoebe’s getting that call from her day job while she’s in her meeting with Andrea, which can create some fun.

And at this point, forget about writing a book—I’m worried the sheer size of this post might be intimidating to some of you.

Get your elements. Organize them. Make your road map, and make it as simple or detailed as you like.

Next time... our first draft.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

A2Q Part Six—Theme

Hey, everybody. Hope you’re all safe and, y’know, not bored out of your mind. Social distancing can be a pain, but it’s better for everyone in the long run.

Time for the A2Q again. Thanks for following along so far. At this point, we’ve talked about plot, story, characters, and setting. I want to go over one last thing before we dive in.

And that thing is theme.

Yeah, you just felt a chill, didn’t you? I think we all have a kinda instinctive revulsion to theme because of high school classes where it was sort of parroted out to us and not really explained. Or explained very poorly.

I’ll also be honest—I almost didn’t include theme in this little series or workshop or whatever we’re calling this. Theme is tough. It can be hard to grasp. It’s also one of those things that sometimes happens even if we’re not thinking about it. Likewise, some folks think about it too much and end up driving their story into the ground.

So... how to explain theme?

Okay, look at it this way. You know how I’ve talked about plot versus story? It’s a topic that’s come up here once or thrice before, and I’ve discussed both of them in earlier parts of the A2Q. Plot is outside your characters, story is inside.

Simply put, in the Venn diagram of plot vs story, theme is where they overlap. It’s the common bond between external and internal that ties things together in my manuscript. If you asked me what my story’s really about, my theme would be the answer that covers the most bases.

F’r example... some of you may have heard of Solomon Kane, an old Robert Howard character who’s been in books, comics, poems, and even a pretty solid live action movie—which is what I’ll talk about here. Kane’s a bloodthirsty pirate who finds out he’s actually damned to hell, repents, and ends up becoming a devout Puritan with a vow of pacifism. Problem is... he keeps finding himself in situations where the good guys really need somebody nightmarishly violent and ruthless on their side. So he has to go back to his old ways to try to stop assorted bandits, warlords, evil sorcerers, and even full-on demons.

So we can say the theme of Solomon Kane (the movie) is “fighting evil,” or maybe a better way to say it would be “fighting against the darkness.” Kane is constantly battling evil in the world, in all its many forms. But he’s also battling the evil within himself, trying to redeem himself and not fall back into old habits and attitudes.

Of course, it’s easy to identify themes in things that already exist. Trying to make them from scratch, to weave them into this story I’ve been planning... that’s a lot tougher. I mean, this is serious writing stuff now.

But it really isn’t. Honestly, I think one of the reasons we all kinda fear theme is because it’s been made into this sort of literary boogeyman—this thing that looms over the story , and also over the author. What themes is the writer trying to explore? Does this book have a simplistic, common theme? Should we discuss the novel’s theme? At length?

Deep breath. It’s not that bad. Really. In fact, it’s a lot easier than your sixth grade English teacher made it seem.

(yeah , that’s right Mrs. Goodell—I’m calling you out)

Here’s a couple things I think we should keep in mind while we’re talking about theme.

First, at this early stage, it’s okay to only have a general idea what my theme—or themes—are going to be in this book. It shouldn’t be too hard to come up with one or two. Just look at a lot of the elements we’ve been gathering up so far and see what the connections are between them.

In fact, doing this as an exercise can be kind of a test. Or maybe an early warning system. I might have a bunch of really cool elements, but if I can’t find any connections between any of them... well, that means I’ve got a bunch of unconnected elements. Which is, y’know, sort of the opposite of a book. So I might want to reconsider some things.

Second, I should be aware my manuscript might have multiple themes. Not a problem. I mentioned before that there may be multiple stories within my book, so it only stands to reason they’d all intersect the plot in slightly different places on that Venn diagram.

Look at Solomon Kane again. It has the theme of fighting against darkness, but there’s a good argument to be made that it also involves the theme of redemption. It’s an active plot element as Kane tries to make up for his past, and it’s also a story element as he realizes that A) he needs to redeem himself to save his soul and 2) his redemption may need to take a more aggressive form then normal. And that plot-story overlap is a theme, so... hey, there it is.

