Thursday, June 23, 2016

Unexpectedly Expected

Watching a behind the scenes look at Supernatural the other day, I heard one of the main characters – Jared Padaleki, who plays Sam Winchester – say something I found profound.  He was talking about the way the stories in Supernatural played out, and he said that you have to both give the audience what it wants and surprise them.  I think the way he put it was to “give them something they expect in an unexpected way.”

I thought this was a brilliant insight into storytelling.  Our audience has certain expectations for us, but they don’t want to know the story in advance.  We have to find ways to give them what they’re looking for, but perhaps in a way they didn't see coming.  So how do we go about doing this?

I think the first part, giving them what they want, is decided in broad brush strokes as you plot the generic outline of the story.  Will the hero win in the end?  Who gets the girl?  Will they save the planet?  That sort of thing.  The unexpected part, in my opinion, comes from the details – maybe the group of adventurers find the treasure, but it turns out to have an object that’s much more powerful than they thought, and now they fight over it.  Perhaps they beat the monster threatening the town, but it turns out that the monster was going after someone they didn’t realize, or that they save the wrong guy.

Tips and details such as these help keep the audience on its toes without knocking them over.  Imagine the outcry if Voldemort killed Harry Potter and took over the world of magical Britain.  Or if Grand Admiral Thrawn hadbeaten the New Republic at Bilbringi and killed the Jedi?  Of course what everyone wanted to have happen – Voldemort’s downfall, the defeat of the Empire – occurred, but they occurred in unexpected ways.  Harry Potter was protected from death by the sacrifice of his mother, and his expelliarmus spell rebounded Voldemort’s curse back at the dark wizard.  Thrawn was beaten not by the intrepid actions of the Republic’s fleet, but by the betrayal of one of his personal body guards.  Each of these gave us the payoff we were expecting, but not necessarily in ways we expected.  It was just enough to make you say “whoa!” before nodding about how clever the twist was.

So figure out what your readers want, and then figure out a new way to get there.  They'll thank you.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Finding A Voice

One of the hardest parts of telling a story is figuring how to tell the story, ie – what voice do you want to use.  The narrative quality of any novel sets the tone for the entire book.  Should it have dry wit?  Should it be told as a poignant look back on life?  Is this a sage old man or an impetuous child?

Obviously effect is the driving factor.  When we tell a story, we’re looking for how our narration will make the audience feel.  Twas The Night Before Christmas has a dreamy kind of quality, told from the point of view of a loving father who is trying to convey how special the visit of Santa Clause is for his children.  Conversely, one of the books I’m reading right now, Happy Hour In Hell by Tad Williams, has a smart ass narration so that we understand the storyteller is a jaded fellow who may be using humor to cover up some insecurities.

Even before outlining, I think you have to figure out what the narrator will be like, for this will affect the flow of the story.  As the story forms and the characters take shape, figure out not only what point of view you’ll narrate from, but what the style will be.  However, I caution you too much against using a style that’s unfamiliar or uncomfortable to you.  Yes, that kind of thing is fine in experimental writing where you want to try and get better, but doing it in a book you want to sell isn’t advisable since your discomfort will come across.  For example, I originally wanted to write Wrongful Death from the point of view of a high school girl.  Unfortunately, try as I might, I discovered I possess no more insight into high school girl mentality today than I did when I was in high school.  Therefore, I changed the narration to that of a high school boy since I once was one, and I’m pretty familiar with how they think.

Regardless of your style, find one and stick to it.  It’s okay to change styles if you change points of view, but don’t do this too often since your audience gets used to one voice, and it can be unsettling to suddenly be reading a different one.  Imagine going from the scholarly voice of Max Brooks in World War Z to the boisterous voice of Sheila Tubman in Otherwise Known As Sheila The Great – one could only imagine how that might turn readers off due to such disparate voices.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

America!

For the past year, my day job has taken me out of the country.  I’m happy to report now that I’m back!

I’ve left the United States many different times, traveled to countries on five continents, and I’m always gratified to return to America.  Some may see what I’m saying as a violation of my “no political posts” axiom, but I’m not telling you which way to vote – I’m simply expressing how glad I am to be back in a country so rich in bounty.

Most Americans never leave the US mainland, and those that do rarely leave it for an extended period of time outside of tourist spots.  I’ve done that a few times.  I know it’s fashionable to run down the United States these days, but trust me when I say I’ve never found any place better.  From the rich resources to the kindness of the people to the level of freedom, it’s staggering to behold when you know what the rest of the world is like.  The majority of my countrymen have no idea what life is like outside their bubble, which maybe is what makes it so easy to not appreciate it.

