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That’s the name of the first chapter of David Gerrold’s book Worlds of Wonder, which I bought from him personally at I-Con last weekend. We also traded books, a copy of my St. Martin’s Moon for his Little Horrors. He may read mine (I suspect lots of authors trade books with him), but I’m already reading WW. I read the bio at the front, and noticed that he failed to mention a book that I had on my shelves, a Star Trek novel called The Galactic Whirlpool. I got it signed the next day, of course.

This chapter is more in the way of an introduction, some biographical notes and a discussion of the basic nature of stories which will underlie the rest of the book. So it’s a bit unfortunate that the definition of a story presented in this chapter is not one I entirely agree with. “A person has a problem, he explores the problem until he understands it, finally he makes a choice (usually a difficult one) that produces a transformation of understanding and resolves the difficulty. So a story is about the experience of problem solving and the lessons learned.” (p. 4)

I’m not sure I agree with the whole ‘makes a choice’ bit. Sure it feeds into the whole idea that the hero makes his own destiny, chooses his course, etc. But I like to think my heroes will do the right thing once they know what the right thing is, so making the choice is pretty much a given once a proper understanding has been reached. That’s why they’re heroes. (Which may be why we’ve started calling them ‘Main Characters’ or ‘Protagonists’, rather than heroes. ‘Hero’ has a certain moral component to it that those other terms don’t.)

The problem for a hero is understanding the issue. Sometimes the hero has to make a difficult choice, relinquish some cherished belief, in order to achieve the necessary understanding, but once he has it he’s good to go. Which may be why my stories have so many characters in them who aren’t the hero, because watching a hero do the right thing is dull. Maybe frenetic and plot-heavy, but worth little in terms of character development.

Or it could be Mr. Gerrold’s science fiction background talking. The understanding the hero arrives at could be a theory, like all theories in need of verification. The difficult choice could be the Hero’s decision to test that theory with his own skin, and perhaps those of his group.

On the other hand, regarding his remarks on the benefits of enthusiasm over rage as a driving force behind the writing, we are in much more agreement. I’ve never written from rage, so I have trouble imagining how that would work for me. Enthusiasm, however, I have a lot of experience with. I wrote the equivalent of 8 novels thanks to enthusiasm, in the fanfiction realm, which also served to fulfill my million-word apprenticeship, about which more in some other post.

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I had another idea come to me about my query synopsis a few days ago. I was looking over my most recent version after the latest rejection, thinking of sending it out again, but wondering if something wasn’t quite right with it. The first section dealt with the larger context in which the story took place, with the following sections detailing the actual story, but somehow it just wasn’t quite working. The transition seemed a little jarring.

So I wrote another section after the first, intending to make the transition a little smoother, but once I wrote it, I wondered why I was bothering to make the transition at all. Well, the main reason is because the situation is just that, a situation, pretty static. It’s the people in the situation who are doing the things that make the story go. And once those actions have been performed, one of the big reveals of the story is what effect they have on the situation, to resolve it, all unknowing to any of the actors involved.

In other words, only from the perspective of the situation, do the totality of the actions taken make complete sense. So to describe the story with no more than a few players involved, the obvious place to tell it from is the perspective of the situation. Which is, to some extent, the authorial point of view, and we all know how much I hate telling the story from that place, which may be why it took me so long to think of it. Not to mention the fact that it’s the reveal, you know? It’s the story.

So I wrote a synopsis in which the Situation was the main character. What were its goals? To achieve a resolution. Why did it want them? Because all stories naturally desire resolution, i.e., to be reduced to the least unstable state. these goals were so obvious they could be taken for granted. The question was really how, or to put it another way, what constitutes the least unstable state.

A lot of actions could reduce the instability of the story, for example, killing all the characters in chapter one, but that’s hardly a satisfying resolution, or the least unstable state. What constitutes a satisfying resolution depends on the type of story it is, which of course means that the type of story it is depends on the resolution that works best. In a badly done story, no resolution works best. A romance that has an unhappy ending, a comedy that leaves you confused. One might achieve a greater degree of satisfaction by recasting the story in a form which makes the most total sense. In The Producers, a failed historical drama becomes a wildly successful comedy. Ex Machina looks like some form of romance until it becomes a horror story.

(Which is not to say that a properly resolved story has no defects. i just watched a nice little romantic comedy called The Rewrite, which despite the ending managed to miss a number of opportunities for minor story arcs to be resolved, for several characters. But these were all subplots, not para- or coplots, so the story didn’t suffer badly from them.)

So the takeaway from all this is that in order to properly describe stories of the sort I seem to end up writing on a regular basis, I have to abandon the reveal, at least as far as the query letter is concerned. The real trick is to do it in such a way that the ending is still a surprise.

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.

 

So I discovered Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.was available on Netflix a few days ago (the movie-TV business would go broke if it depended on me, I don’t rush to see anything on day one, that’s for idiots with a lot more willingness to part with their money than I have), and being a fan of the Superhero Genre I decided to see if it was as good as I hoped. For the most part it was. Since I’d just gotten The Winter Soldier recently, I even had the context for everything that happened (I saw Jasper Sitwell and knew what was coming). It’s a pretty clever idea, filling in the gaps between movies with a TV series that follows a representative group of lesser characters. We can’t all be superheroes, but we could be ordinary agents, just trying to do our jobs.

