Dealing With Rejection

This weekend, I watched a video about getting your head in the right place for sales or personal relations. I watch things like this sometimes as little character studies. For instance, I'm a terrible salesman. I do well socially, but when I try to convert those skills to a business setting, I often break down. So if I want to write a good salesman (or conman), I might watch videos of salesmen and conmen trying to teach people how to do their thing.

Anyway, this person was speaking on rejections as an obstacle for a sales call, and I started thinking about rejection as a fact of life in writing. One thing almost every successful writer has in common is that they've been told they aren't good enough far more often than they've been told that they are good, or great, or even competent. Listen to TV writers speak about pitching, for instance. They are lucky if they make one sale for every fifty rejected pitches.

Many of the most popular authors were thoroughly rejected, and I'm not just talking about the ones who's finished work is populist, but of questionable quality. I'm talking about universally beloved books. Dune. Harry Potter. Brandon Sanderson skipped a big part of that portion of his career by just accepting that he would write crap for his first several books and not submitting them.

I don't suggest you do that.

I suggest you take as role models people like Shannon Hale or Kevin J Anderson. Kevin announces how many times he's been rejected at Writers of the Future and often challenges people to show him more rejections than that. Shannon laminated her early rejections into a giant role that she unfurls down panel rooms and out the door in a spectacular object lesson.

Death by Cliché was rejected something like 28 times before I produced it as a podcast to modest success. Between my Writers of the Future contest win and my next big sale, I must have had 300+ rejections. I've never done the math. Rejections are a part of the business.

So how do you deal with rejection?

I celebrate every rejection. I make a point of it. Every rejection, you see, is a step forward in my career. It's a churn. If I don't get those manuscripts out there, and those rejections back, I don't learn and move forward. I listened to these people early in my career and thought, "What if my number is one thousand, and I won't really know success until I've been rejected one thousand times? I'd better get busy."

Or you could sit there and do nothing. Afraid. Stagnant.

Napoleon ordered trees planted along the major roads in France, his reasoning being he wanted the armies of his empire to march in the shade. When one of his advisors pointed out that it would take twenty years for the trees to grow tall enough to shade an army, Napoleon said something like, "Well then what are you waiting for?" Except, you know, it probably sounded smarter when he said it, because he said it in French.

I was just as afraid of rejection, when I started, as the next person. Each letter devastated me. But instead of getting depressed I forced myself to celebrate each one, in some small way. Literally. How depended on my churn rate. If you're getting three a week, you probably can't afford a fancy dinner each time.

At first, I'll admit, it's lip service, but you know what? After a year or so, the sting had faded a bit. It still hurts to this day, but only when I read the rejection. When I see the rejection has arrived, I often give a little "Whoo hoo!" And after the slap fades, I can celebrate honestly now. Not every time. Sometimes the demons still come calling, but usually. Most of the time.

And now, when my last rejection for a project comes in, I'm already plotting my next big move. I'm always thinking ahead.

It might take twenty years, so you better start now. Ask yourself: What are you waiting for?

Except, you know, ask it in French. You'll sound smarter.

Mothers and Writers

It's Mother's Day, or it was when I wrote this, and I don't have any big news, so I thought I'd speak a little about how we become writers. I've done those tours where you go to schools and speak to teachers about getting kids interested in reading, and they usually have me speak on the writing aspect of it. I usually start with something jokey and dismissive like "I can only speak for myself, but the best method seems to be to have your father obsess about writing a novel and then die before completing it, leaving a terrible scar on your eight-year-old psyche." If that doesn't sound very jokey, know that I say it with a great deal of charm.

But in my case, that's just the flashy answer. The more honest answer probably goes back to my mother, who not only read to me at an early age but realized that my appetite for books exceeded the amount of time she could dedicate to reading aloud. So she recorded herself reading to me, with herself making beep sounds to tell me to turn the pages, and gave me the tapes. That way I could have her read to me over and over again, as much as I want.

When I was young, I had two surgeries, one more invasive and more extreme (I don't mind talking about it, but I don't know if you want to read about it so I won't discuss the nature of the condition here), the second a simple tonsillectomy. She knew that I would likely be frightened by both experiences (I might have been two for the first one), so she wrote a picture book for each, called Bobby Goes to the Hospital detailing my completely mundane upcoming trip in such a way that it demystified it. I don't remember having the first one for long, I was way too young, and the fallout of that surgery lasted a long time, but we kept the tonsillectomy book for years, and I would read it and request it over and over. That moment, seeing myself as the main character in a book, with stick figures for all the characters, might have planted the first seeds of writing my own first person narratives.

After that, especially after the death of my father, she probably spent a whole lot of time ignoring my light being on well past my bed time, as I read well into the night. During the Satanic Panic, she didn't blink when I started playing Dungeons and Dragons. I never asked her why, but when concerned parents asked one of my best friends' mothers why she let her son play that "evil game," she said, "Evil game? I walked in the other day and he was trying to figure out how to managed the budget of a small city. I want him doing more stuff like that, not less." I suspect my mother's take was something similar, that the skills I built in the game, or the defense mechanism I gained from it, outweighed any dangers.

There's an old joke, I can't remember which comedian said it. Many have probably done some variation. It talks about how the young boy goes out every weekend with his dad and plays catch. Runs plays. Learns fundamentals. How the dad drives him to games. Shows up. Fights with the coach. Helps him analyze other teams. Watches endless professional games with him, dissecting the teams. Then the kid stands on the sidelines and the camera hits him for his first nationally televised game and he mouths very clearly, for all the world to see:

"Hi, Mom."

When I make that joke about my father, there is truth there. I'm sure his unfulfilled need to become a writer has a great deal to do with my drive to become a writer. But who made my first audiobook? Who made me the character in my first Marty Stu story? Who ignored endless nights of me reading my way through grief and boredom. Who ignored the Satanic Panic and trusted the judgment of an adolescent boy over Paul Harvey? Who was out there, every weekend, laying the fundamentals?

Hi, Mom.

The Eight Thousand Word Wall

We missed recording the audiobook last week. My nose ran and I felt a cold coming on and I feared that if I sleep deprived myself like I do for a normal recording session, my voice would not just be shot, but I'd get fully sick and I'd miss multiple weeks. So this week I came back strong and we recorded for a solid one-and-a-half to two hours.

We got a good session. At the end, we recorded a two-page chapter and I completely fell apart. I hit the wall, hard. An error on every line for the first two or three paragraphs. It was seriously a bridge too far, and we barely finished it, so I learned my limit for a single sitting. If I were to do longer recording sessions, I'd need to take a break at that point, at the very least. Something to clear my mental palette.

I checked when I got home today (yesterday when you read this.) We recorded just over 8,000 words, which works out to be a hair under a tenth of the book. So we didn't quite hit my goal for a session but the progress pleased me a great deal.

