Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Advancing Through Dialogue, Narrative, Or Action?

While writing Fight or Flight, one of the biggest obstacles I've faced is how to advance the story.  There's a bunch of information to get out there, and sometimes I don't know how to get from here to there.  To my way of thinking, there are three ways to do it - dialogue(characters speaking to each other), narrative(I can just tell you), and action(showing the characters doing something).

The way I normally like to do it is through mostly action, with some reliance on dialogue.  It keeps the story fresh and in the moment.  However, Fight Or Flight takes place over 73 years, and I can't write a three million word tome that would encompass all of that.  Therefore, I've had to rely on narrative a great deal more than I usually do.

It has forced me to prioritize which parts of the story get action.  How important is the acquisition of the materials needed to build the escape ship?  The main character loses his wife and boy but finds a new wife and has more children.  How much of each relationship can I focus on?

Sometimes I have the characters reveal important plot points with dialogue, but that can only take you so far because it's too similar to narrative.  The only real difference is that characters talk to each other about it rather than allow me to do so as the omniscient narrator.

These things seem to me to be dictated by time and breadth of the novel.  A story like Salvation Day is continuous and can be told by following a character along each step of the journey.  That lends itself to action, which, if it can be done, is by far the best way to tell a story.  In Fight Or Flight, 73 years from beginning to end doesn't allow that.

This is where a writer must be organized.  Flying by the seat of your pants just won't work because you'll forget what's important for the audience to know.  This will lead to either taking the reader down an unimportant rat hole, or it will lead to skipping over large parts of the story that are important.  By figuring out in advance what to tell and what to merely mention, a writer can save himself a lot of struggle.  Since getting to the end is a struggle anyway, why add more than necessary?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Onyx Cluster

After finishing my last novel roughly a month ago, I'm back at it.  I've started writing The Onyx Cluster, and this one promises to be my most bizarre novel to date.

I got the idea for The Onyx Cluster from a dream.  In that dream, I was wandering around a post-apocalyptic wasteland following a nuclear war.  Everything was pretty much as you'd expect - buildings shattered, the sky darkened, very few people - and I stumbled on a group of folks meeting in a barn in the country.  Of course it was nighttime, and, not wanting to disturb them, I hid in the hayloft of this barn and listened to what they were saying.

What they said proved uninteresting...so uninteresting that I don't remember what it was.  However, it was the next part that sent chills through my spine, for just as their meeting was winding down, a group of phantoms appeared out of nowhere and sliced the group to death.  Most of them just showed up behind people and slit their throats.  Terrified, I tried hiding under the straw in the hayloft, but the wood gave way and I fell to the floor.  One of the phantoms looked at me while I stared back.  Its expression was mostly blank, but there was the faintest trace of a smirk indicating amusement.  As I stared at it again, I saw something else.

It's eyes were bright white.

No, not the white you get from a lamp, but rather from someone with no irises or pupils, and it was as if there was a small light behind them.  I don't know what it was, but this was the aspect that scared me the most.  I got the distinct impression it knew me before it, along with all the others, simply vanished into nothingness.

After waking up and making sure I was still sane, I got to wondering about the dream.  Where would such creatures come from?  Why would they attack a group of innocent people who looked like they couldn't threaten anyone?  Moreover, how did this thing know me, and why did it let me go?  As a writer, I knew I had the bones to a novel.

I still can't break the plot down to a single sentence yet, although I'm confident I'll get there.  The path from beginning to end in this book is going to go down some bizarre roads.  I'll have to throw "normal" out the window and focus on sanity being trapped in an insane world.

Given that I've already written over 20,000 words, I feel I have a great head start.  Some of what I wrote will have to change, but the foundation is there.  This one should come out to around 90,000 words, so if I can stay as focused here as I was on Fight Or Flight, I'll be finished by Thanksgiving.  That will be tough, but it's doable.  If nothing else, it'll be fun trying.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

An Abrupt Shift

You know how you're cruising along in your writing, just happy as a clam, when something comes along and shakes you up?  Sometimes you aren't even sure what it is, but you know it's out there, and it won't go away just by your ignoring it.