Third is kinda the flipside of that first one.  Again, just my opinion, but... don’t worry about theme too much right now. Definitely have it in mind. Don’t willfully ignore it. But also don’t stress over it. Just write your first draft. Worry about balancing the plot and story you want to write. When I put a lot of advance work into my theme, I run the risk of structuring things to the theme. The plot and story stop being neck and neck out front and the theme becomes the priority. Which is when my theme starts turning into more of a message. And messages can get awkward and heavy-handed really fast.

Again, just my personal opinion, your mileage may vary.

Once that first draft’s done, guess what? The manuscript exists now. And it’s easy to identify themes in things that already exist, remember? I can look back over my first draft and I’ll probably see a theme or three poking out.

Now, again, I don’t like to do too much beforehand, but... let’s look at our werewolf book.

I can probably guess survival is going to be a major theme in the book, or perhaps “what are we willing to do to survive.” After all our main character, Phoebe, hunts werewolves for a living. And her little sister Luna is a werewolf, a fact she’s trying to hide from Phoebe and their lodge on the off chance they, y’know, kill her. And there’s also survival in the larger sense, that both of them have been doing a lot of things to try to hold their lives together, as individuals and as a little family. And we’re probably going to find out that the lodge is thinking about what they’ll do to survive, too—in the sense of both humanity’s ongoing struggle against werewolves but also the lodge itself as an institution.

Phoebe and Luna are also both going to be dealing with the idea of family a lot. It’s a motivation for them and a regular thing they’re dealing with—something they’re acting on that’s also acting on them. There’s also this family legacy hanging over them, and the fact they the two of them are the broken remains of a family since their parents’ death.

Which leads me to one last possible theme. The idea of moving on with your life, of getting past things. Both of my main characters want their lives to progress—Luna wants to head off to college and Phoebe wants to get her own life back on track. As I’ve mentioned before, Phoebe’s struggling with a lot of repressed resentment, too. And they’re also going to need to get past a lot of the baggage and preconception their parents left them with if they’re going to deal with Luna’s ahem condition and how it affects both of them.

Again, though... I’m not going to worry about this too much up front. I’m just making the observations now for the A2Q. I’m probably going to worry more about plot and story on my first draft, and later I may come back, look at these early thoughts, and see how they may shape later drafts.

And if you want to think more about these things now, that’s cool, too. As I’ve often said, we all have our own way of working, and what works for me may not work for you. The important thing, for now, is just to be aware of it and have it in that pile of ingredients in your mind before we start cooking.

Speaking of which... it’s probably time we start arranging all these ingredients and get ready to start cooking. So that’s what we’ll do next time. Yeah, next time—let’s just go straight to the next part of the A2Q (unless somebody has serious objections and wants to see something else first)

Until then... go write.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Again and Again and Again and Again and

So, hey... things are a little crazy and intense in this world of ours right now. Hopefully you’re somewhere safe and hunkering down a bit. Also hopefully you’re not someone going “Ha ha ha look at me” as you wander around potentially endangering other people.

Be a hero. Don’t willfully endanger anyone else right now. Okay?

Anyway... bonus post. Figured everybody could use a little extra stuff to read while they're stuck at home.

I'd like to share a random writing-type thought that’s bounced back and forth through my head a few times recently. I think it’s something a lot of you may automatically get, but this might help solidify it a bit in your own heads. And for some of you, this may be an all new concept.

I’ve mentioned the idea of repetition in writing here a few times, coming at it from a few different angles. It’s one of those elements that can be very powerful if used the right way... and completely brutal if I use it the wrong way. Or overuse it. It’s like one of those vitamins or minerals that we absolutely need to live, but just a little too much and now it’s a deadly poison.

Anyway, it recently struck me why repetition can turn on us like that and—oddly enough—it ties back to another idea I’ve mentioned here once or thrice. And that’s a concept Damon Knight talked about in one of his short story books. The idea of information vs. noise.

To sum up quickly, it goes like this. When we come across a fact we don’t know, it’s information. When we come across a fact we already know, it’s noise. We pay attention to information, but we tune out noise because... well, it’s noise. It’s just a distraction, keeping us away from the stuff we’re actually here for.

