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Archive for the ‘Craft’ Category

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I haven’t yet managed to come up with a decent synopsis for Ghostkiller. I haven’t come up with one for Unbinding the Stone either, and I wrote that 13 years ago. I was fortunate enough to receive a very nice review comment from no less than Tanya Huff, in which she described Stone as being ‘remarkably complex and often very funny’. The complexity wasn’t intentional then, and isn’t now. It’s just a function of how I write.

What should come as a surprise is that I’ve actually been considering self-publishing Ghostkiller, a prospect that fills me with very little pleasure. One thing that did give me some amount of pleasure was the act of designing the cover art for it, and even some of my other unpublished stories.

Anine2five4_large friend of mine at my job, before she moved on to a new company, told me about a graphics program called GIMP, which I promptly downloaded and found very confusing. But I wanted to create a cover for my Chuck fanfic called ‘Nine2five‘, so I pushed on, using trial-and-error to make the damn thing do what I wanted. I don’t think I did anything right, but still I managed to come up with this image, which has been the cover art for all three seasons of the story (over 600K words, equivalent to seven novels, written over four years). I really should have separate images for each, but I forgot how I did it, and trying to recreate this image was a daunting task. I might try it again, now.

swordimages_cover2_title

The idea for the Ghostkiller cover was pretty nebulous at first. I remember years ago talking to my publisher about it, when the story was little more than the first chapter. Ghostkiller is a story of more than a little strangeness and complexity, one of the reasons I’ll have to self-publish if I ever want it to be published. (Most publishers, most ‘entertainment industry’ types in general, especially the big ones, shy away from words like ‘complex’, and anything that hasn’t been tried and tested.) It started out as a story about ‘a man who kills ghosts for a living’, but it didn’t stay that way for long. The technique for killing ghosts was the focus of that first chapter, since ghostkilling was a unique idea, as psychic talents go. I had to show  it in action, which  involved swords and coffins. (Really the thing in the coffin.) My original idea for the cover was very complicated, and unworkable, at least by me. It also wouldn’t have been especially eye-catching, and that’s what covers are supposed to be, right?

Undermind_cover

Undermind is a short story I wrote a long time ago, for a contest. The idea was to write a story of a certain length that employed a specified phrase in some way. The first time I entered the contest it was for the phrase ‘hard port’. I used it five different ways, but didn’t win. (The story was eventually released as ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, which I have just discovered is no longer available. Something else to think about releasing on my own.) This time around the phrase was ‘dark glass’, which gave me lots of ideas, most of which I’m still trying to write. In this case the dark glass was a mirror, to reveal one’s inner and darker nature. My problem  with the cover is simply that mirrors as cover images are pretty trite. The story is much more original than that, but the originality isn’t really visually striking, so I swallowed my pride to come up with something that was.

Hopefully I can use these. There’s more to the game of cover art design than simply making interesting images, which is one of the things that makes me reluctant to jump into the self-publishing biz. This is the way I’d go if I had to do it all over again, so I have that at least. I find myself wondering if creating a cover first would help clarify the story, or make it harder to develop.

 

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Just so you know, I never took a class, or one of those seminars in Creative Writing that people go on about, so if there is a ‘definition’ of these terms out there, I don’t know what it is. In fact I think I just invented the last two. The difference between them is in the relationship they have to the main plot, if there is one.

Subplots are usually pretty small, in the grand scheme of things.  In Stephen King’s Dead Zone there is a marvelous subplot about the hero John Smith teaching a young man to sidestep a learning disorder. He also uses his precognition to save the life of the young man and most of his graduating class by keeping them away from a building that he knows will burn to the ground. It’s a great section, one of my favorites, but if the whole thing had been cut or replaced with a different subplot, it probably wouldn’t have hurt anything. At best it’s a foreshadowing of larger and more public displays. A subplot can be either a comic device, two bumblers attempting to do what the two MCs do so easily, or a tragic device, a gentle romance that mirrors the disintegration of the MC’s marriage. A story might be diminished without it, but not derailed.

