To hell with posting. I'm eating pie.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Death by Cliché.
Well. It's been a bit. My series on plotting is done now done. In the mean time Trump has become a thing, Syria exploded, the Cubs look like they'll get a wildcard spot, and James Wymore found out how to use the broken dreams of orphans as an alternative fuel source. The boy's got pluck.
But none of that is really relevant to these posts.
Since we last spoke, I received the copy edits from my book. These came from Matthew Cox. Evidently Matthew was one of the readers that recommended buying the novel in the first place. I knew the edits were coming because I began getting Facebook messages from him, explaining how to read them. "I marked the double tags." or "I marked repetitive words, but I marked them all in different colors." Or. "You use the word 'just' a lot and I have a gun, a big trunk, and a discrete friend. Stop it."
His Facebook messages were, overall, very encouraging. I know that copy editing is a job for him, and as a game designer I understand how quickly something you love can become a chore, so it was great to see how excited he was to pick up the edits again.
The edits were very different than I expected. Matthew considers repetitive words, overused structures, and passive voice all the domain of the copy editor. Some of his notes required ground-up restructuring of entire paragraphs. That made the novel better, but it did leave me a little worried.
I went through his notes in a couple weeks. They were too extensive to just use the review feature to accept and reject everything. I did pull him into a long Facebook message discussion one night because he was having trouble with a scene in general and I wanted to try to understand why. Most of the rest of the time I tried to leave him alone.
Eventually, I finished and turned it in. I have a vague disquiet about the whole thing, though. I know that I introduced new typos in those edits. They were just too extensive for me not to. My fear is that I introduced more than we corrected.
I asked the publisher about this, and he told me the thing would just be sitting in his inbox until it was time for layout. That gives me a little relief because now I can use my audiobook prep as a second big proofing pass. I found three typos in the first night.
There should be more chances. I'll get ARCs, etc, at some point. The book isn't finished until it's published. And if you take the Hobbit as your example, not even then.
I think this is the point where I'm feeling the most angst because there is so little left to go as far as the text is concerned. I've been working with this text on and off for something like nine years. Now it's in someone else's hands.
So I'll be insecure. I'll worry. I'll fret. I'll do any other synonyms you like.
But it's off.
The bright side is we turned it in earlier than they expected, so they moved the publication up to their first available date. The book is now scheduled to release on May 30th. The same month as my birthday. Unfortunately, that makes my book a Gemini.
Next week we're going to talk about audiobooks. My voice is already scratched.
That post will hit while I'm at Salt Lake Comic Con, so the post after that will probably involve conventions and a writer. That might be a new series. We'll see how much I have to say when the time comes.
Look. I don't have all the answers. All I know for sure is that James Wymore has the secret location of Lincoln's Gold written down in his daytimer. He's just forgotten where he put the thing.
Other than that, this entire process is just what works for me. We're almost done, so let's get into the final, optional step.
Stage Four: Dramatica
At this point, I open Dramatica. I go through it step by step. Including the part I did during stage zero, this can take me twenty or more hours on a short book. When I get to the Scene Design, I use my one line scene descriptions to fill out every scene.
After this point, Dramatica has me go through and assign certain story drivers and events to scenes. For instance, all the dynamically paired characters get at least three interaction scenes where they conflict on viewpoint. I also assign tertiary elements: such as when I’m going to tackle my themes and when I’m going to bring out crucial story elements (like whether the Main Character is a do-er or a be-er.) I’ll probably hit these items more often in the actual writing, but this makes sure I do it at least the minimum amount necessary to make my point.
When I’ve assigned all of these, I will make another pass on all the scenes. This time I actually try to flush them out into a coherent story. I look at the story drivers I’ve included and try to understand how they will come out in the scene. This will turn my one line into a short, narrative description for each scene. In this stage I also make sure that I fill in the last of those placeholder spots. (Although sometimes I discovery-write parts of the climax...that’s just a personal preference).
Then I’m done. I print out or export my story treatment report from Dramatica and I have my plot outline. Then I start writing (or more likely I continue writing, because I often finish this process after I’ve written the first chapter. :) ).
That’s it. You have now walked down the deep labyrinth of my plotting process. If you have lost you mind, take it up with your local Elder God.
It’s important to think Outside the Box. It might seem like this method pegs you into certain inevitabilities, but really it just forces you to cover your bases. You still have to take these ideas and present them in a new and interesting way. This process doesn’t, for instance, give you your act II twists. It doesn’t tell you what your end of act Revelation is. It just reminds you that if you skip these elements, your book will probably be a lot more boring than if you don’t.
It’s especially important to be creative during Stage One. This is when you brainstorm all your best ideas. This is when the creative juices really need to flow. I usually don’t even start stage one until I have a lot of these ideas in place. I know most of the secrets of my plot, most of the twists and maybe even turns. I have a pretty good idea of the general shape in my mind. I've probably been thinking about it for months.
But I don’t stop there. I force myself to brainstorm new ideas, to try to push my plotting envelope. I try to think about would surprise the audience most and what would surprise the audience least. I try to arrange things to hold the former in front of the audience while I get ready to smack them with the latter. Of course, this means I have to walk a fine line between revealing my secrets too early and making things different enough to keep them interested, but that’s a matter for another post.
My Salt Lake Comic Con schedule came in. For those attending, you can find me at the following:
Thursday Sep 24th:
The Hobbit Movie Trilogy: Ending the Cinematic Journey Through Middle Earth
Robert J. Defendi
Paul Genesse (Moderator)
Friday Sep 25th:
Writing Action: Fisticuffs, Guns & Things that Blow Up Real Good
Robert J. Defendi (Moderator)
Charles E. Gannon
Eric James Stone
Aaron Lee Yeager
Cord Cutting: Is it Right for You?
Robert J. Defendi (Moderator)
Saturday Sep 26th:
Live Plotting: Build-a-Story
Robert J. Defendi
Jennifer Nielsen (Moderator)
What We Know and What We Think We Know About Rogue One
Robert J. Defendi (Moderator)
There are three unassailable truths.
