On Character Power and Story Obstacles

I have a rule that I try not to insult Wymore on days when I talk about Star Wars. That's really starting to hurt, so I'm taking a week off star wars to call Wymore a doodie head. A poo-flinging butt monkey? A charming fellow! Dammit. I seem to have lost my touch.

Howard Tayler, when writing his story for Space Eldritch II, lamented that he needed to come with a way to make the competent main character incompetent to heighten the feeling of helplessness. Mary Robinette Kowal told him he was wrong. He needed to make her completely competent. He just needed to make it so that none of that competence mattered.

(Let's try this again: James Wymore is a rice-eating icecream jokey! Dammit. All of those things are awesome.)

Back to the post. This matter of competence has been on my mind as I write a story for an upcoming anthology. It's a cyberpunk samurai story about a professional duelist. The hitch is that said duelist is also a Buddhist pacifist.

This has been very liberating. One of the problems with making a character a professional duelist--under the employ of one of the most powerful men in the land--is exactly that matter of competence. He has to be spectacular at his job to hold that position. But how do you challenge one of the greatest living duelists in the land?

(Wymore loves children and puppies! Still not there.)

The answer became evident as I was writing the first scene. In it, the main character must duel a 17-year-old kid who wants to kill his boss, the head of the security division of a mega-corporation. He faces off against this kid while a dozen security officers stand around, looking for the opportunity to save their boss and get a promotion. Beating this kid is not a problem. It's effortless. The problem is that the kid is distraught. He isn't going to calmly bow out at first blood. The kids father is dead because of my character's boss and this kid is a sobbing mess of grief, surrounded by armed people with itchy trigger fingers. The question is: "How do I save this kid?"

It's made for an interesting dynamic. I have a character who would be a master at being the action-driven character in the story. Instead, his moral code drives him to be the manipulation character. This is compounded by the fact that his ethical code (in this case his sense of honor) is demanding that he properly serve his lord. And this is a samurai story, which means that duty, status, and face are all placing demands on the character.

It's helped crystallize several aspects of characterization that I've never been able to vocalize before. It's liberating to be able to make the character as skilled as I need, without mitigating the conflict of the story. It isn't quite a fish-out-of=water story since he didn't just become a pacifist. He wouldn't have gotten to the position without being good at doing his job without killing, but being a pacifist who's job description involves ritualized murder makes for an interesting dynamic and all sorts of inherent conflict.

(Also, Wymore loves help children and old people! <Sigh> I'll just need to keep trying.)

Spoilerific Analysis of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Part 5: Han Solo, and His Four Movie Arc

People send me emails asking when Wymore and I are just going to kiss. Wymore loves me, of course. And of course, I know.

So I saved Han for last because I've been on this journey with Han since I was a small child. Vader was always my favorite, but when we played as kids, all the other kids wanted to be Luke. I wanted to be Han. Han Solo was cool, and he was skilled, and he was funny. I wanted to grow up to be Han. That's why I always shoot first. Be warned, Wymore.

So let's look at Han. Everyone's talking about the end of Han's story, but I think most people are missing the end of his arc, which coincides with Finn's to a great extent. This isn't surprising because saving the cat is what Finn's arch is all about and saving the cat was Han's epic moment at the end of Episode IV.

We meet Han in a "wretched hive of scum and villainy." We're set up from the beginning to expect the people with meet in the cantina are bad news, and this is backed up by the bartender's prejudice vs. droids (the first time we see that in Star Wars) and the assault and "disarming" of Walrusman. (Yes, all my Star Wars names come from the '70s Kenner action figure line.) Han is charming, a braggart, and a bit confrontational, but Kenobi singles him out of all the people in the cantina. Why?

I don't think it would be far to go to say that the Force is guiding him, but Kenobi doesn't seem very impressed with Han either. However, I would point out that Kenobi doesn't find Han in the cantina. Kenobi finds Chewie. Han is the hero in the making, but Chewie is something more important. Chewie is Han's moral center.

Of course, then we have the scene with Greedo and Han shooting first. (BTW, notice that Greedo waits for Chewie to leave before confronting Han? That's because Greedo has a working sapient brain.)

Of course, we know Han had to have a bit of a heart because he rescued Chewie from slavery at some point before this, but I'm not sure when that idea was first introduced. It looks like it was assembled over time, Brian Daley introduced the concept of the Wookiee Life Debt in the Han Solo Adventures and someone else the slavers in The Wookiee Storybook, but they might not have been combined until the Han Solo Trilogy. So we'll take the Life Debt as writ, but for the sake of Han's starting point, we'll look at the movies. They are our entrance into this story.

Let's talk a moment about Han shooting Greedo. The reason, I think, so many people object to the changes Lucas made in the Special Edition is that this scene shows Han's real starting place. While it's probably self-defense, and he might get off the hook in a trial, it's still a form a murder. Han doesn't have a choice, but he got himself into the position where he has to kill people to buy himself another day. This instance isn't exactly his fault, but him being in this situation in the first place? That's all on him. Han Solo is at the end of a long fall in this scene. He's hit rock bottom.

We learn of Han's debt from Greedo, and it's backed up by the meeting with Jabba in the Special Edition (I believe that scene appeared in the Novelization and maybe the Storybook too, I remember being aware of it before the Special Editions released). These scenes set Han's starting state nicely. He's done shady things for shady people, and now he's in trouble. I will point out that despite shooting first shenanigans, this all sets up the fact that Han has little moral compass at the beginning (or he has the compass but never checks it). If they wanted us to believe Han was a good guy from the beginning, they wouldn't have been stacking financial pressures on his shoulders to justify him rescuing Leia. A good person wouldn't need a huge and terrifying crime lord making him to the right thing.

Then we have a thrilling escape to show Han as a competent pilot and smuggler, just so that we don't think he's a total bozo. This is followed by the scene with Luke practicing against the remote, where we discover that Han doesn't believe in the Force.

I want to address something here. I've heard a lot of people complaining about things becoming legends after 20 years. Let's look at that honestly a moment. Twenty years ago was 1996. The new age movement was on the decline, but many people were still fully committed to it at the time. Now, we look back at it, and most people think its silly. I have a heard time finding a solid new age believer anymore (outside my family at least). And that was a movement that everyone in the 90s had probably encountered directly. The Jedi were an order of hundreds in a galaxy of quadrillions or quintillions of sapients (the Star Wars universe seems sparsely populated). The odds of a person meeting anyone who had ever even met a Jedi were astronomical. The odds of meeting a charlatan much better. Maybe even likely. It's no wonder that 20 years later everyone's reaction would be, "Wow, those folks were pretty gullible back then, huh?"

So they get captured, but again, Han's smuggling chops get them through. Our heroes find out about the princess. Han refuses to help until Luke dangles the idea of a reward. Now Han can't resist. His need for money is crippling. They rescue the princess.

Han, for the most part, is a complete scoundrel throughout, but we do get one glimpse of his true self when he charges the stormtroopers to save the party. What we do when we have time to think shows us who our experience has made us. What we do when we have to react on instinct shows who we are, deep down. This is an important scene, because while we want Han to come through in the end, we haven't been given a single bit of evidence he could.

So they get out. People try to shame Han into doing what's right, but he takes his money and leaves. It's not until Luke is really in trouble that Han flies back into the battle, kills Vader's wingman, and saves the day. (With accompanying lens flare).

I like to think that Chewie didn't say anything on their flight out. In my mind, he just sat in the copilot's chair, quietly watching Han as the smuggler became increasingly uncomfortable. Just a big, silent, furry pile of judgment.

In Empire, Han is a new man. The Empire Strike Back Han claims he's still a scoundrel, but we don't believe it. He's riding mounted Taun Taun patrols for the Rebellion. He has free access to the Command Center. He's on casual speaking terms with the General. It's obvious that Han is part of the Rebellion. He claims he isn't, but everyone just lets him have his personal fiction.

Of course, then Like goes missing, and Han goes out into weather everyone says a flat-out death sentence. Here we see a glimpse of the old Han, refusing to take orders and doing his own thing, but he's doing his own thing to save another, instead of himself. Then, when everything falls apart, he saves the princess too.

Now, this Han isn't a moral member of the Rebellion. We still have no real indication that he cares at all about fighting the Empire. All three times he's done what's right, he's done it to save a friend. If these friends weren't in the Rebellion, I think Han would be much happier. But they are, and Han doesn't even seem to begrudge it. It's just his life. His life has always kind of sucked.

BTW, this plays into my statements about Chewie being his conscience. Chewie doesn't care about causes nearly as much as people and interpersonal responsibilities. It isn't surprising that when Han learns morality, it looks a lot more like a Wookiee's Life Debt than it does a Human's noble cause.

Han doesn't even get a real chance to be noble at the end of Empire. Yes, he goes to his fate with dignity, but he doesn't have any decisions to make. As he says, they don't even ask him any questions during the torture. He is just betrayed by Lando and stuck. He does get to talk Chewie down, and in the retcons, extends Chewie's Life Debt to include Leia, because that's all he can do for his friends in his final moments. Leia tells him she loves him. He tells her he knows. And Han exits the movie.

In Jedi, we see what we think is the end of his journey. They rescue him from Jabba, and he still seems to be mostly the same old Han. He doesn't believe that Luke is a Jedi Knight, even when Luke is saving him. He still makes cracks about the dying, and he fumbles along, and he relies on the fact that fortune loves a fool.

But when they get to the end, and they are looking for volunteers to lead the ground team, It's Han who steps up. This time, his friends join him, not the other way around. And we hear he's a general. Finally, Han is the one who has taken up the cause, and it's everyone else's turn to be loyal to him.

Even when he thinks Luke and Leia are an item, he doesn't act the way we expect. He just steps aside, but instead of exploding into drama and false conflict like every other movie character we've seen. He just sort of waits there uncomfortably, hoping they'll tell him he's wrong. It's endearing, really. He even consoles Leia when he thinks she's having problems with the man she chose over him. He juslly t does the perfect thing every time.

At the end of Jedi, we think we have a satisfying conclusion to Han.

So at the beginning of Force Awakens, it looks like a big backslide. Han has left the Republic and gone back to being a smuggler. He's left his family and his wife's cause. He's even lost his ship. So it looks like we're getting a lazy reset.