A paraplot is much more important. Where ‘sub’ implies a lower or lesser status, ‘para’ implies an equal footing between this plot and the main. Han and Leia’s romance is a subplot to The Empire Strikes Back, but Vader’s pursuit of them in order to use them to lure Luke into his trap is a paraplot. It could even be considered the main plot.  Only the fact that the main story of the trilogy is about Luke and the Jedi elevates his training sequences to paraplot status. My novel A Warrior Made has three paraplots, as different groups of characters have separate adventures inspired by the same event, that nonetheless interconnect and come together to resolve the main plot.

Like a paraplot, a coplot is also on an equal footing to the main plot, but where two paraplots are usually strongly connected, coplots are not. They might even seem like random and implausible coincidences if not done correctly. The Madness Season is a good story, but the necessary coming together of the elements needed to resolve it is extremely implausible. Given the relative stasis of the situation everyone was in, you can get away with saying it would have happened eventually, but that’s not  a great motivation. The characters are much more colorful and save the book for me. Once they do come together they form a single coherent plot that works pretty well.

A different form of coplot is in my novel St. Martin’s Moon, where the MC’s presence in the lunar colony sets several other characters in motion, but not coherent motion. Each has a different reaction, and does their own thing for their own reasons. They come together to resolve the major and minor plots without any of the agents knowing what they are doing, beyond accomplishing their own ends, none of which are related to the main plot. These are the only two examples of a coplot that I can think of, and I just thought of The Madness Season while I was writing this. (The current publishing business model doesn’t really work for coplotted books, as query synopses are much harder to write, so I don’t expect many of them to make it to the shelves.)

I hope if you can think of any novels that fit into that category you’ll mention it in the comments.

 

One of the things we are often told to include in a query letter is the comp title, which is the title of at least one book which is available for public consumption and which you the querier believe is relevantly similar to your own work. That’s just the basic concept as I understand it. If the age of the work in question is a concern, I wouldn’t know, but since we are told to also keep current in our genres, I suppose at least part of the reason for that is so that we can be aware of current books for comparison purposes.

I can think of two reasons for this, which are basically that the further back you go in time to find your comp title, the more likely the story you are trying to promote will seem trite and old hat. I can’t imagine any publisher wanting another LOTR-clone, or a vampire story. A friend of mine, Sean Hayden, created a vampire story that he promotes as urban supernatural. The main character is a girl with the outward appearance of a vampire, but very different origins and capacities. If he were to go on about the vampire part, the prospective customer would wonder why he needed another one.

The other reason is that a current title means that there is a preexisting brand, fresh in the readers’ minds, that the publisher can hook this story on to. “If you like The Hunger Games, then you’ll love Kieryn NicolasFlawless Ruins!” (Which you will, by the way.)

Publishing is a business, for good or ill, and the business perspective of publishing requires something that would justify someone in charge saying ‘Yes, let’s spend money on this.’ The comp title is your way of hitching your book to someone else’s wagon, giving those decision-makers the confidence to put company money behind you. It’s also the reason why so many books and movies made today look and sound like so many other books and movies made yesterday.

Real originality is not a desirable quality, to the “entertainment industry.” The more of it your work has, the less they’ll be willing to take a chance, because the chanciness will be greater too. So in that sense, the explosion of self-published titles is a good thing, since many of these titles could be works that are as different, original, unique, and possibly more like your own unique work that the latest Hunger Games clone on the shelves. Finding it is the hard part. I stopped reading new books, in large part because they were all starting to sound the same, and I just got tired of it. (There are of course other reasons, such as the expense, or more structural issues, but they are for another time.) I follow some authors, whose voices I can usually count on to have something new and unique, and I go to the library often to see what might jump out at me, but less seems to lately.

My own work is as completely unique as I can make it, so naturally I expect no great success in my writing career. Fortunately I don’t write to make money, but because the story is there and demands I write it. I only wanted to be published because that was at the time the only way to get my books into the world, but that is no longer the case. I have one completed unpublished novel (everything else I’ve written has been published), and I’m not sure what I’ll do with it. The only comp title I can think of for it is: It’s a lot like The Dresden Files, but without magic, fae, or multicolored vampires.

Let me know if that works for you.

I just wrote my very first synopsis. It’s my fourth novel, but I was never able to write a synopsis before this, so…yay, me!

