Thursday, July 21, 2016

Character Or Story?

The classic conundrum any writer faces is whether to make the story or the characters the central focus of our work.  Do we want a fantastical adventure where our characters are merely along for the ride, or do we want great characters that find themselves in the middle of extraordinary events?

There are great examples of both sides of this coin throughout literary history.  In The Shining, Jack Torrence is built up as the everyman who succumbs to both ghosts and alcoholism to find himself in the middle of a ghost story at the Overlook Hotel.  At the other end of the spectrum, the saga of the Galactic Empire after the Battle of Endor involves dozens of characters who, although mostly familiar to us, are vehicles through which Timothy Zahn tells an epic space opera.

As always, most stories find a balance either way, but it really got me thinking and looking back at my own work.  Some of what I’ve written – Salvation Day, Wrongful Death – is extremely character based.  The story has no relevance without the main character.  Others – Homecoming, Schism – are meant to convey a story where the central characters are fungible.

To me, it comes down to what I want to tell, and even that can be dependent on the moment.  Did the character come to me first, or the story idea?  As it evolved, which became more prominent.  In my own experience, I’ve found it more likely for my characters to develop into a story than for my story to develop into my characters.  Maybe it’s just me.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Why Are Villains So Popular?

A villain is supposed to be…well…bad.  They’re the antagonist of any story, and they’re supposed to be made so that people will instinctively root against them and for the hero.  So why has it become in vogue for people to root for the bad guy?

Darth Vader, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Lord Voldemort, Negan - these are the supremely evil beings that were designed to give the hero a challenge, yet lots of people seem drawn to them.

I think the first point of this is what I identified above – in order to give a hero a challenge, we have to give that hero an opponent worthy of the quest.  And since most stories are told from the point of view of the hero, with all their initial weaknesses meant to be obstacles to overcome, the villain appears so strong at first.  In order to present the necessary challenge, we never give the villain’s weaknesses right off the bat, and people are naturally drawn to strength.  Think about it – every sports team has bandwagon fans who jump onboard as soon as that team starts to win.  Villains are no different since they’re winning at first and look to be invincible.

Also, since we rarely see things from the villain’s point of view, we’re never presented with the villain’s insecurities, so the bad guy looks supremely confident.  Confidence is also another natural draw, as people want to be led by someone who is sure he knows what he’s doing.  If we saw Darth Vader from the beginning as a whiny child throwing a tantrum, his appeal would’ve been immediately curtailed.

The few villains I’ve read about that didn’t draw people in were those I’ve seen through their own eyes, like Jake Featherston.  Jake Featherston was a Hitler knock off in Harry Turtledove’s Great War saga.  Unlike many villains, where we see little but their successes and rarely touch on true atrocity, Turtledove does an excellent job making us hate Featherston from the beginning.  We see how nasty he can really be – racist, anti-Semitic, petty, and cruel beyond belief – and we also see his insecurities over his rise to the top of a Confederacy that continued past 1865.  It allows us to get onboard the Good Guy Train without ever being drawn towards the bad.

Great villains can be iconic, but I don’t think we want people rooting for them.  Maybe this happens because people want “gritty,” but I think a lot of it stems from our own failure to understand human nature and create bad guys no one loves.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Friendship

While reading a series of posts regarding contract rights byKathryn Kris Rusch, I noted just how grabby of author rights traditional publishing houses have gotten.  They include clauses to have rights well beyond what they’re producing(the book), such as rights to compensation for any future mediums of production, or film rights down the road should your work ever be optioned.  The contracts have gotten so grabby that authors will have to get permission to reprint any of their work in any altered medium(like, say, a foreign language translation).

What does all this lead to?  It should serve as a reminder that publishing houses are not your friends.  I don’t mean this as some put down, but rather as a statement of professional fact.  Should you choose to go the traditional publishing route, the house you sign with is a business partner, not a buddy.  Yes, you might have friendly relationships with individual editors and agents, but they come and go all the time.  What remains is the publishing house, and that house is looking to make as much money as possible.  That you get published is merely a side benefit to you.

