On Saturday, November 17, 2018, I will be teaching a session at the Philadelphia Writing Workshop. PWW is a day-long event held at the Sonesta in Rittenhouse Square with various sessions available focusing on topics from novel writing to query letters, picture books to historical fiction. My particular session will focus on Fantasy and Science Fiction, and there’s an option to reserve a session to receive a critique of the first 10 pages of your work from me. You can also book pitch sessions with agents and editors attending the workshop, which is a fantastic opportunity to get your work seen, and maybe even find representation or get published! It appears registration is still open, so if this sounds like your kind of thing, head on over to the website and book your spot now!
Category Archives: Advice
I watched After Earth last night. Yes, on purpose. No, I don’t know what’s wrong with me either. Actually, to be perfectly honest, it’s an excellent hate watch if you’re the kind of person who likes belligerently yelling at their TV screen. Fair warning though, you probably want to arm yourself with alcohol (or the brain-altering chemical of your choice) to numb the pain before attempting a viewing of your own. All that said, there are some valuable lessons for writers to glean from After Earth – namely: how not to structure a story.
After Earth opens with a spacecraft crash in progress. It’s a big, dramatic scene where two characters we know nothing about are in mortal danger. The craft explodes then we see what appears to be the lone survivor waking up on a planet. At which point the movie immediately shifts to a montage, overlaid with a narrative voice over giving us an info dump about the history of the world. Which is followed by a flashback designed to make us care about the characters we just saw crash. Which is followed by a flashback within a flashback designed to… You know what? I don’t care anymore.
This opening is a classic example of a trap many writers fall into, especially those just starting out in learning their craft. They write a wonderful, flashy opening to grab the reader, and then they bring the story to a grinding halt. They step back and explain their world, who their characters are, how they got there, and why the reader should care. A killer hook is a fine thing, but it cannot stand alone. Catching the reader’s attention is just the first step; you have to give them a reason to keep reading once their attention is yours.
Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with a flashback here and there to deepen the reader’s interest in your characters, but flashbacks shouldn’t be the entire scaffolding your character is built upon. Contrast the opening of After Earth with the first episode of Lost. There’s still a big, dramatic plane crash, an action-filled hook to grab the viewers attention. The episode is still rife with flashbacks as well, but – and this is the important part- they’re interspersed with the present action. The characters in the present time are still taking action. They are trying to survive on the island where they’ve crashed. They’re looking for water and shelter. They’re having conflicts with each other, engaging in power struggles, forging new relationships, and growing as characters. In short, the story is moving forward.
In After Earth, the story does not move forward for a good twenty minutes, maybe longer. The characters are only interesting (and I use that term loosely, because they are not) in the present day because of their back story. Take away the flashback scenes, and we know nothing about the characters. Which begs the question – why should we care about them? Again, there is nothing wrong with flashbacks to deepen characters, but they should grow and change and reveal pieces of themselves in the present day action as well. If you, as a writer, don’t care about the story in the present, why should the reader care? If the present day story isn’t interesting to you, why are you writing it? Maybe there’s a different story you need to tell. The story of the life-changing event that brought your characters to their situation today, and then… The End. Fade to black with your character’s worldview shaken. Leave them knowing nothing will ever be the same. And leave it to the reader to imagine the next chapter, leave them hungry for more, their mind full of where the story could go from there.
This is sort of a follow-up to my last post, possibly a semi-related postscript. Whatever you want to call it, it’s relevant in that it deals with another way we authors sabotage ourselves. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “don’t self-reject” or “don’t try to do the editor’s job for them”. Basically, if an editor never even sees your work, they’ll never have a chance to fall in love with it and publish it.
But it’s easy to fall into a self-doubt spiral and talk yourself out of submitting a piece. Maybe you’re intimidated by the other works published by a magazine, by the strict-sounding guidelines, by the idea that editor X could never possibly want story Y. Maybe the story has already been rejected from a few publication, so you let yourself start to think it’s crap and no one will ever want to publish it and you’d be better off shoving it in a drawer and never thinking about it again. It’s easier to talk yourself out of things than into things sometimes.