I will never be one of those people.  Call this a trip into the controversial if you like(I’d have never thought saying you thought America was the greatest country on Earth was controversial, but we live in strange times), but I'm always grateful to return to my homeland.  I will be enjoying the next little bit as I recharge from the past year.  God bless America.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

First Draft Madness

Salvation Day was easy, if not a bit misleading.  By far my favorite and best work, it came out easily, and although it required a little revision, it was nearly close to complete when I finished it.  I thought that this would surely be the pattern for the rest of my books.  Arrogantly, I even dared think, Yep, I’m that good.

Wow, reality has a way of slapping down that conceit.  Hard.

Although I’ve gotten close on a few pieces of work since(Akeldama, Wrongful Death, Homecoming), nothing has come out in as polished form, and some are in need of total revision(Canidae, Schism, and Fight or Flight come to mind).  They’re essentially a barfing of words and ideas that, while great potential stories, are nowhere near ready for primetime.

I think this is one of the hardest things for writers to get, that the first thing we poop out on paper isn’t a grand masterpiece that everyone should instantly love.  This requires an objective eye and a willingness to sacrifice one’s ego in order to recognize the truth.  And the truth is that most first drafts stink.  However, that’s why they’re there.

Rewriting a draft is one of the reasons putting out a novel is hard.  Writing a book in there months isn’t hard if you can concentrate on the task at hand.  Unfortunately, rarely does that first draft pass muster for what’s readable.  So you have to wade back in and create a second draft.  And sometimes a third.  And sometimes a fourth…

But why?  I think it’s because your initial draft is so raw.  You know what you want to say, but you can’t quite get it right.  You have to polish and scrub and let others tear it apart before it’s something an audience can enjoy.  If first drafts becoming successful was the norm, then we’d have a lot more writers out there.  However, what we more have are writers who think their first cut is enough, and then they get all shocked and shaken when people think it’s crap.

Don’t despair over your first draft.  Write it freely, without a care in the world, and recognize it will need a lot of work most likely.  But the honing that comes later marks the difference between an amateur and a professional.  Which would you like to be?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Charting The Course

I recently got asked a question by a budding writer on how I chart a story.  This person wanted to know how I got from A to B when writing.

The first thing I made clear is that a lot of it comes down to personal preferenceSome writers like to sketch out each character in detail so that the characters will tell the story.  Others prefer to write a detailed outline that they can simply follow as they write, like a secretary taking a letter.  Still others fly by the seat of their pants so that the story remains spontaneous and free flowing.  It really depends on your comfort level.

With that out of the way, I answered with what I do.  The first step always starts with daydreaming.  Whether I’m in the gym or walking my dogs, I start fantasizing about what a story might do.  I usually have a pretty good idea about the beginning, and the ending usually comes to me shortly thereafter.  Continuing the daydream is required to fill in the middle.

Once I’ve got a pretty good idea about how the story starts, I pull out a standard spiral notebook and start to randomly jot down the story.  I follow it the same way I would when watching a movie, taking notes and making detailed descriptions of things I want to be specific.  Once I have a good chunk of material, material I think would fill 6,000 words or so, I start writing.  I do this because my outline isn’t incredibly detailed unless I just have to have a set piece of action or dialogue, and it keeps the process a little spontaneous, but not so much so that I flail about wildly.  I also don’t try to outline beyond 10,000 words because the story can go off in a different direction during writing, rendering my outline after the point of divergence useless.

On occasion, I’ll put down the basics of each major section so I can outline within that framework.  For example, in Wrongful Death, I labeled it like:

  1. Car crash
  2. Blocked from the afterlife
  3. Life review
  4. Discover person who caused crash
  5. Haunting
  6. Wrong person?
  7. Betrayal
  8. Moving on
This gave me guideposts so I could settle the general direction in my mind.  Each section of my outline afterwards fell under one of these headers.  I also sketched out three main characters for the novel(the dead teenager, the afterlife guide, and the person who was accused of killing the teenager), because I knew they’d affect the flow of the story, so I had to know who each was in detail.