In a perfect world, this would be an equitable partnership where both parties treat each other fairly.  But if the world was perfect, I’d be 6’10”, 240lbs, with perfect teeth and playing QB for my favorite football team.  So let’s stay in the real world, and in the real world, traditional publishing houses believe they have authors, especially unpublished ones, over a barrel.  They know you want access to the market, so they use their superior bargaining position to demand all kinds of stuff they don’t need.

You have to be willing to walk away.  That’s right, even if it costs you a contract.  Otherwise, you can end up being indentured to the company and lose control of not only the book you’re currently shopping, but future works as well.  Don’t let them bully you – they need new writers as much as you need to get published.  Most writers don’t like gritty business stuff(that’s why many want to go traditional), but you have to unless you enjoy getting taken advantage of.

Remember, it’s a business relationship, not a friendship.  Treat it that way.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Too Perfect?

Heroes are (usually) the focal point of our stories.  We need a main character to battle the evil forces and come out victorious in the end, all while displaying to us the virtues we wish we had in our own lives.  However, in our quest to create the right hero, can we make our heroes too perfect?

I think this definitely used to be the case a few decades ago.  The dashing hero would rush in, flash his pearly whites, save the princess, and then tell the kids to make sure to take their vitamins and tell the truth.  While good advice, I think it was this kind of goodness excess that turned people off of some classic stories.

Yes, we want our heroes to persevere and overcome, maybe while showing a little more character than we possess ourselves, but a hero that’s too good can seem unrelatable to our audience.  Most people are basically good, yet deeply flawed.  We have an ideal we strive for, but when we read, we want to see ourselves in the role of hero if we only found that little something extra we wish we had.  Putting a hero on too high a pedestal makes it so that an audience can’t see them.

That’s why our heroes need flaws.  Maybe the cop who doggedly pursues the serial killer has a drinking problem.  Perhaps the pirate going after the corrupt naval captain is unable to commit to just one woman.  Possibly the chosen one destined to defeat the evil wizard is prone to bouts of anger.  Whatever it is, we want to be able to picture ourselves in that role, and since we all have flaws, we expect those we admire to have flaws too.

Of course, we can’t make the flaws too dire.  The hero who robs a bank to save his dying child might – might – be acceptable, but not if he kills the mother and baby huddled in the corner.  A hero should be just slightly better than we are, but only enough that we can see ourselves reaching that pinnacle.  The more perfect the hero, the fewer people he or she will appeal to.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Putting Yourself In A Corner

At the beginning of any writing project, the possibilities are endless.  You can take a story and spin it off in any direction you choose.  This, of course, is the daydreaming stage, which although fun, isn’t entirely why we went into this business.

We went into it to write.

Taking that daydreaming and putting something concrete on paper is what I find the most interesting.  My story can finally find voice!  Unfortunately, if you’re not careful, you can write yourself into a corner, and the further into the story you go, the greater the potential for that corner becomes.

The reason for this, obviously, is that having any semblance of consistency and sense in your work requires that things not change dramatically from the framework you’ve previously built.  If your hero is a swashbuckling pirate who chases women across the ocean, you can’t suddenly make the focal point to be the dwarf who plundered inland and decided to create his own empire.  Not only would it confuse people, but it would also make your book unmarketable since no one wants to be all that confused by what they read.

What this all means is that you have to be patient and focused with your book so that it goes in the direction you want it to.  This all sounds easy, but those who’ve spent any time writing understand that all it takes is one unnecessary tangent for things to spin out of control.  And they don’t spin out of control all at once – one minor thing leads to another minor thing…and before you know it, you’re 50 pages in and figure out that what you’ve written is garbage.

That’s when you have to make a choice, neither of which is pleasant.  You can continue down the road you’re on, changing your story and hoping it gets better, or you can go back to the point of divergence and scrap what you wrote past that.  Sometimes we cling to the first choice since we figure we’ve done all this work and don’t want it to go to waste.  Other times we curse and stomp around like a three year old when we know that we’ve wasted weeks writing what’s no longer any good.