Speaking with my editor hat on (it’s very fancy; it has feathers), let me just say: DON’T.
Don’t listen to that voice. It’s a jackass; it has no idea what it’s talking about. Again, in the interest of full disclosure, this is another thing I struggle with myself, so do as I say, not as I do etc. You know the drill.
As authors, we’re supposed to give ourselves permission to fail, accept our crappy first drafts (and occasionally second through thirty-third drafts), get the words wrong, and allow ourselves to make mistakes without feeling like it’s the end of the world. Too often though, we forget to give ourselves permission to succeed as well.
What do I mean? Well, a couple of things. I’ve seen and participated in variations of this conversation in person and online on several occasions recently, and what it comes down to is this:
- We’re uncomfortable talking about ourselves and what we’ve accomplished
- We look around at what others are doing and feel we haven’t actually accomplished anything in comparison
- We make excuses to and for ourselves to not take our work seriously and prioritize other activities above it
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m guilty of all these offenses. Given past behavior, it’s not likely to change overnight, so consider this a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do kind of post.
*tap tap* Is this thing still on? *looks sheepish.*
Ahem. I would like to draw your attention to things that are happening at Chicon 7. While I won’t be in attendance, several awesome people I know will be, and they will be doing suitably awesome things. For example, Fran Wilde will be doing panels about food and fantasy, travel, and a reading. Her full schedule is available here, and if you’re attending Chicon, you should most definitely seek her out. Rumor has it she’ll have cookies.
Carole Ann Moleti will also be at Chicon, and she’ll be signing books on September 1 from 10:30-12, which is also her birthday! You should find her, wish her happy birthday, and get a book signed. What better birthday present could you give an author? Carole is also organizing an Anticipation/Taos Workshop group reading and information session on September 1 (which is still her birthday!) from 2-2:30pm. The details are still being worked out, but information will be available at the con.
Let me tell you about the Anticipation folks: They are good people. Anticipation was the World Con held in Montreal, back in 2009. It was my first World Con, and my first real con, actually. There were workshops. I attended one. I can pretty definitively say I would not be where I am today without that workshop. It had a domino effect on my life. Because of people I met at that workshop, I joined an online workshop that helped me grow immensely as a writer; I found a local critique group, which also helped my writing grow by leaps and bounds; I made new friends; I lost my fear of attending conventions (I even participated in convention programming); I became the co-editor of an online journal; I found a community of like-minded folks all more or less trying to do what I’m trying to do. Without that workshop, I’d probably still be flailing around blindly, getting things (more) wrong, afraid to come out of my tiny little isolated corner of the world. In short, I’d have missed out on an awful lot.
If Chicon 7 is your first con, or even if it isn’t, I’d strongly encourage you to seek out the Anticipation/Taos reading. You’ll meet some very talented folks, who are also wonderful, and friendly people. You may even discover the Anticipation Workshop, which is still ongoing in its online form, is the writing community for you.
This is a post about worldbuilding, and the end of the world. Which may seem contradictory at first, but every good spec-fic fan knows that the Zombie Apocalypse isn’t really the end. Humanity survives, because that’s what human-type folks do. Against the worst of odds, and in the most dire situations, we hold on.
But I’m not here to talk about humanity and its ability to adapt to deadly situations. I’m here to talk about worldbuilding, which is frequently so very necessary to making the reader buy into the story you want to tell. As an author, it’s your job to get the reader lost, to make them forget themselves and believe in your world so completely that there is not, and never was, and never will be, anything else. One way to do this? Good worldbuilding. Another? Good characters.
Enter an ideal case study of how to both these things effectively – Rot & Ruin and Dust & Decay by Jonathan Maberry. As an aside, the series isn’t yet done, but I am addicted. As a reader, I devoured the first one voraciously, and I’m doing the same to the second one. As a writer, I absolutely appreciate what the books do from a craft standpoint. If you’re interested in the finer points of worldbuilding, you could do far worse than follow Mr. Maberry’s example.