I think the person I gave this advice to found it useful, but I still stressed that this was what worked for me.  Maybe he’ll get into it and find he needs a different style.  Whatever gets your ideas from your head to the page best is your preferred style.  So find it.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

We All Want Some Love

One of my favorite shows on TV is Supernatural.  During the 8th season’s finale, one of the most poignant moments came when one of the lead characters, Sam, was trying to cure the lead demon, Crowley, of being a demon.  Crowley was slowly getting his humanity back when he screamed out, “I deserve to be loved!”

That moment got me thinking about writers and our zeal to get noticed by people in the industry, whether it be publishers or agents.  I think that no matter how successful we may eventually become, we all want to be loved.

I think this drives a lot of folks to run into the arms of traditional publishing.  We tend to think of that crowd as the authorities on what’s good and what’s not.  We can sell a million copies, but having someone official notice us validates our life in some way.  Should we think like that?  No, but it exists, and there’s a sense of not quite belonging if we can’t get an agent or publisher to like us.  I would love to live in a world where we could ignore this longing, but I’d also like to have a billion dollars, and that ain’t happening anytime soon either.

I’ve even found myself perusing the agent listings from time to time, even though I’ve committed myself to going the indie route.  So why do I bother?  Because there’s still that tiny voice in the back of my head that wants to be liked by an authority figure of some kind.  I’m not saying it’s right or healthy, but it’d be dishonest to deny it exists.

To me, this is one of the things that keeps the traditional industry alive.  Aside from people being skittish over going it by themselves, many want a stamp of approval.  I know a writer who has never been published but who feels that he’s awesome because an agent picked him up.  When I ask him about this disparity, he responds with, "My agent tells me I have potential."  This is ludicrous – I’ve read his work, and it’d be great if he ever got it out in the indie world.  But his agent tells him he can do it in the traditional world, so despite more than five years of nothing being published, he continues to stick with her.

Maybe approval is overrated.  Still, it exists.  Overcoming it is where we stumble.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Justifying The Ending

Most of my novels have some very dark parts.  That’s a critique I hear over and over again as people read them, whether it be SalvationDay or Akeldama or Wrongful Death.  Some have asked me why I feel the need to go down such a dark path at the beginning, and why that path continues through the meat of the book.

The reason is very simple – the ending.

To me, you can make a mediocre story good with a good ending, and you can make a good story great with a great ending.  However, in order for an ending to be great, the story has to justify it.  I think a novel that draws you in and makes you care about what happens makes the payoff that much better.  Who cares about a triumphant ending for a book that made you say “meh”?  In my world, you should care so much about the plot and the characters that a triumphant ending makes you want to stand upand cheer.

However, you can’t get there by plodding along in a universe where nothing happens to make you care.  And, unfortunately, it’s tragedy that often creates that empathy.  We want to read about somebody who managed to overcome incredible odds, so the greater the odds, the greater the victory.  You don’t get there by making everything hunky dory from the get go.

Sure, you can create moments of levity and whimsy in your story, but you’re building towards something(hopefully).  You have to make it messy, and possibly tragic, if you want to make the happiness at the end mean something.

The flip side is that your readers are now expecting you to lift them out of the fog of moroseness that you’ve plunged them into.  I’ve talked before about my appreciation of happy endings, because I want to see triumph at the end of a book.  Therefore, while pulling people into a bog is a way to get to the mountaintop, make sure you get there.  Let the reader enjoy how well things turn out at the end – just make sure the journey is arduous enough for them to appreciate getting there.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Too Heavy?

One of the issues I’ve had with folks reading my work is getting them to finish it.  I’ve got a couple of friends that have had WrongfulDeath or Salvation Day for a while, yet they haven’t completed them.  I thought at first it was because I sucked as a writer.  I assured my beta-readers that I wouldn’t hold it against them if they thought I stunk, because that was something I needed to know(actually, why it sucked).  They weren’t going to hurt my feelings, since I needed their input to get better.

However, after much coaxing, I discovered that it wasn’t the style of writing that prevented them from finishing – it was the content.  Some didn’t like the questions about God, or the emotions raised by tragedy.  As one person put it, “Some of the questions and doubts your book created in me made me very uncomfortable.”

In other words, I was making them think too much.

I suppose I should take it as a compliment without getting too big an ego over what they said.  Some of my stuff can be probing, and it’s designed to make folks question their underlying foundations, but if I can’t get them to push through that, I might as well go back to writing simplistic plots with mundane characters.  This will sound like bragging, even though not intended as such, but is it possible for writing to be too smart?

