Monday, May 23, 2022

It Was Ten Years Ago Today...

And now, one of those quick commemorative posts! Yeah, I know I owe you all a month or so of real posts. I haven't forgotten. Sorry this has continued to be shoved down the priority list.

Did you know it was ten years ago today that Crypticon 2012 opened in Seattle?

Yeah, I know Crypticon 2022 just ended yesterday. Calendars are funny.

Did you also know I also released a new book at said Crypticon?

The year before I‘d pitched my publisher a zombies on the moon story, but he’d just bought a zombies in space book and didn’t want to do two right on top of each other. So I pitched this other half-formed mystery/ sci-fi/ horror idea I’d been kicking around. He said sure, go for it. I wrote it, he read it, told me it was one of his favorite things he ever seen. He absolutely loved it.

He then also warned me that every book he’d ever picked up that he absolutely, completely loved had bombed. Sooooooo... I should be prepared.

It was supposed to come out in June of 2012, but as a surprise the publisher got twenty copies (maaaybe twenty four???) printed up for Crypticon, where a bunch of the press’s authors were going to be (including Craig diLouie, Jessica Meigs, Timothy Long, Eloise Knapp, and more)

I gave one of those first copies to Kelly Young of Strange Aeons Magazine (and podcast) who was also at Crypticon because I was pretty sure he’d like it. Sold all of them that weekend (except for one I kept for myself). And then the book came out on Amazon and Audible (let’s throw some more thanks to Ray Porter) and, much to everyone’s surprise—me more than anyone else—it turned out to be somewhat popular. So in so many ways this is also the ten year anniversary of when my life turned around, I clawed my way out of poverty, and realized I could make a living telling weird little stories.

Happy tenth birthday to ~14~ , my weird little novel that could. And so many, many thanks to all of you who found it, told some friends about it, and wrote kind reviews about it.


Friday, April 29, 2022

State of Things...

Hey. Interesting week, huh?

First off, many thanks to all of you for your patience. Probably looks dumb as hell, guy who’s got his dream job complaining about being burned out. But the truth is, even a dream job is still a job. And I think for all of us, trying to do your job for the past two years has just been brutal. And it all finally caught up with me. I guess the one big difference is I’m in the very fortunate position of just being able to throw my hands up and say “I’m done” for a week or three.

And it’s helped immensely. I feel rested for the first time in months (almost since before Halloween, really). The new book is back on track. I even think I’ve got a handle on how to deal with the disconnect between my new word processing program (say hello, LibreOffice Writer) and the blog site here. Yes, you may have noticed some odd formatting over the past half-dozen or so posts.

So again, thanks to all of you for your patience.

Anyway... I know I promised to talk about languages next time I put up something new, but I figured it’s probably worth mentioning that big potential shift coming up in the internet. You know. That guy. The one with so much money he literally doesn’t know what to do with it, so he just keeps making questionable choices and never suffering any repercussions. Will things go forward? Will they collapse? Will he get bored and sort of wander off like he’s done for so many other loudly proclaimed offers and deals?

Who knows.

No, seriously. I think there’s good reason to be worried if a guy like that ended up in charge of a major worldwide communication system. He has an extreme “rich white man/ never dealt with a real problem in my life” view of the world. I also think... well, like I mentioned above, he does have a real follow-through problem. I’d say it’s 50-50 at best that this sale even happens. Seriously.

It’s an odd bit of synchronicity that just as I’m coming back from a break on this particular platform, as my fellow youths like to say, and there’s a potential upset at the other big one I spend a lot of time at. Makes you think, as my fellow olds often say. About social media and the role it plays in our lives and our careers.

For a few months now I’ve been looking at this site (which is still here on Blogspot, fer cripes sake) and thinking I should really migrate it over to my website and have everything contained there. One thing this past week’s highlighted is how fragile things can be on the internet. One buyout, one new executive who doesn’t like that balance sheet, and everything can change in minutes. Like, actual minutes.

I also know one reason I’ve been dragging my feet on doing it is because I’ll lose all the links in these posts. Bam, all that interconnectedness and easy reference gone. I could rebuild it, but it’d take time. A lot of time. And I am, y’know, working on other things...

All that said, I’m probably going to stay on Twitter for the foreseeable future. We’ll have to see how it goes there over the next few months. If you’re so interested, there’s also Instagram, which is mostly toys and cats, yeah, but some book stuff too. With all this going on, I set up an account on Counter.Social just because a few folks I know were over there and I figured it might not be a bad thing to claim my name there, so to speak. And someone reminded me I had a Mastodon account I hadn’t used in a while, so I’ve dusted that off and made sure the engine still runs. If you’re on any of these sites, please come find me and listen to my daily prattling. If nothing else, you’ll know when this site gets updated.

And please do keep an eye out here. I’ve got a few cool things planned out for the month of May. I think they’re cool, anyway. That foreign language post, talkin’ about three act structure a bit, and maybe a rambly birthday post or two, as I’ve done once or thrice in the past.