Now, Knight was talking about this mostly in the sense of exposition, and this makes perfect sense. We don’t want to read two pages about why Nazis were bad because, well, we all know that already (okay, most of us know that...). But we’re up for two pages about how true artificial intelligence came into existence, because this is something we don’t know and (hopefully) find interesting and relevant within the context of the story.

Getting hit with the same facts we already know is... well, boring. Sometimes flat-out aggravating. It feels like the author is padding and wasting time rather than giving us what we want.

But here’s the thing. This is true of pretty much all repetition. As I’m putting words down on the page, repeating anything the reader knows (or can figure out) is going to quickly become noise.

Think of names in dialogue. We roll our eyes when characters constantly use names while talking to each other. Or if the author constantly uses dialogue descriptors with names rather than pronouns (or just assuming we can follow who’s talking). After hearing Wakko said... a dozen times on one page, we start grinding our teeth. We can’t help it. It’s noise to our ears.

The same thing holds for descriptions. Yes, I know Phoebe is over six feet tall. You’ve mentioned it seven times in the past ten pages. Or that the blood is bright red. Or that Phoebe is six feet tall. Or that Yakko is a cyborg. Or that one of my over-six-foot characters is Phoebe. See what I mean? I’m clearly doing it as a humorous way to make a point, but it’s kinda getting on your nerves, isn’t it?

And I’ve talked before about doing this with reveals. The first time I reveal something to my readers is an amazing, jaw-dropping thing. Because it’s facts they don’t know. It’s information. But the second time I show it off it’s... well, it’s not as interesting. And the third time, if there’s no point to this, it’s kinda boring. By the fourth time okay seriously can we just get on with this? What? A fifth time? Seriously?

Repetition can turn anything I have to say into noise fast. So I want to be very careful if I’m going to repeat any information for a third or fourth time. And like I just joked, if I hit a fifth time...

Wow, I should probably rethink some things.

Next time we’re going to jump back to the A2Q and talk about theme. Yeah, I know. You just had this gut, high school reaction to that word. I’m going to try to help you get past that.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

A2Q Part Five—Setting

We’re still in the early days of creation. I know that seems weird. We’re five parts in, but I’m still saying it ‘s early days. Not quite halfway through, going off my rough outline for this whole thing.

One of the things I’m trying to do with this A2Q thing, especially with these first few parts, is point out a lot of elements we need to think about before we sit down and get going. I really think the reason a lot of writing projects hit a wall is ‘cause people get one or two cool ideas, start writing, and then hit that first big gulf those ideas don’t cover. And that gulf will always appear, because one or two cool ideas don’t make a book.

Like I mentioned last time, it’s a lot like trying to cook. I want to make sure right up front I’ve got everything the recipe needs, because I don’t want to get halfway through and find out I don’t have that half-cup of brown sugar. We’ve all been there, right? Suddenly I’m wasting time digging through the cabinets or looking online for brown sugar substitutes and going through the cabinets for those. Now the oven’s smoking because it’s been preheated for a while and the dough’s been sitting half-mixed for fifteen minutes while I’m trying to figure out if I really need the brown sugar and wow cookies were a bad idea and jeeeeez I shouldn’t’ve tried this.

I don’t want any of you to go through this with your writing. So that’s why we’re going to make sure we’ve got everything we need before we sit down and start with the serious writing. And why I want to continue this gathering-up-of-elements by talking about settings a bit.

I know at first glance, the setting might not seem like a big deal. I mean, if I’m writing something super-sci-fi set on another planet or a fantasy in some alternate world... well, sure. Setting’s important then. People are going to be blue with orange hair and swords will talk and everything’s going to be different.

Thing is though, almost every fictional world is going to be slightly different from the real world. Especially the real world of the reader. Maybe I’m writing about spy thrillers in Europe or werewolf hunters in northern California or a galactic hit man who just crashed on an unnamed alien world. There's going to be big, obvious differences and small subtle ones, too.

Charlie Jane Anders made a wonderful observation a while back. To paraphrase, if my setting is “a world just like ours, except...” then it’s not really a world just like ours. Like that butterfly effect I mentioned last time, any change worth noting is probably going to have a ton of repercussions across all levels of society.

