Thursday, May 6, 2021
I haven’t had to come up with an idea in weeks because all of you keep asking questions. And I’m really grateful because my attention’s been split, like, nine different ways lately so having one task where I’m just being told what to do is kind of relief. Seriously.
That said... we did the Writers Coffeehouse at WonderCon again this year (many thanks to Sarah Kuhn, Stephen Blackmoore, Fonda Lee, and Greg van Eekhout for taking part) and tried to answer a lot of your questions about writing. But after we finished recording, I realized someone had sent a question I hadn’t seen. Probably because social media algorithms tend to be jerks. Anyway, Tomasthanes asked...
”How did you learn how to plot? Did you take a course? Did you work through 50+ spreadsheets? Are you ‘gifted’ and just do it? What does the product of your plotting look like?”
Personally, I think there’s a bit of a mystique element to questions like this. Some of you may remember I’ve talked once or thrice about the difference between the textbook ability to write and the ability to compose a narrative. A simple analogy I’ve used is the difference between being able to cook and being a chef. It’s something I think a lot of us come to realize on some level when we start really examining this whole writing thing in a serious way.pro level” they need to achieve for every aspect and element of writing. They must absorb the life-energies of ten other writers and then they'll know how to pick the grade-A ideas and create master-class characters and have, I don’t know, gold star spelling ability.
Truth is, most of these skills and tools work the same way on the expert levels. It’s just that those folks have more experience using them. It’s like thinking chefs get some kind of special knife that lets them chop faster or make interesting cuts. It’s not any different than the knives you or I probably have. They’re just more experienced with it and have learned a few tricks that work well for them.
And when it comes to plotting... the truth is, most of us already know how to plot. We learned from comics and cartoons and movies and fairy tales yes maybe even from books (wilder things have happened). We understand the basic chain of cause and effect that makes up every story.
So I don’t think it’s so much learning how to plot. It’s just figuring out how to get better at it. Finding a workout routine that works best for us, whether it be working through 50+ spreadsheets or... something else.
Anyway, here’s an easy something else for you to try.
Think of a story you loved as a kid. Not in the YA range, but more single digit. Maybe it was a book or a comic, possibly a movie or TV show. Something you know you loved.or the transparent "mystery.” I bet if you’re the type of person who reads these little rants, you can think of at least one story like that, right?
(I know I can)
So... think about how that story’s bad. Why is it silly or goofy? What would need to change, structure-wise, for it to be better? Something more suited for an older, somewhat more savvy audience?
Does it begin at a good point, or does it need a new one? Is there some sort of antagonist? Should there be? Are there real stakes? If not, what needs to be done to the story to increase them? What did our hero do to accomplish their goals? Were they actually challenged? Is there a satisfying ending? Or at least, satisfying in terms of the story I'm telling?
If you can explain why alongside any of these answers, even better.
A lot of these tweaks will probably also mean making adjustments to my characters. They might need to be a little more complex to justify some of their decisions and actions in the story. And that means they may end up having an arc of some kind, a story, and well, I’ve talked about that feedback loop. Plot pushing story, story driving plot, which lead to the plot again having an effect on the story...
Whoa! Hey, look at that. We’re plotting stuff. Just like the professionals do.
Will this be perfect? No, probably not. Like I said up above, there is an experience aspect to this as well. Some folks might have a knack for it, others may need a little more work, but none of us are going to be phenomenal at it right out of the gate. Maybe not out of our fifth or sixth gate. But it’s not because we don’t know how to do it. It’s just because we’re still figuring out our way of doing it.
And speaking of doing it...
Next week I’ll be trying to finish a huge pitch document for this new project, so I’m probably not going to have a post for you. Unless one of you gives me a really amazing question that I feel compelled to answer as soon as possible. But check in here anyway and I may have a cartoon or quick thought for you.
Then after that... clowns. Probably.
Until then, go write.
Thursday, April 29, 2021
I know I said I was going to try to do two posts this week but Tuesday was second shot day which ate up a bit of time but I’m now fully vaccinated! With no real side effects. So go get your second shot so we can all hang out together and things can get back to normal. Well, normal but with some major social reforms that this pandemic has really highlighted as necessary changes.
Look! More questions, more answers! And this takes so much pressure off me, because I don’t have to think of topics...
So, last week, after I prattled on about prologues, JD asked...
“I’m wondering if you have any suggestions on how to judge my pacing? I know every story is different, but in general, are there any tricks or tools to better know when I’m “running out of time” to get back to action before I lose the interest of my (hypothetical future) readers? Not just during the world build, but throughout?”
This takes even more pressure off because this question already contains part of the answer. Not all of it, but, y’know... maybe 20-25%.
When we talk about pacing, the first important thing, as JD said, is to recognize that every author (and every story) is going to approach things differently. Some need to dive right in with the fist fights and explosions. Others may take the slow burn, ramping tension approach. Right off, we need to recognize that pacing isn’t something that’s going to hit a bunch of universal guidelines. I think I’ve mentioned once or thrice before (here and at the Writers Coffeehouse) that I’m verrrrrrrry leery whenever folks set down rules like “introduce your love interest on page 16, inciting incident on page 23, your first conflict by page 42.” Following blanket rules like this either creates cookie-cutter, formula stories... or it just turns good stories into bad stories. Because they’re being forced to hit benchmarks that don’t apply to them.
I mean, my new book doesn’t even have a love interest. So does that mean everything else bumps up by one page, or...?Pushing Daisies to Guardians of the Galaxy? I don’t know about you, but I freaked out when I realized that was the same guy.