So we’ve all got that to look forward to.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Quick Update

Oh, hey there.
 
So, if you’re one of the hundred or two regular readers of this space, you may notice this past year’s been a little... sparse. Not quite the standard level of output for this blog. Normally by this point in the year I’d’ve made at least a dozen posts, and I think this one makes seven so far for 2022.

It’s not for lack of topics. I’ve got two or three on deck, plus a nice question about foreign languages someone asked in the comments a while back (thanks, Oliver!). And I’m sure I’d end up with one or two more by the time all those are done. Saturday geekery usually spawns a good one every other week or so.

Truth be told... I’ve just been fried. Since 2022 started I’ve traveled for the first time in two years. I’ve been reading books for blurbs. I’ve been trying to work on my new novel and also the novel after that and a pair of short stories for different anthologies. There were a few vet visits (cats are all fine, no worries) and a new kitten who can be VERY loud sometimes (often in the middle of the night). Taxes are coming up and I still have a ton of work to do to get those even semi-organized. And of course, I had a new book come out—The Broken Room—which is a whole big thing in itself. Many thanks to those of you who may have read it and left a kind review someplace.

And, yeah, I know a lot of this is just what a pro writer’s supposed to be doing. Juggling stuff and scheduling time and making it all work. I’ve been doing it for many years now. But these past few months—since the holidays, really—I’ve just been friggin’ burnt. And like a lot of folks who hit this state, I’ve been letting one or two things slide. Not intentionally. It just sort of... happened. And this blog was one of the easiest things for it to happen with because...

Well, let’s be honest. This has never been a major stop for the general writing community. I really, truly appreciate all of you who’ve found your way here over the years, but I also see the numbers and I know this has never been a super popular spot. I’ve had plenty of off-the-cuff tweets that get far more visibility and interaction than posts I’ve spent multiple days working on. I enjoy doing this, but if something was going to slide it was bound to be the thing that feels like it's got the lowest work/return ratio.

So I’m going to try to take a little time, maybe the next two or three weeks, and just try to get myself back to a place where I can get all those balls back up in the air and keep them there. I know I can do it. I want to do it. But one thing most people don’t realize about juggling is that it’s a serious arm workout. And you can only do any workout for so long before you either collapse or start getting kind of distorted.

And, hey, speaking of all this...

This weekend I’m going to be at WonderCon in Anaheim. I’m hosting the Writer’s Coffeehouse on Sunday (11-1:00) where I’ll be talking about publishing, answering questions, and trying hard to be educational and entertaining. If you happen to be there, please stop by and say hi.

Next time... we will talk about languages. I promise. And I’ll make sue you all know when it’s up.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

I've Been Framed!

This week’s random topic is something that’s been gnawing at me for a while. I’ve been batting it around, trying to come up with a good way to explain it, and I think the catch is there really isn’t a good way to do it. This is one of those slightly-more-advanced writing things I either understand or I don’t. If I do... I probably already know to avoid it.

Anyway let’s see if I can stumble through some analogies and examples and hopefully make this a little clearer.

You’ve probably heard the term framing once or twice. It has to do with how I choose to present things in a story. If my character is talking about something, how they’re saying it is part of the framing. So is how people react to it—in both out loud and unspoken ways. How I choose to describe it in the text says a lot about it, too. Framing can involve a lot of subtext, and a lot of not-so-sub text.

(also, just to be clear, we're not taking about frame stories which are something else altogether that I've meant to ramble on about for a while now)

So let’s jump storytelling forms for a moment and I’ll give our first example.

In moviemaking (and photography) people talk about framing a shot. This is a very similar idea. If I’ve got Phoebe on camera, it’s how I’m choosing to set up this shot. How are going to set the edges of the shot? What’s in the background or foreground? How close are we to her? What angle are we seeing her from? Is the camera static or moving? And if it’s moving, how is it moving?

How I frame the shot affects how we, the audience, perceive this shot. It’s an added layer of meaning. A sort of visual subtext, if you will.

Here’s an example I’ve given you a few times before. Let’s say our scene is the young lovers dashing up to the bedroom. One pushes the other down on the bed and then does a sexy, laughing striptease for them. Easy to picture, yes?

However... we’re going to frame this with a handheld camera, looking though the crack between the closet doors. As the shirt gets tossed and those pants are wiggled out of, the camera can tilt one way or another, so the audience can see as much as possible. Where things land, what state of undress people are in. But, y’know... all through that narrow crack.

And this has suddenly become different scene, hasn’t it? Not so fun and sexy anymore. Now we’re just waiting to see who—or what—comes bursting out of that closet. because there’s definitely something in that closet, right? They wouldn’t be framing the shot this way if there wasn’t somebody in there watching all this happen.

That’s kind of the key point I’m awkwardly getting at here. Things can get weird in movies when there’s a big disconnect between what’s going on in the scene and what the subtext tells us is going on in the scene. One of them will usually override the other, and since movies are a visual format, the camerawork—the framing—can override any spoken text pretty easily.

