Thursday, April 22, 2021

License to Prologue

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.

Prologues.

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.

James Bond.

Let’s talk about James Bond and prologues.

If you think about it, prologues are kind of baked into 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?

Three reasons...

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.

And it’s not just Bond. This structure became so popular dozens of other action movies followed it. Hell, 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

A Social Media Question

 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?

Anyway...

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.

First, the answer depends a lot on if we’re talking about fiction or non-fiction. Overall, it definitely helps a non-fiction book if I’ve got a good-sized social media presence. Simple reason why—if I’m writing a non-fiction book, the implication is I’m an expert in some field, and a strong social media following shows that people are interested in my expertise. Yes, it’s possible people are just following me because they’re interested in my novels even though I’m an expert in all behind-the-scenes, non-fiction things related to 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.

True story—almost exactly ten years ago 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...

Social media is about, well, being social. Honest interaction. When people interact with me on Twitter or Instagram or whatever’s coming next, they’re expecting to interact with me. Not my assistant. Not my sales plan (as mentioned above). Not my month of pre-scheduled posts. They just want a sense of... me. That’s why most of my 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

Let's Talk About Sax

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.

But, as I’ve also tried to say once or thrice before, that doesn’t mean I need to 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? 

And let’s be honest. The Sax Man doesn’t even do anything, plot-wise. He’s just window dressing that makes the beach concert feel a little more ‘80s. The scene’s just an excuse for Michael to gaze across the crowd at Star.

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 California beach concert in the late ‘80s. He’s not exactly over-the-top in that context. Plus, like I said, not even half a minute of screen time, and that’s broken into five or six shots. We hear him more than we see him, which also helps hint that he’s much more about the background and the setting than the actual story. He doesn’t even have a name. I mean, we all call him “Sax Man,” but apparently the actual credits at the end of the movie call him “Beach Concert Star” and Wikipedia just lists him as “Saxophone Player.”

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.

Finally... I mean, he’s cool. He’s good-looking guy singing a high-energy song in front of a crowd. He’s having fun, they’re having fun. If I’m going to cut away from my leads and the plot, I want it to be to someone (or something) interesting. And Sax Man is definitely interesting.

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

...In The Trunk

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.

Really short version, a trunk novel is a finished (or maybe close-to-finished) novel that I’ve decided to put aside for a while. Usually a long while. It gets its name from 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.

But the world’s 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 US President. There were two people vying for the Democratic ticket, but three fighting for the GOP nod. The majority of people went around without masks. Technology was different. Entertainment was different (we were all still waiting to see this latest Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War, due out that summer). Society was different. Hell, 2020 was a horrible year in so many ways, but it also opened a lot of eyes to the injustice and social issues millions of people deal with on a daily basis.

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.

Plus, let’s look at the world between when I started writing The Suffering Map and now. Answering machines were still a thing then. Same with Walkmans. Cell phones have become much more common than they were then, and they’ve become smartphones. All this means major changes for four or five chapters in the book (plus fallout from those changes), and even some structural changes because smartphones have completely changed how we interact with each other and the world. I mean, I had a scene where Rob gets a call at work, and two others where he uses a Thomas Guide. Anyone remember those?

Politically/socially we were in the height of the Clinton years. Roaring economy. Big business being taxed. Budget deficits shrinking. Small businesses are a large part of the book, and they couldn’t really be presented now the way they were then (although one side hustle aspect of Rob’s life would seem more believable).  No 9/11 yet, either, and that really showed in a lot of places. And there’s at least one chapter that’d play out really differently because of this.

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.

Hopefully.

Next time, I want to talk to you about a very important saxophonist.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Assorted Magical Spills

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?

But we accept that a hammer only does so much. Owning a hammer doesn’t instantly mean I can now build a bookshelf or a rocking chair or a new deck out back. I’m more handy than some folks thanks to a few years of film and theater work, but I’ve got two friends who are professional carpenters and they both make me look completely unqualified to even own a toolbox.

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.

For example...

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.

Seriously, computers are ducking idiots. They really are. Remember 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.

Next time...

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.