But, seriously, let’s look at a few rules of thumb. Things we could probably consider as loose guidelines if nothing else. Because again, every book’s going to be different.
I think the best thing to remember is that pacing is a structure issue. Specifically, dramatic structure. I’ve talked about dramatic structure a few times before, so I won’t bore you with it again now. The important thing to remember for this discussion is that it’s always a slope. Sometimes that slope goes up, sometimes it goes down. But what it should never do is amble along on a flat line. Because a flat line means... well, you know. Dead.
Any chapter (or broad swath of my book, if I’m being clever and not doing chapters) should have a clear up or down on that slope. It doesn’t have to be a huge slope, but if I’m starting and ending at the same level of character growth, of overall tension, it probably means I’m doing something wrong. A chapter (I’m just going to keep using chapter as our nice, simple, unit-of-book-construction) should lean things one way or another, whether it’s holy crap you found the lost sword Dyrnwyn or just no, Jules, I’m not just going to give you some of my Doritos. Things need to move higher or slip downwards.
Probably worth mentioning... sometimes in our stories we plant things that don’t pay off until later. Character details. Worldbuilding. Set-ups for twists or other cool reveals. Such things are fantastic, of course, but they still need to work within my overall dramatic structure. It can’t be a situation where a chapter will be interesting in retrospect—it has to be interesting now, on the reader’s first time through.
Granted, this doesn’t mean it has to be interesting for the same reasons. It’s a wonderful skill to be able to pull that sort of sleight of hand, to make my readers look at this and be totally enjoying it, only to later realize that was the thing they should’ve been watching. But it still needs to be a chapter that moves things one way or another on that slope.
Because, again... the worst thing my chapter can do is flatline.
The sort of parallel to this—should be obvious but I’ll say it anyway—is that something needs to happen in every chapter (just to be clear, still using chapter as our basic, large-scale building block). In the same way we want to start with someone’s life changing, on some level or another, we want to keep having things happen. That’s what a good story is—the plot driving someone’s arc and their arc, in turn, is driving the plot. And driving implies we’re going somewhere, not sitting in a parking lot with the engine running.ring a bit false anyway). Because every story is different and they’re going to move at a different pace depending on where we are in said story.
But they should always be moving. At some speed. In some direction.
How about this. Remember back in the A2Q when I made up a rough outline for a werewolf novel? Let’s take a look at those first few chapters I planned out and how
--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.
(You can see a more fleshed out version of this here)
This is a slow opening, yeah, but there’s stuff happening. Both characters are doing things, I’m establishing relationships, doing some worldbuilding, which will should build some interest. And things are actually progressing. Both of them are getting closer to their goal of being ready to head out for the night.
--Phoebe’s out hunting and encounters the super-werewolf (although she doesn’t know it’s super yet). She puts 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.
Now we’re moving at a faster pace. A lot more action, and it’s action moving
the story forward as it introduces a bit of an unexpected mystery and what
looks to be a greater challenge. The first part got my reader intrigued, so now
hopefully this gets them a bit more hooked with a sample of what’s to come.
--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, the Warden of the lodge. She’s willing to entertain the ‘super-werewolf” idea, and will pay an extra $2500 bounty for proof.
Things slow down here, but logically so—it’s daylight, the hunt’s over. Also, structure-wise, we can’t keep things ramped up to nine for the entire book or it’ll make getting to ten seem a lot less interesting. And when everything hits ten on the tension-ometer, I want it to mean something.
Plus, there’s some more worldbuilding, a possible love interest/rival/both, and a new goal for my heroine. It’s a lot of talking, but there’s some physical action taking place and it’s all nudging things along in the plot. Creeping forward, inching the tension up a bit with this new goal (and the implied possibility of not achieving it).a while back that's very true here--stories are like sharks. If they stop moving they'll die.
(the shark thing's not entirely true? Depends on the type of shark? Huh. Learn something every day...)
Again, every story is going to be different, so please don’t look at this as me saying “go slow, then fast, then slow again.” Your story is your story. It’s going to have its own pacing requirements that need to line up with what you want your story to do.
But hopefully this has given you a few things to look for.
Next time, I might finally get to clowns. Or maybe I’ll talk about plotting. That was a question I got a while back that’s still owed an answer. And questions get answers.
Until then, go write.
Thursday, April 22, 2021
I know I said I was going to talk about creepy clowns this week, but I couldn’t get the idea to gel quite right in my head. Plus then I got the social media question and had to deal with some other stuff. Anyway, I figured I’d backburner the clowns for now and talk about something more exciting for a minute.
Sorry, not prologues. Everyone knows prologues are awful and you should never, ever use them. Except, y’know, when they work. What I meant to say was Bond.
Let’s talk about James Bond and prologues.the Bond film formula, especially the classic films. We’d always begin with James off on some little side mission, or maybe just finishing up a larger one, and then the opening credits would roll and we’d begin the actual movie. You know what I’m talking about, yes? It was the standard structure for decades, and even the new films kind of hold to it (although not quite as rigidly).
So why were these prologues so amazing that they were used through over twenty movies?
First, it’s starting with action. By dropping us into the story right as a mission’s being brought to a close, it’s a perfect time for face-punching, explosions, gunfire, and bigger explosions. So not only are we starting with action, it’s action that has a clear purpose, a reason for its existence.
Second, the prologues always directly involve Bond. We don’t get long prologues about what other agents are doing, it’s about what our hero is doing. Right now. He’s part of the action, and usually the driving force behind it.