- Over a long enough timeline, everyone's chances of survival are zero.
- James Wymore has only once been beaten up by a toddler.
- And finally, the inventor of clamshell packaging will burn in hell for all eternity. I don't believe in Hell. I believe God will make a special exception just for him.
But that's not really relevant. I just wanted to make sure you all know Wymore had been beaten up by a baby. I have video.
That said, back to plotting. Things are moving along nicely. So it’s time for stage three.
At this stage, I go through and color code all my plots, a different color for each one. Then I start integrating them together. I take each plot and I sprinkle it through the Overall Throughline. I do this for each of them till I’m done. I’ll notice often that some of these scenes end up filling in placeholder scenes I had. For instance, in one book I had three scenes for the love interest that would fit well in the climax. I placed them in the relevant Integrated Climax spots and found I only needed a couple extra scenes to complete that arc. I filled those in during this stage, because it was convenient.
I also often find that many of the scenes duplicate from plotline to plotline. If so, I integrate them into single scenes with multiple goals.
When it’s done, I give it a last read through, make sure it seems like a coherent plot. If there are timing issues, I fiddle with them. This part takes Tim Powers a long time to complete. Me, not so much. I’m more likely to see the problem when writing, and then I just fix it at that point (a plot is a living thing, remember?)
With the new book, I looked at it when this was finished and thought, "Huh. This is a hot mess." The problem was I had writing goals for almost every scene, and some jokes, but almost nothing on what should actually happen. I decided to go back and check the original Death by Cliché, since that one turned out pretty well. And it wasn't a hot mess. Now, I've become increasingly confident in my ability to make these plot outlines work, but not that confident.
So I spent a half hour going through scene by scene and adding notes on what everyone was actually doing, letting story and setting emerge to flesh out plot goals like, "Introduce Theme" or "Discuss Damico as God." or "Spy stuff!"
By the time I got to the act two twist, I was feeling pretty confident. I left the second half the way it was, because I have two set pieces defined in the second half of the book and by then, the momentum I have from the first half should rocket me through any issues. Writing is often about momentum, and I like the plotting to be a little looser toward the end, since if I didn't I'd be likely throwing out parts of it as better ideas emerge from the first half of the book.
Finally, at this point, I’ll compare the entire thing to a generic plot they have in the program Dramatica (for books other than this one, where I already used Save the Cat). I’m not actually trying to imitate that plot at this point, I’m just looking for holes. For instance, that plot has you restate the novel’s goal a few times. I often forget to do that when writing, so I get that into my plot structure. I also use it to make sure that my antagonist has enough scenes and I see if it generally stimulates any ideas.
That done, I’m pretty close to finished, in one way, although the last stage takes me the longest. My plot looks like a plot, although big sections of the climax are still just placeholders. Time for stage four.
I'll end with noting that if you don't use Dramatica, this is all you need. You're done now. When I do my Plot a Novel in an Hour panels at conventions, I stop at this stage. The rest is all fine tuning. At this point, you have an honest to goodness plot outline.
Phase Two: Organizing
So now I have a document full of chaos, angst, and self-doubt. It's not unlike James Wymore's high school yearbook. Seriously, this document is made of pure, distilled fail. If you don't feel terrible about it, you probably did it wrong.
There is an old saying about movies. I say old, but it was coined by a contemporary film-maker, I just can't remember his name. There are three movies. The one you set out to shoot, the one you shoot, and the one you find during editing. Novels are the same. You'll see in this section that even at this stage, you're plotting, you're actually shooting at a moving target.
But let's get on to the real work. So now I have all my plots listed. Now it’s time to check to make sure they’re complete.
I start by reorganizing them. I often have plots with bits like:
- MC travels to location one.
- MC travels to location two.
- MC travels to location three.
All the important stuff is listed elsewhere. So right now I start by going through each through-line and putting the events in order. Now it will look something like:
- MC Travels to location one.
- MC meets bad guys
- MC travels to location two.
- MC gets captured by bad guys
- MC travels to location three.
Once I feel like all my plots are roughly in the right order, I move on to make sure they are all complete.
I have a couple books on stock plots. My favorite is Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots. This book divides all the plots in the world into twenty basic plotlines. Then it describes what is necessary for each of those plots. From those, I’ve built plot cheat sheets. Something like this:
1) Point of Origin
2) Motivating Incident
3) Character-Changing Obstacle (Repeat as necessary)
4) Act Two Twist
5) Character-Changing Obstacle (Repeat as necessary)
6) End of Act Revelation.
7) Character Revelation: Obtain/Deny.
- Make sure that the object of the search draws a deep parallel to the protagonist’s intent and motivation.
- Plot should contain a lot of orchestrated movement.
- Consider bringing the plot full circle.
- Make the character substantially different at the end of the quest.
- The object of the journey is actually wisdom.
- At least one traveling companion.
- Consider including a helpful character.
- What the character discovers is usually different from what he sought.
The checklist is paraphrased from one in that book. I recommend buying it.
Anyway. At this point I find all the through-lines that have full plot arcs. For instance, the Overall, the MC the IC, the MC vs. IC and the Love plotlines should probably all have complete arcs with their own twists, revelations, climaxes and resolutions. My plotline on ways of dealing with grief, on the other hand, didn't have an arc, so I left it alone. Another note, you might want to consider trying to attach Forda plots to plotlines with character-motivated drivers (like Manipulation) and Forza plots to plotlines with body-motivated drivers (like action). I haven’t played with that much myself, just an idea I’m kicking around. In one of my books, I think every plotline was Forda. 'Cause I’m hooked on character change.
So I take each of these plot-lines and assign a master plot to it. I then copy my cheat sheet from that plot underneath the through-line and I make sure that everything is there. I check that each of the major events happens (and put the type of event in parenthesis afterward) and I run the checklist on the plot. If necessary, I might copy a checklist item into parenthesis after scenes where I need to remember them. For instance, if I had a pursuit plot, I might have after every item on the plot the following note: (Make sure that the chase is more important than the characters involved.)