I’ve been thinking about titles a lot lately. Sometimes titles are easy, they arrived gift-wrapped in a two-for-one package deal with the story’s inspiration. Other times, finding the right title feels like the hardest part of the writing process. I flail about wildly, throwing ideas at the story, and nothing sticks, until it reaches the point where I’m tempted to tear a dictionary to shreds, toss the shreds in the air, and string together the first five words I catch as they drift back down.
Lo and behold, just as I happened to be pondering titles, along comes this post on Shimmer’s blog. Five authors (Luc Reid, Krista Hoeppner Leahy, Don Mead, Justin Howe, and Vylar Kaftan) discuss how they choose titles for their work. Something Vylar Kaftan said in particular struck me: “Titles are like little advertisements for the story.”
Yes! It’s so simple, I don’t know why it never occurred to me before. I’ve often found myself browsing a list of stories and having time to read only one, so I pick the story with the title that intrigues me most. A memorable title doesn’t necessarily make for a memorable story, but it’s the first impression your story will make, so why not take the time to get it right? Once your story delivers on the title’s promise and impresses the reader, you want them to tell all their friends, don’t you? If your title is utterly forgettable, well, people are likely to forget it, no matter how much they enjoyed the story. “Oh, I just read the best story! It was called, ummm….” Congratulations, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot.
I’m guilty of choosing bad titles. Matthew? The story could be about anything. Teeth? There are probably about a billion other stories with the same name, give or take a few. Some titles I’m fairly proud of: Cloth from Flesh, Flesh from Bone, The Thief of Precious Things, Sisters of the Blessed Diving Order of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew. They may not be I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, but they’re a step in the right direction.
As with writing itself, there’s no secret formula for coming up with kick-ass titles that will stick in the reader’s mind. Many people will tell you one-word titles are a death sentence, and should be avoided at all cost, but there are exceptions to every rule. With longer titles, I’m frequently paranoid they’ll sound pretentious and over-wrought. The title needs to suit the story, too. If The Whimpering of Whipped Dogs had been a story about accounting, readers would have been mighty disappointed.
What about you? How do you come up with titles? Do you do it before the story is written? While you’re writing it? After the story is all polished and done? Do you sacrifice a black goat at midnight? Throw darts at a list of words scribbled on the wall?
Going forward, I’ve promised myself to take more care in my title-choosing. It may not be easy, but there’s no sense in throwing away my first chance to make a good impression. I promise: no dictionaries, or goats, will be harmed in the process.
Or, the epic vs. the personal
We watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II over the weekend. While I wouldn’t consider myself a crazy-obsessive fan, I admit to having read every book at least twice. It’s a matter of practicality; my brain is like a sieve and I needed a refresher before jumping into each new book. Overall, I’m pleased with the series’ translation to film. It wasn’t perfect, but nothing is. What I missed the most when things ended up on the cutting room floor were the little character moments, bits the story could do without (in that they could be easily removed without the plot collapsing), but which made the books so much richer. It’s perfectly understandable – a two and a half hour movie doesn’t have the same luxury to explore every nuance as an eight hundred-page book. After all, that’s part of the reason people still read.
Something that only struck me with the last film adaptation was J.K. Rowling’s relentless insistence on characters. Even when spells are flying and the world is coming to an end, it’s all about the characters.
Spoilers below the cut.
Or, deliberate stupidity for the sake of advancing the story.
In a nutshell, the deliberate stupidity technique involves characters being willfully blind in order to move the plot forward, or keep it from falling apart. The stupid character trope is unfortunately common in sitcoms. Entire episodes could be wrapped-up in under a minute if the characters simply talked to each other, and told the truth. Are you having an affair with my best friend? Actually, we were planning a surprise party for you when you walked in, but now that you know, we’ll just throw you a regular party. Simple. Straightforward. But it doesn’t make for good tv.