And then we see the map, and he hears Luke's name, and we realize that things are far more complicated. The man that didn't admit to believing in the Jedi, even while a Jedi was saving him from Jabba, now gives this speech:

"I used to wonder that myself. Thought it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo -- magical power holding together good, evil, the dark side and the light. 'Crazy thing is, it's true. The Force, the  Jedi, all of it. It's all true."

This isn't a reset to the beginning of Episode IV. This isn't the character we left at the end of VI. This is the character 30 years later. He's had more pain. More loss. His son turned against his best friend. His best friend abandoned the galaxy. He feels like his wife blames him (even though she doesn't). This is a man who's mostly broken and just doing what he's good at, but he has dropped the pretense. This man is too old and too damaged to pretend that he doesn't believe anymore. He does believe, and believing is a little worse because his son has fallen over those beliefs

Let's look at that. Ben Solo was to be a Jedi. He followed in the steps of Han's best friend. How proud do you think that made Han? He couldn't follow in Han's steps because Han is a reformed criminal. Ben started from a place of purity and privilege, so following in Han's footsteps means he has to fall. So he chose the person that Han dedicated his life to saving and protecting. He devotes his youth to studying the teachings of the man who saved and was saved by his father. For a guy like Han, there is no better end.

But Ben does follow in Han's footsteps. Just like Han fell from grace so many years ago, going from a respectable officer to a scoundrel, now his son falls, going from a respectable Jedi to the leader of the Knights of Ren. (I know it was more complicated than that for Han. I suspect that it is more complicated than that for Ben.)

Is it a wonder he assumes his wife blames him? Ben has become his father's son, but Ben doesn't have anyone to rescue him like Luke and Leia rescued Han through friendship and love. Ben is out of his reach, in a viper's nest. There's no chance of him finding that redemptive friendship. He is lost.

Han says there's too much Vader in him, but I think he's lying. I think Han believes Ben fell because there was too much Han in him.

So this is the Han Solo in the Force Awakens. Adrift. Shattered. Believing in the system that seems to have destroyed his son. He takes up the quest to find Luke, because what else does he have? He's lost.

Is it a wonder he immediately takes to Rey? Here is a lost and broken child who needs a father. Here is a chance to try again. If Ben followed his father's path, he had to fall. Rey, while moral, is already at rock bottom, but she hasn't lost her moral compass. Here is a daughter that isn't going to fall. If she follows in Han's footsteps, she just becomes the person Han wishes he still was. The path of fall and (and hopefully redemption) has ruined his son, but Rey's fall wasn't his fault. Only good can come of the relationship. In Rey, Han can live out his redemption again.

But Rey turns him down.

This is the Han that meets his son on the catwalk in the end. This is the Han, who is asked by Ben to help him do what comes next. Han looks hopeful when Ben offers him the lightsaber, but I don't think he's hopeful when he tells Ben he'll do anything to help. I think at that moment, he expects the worst because Han always expects the worst. I think that when Han gives Ben permission to kill him, he does so knowing those could be his last words.

And when Ben does, and Han reaches us and gently touches his face, it isn't because he's spending his last moment with his son. It's because he has looked into his son's eyes and seen that the boy really has become him. But more, he knows that at this moment, he son has hit rock bottom, and Han has sat there, in that cantina, and murdered a person preemptively so that he can live just one more day. Han knows that hitting rock bottom is the first step of redemption, and so he looks at his son, sees himself, and forgives it all. He forgives Ben, and through that he forgives himself.

But that wasn't the end of his arc. That was the epilog. Han didn't have any choices there, either, not really. It's just like Bespin. He'd already become the man he needed to be and is just watching it all play out, completely out of his control. Sure he could have said no to Ben, but that wouldn't have changed anything. That scene showed us our final image of Han, but it's Han's final image because his arc has already really been closed. That scene was Ben's. It's Han's dismissal from the story, but by that point there's nothing left to say about Han, so it's his turn to exit the story. Just like at Bespin. Unlike Bespin, though, this exit is for good.

The end of his arc comes a scene or two before.

Han comes full circle when Finn tricks him into launching a rescue mission for Rey. Here we see Episode IV all over again. Luke used Han's life-threatening debt to force Han into rescuing Leia. Finn tricked Han into rescuing Rey by giving him a new ground mission to destroy a new Death Star. Han didn't come on the mission to save Rey willingly.

And so while we have the scene earlier where the eternal skeptic has declared the Force true, now we have a scene with Phasma and Finn in the shield control room. Their mission is finished. It's time to leave. Finn, obviously in a panic, says:

"Solo, if this works, we're not going to have a lot of time to find Rey."

And we see the scene coming. Han wouldn't rescue Leia all those years ago, even when presented the ultimate male fantasy, the rescue of the beautiful princess. We know that this where Finn's lying, and deceit comes back to haunt him. Remember, Finn has been trying to save the cat this entire movie, and now he's facing his final hurdle, the living legend who he lied and tricked to get what he wants. This is when the old scoundrel is supposed to make the boy pay for doing the wrong thing. And what does Han say?

"Don't worry kid, we won't leave here without her."

He doesn't blink. He doesn't hesitate. It doesn't even seem to have occurred to him that they wouldn't rescue Rey. He's given his final choice between the man he is versus the man he was, and we see the real Han Solo.

Because Han doesn't realize that he had a choice. Han Solo thinks he never has a choice. Han Solo doesn't every really understand Han Solo.

That is the moment Han Solo has finished his arc. That is the reason he had to die. In that single line Han Solo, as a character, is complete.

Most people cry when he dies, and I probably did too. But I really cry when he turns to the frightened boy, and he shows him what it means to be a man. I cry because Han Solo think he needs to be redeemed, but he doesn't. Han Solo is now the beacon that shows the others the path back to the light.

And he'll never know it.

Spoilerific Analysis of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Part 4: Who Is This Kylo Ren Person Anyway.

Yadda yadda yadda, something mean about Wymore, probably involving puppies. Yadda yadda yadda.

I've been talking about star wars for four weeks now. You might have guessed from the Part 4 in the title. I have great faith in you on that account. So, what are we talking about for week four?

Let's get down to it. Kylo Ren. In my past analyses, I've been able to present much of my conclusions as fact, but there is a crucial difference: we know what motivates Finn and Rey. We have very little idea what motivates Kylo Ren.

They did a good job of obfuscating it. It wasn't until recently I realized we don't know his motivation. We know he wants to finish what Vader started, but for all we know Vader took up embroidery, and what he intends to finish is a cross stitch saying "Home is where you hang your mask" and a little picture of Vader suffocating to death without his breathing gear.

So I'm going to start with the basics of what we know about this guy, and then we'll get down to supposition. We're going to be looking ahead in the series on this one, so this is your final warning. If your acceptable spoilers are only ones for the existing movie, and no speculation is permitted, stop now! We're gonna get theoretical all up in this movie.

Let's start with what we see in the film. Just events and situations involving Kylo. The facts on film, as we know it. (Someone sent me the post production shooting script, so let's step through.)

Kylo Ren leads the assault on Jakku. There he kills Lor San Tekka and captures Poe Dameron. Finally he orders the killing of the villagers and leaves.

Kylo interrogates and mind rips Poe.

Kylo learns of Finn's help in the escape, and after a cut-away, orders them to retrieve the map. For the first time, we get the hint that Kylo's agenda doesn't match up exactly with the First Order. They are happy to destroy the map. Kylo only wants it retrieved.

Kylo learns Finn and BB-8 escaped. He has his temper tantrum on a bunch of innocent equipment, but when he learns a girl was involved, he seem to almost kill the messenger for the first time.

We see the first meeting with Snoke. Snoke orders them to change their plans and attack the  Republic, leaving the Resistance vulnerable to attack. We learn that Han Solo is Ren's father and this is the test he's never faced.

Kylo's scene, talking to Vader's mask, showing his weakness, asking for strength.

During Rey's vision, we see Kylo Ren killing a warrior that's about to attack, while standing over Rey. Then we see the knights of Ren in a group among the bodies of their victims.

Kylo watches the Starkiller firing.

Kylo assault's Moz's castle. He captures Rey in a really creepy scene and orders the troops to pull out. At this point he's notably gone against First Order wishes. He has access to the map via Rey, who's seen it. But BB-8 is still out there, for the Resistance to use.

Kylo interrogates Rey in an even creepier scene. 

In a scene right after, Snoke discovers Ren's betrayal. He orders the destruction of the Resistance base, while Ren insists they get the map from Rey. Snoke orders Ren to bring the girl to him.

Ren throws another tantrum when he finds Rey missing.

Kylo confronts Han. Kills him.

Final battle.

All right. So let's try to think about how to interpret all of that.

Good Kylo Ren:

I really tried to make this interpretation work. There's evidence that Kylo's mission is to destroy the First Order. He even asks Han for permission before killing him. I tried hard to come up with an theory where he's actually still good. The problem is that first scene. In it, he almost certainly kills Lor San Tekka, and definitely orders the slaughter of the village. And the interrogations scene have way too much of a sexual assault vibe. So no. I can't make this work.

So let's take it the other way.

Evil Kylo Ren:

Evil Kylo Ren begins quite naturally. He kills an old man. He orders the slaughter of innocents. Bad, bad stuff. Then he mind-rips Poe. Again, obviously evil stuff. Things become less clear right after. In his conversation with Hux, we discover that Hux's motivation is to keep the map out of the hands of the Resistance, while Kylo wants it for himself.

In this version, something must have happened to bring Rey to his attention, because he has no reason to think anything strange when he hears news of a girl on the planet, and he freaks out. The only answer I have here is that he's been having visions of Rey, just as she's been having visions of Luke (or at least his island.)

This discord grows when we learn that he's called by the lightside (a new concept in the cinematic Star Wars). And when he abandons the map to bring in Rey, things become really confused.

The rest of the movie, his killing of his father, his driven need to hunt down Finn and Rey, even horribly wounded, his terrible outbursts of temper. That all fits the evil Kylo.

So what is his motivation? Why does Kylo Ren want the map, even if it means that the Resistance has it as well.

I think the only explanation here that he feels he needs to personally kill his uncle. The obvious answer is that he wants to prove himself to Snoke and the ghost of Vader, that only be beating the galaxy's only general can he properly claim his position in the dark side. This Kylo Ren doesn't believe ridiculous stories about his grandfather's final acts. He thinks of Vader in his cyborg.