When I’m sure all the plot-lines are more or less complete, I move on to the next step.
So how did that turn out this week?
First of all, I used my Cat Saving for Fun and Profit plot point list to assign a structure to my overall plot. I numbered those scenes as heir own chapters and put the target chapter in parenthesis after each point. For instance, my major subplot is supposed to come around chapter 19, but now it's around scene six, so I know that I get to add around thirteen chapters before that point to get the scene in the right place. I'm interested to see how this method works out. (Also, my comedies have very short chapters)
As I built the plots for the next book, they started feeding into and informing each other. As plots developed in my mind, they started to connect. Right off the bat I threw out my master theme, which I thought was about people thriving in conflict. Now if I squint really hard, I can kind of see another theme in there. It has to do with the effects of free will and great power. There might be some god stuff in there.
I agonized about that a bit, but finally decided that I don't need to find it yet. I have enough of an idea to explore it as I write and find that theme organically.
That's not the only time I broke the rules. Be ready to break the rules when you need to. There are some plots that I want to unfold more like a metaphor than a plot with twists. I didn't assign a love story to this one at all... I felt it would be too contrived after everyone ended up happily ever after at the end of the last book. The relationships don't need artificial conflict and the natural place to put in a new one would have undermined the story I'm telling with those characters.
Also, there's a spy plot that still consists of line after line of "Spy Stuff." I intend to riff that one as I go and use it to build course corrections into the greater plot. I've never tried that before, but I feel like this one is going to be tight and I'll probably veer off course from time to time. It might be useful to have room for fixing stuff as I go.
So, it's done. I have my plots. Next week, I see if they fit together or if I'm up in the night.
Last week I spoke about my preliminary work I do before real plotting. I also explained how James Wymore abuses our national symbol and terrorizes other writers in their homes. Also, I reduced my diet coke intake by half, so I might have been hallucinating a wee bit.
But that's neither here nor there. I also did the prelim work for my next novel, sketching out characters and themes. This week, I take those initial ideas and bang them into the foundation of a plot.
Phase One: Real Brainstorming.
In this phase I write down everything that might help me in plotting. Names of groups and places (maybe). Concepts. I assign all the archetypes to characters if I didn't in the last step, even if I’m going to use a more complex character model, because I want to make sure that every Point of View is covered at least generally at this point. If all the main ways of looking at the world aren’t covered, then the book will make an incomplete argument. In the end, I’m making a statement about which of these conflicting forces are better than the others (but not always with the same answer from book to book). To ignore an argument is to shortchange the reader.
In one book in the past, I wanted to use greek names for things, so I started a list at the top of the document where I listed all the words I might need in the book and that they meant. For interest, if I wanted to remember what a greek general was called, I'd write Polemarch=General a the top. I used this list all the way through writing that book.
After I get those initial notes down, I brainstorm all my plots. Some of them have to be there:
Overall Story Throughline. . .
Main Character Throughline. . .
Impact Character Throughline. . .
Main vs. Impact Character Throughline. . .
Some don’t have to be, but usually the book will be worse without them:
Love Story . . .
Then I might put down ones that are specific to this story:
Drug use plotline. . .
The Secrets of the Main Group that must be revealed . . .
Antagonist Plotline . . .
Plot coupon plot line . . .
I might have a theme I’m trying to cover. For instance, this book will be a comedy, so I created a list of all the terrible gaming clichés that didn't make it into the first book. This will be put in as a list of gags to build into the overall scenes.
If one of my themes was loss, I might have:
Ways of Dealing with Grief . . .
Like the joke plotline, this one wouldn't have a full arc, but I’d be looking to make sure everything on the list is seen in one character or another through the book.
Now I go through and I brainstorm a plotline for each plot or subplot. They might look like this:
Bad guys start killing people.
Good guys are standing against them. (Are they really altruistic?)
Bad guys start slaughtering good guys.
- MC loses everything. Gets closed off from his feelings
- MC becomes a smith.
- MC must try to heal young girl.
- Impact character plagued by nightmares, show why.
- Impact character’s nightmares go away whenever he fights the thing that terrorized him as a kid, but can’t see that himself.
MC vs IC:
- IC convinces MC to try to save the world.
- MC sees something that makes him agree.
- MC figures out the secret of IC’s nightmares, tries to convince IC of the truth.
At this point I don’t even care if they are in order. I might have:
- Travel to locale 1
- Travel to locale 2
- Travel to locale 3
...Just because I know I'm going to hit a lot of places. I can shuffle them into the right places in the next stage.
I might make sure that at least the following happens:
- Act One: MC enters new life at the end.
- Act Two: MC moves toward goal.
- Must have a mid act twist, bring the whole story into a new light.
- Must have an end of act revelation or twist.
- Act Three: Must be really exciting. Probably involves intercut storylines.
I might not even fill these out. I could have those very lines in the plot as placeholders.
In fact at this point, there are probably a lot of placeholder scenes. For instance, my entire climax might look like this:
- Love Interest POV: Integrated climax.
- Contagoinst POV: Integrated climax.
- IC POV: Integrated climax.
- MC POV: Integrated Climax.
- Love Interest POV: Integrated climax.
- Contagoinst POV: Integrated climax.
- IC POV: Integrated climax.
- MC POV: Integrated Climax.
- Love Interest POV: Integrated climax.
- Contagoinst POV: Integrated climax.
- IC POV: Integrated climax.
- MC POV: Integrated Climax.
I don't care if a plot is complete now. I'm just getting everything I can on paper. I might even turn on numbering so I know how many ideas I have.
As a general rule, the first act shouldn’t be no longer than a quarter of the book (I like shorter, if I can swing it. In a movie a half hour of setup is fine, but in a big fat fantasy, 150 pages of it might be a little much.) The third act might well be the last quarter of the book (150 pages of running fight scenes aren’t too much if you do them right, just make sure you do.) The second act is everything in between.