So, instead of logical behavior and common sense we get: I just saw my spouse and my best friend whispering. They stopped when I entered the room. I will now jump to a conclusion that goes contrary to everything I know about them and has no evidence to support it, then spend the rest of the episode spying on them from increasingly unlikely locations, while they engage in ridiculous subterfuge designed to make the most innocent actions appear incriminating. Sure, the results may be mildly amusing, but they don’t stand up to scrutiny, and they wear increasingly thin on repeat viewing, or during the slight variations on a theme offered in subsequent episodes *cough*Home Improvement*cough*. The stupid character trope shows up frequently in slasher movies, too. I have no reason to go into the basement alone to investigate that noise, especially not in the house where the creepy guy with a fetish for damp blondes killed all those women exactly a ten years ago today, especially not while wearing nothing but a towel, and especially not while the power is out, and yet…
The deliberate stupidity problem frequently goes hand in hand with the twist ending problem. In order to keep the ending a secret, characters ignore common sense. They don’t explore all the likely or unlikely explanations for a situation, and simply wait around for the big reveal to jump up and smack them in the face. In the very worst cases, they discover the solution at the outset of the story, dismiss it, and spend the next several thousand words getting back to the place they started. Hey, I wonder if the butler did it? Nah, that’s too cliché. I’m going to dick around for fifty pages, exploring every other possibility except that one. Aaaand we’re at page forty-nine now? Holy fuck – the butler did it! Who could have ever seen that coming?!
As with the twist ending, avoiding the stupid character trope can provide an opportunity to make your story stronger. Push your characters, find out what they really want, what lies beneath the surface that might cause them to act like an idiot. Maybe your protagonist is desperately in love with the butler, creating a moral dilemma – duty or love – causing them to go against their instincts and throwing into question everything they thought they knew about themselves. Maybe the story is about the deadly game of cat and mouse between the main character and the butler, as the protagonist desperately tries to prove the butler’s guilt while the stakes rise ever-higher.
Again, these are just examples, and not particularly good ones, but the point is valid. Serious readers/viewers/consumers of fiction are passionate. They want stories to devour them and shake them to the core. They want to love what you’ve written, but they will hold your work accountable. If it falls short, they will turn around and savage it, pull threads, poke holes until the whole thing falls apart. In the age of the internet and social media, they may do so very publicly and very loudly. Don’t give them an excuse. After all, hell hath no fury like a reader scorned.
Or, themed publications, and the art of the reveal.
At some point in their careers, every author has heard the advice that twist-endings don’t sell, editors hate them, don’t even bother. But what about Sixth Sense, we may protest, or – my twist ending is different, no one will ever see it coming! Yes, there are exceptions to every rule, but the rules are often there for a good reason. Do not taunt the bear is just good sound advice.
Okay, breaking writing rules isn’t quite the same thing as poking a bear with a stick, but the fact remains that twist-ending stories are a hard sell, and often with good reason. It’s too easy to handle them poorly; the ‘big reveal’ may be groan-inducing, eliciting an eye-roll from the reader, it may make them feel cheated, or confirm what they’d already figured out several thousand words ago.
Pulling off an effective twist becomes even more difficult when you’re dealing with a themed publication. When an anthology contains stories exclusively about vampires, it’s not exactly going to be a surprise when your main character pops out of the grave and latches on to the nearest blood-filled meat-bag. That’s not to say that one couldn’t write a perfectly wonderful story where the character is revealed to be a vampire at the end, but if the success of the story rests entirely on that ‘big surprise’, it’s likely to fall flat.
So, how to get around the problem? Here’s a bit of wisdom I came across somewhere along the line: instead of trying to create a shocking surprise ending, make the ‘twist’ the jumping off point for your story. Instead of oooh my main character was really dead all along, make the story, okay my main character is dead – what are they going to do about it?
Obviously, that is just one example, and maybe not a particularly good one. The point remains, there’s plenty you can do with an unexpected situation without having the whole story feel like a set-up for a not-terribly-funny punch line. So get to it!