I'm grinding on the outline for DbC 6 right now. It's a little a tricky. Not as tricky as 5, which is the hardest thing I've ever plotted and probably ever will plot. But it has its challenges and I'm grinding my way through them. It's the end of a trilogy that started with DbC 4, and I need to get it right. It also fulfills a few promises about the universe in general, and how some of the characters interact with the fact that they live in a game.

On a personal note, I bought a new mattress, a memory foam affair that I hope with decompress my back and release some of the perpetual back pain that I feel. So far, so good. Last night, I went to bed with a hard knot of locked vertebrae in my mid-thoracic. It felt like a fist in my back. In the old days, that would have remained locked until I saw the chiropractor. In this new bed, it loosened up over the night.

The downside is my overall pain levels have gone up while I loosen up, but that's a process I expected. I intend to up my trips to the chiropractor starting this week. Just until we get through that trouble patch where things start moving but they haven't settled into their new configuration.

Well, that's all for this week. Talk to you next.

Working Through the "Stall"

We're in that no man's land of writing. DbC 2 is still five months out from release. DbC has been out for a year, so at this point, there are few surprises on that front. I've turned in DbC 3 and still await a response. DbC 4 sits fallow at the moment. DbC 5 stands at about a quarter done.

We missed about a month of writers' groups in a row, what with conventions and illness and commitments. Then I missed last week due to a new sickness at the house where we meet. This week it falls on my birthday and people have made plans for me.

It can be easy to feel like you're stalled. As if nothing moves forward.

This is where professionalism becomes important. I'll produce less during this time, sure (especially the periods where I'm sick or we're missing group because of my commitments), but during this time, I need to build up a writing buffer for the next time I'm sick or I'm busy but writers' group isn't cancelled. Those weeks will happen.

It's easy to say that it's all about discipline, but it's really about knowing your own limitations. I've personally discovered that my weekly writers' group is my discipline. It's a deadline that I will almost never miss. Without one, I'll go a year and a half without writing. Now how would it be with a publisher? I don't know. Things might be different, but I've known a lot of writers who miss deadlines from publishers. I know that when I started my game company, it was much easier to motivate myself to put in 120 hour weeks at the beginning than after I realized that it would never be a great success. So here I am in this "stall" moment. The writers' group is the cause of part of the feeling of the stall, but that's just an illusion. I'm mid-book and still have some momentum. What would I be doing if I didn't have that writers' group (or another like it)?

I'm not willing to find out.

My mother sent me a quote last night. It was a variation on "It takes ten years to become an overnight success as a writer." For many writers, this has a lot to do with finding out their limitations and their capabilities. Learning what routine works for them and what doesn't. I know that if I discovery write, I'll restart a book three times, like Tolkien. I can't afford that. I've learned that I'm more productive after everyone's gone to sleep, but I can write any time no one's bugging me. I've learned that I'm a night person, but I can retrain myself to any schedule if need be. I've learned that being sick is about the worst thing for my productivity. Being in pain, thankfully, is not that bad (because I spend a lot of time at near-unmanagable levels of pain). I've learned that I can write or record an audiobook on three hours sleep, but I shouldn't edit that way.

But mostly, I've learned that there's a slacker deep inside me, and that I have to work hard to keep him in check. New words are the hardest for me to motivate myself to create (they aren't the hardest when it comes to the actual work), so if I can just keep the pipe full of them, the 120 hour weeks of editing that follow, by necessity, will come naturally.

Did I mention I can write and record audiobooks on three hours sleep?

Audiobook Back Underway

We took a week off for Easter. Families. You know how it is. Today (well, yesterday when you read this), we started recording again in earnest. Discovered I'd forgotten to record the dedication of the book and that I'd probably better add a reader's note about ellipsis because I do things with ellipsis in book two that I'll just need to read aloud in the audio version. Then we launched into recording.

I talked about this the first time, but it's been a while. We use "bump and roll" editing, where we correct mistakes as I make them. Basically, if I flub a line, we back up right there and I take the line again so that when he starts editing, he's starting with one more or less good performance and just processing the finished sound and taking out weird, incidental noises. (I bet I make that sound way easier than it is).

So my judge of how well I'm doing is how often I've stopped momentum with one of my mistakes, and I can tell you right now the number one thing that causes me to make a mistake. It's acting. If I make a mistake, it's ten times more likely to be in dialog or in more impassioned POV narrative than a wind-up introduction. I think I went two or three pages in chapter one without a single mistake, and every one of those involved me voice acting dialog. When you're acting, you speed up a little. Your emotional brain connects and begins to anticipate words more, and those aren't always the words actually on the page. Often you find yourself halfway through a sentence and realize it isn't the sentence written. At least I do.

But for how we did? We hit our stride. We probably did better today than we did most days in book 1. I feel like we're getting better at this, and I had feared we'd have to learn how to do it all over again.

Anyway, we had a bit of a run up to get started again, but we recorded one fifteenth of the book today. I'm happy with the progress. I'll try to get a full ten percent next time. If I can hit that every week, I'll know that my sleep Sunday mornings are numbered.

And also, I won't have to read Fox in Sox two times a day every damn day like the producer makes me do while recording. I hate that damned book. Hate it. Hate it.

On Mass Effect and the Purpose of Humor

You probably think that I'm going to comment on humor in the new Mass Effect game, Mass Effect Andromeda. For that to be true, however, the game would have to actually have a sense of humor. Unfortunately, it does not. I have laughed out loud once in the first 24 hours of the game. In the past games, I would have at least chuckled ten times by now.

Why? Well, it's pretty obvious the authors just aren't that funny. The characters still banter. Their conversations are at least moderately clever, but they don't come off the mark into being witty. My friend Dan Willis put it best. He says that the game has spectacular story, but only workman writing.

No, instead I was just going to point out that I've been playing Andromeda since Wed night. I'll probably do two playthroughs before I do a new draft of DbC 4. That assumes the first playthrough doesn't take too long. In the first few days, I've played 24 hours and 8+ multiplay matches. I hope to finish the first world, post-prologue, tonight (last night when this posts.) I love these games and I didn't really start in time to see the bad animations, except in youtube videos, which seem exaggerated. Compared to Mass Effect 3, they are amazing. I spent the first hour and a half of ME3 nauseated by the uncanny valley.

But back to humor. Why do we need it? Well, at its core, I believe humor is an interrupted defense mechanism. It's what happens when our brain's natural defenses short circuit. The horror mechanism. The fight/flight mechanism. This is why in almost all jokes, someone gets hurt. We're taking the human mind's normal revulsion to that topic and subverting it.