Now, a lot of time this is deliberate. That scene I just described above (and a few hundred just like it) is a pretty standard horror movie shot, especially for slasher movies. The unknown killer watches from the closet. Or maybe just that pervy voyeur they’ll yell at when he stumbles out of the closet (and then they’ll throw him out of the room and he’ll be the one who gets killed). Point is, the storytellers (in this case, the filmmakers) are deliberately subverting what should be a sexy scene by framing it in a way that make it very creepy.

Thing is... it isn’t always that way. If you’ve ever followed along with Saturday geekery on Twitter, you know one of my common complaints is when inexperienced filmmakers try to copy a shot from another movie without really understanding why it worked in that movie. I’ve seen folks do the “peeking out of the closet” shot or the “looking through the window from outside” shot and they did it because, well, that’s how you film sexy scenes in horror movies, right? Wasn’t it super hot when she was swaying at the end of the bed and pulling open her...wait, what? You thought it was ominous? Why? Now suddenly the film is stumbling because the sexy scene is creepy as hell but it was supposed to just be... well, sexy.

And the audience will sense this screw-up. Even if we don’t always know the syntax or conjugation, so to speak, we know enough filmic language to realize something wasn’t landing right there. We’ll figure out eventually from context (y’know, when something doesn’t come out of the closet), but that stumble is going to break the flow and throw us out of the movie as we try to figure out what’s actually going on. Was this a creepy scene or a sexy scene or what? How were we supposed to feel about it?
And we can frame things in our writing, too. We can layer in that subtext through our characters and their reactions, our story structure, even just with with our vocabulary choices. We can make insults sound like compliments, word something innocent so it could be flirty, make it really clear how weak that guy making the loud, angry speech is.

But...

If we’re not careful when we do this, we can end up with that same stumble I was just talking about inexperienced filmmakers causing. If Yakko just insulted Phoebe but my word choice makes it sounds a little too much like a compliment, even though we know Yakko wouldn’t compliment her... well, wait, what’s going on? Or if everything structure-wise says this is when I learn if Phoebe is the super-werewolf or not and instead it’s revealed that we first went to the Moon in 1969... I mean, that’s not remotely the answer we were looking for. It’s not even really an answer. It’s just a random fact. Is it even relevant to this story? And why is it in italics? Why are we emphasizing it? Did somebody think the Moon landing was in some other year?

I know this is one of those things that sounds kind of silly and self-apparent, but I’m surprised now often I’ll come across it. A writer pretty clearly trying to do X, but they’ve set everything up as Y. Unusual framing. Odd vocabulary. Weird emphasis. Things that feel like they’re meant for a different version of this scene. And like with the films, I think these writers are trying to copy something they saw work, but haven't quite worked out why it worked.

And that’s why this is a tough thing to explain. It’s hard for me to say “make sure you’re using the right subtext for your scene” when I don’t know the scene or the subtext you’re currently using or the effect you’re trying to create with it. It’s going to be different for every writer, every project, every scene.

Okay, I know this hasn’t been super-helpful, so let me toss out a few last suggestions that should make it easier to avoid this issue.

1) Know what words mean—This should be a serious basic for any writer. A bad habit most of us start with is running across words we don’t know and kinda getting their meaning from context, and then using them as we kinda think they’re intended. Which, no surprise, can cause real confusion for people who actually know what the word means. And that’s not even taking into account that I might spell it wrong and spellcheck swaps in some other word altogether. Which I also don’t know.

2) Know how this is supposed to make my readers feel-- is this a sexy page or a scary page? Funny or creepy? Should my readers be tense or fascinated? If I don’t know how this bit’s supposed to make them feel, how can I get any sort of emotion across on the page? Bonus—knowing this should also help me figure out if any moments are particularly jarring. Not in the way I might want.

3) Work on my Empathy-- I’ve said it before and it’s still true. I need to understand how other people are going to react to things. If I don’t have a good, honest sense of how this character’s going to be received, how that line of dialogue’s going to go over, how my readers will react to this beat or that reveal... well, it’s going to be tough to tell a story. I need to be able to put myself in other people’s shoes so I can take a look at my work and say “Wow... if I do it like this, the readers are totally going to think someone’s in the closet watching Chris and Pat.”

Anyway... this was a little rambly, but hopefully you got something out of it.

Next time... look, I’ll be honest. I’m not sure there’s going to be a post next week because I’ve got a four or five hour drive on Friday and then a talk about worldbuilding. Plus—if you hadn’t heard-- I had a new book come out last week and I’ve been a bit overwhelmed. Which means now I’m playing a bit of catch-up. But I’ll try to get something out, if time allows.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Those Are All Made-Up Words!

I wanted to jump back to something I mentioned a few weeks ago. Creating my own words for stories. Yes, all words are made-up-- don’t be the clopos in the room, okay? I recently got a new laptop and as I was bringing everything over I stumbled across a very old blog post about using made-up words. It had a few nice rules of thumb for separating good uses from bad uses, and I thought it might be worth revisiting them.

