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.


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.