Then I'm in a cellar groping for the light switch.  I know it's here somewhere, but I just can't find the darn thing.  If I don't find that switch pretty soon, I'll have to leave without my favorite bottle of wine.  Sure, I can live without it, but that would be a tragedy.

Okay, some of you are wondering, What the hell just happened there?

What I did above may have been a bit crude, but I did it to illustrate the jarring shift in mindset when you start down one path, only to be pulled down another by the author.  I see writers using this technique sometimes.  I don't always agree that this is the best method for snapping the audience out of their state of complacency, but it can certainly re-focus them.

Harry Turtledove, to me, is one of the masters of this.  I love his books, mostly because he advances the action through character development.  Sometimes, however, he swings between characters and action so much that you get whiplash.  In his Great War series, he often takes the action and pushes it back and forth in ways that keep us guessing.  One moment you're with General Custer and about to make a breakthrough in the trenches in Tennessee, and the next you're out at sea trying to enforce a blockade.  If nothing else, it keeps you as the reader on your toes.

Unfortunately, not many are capable of using this technique in the right way, and since there is no one "right" way, what I mean is when the situation dictates.  It's hard to break the audience from its complacency, and an abrupt shift can sometimes do that.  But if it's done improperly - like when your action is rolling towards a climax - it can really piss off your reader.  Folks like a payoff, and if you use an abrupt shift at the wrong time, it's like pulling out early...the satisfaction is never quite the same.

This is where the art of writing comes in rather than the science.  You've got to know your story, as well as your audience.  What will they tolerate?  Can you bring things back under control, or did you just make someone throw the book across the room in disgust?  If you want to get this right, you have to experiment, and you have to hand choose your audience to see if they pick up on it the way you want them to.  Or you could try it after you've established yourself and want to shake things up, but try it at the wrong point and all you'll do is alienate people...and people who you alienate aren't likely to buy your next book.

In other words, be daring...but be carefully daring.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Timing & Pacing

One of the hardest things for a writer to figure out is how to pace a novel.  It's never "easy," but  it's easier when you're writing a start-to-finish book that takes place over a relatively short period of time - you can go from one event to the next without breaking stride.  Even in Salvation Day, though, it was tough; I had certain parts of the story that were supposed to drag, while another portion was written in such a way as to induce a sense of anxiety and near panic with its frantic pace.

It gets considerably more challenging when your story simply takes too long a time period to tell like that.  As much as I might be interested in every aspect of how a character does something, neither I nor the audience have the patience for a two million word novel that covers half a century.

That was my biggest challenge with Fight Or Flight.  The entire story evolves over the course of 73 years.  Since even the main part of the story takes "only" 25 years, I still had to pick and choose what to tell and in how much detail.  Charge in too hard, and changing the timing will disrupt the reader.  Gloss over too much and the reader will wonder what happened in the intervening time.

The balance I tried to strike dealt with picking out the key events of the tale while not getting too into the nitty gritty of any of them.  I had to accept that doing this would mean the book would be fast paced, even as large as it was.  That made character development difficult since I couldn't get too into the weeds if I wanted the story to move along.  I could only give hints of personality traits, so with the possible exception of the main character, we don't get an up close and personal view of anyone.

Even those events I picked out had to advance the larger plotline more than usual.  Going down rat holes as I've been wont to do in other books was no longer an option.  If I spent too much time on any particular battle or discovery, it risked throwing off the effect that a grand arc needed.

Of course, Fight Or Flight is in a first draft format right now, and it's very raw.  My general rule is to put something away for a while before re-reading and editing, so it's possible I could get back into it in a year and find that it either drags or goes zipping by too fast.  That could force me to start the whole project over...a daunting prospect when you consider the sheer size of this one.

I imagine this won't be the last time I encounter this challenge.  If it was, I'd wonder what happened.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A True Agent Model

My ambivalence about the way that literary agents and publishers operate is no secret.  I think the entire system, in its current form, has become the worst form of crony capitalism, and it's foundation consists of nepotism.  Agents don't represent writers - they represent publishers and occasionally let writers to come to their parties.