And if I don’t see those repercussions in the manuscript... it’s going to ring false. In a world where anyone can turn invisible and everyone knows this, why wouldn’t I have better safeguards in my home? Why would I assume “the wind must’ve knocked it over” or those footsteps upstairs are “Just the house settling in for the night.” That kind of thing makes my characters (and me) look dumb. They should understand the world they live in and not be shocked or surprised or caught off guard by it.

Another key thing to remember here is that a lot of the setting is my character’s view of the world. So even if they’re in the “real” world, their day to day experiences may not be just like mine. Odds are really good they’re not. Simple truth, I don’t live in the same world as somebody who lives in Egypt. There are so many elements that make our day-to-day experiences--our thought processes—different. The climate. The economy. The history. The government. The society. And all of these little differences—these excepts-- make for a very different world.

Heck, my world’s radically different than someone living in Canada. Just the simple fact that they don’t worry as much about healthcare. Or childcare. Seriously, just take those two items off your plate right now and how is it going to change your view of your job? Does it matter as much that you didn’t get that two dollar raise? Or the extra overtime shift? And if you’re not working overtime, how does that affect your life?
And just what a character knows can change their view of the world. Maybe they learned an ugly truth or got the veil peeled back, and now the world is a very different place for them. The best example I can think of this is that old-timey flick of yesteryear, The Matrix. For the first third of the film, Neo thinks he knows and understands the world. But later, after learning some ugly truths, he goes back and is shocked just to see a noodle shop he used to go to a lot. Because now he sees the world as a very different place.

Let’s talk about Phoebe’s world for a little bit and flesh some things out.

We’ve established she doesn’t make a ton of money, and she’s responsible for her teenage sister. These two things are going to be big factors in a lot of her decision making throughout the book. For example, we know she’s not living in a mansion, and even though she’s renting a house, it’s not going to be a great house. Not too big, probably some faults here and there. Maybe crap plumbing or an old, too-small water heater. And the wiring’s from the ‘50s so don’t try to run your laptop and a hairdryer while the lights are on. Plus, this lack of money’s going to be reflected in her diet, her wardrobe, and probably—to some level—her self esteem.

Of course, this isn’t the big element. Phoebe lives in a world where werewolves are real. We already know some of the changes this implies—there are professional werewolf hunters, with lots of related jobs and organizations.

But one of the other things we’ve kinda been dancing around is... who knows? Is the werewolf-hunting world hidden away from prying eyes? Or is it commonly known and you can buy werewolf-repellant spray at every Home Depot?

(seriously, don’t buy that stuff—it’s a scam and it never works)

See, this is really going to change the book depending on which way we go. It’s going to affect who Phoebe can talk with about different things. It’s going to affect her day job. Heck--it’s going to affect how she dresses at different times. If people don’t know werewolves are real, it’s going to be tough explaining why every four weeks or so she goes out wearing a heavy leather trenchcoat, heavy boots, a quiver of crossbow bolts on her belt, a bandolier of silver-plated knives.

Again, it’s a world just like ours, except...

I’ve gone back and forth on this while talking about plot and story and character, and I’m going to say people in general don’t know about the werewolves. They exist, they’re 100% real, but to the vast majority of the population, they’re just fiction and folklore. These folks all believe they’re living in the regular real world you and I are living in right now.

Why am I going this way?

First, the more I played around with it, the more it felt like making werewolves something everybody knew about would make my book lean a little more into comedy. Not a full fledged comedy, probably a lot of gallows humor, but it’s still just not the direction I want this to be going. If we’re going to talk about lycanthropy as a global problem, it just seems like we’re going to be very serious (which I don’t want) or pretty goofy (which I also don’t want). Making it so most people don’t know gives me two worlds, essentially, that Phoebe can move back and forth between. This will give me some nice, believable transitions when I want to shift tone a bit one way or the other.

Second is that if everybody know werewolves are real, it’s logical to assume the lodge would be publicly subsidized somehow. Maybe even fall under a state or federal government office. The CDC or maybe the DOD, depending on how I approached it. Heck, maybe the Department of the Interior. This’d put a different tone to the underpaid/undersupplied aspect of Phoebe’s story that I don’t want to deal with.

