Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Tally of the Plague Year

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

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

It all combined to make a pretty rough year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you again in the future.

Until then, go write.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

It's Not Christmas Without...

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

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

Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple, right?

However...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Where to Begin

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

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

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

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

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

That said...

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

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

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

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

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

(writing tips and fashion tips!)

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

So here’s two thing to try.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time...

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

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

Like Die Hard.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

What Not to Ask For...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right?

(Narrator--no, it is not)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then, go write.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Our Binding Contract

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

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

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

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

As the writer, what am I promising you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then, go write.