This is where the indie publishing movement is so important, for it has the potential to upend the whole dynamic.  As technology allows more and more writers to gain access to the audience with quality work that bypasses the traditional publisher, the system will be forced to innovate or die.  That will mean that the system of literary agents will have to adapt as well.

Most agents are wanna-be writers themselves.  They hold a great number of literary degrees, but I want someone who can represent me in legal and intellectual property negotiations with large companies, not another book critic.  Sure, the ability to appreciate written work is a "nice to have," but it's not fundamentally necessary to the position.  What many agents don't seem to get is that publishers are exploiting them - they've outsourced their own editorial and selection processes to these agents.  Getting others to do their work at no expense to themselves is the dream of every business, for it allows more money to flow into private coffers.

That's how agents became an extension of publishing houses.  Publishers allow the agents to pick which novels are worthy.  And since agents have essentially become subsidiary employees of publishing houses, they have a vested interest in keeping publishers, rather than writers, happy.  Face it - how long would you tolerate an employee who stubbornly refused to argue only on your behalf?  By going against the grain, agents risk losing out on vital contacts within the industry, ie - employment.

If the indie movement has any impact, it can be in the way agents and publishers have to deal.  More publishers are looking to the indie market as a sort of "minor league" in finding talent that has already proven the ability to be successful.  Friends of mine who have sold well have been contacted out of the blue by literary agents with the promise of a deal with some big name company.  I promise that any agent that contacted me would get one question.  An inability to satisfactorily answer that question would lead to the end of the contact.

What is your legal background in negotiating intellectual property contracts?

For that's what an agent does.  I have beta readers I can ask for advice regarding a piece of work.  Since reading tastes are subjective, I don't view any one agent's critique as any more valid than that of a beta-reader.  However, my beta-readers lack negotiating skills and a practical knowledge of contract law, and that's the expertise I would require.  Publishers have armies of lawyers working for them to help fine tune the points of a contract in order to provide maximum benefit to the house.  They sneak in things like royalty rates that pay only every six months, exclusive rights of first refusal that limit author abilities to branch out and produce more product, and print runs that can limit reach to an audience or the writer's ability to see if his or her work can make a larger impact outside of the short window a publisher grants.  I want someone on my side who has the same level of insight in order to get a deal more beneficial to me - maybe I want to be paid monthly; maybe I want the publisher to release rights back to me if the run goes out of print for more than six months; perhaps I just want the first leg of a book tour to be paid for.  Whatever it is, I want someone arguing for me, not taking whatever is given to them.

Start looking beyond those with MFAs as potential agents.  An agent with an MFA may be able to help you write a little better, but an agent with a law degree will help you get a better deal.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Character Enunciation

The way we talk helps give all of us personality.  It's one of the main ways people identify us, so shouldn't it play a big part in any story?

The problem comes from how you portray this.  With rare exception, any writer that tries to display an accent in print is going to walk away looking like an idiot.  One can only write, "How de ye like de taste of me soop" so many times before the reader gets irritated.  It's easier on both the writer and the audience to write, "How do you like the taste of my soup?" she asked in a thick Scottish accent.

However, there's something to be said for the way a character speaks.  This adds personality, so there's got to be a way to portray it.

I try to do so without going overboard.  I might use "gonna" instead of "going to," just like I might use "coulda" instead of "could've."  I also toss in things like a character never using contractions or engaging with unnecessarily long words.  Either of these techniques can denote either redneckery(yes, I just made that word up - YAY ME!) or snobbery.  After all, when someone chooses to pronounce every single syllable and will not stoop so low as to willingly use contractions, that shows they are more aware of their language and status in life(imagine I just said the previous sentence while lifting my chin slightly).

It's a balance, but it can't be ignored, for the way we speak is such a big part of how others see us.  Therefore, it has to be part of our writing as well.  Sure, you could ignore it and describe every aspect with an abundance of adjectives and adverbs, but that can also get tedious.  Besides which, isn't that a bit lazy?  We should try and stretch ourselves as writers to see if we can demonstrate linguistic personality rather than simply talk about it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Gone And Forgotten?