So let’s dive right in.

First off, let’s talk about names. Proper names for people, places or things. This may sound kind of simple, but I’ve seen it go wrong enough that I think it’s a good place to start off.
When we’re worldbuilding an alien or fantasy world, or sometimes one in the distant past or future, there’s an urge to hand out a lot of different names. For characters, towns, deities, what have you. On the surface, there’s nothing really wrong with this, but I should think a bit about how I’m going to introduce these names. Especially if I’m going to do it in dialogue or a first person POV.

Let me give you a few quick, example sentences.

    “Tim, it’s good to see you.”
    “We’re going to try for another child, if Phoebe’s willing.”
    “Sarah, what are you doing here?”

Pretty straight-forward, yes? No confusion about what any of these sentences mean. Heck, the second one even slips in some personal information about the speaker. But watch what happens when I switch the names like this?

    “Jesus, it's good to see you”
    “We’re going to try for another child, if God’s willing.”
    “Christ, what are you doing here?”

See? Now these these sentences are conveying different information. They’ve shifted to expletives and figures of speech. But we only know that because we recognize this second set of names. Because watch what happens when we don’t have reference for any of these names...

    “Tokar, what are you doing here?”
    “We’re going to try for another child, if Ostriax is willing.”
    “Grothnixian, it’s good to see you.”

Soooooo.... now what are these sentences saying? We can’t really parse them without a frame of reference for those names. Is Ostariax the speaker’s wife, husband, or chosen deity? Heck, Tokar and Grothnixian might not even be names at all. Maybe they’re swears I made up and they’re just capitalized because they start the sentence. I mean, it’s clear to me, the writer, so I guess if you don’t understand it in context the problem’s just you...

The problem here is that when a reader stumbles across this, their brain’s going to make a decision and stick with it. It’s going to say Grothnaxian is a proper name, Ostariax is a god, and Tokar is one of those words you might use with your close friends, but not in polite company. You definitely wouldn’t use it on the internet where it might come back to haunt you years from now.

And when, fifteen or twenty pages later, my reader realizes Ostariax is actually someone’s sister... It’s going to break the flow. Like, shatter it. My reader’s going to stop and re-read those last ten pages to see how many things they misunderstood, or if some things make more sense now. And they’re going to double check Tokar to make sure they aren’t misunderstanding that name, too. Heck, odds are pretty good they’re going to be cautious moving forward, because I’ve shown I can’t really be trusted to be clear about this. All the names are suspect now.

As I said above, I need to be very careful about how I first introduce these.

Also, as a quick aside, something to consider for distant past/future names. Truth is, they’re probably not going to be that different. I mean, how many Biblical names are still in common use today? Matthew, John, Mary, Joseph, Luke, Thomas (and let's not forget Peter). Odds are you even run into some of the Old Testament ones on a regular basis—David, Abigail, Joshua, Leah-- heck, Adam and Eve. Regardless of your religious beliefs, it’s clear these names have been around historically for thousands of years. It’s not hard to believe a lot of our present names will go that far into the future. I mean, does anyone even think twice about it when names from today show up in the hundreds-of-years-from-now world of Star Trek? Christopher, Michael, James, Will, Beverly, Ben, Miles, Katherine, Tom, Harry...

You get my point. Do I really need to create “ancient” or “futuristic” names? Probably not.

As for making up words for regular things—calling eyeglasses optykwear or motorcycles bipulsors or a breastplate torsarmor—maybe I should stop for a moment and consider why I’m renaming them. Am I doing it because it actually matters to the story or plot somehow? Or is this a cheap, quick attempt at worldbuilding? Just hitting something with a coat of literary paint to try to make it look shiny and new?

Here’s one of those easy rules-of-thumb I mentioned up top. Try to sum up your whole story in about two pages. You don’t actually need to write it all out, but try to at least have the whole thing organized in your head so you could jot it down or explain all of it to me in under five minutes. This is the long-ish elevator pitch.

Got it?

Okay, if at any point find myself simplifying some of my terms for this summary—just talking about my character’s glasses or her motorcycle or the breastplate that saves her life—then this is the term I should probably be using in my story. Why force the reader to remember an awkward name for something common? Let’s just call a sword a sword and be done with it. We’ve got better things for our readers to spend their time on, right?

Y’see, Timmy, I don’t want to overcomplicate my story with details that are just going to slow it down and drive readers away. If I don’t need to make up a name or a term... then why would I? It’s better just to keep it simple and let them enjoy the read without me getting in the way.

Speaking of getting in the way, this is the point where I awkwardly insert a reminder that my latest book just came out this week. The Broken Room is an action/thriller/sci-fi/horror story with a lot of heart. No, really. One blurb called it “a cosmic horror John Wick” which I was kind of fond of. You can pick it up at your friendly local bookstore, and probably in any format you could want. Fair warning—it does sound like there may have been some supply chain issues this week, so try to be patient with folk if they can’t put something in your hands right this second.