If I have a small amount of chapters, like 12, I actually start the climax one chapter early and leave the last chapter for the denouement. If I have a lot of chapters, I just start the climax at the three-quarter mark.
Another thing I often do in this step is copy the sample novel plot out of Dramatica. In the next stage, I'll look at every scene in that plot and make sure that its represented somewhere in one of my plotlines. I don’t want to put in a love story that has no complications, for instance. How boring is that? Plus, I know that some things have to happen in certain types of stories. For instance in action story, the MC must meet the bad guys early on and kick some minion ass, so the reader gets that dose of wish fulfillment that makes them want to be lik the characters. After that, the MC must have his ass handed back to him by the bad guys in some way, or else the threat isn’t big enough. They need to get out alive, but it should seem like they couldn’t do that again. Finally, the MC should probably have his moment of doubt and fear.
My version of the Dramitica sample plot, in the next Death by Cliché, is going to be a bit more cinematic. I want the book to be paced just like a movie, so I stole the beat structure straight out of the great movie plotting book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. I figured out about how many chapters the book will have, converted that to number of pages in a screenplay and wrote it out as a plot called "Cat Saving for Fun and Profit." That gave me a list of what chapters should mark what major plot developments.
Finally, I want to do a bit on the terrible tropes we see with female characters. I didn't want to miss any big ones so I went ahead and groupsourced that on Facebook, putting the question out there for all my female friends to answer. This generated a healthy list.
It's not pretty. It doesn't make any sense. This is the point where I'm most likely to be convinced that this book just won't work. But it doesn't matter. This stage isn't about good ideas. It's about lots of ideas.
We'll start making them make sense next week.
Or, Publishing Your Second Novel... Prologue. I don't know if I'll start blogging about the second novel yet. Or if this will be my second novel (I'm writing it on spec). Or if I'm going make tomorrow a cheat day on my diet. Really, the future is a giant blank slate.
But it's time to start plotting a sequel to Death by Cliché. Partially this is because I looked at the size of the current novel I'm working on and realized that I won't finish it in time to write this book, so I need to move it up. Partly because I've run out of material on my main blogging topic. Partly because: screw you, I don't need a reason.
So I thought I'd start blogging the process here. It involves, I don't know, four stages? It's in flux. I'll know when we're done. It's in flux because of a project I did with James Wymore. Now there are three things you need to know about Wymore. He's written the Actuator series, which is a damn fun playground to visit, I've seen him tear the food from the mouth of a baby eagle with his teeth and punch babies for looking at him funny, and he knows where I live and pretty much all of my contact info.
So when he offered me a spot in his upcoming anthology, I jumped at the chance. Actually, it goes back to a late night pizza after an evening of Life the Universe and Everything (a local academic symposium). I was completely stoned on fatigue poisons, decompressing from the day, and I drunkenly suggested that his next anthology needed a story that was "Sailor Moon meets Godzilla."
Sailor Moon and Godzilla are both trademarks of companies I haven't bothered to look up.
Anyway, months later he said to me, "Remember that Sailor Moon meets Godzilla story you pitched? I totally want you to write that." To which I said, "I pitched what now?"
So fast forward to me plotting a story I never intended to write. It's times like this (and by this I mean times when you don't know what you're doing) that you engage in the great American passtime. You procrastinate.
In this case my procrastination took the form of starting with the last step first. Because all I had was a list of characters I stole from an anime archetype webpage and the begining of that last step is just about me bullshitting for three hours. Win/win, right?
So, this last-now-first step involved going into a program called Dramatica and answering some questions. As I answered those questions, a story started to gel in my mind. It was as if a program designed to help you plot better actually started out by helping you plot better. Holy crap. I'd discovered paydirt. Also, I was a genius. Throw a parade.
So if you've read one of my posts about this before or seen me talk about it at a con, you may notice some differences.
Now I'm going to go into some boring disclaimers. Bear with me. I'll start being clever in three, four blogs tops.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love to Plot
Phase 0 (Pre-plotting Prep):
Poe said to write the climax before you write anything else. Burgess, on the other hand, says he starts at the beginning writes through to the end, then stops. So there are a lot of different ways to approach this, even among experts. I’m not saying this is the best, merely that it’s the best for me.
I'm also not saying that you shouldn't discovery write. (Discovery writing is a method where you just start at the beginning and figure out what you're doing as you go exploring the characters and situations as you go). I'm just saying that there's a word for novels where I discovery write. That word is "failure."
Tolstoy (or however you spell it) said something about fiction that I’ve followed for years, he just said it better. He said, in essence, that good vs. evil is boring. Real literature comes from good vs. good. Because of this, I like to make villains or villain henchmen that readers want to see win. Shakespeare did this well, but for a modern example, see The Rock. The genius of that movie is that Ed Harris’ motivation to hold San Francisco hostage is so noble that you can’t really root against him. You want both sides to win. To hell with character conflict. Reader conflict is the heart of good fiction.
And a final note before I start. Ronald Tobias says that a plot is not a skeleton of a story, and I agree with him. Skeletons are too rigid. I use this process because it works for me, but if you adopt any part of it, don’t let it get in the way of good plotting. If you’re driving home from work one day when you’re halfway done writing the book and you suddenly realize, "Oh my God! The talking plum should really be the reincarnation of his father!" Go home and change the plot. It’s not set in stone until the book is set in print (and maybe not even then...ask Tolkien).
So here’s my method:
First a couple premises. I use the Dramatica theory of the Grand Argument Story. I swear by it. I like Ronald Tobias too, but I don’t like his theory of character triangles. The GAT (Grand Argument Theory) is set up with dynamic pairs that work well for me, and usually triangles arise out of it anyway.
Tobias does talk about Forza and Forda, from Dante’s Inferno. He takes this into plotting by saying there are two basic plots. Forza, which is external conflict, and Forda, which is internal. I think you need to include both types in a story, and richly.