Third, and maybe most importantly, the Bond prologues always end up tying back to the main plot. Often directly to it. We get far enough in and learn that guy’s not dead after all, she was related to that other guy, or that other person got away with the goober that’ll let them do the thing in act three. So the prologues also serve as a bit of worldbuilding for the overall story and maybe some character introductions, too.
Three solid reasons the Bond prologues always worked.they’re still following it. Look at Thor: Ragnarok. Drops us right into the action with Thor winding up a mission to get Surtur’s crown, which ultimately ties back and becomes a key part of resolving the movie’s main plot.
So don’t be scared of doing prologues. Just make sure they follow Bond’s three simple rules. And if they don’t, well...
I was going to make some sort of “licensed to kill” joke here but everything I came up with was pathetic. Just pretend I said something fantastic. And accept there’s a good chance I’ll need to get rid of a prologue that doesn’t follow these guidelines.
Next time... I may double-post again next week. So there could be multiple topics.
Until then, go write.
Tuesday, April 20, 2021
Hey, remember when I said if you post questions in the comments I’d try to answer them?
Well, last week, Tantilloon asked,..
“Do you think it's still possible to get a book published without any social media presence? Asking because I finished a manuscript. I'm just opposed to social media in general, so I'm sort of wondering if my book is DOA just because the idea of using something like Facebook is a deal breaker.”
Not word for word, but that was the thrust of their question. And questions get answers!
Okay, I’ve seen variations of this floating around the interwebs for a few years now, and it’s come up once or thrice at the Writers Coffeehouse. Y’know, back in the before-time. When we all met in person.
I’m getting my second shot next week. How about you?
This isn’t an easy yes or no question, but I’ll try my best. As always, this is based off my own experience, but I’m also considering what I know/have seen from other authors, things I’ve bounced off a few agents I know (including my own), and talking with some editors.Rom Spaceknight, but the overall assumption is still going to be that a strong social media presence is a very big plus for a non-fiction book.
So a big following on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, or... I don’t know, is Tumblr even still a thing? A big social media following isn’t strictly necessary for a non-fiction book, but it’s definitely going to help if I’ve got one. And what counts as “big” is going to depend a lot on how niche my book is. If I’m writing a political book intended to reach half the country, I probably want a larger following than if I’ve written a book on, say, the psychology of Rom embodying the sci-fi trope of paranoia vs. trust.
If we’re talking about fiction, this is kind of flipped. Most agents and editors neither require nor expect a big social media following. They don’t. Honest. Because, realistically... why would I have one? I mean, sure, I’ve got family and friends, and maybe a dozen or so people follow me for my insightful takes on Rom, but that’s still only going to add up to what... fifty or sixty people? Those publishing folks are aware that one aspect of being an unknown author is being, well, unknown. Seriously, think about it. If I’m not a known entity, why would I possibly have an online following of a size that could notably affect book sales?
Plus, sad truth is... social media doesn’t sell a lot of books. Either partaking in it or advertising on it. It sells one or two, sure, and it lets the fans I already have know I’ve got a book coming out. But let’s be honest—you and I both get hit with promoted tweets and Facebook ads every day. Well, okay, I deleted my Facebook account over a year ago. Instagram ads, then. Point is... we ignore them most of the time, don’t we? And we ignore that guy who’s always going “Hey, buy my book! Buy my book! Buy MY book! Buy my BOOK! HEY! MY BOOK! BUY IT!”
It’s just not what most of us are on social media for, and publishers know this. Because they’re people too. And their business is selling books.Nathan Fillion tweeted a few times how much he loved the Ex-Heroes books. Seriously, he did. I think he had a little under two million followers at the time. So let’s just say a million people saw him say how much he loved the books. One million potential readers.
We barely saw a ripple in sales. The book sold a little more that quarter, but it was selling a little more every quarter. Even with a million sets of eyes, there wasn’t a big spike we could call “the Fillion Effect” or anything like that.
Now, in all fairness—a publisher usually wouldn’t be upset if I did have a few hundred thousand followers and I liked hanging out on social media. It does make getting the word out there a bit easier. But again, it’s not going to affect if they pick up my book or not, because it’s not really going to sell a lot of books.
And if it does affect how a publisher's looking at my book... that’s a little bit of a red flag, in my opinion. If they're that concerned with my social media, it might be a sign they’re expecting me to do all the marketing and publicity. And since social media doesn’t sell books (see above), that’s not really a winning strategy.
So, no. Absolute not necessary to have a social media account.
Now, let me toss out one last bit of advice that kind of applies either way...Twitter and Instagram is about interacting with friends, toys, cats, and B-movies. Occasionally some tabletop games or politics (if I’m especially frustrated by something). And most people seem to like it. That’s just who I am, and I enjoy sharing the stuff I'm interested in and/or love. I’ve got friends who put up pet pics, some who play random games, some who like taking weird photos of the world or themselves. It’s whatever you enjoy doing, because that honest enjoyment shines through.
If someone’s not really into social media, if they don’t want to deal with that interaction or whatever level of responsibility they think it needs to be... fine. Don’t do it. Seriously. People will sense that insincerity, that I see this more as an obligation than an honest interaction. And they won’t be that into it. Better to honestly not be on social media than be on it in a dishonest, disinterested way.
One last thing, which ties back to that insincerity. Let’s say I decide I don’t want to leave anything to chance. If a big follower count only increases my odds of getting picked up by 0.83%, I’ll still take what I can get! In this scenario, it might be tempting to do a lot of things in an attempt to artificially boost my follower count. Following back everyone who follows me, for example, trying to jump on whatever trend I can, or maybe even paying for likes and followers.