Of course, this comes after a year of contemplating the damn story, writing and rewriting the damn query summary, or query hook, or mini-synopsis, or whatever the hell it’s called. Really, there should be a more unified vocabulary for this sort of thing. Or maybe there is and I’ve just outed myself as never having attended a writing symposium of any kind.

Anyway, after a good chunk of forever spent thinking and rewriting, I finally just sort of dashed off a query thing pretty quickly, which surprised me a bit. I found an agency that looked interesting, but their submissions page mentioned a synopsis, in addition to the query, and I’d never written one of those. But hey, I just wrote the query hook/pitch/middle/whatever, how hard could this be? Well, as it turned out, quite a bit harder.

First I wrote a pretty detailed precis of the story, 3000 words worth. Which could be what I needed. Or not. Some friends of mine on Facebook recommended a one-page approach, and that was a good deal trickier, even though I was pointed to a very nice little blog post on the subject. But even with a model to follow it still took me two days to get something I don’t hate.

The trickiest part, since it colors everything that follows, is the section called the inciting incident, which is the part of the story that sets the guy off from whatever life he’s got into the adventure to come. What is it, and what action does it incite? I confused myself by thinking that my hero had to be pursuing some epic goal, which he wasn’t. I thought maybe he had to want something grand and glorious, which he didn’t. The most epic adventures are those where the hero is just doing some little thing that he knows ought to be done, and then the consequences pile up.

So in my latest story, the hero isn’t trying to solve a murder, or save the world, even though he ends up doing both. When the police come and bring him to the murder scene, and start asking him questions, he is ashamed. He knows nothing about the man’s life. He feels guilty, and he wants to correct that. What took me days to figure out was that the initial motivation didn’t need to be epic, it just needed to be great enough to make him move. When good characters move, epic events follow.

Of course, something has to be epic, and somebody has to do those epic things, but I don’t think it has to be only or always the MC. (There’s probably no more epic moment in Star Wars than Ben stepping back and letting Vader strike.) I sometimes feel like my stories don’t have a plot so much as 2 or 3 co-plots, with some number of different characters each pursuing their own goals and their individual stories intersecting. My last three stories have been like that, so maybe it’s not an accident after all.

Pretty hard to synopsize, though.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

But in case you’re looking for something else to do, here I am. I did my classic Christmas film watching yesterday, with Die Hard, so today I saw some other things. In particular I watched the first Hulk movie, by Ang Lee, an underappreciated little gem in my opinion. I very much like the visual effects, the way they slid panels around to indicate collective viewpoints on a single scene, or motion from one point to another. Really good stuff there. I also liked the way they tied the Hulk issue to his psychological problems with his father. Certainly the way they had the Hulk come about was so unlikely that some sort of determinism had to be at work. I have some vague feeling that at some point it was stated that someone was in fact manipulating Bruce’s choice of career, specifically to get him into his father’s footsteps, but now I don’t know where I saw that.

One thing I wasn’t so appreciative of was an early scene, where Bruce and Betty meet in a hallway for the first time on screen. She starts out talking about a presentation they have to do, which almost instantly becomes a pointed barb about his inability to respond emotionally. She apologizes, and them almost immediately shoots a second arrow his way. This insanely OOC cluster of dialog, very much in the ‘tell, don’t show’ mode that we are cautioned to avoid, is then followed by the nefarious word, ‘anyway.’

I feel like that literature professor in Stranger Than Fiction, who says he taught whole classes on ‘little did he know’. In my case it would be the word ‘anyway’. This word, to me, usually signifies that the author wrote himself into a dead end and had to  jump-start his dialog, which is bad enough. But worse, I find in many cases the reason he painted himself into that corner was something stupid. He wanted, e.g., to hit us with dialog that serves little purpose to the story, but instead is some ideological nut-point, badly told bit of uncomfortable humor, or a patch-job meant to cover up something missing, such as a deleted scene that would have presented the same information in a much more organic sort of way.