Rich, elaborate novels usually have an abundance of characters.  Some are major players, some are minor actors, but all advance the plot in some way.  I've introduced many myself.  The problem I seem to have is that outside of a couple of key players, some of my characters get lost and are never heard from again.

It's easy to do - when a character is no longer vital to the plot, they seldom make another appearance.  However, that doesn't mean people don't wonder what happened to them.

Take Salvation Day, for example.  Through the first third to half of the book, there's a character named Gary who plays a fairly prominent role.  He serves as a mentor and sounding board of sorts for Dr. Mike Faulkner(the main character).  In fact, the first time Mike tries his new invention - the one he will use to try and kill God - Gary is the one to point out how dangerous it is.  They get into a scuffle, and Gary runs for the hills before he can get vaporized.

Then he's gone.  I don't mean that he dies, just that he doesn't show up in the novel anymore.  Not.  Once.

I got to thinking about this while writing Fight or Flight.  That novel centers around one guy, but there are literally dozens of other that drop in, and a few factor in in a big way.  However, I have to keep reminding myself to use them.  Some are necessarily killed off or are left behind, but others go on the journey with humanity to a new home, but I rarely talk about them.

It got me wondering what the audience thinks.  A few play big parts in the beginning, but their role isn't as important later on.  Does that mean I should forget about them?  Few of my more favorite authors seem to do this(King, Turtledove, Rowling), so I get the feeling I'm missing something.  While I want the plot to resolve, I don't want readers to walk away wondering what happened to some character they grew attached to who disappeared forever.

Does anyone else have this issue?  How do you keep players involved, or how do you provide closure when those characters are past their wear-out date?

Sunday, September 13, 2015


I'm a slacker.  I have over 300 people on my pre-order list for Akeldama, but for all they know, I've disappeared from the face of the Earth.  Why?  Because I haven't sent out an email update in quite some time, and a few of the newer people on the list have never gotten one.

I'd like to write this off to the time my current job requires, in addition to being in a foreign country while doing it, but that's just an excuse.  As you can tell from the way I keep up this blog, I've got the time, but breaking the inertia to write one is a challenge.  It makes me think that my potential readers may have simply written off the project as not going to happen.

This, of course, is dangerous for any writer.  We have to let those who promised to buy our work know that we're still around and that this dream hasn't died.  Sure, many will come around when they get that email saying it's ready to go, but more will stick around if they feel like they're part of the process.

How often should one send out a newsletter, though?  I don't want them to forget me, but in this digital age where some bosses text and email all the time, will too much reminding irritate folks and make them turn away?  I'm new to this whole "building an audience" thing, so I feel like I'm trying to thread the eye of a needle while blindfolded.

Yes, this whole post is just one big rant on insecurity and laziness.  That said, I need to get off my ass and figure it out.  I just hope others stay along for the ride.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Unlikeable Characters?

As I wrote Fight Or Flight, I struggled with the main character and how to make him likeable.  It's no secret that I prefer to write characters who are real instead of these grandiose versions of saints that have nothing in common with the audience.  I think we all have some noble qualities and some dark flaws, and people can relate better to someone who better resembles themselves.

Unfortunately, as I try this, I'm finding that it can be real hard to present such realism without making the audience dislike the character portraying it just a touch.  In Homecoming, the human society of the future came to revere a man named David Morton.  Morton was the person who led them from a ravaged Earth to a new world.  Since I enjoyed the backstory as much as the main one, I decided that a future novel - in this case, Fight Or Flight - would depict the events that made Morton such a legend.

In getting from A to B(or B to A since this is a prequel), I've had to show Morton do some things that weren't always pretty or even noble.  I think that's understandable since the job of evacuating a small slice of humanity in the middle of an apocalyptic war would require the one in charge to make hard decisions.  Further, I think that although many of us like to think of ourselves as noble while we sit in a living room easy chair sipping bourbon, things get much different when we're actually in the situation.