Editors and agents can spot this stuff just like you and I can. Again, they’re people. A lot of them have social media accounts of their own. And if they see I’ve got 50,000 followers but I’m following 49,892 people... well, they’re going to have a good sense of how wide my reach really is.
But again... it doesn’t really matter for a fiction book.
Anyway... regular post on Thursday. Clowns and true love. See you then.
Thursday, April 15, 2021
Yes, I went there.
So, more than a few times here, I’ve talked about the need to pare away non-essential things. Characters. Names. Descriptions. Maybe whole chapters. These are all things that start to weigh my manuscript down like concrete blocks as it tries to tread water in my reader’s consciousness. Or something like that.
Maybe a better way to think of them is speed bumps. I might not notice one or two, but hitting four or five in a row is going to get annoying really quick. And hitting one once I get going fast... well, it either means slamming on my brakes or possibly crashing. It’s definitely going to be jarring.strip everything down to a bare skeleton. There’s nothing wrong with elements that don’t tie directly—or even indirectly—to the plot or story of my manuscript. It’s more about being very careful how and when I deploy them.
And to illustrate this point, I’d like to tell you about Tim Cappello.
Tim Cappello’s a well-known-in-the-industry singer and saxophonist who had regular gigs with Ringo Star, Peter Gabriel, and spent over a decade touring with Tina Turner (he’s in the video for “We Don’t Need Another Hero”). But most of you probably know him for an incredibly tiny background part he had in an ‘80s vampire movie. And just putting those clues together, I bet most of you've already figured out who he is. He’s the legendary “Sax Man” from The Lost Boys.
Think about how weird that is, you immediately knowing who I was talking about. The entire concert scene’s maybe two minutes, and it’s super-generous to say he’s on-screen for twenty seconds of that. So running the math real quick (granted, not my strong suit) he’s maybe... one third of one percent of the movie?
So... why is Cappello such an excellent background character in The Lost Boys? One that we all remember thirty years later? More than we tend to remember one of the members of the vampire gang was Bill from the Bill & Ted movies. No, seriously. Alex Winter is one of the vampires. He's the one with the denim vest who gets staked in their cave.
Anyway, back on track...
First off, the Sax Man’s not excessive. I mean, okay, yeah he’s
an oiled-up bodybuilder singing and doing hard rock saxophone riffs next to a
flaming barrel. No denying that. But he’s the lead performer at a nighttime
Also, we kind of get him out of the way early. The beach concert’s just eleven minutes into the movie. We’ve still got 90% of the story to go, and we haven’t even introduced half the characters yet. It’s not like the movie’s bringing things to a halt so we can cut away to the singer at the concert.
So let’s break this down into some rough rules of thumb.
1) I don’t want to spend a lot of time on things that are just colorful set dressing (even if they’re people). As I’ve mentioned before, pages are precious and I only get so many of them. I can spend time on things not related to my plot... but I probably shouldn’t spend a lot of time.
2) I probably want to do it early. Sci-fi and fantasy editors will usually allow a little extra space for worldbuilding, and everyone expects me to set the tone with a few extra descriptions. But by their very nature, these additional details show up early in my story. If I’m doing a lot of worldbuilding in my third act, there’s a good chance something’s gone wrong.
3) If I’m going to use up a paragraph or three describing something... it should probably be something worth describing. Not something mundane, not something we see every day, not the kind of person we see every day. If it’s not something my characters would pay much attention to, why would I force my readers to examine it in detail?
Easy, yes? Three quick rules. They won’t hold in every instance, but they’re probably worth considering in every instance. If I’ve got a random colorful page describing that bus driver or this door frame, and it only kinda-sorta hits one of those guidelines... maybe that page should be used for something else.
Y’know... maybe something related to the story I’m telling.
Next time, I think I’d like to talk with you about creepy clowns, true love, and one of those common geekery movie flaws I see all the time.
Until then, go write.
And hey... you could listen to The Lost Boys soundtrack while you do.
Thursday, April 8, 2021
A few weeks back (over on Twitter) I tossed out a general question to any writer who wanted to answer—“Do you have a trunk novel that you wouldn’t release right now?” And I wasn’t really surprised to see a fair number of folks respond affirmatively. One or two were almost enthusiastically affirmative. In fact, only one person said no, and even their no was couched in the acknowledgement said novel would need to be rewritten.
And, okay, maybe I’m skipping ahead a bit. Does everyone here know what a trunk novel is? Let’s start there.ye olden times, when authors had to write everything on crushed papyrus. And if you had something that didn’t work out (for one reason or another) you either had to throw out that physical copy or, y’know, put it away somewhere so it wasn’t taking up desk space. Like, say, in a trunk. Because everyone had steamer trunks back then.
Nowadays we don’t have the space problem (yay, electromagnetic memory bubbles), but a lot of us still end up with stuff we can’t find homes for right now. And that’s what I wanted to talk about. Why things get put away and what happens when we pick them back up.
Right off the bat, there’s nothing wrong with needing to put something aside. It doesn’t mean I’ve failed or wasted time. If anything, I think it can be kind of mature and healthy when someone sets things aside. From a writer-ly point of view, it means I’ve realized this isn’t going to work, for one reason or another. Maybe I’ve admitted I don’t have the skill yet to make this particular story work the way I want it to. Perhaps I’ve determined the market’s not good for my story right now. Hell, it could be that I’ve realized the story just doesn’t work. It seemed clever at first but now that I’ve cleaned it up and expanded it... yeah, that is a massive, gaping hole there in the middle of it. Like, highway-swallowing-sinkhole massive.