On which note, I did a signing with Mysterious Galaxy last night and scribbled in their extra copies. You could give them a call and they could ship you one. And this Saturday, for you LA-area folks, I’m going to be at Dark Delicacies in Burbank, scribbling in even more books. If you’d like one personalized, please swing by. Or give them a call ahead of time.

And speaking of time... next time, I’d like to talk about framing things.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Fear of the Unknown

I know, I know. I’ve been really bad about this lately. As some of you may be aware, it’s been a wild month for me. New book comes out next week, so I’ve been doing tons of promo stuff, some interviews, scheduling other promo stuff and interviews, and also—when I can—trying to work on my new book. The one everyone’s going to be asking about week after next.

Oh, and I also spent some time going up on the roof (twice!) trying to fix a tarp. That ate up a fair amount of time.


Also, random fun fact-- this is post #750 here on the ranty writing blog. Yay to all of us for sticking with it this long. Hopefully you’ve gotten something out of all these random rants and musings.

Also-also... holy crap this has been a stressful week. We’ve been dealing with some horrible stuff here in the states and as of last night a large chunk of Eastern Europe kind of spiraled into.. well, hell. So I completely get it if you’re not up to this right now. It might help get your mind off things, but it also might feel kind of frivolous, both me writing this and you reading it, and stress you out even more. I know why I’m here, but seriously-- if you need a minute to not look at a screen, to just close your eyes and listen to music or something... go for it. Take ten, take a few deep breath, put your favorite song on repeat. Take care of yourself, okay? You can’t do anything if you’re a wreck, so do what you need to keep yourself together.

Anyway...

I wanted to talk to you real quick about that unknown thing. You know the one I’m talking about. Yeah, that.

And fair warning, this is one of those posts inspired by a Saturday geekery movie.

So, hey, I was watching a Saturday geekery movie a few weekends back, and the actors, director, and even the writer didn’t know what the monsters were. From a production point of view, anyway. Y’see, it was pretty clear the movie was done very cheap and on the fly, without much of a script. It’s my educated guess that they just shot the movie and figured “well, when we’re in post we’ll see what the special effects house has for cheap models and CGI in some kind of monster then.”

The problem, of course was... well, they’re filming now. And the actors need to look at that spot on the driveway and pretend there’s something there. But they can’t say anything definitive because nobody knows what it’s going to be. Maybe dinosaurs. Maybe giant insects. Maybe dragons. Who knows. Again, we’ll figure it out later, right? For now, just... be vague. Act confused.

Which they did. A lot. And it got thin really fast. Because while it was unknown to them, filming the movie, the monsters were very clear and visible to us watching the finished movie. So nobody’s reactions made any sense, because nobody knew what they were reacting to. What it was doing, how big it was, nothing. People were looking past monsters, above monsters, at one point kind of uncomfortably at a monster’s crotch.

Plus, nobody’s dialogue made any sense because it was all about “those things” rather than what those things were. I mean... that’s a dinosaur. No question. Even if it’s secretly a giant robot or an alien, it looks exactly like a dinosaur and it’s kind of silly for nobody to say that. If anything, it makes the characters look really stupid.

Perhaps even more jarring, nobody ever talked about why these things were there. I mean, if you and I went outside and almost got killed by a dinosaur/giant spider/dragon and ran back inside (slamming the door behind us), it makes sense we’d be yelling “WTF was that?!?!” But after things calmed down a bit and we had time to talk... wouldn’t we wonder how there’s a dinosaur in the driveway? Maybe question where these giant spiders came from? That’d seem kind of natural, right?

But the characters couldn’t have these conversations because nobody actually knew what was in the driveway. A bat-winged demon with a spiked tail and a killbot with missile pods on its shoulders would spark two very different discussions. But we don’t know what it’s going to be, sooooooo... the characters need to talk about something else. And not the giant monsters outside. Maybe about how she hates her job. Or why they wish they hadn’t argued with their girlfriend this morning. Maybe a little monologue about faith or humanity's basic nature.


Anyway, have you figured out how this applies to writing in general?

It’s pretty common in fiction to have “unknown” elements. The faceless enemy. The mysterious figure. The unseen monster. Things that leave our characters confused and maybe angry and trying to figure out what the heck’s going on.

But... at some point they’re going to find out what that unknown element actually is. Either that, or we need to have a serious talk about it’s aggressively unknown state. And once it’s known, everything still has to make sense. The way Phoebe reacted in chapter four. Dot’s vague statements in chapter eight. How Wakko was killed in chapter fifteen. All of that’s going to line up and make sense with the now-known element, right? And, yeah, even if I want to keep things unknown to my readers (and maybe my characters, too) for the whole story, I still need to know what this unknown element is.

Y’see, Timmy, the world I’m creating needs rules. because my readers are going to sense if I’m just sort of winging it and saying “anything goes.” Doesn’t matter if it’s sci-fi or supernatural or ancient elder evil from the dawn of time—my story comes with an unwritten promise that all this makes sense. I’m not cheating you, there really is a logic to this. I might not directly tell it to you, but you should still feel it and see its affect on things.