The basic character pairs from the GAT are something like:
Protagonist (Good guy) -- Antagonist (Bad Guy)
Guardian (supports) -- Contagonist (Distracts)
Sidekick (Faith) -- Skeptic (Doubt)
Reason (Thought) -- Emotion (Feeling)
You can get MUCH more complex than that, but those are the general archetypes.
You have a MC (Main Character) and an IC (Impact Character). The IC tries to convince the MC to take a different path and all GTA stories revolve around this conflict and its outcome. Luke wants to join the empire and be a pilot (He did. Really.) Obi Wan wants him to become a Jedi, and screw those imperial bastards. We think, at the beginning, that Obi Wan’s point has won, but it doesn’t really win the argument until Luke turns off his targeting computer at the end of the movie and does not just what Obi Wan wants, but how.
I’m trying to give enough information that you can understand where I’m coming from without diluting the value of buying these products, BTW. Also I link to their web version of the theory later on.
Goal: Your main goal here is to make an outline with two qualities. One, it should be specific enough that you always know what to write next. Two, it should be general enough for you to indulge your creative whims. If you can do both these things, you can never use writer’s block as an excuse. :)
So that’s a general idea of where I’m starting from.
Death by Cliche 2. We'll title it Deathier and Clichéier. Because if I give it an unpronounceable working title, that title can't possibly stick. I'm not contracted for this novel, but I've had people asking for it long enough that I should probably get around to actually writing it.
I have two things to think about in my preliminary work. The obvious one is the general shape of the novel. The other one is what I'm going to do with the chapter quotes. In Death by Cliché, the chapter quotes are a running meta-joke about bad writing, where I quote myself laying down writing rules and then play off them in some way in the chapter. It worked great. People seemed to like it. Unfortunately, those same people would stone me to death if I did the same thing in a second novel. It's a joke who's lifespan can't possibly extend beyond a single book. It had probably outstayed it's welcome by the end of the first one.
So those are my goals. I think about the chapter quotes and I have a lot of ideas, and they are all mostly one-book ideas. How about a book where every quote is a complete non-sequitur, like US presidents saying things the sound dirty out of context, or incredibly poignant statements from Miss America pageants. I don't know, but I am getting the feel that every book is probably going to have its own chapter quote running joke. It's also clear to me that this might not be sustainable, so every book there will be at least one comment about how I might continue doing quotes in future books. I'll never forget Robert Asprin saying that coming up with a funny quote for every chapter in the first Myth book was a fun game, but by book seven it was just an awful chore.
But first I need to know where I'm going. I know where Damico ended at the finish of Death by Cliché. Now I need to start him from there. I ask myself is he happy where he is, or is he welcoming the inevitable adventure? How about the other characters, lockstep or at odds? What about new characters?
Death by Cliché has an interesting structure because I have characters who's POV's I can never enter. They aren't free willed creatures as manifested in the world. They controlled from the outside. So while it might be interesting to give Arithian a sidekick of sorts, and I probably will, my hands are tied by the fact that I can't tell those jokes from Aritihian's POV. I have to choose Damico or the sidekick himself.
I pick my villain. I'm going to play on a religious theme, since religion is so inherently borked in this setting. So far the gods listed in the world are very few. Ralph the Porcelain God for instance (because everyone worships at the porcelain altar at some point in their lives.) I did a thesaurus search on Prophet, came up with "Weatherman" as a replacement and my plot started falling together.
In Dramatica I start filling out he questions. It asks me some leading essay questions to get general ideas down. It asks me one-sided questions where my answer determines the answer for another character. For instance Dramatica has the Main Character and the Impact Character. One of them is always a do-er. One of them is always a be-er. That way they complement each other. Questions about if it's a happy ending. By the end of that I have some general ideas what this book is about.
It has me create my characters. I've done this before so I know I'm using archetypes and I make sure I have each of the archetypes covered. It asks me some questions about the Main Character and the Impact Character (in this case the Impact Character will be the Weatherman).
Then it has me make some choices on the MC, followed by the book's theme. As I'm answer questions, other answers are being filled out. What I decide for the MC also answers questions about the IC. I don't see the implications of all these yet. The program knows I'm not ready for it yet. It also asks me some basic plot questions.
To make a long story short, Dramatica asks more and more questions, drawing ideas out of me, until I'm at the point where I'm ready to start working out actual scenes. That's when I print out reports from Dramatica on all the things I've decided so far and sit down to do Phase 1 of my actual plotting system.
One thing did come up out of this. I realized that the MacGuffin in this story was a little too much like the artifacts in the last novel. I think that they'll read different enough by the end to justify the plot (I take it to a different place in this book, where the MacGuffin is closer to a true MacGuffin and not the tools used in the final climatic battle), but still, I fear readers will rebel early on. So I have my chapter quotes. I'm going to comedically deal with all the similarities between this book and the last one in a long, running commentary with my self throughout the quotes.
So that's one more book they've survived.
Now you might ask yourself why this is stage zero? Because all of you don't use Dramatica. You can handle all the brain storming and the themes yourself, although I'd recommend reading their Grand Argument Theory. That link will get you started.
But you can plot without Dramatica. You can even use the Grand Argument Theory without Dramatica. Dramatica just tracks it all for you.
That was a long stage, but the real core of my system, I regularly go through in my Plot a Story in an Hour panels at local cons. So you can do those in an hour. Obviously. Now, those are pretty crappy plots, but that should give you an idea about how things can move once the juices are flowing.
Another long post. I'll see you next week for Phase One.
Death by Cliché.
Now that that's out of the way...business. With this post, I should catch up with our current status on Death by Cliché. That means that barring major developments this week, the kind that just demand a blog post, I'll start a new series next week that will run in the same weekly slots, but on weeks where there're no new developments on the novel. This will be a series on plotting. Maybe I'll plot the sequel to Death by Cliché as I write it, (but without spoilers). That will force me to actually prepare the novel. Also, I learned some stuff doing a short story for James Wymore's second Actuator anthology that I'm interested to see integrated into my novel potting process.