I vote for stomping around and starting over.  I’ve made the mistake in the past of staying on bad material(Canidae), and it only means you’ll have that much more to re-write when you finally come to your senses.  Focus on your work.  Go back and re-read it to make sure it makes sense.  If you need to, write a little bit and then ask a beta reader to chime in.  It’ll be a pain in the ass, but it’ll keep you out of that corner.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Time Off

Okay, I’ve been violating my own rules.  The consistent readers of this blog – both of you – know that I often say that writing is like going to the gym.  Doing it every day creates a habit, while skipping a day makes it easier to skip the next day as well.  That said, I haven’t written anything except this blog since I completed After Armageddon.

In other words, I’ve been a lazy bastard.  And it’s been great.

I needed to refresh myself after completing three novels, one of which was the longest I’ve ever written, in the past year.  So I decided to take a break from writing.

I haven’t been a completely lazy turd.  Most of you know I just returned from a year overseas with work, and I’ve been getting acquainted with my new job.  I’ve also been spending time with my family and our new house.  And then there’s this blog, which helps me keep up at least stroking on the keys.  However, I haven’t started any new projects, despite an itch to do so.

Part of it is to not worry if I don’t reach a certain word count each day.  Part of it is that I want to devote maximum effort to bringing Akeldama into the public square.  Since it will be my first book out, and will be out in a little less than a year, I need to make sure I do everything I can to do it right, and a new book would distract me from that.

And you know what?  I’m okay with this.  I’ve written nine total novels in the past few years, and I need to get them out to see if I can do this for a living before I embark on a new time consuming crusade.  I intend to write the occasional short story when the urge hits me since I both need an outlet for my imagination and I will be bringing out a short story collection at some point after I’m established, but that’ll be the extent of it.  It’s time to move forward with publication rather than writing.

Plus, writing was becoming a chore, something I didn’t enjoy as much as I used to.  Therefore, a break will allow me to be reinvigorated whenever I get back into it.  We all need time off.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Proofreading

I know what you’re thinking – oh goody, here comes another lecture about looking over your work.  Well…you’re right.

I encountered this recently when a reader of this blog discovered a mistake I made while writing a post.  The ironic thing was that this post was about not having enough time to catch all the mistakes in my work.  Had I been quicker on my feet, I’d have said that I was using irony at the end of my post to demonstrate my point, but truth is that I just didn’t catch it.

The reason for bringing this up is that so many of us rely on the normal spellchecking function of our computers and phones to catch mistakes.  And they’re great…when you misspell a word that has no other spelling.  However, oftentimes we’ll misspell something that’s actually the correct spelling of another word(just not the one we meant to use).  For example, in the above mentioned post, I meant to use the word “like.”  Unfortunately, what I wrote was the word “life.”  And I was lazy in not checking, so it slipped through into a post.

In a blog post, it’s nothing catastrophic.  Sure, it’s embarrassing, but it’s fixable.  Imagine your horror if something like that slipped through everything in a novel you’re working on.

This is why proofreading, and then getting someone to copyedit your work, is so important.  When you proofread, read your stuff out loud, no matter how silly you may feel.  It’s real easy to zip right past a mistake like that when you’re silently reading it to yourself, but it gets much more noticeable when you say the words.  Then go to copyediting(hard for a blog post, but a must for a novel).  Having another person take a look will allow them to see mistakes that will slip by you, especially if your computer didn’t catch it.

Yes, this all sounds silly, but it helps separate amateurs from professionals.  And don’t we all want to be professional.  I been, don’t me?
(See – I can still be silly with my points)

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Conflict

While reading a blog post the other night about how to generate conflict within your novel, it got me to thinking – what causes it?  Yes, I see conflict all the time when I turn on a TV show or read a novel, but I rarely go out in life looking for conflict.  I’m not talking about holding a different opinion that might stir debate, but real conflict where the stakes are high.

Therefore, after spending some time brainstorming, I’ve come up with a few things that I’ve found I keep in mind while trying to create a plot:
1.  Differing moral systems.  No villain ever thinks he or she is a bad person.  Only in kiddie tales is the bad guy gleefully rubbing his hands together while cackling, all while expounding on how evil his scheme is.  Instead, conflict is the result of value systems that are at odds with each other.  Maybe one side believes that people aren’t mature enough to handle responsibility, so they want to impose order that will safeguard society, while the other side thinks people should be able to do as they please unless that freedom inflicts physical harm.  These two belief systems are in direct conflict, and they can lead to tension for a story.