And this leads us to the most useful aspect of humor. Humor tears down our brains' normal defenses and allows us to accept information that we'd normally reject. Jokes allow us to discuss topics that venture into the taboo. So much humor is transgressive because it can be. Humor, by its nature, pushes back the borders of what the listener considers inappropriate. A lot of comedians use this just as a mechanism of the humor itself. Transgression triggers our humor reflex in an of itself. I've heard black comedians say that certain offensive words make a joke six percent funnier, and they are probably right. There's a certain "I can't believe they said that" factor in any offensive joke.

Of course, this is a mixed bag, because everyone has a different idea about what's too transgressive. My mother's favorite joke contains a shocking amount to implied spousal abuse. My grandfather used the f-word as punctuation, but comics like Eddie Murphy and George Carlin could offend him with their swearing (not in the seven dirty words routine, ironically).

But here's the practical use: a joke can drift into areas where a civil conversation can never go. People are willing to laugh at things that they can't discuss rationally. Politics. Social issues. Touchy themes. You still can't go far with these things, but you can address them.

I remember a moment in The West Wing where flag burning finally came up. I braced myself for a giant political argument on free speech. Instead, Bartlet just said, "Is this really a problem? Really? Do we have a flag burning epidemic going on that needs to be brought before the president?"

In another show, I would have thought that a dodge, but The West Wing usually tackled those issues head on. This time, however, they took the time to use the scene as a giant comic drop on everyone arguing about the issue, and it did it in such a charming way that I, who had very strong views on the issue at the time, just chuckled and felt foolish about myself. So foolish that I've rarely thought about it since, outside the context of that scene.

However, humor used as a polemic must be funny. It must be well done. If it's attacking cherished beliefs, it should be subtle and light handed. (If it's attacking ridiculousness, just go to town). The fact remains, the funnier you are, the more you can get away with. If your jokes aren't landing, you can't pull this off. If your jokes kill, you can get away with a lot. If you only care about preaching to the choir, you can get away with more than if you're actually trying to reach across to people who disagree with you, but if that's the case, are you just pandering? Then again, there's something to be said for punching Hitler, as it were.

If you really are trying to reach across an ideological gap, this kind of delicate work requires a lot of test reads. You likely need to get a disparity of viewpoints in your readers. If you attack someone's belief's and you don't want them to be offended, you damn well better have them over-represented in your readers, and you need to listen hard to their advice. I've never written a story that I've taken that far, but if I did, I'd probably do multiple drafts with multiple sets of fresh readers, guiding me until you got the tone perfect because it would have to be perfect.

I personally go for a lighter hand, using humor to deliver a payload of theme that the reader might not notice at first. It's not typically a shocking theme, but the humor acts a delivery mechanism used to implant it more deeply in the reader's mind than it would have landed without the humor. Probably because the most shocking political message I have to deliver is something along the lines of, "Hey. Let's not fight so much."

So, yeah. Shocking.

On Critiques and Humor

Here's the thing about humor. Everyone thinks they are funny. It's one of the oldest truths in comedy. Some people even are. A few can be funny reliably, but even then, there's a big jump between that and writing humor.

Some of it comes with experience and some can be trained. I posted on joke forms a few weeks back, after LTUE. I stole that from Howard Tayler.

The problem with critiques, in general, is to know what to take from them. Most good critiquers no not to be prescriptive when critiquing. They explain their problems as best they can and allow you to fix them. All of that goes out the window with humor. Even the most careful critiquer can't help but try to get a joke into a manuscript. I know. I've done it. It's one of the oldest traditions in humor, older than writers rooms, probably older than vaudeville.

The problem is that most people are really, really bad at it. I receive many joke suggestions in my critiqued manuscripts and its amazing just how few I can actually use. I suspect most of them aren't serious suggestions, they are just the critiquer feeling the need to interact with the text in a humorous way, and I take that as a compliment. But sometimes they get quite prescriptive. "You need to put X joke here." "Make a joke about Y." "How did you not make a joke about Z?"

You need to be aware of this if you try to write humor because it's the biggest pitfall before you. Almost every one of these jokes will be terrible, and by the time you get them, you might have lost all perspective on your own jokes. But trust me. They will be the most obvious joke possible, and the obvious joke, by definition, is almost never funny. The heart of humor is the unexpected. The very fact that the critiquer expected the joke is your biggest warning that you can't make that joke. So take careful note of these suggestions, and then do the opposite.

There is another thing you need to know about critiques and humor, and that's the fact that your own humor will seem stale to as you revise. The most important critiques you can get, early on, are which joke are actually funny. I don't know how many times my editor or copyeditor hasn't gotten a joke in the 6th or 7th draft that killed with everyone else. If I hadn't known those jokes killed, I would have cut them. Jokes are subjective, and you need to know if a joke is popular, because by that 7th draft, when they tell you it isn't funny you will believe them. It will have stopped being funny to you about three months prior. You won't even be able to remember when it was funny. Whenever that happens, I just put a comment to the effect of "That joke is a crowd favorite" and my editing people, who are smart enough to know that humor is subjective, just shrug and say, "OK" and move on.

Of course all of this goes out the door if you have a really funny person critiquing your manuscript, or, like I do, a professional humorist. In that case I recommend stealing their jokes, making them your own, and never looking back.

Because that's actually the oldest tradition in comedy.

Death by Cliché 3 Turned In, and a New Rule

First the good news. Today (well, yesterday when you read this), in a sleep-blurred haze, I turned in Death by Cliché 3. So that's done. The last draft had a bit of a rocky edit, and it's because of a joke I made in the chapter quotes.

You see in one of the chapters I needed a quote and so I had the narrator mention that he'd cut a superfluous chapter, and that should make it easier for me to hit the total number of chapters in the outline, which was 70. (This will almost certainly not be the same number of chapters when it releases). Then, as a joke, I have you hit Chapter 69, then 69.1, then 69.1.1, then 69.1.1.1, etc, until I get to the end of the climax and I move on to 70. A little meta joke. I didn't think much of it.

Well both my beta readers came back confused. The ending made no sense. Major plot points were missing. They thought character were dead who walked around, interacting with people at the end. I just couldn't figure it out. The setup at the end is tricky because the main characters never completely figure out what is happening in the novel, so there's a lot on the reader to keep straight. I can't just have a character think about how it's all working to remind them. Still, it seemed to be more than tricky. It seemed to be a train wreck.

Then I got to chapter 69 in their notes.

I keep all my chapters in separate word files until I combine them for submission. With chapter 69, however, I put them all together because I was afraid the numbering would make it hard to keep track of the read-order when you had them up on a computer screen. Then I noticed that no one had any notes after chapter 69 itself. They'd just arrived at that first pagebreak and stopped. They hadn't paged down and discovered 69.1, not to mention all the rest. So no wonder they were confused. They missed ALL of the resolution and most of the action of the climax.

I got a good new scene out of it trying to re-explain the theme, though, so it wasn't a total waste of mind-numbing panic.