This train wreck, once the smoke clears, is then followed by the word ‘anyway’, to draw the curtain on the whole thing and move the story along to the next actual plot-point. This movie is neither the first instance of it that I’ve seen, or the most egregious. Off the top of my head, the one that most immediately comes to mind is a scene from a Jack Chalker novel. One character says, “I must remember to spend more time among thieves and politicians”, to which another character responds with the conversation-killing bit of wit, “There’s a difference?”, followed by, “Anyway, let’s go over our plans to…” which brings the story back to the thread it should have been following all along. (There are quite a few problems with this series, but the others will wait.)

I’m not saying that such words are useless, but the use of them should be monitored carefully, since they indicate a radical discontinuity in the flow of the dialog that cannot help but jerk the reader out of it. Are there any words that you find a s a reader that have that effect on you, or that you consciously avoid as an author?

A lot of authors feel daunted by the first blank page of a new story, putting down that first sentence that will anchor the first paragraph that anchors the first chapter. I know that right now I have one last chapter to write for the current episode of my fanfic series nine2five, and I am feeling a bit daunted because I haven’t got a strong idea where to begin it.

This is where story layering comes in. Basically, it means start with one element of your story, it doesn’t matter which one. It could be your strongest story element (mine is dialog) or a hook from the previous story/chapter, anything that you feel most comfortable with, to just write something down. You can’t edit what ain’t there.

In my case I often start with a great swatch of dialog, two characters having a great time advancing the plot with witty banter and repartee. (The below examples are from St. Martin’s Moon.)

“How would you have felt about a ‘small vacation’, or a ‘leave of absence’?”

Like this one.

“You would have spent the whole time laying about, nothing to do, dreading the day you had to come back, obsessing about the very thing you were supposed to be getting over, through, and past. You resign, the future is open-ended. You need a new job, something to pay the bills, like but unlike the job you’re best suited for.”

“Watching a friend turn into ice crystals.”

“That’s not the job.”

“Oh, it’s a perk?”.

“It’s a hazard! Bing-Bang knew it and accepted it. So did you, once. Do you think she’d want to see you like this?”

“Better than me seeing her like that.”

Then, three pages later, I’ll look back at what I just wrote an see that it has no action at all, not even dialog tags. This is probably where I learned my dislike of dialog tags. Rather than write ‘he said’ all the time, I just fill in the missing action around the dialog, making sure the reader knows who is doing the talking by also showing what he is doing. The only time I’d ever use a dialog tag is when I couldn’t use the action do it.

How would you have felt about a ‘small vacation’, or a ‘leave of absence’?”

Like this one.

The colonel’s face was stone, intent stone, but stone. “You would have spent the whole time laying about, nothing to do, dreading the day you had to come back, obsessing about the very thing you were supposed to be getting over, through, and past,” he declared flatly. “You resign, the future is open-ended. You need a new job, something to pay the bills, like but unlike the job you’re best suited for.”

“Watching a friend turn into ice crystals.” Marquand could barely be heard by anyone but the cooling tea in his hands.

“That’s not the job,” said Pierce quickly, his voice full of the bitterness lacking in the other man’s.

“Oh, it’s a perk?” Ah, there’s the passion.

“It’s a hazard!” Pierce managed, just barely, to keep from shouting. “Bing-Bang knew it and accepted it. So did you, once. Do you think she’d want to see you like this?”

“Better than me seeing her like that,” Marquand countered.

So that’s my second layer. A third layer might be the reactive text, showing what character A is thinking or feeling about what character B has just said or done. Or it could be character A thinking about what he himself is doing. My least favorite layer is the part where I have to put something down as the author that no character is saying/thinking/doing.

How would you have felt about a ‘small vacation’, or a ‘leave of absence’?”

Like this one. Marquand shook his head mutely. The thought of such a suggestion, today, such a… trivialization of what had…he couldn’t speak through the anger. Impossible to imagine what his reaction would have been then. They wouldn’t be trying to get him back now, for sure.

The colonel’s face was stone, intent stone, but stone. “You would have spent the whole time laying about, nothing to do, dreading the day you had to come back, obsessing about the very thing you were supposed to be getting over, through, and past,” he declared flatly. “You resign, the future is open-ended. You need a new job, something to pay the bills, like but unlike the job you’re best suited for.”