I don't have a name for it yet. I suspect it will be something earth shattering, like Plotting Your First Novel: Part 1.
But back to the subject at hand. It only took a few weeks, at the most, before I received the edits back. In that time, I continued to work on these blog posts. I also received the news that I needed to move my hosting my hosting away from Verio in the next year. My entire life is pretty entangled with that company. I used to work for them, as did my friend Gary Llewelyn. Gary had been their longer, and that meant he had a free reseller account. So when I was laid off, we moved my free server to his reseller account and I started paying reseller prices for my hosting. Later when his free employee server was deleted, along with two of my site, I consolidated them onto that one server. That's why it's called Robert J Defendi's Playtesting.net.
Anyway, Verio had always suited my needs, and honestly, I was getting more server and wider capabilities than I can for comparable money in most other places because I wasn't paying retail. I considered both Godaddy and Squarespace, and Godaddy seemed like the better deal, but I've heard a lot of bad buzz about them in reviews and in my tech news feeds, and everyone seems to love Squarespace.
So I told Clare at CQ that I was moving my hosting. Everything to date had been linked to Playtesting.net and that made it all very convenient. I'd build RobertJDefendi.com on Squarespace, point the domain there, and then after Clare had redirected the links on all the old posts to that site, I'd start repointing my other domains. Since I probably needed to rebrand back to my name, the perfect solution. All of that went without a hitch.
Now Tim Powers once told me that it's a terrible story to watch a man changing a tire competently, so you might ask why I told you that story. I told you that story so I can tell you what happened to me later that week, but we aren't quite there yet.
I got my edits back from Michael Cristiano. They were minor enough that he mentioned that there probably won't be a third round, we'll just go straight to proofreading (although I think that's technically copyediting since I don't think the book will not have been laid out yet).
So I dug in. It's interesting. I've spoken before about how I didn't want to change the text very much at first because of the audiobook, and I've spoken about how that was a mistake. This is when that fact became the most obvious to me. At this point, we had cleared enough away, both in the text and in my emotional connection to it, that I could see phrasing issues I'd never seen before. So when it comes to editing for style, this was probably my heaviest pass. (I don't know yet whether that has made Michael angry...he might have assumed that we'd cleared all this stuff previously). A lot of it was in the text I'd added in the first pass, to answer his issues, but there was still a great deal in the stuff I'd written back in 2006-2008.
There were some small hitches. When we did our first pass, I turned off track changes before doing my edits because in my arrogance it didn't occur to me that Michael needed to know every change I'd made. I called out the important ones in comments, but I didn't think he'd need to see everything else. My only excuse is that I'm used to getting back edits as a publisher, not as a writer, and the next person to see my edits, in the past, was almost always a different person from the one I'd just received them from.
So I kept it on, this time.
Michael pointed out more words I overused. I had some form of "look" about 400 times in the novel and 100 "moments". A lot of "sighs" too. Michael told me to check to see if each sigh was really a time when a person would sigh. Evidently, I sigh a lot more than he does, because they all were, but I decided that leaving them in would let me reader know that I was secretly some kind of sighing monster, and so I cut about three-quarters of them.
This is an important point. I bounced a few things back at Michael the first time, and the ones he backed down on I called good, but that was only a few. Far more of them he dug he heals on, and I looked at them deeper. Your editor is always right.
That sentence was important. So I'm going to pull a Strunk and White here.
Your editor is always right. Your editor is always right. Your editor is always right.
Here's the real catch. Your editor doesn't always know WHY he's right. Sometimes, the reason why your editor THINKS he's right is completely up in the night. I mean bat-shit crazy. You know he's bat-shit crazy because you did the exact same thing elsewhere in the book, but he didn't call THOSE out. So why the hell does he think that rule applies here?
I'll tell you why. Because we sometimes know something is broke, but we don't know how.
For example. I do not italicize thoughts in my books except in very special circumstances. I've had people claim that they think in complete sentences, but I don't believe them. I can't think that slowly myself. But more to the point, when you're writing third person limited like I do in almost every book, when you're deep in the character's head, every word and description is a part of his thoughts. There's no difference between the description of the door and his thoughts about how he needs to do something for his wife. We experience both of these things entirely through the filter of his conscious mind.
Also, italicizing thoughts when out in the 80s. Not everyone has figured that out yet.
So Michael insisted that this one thought of my main characters be italicized. This confused me and not just because it was wrong (because even when I'm arguing, I know the editor is always right). My biggest problem here was that this is the only novel I've written that isn't almost exclusively in a third person limited point of view (I should do a post on point of view and tense). This book slips between third person and an omniscient, smart-assed narrator. So maybe my normal rules didn't apply...
When my main character thinks a thought that is an essentially first person, Orson Scott Card would tell me that it's grandfathered in by the line before it and you don't italicize it. My editor insisted that this instance needed to be italicized, but I knew for a fact that I've done similar things throughout the whole novel and this was the only one he noticed.
And that's the crux. He noticed. Your editor very rarely notices when you do something right. That's your JOB. Your editor notices when you do something wrong. But since he didn't notice all the times you did it right, he might not immediately just how exactly you screwed up.
So I cut the joke. Who's going to get a purposeful Jimmy Hendrix misquote anyway? Old people like me? Bah.
I do two passes on any edit. The first time I argue with Michael shamelessly in my comments. No one ever sees that pass. Then I go through and quietly fix everything that's wrong, deleting the argumentative comments and knowing that I'm doing God's work.
So I turned in the edit around Monday or Tuesday.
And now we get to the end of the week. I had all my domains redirected. My hosting was now entirely handled by Squarespace. I'd removed all my files from my Verio Server. My domain hosting was there, but I was less than a month away from a hosting bill. So it was time to turn it off.
I found the place in the hosting to turn off my servers, but all my domains seemed to be attached to it. So I put in a customer service ticket asking if deleting that server would affect my domain registrations. They said it would not. Confidently, I deleted the server.