The call of the light side supports this theory. In this version he feels his connection to his Uncle, just as he detects his father later in the film. Only by murdering both the father figures in his life can he burn the light out of his soul. Our family has power over us, after all. 

The other possible cause of this is a need for revenge. Perhaps there was a falling out between Luke and himself. In this version there's no consideration of Snoke or the First Order, Kylo wants to murder Luke out of personal vengeance. Luke survived his destruction of the Jedi school. They have unfinished business.

The Machiavellian Kylo Ren:

In this version, Kylo Ren sees himself as the hero of the Galaxy, and he doesn't realize how far he's fallen. This combines the good version of Kylo Ren with a fall to darkness and a lack of self awareness. Let's start with his speech to Vader:

"Forgive me. I feel it again. The pull to the light. Supreme Leader senses it. Show me again, the power of the darkness,  and I will let nothing stand in our way. Show me, Grandfather, and I will finish what you started."

He feels the light. He doesn't want the Supreme Leader to know. He's asking to see the power of darkness, presumably to hide the light. Finally he wants to finish what Vader started.

What, exactly didn't Vader start? Wipe out the Jedi? He's already pretty much did that, but even if that's why he wants to find Luke, that wasn't really Vader's mission. Restore balance to the force? Maybe, but right now the balance is tilted to the dark side, so that isn't exactly an evil job. Vader's most notable action, on his own, was killing the Emperor and starting the downfall of the Empire. The thing that Kylo must have been told over and over, throughout his childhood, was that his Grandfather died redeemed.

And let's take a look at Rey's vision again. She sees herself in Bespin, in Luke's place, then everything shift and she falls to the ground during what is presumably the destruction of the Jedi School. She sees Luke and then she watches Kylo Ren kill a man.

It's actually Paul Genesse who pointed this out. The person who Kylo Ren kills is trying to kill Rey in the vision. The man is wearing a helmet that could be either soldier or villain and he's swinging a metal club. Why is he swinging a club?

Paul's theory is that this isn't a vision, it's part memory, and that Rey was there. The man is trying to kill five-year-old Rey, either by beating her to death with a metal rod or a deactivated lightsaber (and the movie makers didn't want us to see the color of the blade.)

Did Kylo Ren save Rey's life? It flashes immediately to someone dropping her off on Jakku.

And in this theory, his actions involving the map make much more sense. He desperately wants to find Luke, and doesn't care whether the resistance finds him too. The Resistance might pull Luke back into the fold, but Kylo would still get to see him first. Possibly to explain everything he's done in Anakin Skywalker's name.

This is the interpretation I favor the most, I think.

Kylo Ren found himself wrapped up in the destruction of the Jedi. Either he saw the Jedi as ideologically flawed or he just didn't understand what he was getting into, but somewhere in the middle of the destruction, Kylo Ren forms his plan. He kills the Knight of Ren who's trying to slaughter Rey and he rescues her, maybe because they are cousins. He then drops her off on Jakku where she'll be safe. She probably was a youngling in training. He might not be worried about her plight.

Assuming Kylo is about the same age as Driver, he's probably 29 (Diver is 32, but the movie takes place about 30 years after Jedi. That would put him about 16 when Rey was 5. Young, but not too young to be powerful and really, really stupid.

This Kylo obsesses about his Grandfather and is either now or soon to be connected to the First Order. He sees the First Order as the recovered Empire, and he must finish what his grandfather started, and take it down from the inside.

Is it surprising that he murders when necessary? Vader is his idle, and all his killing was forgiven in the end, but note that Kylo only kills two people in the movie, Lor San Tekka in the beginning and his father at the end. Even Finn, who should have been murdered by that lightsaber, actually survives. This Kylo is trying to minimize death. He can't avoid killing Lor San Tekka (or doesn't kill him and the old man survives somehow--Max Von Sidow made statements about us being surprised by his character, and yet there was nothing surprising in this movie). Kylo orders the destruction of the village, but there was likely no way to stop that, so why not give the order?

Note this Kylo uses his mind-rip, but he doesn't torture. He might think this is the more humane interrogation. He's willing to ruin the First Order's plans as long has he gets to Luke Skywalker first. He is visibly upset when Hux convinces Snoke to use Starkiller to destroy the Resistance (after destroying the Republic Senate in the Hosnian System.) He just wants to get into Rey's head. The script even says:

"Kylo Ren is stunned by the moment -- that isn't what he meant at all --"

Why would he not care about the destruction of the senate, but he reacts to the destruction of the Resistance? Because the Republic means nothing to him, but he and the Resistance have the same goal.

Then that moment on the bridge. Our Kylo has fallen a long way, but he hasn't gone this far. Still, if he could kill his father, that would prove Snoke can trust him, once and for all. So he talks to Han on the bridge. He even asks his permission to kill him. Look at Han's face when he does it. Han is happy. This could be because he's been freed of all burdens and just spending his last moments with his son, or it could be that he's seen the good in his son, somehow in the last moment, and he's found peace.

Han's reaction doesn't quite feel right to me yet. I don't quite have it. There's something there I'm missing, I'm sure of it.

But the rest works. Kylo doesn't kill Finn because he doesn't want to kill Finn. He's beaten by Rey not just because he got gutshot by a gun that kills stormtroopers five feet from its point of impact, but because he doesn't want to hurt Rey at all. He burns Finn with that lightsaber, but when he has Rey in the same clinch, he doesn't really seem to try. Heck, he leads her right to the force and then lets her close her eyes and meditate so she can marshal her focus. Not the act of a guy who's trying to kill someone. It's the act of a guy who's trying to lead someone to a realization.

All in all, this is the version of Kylo that seems the most likely to me. The man with a mission who's allowed his obsession to warp his view of right and wrong. A man who's willing to let attrocities happen for the greater good. A man who cares about a little girl he saved long ago, but is just too twisted to relate to her in a healthy way. A man who kills his own father in an attempt to do something he thinks his mother and grandfather would want him to do. It's broken, and it only barely makes sense, and it's filled with emotion and contradiction and self delusion, and that's what makes it feel real to me.

Or maybe I'm just overthinking things for the sake of a blog post.

Whatever the truth, I can't wait to find out.

Spoilerific Analysis of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Part 3: Rey's Character Arc and Refusing All the Calls

Wymore is still getting a pass on the jokes during my Star Wars Palooza. The rumors that this has to do with a cortex bomb in my head are greatly exaggerated. Not lies. Just exaggerated.

This week we're going to discuss Rey's arc. Mainly because I don't know what I'm going to say about Kylo Ren and I want to do Han last. At any rate, get comfy.

Rey's arc is interesting, because in a traditional narrative form, it takes a massive backslide shortly after Rey is introduced. We start with Rey, adrift, a scavenger on Jakku. We see her doing a few cute, endearing things. She sleds down a sand dune. She has a rebel pilot doll. She sits outside wearing a rebel flight helmet comically too large for her. These elements show us Rey as sort of an adult child. If it wasn't for the rest of her arc, these would certainly degrade her a bit in our view, but considering how damn mature her whole situation is, they just serve to remind us that she is barely old enough to be considered an adult. She probably had to grow up very quickly on Jakku, but the child Rey is still there, calling out for her to return, to play again.

Contrast this with Rey's actual situation. She a junk scavenger on a harsh, brutal world. She's obviously being taken advantage of by the only authority figure in her life. Her skill with a staff insinuates that's she's only survive this long by an expert application of brutal violence.

These things endear us to her. The injustice of her situation instantly connects our sympathy to her situation, while the childlike aspects amplify the effect. It's hard not to sympathize with a person abused, still clinging to a childhood denied her.

We don't understand this yet. We won't until the midpoint of the movie, and even then, mostly subconsciously.

But after getting cheated for her hard work and watching her sitting adorably in the helmet, like a five year old in Daddy's clothes, she hears a ruckus. She already has our sympathy, but now there's a cat to save, and it's time to earn our respect.

The cat that needs saving is none other than the more adorable BB-8. One of the rules of cat saving is that the cat must almost always be more adorable the saver. This act of heroism isn't much from Rey, it's almost trivial, but it means the world to BB-8. Now that we've engaged sympathy, made us fall in love a little, and garnered out respect with the mandatory cat rescue, Rey has her "Refusal of the Call" moment.

We're going to get into this, probably after the character analysiseseseses (how do you make analysis plural?), but here's the short version. There's this thing called the Monomyth, or the Hero's Journey. It was somewhat famously applied to Star Wars once. An important first step is the Refusal of the Call. The Refusal is meant to show the character as humble, I think. If they jump at the opportunity to be a hero, they're too eager, maybe a little smarmy. They have to resist their own greatness, deny it until reluctantly coaxed. So BB-8 goes to her for help. She refuses. BB-8 turns the cuteness dial up, and being a good little droid in a post-Spinal-Tap world, that nob goes all the way to 11. Rey relents, but "Just for the night."

You might read the rest of my post and come back to this one. "Bob," you might say, pulling out a cigarette holder and straightening your monocle (because I imagine all my critics arguing from 19th-century drawing rooms). "Bob, she doesn't accept this call, old man. She qualifies it by saying it's just for the night. Pip pip."

To which I say, come now. Not one of you thought for a moment she was kicking that adorable droid out the next morning.

Her cat saving carries over one more scene, when she refuses to sell poor BB-8 to Simon Peg. The first part of the save was too easy, and this is where she makes her actual sacrifice. That's neither here nor there, though. Unlike Finn, this is just one cat saving event spread over a couple scenes.

The really interesting bit comes after she meets Finn and Solo and they have their daring adventures. While she continues to endear herself to us "I bypassed the compressor!" We're really just pushing forward to the next crucial scene, where Han Solo offers her a not-job, and she refuses.

What? Really? You don't refuse two calls. Not unless the second one is actually a temptation. So why are we going back to rehash old ground? Especially since we've moved forward multiple stages in the Hero's Journey since then? Why backtrack now?

But maybe this is a temptation. While we think too well of Han at this point to think that he won't end up doing good out there, he is technically still a smuggler. Maybe this isn't a real call.

That theory is blown away during the next sequence, however, because in Moz's place, she gets the call again, and most literally this time. The lightsaber. It calls to her in every sense, both in Sir Alec Guiness's voice and in Ewan MacGreggor's. If you want to make absolutely sure the Call is heard, you make it in the voice of the same man who presented the Call to Luke.