So, yeah, I can use the unknown. But at the least, I need to know which unknown I’m using. because believe me... they’ll know.

Next time...


Crap, like I said above, there’s a lot happening between now and then. The Broken Room comes out next Tuesday, and if you’d like to pick up a copy in your preferred format, that’d be super cool. If you’re so interested, I’m also doing signings Wednesday at Mysterious Galaxy and Saturday at Dark Delicacies. You could pre-order from either of them, wherever you are, and get a personally-defaced copy shipped to your doorway. If you order from Mysterious Galaxy, you can watch me babble about the book online in real time.

Anyway, next time, I’d like to talk about making stuff up.

Until then, go write.

And seriously. Take ten. Take a few deep breaths. Drink some water. Listen to some music.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

How Long Did It Take...

I’d already planned this week’s topic and then the writing discourse, as some call it, veered toward length anyway. So call it happy coincidence. Or serendipity.

Okay, granted, they were talking about how long a manuscript should be, and we’ve talked about that here before. It’s old news, right? This week, when I’m talking about length, I wanted to talk about time. How long some of this takes.

I’ve blathered on before about how easy it is to follow your favorite writers on social media these days. So many of them are active to some degree on one platform or another. And they toss out advice and updates about their work. Plus, we can find authors at our own level, people who are going through the same struggles and frustrations.

Not surprisingly, we end up comparing ourselves to these other folks. Yeah, there’s dozens of reasons not to, but we can’t help ourselves. It’s human nature. We’re curious how we measure up. Has she written more than me? Does he write faster than me? How did their career take off so much faster than mine?

And a lot of the time, the answers to these questions are a bit intimidating. Maybe even discouraging. I mean, I’ve been working on this book for over a year now and she just pumped one out in eight weeks? What the hell? I know other writers aren’t my competition but seriously... how am I supposed to compete with that?

So the point I wanted to make is that... well, art’s a little subjective. It’s not like a construction project where we can say we broke ground last May and people are moving in this month. A lot of the starting and stopping points of art can be a little fuzzy. And some people... well, play with that fuzz. So to speak.

Like, we’ve talked before about how long it takes to write a book. Some folks consider the starting point when they started outlining. Some consider it when the idea first struck them. And others say they started writing when they typed Chapter One.

Let’s consider my first published novel-- Ex-Heroes. When did I start writing it? Well, I made up a lot of the characters before I hit high school, so that was the early ‘80s. I jotted down my first rough notes in the summer of 2006, but I didn’t start actively working on it until mid-2008. So when did I start? Depending on how you want to look at it, we could say it took twenty-five years or about six months to write.

That’s not even considering most traditionally-published novels go through an editing process that can be a few months, and it might be even more months before the book’s actually out there in the world. So when are we saying the book’s done? When I turn it in? When the publishers edits are done? When the layouts are locked and it goes to print?

Or how about this one--a common yardstick people like to look at. How long was it from when you started writing until your first novel? But again, both of those points are kind of debatable. Yeah, I sold Ex-Heroes in late 2008, but it didn’t actually come out until early 2010. And there were a couple novels before it, but they didn't sell. The first full novel that I actually completed was started in early ‘93 and finished in 2001... but then I spent about three years editing and rewriting. So when was my “first” novel?

And when did I start writing? When I was eight and blocking out original Star Wars stories in my Kenner Death Star playset? When I started using my mom’s massive electric typewriter? When I first started submitting stuff? When I started writing the first novel I actually finished? When I quit my film job to start writing full time? When I quit that job to start writing fiction full time? Any of these is a valid starting point, but they cover about thirty years.

Hopefully you see what I’m getting at. I can easily—and truthfully—say I started writing anytime between 1979 and 2010 and give solid justifications for why that’s the point I chose. Likewise, I can manipulate how long it took to go from “starting to work” to “first sold novel” and make it look really fast or really slow. I mean, we’ve talked once or thrice about the overnight success with a decade or more of work behind them.

And there’s a lot of reasons people might give these different figures. It could be a marketing thing. It might just be what they think counts as actual “writing.” Maybe it’s a deliberate attempt to fudge the numbers to try to make themselves look more impressive. It might be how some MFA professor taught them to do it and they’ve never shaken that particular habit.

My point is... don’t worry about these numbers. I shouldn’t worry abut how long it took to write my book. I don’t have to freak out because it feels like my career hasn’t taken off yet. My speed is my speed. Yeah, we’re all going to compare ourselves to other people’s numbers, but just remember... those numbers may have a bit of range to them.

Next time...

Actually, before I talk about next time—if you happen to be of the reviewing type and have access to NetGalley, my new novel The Broken Room is now there and can be requested. For the rest of you... holy crap, only eighteen more days!

Anyway, next time let’s talk about... the unknown.