On top of that, throughout all of the last two weeks, I've had pneumonia. This isn't terribly new, I'm a bit prone to it. It runs in my family: my father got pneumonia once a year. I used to get pneumonia after every con. Literally, 100% of the time. Then I learned that if I took an extra day off afterward, I stopped getting pneumonia. I still get con crud once in a while, but even that's rare, and when it comes, it rarely turns into pneumonia anymore.

Not after FanX. FanX put me down hard. It wasn't until the pnuemonia had me operating at about 40 lost IQ points that I finally realized what was going on.

See, the weeks before FanX I'd been in full work mode. I'd promised Wymore a critique and I had to turn in DbC3. I did my standard "crunch mode" 100-120 hour weeks. With five hours sleep a night. I pushed and pushed and pushed. It wasn't until I got sick that I realized the whole point in the extra day of rest was so that I didn't have to fight of convention sicknesses with a compromised immune system. Driving myself to the point of exhaustion before the con is a great way to get really, really sick.

So now I have a new rule. Not only do I take an extra day off after the con, but I have to go into the con well-rested. If I'm in crunch mode before the con, I probably need to suspend it at least a few days before the con itself. Because I like many things in this world.

Breathing is in the top five.

With DbC 3 turned in and myself recovered, I'll enter a bit more of a relaxed time. I'll play a couple games, then get into a full edit of DbC 4. Probably when I finish Mass Effect: Andromeda. In the meantime, I'll probably work on my novel Kill dash Nine, but at a relaxed rate, maybe a chapter every couple days.

Well, that's all. TTFN.

Sick Week

I have this tendency to get pneumonia. My father came down with a case every year. I get it every con if I don't take an extra day off after and once in a while if I do and I'm not careful. Post FanX, my lungs have started to fill and I'm in full on rest-so-it-doesn't-become-infected-and-become-a-real-case mode.

So I'm taking a sick week. It will take most of the week to recover. I'm still working on DbC3 but I've curtailed all other projects, including this blog. Instead, I'll steal a Schlock Mercenary Comic for your enjoyment.

www.schlockmercenary.com

SchlockMercenary.com

DbC 3 again, and More Villains

First of all, this weekend is FanX. My schedule has already changed slightly, so if you're planning on attending events, I suggest getting the phone app. It updates as they make changes and tracks your schedule for you. You can also set alerts to remind you when you have an upcoming event on your schedule. I live by it.

Also, if you want to be my assistant at FanX this year, you can apply. I'll be picking from submissions this week. It isn't a paid position, but it's light work. :) You can find out how by checking out the World's Greatest Comic Book Podcast on Tuesday.

Now on to business. I've started the rewrite of DbC 3. The front end and the back end will take the most work, which is pretty much the inverse of my usual books. Typically, it's the section between the Act Two Twist and the beginning of the climax where I flail about without a purpose. So that's a pleasant change. Anyway, I haven't made it very far yet, as I had to put a critique for Wymore to bed first, but I started Saturday and have officially hit the first section where two bits need to be rewritten and combined for brevity. So. Yay?

Okay, so that's out of the way. Last week I spoke about villains, but I only really discussed the more down-to-earth villains. The kind of villains you could have a beer with. Even Darth Vader had to get out of that armor from time to time and really did everything because he desperately feared being alone. But what do you do about the big evil's, like Sauron. Or the Devil. The evils which are more elemental forces than people?

The only thing I don't like about The Lord of the Rings is the treatment of Sauron. I need something to sink my teeth into with a villain. With the big, elemental evils, you might not be able to give them and sympathetic point of view, like you might with a more human villain. That doesn't mean that their POV can't be interesting.

I start with brilliant dialog. If I'm writing a ten thousand-year-old villain, he will always be the wittiest person in any room. His dialog will captivate. More importantly, it will show a point of view that is slightly outside our way of thinking. Above everything we know. Beyond us.

Let me give you an example from a book I think unlikely to get published. In it the villain is an eleven-thousand-year-old fallen angel. I wanted to play with all the fallen angel tropes, so he spends a great deal of time talking. Endlessly taunting the main character as they fight. Now there are plans within plans withing plans here, and the main character finds out later that there's a tactical reason for every word he says, but early in the conversation, hero calls him out on it. The fallen angel tells the main character that all of those stories where the villain taunts the hero... every one, since the beginning of time...they've all been about him. The hero mentions that in the stories the hero always wins, and the fallen angel says, "That's because they're stories."

It's in that moment that the main character realizes that he's not just fighting a fallen angel, but an archetype of evil so iconic that he's warped the way humanity has communicated for as long as humanity has used narrative to comfort themselves. He also realizes that while in the stories the hero always uses the villain's monologue to beat him, in reality, the fallen angel indulges himself because he can. In reality, he's never lost. The monologue, a terrible cliche in most cases, has become a terrifying reminder of just how powerful the villain actually is.

But I also wanted to give him a slightly broken and ironic point of view, so in one of his monologues, he told a story. In this world, they had a war in heaven, but in it, the fallen angels had a moment of victory, and this fallen angel was the one who forced his way into God's presence and made their demands. He tells how all God had to do at that point was apologize, and all would have been forgiven, even then. If God had just admitted, even after all that pain and blood, that he'd just been wrong, that the fallen angels would have forgiven him and the breach could have been healed. But he wouldn't. God stood, too stubborn and too proud. And the world remained as it did to this day.

I never state it outright, but it should be obvious to any reader that the opposite was, of course true. That God is silent throughout this entire story because it is He who waits. Quietly. With forgiveness. Waits ready to be asked. Did the fallen angel deserve grace? Of course not, but as the book states later, that's the point of grace. It wouldn't be grace if we deserved it. Watching this broken creature rail and accuse God of his very own crime doesn't actually build sympathy, but it adds a bit richer texture to a character who could appear entirely two-dimensional otherwise.

You might not be able to actually make a character like this sympathetic. You can, however, add enough color to make them an interesting read.

DbC 3 and 5. Also, Villains.

Last week I turned in my first chapters of DbC 5 into writer's group. It was a bit of a hot mess, like first submissions often are, but it was a sufficiently entertaining hot mess. I'm happy with the response. We will push forward.

Friday I spent about three and a half hours in a car so that I could spend two hours doing RPG panels at SaltCon. It was fun. Their panel track is still in its infancy, so attendance was light. I think the administrator worried about that, but I've been doing this too long to worry about stuff like that. I've done 7 pm Valentine's Evening panels before. You make do.

After that came recovery and a fair number of pain pills. On Sunday if finally burned out on Blood Bowl II, which means that It's time I get DbC 3 in hand. I don't have an actual deadline on this one, nor do I have a huge pile of first draft notes to enter, so my goal is just to work on it an hour or more each night. It will take a little more restructuring than the second draft did. I want to cut about ten percent from the beginning, but we'll hit that at a good, solid pace and once I'm past that and they leave on their mission, the book should fly by.