Also, this is the second time John Williams plays the Skywalker theme over Rey's image (the first time indisputably so). He does it three or four more times. So if you're in the camp that thinks Rey is Luke's daughter, it's hard to deny that this is exactly what John Williams wants you to think. And he isn't Wymore. We might be able to trust him.

Also, this is when everything done with her character's child/adult dichotomy comes together in our mind. We see her, witnessing (or remembering according to some theories) the slaughter of the jedi. Here we see 5-7 year old Rey abandoned on Jakku. And that's when we realize the truth. She still cherishes the trappings of childhood because that's when her childhood was stolen from her, all those years ago. She had to grow up instantly on Jakku and so she locked away the child, in the secret place in her heart. We only see it when she's alone, and no one else could see. And that call that we hear in these trappings, its the scream of that little girl, watching the ship leave.

Actually, you might be able to nail down a smaller refusal a bit earlier, but I hadn't established the pattern yet so I couldn't mention it then. When they meet Han, Finn says, "The war hero?" and Rey says, "No, the smuggler." Not a full refusal, but certainly a refutation of the basic first principles of the call itself. She won't even acknowledge that Han accepted his call, way back when.

But back to Moz. Here Rey refuses the Call with full-on, running-from-the-room drama. BB-8, chases her, representing Faith (See two weeks ago). Look. Refuse the call twice in a row, and the Sidekick will get disapproving. It's his adorable little job.

That's two refusals, and we'd lose respect for Rey if she kept it up (that's what Finn is for). Rey is our paragon, so right after this she is captured, so she isn't allowed to refuse anymore Calls. From here on out, its just temptations and trials.

A lot of amazing stuff happens to Rey from this point on in the story, but most of it doesn't really affect her character arc. Character skill, set, yes. General development, sure. But the movie has set it's rules for us. Despite her INEXPLICABLE defiance of structure by accepting the Call and then refusing the next one, it is the Call we care about. We know she's destined to take up that saber. We're screaming it. John Williams is Screaming it. Moz all but screamed it. We can see it in BB-8's judging, forgiving eyes.

Her mind-tricking the guard is more about getting her agency back into her hands (and setting up her force use for the final confrontation), and here we step away from Rey. The next scenes we check in with Rey, but they are mostly about Finn and Poe (who's taken over as protagonist for a bit). And of course Han and Kylo.

We come back to Rey as the main character after the tragic scene on the bridge, when she and Finn confront Kylo. Here, we see Kylo, even wounded, smash her like that little pilot doll. Then toy with Finn for a bit before severing his spine. And then he tries to take the lightsaber of Luke Skywalker.

And this call can't be denied.

And as the Hero's Journey plays out to the end, while we watch Rey finally finishing her second attempt at one of the early steps, we might be confused by the fact she did it twice, but we are satisfied. This is what we've been waiting for. John William agrees of course. We know because the Skywalker theme starts up again. Not for the last time.

No need to rehash the ending. It's moving and awesome and inspiring. And when the smoke clears and the cats are all done being rescued, Rey leaves behind Finn's broken body and takes her steps to fulfill the promise made in the first line of the opening crawl.

And on the way we see the fallout of her choices. She's become Han Solo as well as Luke Skywalker. She is both the person she respected and the person we knew she was meant to be. She follows the map. She climbs a stair or two.

And as the Skywalker theme plays over the two of them at the end, we realize why there were two calls. And why we saw the hero's journey played out in its entirety while she was still call refusing for all she was worth.

We thought were were just watching the story of the Force Awakens. We were wrong.

We were watching two stories, one moving at a pace to finish at the end of Episode VII. The other, however, presumably ends at the end of Episode IX. She accepted that first call way back when so that she could get here, to finish her first steps on a much bigger journey. She holds out that lightsaber to Luke Skywalker, we realize just how long a journey still lies ahead.

And from the look in her and Luke's eyes, we can see they realize it as well.

Spoilerific Analysis of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Part 2: Finn's Character Arc and Cat Saving for Fun and Profit

I'm cold. Oh so cold. Colder than Starkiller Base. Colder than Whitmore's dark heart. So cold that I just typed Whitmore when I meant Wymore.  

I might be malnourished. Winter doesn't justify this level of cold. Still, that's not really relevant to today's post. Today is about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Again. Because why wouldn't it be?

There are four primary character arcs in The Force Awakens (although one is more the completion of an arc than something self-contained in this movie). My favorite character, Poe Dameron, doesn't really have one. I assume that's because when you begin as the pinnacle of all that is awesome, there is nowhere to go from there.

So let's start with Finn.

Finn is the personification of fear. One of my favorite human beings, Sam Witwer, likened him to the cowardly lion. His might be the most straightforward arc. He begins with an act of selfishness with an overtone of morality. He hates the horrors of war. At first, it seems like he might just be worried about his own skin, as the bloodied handprint stains his helmet, we think that he is too afraid to fight. But we learn quickly that his isn't the whole story.

Let's talk about  "Saving the Cat," This is a screenwriting term made popular by the book by Blake Snyder. Follow that link if you want to read what many consider to be the definitive book on screenwriting, but for the moment we just need one concept, the cat. Saving the cat is the shorthand a screenwriter uses for showing a character is a good person, also called "Pet the Dog/Kick the Dog". Saving the cat is that perfect moment, early in the story, when the character shows his true colors and we start to root for them. It's when the grizzled cop lets a criminal go so that the man's boy doesn't see him arrested. It's when we find out the ruthless coach is secretly buying groceries for his poorest player. It's when we find out the gangbanger is doing everything to pay the medical bills of his sick grandmother.

Finn's whole story is about him escalating through these save the cat moments, and that's important because a frightened character can be harder to respect. So we hit the cat saving hard in this story.

After we see Finn digesting the horrors of war he immediately gets his first cat to save. He's ordered to execute prisoners, and he balks. There is no downside in him pulling the trigger, and if historical totalitarian governments have taught us anything, it's that refusing to conform is not a path to a long and healthy life. Still he doesn't pull the trigger.

But in this instance, his Saving of the Cat doesn't quite carry us through, and part of that is because of Boyega's spectacular mask acting. (Another part is that the cat in this instance quite definitely dies). Despite not seeing his face, we can tell Finn's terrified of everything going on in that scene and we're left with the question: is he really a good man, or is he just a frightened one? Part of the genius of this story is that we don't know. Like Han Solo in Episode IV, Finn has shades of gray. We think he's acting with a moral compass, but we can't be sure.

We have another cat, of course. Poe Dameron is an awesome cat. He looks into the face of evil and asks who talks first. He mocks Kylo Ren like he's Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. We are instantly on board. He is a cat that needs saving.

And Finn comes through. We know, in our hearts, he is a good man. Here is our hero. He comes to rescue Poe and admits he isn't in the Resistance. When asked why he's doing this, he says it's the right thing to do. Which is of course immediately undermined by learning he needs a pilot. Yes, he saves the cat, but the cat also saves him. So he might be doing the right thing.

But we don't know.

Do you see the genius here? The question posed? By the time the two are in the TIE Fighter, we still don't have our answer. Finn's entire character arc becomes around answering that question.

And then they crash.

Now, entering into the second act of this movie, Finn has had two cats to save, and he's failed both times. He didn't save the villagers, he only failed to kill them. He didn't save Poe because Poe did most of the thrilling heroics himself. Also, Poe seems to have died. And Finn steals his jacket. Two cats, and Finn hasn't saved a damn one.

Finn takes his long trek across Jakku, and after finally getting water, Finn gets his third opportunity to save a cat, this time in the form of a fair maiden. An actual damsel in distress. Finn starts to help.

But nope. The Damsel saves her own damn self. And then kicks Finn's ass lightly around the edges. Finn is 3 for 3 on trying to save cats, but 0 for 3 on actually succeeding. When they finally escape, this new cat, Rey, arguably saves him, again.

By now, our expectations as a viewer have changed. We no longer are looking at the save the cat moment as a character indicator. It's become the actual quest. We want Finn to save a cat. We need Finn to save a cat. We're starting to realize that the biggest character hurdle in front of Finn is that he hasn't saved a cat.

And is it too much? Because when we arrive at the cantina, he's offered the biggest damn cat in the galaxy... the galaxy itself. Go to the resistance, and fight the cat-stomping First Order. Really just save the hell out of that cat.

And Finn says no. The First Order is too much. He can't take it. It's too much. That's a big, gnarly cat. Finn would be more comfortable starting with a kitten. Maybe a stuffed cat.

I've said we need him to save the cat, and there's a good reason why. We want to be Rey, but at this point, we fear we aren't. In Rey, we see the person we want to become. In Finn we see the person we secretly are, all full of fears and insecurities. If Finn manages to save this cat, maybe we can save the cats in our own life. Maybe, at that point, we get to become Rey, and not just wish we were.

Shortly after he refuses to save the gnarly cat, everything falls apart. You see, Rey is on her own cycle of "Refusing the Call" over and over again. During that process, she's captured by Kylo Ren on his own cycle of "Reconciliation with Father." Those two will be discussed in future installments.

Here is our moment of truth. Finn, and therefore we, stare down at a cat we can't stand not to save. So he, and therefore we, will lie and cheat and do whatever we can for that cat.

And we succeed. We save her and she hugs us and we wonder if this is the first time in our military life we've ever been hugged. The cat is saved, and we are Finn, and Finn is good.

We aren't done yet, though, because Kylo is out there. We've saved the galaxy but we haven't gotten Rey to safety. Kylo takes Rey out and we must put our money where our mouth is. We risk life and spine to save Rey, and in the end, we fall.

We pull back and distance ourselves for Finn for Rey's climax, but that isn't the last we see of Finn. When we last see him, he's presumably just out of surgery, lying it an ill-advised fashion on what is probably a shiny new cyberspine. Rey says goodbye to Finn and that is that.

But we don't worry about Finn. Finn has achieved his goal. We stare at the unconscious character on the screen and we know the quality of the man. What's more, we know that he has found this certain knowledge himself.

And finally, at the end of the film, we are content.

 

Spoilerific Analysis of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Part 1: Character Archtypes

Spoilers ahoy. Turn back ye mighty or despair.