They didn't actually lie. Verio still held all my domain registrations. However, when you delete that last server from a reseller account at Verio it deletes all the zone files, which is the DNS equivalent of that line in an address book that tells everyone how to find you.
So I went dark. Web sites, email, the whole works. The websites could wait, but email. Can you live without email?
I put in a case immediately with Verio and texted Gary. The first thing he mentioned was that if you delete your last server it deletes your zone files. It would have been GREAT if the customer service people had thought to mention that as well.
I decided there was no going back. I wasn't going to buy a new server just to get zone files again, so I did some quick research and found that Hover was rated the top registrar in the latest survey, and they give valet transfers for free (basically, someone there does the heavy lifting if something goes badly). So I quickly initiated transfers to Hover.
It took less than four hours. When the transfer went through I got my email up right away and I took care of the business websites when I got home late that night.
Why did I tell you THIS story? Well all of my thinking about his hosting switch boiled down to one simple fact: switching my hosting was bound to have at least one bump and that bump COULD NOT happen when I was making a big push on my book. This is the time to have a messy house. Next year, everything needs to be in perfect order. When you are publishing your first novel, think ahead. Take care of everything you can in the build up, because once that book hits the shelves, every minute of down-time could lose a potential sale.
And this is the longest post I've done. But I REALLY want to talk about plotting next week.
Death by Cliché. Death by Cliché is a novel that I have written. Death by Cliché is a novel written by me. Death by Cliché comes out next year from Curiosity Quills.
Okay. So now I don't have to worry about making sure I mention the name of the novel I'm talking about in this post.
I'd started edits. I'd realized that there were some holes in the explanations that you can't see if you've ever played a role-playing game. I'd decided to throw out the old audio book. I was about halfway done.
In many ways throwing out the audiobook was a release. A revelation, even. You see, when you read a book that you wrote 7 years previously, you're reaction will probably land somewhere between, "Hmm. I was in a different place when I wrote this," and "Ah!!! Kill it! Kill it with fire!".
So now I no longer had to worry about whether or not the Whisper Sync people would start building car bombs with my name on them. I already have places where the text of the book will likely differ from the text of the audiobook, because the joke "..." only works if you can see the ellipses or you can see my face when I deliver it. In an audiobook, it just sounds like an editing mistake. The same with writing something in a really small font. I actually don't know how that works, but I'm told the whisper sync people want it to be exact, so I suspect either some jokes are going to fall flat or I'm going to earn a fair bit of Amazon agro.
So. I'm a different person now, but more importantly. Damico came off, when read in 2015, as a little more of a "bro" than I mean him to be. I mean, he's supposed to be a bit of an ass, but the tuning wasn't quite right. It's all about the jokes coming out of his mouth. As hypothetical example, if Damico had made a joke about gay marriage in the 2007 version, it would probably have a very different structure than one that was written after legal developments this year. (He didn't, but that's the easiest way to illustrate the issue). The same would be true for a joke that referenced women gamers, post gamergate. He comes from a different world with different issues than the Damico as originally written. The bad guy's jokes? They didn't change since the world he came from didn't change. Damico's have to represent who he is as a person, and the things that are funny in one year are just a little off in another. If you pick up a book, you can see what year it was published. You have no idea what year it was written.
I don't mean to say that the edgy humor is out. It's still in. The somewhat controversial scene late in the book is essentially the same (just better written now). There was a joke about sticking a stake through the heart of Bill Cosby that has a very different connotation now than it did then, but my editor seemed to like it and just thought I'd written it to be topical, so I left it as is. So I wasn't trying to make the book less edgy, I just made sure Damico's level of asininity was properly tuned for a contemporary reader.
It's the reason I love writer's groups. They tell you what your words mean. You know what you intended, but the writer has only secondary control over the meaning of his own work. The meaning is extracted by the reader, through the reader's lens of experience. For instance, when Martin Freeman played Bilbo Baggins, he said in one interview that he played it as if using the ring was painful or at least unpleasant. Now, I think we can all agree that this interpretation of the character is so wrong that we should invent a special squad of Thought Police just to follow around Martin whenever he gets to close to cherished canon. Because that is just unspeakable.
However, his performance reads perfectly for any right-thinking human being. It looks like Bilbo is sensing the growing hold the ring has over him and like a nascent alcoholic has started to sense, on some level, that something isn't right. That is the meaning his performance conveys to any people who aren't clinically insane. We are lucky in that Martin has no final control over the meaning he imparts. He has his intention, but once it's out in the world, it isn't his anymore. (Also, I suspect Peter Jackson didn't care what Martin thought on the inside, he only cared about the performance on screen.)
I love you Martin.
Same is true for Tolkien. Or C.S. Lewis. Or Vonnegut. Ever see Summer School? In it, Rodney Dangerfield hires Kurt Vonnegut to write his English paper about Kurt Vonnegut. His teacher, in a later scene, yells, "I don't know who wrote this paper, but he knows nothing about Vonnegut!" I don't know what the writer intended, and the meaning that most audience members got from that joke was that English class is silly and literature professors are talking out of their asses, but I've always taken a different meaning.
An author is often the worst judge of the meanings and themes of his own work.
We'll talk a good storm, but we're talking out of our asses. Sideways. With a lisp. We can only say what we intended to convey. If you've ever emotionally wounded a loved one with a casual joke, you know what I mean.
If you want an interesting physiological experiment, write about ten books. Show them to a group of people who are willing to talk straight to you. Ask them what your themes are. It's from my writers' group that I figured out I feel guilt far more deeply than anyone I know. From them I learned that my idea of happiness is radically different from theirs. We also learned that one of our members doesn't understand insecurity the way the rest of us do.
It's from my writers' group that I've learned how I view death and grief. It's from my writers' groups that I've learned that I have something to work through where the subject of sexual assault is concerned. It's from my writers' group that I've learned countless things about who I am as a person. Once, during a critique, a new member once commented that one of my characters had hit rock bottom. A more senior member of the group laughed. "This is a Bob Defendi book," he said. "You haven't seen rock bottom yet."