I didn't want to just talk about news this time and this week's events don't present a natural theme, so I thought I'd borrow the theme from CQ's monthly topic: Villains.

A common problem we see in movies is that the villain is more interesting in than the hero. This is a bit easier to pull off in movies than in the written word, I believe, because of the lack of POV writing. Cracked has pointed it out several times, at least on their podcast. The reason the villain is so interesting in movies is that his motivation doesn't need to be well-reasoned. In many movies, if not most, if you actually examine things from the villain's side, things fall apart very quickly.

But in a novel, we tend to have large portions from the villain's POV. Their motivations and their plans need to hold together better than in a movie, and because of that, the villains in books fall flat a lot more often than in films. In movies they can be visually flamboyant and over the top. In a book, they have to make sense, and they are often petty and cruel, psychologically damaged, and rife with unlikeable traits that are unpleasant to experience from their point of view.

I think my view on villains was shaped by doing too much Shakespeare in college. I know it crystalized when watching The Rock with a friend with whom I'd done said Shakespeare. This friend pointed out that the movie was so compelling because we wanted Ed Harris's character to win as much as we wanted the heroes to win, just like in most Shakespeare plays. I realized at that point that I'd been doing the same thing in my own writing.

Usually, I do one of two things with the villain. Either I give them a noble goal and a believable reason they don't believe they can achieve it through noble means, or I put them in a much more evil organization and make them the underdog, so that the reader begins to root for them (because we always root for the underdog). It's not uncommon for me to receive notes early in a book where new readers express distress as two characters move toward an inevitable clash and the reader is upset that either of them will die.

This is, of course, exactly the response I'm going for. That tension adds all sorts of drama to story, and how it will play out in the end will keep a reader on the edge of their seat throughout good portions of a book. It can also make them hate you, of course. Use it with caution.

Of course, this takes you back to the problem you have in movies: making your hero interesting enough to face off against your villain. That is harder. Heroes can be as boring as bag of doorknobs.

Generic, industrial doorknobs. The bag is nothing special either.

Death by Cliché 4 In the Can and FanX and Other Cons

At almost 2 am Thursday morning, I finished Death by Cliché 4 and turned it in to my writer's group. I then took a celebratory lap. I'm sorry, that should read "nap." And by nap, I mean I passed out for five hours. Five hard, hard hours.

So that's done. Thank god. It's over. Put a fork in me. Now I need to get the first submission ready for five. In time for Thursday. It is the Dark and Hungry God. It must be fed. It comes round once a week. Whether I'm ready or not.

Also, Friday we received our schedules for FanX. I'm on three panels. Considering that we have greatly reduced schedules this year, I'm going to consider that a lot.

My schedule is as follows:

Friday:

Build A Story: Professional Storytellers Create from Scratch :: 151G

Friday March 17, 2017 :: 2:00 pm to 3:00 pm

Saturday:

5:00 pm

Choose Your Own Apocalypse: Dragons vs. Undead vs. Elementals :: 151G

Saturday March 18, 2017 :: 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm

7:00 pm

The Art of Horror: Why People Loved to be Scared :: 151G

Saturday March 18, 2017 :: 7:00 pm to 8:00 pm

Before that, I'll be speaking briefly at SaltCon. Just two panels, this Friday.

Also, I believe I agreed to add a new con this week at Weber in June. I don't have a lot of details on that one yet. I believe it's new. So it was a weekend of convention news.

I don't have much else. My brain is still spinning. I'm putting off my next big rewrite of DbC 3. I don't wanna.

Aside from DbC 4, just odds and ends. Talk to you next week.

This Blog Title Intentionally Not Funny

So. This week we held Life, the Universe, and Everything (LTUE), the academic symposium for science fiction and fantasy writers. We laughed. We cried. There was likely a knife fight over Keynesian Economics. I'm not sure, I was in the Green Room singing Hamilton, insinuating that the movie The Accountant was based on the life of Larry Correia, and looking for a spoon so I could do a proper koala bear impersonation. Occasionally, I would emerge, bleary-eyed, to do a panel.

On one such panel, a panel I suspect that I actually pitched, we discussed the secrets of writing humor. The panel called "I'm in it for the laughs" (Which, if I pitched, was probably supposed to be called "This Panel Title Intentionally Not Funny"), involved Michaelbrent Collings, Frank Morin, Michelle Witte, and myself pretending really hard that we know how humor works. Frank Morin was moderating, so he was the one who had to do the least amount of lying. However, I made a solemn oath in that panel, and I take such oaths seriously, so I'm fulfilling it now.

You see, I had big intentions for this panel. I was going to sit down and catalog all of the major formulas of joke writing. Rule of three. Comic drop. Forced Congruence. All of them. A quick google search had shown no good resource for this, and I thought they should all be in one place. Unfortunately, I also had a demo for the Star Wars RPG to run on Saturday. The Star Wars game was two hours of people counting on me to be entertaining. The list of joke forms, in a panel, would be taking other panelist's time so it could run no longer than five minutes, and it would take much longer than the game's ten hours to prep. My priorities became clear and it just never got done.

Luckily, about five hours before the panel, Howard Tayler mentioned he had a presentation with such a list. This surprised me because I'd asked him for one previously. This shouldn't have surprised me because months or years after I'd asked for that list, when he actually wrote this presentation, he asked me for sections of my book DbC2 to quote inside, so I totally was part of preparing this. But, I've been accused of many things. Observant has never been one of them. Howard sent me the presentation. The day was saved (in passive voice, because Howard was very, very tired).

After reading the list in a staccato, rapid-fire fashion at the end of the panel, about a dozen people looked up with shaking, desperate pens from their attempt to take notes and asked where they could get a copy of that list. I promised I'd make this blog post. Then I promised Howard that he could approve it first. Then he promised to take his giant New Rock sci-fi boot off the small of my back.

So here we are. The list. I won't give a full presentation on each. That's another panel and it's Howard's purview. I'll go a little deeper into Rule of Three, just because that's the one he used my stuff in, so I feel like I'm on comfortable ground there.

Comic Drop

A comic drop is when you take a person of high status and you lower them a peg. Political satire is comic drop in purest form. Comic drop is NOT funny if the person already exists in a low state. That is called "punching down." You can only punch up. As Krusty said on the Simpsons, you can't throw a pie into the face of a schlub. You have to throw the pie at someone with dignity.

Rule of Three

Rule of three shows that things are funny in patterns of threes. Look at my joke about my green room antics, above. The general patter of a rule of three joke is beat, beat, punchline. For this one, I'm going to quote Howard, who goes on to quote the first and second drafts of Death by Cliché 2: The Wrath of Con.