Since this post is about Star Wars and since James Wymore is a full Sith Lord, I will respect his religion and not mock him during this post. But he has an orange lightsaber, and we all know those are the ugliest.

So let's talk about the new Star Wars, the original Star Wars, and how the new writers grew the characters over the last thirty-some years. We'll start with an analysis of the characters from the original Star Wars.  If you remember from Part 0 of my plotting series, Dramatica's Grand Argument Theory of plotting has eight Character Archetypes. Let's have a reminder, with the characters of the original 1977 Star Wars assigned their proper places.

Protagonist -- Our hero -- Luke Skywalker, of course.

Antagonist -- The Villain -- The Empire, embodied in that film by Grand Moff Tarkin, later by the Emporer.

The Guardian -- Protects and guides the protagonist -- Obi-Wan Kenobi

The Contagonist -- Opposes the Guardian and tries to steer the protagonist down the wrong path -- Darth Vader (although that isn't obvious until The Empire Strikes Back).

Emotion -- Represents Feeling -- Chewbacca

Reason -- Opposes Emotion, represents Logic -- Leia

Skeptic -- Represents Doubt -- Han Solo

Sidekick -- Opposes Skeptic, represents Faith -- R2D2 and C3P0

So let's look at how the new characters fit into the franchise, and how the old ones might have shifted.

Protagonist: Obviously, we're starting with Rey here. She is our hero, in almost every way. She steps so neatly into Luke's position that even if she isn't Luke's daughter like most people think, John Williams still saw fit to play the damn Skywalker scene over her about six times in the film. Seriously. Twice he uses almost the same orchestration as he used when Luke accepted the Skywalker destiny.

But I'm going to go out on a limb here and give her a minor co-protagonist: Poe Dameron. Poe takes over the fighter pilot role from Luke and he steps in as protagonist pretty much every time Rey is neutralized by the movie's plot. He starts off as the prime driver, then disappears when she comes on, then reappears when she's captured, then flickers in and out of the story during her escape and final acceptance of her destiny. Also, Rey takes up Poe's quest and gets it finished. Twice.

Fair notice, though. I might be biased. Rey is my hero in every way, but Poe is actually my favorite character. That might because Poe is the Platonic idea of the Italian American. Seriously. He mouths off to the bad guy, then when he gets broken out, he realizes that Finn just needs him for his skill, but he rolls with it without holding a grudge. Then he gives Finn his nickname that will stick forever. He encourages even as he jokes, and as a kicker, when he sees Finn wearing his jacket, he won't take it back because it suits him. Seriously, the only thing he didn't do was follow that up with, "And you look starving, we need to get some cannoli in you."

Antagonist: Another easy one. The First Order, most directly represented by General Hux. How often do you see a scene I think, "Somewhere in here, a director okayed this actor giving us the Full Hitler."

Guardian: Here's where things get interesting. For the guardian, we get the 70-year-old Han Solo. He takes Rey under his wing, becomes a grumpy father figure, and even dies right at the point where the guardian needs to step aside so the protagonist can grow into their own. Ford didn't just age the Han Solo character. He and the writer's GREW that character into something bigger and special. I expect to talk more about his series-wide character arc in the next post. I expect that in the next movie, the guardian will be either Luke, Chewbacca, or both.

Contagonist: Kylo Ren. Seriously. He tries to seduce Rey to the dark side of the force and he kills the Guardian. It's like he's ticking off the Darth Vader checklist.

Emotion: No longer Chewie, Finn takes up this role. Finn stops just a step or two from full Cowardly Lion and he does it brilliantly. He is a bundle of emotions and social awkwardness bundled in a desperate package, just praying for something better, but probably convinced he doesn't deserve it. Finn is probably the greatest creation of the new movie. Poe's still my favorite. All right. Chewie does it once or twice too, but he's mellowed with age.

Reason: Still Leia, and I love it. She's a calm (if a spirited version of calm) center of the Star Wars movies. Practical. Far thinking. Always looking at the big picture. She was the female CEO before female CEOs were a thing. Calling her a princess is like calling Rommel a German advisor.

Skeptic: This one hard, because force awakens doesn't have a good example of a skeptic character. The junk dealer on Jakku might be it for part. Captain Phasma as well. Rey and Finn both take up the Skeptic role in their own ways. Skeptic gets passed around in the Force Awakens, which isn't terribly surprising, because it's a movie about Finn and Rey finding their faith.

Sidekick: Obviously, the indomitable and awesome BB-8 is the primary Faith character in Force Awakens, with C-3PO and R2 pulling up the slack. That's never more perfectly depicted than in the scene where R2 and BB-8 join together to project a map leading to the holiest place in the Galaxy. Seriously. Faith, faith, faith.

That takes us to the end of the character archetypes. New characters stepped into the roles of old. Han Solo grew into something new and special, and R2 and 3PO remained constant.

Next week, we'll take the analysis further and look at some individual arcs.

That Moment Where Everything Clicks

In honor of Star Wars Release Weekend, I will not take any shots at Wymore. So today I'm going to talk about ah-ha moments. That moment where everything clicks and you suddenly understand the solution to a problem. In writing, this is almost always a plot specific point. It might be realizing that a flaw of your main character fits perfectly into the environment of the ending. It might be the moment where you realize the contagonist of your three movie trilogy is actually the father of your protagonist. It might be that moment where you realize that you've misjudged your taxes and your going to have a lot more money to spend next year. (That's plot related, right?)

Ah-ha moments seem like they are out of our control. They are not. An ah-ha moment is like meeting the person of your dreams: there's luck involved, but luck is largely what we make of it.

Ah-ha moments do not come from the ether and only barely come from native intelligence. Ah-ha moments come from opportunity. They come from giving your mind time to grind on a problem, and then taking time to actually think about it. Do you think about your projects all the time? Do you start thinking about them weeks, if not months in advance? You should.

I was thinking about the third Death by Cliché book while I was plotting the second. The fourth and the fifth are in there as well, vaguely formed ideas about where I'm building, what I want to accomplish, and what I want these books to mean to the reader.

I've known the last line of the third book since I decided whether or not to put a certain subplot into the second (I decided not to, and so the second book partially became about laying the seeds of the subplot in the third.) I've been grinding on that third book ever since. I've had time. Every moment I'm in the car. Every moment I'm in the shower. Almost every moment my mind is wandering, some part of it is trying to figure out what the hell I'm doing with that book.

You see, the second book came at me as sort of a surprise, in that I was too stupid to be thinking about it when I should have. I knew for quite some time that the second book would need to be written (that's not the same thing as knowing it would be published). It was somewhere around the time when I got my release date that I looked at the calendar and realized I should have started book 2, mentally, about three months before.

I was halfway through a project with my writers' group and I asked them if they would mind if I put that project on hold. It would take at least six months more at our current critique rate, and I just didn't have time. I wanted to turn in the second DbC book in May of next year, and if I'm to get that into anything like fighting shape, I need to be finishing it in the next month or so.

My plan was to go back into that original project then, but I saw that trap in time. Another six months and I'd be back in the same situation. So my writing group is getting two DbC books in a row, right in the middle of that other book. That will give me a little breathing room before I need to start the fourth.

But the third one is going better. Because of these time constraints, every aspect of the second book, from a plotting standpoint, has been an uphill battle. I'm having to drive the through the mental cycles by brute force. They are coming, and Howard Tayler told me two weeks ago that it's a better book than the first, but it's been painful.

The third, on the other hand, suddenly clicked together this week. The point is that after four or more months of chewing and thinking and grinding on this book in the back of my head, of thinking about it in all the quiet times, at examining it from multiple angles, I finally hit on the two ideas that clicked together and formed the central plot. (That subplot I mentioned before would only get me so far).

Each DbC book has a purpose. I have something I want to say. The first was about the power of the creative impulse. The second takes that to its natural conclusion and explores the more implications. The third is about the political power of a people to decide their own fate. I hit upon it by combining a scene from Henry V with the plot of Les Mis.

Once those pieces click together, you have your skeleton. When you have your skeleton, you have your book. You just don't know it yet.

But this doesn't happen magically. It just seems like that. It happens when you give yourself the time and the opportunity for it to happen. For me its about four to six months. For you it might be one month or one year. I want to say don't force it, but sometimes you have to force it, especially when deadlines become a thing. Instead I'll say to try to think ahead, so you don't have to force it. You'll sleep better. You book might be better because of it, and your family and friends will find you more pleasant to be around.

Unlike Wymore. (Dammit! Almost made it).

Writing Groups of Writingness

I'm talking about real writing groups. Not what Wymore does in his attic with two porcelain dolls, three stuffed animals, and a heavily sedated puma.

Writing groups can be problematic. They can break a new writer. They can instill one with a false sense of confidence. There are periods where I quit writing after almost every group. Luckily I have a 45-minute drive home, and I've usually come to my senses before I hit my driveway.

Tim Powers says to not join a writing group. He says that if you do, make sure everyone in it is farther along in their careers than you are. Other people's advice is more generous.

Tim's theoretical group is great, but not all of us can be that lucky. So what do we do with the group we have? How does one use a writing group most efficiently?

One thing is true about any writing group. They will give you the type of feedback you ask for. If they don't, quit that group immediately.

The level of feedback you do ask depends, like always, on you. For most people, I would go with Orson Scott Card's wise reader feedback, which essential consists of reactions, feelings, and understanding without prescription. A wise reader says, "I'm bored," or "I don't understand," or "I don't believe it." The wise reader reports their state of mind and leaves it to the author to figure out how to fix it.

The problem with readers giving suggestions is that very rarely are the suggestions right. Readers, even brilliant ones, rarely know why they feel what the feel. And when they guess, they are almost always wrong. They certainly don't know enough about why you wrote what you wrote give coherent advice. For instance, many readers tell you to cut when something is boring, but most likely, you need to add instead. The problem isn't that you're going on too long. The problem is that you don't have enough content for the reader to care about what you do have.

Unless you are a professional writer, I would not deviate from that type of feedback.

When you're much more confident in your ability to understand feedback, say when you're a professional writer (and maybe not for some time after), you might be able to handle people's suggestions. To do this you need the skill to ignore their advice, but to use it to better figure out the core of the problem. For instance, if the reader tells you that a character isn't likeable and that you need to pull back on their more negative traits, you might realize that the real problem is that you haven't gotten deeply enough into the characters head for the reader to empathize and forgive their bad behavior. The solution might not be to pull back on the character's flaws, but to strengthen their inner life.