(cue spooky music)

Until then, go write.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Who's Driving This Thing

Wow, talk about running late. All of January with no posts. Sorry about that. Start of the year and I’m already struggling for stuff to talk about.

Well, that’s not true. There’s a lot of stuff I’d like to blather on about, but I sometimes worry that I’m not really up to the task. There’ve actually been a few topics I’ve set aside when I realized I couldn’t quite articulate the ideas I wanted to get across. I don’t want to try to explain something, do a poor job one way or another, and actually make things worse for anybody. “I’m not sure if he was serious about that whole ‘mellonballer’ thing but what the hell, I’ll try anything if it gets my foot in the door.”

Another way to look at it is I’m worried the decisions I make here might have a negative effect on you out there. I mean, the goal is to have an effect, yeah, but hopefully not one that has you tossing your laptop or burning your idea notebook. I’m hoping this’ll be an overall encouraging, educational place, and my actions will help you out.

And this, if you didn’t guess, is my clumsy lead-in to this week’s topic.

I’ve talked several times here about the idea of plot and story and how the two bounce off each other. Really simply put, plot is what happens outside my character, story is what happens inside my character. Plot forces my characters to make decisions and adapt. Story is that growth and change, and how it leads them to make different decisions and take different actions. Which then, in turn, affects how the plot progresses. Makes sense?

Personally, I think this is really helpful to have in mind when people start arguing about plot-driven vs. story-driven narratives (I’m using narrative here to avoid the confusion of using story vs.story). If I’m not having this back and forth—if plot isn’t driving story which is driving plot which is driving story—then what is making things happen?

Consider what we usually think of as “character-driven” narratives. If there’s isn’t some outside influence forcing them to adapt and change... way are they changing? Truth is, without outside pressure most of us tend to just sort of stay the course. We need a little nudge or maybe a hard shove to get us out of our ruts, and it’s not really possible to shove yourself. Sure people make random decisions sometimes, but if somebody in my narrative does something wildly out of character... well, I mean it’s clear that decision didn’t come from inside the character, right? So if they decide to change without any sort of outside influence—without a plot—where are the decisions coming from?

Well, they’re coming from the writer. I mean, yeah, the narrative always comes from the writer. But in this case it’s coming directly from them without bothering to guide that motivation through a plot.

Another point worth mentioning—an all-too-typical thing in character driven narratives is when what little plot there is comes to a dead crashing halt for twenty or thirty pages so someone can reminisce and/or lament about... well, something that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. And they can do this because there’s no actual outside stimulus, nothing urging them into some sort of action. Yeah, the bank’s foreclosing on the farm, the tractor broke down, the dog’s gone missing, mom has cancer, but let me tell you about that time Lizzie Metcalfe invited me to the school dance and I turned her down. Y’know... that’s always gnawed at me. Especially right now, with all of this going on. I mean, isn’t life just one big school dance when you really think about it...?

No? Okay, well, never mind...

When the plot bends or twists to shape itself around my character, it doesn’t feel like anything outside of my character has any real agency, does it? Yeah, my protagonist should have agency, but so should my antagonist. And the bank manager and the waiter and the maitre’d. They’re not there just to give my protagonist more dramatic meat to chew. All of them should be acting or reacting like real people would, not in a way that just lets the character continue working through whatever issues or problems they’re dealing with (or not dealing with) at their own pace.

So we need a plot. We need forces outside of our character, things affecting them and driving them to change. Often at a pace or in a way they don’t like.
And this brings us to the flipside, the so-called plot-driven story. Which is kind of silly because, again, pretty much every good story is going to have a plot, and that plot will lead to changes in the story. Like we’ve been saying.

Plot driven stories are all exterior. We don’t really get to know the characters or their inner needs. Everyone tends to respond to things in very basic, shallow ways. Good people do good things, bad people do bad things, cowardly people do cowardly things, and yes, Benedict McTraitorson did stab our hero in the back. We see a lot of stereotypes (or archetypes, if you prefer) in these kind of stories, not fleshed out past a few obligatory descriptions (“No, she’s different because she’s got
red hair and wears hiking boots...”)

I think another big clue for a plot-driven story is that people rarely have any real choices. The ongoing, dynamic plot gives the illusion of choices being made, but really the characters are just sort of getting carried along for the ride. If people are shooting wildly in my direction and I run away... I mean, this isn’t me really choosing to do anything. It’s an automatic reaction for 99.9% of all people. Yeah, sure, we can argue about what constitutes a choice in the same way some people might nitpick about what counts as action, but at the end of the day we want to believe characters are actually having some effect on the world around them.

One other, slightly less common thing... I’ve noticed plot driven stories often (not always, but often) have hyper-capable characters. They have a flawless plan and even if it somehow goes south they’re so well-trained and prepared they’ll figure something out on the fly. Because they never fail and nothing rattles them in any way, they don't have to make any hard choices (see above) or suffer any sort of repercussions. Which means they never have to grow or change as characters. Again, nothing interior, all exterior.

