Friday, May 28, 2021

The World's Changing...

I touched on something a few weeks back that I thought was worth revisiting.

It’s not unusual for us to set stories in fantastic worlds that are close to our own, or maybe not close at all. Maybe it’s our world but with magic. Maybe it’s a futuristic sci-fi utopia or a historical zombie apocalypse. I’ve talked here once or thrice about the Marvel Universe, and how living there would require an entirely different worldview.

There’s a certain kind of worldbuilding we could probably call  “everything you know is wrong” or maybe “revealing the world behind the world.” It’s one of those stories that starts off as the real world, or maybe a real world, except then our heroes come to learn that there’s a lot more to their world than they believed. We establish that we’re here on Earth, in the real world, and then BAM! Aliens are real, and they live among us! Reality is actually a complex computer simulation.  Secret vampire cabals rule the world.

We’ve all seen some version of this, yes? This moment usually comes right before we start our second act. Now that my characters know what the world really is, they can learn what challenges they’re really up against.

That’s what I mentioned before, but wanted to focus on a bit today. The idea that worldbuilding has to happen in the start of my story. I can fill in details later, but the broad strokes stuff needs to happen early on. Definitely in the first half, I’m tempted to say preferably in the first act.  

The reason it needs to happen this early is context. I’ve talked about this a bit before, too. In this case, it’s how we know what’s possible—or what my character thinks is possible—within the world of the story. If we don’t know what’s normal in a story, how do I know what’s supposed to surprise us? I mean, what would be unbelievable in this world? How do I know if my characters are reacting appropriately? If I’m going to keep altering the rules of the world as the story goes on and on, it makes it harder and harder to get invested in the world and the characters.

So if I’m doing some major worldbuilding in act three... it probably means I’m cheating a bit. I’m rewriting the rules in a big way at the last minute. Suddenly, with less than a hundred pages to go, there’s time travel or ghosts or aliens or teleportation or something that puts a whole new spin on everything! And odds are I’m doing it to create some suspense or a new challenge or to get my characters out of a challenge.

And, well... that’s cheating.

Actually, think of it like playing a game. We should have a general sense of all the rules before we really get going. Even if we just handwave over things for now and say “Fighting the basilisk, ehhhh, we’ll get to that one if it ever comes up,” this still tells us there’s the chance of running into a basilisk and there might be special rules for fighting it. So it won’t be a surprise when these rules show up and get explained later. None of us want to play with that person who at the last minute says “Oh, I forgot to mention... I get 100 extra points just for being the blue dwarf.”

But wait, WAIT, says internet guy #23. Hang on! There are LOTS of stories that don’t tell you things up front. That change the rules at the last minute. He was dead all along! They were on Earth the whole time! She’s actually the Viscountess Isabella!

And this is true. Sort of. Third act twists are very common—and freakin’ amazing when they’re done well, BUT...

One of the basic rules of a twist is that it doesn’t violate anything we’ve seen before—it just makes us look at it in a new light. Most of the example twists I just (vaguely) gave don’t change the core premise of their established worlds at all. For example...

SPOILERS!! BIG SPOILERS FOR THE SIXTH SENSE (AMONG OTHERS)!!

When we find out Dr, Malcolm has been dead the whole time, this isn’t new worldbuilding. I mean, we’ve known ghosts are real for most of the movie. We know little Cole can see them. He even flat out told us “some of them don’t even know they’re dead.” The big twist here doesn’t change any rules or limits of the world as they've been explained to us, it just changes how we look at Malcolm and his interactions with it.

Want to use the old classic Planet of the Apes. Or any number of Twilight Zone episodes)? In all of these a key thing is establishing interstellar travel one way or another, so it’s not breaking any rules to say we might be on another planet, or these aliens are from another planet. All of these stories involve the inherent assumption of what planet we’re on. So again, the story isn’t cheating—it’s just playing us because it knows what we’re going to assume about the world we’re being shown.

End Spoilers!!

But if, in his final showdown with Harry, we found out Voldemort was a cyborg alien from the future, that’s breaking the world we’ve established for the past six books. Likewise, if the next season of Picard has him bringing Data back to life using ancient Vulcan sorcery... that just sounds like nonsense on a bunch of levels, doesn’t it?

Go build incredible worlds. Have fun with them. Just don’t cheat.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for you.

Next time... well, this Monday’s my birthday. So next time we see each other I’ll be older and wiser. That being the case, I’ll probably have share some of that newly found wisdom with you.

Until then, go write. 

Friday, May 21, 2021

Daily Supplements

I’m going to be honest with all of you. The clown thing isn’t coming together. I’ve got an idea but I haven’t been able to focus on it enough. My attention’s been split a couple of ways with that big pitch document I told you about and a few other things I can’t tell you about (not yet, anyway). Plus, while you’re reading this, there’s a good chance I’m in the twisty line of cars at the Del Mar Fairgrounds while my lovely partner gets her second shot.

Have you gotten your shots? Faster we all get ‘em, the faster we get to an actual herd immunity. Which means faster we get back to Writers Coffeehouses, conventions, book signings, book clubs... all those things where we get to meet face to face. Get vaxxed!

Anyway. No clowns. We’re putting that one on the back burner.