Here is a good illustration of how a group should work for almost everyone: this week one of the members of my group said that the last scene of a chapter felt too "white room" for her. She went on to add that she couldn't figure out why, because all the actions and descriptive tags were there.

She had to leave right after that (we were running long) and I turned to the other two members. One of them said the scene didn't feel white room to them. I pointed out that it probably didn't feel white room to him and me because she had the problem wrong. She was looking at the action, but the problem was really the emotional reactions of the characters. Him and I were looking for slightly less emotional content and so we both thought it was fine. The last member of the group said she didn't have the problem either, but that she thought I was right and that the problem was that the rest of the group had more time invested with the character and so they brought their own emotional content to the scene. We all agreed that the first critiquer was right, however. Just because people who knew the character better didn't have the problem didn't mean I had the luxury of being lazy.

I have a great group. I wouldn't quit them for the world. You might have to go through a half dozen groups until you find one as perfect for you as mine it for me.

I know I did.

Your First Audiobook Part 4

In the last year, I've lost about seventy-five pounds. I did it all for Cera. Or at least that's what I promised my hair stylist I would say yesterday, when she was holding a sharp implement.

Wymore doesn't control a monopoly on threatening conversations. I suspect they studied at the same cosmetology school.

As a side note, Cera also told me that she's almost finished with her MBA. She has another college degree and she went to cosmetology school. She said that cosmetology was the most intellectually challenging of the three. She needed to learn anatomy, geometry, and algebra just to start. She said it made the others look easy by comparison.

None of that involves audiobooks, but I thought it was interesting.

My goal of finishing recording the audiobook by the end of the year is straining some. We were about two sessions behind this morning before I was supposed to record and last night I got very sick. Nothing that was life threatening, of course, but I sneezed for about five minutes without a break and at the end my voice had turned into gravelly hamburger. So I had to cancel recording today. There's something to be said for manning up and working when you're sick, but when you're talking about voice recording a continuous performance, the voice has to actually match.

So I'll need to try to get a makeup session or two in there. We're already planning one Christmas weekend. We probably need one to two more.

Last Sunday we had our first makeup session. We recorded about three and a half hours before my voice failed, with a few breaks in there to recover. We would have probably made up about a half session more than we did, but the audio tech lost the original recording of Chapter One, and he'd done something to the version he was working with that made it sound terrible. He was very apologetic, but I didn't mind much. I've gotten a lot more comfortable recording since then, so I liked getting a second shot at it. It's the longest chapter in the book, however, so we lost makeup time.

Seriously, though, I was relieved to be asked to do "reshoots." If we went through this whole process without catching at least one screw up, I'd be suspicious we missed something. Maybe that's just me being paranoid.

Anyway, as of the end of the weekend, we'd recorded through chapter 41 of 68 chapters. The punch and roll recording is going well. I have chapters now where I only make a five to nine mistakes in an entire chapter. Sunday I hit a record of recording four minutes and twenty seconds without having to stop. 4:20. Insert joke here.

Anyway, today I'm convalescing. Tomorrow I'll see if I can schedule a makeup session. Now, I'm going to play Fallout 4.

Have a good week, and never take a bet from a man who's shares a first name with a city.

Character Sympathy

I was in a car accident this week. I don't know how Wymore was involved, but I'm sure that he was. Somehow. I'm watching you, Wymore. 

So the guy doesn't have insurance. And I'm a bit injured. And I'm not thinking clearly. In addition, a kind soul gave me Fallout 4 about five hours ago and I really want to try it. Not Wymore. If it was Wymore, we'd all know it was a trap. (Watching you, Wymore).

What I'm saying is, I'm not all here and I am fumbling my way through this post.

I was going to write about that accident and the effect on my writing (let's call it "bad"), but I noticed something today and I think it has application for writing in general, so let's work it out together.

Once a month, I do a playtest for my game company. Right now we are running through the Moving Shadow Campaign for The Echoes of Heaven Campaign Setting in an attempt to be ready in case a license for 5th edition ever presents itself.

In this adventure, they are slowly unraveling the mystery of five-month-old events through a series of magical flashbacks. Central to the story is one of two young lovers and how one of them came to lie on her death bed.

The flashbacks can happen in different orders, depending on how the party does things. In this run-through, they came, very early, on the young man's long night of the soul. He had found to location of cattle thieves who were plaguing the village, he was outnumbered and outgunned. His lover was about to be killed, and he knew that if he tried to save her they'd both die. So he collapsed in terror. Hysterical terror. In the flashback, a group of villagers found him, realized that he wasn't getting a grip on himself, and moved on to try to take down the thieves.

The party, after experiencing this flash back, hates him. One of the players was doing a bit of a rant on how worthless a human being he was, and I noted, offhand, that every time I've had a non-player character display any human weakness in a game, at least half the players have despised them. This isn't an exaggeration. It's probably more like 80%. And I mean any weakness. If they aren't in any way perfect in their character and their actions, some or all of the party will hate them.

I've spent some time thinking about this, and it's made me think about point of view. These players don't know what came before his breakdown, and they don't know what came after. They just saw him at the second lowest point of his life.

After, they saw an event that happened sooner, where he sprained his ankle. They hate him for that even more, because they don't know that the next thing he did was run more than a mile on that ankle to get to the place where he finally broke down. After that they experience a later flashback where he tries to commit the fantasy equivalent of suicide by cop (that's the actual lowest point in his life), because the events that happened on that day have broken him.

So they hate him more.

Now this happens in many playthroughs of the adventure, and certain aspects like how tired and uncomfortable the players are have effects. Many of the players will stop hating him at the end, when they see the entirety of his story, and learn the horrors he accidently unleashed upon his life by trying to do the right thing. Others will never stop hating him.

But the matter is context. I'm pretty sure at least 80% of my players wouldn't be able to live up to the heroism that character displays throughout the course of the story, if it were to happen in their real lives. But won't have sympathy for him because an RPG means that they will never see inside his head.

Often, when we get notes back from writer's groups, they aren't that stringent, although I have one book submitted at Baen where multiple readers despised the main character. But usually our notes are somewhere in the middle. They don't care about the character. They don't feel his pain.

These readers are having the same problem the gamers have, but on a lesser level. They have the context of the problem, but they don't have the feelings to fully resonate.

Usually when you get this one, you haven't lived deeply enough in the characters brain. Readers need to feel the pains and the joys of a character for their journey to make sense. They need to laugh and cry alongside. You need to get deep into the character's self, experience all their reactions, and live there to really feel it.  Otherwise, it's all just watching a character be weak.

That's it, I think. If you don't inhabit the characters mind, all you can see is the weakness. You can never see the strength.

One caution, though. Don't go too far with the despair. I once depicted a character's grief and guilt after the loss of a loved one. It was about two pages long. I thought it was a rather light touch. It was nothing like the grief I felt over a real death. Maybe 10%. It thought I'd given it short shrift.

My notes back on that scene were that they couldn't believe that the character would do anything next but commit suicide. I was a little stunned. I'd barely touched on what it felt like to suffer a loss. But the readers didn't want to suffer a loss. They wanted to pull back from that experience, see the character grieve, but only feel a hint of it themselves.

I'm not sure that I found any great wisdom in today's post. But I didn't force you to experience the pain of a car accident. So I suppose that's something. :)

And. You know. Curse Wymore. I'm sure this is all his fault.

Turning Off Your Inner Editor

I shouldn't mock Wymore so much. James Wymore is a swell guy. Just ask him.

In response to my last post, someone mentioned that their problem with writer's block isn't not wanting to write, it's turning off their internal editor.

Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of how-to information on turning off your internal editor. It's just something you have to do. I can give you some general advice, however.

Know your limits, and learn where your slippery slope lies. While I don't typically go back and edit sentences while I'm writing (I expect to edit them when preparing my submission for Writers' Group), I know that if I do go back, I won't get sucked in. Not everyone can say that. I know people that if they start editing a paragraph, they won't get any more writing done that day, they will go down a proverbial rabbit hole of editing.

I suspect some people can't even let themselves correct basic spelling errors. So know your limitations. Understand where that slippery slope starts.

And it's worth mentioning another motivator here. Deadlines.

I've mentioned it before, but my Writer's Group is every Thursday night and it's the Dark and Hungry God That Must Be Fed. The offshoot of that is that when I sit down to write, my goal is to hit wordcount. Editing can come later. I write a thousand words every 40 minutes when writing drama (an hour and a half when writing comedy.) I usually write before bed, so if I don't hit that word count in the allotted time, I don't get to sleep. Editing can come later.

And that brings me to something Tim Powers says at Writer's of the Futures. First drafts are supposed to be terrible. If your first draft isn't terrible, you've done it wrong. Seriously. If you write a good first draft, you've failed. As a writer. Failed. As a writer. Taste the failure. You're writing failure.

As I said, I can't tell you how to turn off that editor, all I can do is tell you ways to incentivise yourself to turn off that editor. Now, get to writing. Badly.

Chop chop.

Writing When You Don't Want to Write

Last week I awoke, confused, naked, my memory foggy and disjointed. I fell from a glass canister, essentially decanted onto the cold, unforgiving concrete of a stark laboratory. Not knowing what to do, I managed to fashion a handheld canister torch and a broken bit of glassware into weapons.

On the stairs out I found creatures half shark, half nightmare, and half elder being. (That isn't too many halves when you allow for non-euclidean elder magic). Hacking and cutting, wading through puss and ichor, I finally fought my way to the cleansing light of the noonday sun. Only then, when I finally drank the first deep draughts of free air, did I find myself facing... myself. I stared at me. Me stared back. Then we both struck.

I don't know who survived. I hold the memories of both in my mind. Am I the fell clone or did I kill him in that unblinking sun? I don' t know. I know something more important, though.

Never leave spare genetic matter around Wymore's house, no matter how badly you have to use the restroom.

Anyway.

I hear a lot about writer's block. I hear about it at conventions and on the internet. Advice and tips and commiseration. I know it's a problem for a lot of people. I can't speak to what it's like to be other people (except as noted, above). So I want to be careful not to say that I don't believe in writer's block. But I can tell you what it means for me.

Writer's block is me not wanting to write.