2.  Scarcity.  Believe it or not, most alien invasion novels are about scarcity.  Maybe Earth is one of the few worlds suited for life, so aliens need it to colonize.  Maybe there’s some resource(oil, water, glitter) that only exists here, and there’s not enough for everyone, so a survival mode takes over that seeks maximum benefit for its own side.  Perhaps aliens need humans for food because they don’t have enough.  Regardless of the reason, lack of resources will create a fight.

3.  Love.  Love causes all kinds of conflict, especially if it exists between two people competing for it over a third person.  As much as society has changed, we’re not at the point where most of us are willing to accept sharing our love interest with someone else.  Vying for affection, or trying to rub out a rival for that affection, underlies the conflict for many stories throughout history.

4.  Ambiguity.  Ambiguity can cause conflict because we act in absence of all the information.  This seems to be the basis of most crime dramas – no one knows exactly who killed the professor, so we have to try and fill in those blanks.  Sometimes we get it wrong, which can lead to even more conflict.

Whatever the reason, as you begin to outline the plot of your novel, think heavily about the underlying conflict.  Stories with depth have a backstory that demonstrates why the conflict exists, and that depth is felt by the audience.  So spend some time pondering why there’s conflict in your book – it’ll show in the final product.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Genre Vs. Business

Like many, some of my stuff doesn’t fit neatly into a genre box.  Just where do you place a supernatural thriller with a hint of mystery and a tinge of sci-fi?  Shouldn’t we be able to place our work into the public domain without narrowly confining it to a box that might not be perfect?

Sure…and while we’re at it, I’d also like to win the lottery.

As I’ve often reminded you, writing is a business.  That means that the point is not to make ourselves feel good by putting out piece of art that only snooty people will appreciate, but rather to sell stuff to the public, and that requires the public to be able to find it.  The reason for categories of genre is so that readers will know where to find things that appeal to their interests.

As writers, we can gripe all we want about trying to cram our work into something that might not quite be right, but we better figure it out.  This requires swallowing our pride and balancing the merits of our work against the requirements of business.

Look at your novel and decide which category it best fits into.  Is it predominantly science fiction?  Is it a crime novel?  The fit doesn’t have to be perfect, but you need to find where it has most of its elements and where your potential audience will look.  And what if it doesn’t fit into anything?  Well, unfortunately, you might have to go back and do a massive re-write(I can hear the screeching from arteests now, but no one will find and buy your books…if you’re fine not making a living from writing, go ahead, but most of us want to make this a career, and we have to eat more than our dreams).

Think of genre as business.  Some of us enjoy that aspect; some of us don’t.  Regardless, it’s a consideration that has to come into play when we write.  Figuring it out beforehand can save a lot of heartache, but we have to figure it out at some point regardless.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Building While You Write

I think the dream of every author is to wake up when the sun is warm and focus on our next masterpiece.  We want to get engrossed in our story.  All that marketing crap?  We want someone else to do that.

Unfortunately, today’s world doesn’t allow that.  Once you reach the top, the way Stephen King or James Patterson has, then you can count on your name alone to draw fans.  However, most of us aren’t there yet, so we need to build an audience.  It takes time away from writing, but that doesn’t make it any less important than plot development.

The biggest thing you’ve got to do is to find a way to introduce yourself and interact with potential fans.  You can start small – create a Facebook page, or get friends and family onboard.  Once a few folks are in, create a Twitter account and a blog.  Then, with all social media platforms, keep them current(people get bored easily and will leave if you aren’t constantly entertaining them).

Once you’re finally published, implore those few readers you have to write reviews(yes, your readers at first will be few, no matter what fantasy says).  Don’t tell them what to write – just encourage them to write something on Amazon or Goodreads.  It’s an axiom of being human that we want to join crowds, and books with larger numbers of reviews get purchased more often since people want to know what all the hubbub is about.

Finally, never, ever, EVER argue with your audience.  Not everyone will like your stuff.  Some people are simply nasty and live to argue and fight.  Smile at them and either ignore them or wish them well.  Writer/reader disputes never end well, so don’t torpedo your career by starting one.  It’ll turn people off.