For now, I’ve got another question from Tantilloon, who decided to push their luck and see what other bits of advice I might have. It’s a bit of a submitting/ publishing question... but it also isn’t.

“I've created some drawings, maps, and renderings of things from the story. Do you think these supplemental materials add value when trying to find an agent?”

This is the main question, although Tantilloon also brought up blogs and playlists. And it’s one of those questions that has the answer in it. Which makes it great for me on days like this where I’m a bit behind.

Really, all of this boils down to “supplementary material.” It’s stuff that, well, supplements the work. Stating the obvious, yeah, but it’s one of those things where I think it’s important to make the distinction. Supplemental material, pretty much by definition, is separate material that adds to my work. But it can do this in a couple of different ways...

First off, it’s really common—I’m tempted to say it’s standard—that we create more than we put into a manuscript. We know details about characters that never get used. We write out whole scenes that get cut. We have diagrams in our head showing where and when and how things happen. This is a normal part of the writing process, for all this background material to exist. And, as I mentioned above, for it not to be in the book. But its existence still adds to the book and enhances it.

For example, I scribbled out a bunch of base diagrams for Dead Moon. I knew how the Caretaker bases were laid out. I had three or four diagrams for Luna City—big overall ones and smaller ones that had details for the different streets. And these added to the story because it let me write about Osiris and Luna City as if they were real places.

Which brings me to the second kind of supplemental material. Sometimes this behind the scenes stuff I just mentioned (or other, original stuff) gets used for marketing purposes. Little added bonuses to tease people who haven’t read my book and please those who have. Because I think a lot of folks like seeing that other layer of things. To get a peek behind the curtain, or to get parts of the story from a slightly different point of view. And when it’s so easy to spread things across multiple media... why wouldn’t you? Lots of folks release free short stories involving the settings or characters of their books. Sylvain Neuvel did a fantastic (and very educational!) series of videos about rockets and the space race to promote his latest book, A History of What Comes Next. Hell, I called in a bunch of film favors and created some book trailers for the Ex-Heroes books (about four months before they moved to Broadway Paperbacks). I also made up a side-blog about the Kavach building and its residents for 14. And an early chapter that got cut from Paradox Bound became a digital bonus for a PageHabit promotion.

Important sub-note. If you’re actually a fan of my writing, there’s a good chance you haven’t heard of any of this. This stuff is great, but most of the time getting our bonus material seen takes just as much effort as getting our actual work seen.  Which really means my marketing plans were really more like cautionary tales.

And all of this brings us to the third type of supplemental material. I see... well, I don’t know if I should say “a lot,” but I definitely see a number of folks who view the supplemental stuff as part of the whole storytelling experience. They need this other material to understand the story. The readers will find hidden clues to the mystery if they check out those two or three blogs, more details in the lyrics from my playlists, and a better understanding of the nuances of my protagonists’ relationship if they sign up for the OnlyFans account I created.

The catch here is that what I’m describing is less a book and more of  a.. a multi-media experience. Or cross-platform non-linear narrative. Whatever  buzzphrase currently describes this kind of thing. Point is, it’s not a complete, contained book. Not if I have to go here to understand the plot and there to make sense of their motivations and subscribe to that if I want Chapter 16 to make any sense whatsoever.

Y’see, Timmy, complete books are what agents represent and publishers buy. Not most of a book. Not 83% of a book but all the character arcs are right over there on a website I set up. If I’m submitting to an agent or an editor—especially as a first time writer—I need to have a coherent, contained manuscript. If this playlist is necessary to understand something in the book, then it needs to be part of the book.

And if I don’t need it... then it’s probably a marketing tool. Nothing wrong with that, but it means nobody needs to see it until after the book’s found a home somewhere. Maybe not for a while after that, even. Even for an agent, that’s real cart-before-the-horse stuff.  I’m talking about wedding venues and they haven’t even decided if they want to go on a first date.

“But... I mean, come on. Won’t they be glad to know I have a plan to market the book? It has to improve my odds a little!”

Look, think about it this way. A publisher’s either going to have their own plan to market the book (one thought up by their marketing and publicity people), in which case my plan’s very likely irrelevant to them. Or they’re going to be expecting me to take care of all the marketing and publicity myself, in which case it’s still irrelevant to them because I’d be doing it no matter what.

And I feel like I’m babbling now. So to end on a slightly happier note... here’s a picture of my friend Tammy dressed as Stealth for those book trailers I mentioned, They’re still up on YouTube if you go look.

Oh, also--this Sunday at 5:00 (Pacific) I'm doing an online interview with my friend Elena Taylor, talking about writing and publishing and whatever else you might have to ask. It's completely free and open to everyone, just sign up to reserve a space and have your questions at the ready.

Next time, I may have a little worldbuilding tip for you. Or maybe I’ll be answering another question. Only one way to find out...

Until then, go write.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Hatching The Plot

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.

However—and this is just my thoughts on this, don’t take them as gospel truth—I think this realization can also backfire on us for a bit. Some folks assume there must be some specific “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.

Here’s the catch—it needs to be something you loved then, but you’ve since revisited and discovered it’s not as great as you remembered. Maybe it feels a little goofy or simplistic now. I mean, it might just be flat-out stupid. A plodding structure, a complete lack of worthwhile challenges, painfully obvious clues for 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.