It can take a lot of forms. Wanting to play a computer game. Wanting to sit down and read for an hour. Wanting to nap. Avoidance and dodging and procrastination. Sometimes I'd rather clean the house than actually write, and I hate cleaning the house.

Heinlein said something along the lines of: he writes because the only thing worse that writing is not writing.

The last time I really had "writer's block" was while working on a paper in high school. It wasn't a real matter of being blocked. It was a matter of wanting to do anything other that assignment. That time I found my solution. If I put on Beethoven and just forced myself to write, I always find the writer's block goes away in about fifteen minutes. I don't know if that's because Beethoven is particularly inspiring, or if it's because I know that if can make myself stop needing it, I can put on something that I like more.

If I had to give advice to someone earlier in their career than myself, <insert obligatory joke about my "career" here>, then it would be to try Nano this month, or next year, since this advice is probably too late to save 2015. I'm talking about National Novel Writing Month.

I don't participate myself, but I have in the past. I did it on two consecutive years. Each time I set a goal of hitting 100,000 words instead of the standard of 50k. Each time I petered out around Thanksgiving with 70-something thousand. And then, my writer's group submissions covered for the rest of the year, I stopped writing until January.

I produced one novel that is probably beyond redemption and one that I have in submission right now. But a more important thing happened. I showed myself that I have the discipline to sit down and write three thousand words a day. They might not be good, but "good" isn't the point of Nano. Nano is about learning discipline.

You go to work every day. You don't whine and say you have "data entry block." You don't beg off because you don't feel it. You do the job because that's your job. Or you get fired. Every day. That's what it means to be a productive member of society.

You might say, "But Bob. You're brilliant and handsome and hyper-intelligent." I get that a lot. You might go on to say, "I work shelving groceries" or balancing spread sheets, or selling leads, or whatever you do. "That isn't creative work," you say. "That's different."

I'd say talk to the professional writer's out there. Your Brandon Sandersons and your Kevin J. Andersons and your Jim Butchers. The guys that really show us what it means to be a working writer. Do you think they ever just "don't feel like writing"? I'd submit that they probably feel like that every day. You know what they don't do?

They don't care.

They sit down. And they hammer out the words, or they do the painful edit, or they go to that one last signing when they don't think they can possibly smile at one more fan. They do it because it's their job to do it, and they love their job. They will do anything to make sure we don't fire them, because they know they work for us.

Or they write a blog about writer's block. You know. Whatever.

Editing and Temporal Distance

Look, I've said a lot of things about Wymore that might give you the wrong idea. He has the heart of an innocent child. His collection is really quite extensive. He also has the body of an Olympic athlete.

This week I want to talk about emotional distance and editing.

The time will come in your career, when you no longer have the luxury of taking ten years to write a book. I'm looking at you, Martin. In the meantime, I want to talk about stepping back from a book, and the effect that has on your ability to edit your work.

I see too many writers who can't put down a manuscript. They circulate from writer's group to writer's group, rewriting the same book over and over. They are determined that this will be the book that they publish. It's probably the first book in a ten book series.

Needless to say, this tactic is doomed to fail.

To edit a book objectively, you need emotional distance. This is a skill that you learn over time. I expect Scalzi or Correia can get to the place they need to be in a matter of days. Maybe hours. I don't know. I've never asked.

But if you're reading this, I'm assuming you aren't a successful writer. If you are, Hey. How ya doing? See you next Comic Con.

This is a skill I've been thinking about as I write the sequel to Death by Cliché. You see, I'd LOVE to submit the book in the spring. But I won't finish writing it until about the New Year. That's not a lot of time for rewrites.

My usual tactic is to allow at least a full book's worth of writing between drafts in a book. At least six months of time for the book to percolate in my head. If I take enough time, I know that when I come back to the book, I won't be married to the words any longer. I can study them objectively.

Because we love what we write, and often the things we love the most are the ones that are the ones we most need to cut. That takes a level of objectiviness that's hard to maintain.

I can't remember if I've said it on this blog before, but being a professional writer requires a strange blend of abilities. You have to believe in something completely when you're writing it and when you're submitting it. You also have to be able to drop it and move on with a shrug when it's time. Sometimes that refers to a line of text. Sometimes your favorite joke. Sometimes an entire novel.

Some of the biggest problems I see appear during the late portions of a writer's career is when they lose this ability, and yet they are too big to be rejected. We've all seen that happen.

I have hope. At least with the sequel to Death by Cliche, I see a change in how I'm handling my writer's group. I don't have the time to be precious about my stuff anymore. When they tell me something isn't working, I'm eager. I don't feel the level of pain I've felt taking criticism in the past.

And that means maybe I've developed that crucial skill.

Or maybe the next book will suck. I'm genuinely excited to find out which it's going to be.

Your First Audiobook Part 3

Once upon a time James Wymore was tied to a table by his wrists and ankles while a group of hooded figures chanted dark, arcane utterances while fell incense hung in the air. I don't have a point with this one, I'm just describing his typical Tuesday night.

It'll be a quick one this week, I think. We're progressing apace on the audiobook from. I think we've done four or five sessions now, and I'm at another recording as this posts.

I'm coming to the conclusion that my voice can't handle more than a hour or so of real recording. That wouldn't be enough to do this professionally, but it gets the job done for me. If we get started about noon, I can really start feeling the strain around one. I might need to figure something out about that if we do another of these with a tighter timeline.

I don't know if that just gets better with practice or if I'm using my voice wrong.

Last week's was rough, but we're getting through. I average a lot of errors per page at the beginning and end of a session, but in the middle, I can get close two a page.

I'm more than a third of the way through the book at this point. If today is a really good recording session, I'll come close to half. Practically, I'll probably hit the halfway point next week.

We've recorded the screamiest scene, which the producer says will be the hardest edit of the book. Other than that, we're just plodding slowly towards our goal.

Talk to you next week. TTFN.

Your Fiftieth Convention Part 2: The Green Room

I'm not going to make a Wymore joke this time. He recently had his entire collection of Hello Kitty Memorabilia. He needs to be alone just now.

So let's talk about the green room. In smaller cons, everyone will have access to the green room. At something like a comic con, you might have to earn a little cred before you get inside.

I want to talk about the latest Comic Con in particular.

I spend a lot of time in the Green Room at one of these cons. There I get a sense of family I rarely experience elsewhere in my life. It's just been me and my mother for a very long time. I never had siblings. Big family dinners are relatively unknown to me. All the close family died many years ago.

I usually find some place to set up at a con, where a group of writers and fans and other professionals can come and go. We don't talk about craft. We get enough of that in the panels. We just spend time in the presence of people who've shared the same experiences. The people who have stayed up late on a book deadline. The people who have known rejection and despair and delight and crushing defeat in the same profession we have. Most of us aren't anywhere near the same point in our careers. It doesn't matter.

In the past, at Comic Con, I've set up on the couches. I realized this con what a mistake that was. Couches can't hold enough people and they are often positioned all wrong. Without the couches set up for People Watching, I set up at a table with a view of the door and the food. I was there more than 10 hours most days. I usually had only three hours away on the floor or at a panel. So the rest of the time I spent at what we called "The Party Table."

I don't want you to think that I take credit for the party table. The only thing I really contributed to the party table was a sense of continuity. I set up there the first thing when I arrived (or when they opened the doors), and I would just hang out and see who wanted to talk. When people came in who I knew, I'd try to catch their eye and wave, because everyone likes to feel like Norm at Cheers.

And one or two people would sit down eventually. Sometimes I'd know them, like Julie Peterson Wright or Scott Taylor or James Dashner. Sometimes they'd stay long. Sometimes they'd leave quickly. Sometimes new people would come. I met Dan Schaefer and Andrew Mayne andKevin Hearne this con. (When I first sat down at the table, I was actually crashing the conversation of Kevin and Brian McClellan).

Conversations and groups would form. Julie would attract friends, then they would attract friends, and then Julie would leave but the little microcosm relationships would remain. The Hello, Sweetie! Podcast would do a fly by. Kevin J. Anderson would insist that I was a lazy bum that lived in the green room. Larry Correia would eat dinner and sometimes stay, sometimes leave. We'd joke and we'd laugh and we'd tell stories. I met radio personalities MiShell Livio and Cate Allen. At one point Jessica Day George sat down, turned to me, and basically did a twenty minute, spot-on improv comedy routine. Then she left. Many others came and went. On Friday, at one point, a giant collection of chairs had bulged out to the side of the table, as if another table was about to spontaneously appear through asexual fission.

I took part of many of these conversations, but at times, all the people would dissolve on my side of the table to the point where I could barely even hear the conversations. At others five conversations would happen at once and I'd realize I was trying to take part in three of them.

People will probably think that I'm going to say the highlight of the weekend was when Scott Taylor drew PJ Haarsma into a conversation on producing Con Man, and then Alan Tudyk did a fly by. I made two jokes. Alan laughed at one and shook my hand when offered.

But that isn't it. The magic happened the first time on Friday, and again twice on Saturday. The magic came when I was suddenly alone, and yet the table was full. When every conversation had shifted away from me and I just sat and watched. Two people laughed to my left. Two more were in serious consultation to my right. Across from me, five awesome women has a conversation that I can only assume involved how to handle the tremendous burden of awesomeness.

There was no pressure. No conversation to track. No need to be funny or to be actively listening or to commiserate over a botched panel. There was just the conversations, organic and living, the relationships shifting and merging and breaking and reforming around me. I was completely apart. And I watched old friends and new. People I liked or loved or barely knew. I watched the interactions live and breathe, and I realized it had happened.

The table had taken on a life of its own. I watched, and I took it in, and I knew a profound contentment and a boundless joy.

Those three moments were the height of comic con.

But when the smoke had cleared and the last person had left. When the soda cans sat empty and forlorn and the last cries on the floor started to echo, we took a deep breath and we smiled upon the day and we rechristened it the Alan Tudyk Commemorative Party Table.

Because: Alan Tudyk.

Your Fiftieth Convention Part 1: Panels

Conventions are fun. Conventions are interesting. Conventions are places where one moment you're admiring the latest cosplayer and the next you're in Wymore's Terror Dungeon, revolver against your temple as you pull the trigger, praying for the last empty chamber. That's what Salt Lake City Comic Con is like. This year Wymore was dressed as Emperor Palpatine.