So, yeah. Absolutely nothing wrong with taking something I spent a lot of time on and just wrapping it up in a blanket to sleep while I move on to other things.
Because after a point there are choices to be made. I can just keep plugging away at this again and again and again until I get it right. Or I can keep hunting for a market to take it, until I’ve been hunting so long I can circle around to those first submissions again and say “well, how about now?” But this is a tricky balance. Because there is a point that I’m spending so much time on this thing—trying to make it perfect, trying to get it sold—that I haven’t done anything else. And the months and years I spend doing that are months and years I could’ve spent writing something new. That’s a tipping point we all need to find for ourselves, when “not giving up” becomes “putting off doing anything else.” It’s the polar opposite of the shiny new idea.
And, yeah... I’m speaking from experience here. A lot of you have heard of my trunk novel, The Suffering Map. I worked on it on and off for years. Maybe three years of solid work altogether, spread out across almost four times that. I rewrote it again and again. I showed it to agents and editors. I rewrote it some more. And finally I realized, like I just said, that I’d been working on this thing for over a decade. I was in my thirties and I’d been working on it pretty much since I got out of college.
So after my latest round of rejections, I put it away and called it good. And went on to start writing a book about a government teleportation project which, oddly enough, I set aside when I got a really good opening from a publisher to deliver a zombies vs. superheroes book.
Which means putting The Suffering Map aside and moving on was a really good decision on my part.
But let’s look at the second half of this. What about picking it up again? I mean, trunking a novel isn’t like shooting it into a black hole. Or being like Robert Louis Stevenson and burning a whole manuscript because he felt it was just way too disturbing for the current market (no, seriously, he did). We can pull it back out, rework it, and maybe find a home for it.
Let’s really consider this, though. Because we can’t just leap back into something from five or ten years ago (or more) and expect it to work just like it did then. For a couple of reasons.
F’r example... hopefully we’ve grown as writers. I think most of us realize the stuff we did when we were fifteen might not hold up as well as the stuff we did at twenty-five or thirty-five. I’m not the person I was then, and I hope you’ve matured too. As a person and as a writer. We’ve (hopefully) grown our vocabularies a bit, learned some new structure tricks, maybe gotten a bit better with subtlety and nuance. We may realize, wow, that whole thing I did there was a bit pretentious, wasn’t it? And maybe that other bit was...
Okay, look, we can just cut all of that bit. Nobody’ll ever even know it was there. Plausible deniability. It’ll be fine.also going to change. Yeah, even in just a couple of years. I mean, go back just five years—April 2016. Obama was still the
And that’s all stuff that should be reflected in my writing.
F’r example... let’s look at The Suffering Map again.
As I’ve mentioned here once or thrice, I can look back at the things I did with this book and see flaws that weren’t apparent to me then. Problems with the dialogue, the structure, and some of the characterizations. There’s a lot of stuff in there I’m very proud of, but there’s also a lot of stuff that makes me very glad nobody outside of a small circle ever saw it. And I absolutely understand why the agents who liked my pitch and read some of it ultimately rejected it.
One of the big issues with it, which I’ve mentioned before, is that I had the wrong character as my protagonist. In retrospect, I stuck with Rob for eight drafts because Rob was, well, the most like me. The easiest to write. And I might not have consciously realized it, but I knew I didn’t have the skill at that point (or the confidence) to write a female character who didn’t feel kinda like... well, kind of a cliché. A bunch of clichés, honestly. So it was easier then to make Sondra a supporting character, even though I realize now her arc is way more interesting than Rob’s. If I ever decided to pick it up again, no question I’d rewrite the whole thing to make her the protagonist.a Thomas Guide. Anyone remember those?
Politically/socially we were in the height of the
Here’s another thing. In early drafts of The Suffering Map, Sondra was a woman who’d worked in adult films, and as a dancer in later revisions. It was a “young and needed the money” thing. But truth be told, the sex industry has changed quite a bit in the past twenty-five years, and so has many folks’ views of it. It’s still rarely seen as a great thing, but it doesn’t have quite the massive stigma it used to. Which makes it worth mentioning—when you add in the cell phone/internet issue—if I did want to keep something like this hidden, it’s a lot harder these days. Also, a lot of these jobs doesn’t pay as well as they used to (that damned internet again).
So this is a whole character element that would need major revision—if I even decided to keep it and not just have her be an Uber driver or something.
Any of this make sense? I know I’m babbling a bit because this is kind of a big, sprawling thing and I’m trying to cover a lot of it and give some examples.
The two big things to remember are this. There’s nothing wrong with setting something aside, for whatever reason I decide to do it, because I can always pick it back up again. I just need to remember the world is going to change. And if I’ve been doing things correctly. Hopefully I’ve changed too.
Next time, I want to talk to you about a very important saxophonist.Until then, go write.
Thursday, April 1, 2021
The comments section has been pretty dry lately, so I’ve gone digging through my list of “things to talk about,” trying to come up with a semi-interesting topic. I was about to fall back on recycling some general writing/publishing stuff from one of the other blogs I used to keep and then I thought “hey, you know what we haven’t talked about lately? Spelling!”
More importantly, when computers try to spell.
Three really common features these days are autocomplete, autocorrect, and spellcheckers. I’m betting the device you’re reading this on has at least two of them. Maybe all three. There’s also a good chance you’ve shut at least one of them off. Because.... well, they’re not that ducking great when you get down to it. Yeah, sure, some of them build up custom dictionaries or preferences, but even those can have issues.