Here’s a snippet of text from Bob Defendi in which a world-class swordswoman is really, really enjoying the carrots in her stew:

"These carrots could make apples jealous. These were the kings of carrots. These carrots could unite the races and bring about world peace. These carrots were to food what the reverse short sword grip was to parrying."

This bit was funny, but it felt like it might be misfiring a bit. As we reviewed it we found that there were four elements, which made the joke seem a little long. Rather than cut anything, we simply reordered the elements, putting the first one last.

"These were the kings of carrots. These carrots could unite the races and bring about world peace. These carrots were to food what the reverse short sword grip was to parrying. These carrots could make apples jealous."

Payload, Then Pause

Payload, Then Pause states that the funniest part of the joke, the punchline, should go as closest to the natural pause as possible. In Howard's example above, I led with the apples line, which he pointed out was actually the funniest analogy. Howard looks for the funniest word in a joke and often rewrites the joke to put that as close to the natural pause as possible.

Recontextualize

Recontextualize is a joke form where the reader believes you're talking about one thing and then you twist the joke at the end. For instance, I often tell people, "I miss you, Jim." <Pause for contextualization.> "So I'm buying a scope." <Recontextualization>

Wordplay

The wordplay in its basic form is the pun. In its highest art form, it is the "Who's on First?" routine by Abbot and Costello. Most witty banter falls into wordplay. Half of the stuff dripping from a Joss Whedon script lands here.

Repetition

Repetition is returning to the same joke multiple times, in new and interesting ways. The classic form is the callback, where you revisit an old joke to bring completion, often twice to invoke Rule of Three. A secret about that carrots joke above is that Howard doesn't really love it because of what he wrote there. Howard loves it because it's a running joke that plows relentlessly through that scene, as others are trying to demand that woman's attention. (Howard knows this of course, but it's an example of how one bit falls into multiple joke forms. That one bit hits probably hits every joke form on this list except Double Down and Noises Off.)

Another interesting use of repetition was employed by David Letterman. When he had a huge joke land during his monologues, he'd put that punchline in his pocket for whenever he got in trouble later during the same bit. For instance, I once saw an episode where he said that he saw two men talking, confused, and one of them said (in a hick accent) "Them bats is smart. They use radar." The delivery was perfect and the audience died laughing. For the rest of the monologue, if a joke fell flat, he would stare out into the audience walk way too close to the camera, and say, "Them bats is smart. They use radar." He would instantly have the audience back on his side.

Double Down

Double down is a form of joke where you set up a joke, a second character undercuts or denies it, and instead of backing off, the original character recommits to the joke, but harder. With Howard's permission (and he'll cut this if I don't have it), here is an example bit of dialogue from Schlock Mercenary:

"No other casualties to report, sir."

"Really? What about your arm?"

"I'm currently left-handed."

"Your right arm is missing."

"It's not missing. It's fused to a bulkhead on deck twelve."

Surprising, yet Inevitable

Many jokes will have some aspect of surprising yet inevitable. Like a good story, a joke often catches you off guard with the ending that you should have seen coming, but didn't. Jerry Seinfeld's observational humor was a master of surprising yet inevitable. He would spend entire routines talking about things we spent all day interacting with, but never really considered.

Noises Off

The key to the Noises Off joke, as Howard tells it, is that the pie fight you see in your head is always funnier than the pie fight you see on screen. The setup is that you see or hear two characters describing or commenting on the action without seeing the action itself. Now, Lilo and Stitch had the Noises off line in it, ironically, not in a Noises Off joke. In it, Lilo was on the phone while her house was being attacked and Stitch, the alien superweapon, was trying to save her. In a classic Noises Off joke, we'd get this from the other side of the phone and never see what happened in the house. In the movie, we get it backward, and Lilo hangs up on the person the moment after she delivers news so we only get a hint of the reaction. So while it isn't a true Noises Off scene, it culminates with the most perfect Noises Off line ever written:

"Oh good, my dog found the chainsaw."

Reach Further

Reach Further is a variation of the double down joke form. In double down, a second person interacts with the first. In reach further, the joke teller sets the joke, takes a beat, then takes the joke further on his or her own. Here's the example Howard used from Jim Gaffigan, and I love it too much to find another:

“Growing up my parents had fine china you couldn’t even put in the dishwasher. ‘Don’t get that wet, you need to clean it with a kitten.’”

Quite the reach. And then? He doubles down.

“‘It needs to be a white kitten’”

Forced Congruence

I will end this post the same way Howard ended his presentation. With forced congruence, and perhaps the greatest line of comedy ever written. It is self-explanatory:

“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.”

—Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

DbC 2 Turned In and LTUE

I set myself a goal of editing a quarter of DbC 2 each night until it was finished. When you're doing the actual final proof it's not that hard to do sixty pages in an evening. Often you go twelve pages without an edit, and when you get there it's either a comment that left for the copy editor so he wouldn't change something or a minor change like a comma. About three times in an evening I would need to make a real change.

Anyway, Thursday and Friday I'm not actually home, so I finished that Saturday and submitted it. I expect word any moment that they received it. (Monday morning edit: word received). So that's put to bed. Now I just need my audio guy to finish his studio so we can begin the audiobook.

Meanwhile, I've been prepping for Life, the Universe, and Everything, a local academic symposium. They've asked me to run a game demo and I've chosen to run a Star Wars adventure for Fantasy Flight Game's current RPG. I've modeled the base structure of their beginner sets. Friday night I ran it for my game group. We went long, but about an hour. So on the day of, I'll need to either cut or come up with an alternate plan. Right now, I intend to poll the group at the beginning and ask them if they want the full version of the adventure or a stripped down version. If they want the stripped down version, I'll heavily edit two skill-intensive encounters that eat up a lot of table time, and possibly cut a redundant encounter which mainly teaches initiative and the edition of a second range band. If they want the full version, we'll run it as is, and see about moving to the game room when our time in the demo room expires. It will mainly depend on if they want to devote three hours to the game or just the two.

Other than that, I'm probably moderating a panel or two. I should probably look into that.

All right. Obviously, I know I'm moderating some panels. In fact, one of the panels I asked to be removed as moderator. Usually, I love moderating, but I feel it necessary to talk less when I moderate and I might have the strongest subject credentials on that panel, so I decided to head that one off early. I have often ended up at panels, seen that one of the biggest authorities on a subject had been made moderator, and offered to take over for the same reason. Anyway, the staff was happy to accommodate.

Other than that, I've been playing Blood Bowl II. I feel like finalizing DbC2 earned me continued goof off time. I finished my first tournament as the Dark Elves, my favorite team, but I haven't rolled a single stat gain on a player and that's killing me. I'll probably try another team tonight. Maybe the Undead or Wood Elves or Dwarves. (Monday morning edit: Tried Undead and Wood Elves, Wood Elves won me over, and after four games, they already earned a stat gain on a wardancer.)