Is this helpful? Hopefully most of you see why it’s kind of important I have both plot and story in my narrative. And this is the kind of stuff of stuff I want to keep in mind while I’m writing (or maybe outlining) my story. Has this introspective monologue brought things to a halt? Are events making my character grow or change in any way? If we don’t have both of these things going on

Think of it this way. Plot and Story are playing an exhibition game of ping-pong. They’re knocking the ball back and forth and back and forth. How Plot serves is going to shape how Story returns, and that return is going to effect how Plot hits the ball back, and so on, and so forth. If one of them stops doing anything (or just walks away altogether) the game’s going to get boring really fast. Oh, sure, watching Story bounce the ball on his paddle might be interesting for a minute or two, maybe watching them swat it against the far wall like a racquetball. But ultimately we showed up to watch these two play against each other, not, well... play with themselves.

Although here’s another name for that which also fits well here.

Next time, I’d like to talk about how long this takes.

The writing, not the playing with yourself bit.

Oh, also, shamelessly, we’re exactly four weeks out from the release of The Broken Room. If you want to preorder it from your favorite local bookstore I’d greatly appreciate it. Preorders mean you get the book as quickly as possible while also telling the publisher they made a good choice picking up said author’s books. So if you can... well, I’d appreciate it.

And next time, how long this takes.

Until then, go write.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

A New Year? Let’s Start With...

Welcome back. Glad to see you all successfully made the transition to 2021. Crap, I mean 2022. Anyway, for me, it's been new year, new computer. Which really meant two days setting up said computer after two weeks of stressing over a new word processing program.

But that's all in the past now.

Normally I’d post this start-o’-the-year ramble (or any other post) on Thursday. But that’s one of the things I want to change up this year (more on that below). Plus there’s a chance tomorrow might be a little chaotic this year (and that chaos could come in many forms and/or directions), so I figured I’d get this out a little early.

And what is this, you ask?


Well, the ranty blog’s about writing advice. It used to be a lot more ranty, but I’ve tried to mellow out over the years. I always wanted this to be a more positive place for aspiring writers and I’m always trying to bend things that way. Less “don’t do that” and more “try to do this,” if that makes sense? A lot of times I’ll revisit a topic just so I can do it from that angle.

In the past, the majority of the posts were writing advice. Not publishing, but writing as the art of stringing words together into a narrative that will connect with an audience. That was the original point of this, to make up for the lack of basic writing advice out there. But over the past two years, with everything going on, people have asked questions about the business side of things and the greater writing meta-verse, so to speak, and I’ve been trying to help out by answering those.

The ranty blog’s also about a little bit about motivation. Helping you to sit down and get those words out. Maybe suggesting some easier ways to do something. Maybe giving you a little challenge or a tip or a trick to play with when your brain’s stuck on whatever. I’ve tried to do this a few times and a few different ways. For a lot of folks, the biggest, toughest part of writing is actually sitting down and writing, so I’m here to give you the occasional firm kick in the butt. Or a gentle one. Whatever works best for you.

Finally, if I’m doing this right, I’m giving you a little reassurance. There’s so much information flying around out there. We can go looking for it or just get smacked in the face with it on social media. How fast and productive this person is. What a great deal they got. How easy this was for them. It's easy to see something like this and feel like I must be doing something wrong. I mean, if I'm not writing 3000 words a day and I struggle with dialogue and I don't understand structure at all... maybe this just isn't for me? Hell, I only wrote 15,000 words for NaNoWriMo last year, so I must be screwing this up somehow...

If any of this sounds familiar... don't worry about it. Seriously. Hopefully I can convince you you're not wrong, you haven't screwed up, and you should definitely keep at this. Again, everybody approaches this a little differently, and just because somebody's faster or finds this part easier or accomplished that quicker doesn't necessarily mean we need to change how we're doing things.

I suppose at this point it's also fair to say I use this space for self promotion. Not a lot--I don't want to be that guy shoving a book in your face every five minutes--but when the time comes, we do what we need to do. And, y'know, I do have a new book coming out in a few weeks so.... be prepared for that.

(The Broken Room, available this spring at your favorite local bookstore, chain bookstore, or monolithic online retailer)

And if you've made it this far, a couple changes in the weeks ahead. I'm probably going to be posting a bit more... well, erratically. Still at least once a week, but it won't always be on Thursday. That was just kind of an arbitrary day and more than a few times I've felt kind of stuck and that a few things stumbled because of it. So watch for posts, y'know, whenever. Still probably a lot on Thursday, but other days, too.

Also... I may finally be migrating the ranty blog over to my own webpage-- PeterClines.Com . It's just kind of been sitting there for years and I want to get better about keeping it updated and making it somewhere for people to actually visit, y'know. Plus, that way the ranty blog's a little more under my own control and not subject to the whim of some corporation. I'll make sure you all know if it happens.

And I think that's everything. Any questions? Comments? Requests?

Next time I'm probably going to talk about the people driving this thing.

Until then... go write.