Truth is, the more complex and nuanced we get with language, the less these things work. Because they’re tools. And that’s what tools do. They don’t replace skills, they just help focus them.
Think of it this way. I’m guessing you’ve got a hammer, right? Maybe it’s in that drawer in the kitchen (or was it in the office...?). Maybe you’ve got a little emergency toolbox with some basics in it. Maybe you’ve got a big rolling tool chest out in your garage with four different hammers and a rubber mallet and that other hammer you loan out to people who come over and ask if they can borrow your tools. Anyway, wherever it is, you’ve got a hammer, right?
And we all get this, right? The tool doesn’t amplify ability or replace it. It just allows me to use that existing ability better. If I didn’t have the skills to build a rocking chair before buying a hammer, owning one’s not going to change anything. And if I’m convinced holding a hammer suddenly does give me abilities and skills... well, I’m probably about to hurt myself.
(weird fun fact—the majority of cases where men lose a finger or toe involve them using a new tool. Seriously)
Spellchecker is a tool. So is autocorrect. And autocomplete. They can make things faster and more efficient, but only if I know what I’m doing in the first place.
faze vs. phase – one of these you grow out of
feet vs. feat – one of these is a measurement
losing vs. loosing –one of these is a release
week vs. weak—one of these is not that strong
bear vs. bare—one of these is a bit revealing
sconces vs. scones—one of these you eat
All of these are words I’ve seen recently in articles, headlines, and so on. And in every one of these cases... they should’ve been using the other one. But if I’m trusting my spellchecker to know more than me, it’s just not going to end well.when I talked about Watson, the IBM supercomputer that was specifically built to understand language and nuance and crush opponents on Jeopardy? Do you remember how his success rate ended up working out?
If Watson isn’t going to be able to pick up the slack, why would I think the spellchecker they bolted on to my word processor at the last minute is going to be better?
Learn to spell. If I want to do this professionally, it’s not enough to have the tools. I need the knowledge that makes them useful. Cause if not... I’m just hammering away wildly.
Honestly, the next thing on my list is an overdue update of the FAQ. But to be honest, nothing’s really changed since the last time I updated it (well, nothing I can talk about, anyway). So I’ve got... hmmmmmm, well a question about plot we didn’t get to during the WonderCon Writers Coffeehouse. Or maybe talk about my old trunk novel a bit?
Any preferences? Drop ‘em down below.
And then go write.
Thursday, March 25, 2021
I first heard this story many years ago under a different title—the slutty new idea—and while the story/idea is very true, in retrospect I’ve realized the original title is unnecessary and also doesn’t make a lot of sense, if you think about it. It’s implying there’s something wrong with the idea even though the writer’s the one being a bit *cough*cough* promiscuous here. And I don’t want to be one of those people blaming someone else for my behavior. Hopefully you don’t want to be that way either. Plus, I’ve seen it bandied around a lot more lately as the shiny new idea, which makes a lot more sense. It’s something new and eye-catching and...
Well, let’s talk about the shiny new idea. The story goes something like this...
I, the writer, am out with my story. Maybe it’s a novel or a screenplay or a comic book script. Whatever it is, I’ve been with this story for a while now and I’ve fallen into a good pattern with it.
Perhaps too good. Maybe a bit of a rut. I just don’t have the enthusiasm for the story I once did. There was a point that it was fun and playful and exciting and all I could think of, but as of late... well, the honeymoon’s over and now it takes some effort to get anywhere with my story. Things aren't bad, mind you, they've just become a bit... rote. Maybe even mechanical.notice a shiny new idea across the room. It’s big and bright and it’s got that look to it that just says “hey, you know it’d be fun to tumble around with me for a while.” It’s got a sharp edge to it, and it’s showing just enough I start thinking about all the parts I’m not seeing, and all the fun this idea and I could probably have together. Just looking at it, it’s clear that is the kind of idea a writer’s supposed to have, not the dull thing I’ve somehow ended up with
In fact, let’s just take a moment and be honest with ourselves. That’s how we all want things to be with our ideas, right? It’s what movies and TV shows and so many twitter threads have assured us the life of a writer is like. It’s supposed to be this wild and spontaneous and intoxicating relationship we just can’t get enough of. We want it to keep us up late and wake us up early so we can get right back at it.
Wait, what do you think we’re talking about? No! This is a writing blog! Get your mind out of the gutter!
Anyway, a lot of us know the simple truth of the shiny new idea. Sure, it’s fun and exciting at first, but then one of two things happens. Sometimes we find out there’s not really anything else to it. Oh, that first weekend is fantastic, maybe the week after it is pretty cool, but it doesn’t take long to realize the shiny idea is... well, it’s a bit shallow. We had some fun, but after a couple days we realize things just aren’t going any further.
On the other hand, things might work out with me and the idea. The passion fades a little bit, but I’m still giving it my all and getting quite a bit in return. Eventually the two of us settle down into a comfortable story together. And just as I realize things are becoming a bit of work with my story, the two of us are sitting down one evening and I happen to notice a shiny new idea hanging out over at the bar...
Again, we’ve all been there, yes? Hell, I’m there right now. I’m working on this big six-book outline/ pitch document and yesterday I was filling Keyser holes in the lawn and had this whole new book idea pop into my head. So I went inside and scribbled out three pages of notes and oh, look, haven’t gotten much done on that pitch document today, have I?