So that's my week. Next week you'll get an LTUE report.

TTFN.

Final Edit Time. Also, SUNDAY, SUNDAY, SUNDAY!!!

This was a pretty big weekend. I usually write these Sunday afternoon, but this one was delayed until the evening, after possibly the most exciting Superbowl in...I don't know...ever? Thirty-one unanswered points? A 25 point comeback? The first overtime in Superbowl history? The Fox streaming feed going out and having to watch a chunk of the fourth quarter in Spanish? It was eventful, I'll tell you that much.

I found the flood originally straightening up for the playtest in the playtest room in the basement, so that's how the weekend started. In between, I played a lot of Blood Bowl II, which seemed particularly appropriate for Superbowl Weekend. I won the campaign mode literally ten minutes before kickoff. I started up an Old World League Tournament after, but then paused it to write this.

Also during this, I emailed my copyeditor to find out if I'd lost an email somewhere. Back at the end of December, I'd turned in my full rewrite of DbC 2 for him to go over. He usually has a pretty quick turn around, and he'd sent me a few facebook messages early on that led me to believe he'd jumped right into a second round of edits. During the big game we emailed back and forth a few confused date emails, but it came down to the fact that he had finished but the email had never actually been sent. So now I have the edits. It should be a non-issue for me to get them out this week.

I still have flood damage to repair. I also need to prep a big Star Wars demo for Life the Universe and Everything, a symposium in Provo. It will have an audience, so I want it to be as professional as possible. Anyway, a full enough week, but I'm looking forward to it.

TTFN.

It Never Rains, But It Floods

So by the time you read this, the lion's share of my taxes should be done, meaning that I'll be done categorizing all of my deduction. (I just have a couple hours left as I set this blog post up.) I still have to copy down all the totals onto the worksheet my tax guy provides, but I'll do that when I have all my tax forms. I also paid Sales Tax (personally) for the first time. Before, I've always either been exempt or performed sales through venues that handled the sales tax for me (online retailers, for instance, or the settling up process at the end of Salt Lake Comic Con). So basically, there will be about an hour left to do sometime in the future, but I'm waiting for paperwork to put all that together.

A new adventure reared it's head this weekend, however. We'd blocked the door to the conference room I built for playtests in my house (not a huge deal, we'd just set a few things in front of it that needed to be carried to another room) and needed to clear it for a session this weekend, so no one trips. Upon doing this, we discovered that another room in the basement, one under the kitchen, has had some minor flooding. But while the flooding was minor, there were hundreds upon hundreds of pounds of boxes sitting on top of the water, and they had to be moved. Also, I have a bad back.

I managed to get about 90% of the way through before I completely blew out my ability to, you know, move. Luckily, I had an able bodied friend coming over that night and he happily moved the last five or so boxes the five or ten feet necessary to make sure that nothing still sat in water.

So, over the next week or two, I'll need to unpack all the boxes that got wet and assess the dollar damage done. Find out if it's worth filing an insurance claim. I literally have no idea yet. Some of the boxes are RPG books, some are paperbacks, so the range could be anywhere from $100 to thousands. I just don't know yet.

I had decided that if my taxes were done in less than a week, I'd start a new project. If they took longer, I'd let myself take a break a play a computer game before going back to 80+ hour weeks. If you take out the time I spent dealing with the flood, the taxes probably took just under a week, but now that I have at least two weeks of late night damage control box sorting ahead of me, I decided that I might as well give myself a break.

So I'm playing Blood Bowl II. The violence is refreshingly cathartic.

Still Tax Time, and Also Plotting

Well, that game didn't take two weeks. I finished Empire: Total War yesterday evening. That means that I'm back to 80+ hour weeks until I finish my taxes. If my taxes take long enough--they'll also include reconciling my game company books for the end of the year--I'll call that good and start a new game. If not, I'll probably leap straight into getting DbC 3 ready for submission.

As a side note, for those following at home, I think I said that I play Rise of the Tomb Raider next, since it's a Christmas present. I realized last night that it might be the only game that's 4k HDR ready I actually own when I get my new computer with my tax return, so I've bumped it to the end of my Christmas present list. Either way, I probably have one more EU4 game in me before I burn out on it, so I'll try the Ottomans next and then retire that game from my schedule. At that point EU4 will surpass everything but Skyrim for hours played in my library.

This has been game chat.

Back to the subject at hand. Taxes. I had an embarrassing moment last week when I learned that I'd been overly cautious in sending out 1099s to my freelancers over the years. So I've already sent them email statements on what they earned last year and apologies for making them wait for 1099s in the past. Anyway, I called my tax guy and he (or rather one of his assistant) straightened me out.

So last night I published the Actuator RPG for James Wymore. This is a slightly different product for us because it isn't involved with any of our lines (and I didn't write it or help develop it). But when James told me he was doing it, I knew that if he handled the art, I could have it edited and pagemade with relatively little effort, and I already have an RPGNow/DriveThruRPG store in place, but that stuff would be a headache for him on his first time releasing an RPG product. Also, I knew that that I'd see lots of pitfalls and have some insight he'd need, which mainly involved me saying, "It isn't that kind of a market," or "This is what you'd need to do that," in Facebook chat every time I saw him thinking of something that might get him into a little bit of trouble. (And by trouble, I mean that the product wouldn't do what it can do, most efficiently, not that he'd get into literal trouble. He didn't try to violate copyright law or anything.) Anyway, most of my job there was just reminding him how small the RPG marketplace is compared to the fiction marketplace, so his expectations are realistic. I felt like the Grinch most of the time. Also, my editor and I badgered him into offering it for free.

Meanwhile, right now I'm ramping into the climax of DbC 4. I should finish the long night of the soul this week, and maybe the first chapter of the climax. That means that in two to three weeks, that book will be done, so I'm plotting 5 in earnest. Five looks to be shaping into a heist/con style story, which is a genre I haven't written before. Luckily, my friend Dan Willis has, and he sent me his plotting notes, which was very helpful. Also, I'm watching lots of movies like The Sting and Ocean's Eleven to get the rhythm. I'm a plotter, but this will have to be tightly plotted, even by my standards. I need to know every twist on page 1 if I'm to pull them off on page 300. They can be fixed in rewrites of course, but the more I have to do that, the more painful those rewrites will be, so this is definitely a "measure twice, cut once" situation. I've been laying groundwork for it throughout DbC 4 as well, so hopefully, it all comes together nicely.

One nice bit of happenstance: I have three audiobook queues. One is the list of authors I read actively. I think there are currently 28. One is the queue of audible books I've purchased for other reasons, such as sales, that don't fit in that first queue. The third is a slot for a "Project-Related Work." With DbC, that's usually a comedy, to keep my "funny juices" flowing. Podcasts will force books into my schedule not in those queues, but those are the organized ones. But this week Mary Robinette Kowal's excellent Valour and Vanity happened to make it to the top of that first queue. Imagine my delight when it turned out to be a heist story. Checked two boxes with that one.