I wasn’t even very happy with the introduction of superpowers into this context, until it became clear that these abilities were technologically developed and highly experimental. Hopefully they’ll go into greater detail about how these specific individuals were chosen. The guy with the fire powers I can understand, but most of the other Centipede subjects seemed like regular guys.

The dialog and characters were spot-on, of course, what with the series being created and overseen by a comic-book geek. I liked Buffy and Angel, and I loved Dr. Horrible. It wasn’t perfect, of course, TV scripts don’t seem able to avoid falling into a pit of tropes anymore. They’re a good shorthand (Chuck season 3 only makes sense if you view it in terms of the tropes underneath the plot), but they also make the story predictable, and need excellent characters and actors to make them seem anything other than lazy writer collecting a paycheck. Fortunately one of the more blatant instances of this, Fitz’ reluctance to tell Simmons he loves her until staring death in the face, is offset by a much better counter-trope, with two major characters not going the wt/wt route at all, even though the guy was tagged as the lady’s SO, a bit of a joke since it means something totally different.

So I consider it terribly unfortunate that the main plot for the series, the basis for the first two-thirds of the series which culminates in the events of  Winter Soldier, is so sloppily done. Only the idea that they live in a world with super-powered people makes it even remotely plausible, but even then it violates the principle of Occam’s Razor and should never have worked. The main villain of the first part is called the Clairvoyant, a person who predicts the actions of everyone in the scene with startling accuracy. The Agents spend a great deal of time looking over their lists of gifted individuals, trying to determine who it could be.

Except that no security force would ever do that. If I was a policeman and someone called me, claiming to be a psychic who could predict a crime, the first thing I would suspect is that the ‘psychic’ committed the crime. The first thing Coulson should have suspected when he heard about this Clairvoyant is that there was a mole inside SHIELD, but that would have given the story away far too soon, and prevented the sudden explosion of HYDRA, so they had to be stupid on purpose, which is a terrible way to write a show.

In a slightly different form of deliberate stupidity, this so-brilliant mastermind, when the time comes for him to be found out, is betrayed by the most inane bit of stupid characterization in Trope-land. In trying to cast doubt on some other agent, he lets slip a detail which didn’t happen to be in Coulson’s report, and the jig is up. Not a large flaw, in the scheme of things, and it gets him captured, which means he gets sent to the Fridge by someone else’s order, which was what he wanted, so perhaps he did it on purpose. As a piece of surface-level stupidity it’s inexcusable that a guy who has never yet made a mistake should make such a blatant one. As a piece of double-duplicity I can see otherwise intelligent agents falling for it, given the chaos they were in at the time, but again it’s deliberately arranged stupidity. I would much rather the Clairvoyant got caught because of Coulson being smart, than because circumstances made him temporarily stupid.

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.

It’s taken me a while, but I’m finally beginning to move on from my epic retelling of Chuck’s third season, a 190K long, 20 episode, 80 chapter monster that consumed my life for more than a year. I finished it. I made an omnibus version, which I PDF’d and sent to a few people who asked for it. Then I read it and re-edited it and re-PDF’d it. I still find myself checking the special mail folder I set to receive mail from fanfiction.net, hoping that someone would have left me a comment. That’s a very addicting side effect of that site, getting feedback on what you wrote and put up there, pretty quickly. For my books I have to go searching for any comments people may have left about them, and that isn’t as often as I’d like.

I really need to start posting on Twitter and stuff, doing more blog posts here. I tend to get very single-minded when I have a project, I focus on it and not much else.

But eventually the PDF was as finished as two rereads could make it and then I put it away, and started watching Castle. Not that I like Castle all that much, but I’d already seen the first 2 seasons and discovered my library had the second two on the shelf, so I figured, “What the hell.” I have to say I’m liking these second two much better. I can’t say I hated the first two but I don’t really remember them all that well, which is indication enough. I do wish they’d get the romantic angst stuff out of the way, though, and move the story onto some other topic. I like the way they expanded the roles of some of the other players, and brought in a different Captain for the precinct.

I can’t help but think of Bones, though, and how they changed her boss from one season to the next. I can’t really say, since I don’t watch TV much at all, but it does seem like these shows are starting to cannibalize each other. I don’t care when the story is good. Seeing a little shout out to some great moment in another show I liked is kind of fun, then. When I can predict the entire course of an episode because it looks so much like some other TV show or movie, well, not so much.

But Castle is for the afternoons. In the morning I reread Ghostkiller, and try to add little bits of text here and there. I plowed through the last several thousand words by alternating with my Chuck stories, and I have to make sure they don’t read like that. When I’m in a hurry i usually focus on the dialog, and let the story just flow as characters talking to each other. I have to go back over the text to fill in the action and movements and stuff, which is what I’m trying to do now.. So far I’ve added about 1500 words, enhanced the backstory, etc. It’s actually quite a delicate business, since sometimes it’s adding three words to a line, and other times it’s rewriting 5 paragraphs to make the story flow work better.

I sometimes wish I had a beta-reader, though, I don’t know how much is really needed and how much is me being paranoid. One of the better aspects of my Chuck writing is that it pulled me into areas I don’t normally write, made me practice different styles. At the end I had to do an entire action-packed episode for my season finale, when my group, fractured into multiple groups, nonetheless manages to come together and bring doom to the villains, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. It”s not a style I do much, and I had to figure out a lot about pacing to make it work. My ending for Ghostkiller needs some of that same attention. The climax is just a little too breakneck.

I’ll get around to doing that nine2five prequel. Just not now.


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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