But, sometimes there I am late at night, and that idea looks kinda sweet again. There’s definitely some things I could do with it. Nothing serious, mind you, just a writer and an idea playing around, having some fun, no pressure. Yeah, there’s probably other things I should be working on, but one night won’t make any difference, right? Heck, not even the whole night. Just a couple hours to ease back into it and take care of that little itch I’ve had. And maybe this time it’ll be different.
But more often than not, come morning I just feel a bit guilty about the time I spent with the booty call idea when I should’ve been, well, doing other things.
Y’see, Timmy, it all comes down to focus. As I’ve said here once or thrice before, writing isn’t always going to be fun and fast and exciting. Sometimes it’s going to be work. There are going to be times when the days blend together.
But if I stick with it and don’t chase after every little idea that flashes me a bit of plot, I find that most of the days are going to be good ones. And more than a few will be fantastic.
Don’t chase after the shiny idea. Resist the urge to check in with the booty call idea. Don’t ignore them or forget about them, but don’t let them interfere with what you’re working on right now.
Next time...WonderCon! They’re now celebrating their second virtual year, and they’ve got a bunch of stuff lined up. For example, Saturday at (Pacific Time) we’re doing a virtual Writers Coffeehouse, where I’m answering questions about writing and publishing (and I convinced Sarah Kuhn, Stephen Blackmoore, Fonda Lee, and Greg VanEekhout to join me).
And then starting at on Saturday it’s... Saturday Geekery, WonderCon edition. We’re going to watch some wonderful movies together, like Thirteen Ghosts, Solomon Kane, and John Carter. It’s going to be tons of fun, with hashtags and other writers and stuff like that. Feel free to follow along (most of them are free to watch on Tubi or Disney+).
And next time here... I think we need to revisit a core issue. You know witch one.
Until then... go write.
Thursday, March 18, 2021
Sorry I missed last week. Taxes. As I mentioned earlier.
A few weeks back, during my usual Saturday geekery, I had a sudden epiphany about Asylum movies. Even though, technically, it wasn’t an Asylum movie I was watching. I feel safe saying whoever made this film studied at the feet of the mast... well, at the feet of the Asylum producers. And it’s a problem I’ve seen in a lot of book manuscripts. So I made a note of it and told myself I’d have to do a post on it sometime soon.
And then last weekend’s geekery gave me a trio of movies that suffered from the exact same issue. So I thought, wow, serendipity. Definitely a sign of... something. So sometime soon became this week.Plot is what happens outside my characters, story is what happens inside my characters. The basic idea of a narrative is that conflicts (of many different types) will drive that plot forward, and the plot and story will work together and feed off each other like some beautiful alien symbiote that bonds with you and manifests as bio-armor under times of stress or when you summon no, wait, that’s the plot of the Guyver. I’ve talked about how plot and story work together before. Stick with that, forget the Guyver. For now.
What I wanted to talk about was the conflicts, all those roadblocks that pop up between the beginning and end of the story. The things that get in the way of my characters getting what they want. Because some of these things are great and some are... not so great.
As I mentioned above, I have conflict in my book to drive the plot. My character has to overcome social pressures, financial constraints, power structures, ancient death traps, and a variety of other obstacles. Dealing with these things (or failing to deal with them) forces my character to grow and change internally (sometimes called a character arc) while at the same time usually subjecting them to greater pressures/constraints/death traps. That’s dramatic structure. Who my character is at the beginning of the book starts and shapes the plot. Who they become at the end helps them resolve the plot.
Now, the problem I was seeing is that some storytellers had lots of conflicts popping up—but they didn’t actually do anything. They didn’t affect the plot in any way. They’d encounter a new obstacle, deal with it, and then be... right back where they started. Nothing gained. Nothing accomplished. Nothing learned. Our characters haven’t moved any closer to the end of the plot, haven’t grown or changed in any way. These conflicts were so self-contained we could just snip them and lift them out and there wouldn’t be any real change. Heck, we probably wouldn’t even need to stitch things together on either side.
A term I’ve brought up here before is episodic. Yes, like TV episodes. Its when the conflicts resolve and the plot and story basically reset to where they were at the beginning. Our characters don’t grow or change in any way, they gain nothing, they just... go to the next episode. Which is exactly the same.
Neat thing to think about—because of that “reset,” it doesn’t matter what order we watch a lot of older shows in. We can go from episode twenty-three to episode fifteen to the eighth episode of season four and... you can’t tell. There’s no change because there’s no actual goal. The characters aren’t really trying to accomplish anything past the particular obstacles of this single episode.
When this happens in a larger story—say a novel or a movie—the storytellers are just dropping in these episodic conflicts because... well, we need conflict, right? So we’ll get a flat tire, spend ten minutes changing it, and then we’re back on the road. Or we’ll get caught in a super-embarrassing, borderline scandalous situation at work that nobody remembers or comments on the next day. Or we’ll find ourselves going out to rescue Wakko again and drag him back home because he just won’t stay put during the zombieapocalypse. These events are there. They fill pages. But they have no repercussions. No lasting effects. They don’t spark any changes in the way anyone thinks or acts.
And absolutely nothing happens. No one suffer any consequences from these events at all. None.
Now, this isn’t to say nobody can get a flat tire in my manuscript. Flat tires are a real thing that happen to all of us. But I should think about why this flat tire’s happening. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m the all-powerful Creator-of-your-choice in the world of my story. Nothing happens here except by my choice and my will. So why is this flat tire happening? What purpose does it serve in my story? Is it advancing the plot? Giving someone a moment to expand their character arc?
Or is just happening to keep them from getting where they’re going too soon?
Look over some of your story points. Are they advancing your plot? Or are they just stretching it out?