The problem is that stooping to what he needs to do can create strong dislike in the moment.  When deciding who gets to leave Earth and who has to stay, he uses deceit to trick others into creating a diversion so the fleet can escape, and that diversion will result in a lot of death.  During part of the flight from Earth, Morton conducts a summary execution in order to prevent a massive crime wave aboard his ship.  While necessary in the desperate moments an apocalypse would create, they don't always sit well with readers who may want their heroes a little more noble.

So what do you think?  Do you prefer heroes who are real, or do you want exaggerated versions that we all want to believe are true but usually aren't?  How would you react to someone doing whatever he or she has to in order to save others?  I don't think that anyone is wholly good or wholly bad - we all tend to lean one way or the other, but we're capable of both.  Can we get past that in our reading, or is it too much and will make us root against the hero?

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Counting The Words

Of all of the cardinal rules we hear from literary agents and publishers, staying within a certain word count is among the biggest.  Most ask for word counts around 65,000, which I think is an insanely small number.  However, they insist that no reader will go beyond this.

That's ludicrous.  Such things are said by those who don't trust the audience to hold an attention span greater than that of a gnat.  These are the folks who pump out crappy serial novel after crappy serial novel in efforts to sell as many simple books as possible.  There's no one more interested in making money in this business than I am, but by insisting on such small counts, we neuter our novels and insult the intelligence of the reader.

I think that an in-depth novel can tell a good story in about 90,000 words, although there's no crime in going beyond that.  The Stand, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Interview With The Vampire all exceed these counts.  I know what you're thinking - RD, those are novels done by masters; there's no way we could put together something that great.  That's bullshit - we can put together novels like that; we're just not given the chance.

Of course, here's where I get contradictory - if you go too overboard, consider whether you're telling multiple stories.  My novel Fight or Flight will be over 230,000 words in the first draft, but I'm basically telling three different stories, and I accept that.  Each act is a new novel that can stand alone - I've simply decided to bundle them to save readers the time and trouble of buying all three separately.

Don't be afraid to go in depth.  Some stories, especially those meant for intelligent adult readers, can't be told in 65,000 words because they'd be inadequate; our readers would be better off buying a picture book.  So stretch yourself and don't be afraid to tell that epic tale.  The readers you want will thank you.

Sunday, September 6, 2015


One of the hardest things we do as writers is figure out how much detail to reveal.  We want to paint a picture for the audience, but we want their imagination to at least hold the brush.

However, there are a few layers beyond this, and it always strikes me as a dilemma to try to figure them out.  The first is when we're trying to foreshadow something.  Salvation Day and Akeldama are perfect examples of this - in both stories, there are elements of the plot that don't show up for a long time, but I want to plant a seed in the subconscious of the reader to prepare him or her for the road ahead.  I want for readers to start thinking, "I wonder if that's going to affect something" without plastering a big neon sign overhead that reads "PAY ATTENTION TO THIS - IT'S IMPORTANT!!!"  You have to be subtle enough for the audience to not pick up on it right away and ruin the fun, but you can't be so subtle that no one can figure it out.

The deeper layer to this, and perhaps the one I struggle with the most, is the subtlety involved in putting in story elements without ever coming out and demonstrating to the reader what they mean.  This can be unspoken background or backstory, but we all do things in our lives for reasons most don't understand, yet if we spend all of our storytelling time in our novels talking about it, we're going to end up with word counts in the hundreds of thousands.  A lot of this is important to why the book goes where it does, so it can be incredibly frustrating to not mention it.

I think part of the issue lies in how we see our audience.  What goes into a great deal of too much detail is the same thing that goes into wanting to give away our subtlety - we don't trust the audience.  It takes patience to assume the person reading your novel can sift through everything and pluck out the useful nuggets.  After all, we're the ones telling the tale, and no one understands it better than us.  Plus, it would just kill us if nobody picked up on our brilliance, so we explain and explain and explain and explain until our detail loses all meaning and irritates our audience.