Also, kind of a third thing, somewhat related to the above point. If we follow the logic that the lodge is connected to the government, then like it or not this story’s becoming a bit of a metaphor. The government having licensed contractors eliminate “undesirables” or the underfunded government office that’s woefully unprepared for a major outbreak. Hahahaa, yeah, no way any of that could seem political in this day and age. I’m not at all against political elements in work, but—for what I want to do with this story—it just feels like it could easily be a little too much right now.

Plus—on a more positive side—I kinda like that werewolves being unknown will add a little more conflict in Phoebe and Luna’s lives. It’s a big aspect of both their lives they have to keep hidden from people, like a good old-fashioned secret identity.

Worth mentioning that thinking about all this solved another small issue and added a little more depth. Why would Phoebe be using a crossbow in this day and age? Well, to be honest, I just said crossbow a couple of times at first because it’s kind of a werewolf-hunter standard. But thinking of the setting and financing made me think of something else. Silver’s expensive, even for the lodge. Oh, sure, if there’s a major outbreak there’s going to be boxes of silver 9mm and buckshot for everybody, but nowadays, on regular patrols, crossbow bolts are reusable, which means they’re cheaper.

Heck, they could be heirlooms you leave to your daughter for when she takes over the family business.

This is also a good place to point out something I see crop up. Some of you might be seeing a contradiction here. I said earlier that characters need to understand the world they live in, but now I’m saying most people don’t know there are werewolves. This really isn’t a contradiction, though. If most people don’t know werewolves are real, then their world is built around the idea that werewolves aren’t real. As I also mentioned above, their day to day experiences tell them they live in a normal, werewolf-free world, and they’re going to act and react to things accordingly.

I know this seems silly to point out, but it’s amazing how often I've seen this kind of thing pop up in manuscripts (or geekery movies). Characters are confused/ surprised by/ completely ignorant of the world they live in, and behave in unbelievable ways because of it. I can’t say everybody in the world can read minds, than have one of my characters surprised that somebody read his mind, followed by “Oh, of course—you read my mind. Hahahaa.”

Again... I’ve seen this exact sort of thing.

So play around with your setting a bit. Figure out what it is and how your characters see it. Try to work on a couple of those sharper corners now so we don’t get snagged on things later.

I’ve got one other thing I want to talk about in the A2Q before we (finally) start putting stuff together. But that’ll be in two weeks.

(unless you’re all seriously loving this and just want me to focus on the A2Q for a while. The comments have been kinda dead so I have no idea)

Next time, I’d like to talk a little bit about information and noise.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Look at the Size of That Thing...

Two author-acquaintances of mine (author friends? I guess we’re author-friends) recently mentioned they’re working on big books right now. Which struck me as mildly amusing because the book I’m working on right now is looking to be a bit larger-than-usual for me. And, oddly enough, I’ve seen a few other folks bring up their very big books lately.

So it might be a bit awkward, but, well... let’s talk about size for a few minutes.

One question that comes up a lot in writing discussions is “how long should my book be?” Depending on where it’s getting asked, this can get a few different responses, and these may get very different reactions. Thing is, this is really two questions, and they each have a correct answer. And they’re not always the same answer.

If I’m asking from the writing-as-an-art side of it, then the answer’s simple. Stories can be any length. Any length at all. I can make my book whatever it needs to be to tell the story it needs to tell. Seventy pages long to seven hundred pages long.

If we’re talking about publishing though—writing as a business--the harsh truth is there are a lot of limits on how long a story can be. I’m sure some folks read that and automatically get defensive. They start thinking about the needs of the story and gatekeepers and getting ready to point out two or three exceptions that will prove how wrong I am.

I was once like you. I’d done my research, seen the supposed size limits on first novels and different genres and I laughed. I pitied those people. Because I knew what I was working on was going to blow past ALL those artificial limits.