Next time... I had a new idea I wanted to talk to you about.
Until then, go write.
Monday, March 15, 2021
Just a bit of random musing, not quite so writing related. Or maybe it is.
Did my taxes last weekend. Well, I did the part of my taxes where I sort through a box of receipts and notes and paperwork and try to organize them by deductible categories so I can hand them off to someone more knowledgeable than me. It’s a pain, but I admit I also kind of like doing it. No really. Yeah, even though half of it’s just meaningless numbers, things I saved for this line or that expense.Terminus. Here’s the assorted gas/comics/food receipts from my monthly road trip up to LA for the Writers Coffeehouse and the Last Bookstore dystopian book club.
Which is what got me thinking, because last night was said dystopian book club. It was also the one year anniversary of the last time we all met in person (and where my number of receipts dropped drastically). We’ve been meeting on Zoom since then. Last March most smart people were already seeing the signs and realizing how bad this could be. And even though *cough* certain people kept going on TV and saying “it’s not a big deal, it’ll be gone in a few weeks, don’t worry about it,” the rest of us were thinking maaaaaaybe we should just shop really late at night when nobody’s around. Or how much does getting groceries delivered really cost?
I’m guessing most of you are in the same boat. We’re all hitting our personal Covid-versaries about now. It’s been a brutal year, and I think, alas, we’re probably still in for some brutality to come. The fight’s almost over, but there’s still time for a cracked rib or a black eye. In fact, I’m tempted to say there’s definitely a few body blows in our near future, collectively or individually.
It’s also been a rough twelve months creatively. I mean, at this point a year ago I was about halfway through the first draft of a project. And a few months later I was... still about halfway through the first draft. It took a while to get the mental gears meshing again, and that’s considering I’m in the very fortunate, privileged position where lockdown didn’t change my life that much. My partner and I both work from home, and we didn’t have to stress about losing work. We don’t have kids. We’re used to just spending time with each other and not going out much.
What I’m getting at is if this year messed up my ability to write, I’m impressed as hell by all of you in not-as-favorable who’ve gotten writing done. If you worked up the energy and drive to get some pages done, that’s seriously great. If you managed to get some things edited, that’s just fantastic. If you managed to do a whole draft? Holy crap, that’s plain amazing. You got a whole draft done during this past year? That’s phenomenal! Talk about focus—you’re a friggin’ machine!
Did you get more than that done? Shut up. Nobody wants to hear you gloat about it.
No, it’s okay. You can gloat a little. Seriously, it’s unbelievable that you managed to stay the course during all this.
Again, if you got something done—anything—during this hellish plague year, you
should be proud of yourself. Writing’s tough when things are great. If you can
keep doing it during a year like 2020, well...
Think what you’ll be able to do once this is over.
Thursday, March 4, 2021
Last week I mentioned I was starting a new project. A huge one. Easily the biggest thing I’ve ever done and very probably the next two or three years of my life.a Raydeen like I had when I was a kid. Not to mention, I really need to spend more time with the cats. They’re feeling a bit neglected, and I think I’m making some real headway with Doctor Wade
Okay, yes, I’ve already started the big project. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think of other things I could be doing. Or maybe some I should be doing.
I mean, let’s be honest. There’s arguably a ton of stuff I need to do before I start a project. I should have a rough idea of who my characters are and what they want out of life. At least a bare-bones sense of a plot. Which could mean some degree of research.
Plus, it wouldn’t be the worst thing if I knew what my chosen genre’s expectations are. Or had a notion of what’s been done before in it.
If you’ve been following this collection of rants for over a year, you may remember the A2Q. It’s a dozen long-ish posts about how to take a novel from the bare bones idea through to a finished manuscript. And almost two-thirds of them were things to do before we started our first draft.
When we get right down to it though, there’s only one thing I really need to do to start a new project. And just based off my own experience (and some experiences I borrowed from other folks) it’s probably the toughest thing. I know I used to get caught up on it a lot.
So what’s the all-important, ultimate step to writing a project?
We start writing it.
I know that sounds stupid but, well, it really is what it comes down to. I can do a lot of research and practice and character sketches and pin a hundred index cards up on the wall with different colored yarn. I can block out scenes with action figures and act them out with friends and take long walks where I have silent conversations with myself. But at the end of the day... I have to start writing it. Until then it’s just prep work at best, procrastination at worst.I wrote around 25K words last year about all the prep work you can do before starting a first draft.
But I also wonder why some of these folks are so quick to take offense. I mean, at least four or five times a year here I point out that my method is my method and your method is your method. No problem at all. But if the mere suggestion that my wall of index cards doesn’t count as writing gnaws at me that much... maybe it’s because I know it doesn’t?
Two or three times here I’ve told the story of Jerzy, a personal trainer who helped me to lose a lot of weight by just pointing out all I had to do was follow the schedule he’d given me. I could come up with a lot of reasons for not doing it or to put off doing it or... I could do it.
There’s a point where I’m doing that advance work, and there’s a point where I’m just not writing. And that’s the real goal here. Stringing sentences together and making paragraphs and telling stories. If that’s what I want to be doing... well, I need to do it.
Yeah. It’s scary and it’s work and it’s a commitment. And we all want to do it right, to create something fantastic. We can always find good reasons not to start, to put it off, to convince ourselves we’re not quite ready to do it yet. Because it’s going to be tough.
But it’s going to be a lot easier than trying to lose sixty pounds was, believe me.
Next time, I’d like to revisit that idea of throwing rocks at people in trees. Even if you’re doing it for a good reason.
Until then, go write.
Until then, go write.