I can compare this to cooking.  I've recently started cooking a lot more, and one of my greatest fears is undercooking since I'm paranoid about foodborne illnesses.  Therefore, I have a tendency to overcook food, thus rendering it less full of flavor.  Cooking properly is teaching me patience, and subtlety demands the same thing.  We have to give our readers credit for intelligence, even if we don't feel it.  To me, that separates the mediocre from the good, and the good from the exceptional.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Hampered By Reality

I have a problem.  I like stories that make sense.  A story must be consistent within its own universe or I can't get into it.  Further, within the context of reality as I understand it, pieces of a story have to be believable.  I have a hard time getting into stories where fish give birth to live chickens and cars suddenly transform into magical bits of candy.

Okay, I made those last two up, but you get the picture.  While we write for our imaginations, if a story goes too whack-a-doodle, it saps the enjoyment out of it.  It makes me wonder if, for this reason, I should stop trying to learn about things.

Ignorance can be a powerful tool for an author.  The majority of people don't know the basics of a tank battle, so any description will do.  Most people have no idea how a primitive society might function, so a plausible description will likely work.  Most have a base knowledge, but nothing beyond that, so they can easily latch onto whatever sounds good.  This is where those of us who study stuff get in trouble.

I love sci-fi, but there are bits of it that make me shake my head.  For example, the speed limit of the universe is the speed of light.  Any first year physics student can tell you that.  Why then do we write about warp drives and traveling faster than light?  Because our stories would be boring if we couldn't.  We'd limit ourselves to our solar system, and there hasn't been a lot of alien activity here.  Similarly, given the speeds involved, if a piece of space dust struck a ship traveling at several million miles an hour, the resulting exchange of energy would eclipse anything seen at Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

While I enjoy learning, once I know something, my gut tendency is to assume everyone else knows it too.  That means there's tons of stuff I can't write about because I can no longer assume my audience is made up of morons.

Is this an artistic failure?  Probably.  Most folks just want to read a story that's enjoyable, and they don't delve into the minutiae of which artillery munition is the right choice at a specific range or which antibiotic can treat which disease.  Unfortunately, I do, and this leads me to provide too much background on things that readers couldn't care less about.  It's a hampering mechanism, and I wonder how many other writers experience this.

Is ignorance really bliss?  Should we shrug off certain knowledge that's not universal just so we can write a good novel?  I really want to know.  At what point does our quest for believability obstruct our pursuit of a good story, and where does it stray into the stupid?

Tuesday, September 1, 2015


We all want to be loved.  It's natural human instinct to want others to shower us with adulation.  Trouble is that no one is universally loved, and no one's writing is adored by all.

I recently read an article by Stephen King that elaborated on this.  King is one of the most universally acclaimed writers not just of this generation, but of all time.  Judging by his influence on popular culture, it's safe to say that King has reached the pinnacle of a career most of us would kill to have.  Therefore it surprised me when I read about just how hated he seems to be by many.  His work has been called racist, homophobic, and psychotic.  Some of his work indeed goes down some dark roads, but I always assumed that if someone doesn't care for a piece of work, they won't read it.  Apparently some get off on reading what they hate and then telling the writer about it.

King's advice - shrug it off.

He's right.  People will criticize what you write, and not just strangers - friends and family will do things to dissuade you from writing.  They'll say you should have other priorities or that you're not good enough.  You've got to push through that mess.  Yes, listen to criticism and see if it makes sense, but don't let it discourage you, and certainly don't listen to those who just go on long rants about how much you suck.

This leads to the next point - write what you enjoy.  Some people will turn their nose up at your taste.  Let them.  Some people don't like Kool-Aid, but that doesn't stop me from drinking it by the gallon.  Why should my writing be any different?  If you don't write what you would enjoy reading, there's no chance in Hell that the audience would enjoy it.  Your enthusiasm comes through in your work, so figure out the stories you want to read, and write them.

I get it.  It's hard.  We writers have egos of crystal.  However, part of being a grownup is knowing that you have to let that criticism go.  You've got to find a way to be dispassionate or you'll go insane trying to please everyone.  Pleasing everyone isn't going to happen, so why bother?  If someone gives a valid critique, listen; but if they rant just to throw invectives, write them off, no matter who they are.  You'll be happier in the long run, and you'll write better stories.