Well, the topic on this post has drifted. What was I supposed to be talking about?
Right! My edits. I finished my edits. I turned them in. Took a little more than two weeks.
Cliché. So there.
First off, some business. We're not out of material yet, but we're catching up. I don't want the blog to go off the weekly schedule, and I haven't decided what I'm writing in the off weeks. Perhaps, "Plotting Your Next Novel." Feel free to ping me on twitter (@robertjdefendi) or on Facebook (just Robert J Defendi) and chime in. (If you're a member of the Curiosity Quills Hegemony Mind Trust that stands above me in the hierarchy, I SUPPOSE you can vote too, assuming they let brains in a jar use social media.) I suspect we have somewhere between one month and two before I catch up entirely. Although a good crisis could pad that out.
So. I got my first edits. With quivering hand and questionable bowels, I clicked to open.
You know what? It wasn't that bad.
Don't get me wrong. I'm an author. I try to be professional, but part of that is never saying the first thing that comes to mind, because it's almost always defensive, self-centered, and objectively wrong. I sent my editor an email clarifying how certain parts of the process work. I believe there was a carefully worded question or two about the generalities of what happened if we disagreed. His response was equally polite.
BTW, I'm not linking anything in this post, because I suspect I'm in the middle of switching hosting and all the Wymore hyperlinks in Part 9 were messed up in the transfer. Or, for those who don't care how the sausage is made, I'm not linking because: screw links, that's why. Look at the last post for links to Wymore and my editor Michael, and the only new person in this post doesn't have an industry-relevant web presence any longer. Although, if you're looking for a real estate person in Utah, you could worse than Judith Engracia. (Who, on rereading this, I know realize that I never mentioned, so "Hi, Judith!")
But I digress.
Wymore assured me, during one of those drug-induced trips to Vegas that I probably imagined, that the manuscript was solid. It wouldn't need many edits. Logically, I knew he was probably right, since Michael wasn't the first editor to dig into the manuscript. That still didn't mitigate the Kaftaesque existential angst that comes from opening a set of edits the first time.
But Wymore was right (I mean even a broken microwave flashes the correct time twice a day). There were no soul crushing edits. There were some that were annoying, sure, but I brought almost all of those on myself (Damico sighed something like 25 times in the version I sent in, and don't get me started on the word "Leap,")
I left the line-item crap for the full pass, but I read through all the general comments first, because if Michael misunderstood something on page 100, it's likely that the fix needed to go on page 5. I also noted the words he thought I had overused and so I did a find and replace, replacing "jump" with "***jump", and so on, so that they'd all stand out. By the time I was done with that, his email had come back to agree with my overarching question: could I leave threads open for a sequel? My intention was to address them but not resolve them, so the reader would know I was an ass, not an idiot. He replied that yes, indeed, that was fine. Also, he agreed that I'm an ass.
So I started.
Do you know about Murder Your Darlings? Well if you don't, google it (because to hell with links). The first darling was my prologue. I loved my prologue. In it, I depict for those with an encyclopedic knowledge of gaming history (because I never name the characters involved) a fictional version of the conversation between Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson that spawned all of modern gaming. I don't remember his note on that scene, but it was obvious Michael didn't think it was carrying it's narrative weight. Then, as I considered it, I realized that it offered an explanation for the rest of the novel that would suck all of the tension away for a really astute reader. Also, it was an interpretation I might not want to use, going forward. So I pulled out the machete and killed it in cold blood.
Want to know what the best thing about Michael is? Well, it's probably his soulful gaze, but for the purposes of this book, it's his complete lack of knowledge in all things table top gaming.
There are aspects of this book that are so integral to the core concepts of gaming that not one reader has ever asked me about them. I assume that's because anyone I've bumped into where this novel is concerned has at least some tangential connection to the hobby. Michael had none of these.
And that's why he's the best person that could possibly have edited this book. Why would a character in a game need to sleep? What's happening at the table when this is going on? How can a character in a game have a family, does that mean his family came into the game? Are you insane? These are just some of the most basic questions that I stupidly assumed everyone would already know. Not even my mother caught them.
But here's the thing, I want this book to be accessible to people who have never gamed before. I want this book accessible to people who've never had family members into gaming. I even want this book accessible to people who've never been cornered by a looney gamer at a convention. I want ANYONE to be able to understand this book. So I had some core concepts that needed a better explanation.
I started work on the process. I did about six chapters a night, usually starting after 10. Five nights a week (so that I could work on writing group stuff on Thursday night and have an online gaming night on Mondays). That would take me two weeks and change. Wymore was right and the edits weren't super heavy, so that was a sustainable pace.
Now there's an audiobook version of this novel already out in the world and I went and negotiated a contract that guaranteed that CQ would not, under any circumstances, fork out one penny of their own money on rerecording it. I just made it so there was too little financial benefit in doing so.
So while I started the edits, I kept notes on which sections I'd changed enough to warrant re-recording. Meanwhile I sent the audiobook to my audio guy so he could see what would be involved in building a chimera recording out of the two versions. See, his rate doesn't changed based on difficulty (at least I assume it doesn't) but it's hourly, so something ten times harder will still cost ten times more. I needed to start getting an idea of what that involved.
He did not like the current version. He did not like it at all.
I re-listened to it and I could see his point. Matching the room quality of that recording to the quality of his studio would be a monumental task. We couldn't even just go record where the original had been recorded, because that building literally no longer exists.
So thinking about it, I realized that the book is probably less than 8 hours of finished recording (maybe 24 hours of total work on the outside). It was probably cheaper to rerecord the entire thing than to try to match two sets of recordings. Also, I didn't want him to hate me by the time we were done.
So as the minor changes in the edits snowballed, I lost the ability to use the audiobook that had gotten me this far. I had to start from scratch, and I'd negotiated a contract that made sure that all of that fell on my shoulders.
Because I'm brilliant, that's why.
P.S. Dammit. I typed that whole post and didn't once say the name of the book is Death by Cliché.