“Watching a friend turn into ice crystals.” Marquand could barely be heard by anyone but the cooling tea in his hands.

“That’s not the job,” said Pierce quickly, his voice full of the bitterness lacking in the other man’s.

“Oh, it’s a perk?” Ah, there’s the passion.

“It’s a hazard!” Pierce managed, just barely, to keep from shouting. “Bing-Bang knew it and accepted it. So did you, once. Do you think she’d want to see you like this?”

“Better than me seeing her like that,” Marquand countered. His voice sank into a mutter. “We were going to ask to be partnered next rotation.”

Story layering is clearly a form of story editing, and for those who prefer to write fist and edit later may not be of much help. My own writing style is to start from the beginning, and then every so often reread what I just wrote to come up with ideas for what I should write next. During this reread I will often have thoughts about text that should be in there that I forgot to include the first time, quite often flavoring pieces that don’t have much impact on the plot but enhance the presentation of the character. My personal favorite one of these occurred to me when writing St. Martin’s Moon. As my hero was being chased by one werewolf into the arms of another, the two monsters start threatening each other, rather than pay attention to him. I was on my fourth round of edits when I reread this scene and the thought popped into my head:

They weren’t social creatures. Nice to know, but it sucked to be the one to find out.

Which not only suited the character perfectly, it was an important plot point later on. The best part about this is that it’s often cyclic, as new layers inspire you to add yet more layers. It’s important to not get so lost enhancing what you’ve already got that you lose track of where you want to go. The important layers will feed into each other and propel the story. Others are just lily-painting and should be left for the end.

Unless they’re really, really good.

It’s really kind of strange and unpredictable what will strike a reader’s fancy. In the latest chapter of my latest fanfiction story, Sparring Partners, I had a scene where Sarah and Ellie go to a bar for some ‘girl time’ (a phrase which makes my wife gag every time she hears it)(not that type of gag). Sarah has commented that her relationship was so screwed up that they had three first dates, two first kisses, and fell in love at first sight, so having the wedding after they got married should come as no surprise.

When I started writing the chapter I was in a very different mindset, I guess, since the opening scene has a very different tone, Sarah asking Ellie to help her arrange her wedding after the fact (her desire to say her vows in front of people who will hunt her down and kick her ass if she fails to keep them is another favorite scene). This often happens to me, by the way. I’ll start a story with no real idea where I want it to go, and then something will occur to me halfway through. With these fanfics it’s usually easier, since I’m modelling the story I write on the story they told, but in this case the story they told doesn’t have much to offer.

The nine2five idea was mainly intended to keep the tone and theme of the show after season 2, developing them in the same direction season 3 did but not the same way season 3 did, since season 3 was really poorly done. In this case, since Chuck isn’t an agent he’s not going to go out and seduce a mark, or face the grim prospect of burning him afterward (my comments about season 3 above notwithstanding, I happen to like this episode because of this sort of dramatic development, most of the things that made season 3 suck weren’t in it).

As a result, I’m free to use this timeslot to work on other aspects of the overall season, such as the wedding, and getting Chuck and Sarah in shape for it. It’s not every couple that gets post-marriage, pre-wedding jitters. Sarah is trying to become a ‘real girl’ with a ‘real life’ she has no idea how to live, since she never had one, and she sensibly turns to Ellie, the realest girl she knows.

When they walk into the bar, the first thing Ellie asks about is the two first kisses, and Sarah says, “Damn, lost a nickel.” She then takes a nickel from her pocket and moves it to a different pocket. This chapter is already turning out to be one of the more popular I’ve ever done, and that gag is one of the most popular gags in it. Don’t ask me why, it was just a little whimsy when it first occurred to me to write it. I guess it’s the whimsy that does it. Sarah is usually such a sober sort of girl that something so ‘out of left field’ has more impact.

It’s the little things.


Unbinding the Stone

A Warrior Made

A Warrior Made

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St. Martin’s Moon

St. Martin's Moon

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Ghostkiller

Chasing His Own Tale

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Struck By Inspiration

Struck By Inspiration

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Steampunk Santa

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Bite Deep

Christmas among the vampires!

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Cyber-pirates. Sort of.

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Off the Map

Reality TV...without the Reality!

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