Anyway, that's my week and my month, and hopefully not more than that. I will stare my taxes in their steely eyes and stab them in their heart. Then I'll conquer Eastern Europe.

Ah, Tax Time

I was speaking with my mother last night. The conversation went something like this:

"As soon as I finish playing this game I'm playing, I have to start on my taxes."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. I'm hoping the game takes at least two more weeks."

For those following at home, the game is Empire Total War. I tend alternate my PC games between the oldest unplayed in my library and a newer "player's choice" game. The game after Empire Total War will be Rise of the Tomb Raider, which I got for Christmas. But I digress.

I have a tax guy. Or gal. I don't know. I turn it in and someone at the company does it. Last time it was the head of the organization because I messed up on my HSA and no one knew how to deal with the penalty for that. Usually, it's a minion. I highly recommend having a tax person walk you through the pitfalls of being a private business owner when you first go into business as a writer. For instance, don't write the word "Research" on a deduction. Evidently, that's a red flag.

I was lucky in that I found a tax guy (it was definitely a guy at the time) that was very affordable and sat down and spent an hour or so with me the first time, just walking me through the hurdles. Since then, he's passed away and his company has been absorbed, and the price goes up each year, but only 20 dollars so it will be a while before it gets as expensive as some of the big companies. In the meantime, all the people in the office know me by name.

So the big push is that I need to get tax forms OUT for the people I send royalties to by the end of the month. That means I should probably reconcile my end of year books for Final Redoubt Press as well. 1099s need to go to by January 31st. If the game takes two weeks, it will need to pause for that, obviously, because that needs to happen in the next day or two.

After that, I have to do the big push for my taxes themselves, and that used to take me two weeks, but since I started digitizing my receipts, I think that takes less time. It might only have taken a week last year. We'll see.

Anyway. I need a new gaming PC. And the guy who inherits my old gaming PC, and who uses them to Hangout with us on Saturdays REALLY needs my old gaming PCs. (Each week that goes by the chances go up we lose him for good as that really old machine just dies forever). And so I need to get my taxes done. So that I can play whatever comes after Rise of the Tomb Raider. Looks like one of the Command and Conquer games. And so he can use Google Hangouts without three reboots a night. Wish me luck. Hopefully, we will not lose contact with a friend and I will be neither commanded nor conquered.

Rogue One as a Prequel

So, a lot of people are talking about how Rogue One is a better Star Wars prequel than the prequel trilogy. For this week, let's take a step back and see how Rogue One succeeded in fitting in so neatly before Star Wars. I'm not going to rag on the prequel movies in this post. We're just going to look at what Rogue One did right. You can draw your own conclusions about whether the prequel films also did some or all of these things right. So let's again get with the spoiler space. 

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What Rogue One did first and foremost was tell a good story, and where it succeeded most was where it concentrated on that story. The few times it genuinely failed was when it tried to force its references to the earlier films (earlier in the years they released, not in the universe chronology.) Dr. Evazan and Ponda Baba showing up on the same planet as Saw are a good example of perhaps too heavy of a hand.

Don't get me wrong, the story doesn't stand on its own. If you take someone who hasn't seen Star Wars, they will be completely lost, but within the context of the Star Wars universe, this is a good self-contained movie. Apart from minor roles and cameos, all the characters are new.  Their struggle is personal and motivated by their own person inner demons.

So instead of a lot of blatant ham-handed connections, they held themselves to just a few ham-handed connections and tried, in general, to keep their prequelism more subtle. They took episode 4, 5, and 6 and they projected back from there. Here are some of the little things they did to help you feel like you were watching the inciting incidents of the original Star Wars Trilogy:

Blatant

The Movie Ends with the Tantive IV racing away from Darth Vader with the Death Star Plans. Vader is beyond pissed at this moment, explaining why he is at a 10 at the beginning of Star Wars (maybe at an 11), when he rarely gets above a 3 or a 4 at any other point in the films.

Also, we see that Leia is lying to his face throughout the opening of the film, stoking his rage, and they both know it. That scene has always struck me as tonally different from the rest of the movies. That's probably because of Prowse's performance, later dubbed over by Jones, but now we have an in-universe reason.

We now know why the Death Star had the flaw it had. A nice little retcon.

And of course, we now have an full movie outlining the events described in the crawl of Ep 4, so obviously, there's that.

More Subtle

We see Red Five die, making room for Luke. I believe we see Wedge's spot open up as well. According to Sam Witwer, they hired the actor that performed Wedge's voice in Ep 4 to come back and do voiceovers in Rogue One, but then realized that Wedge was the only one who reacts to the size of the Death Star when they approach it in the Battle of Yavin, and he couldn't have been in this movie.

We see that AT-AT's used to have weak armor and a slightly different design, explaining why the pilots tried to shoot at them with normal snowspeeder guns in the Battle of Hoth, and didn't start the battle with a backup plan.

We hear two stormtroopers discussing decommissioning the BT-15s, setting up the line in Ep 4 where two stormtroopers discuss the new BT-16s while Kenobi is disabling the tractor beam.

Red Leader and Gold Leader were in the film. Red Leader, whose actor is no longer with us, was completely built from A roll and B roll from Ep 4. Gold Leader's actor is still alive and returned to perform additional voice work.

They have an analog version of the Dejarik holochess game in Saw's fortress.

K2 Starts to say "I have a bad feeling about this." but gets cut off.

Super Subtle/Pure Fan Service

They have blue milk in their home in the opening scene, like Luke's home in Ep 4.

They mention the Whills, which were mentioned in Lucas's original Star Wars script. They also use the phrase, "May the Force of others be with you," also from the script. Finally, and we're out of prequel territory here, but they wanted to have a blue squadron in Ep 4, but it wouldn't work with the bluescreen technology of the time.

As with every Star Wars film, the Wilhelm scream is heard, this time when Jyn pushes the stormtrooper off the cliff.

Sam Witwer, who worked with the voice actors, reputedly took great pains to make sure the stormtrooper performances fell into line with Ep 4 stormtroopers, who "never went above a 5." Evidently, the stormtroopers in ep 4 were all voice recorded by some LA DJs.

As you can see, they worked hard, on many levels, to make this movie work. Whereas some films (again, not necessarily referring to the prequel trilogy here) do nothing put openly wink at the audience, the Star Wars connections in Rogue One are buried deeply in its DNA. Whereas most movie remakes and prequels wave their arms blatantly at the audience, Rogue One works their magic down into the deepest fabric of the film. Some of it works. Some of it misfires, but as a whole, it comes together into a cohersive and well-made piece of storytelling.

And that's all any of us could hope for.