Then, one day, somebody sat me down (well a few people over a course of time) and started explaining why these limits exist. That they aren’t just some arbitrary decision thrown down by an inherently evil publisher. And then it was much easier for me to understand why I really needed to cut another 20,000 words from the brilliant masterpiece that was my first completed novel.

As we’ve mentioned before, publishing is a business and their job is to make money. Paper costs money. So printing a longer book costs more money (because it uses more paper). This means the book's cover price is going to be higher. And the more expensive the book is, the less likely someone’s going to be able/inclined to pick it up. And they’re definitely less likely to pick up that more expensive book if they’ve never heard of the author

It also means less of other books on the shelves. That price is getting passed on to bookstores, and they don’t have unlimited resources. Buying four or five copies of my big book means a few less copies of other things. Plus, the actual shelf space is a limited resource, so if my book of incredible girth takes up the space of three books... that’s two other books they aren’t going to be able to shelve for every copy of mine they get. So there’s some more math here about how much that book sells and earns versus how much those three books would made and earn. And believe me—the bookstores and the publishers are both running that math.

And some of this gets influenced by the specific audience the book’s trying to reach. For example... romance and mystery novels? The folks who buy these tend to buy a lot of them, often collecting whole ongoing runs. So both of these genres lean toward the smaller side. They’re shorter, less expensive books so people can afford to buy more of them. And it’s been that way for so long that the smaller size (and structure and pacing)  of these genres have come to reflect it, and the audience has come to expect it. It’s like how we all expect movies to fall into a 90 minute-two hour range. Doesn’t mean movies can’t be significantly longer or shorter, but it just instinctively feels a little wrong to us when they are.

What this all means is most publishers don’t want to see a three-inch-wide paperback unless they know they’re going to sell a lot of copies of it. I’m a New York Times bestseller and this is my twelfth full novel I'm working on right now. I’m a known quantity to my publishers with a good-sized fanbase. And I’m still a little nervous about the fact that I’m going to be showing them a book over 150K words.

Now, I can hear gears churning in a few heads already. All publishers want a series anyway, right? I’ll just break my 300K novel up into three 100K books. Problem solved.

Well, yes and no. Hopefully my book had some kind of narrative and dramatic structure to it, and just breaking it up means I’ve shattered those structures. I mean, if at the end of my book the tension’s ramped up to four I’m probably not going to get a lot of folks interested in book two. So splitting things up means I need to restructure everything. That’s going to be a major rewrite or three. Possibly just redoing everything from the ground up.

Well, says InternetDude69, purveyor of wisdom, I’ll just publish it myself. That way those freakin’ gatekeepers can’t turn it down for financial reasons.

True, but most of the POD services are still working off page length to calculate costs, and they’ve got much more hard limits. Just a few pages this way or that can mean a difference of three or four dollars per copy. And somebody’s got to eat that cost, one way or another. This is why I had to cut about 30,000 words out of my book 14—it was with a small publisher who used POD and they couldn’t afford to have it stretch into the next page-range. It was the difference between a $14.99 paperback and a $19.99 one.

Okay, fine, says RealWriter7927. Print’s a dying medium anyway. I’ll just put it out as an ebook. More money for me that way.

This is also an option, sure but... look at the numbers. Shorter books do better as ebooks, especially from self-publishers. The vast number of folks who’ve had any degree of success with ebooks are doing it with books under 100,000 words. I think a lot of them are under 80,000. The “why” of this is a whole different discussion, but for now we just need the simple numbers. Ebooks tend to do better as shorter books.

Now look—if my book’s 250K words long and it absolutely-no-question needs to be that long, no worries. As many people have said, a good book is a good book. But if I’m trying to convince someone to publish that book, their absolute first thought at seeing ~255K words on the cover page is going to be that my manuscript needs a bunch of editing. And the first time they hit something excessive or irrelevant... well, it’s all over then.

Y’see, Timmy pages are precious. My words are precious. I’m only going to get so many, and I don’t want to waste them. There are lengths and sizes for books, and for different genres, and if I shoot straight past those limits with a manuscript two or three times the accepted size... Well, look. It’s not going to be their fault when I’m immediately rejected.

By editors, agents, and yeah probably readers.

Next time, I’m going back into the A2Q to talk about settings.

Until then... go write.