Most of these blog posts have been written toward the new experience, but I can barely remember my first Con. I've been doing at least two a year since Writer's of the Future 19. Until I got my current job, where I can't take sick time even when I'm sick, it's how I spent all of my non-illness-related time off from work.

So let's start with the basics of Cons. Panels.

How do you get on panels? Well, hopefully, you know someone involved. If you don't, there are likely contact methods on the con's website. Theoretically, you have a marketable skill (such as being a newly published writer). The skill doesn't necessarily have to be writing related, though. If you're an expert on Tolkien or Star Wars, there's a place for you at any media con. We have a local here in Utah that has read the Silmarillion over 40 times. I don't even know if she has any other relevant skills. I just know I need her on any Tolkien Panel I run.

Communicate with whoever is in charge of programming. Let them know you're interested in being a panelist and in what ways your useful to them. If they need you, they're already contacting you. You need them, and so it's your job to let them know why they want you on panels without copping an attitude or acting entitled.

There might be a form to fill out. They may just send you an email and ask you to volunteer for specific panels. They probably want to know if you're willing to moderate. If you have never moderated before or seen a panel, maybe let them know that this con you'd rather not moderate but you'll be happy to next year.

So now you're on the  panels. What do you do?

I'll probably save basic con survival for the next post, so let's go straight to panel etiquette. Let's start with an iron clad rule. Unless you're Brandon Sanderson of Felicia Day, assume that you're time is least important of anyone's there. You don't need to comment on every question. You should keep your comments short, insightful, and to the point. If you can be funny, be funny. There is no greater asset you can bring to a panel than to be the person everyone wants to hear next. If you can become that person, great. But also learn how to shut up. Twitter-length answers are best. Always leave them wanting more. Always let the other panelists speak.

And keep the plugging of your book to appropriate levels. Don't to cash transactions when the panel is going on. Please.

Actually, that's twitter joke is great advice. Any answer you can keep under 140 characters probably isn't going to step on any toes. I was once put on a cryptography panel. I don't know crap about cryptography, but the con committee knew that they could put me on any panel and I'd be funny. So I was. I was Dennis Miller on Monday Night Football. My job was color commentary and then get out of the way. I talked a lot, but they were all one-liners that got a laugh and when possible made the more knowledgeable panelists look cool.

Let's say that again. The best panelist is the one that makes the other panelists look good. He doesn't argue with them (that's not the same as not disagreeing). He doesn't tear them down. Local writer Eric James Stone won a nebula. We have a running joke where I always introduce him as "Nebula Award Winning Author Eric James Stone." He never gets tired of it, but after the fifth time in one day, I asked him directly if it was getting old, because I wanted to make sure that I was always building him up, never wearing him down.

So what about when you are the moderator?

 

The moderator has two jobs. First, he makes sure that the audience has a great time. Second, he makes sure that all the panelists have a great time. The first task almost always trumps the second. If Manu Bennett is being an ass on a panel (I use him as an example because if you've met Manu, you know that this is an absolute impossibility), you might have to let him run amok a little, especially if he's the only big celebrity there, but otherwise, the first rule always trumps second.

So what does that look like? When I'm moderating on smaller cons, I usually consider myself the least important panelist. I might put in my opinion, but only about a fifth as much as if I were a panelist. I still make a lot of jokes.

When I'm moderating at Comic Con, I often don't sit with the panelists at all, I stand to one side, because there usually isn't a single damn person in that room that wants to hear what I have to say. I ask questions, but more importantly I watch body language. If Larry Correia is at one end of the table, he probably can't see knuckles whitening on the mics down at the other end. He'll talk, and he will always yield the floor, but he doesn't always know when to yield the floor just because of the way everyone is sitting. That's when I step in and say, "Steve, what's your take on that." Because Steve has been grasping the mic and waiting for a lull in the conversation for over a minute, but Steve is a little too laid back to jump in and seize a spot in the conversation.

Hell, most of the time, I don't even have a mic, but that has to do with my theater training. If you can't bounce your voice off the back of a room, make sure you can be heard as the moderator.

Sometimes giving the audience the best experience means you have to talk, but when you're the moderator, you only talk to keep things moving smoothly. Sometimes that's nothing but questions and quips. Sometimes you ask your first question and never need to ask another again, the panel takes a life of its own. Sometimes you are the smartest person in the room, where that subject is concerned, and you need to take a more active part.

Being a panelist is the number one job of a writer at a con (at least until you're big enough that signing books is your number one job). It's how you justify your existence. Research ahead of time. Come full of energy. Be engaging. You have one job.

Don't screw it up. 

Your First Audiobook Part 2

The stress of preparing an audiobook can be high. Sometimes you need to cut loose. Sometimes it's enough to tie Wymore to the grill of a car take a little joy ride.

But that's neither here nor there.

The second week of recording went better. I practiced Friday night again. This time, I added a new practice on Saturday. I didn't read aloud. I didn't whisper either (whispering is worse for your voice than reading aloud). Instead, I mouthed through all the text without vocalizing. When I hit a trouble sentence, I repeated it over and over until my mouth and tongue got used to forming those words, in that order.

I don't know if it was that or if I just got better at the process, but at the recording the next day, my error rate was much lower, more like four a page.

Maybe I should be more accurate about describing that, in case anyone out there laments they can't do as well. When I say four a page, I mean four times we had to roll back. When I restart if I flub it again, it's trivial for the audio tech to delete that and give me another run at it. I probably averaged two tries per edit, maybe two and a half. It's easy to call foul and try again on the subsequent retries.

We probably covered about as much ground on that second day, but I think we only got an hour or so of real recording in. So the time was more productive, we just didn't have as much of it.

The third week doesn't warrant a full post, so I'll cover it here. I practiced Friday. I practiced again Saturday. Sunday morning I woke up in agony with some kind of stomach bug. For four hours I couldn't sit or lie down for more than a few minutes at a time. I was miserable, and I finally got to the point where I could sleep again about the time I was supposed to wake up. Since we don't have a hard deadline, I cancelled the recording rather than producing crap. Since there were only three of us on Hold 322 that day, I did go in for that.

As I write this, we're soon going to do week three for real. However, I expect to start having less new information about the recordings to post, so next week, I'll probably discuss Salt Lake Comic Con and cons in general.

Until then.

Your First Audiobook Part 1

So you've sold your first book. You've signed the contract in blood and you've been entered into the secret cabal. On one terrifying night, you stood in James Wymore's basement, ceremonial knife in your trembling hand, covered in Muppet stuffing and my little pony hair. You are in.

But like SOME people I could mention, you negotiated a percentage of audiobook sales so high that there's no upside to your publisher recording one for you. Then you played your existing version of the audiobook for your sound guy and he asked if you would second him in a quick seppuku ceremony.

So. You need to record an audiobook.

After intense negotiation with the sound tech, you settle on a price for his work. That's all right. Everyone screws up with their firstborn kid anyway.

These events happened to me of course. You might have read about some of them in my Publishing Your First Novel posts. So the time arrived. It was time to start recording.

I've planned this to take place over 10-15 weeks. I know some people do it in three days. I might be able to do that, but we're ahead of schedule and there's no reason to push it.

Every other week or so, I'm on the Hold 322 Podcast. There, I pretend to know about comic books. JM Bell, the master of audio, is the producer of that show as well as the audiobook, so we decided to just meet two hours early every Sunday for a bit. I'd be on Hold 322 a bit more often for a few months. We'd record the audiobook. His wife would use me as a test subject for low-carb treats. Everyone wins.

You usually start an audiobook with prep work. This is no different, but the fact that I've written the book shortens some of it. I don't have to study the thing for subtext. I don't need to carefully consider the character arcs to make sure I don't mess up a voice in the early sessions. I know all that stuff already.

But that doesn't mean there wasn't prep.

The first thing that happened was Bell gave me voice homework. He had me buy Fox in Socks with instructions to read it three times a day, as fast as I could. This is about as easy as talking a horse into unspeakable acts with an aardvark. (Things HAPPEN in Wymore's basement. You are changed.)

I didn't want to practice the night before because I was afraid of the effects on my voice. So Friday night I read the first four chapters or so. I read them aloud. I practiced how I was going to handle the voices. I ran through the tougher sentences a few times. I share one thing with George Lucas. I can write that crap but I can't say it.

The day of, I didn't sleep enough. I don't like waking up two hours earlier than normal on a Sunday. I do not like it, Sam I am. Still, I blearily pulled up in front of his house two hours early.

He took me down to the studio (or his daughter did, I think he was still showering). He showed me where I'd be sitting so that the thousands of books he uses as baffles would absorb the most echoes. He got me to know the new mic. He expressed happiness that I had the book on my iPad, so he wouldn't have to manually remove page sounds.

Then we started recording. We used "Punch and Roll" editing, meaning that whenever I screwed up, he would roll back the recording, clip the inevitable breath sound off the end, and we'd try it again. I think we had agreed on a signal for when I screwed up, but about five minutes in, it degenerated into me saying a line, stopping and saying, "Hmm" as I considered what I had just said, and him chuckling and rolling us back.

That first day was painful. In the two hours, we got about 20 good minutes recorded. I'm sure we only recorded an hour, but my error rate was something like 12 a page. A good professional can get down to about one a page.

We saved each chapter in a separate file. We recorded three seconds of silence before every new chapter, five when the tone of the room had changed. Bell would need those later to remove the background noise. Otherwise, the gating might sound like... I don't have a good gating joke. It would be bad. Look up bad gating on the internet. There are samples you can listen to.

At the end of the period we were in the middle of chapter three and the dogs announced that the rest of the podcast crew were beginning to arrive. We cut things off. Bell told me he was going to make me call it quits after that chapter anyway. He could hear the strain beginning in my voice.

But it was a good session. I had gone from assuming we'd have eight sessions to fifteen, but we made progress. We'd hammered out the process and fell into efficient work patterns.

Better yet, he laughed out loud three times during the recording. It's not easy to make him laugh, so I considered that a win. We even had to stop the recording twice because of if. Best yet, one of the lines I'd worried about most had cracked him up. So my confidence, both in the rewrites and in the process grew.

I sounded terrible on the podcast that day. Or sexy. Depends on what you're into I suppose. I suspect that will be the case for the next several podcasts. You should start listening to see if you agree.