This is maddening.  I realize that I’m an effete snob, but I don’t know how to pare back my writing.  Surely most people can’t be so insecure that mere ideas make them question their core beliefs.  Isn’t a good story supposed to make you think?  What good is a book that lets your brain go on auto-pilot?

Yes, yes, I know…this is like lamenting that my wallet isn’t big enough to fit all my cash or that I’m too strong to play football, and it will be written off as conceit by most, but this really has me concerned.  I want people to enjoy my stories.  I want them to think and question, but writing such does me no good if I can’t get people to actually read what I wrote.  I’ve had faith for decades that people are smarter and want more of a challenge than TV portrays them, but am I wrong?  Am I too big a nerd?  What does it take to get folks to plow through?

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Self-Serving?

I get emails from various writing websites all the time.  Some of these are about how to find your voice, or how to create compelling characters, but a large number are about how to get published.  Go into any bookstore and you’ll similarly find any number of volumes detailing how to get your book published.  And since we writers are constantly seeking to get published, whether it be traditionally or independently, these books and articles tend to draw us like a lodestone.

But it got me thinking – are these types of books and articles self-serving?  It’s not like the generic person who wants a sci-fi classic is going to pick it up.  It’s designed to grab those of us who want to be published and tell us how.  And in our desperation to get our stuff out to the public, we’ll latch onto anything that claims to be able to get us to the Promised Land.

Still, just how reliable are these books?  If these folks were all that adept at getting published, why are they telling us how to get published rather than going out there and getting published themselves?  It reminds me of the old joke about how no lottery winner ever seems to be a licensed psychic.

Getting published seems to be a mix of luck, timing, and hard work.  In the traditional world, did you find the right agent at a time when he or she was looking for new clients?  In the indie world, did you find a niche no one else was filling?  That’s not to say that books about how to get published don’t have some great tips.  However, they pass themselves off as the end-all-be-all, and that if only you follow their sage advice, the path to fame and fortune is at your fingertips.  Of course, this is a great deal of marketing designed to draw in their target audience, writers, but it reminds me a bit of a carnival barker telling us how great things would be if only we gave him our money – maybe it’ll work out, maybe it won’t, but the barker still has our cash.

In other words, take these things with an enormous grain of salt.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t research, but maybe hold off on handing over so much cash on multiple copies of different books that tell you the same thing.  After all, the authors of those how-to books just want your money as well.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Thinking Ahead

I’m a writer.  I write.

That sounds like an axiom for anyone who enjoys crafting stories.  However, in light of having completed three novels this past year, and in much need of a break, I intentionally decided against plunging right back into the abyss.  I needed a break, I told myself, so I would pursue other projects while my brain took time to sort itself out.  Yes, there was the old saying – one I’ve used many times – that writing was like going to the gym, and you needed to stay at it or you’d lose the habit.  However, I was in dire need of a respite, so I eschewed my own advice.

If only I could put similar breaks on my imagination.

Truth be told, I love to write.  Even now, a solid month after finishing my most recent book, I feel that familiar itch to get back into the process.  It comes out as something I recognize – a new novel starting to bubble up through my psyche.

I think everyone knows that Salvation Day is the work I’m most proud of.  However, I left enough room open at the end for a new story within that canon, and it’s that new story that has started trying to escape.  The novel would start mere moments after the end of Salvation Day, and it would follow a journey through Hell to begin rescuing lost souls.  It’s in nothing more than the daydreaming stage right now, but it’s there, whether I think I have time for it or not.

I’d love to claim that there’s no pressure on my writing this new book, but we all know that’s bullshit.  As I said, I’m extremely proud of Salvation Day, so I want to make sure that any sequel is worthy of being written.  Could that paralyze me?  I suppose, but I can’t just jump into this the way I have with other works.  For one thing, the universe of Salvation Day is already established, so I have to create something that speaks to that.  I already wrote one sequel – for Akeldama – and while the bones are there, the novel will require a massive amount of re-writing before it’s ready for the light of day.

I’ll probably start mapping out this new work in the next month or so, but I can’t get into writing it too much right now.  There’s simply too much going on.  My first book, the aforementioned Akeldama, will be published next May(still deciding an exact date), and I need to establish my imprint, go through copyediting, get the cover designed, and so forth.  Being as this is my first publication, there’s lots to do, and I can’t afford the distraction of a new story, especially one as in-depth as Salvation Day.  So we’ll see what happens.  Maybe I’ll cheat and sneak in a chapter or two anyway.  Knowing me, that’ll probably happen.