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I was talking to a librarian just yesterday, and I gave myself the idea of a story with no hero. The more I considered the idea, the more I wondered if I was not already writing such stories, even the short ones, where you’d think there wasn’t enough room for tangled skeins of story lines.
I started out writing fantasy novels, with the premise of a man who was an incarnation of the Holy Will being called on by the Gods to do the work they needed to have done. That first story, Unbinding the Stone, was mostly about him, my Hero, but even in that book he had companions who played a significant role in how the story played out, although they tried not to do everything. I think that first book was the last book where I had a hero.
I traded that role for a host of MCs, all of whom were necessary to the resolution of the story, none of whom were sufficient to the resolution of the story. While Tarkas, hero of the first book, played a dominant role in the sequel, A Warrior Made, I can’t say that the story would have been resolved without the efforts of all the other MCs, each on their own arcs that all came together at the end. I think that book was the last where I had a villain.
Instead I have situations, often fantastical or supernatural in nature, as in St. Martin’s Moon, in which people act according to their natures. Some, with a bad nature, act badly, but the main characteristic of the villain is lacking. They are not plotting, nor are any of my other MCs planning their reactions to what he does. They aren’t necessarily reacting to him at all. It’s the situation that matters. Simply defeating the bad-natured MCs won’t resolve the situation, which is what needs resolving if the story is to have a satisfactory conclusion.
I don’t know if there is a technical term for this type of story. Do you? Most genre fiction I’ve read has a villain, with henchmen and a plan, and a hero who works to stop that plan with the assistance of any number of lesser characters. I’ve never heard of a genre novel without a hero. Have you?

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I recently re-posted a story of mine on the http://www.fanfiction.net site, called ‘When Ellie Found Out‘. I had posted it before, as a prequel episode to the first season of my series called nine2five, which I had originally posted as a series of standalone episodes. When I decided to gather all the chapters in one place, I decided to append them to WEFO rather than create a new file, which I now think was a mistake. The funny thing is, that even though it’s a reposted story, I’m still getting comments on it, from people who didn’t see it before, or who just like to comment. Some of those comments take the form of, “This is so much better than what they did on the show”, which is a comment I got fairly often.

What they did on the show (in this particular case) was separate the leads, i.e., take a romantically-involved pair and place them apart, either physically, emotionally, or both, so that their struggles to be reunited will fuel the story for as long as the storyteller can make it. (What I did in WEFO, which was prone to backstory and exposition, was tell about how they got married, so that no one would separate them.) As story-telling mechanisms go, separation of the leads has a lot to recommend it, otherwise they wouldn’t use it so often as a short-cut to ramp up the intensity of the drama, which is where the problems arise.

Tropes like this one, or others like ‘endangered children’, or any of a number of forms of ‘intolerant ideological fanaticism’, are like story drugs, artificial stimulants that keep a story moving but without any real story in them. They are, in effect, pure drama, with no other story elements to speak of. What ends up happening is what you’d normally expect to happen when someone takes stimulants without food, the story keeps going and going until one day it keels over dead. I watched the first episode of season 2 of Glee and was immediately repulsed by the blatant self-sabotage of all the lead characters, which they would no doubt spend the rest of the season trying to repair. The last episode of season 1 of Newsroom did it for me, with all sorts of romantic partners making all sorts of wrong decisions. Tom Clancy used to use them a lot, but at least in his stories they weren’t critical elements, so the stories didn’t die from them.

They aren’t always drugs, of course. If the separation of the leads or the endangerment of the child are built up to with proper character and story logic behind them, then they’re perfectly fine mechanisms. In the canon fiction I was revising, the leads were separated very blatantly and artificially, and the show suffered almost immediately as a result. Many addicts of the first two seasons stopped watching halfway though the first episode of the third, as I did with Glee. Worse, when the showrunners realized how much they’d botched things, they went too far in the other direction, creating a full season of feel-good episodes to counter the previous season of angsty episodes, a heady dose of too-little-too-late, in my opinion. (I eventually separated them in my story as well, but only after a season and a half of development, first his and then hers, and a plot twist that made the separation logical, necessary, and most important, temporary.)

It’s very important to be wary of tropes. They combine story-logic with storyteller logic, which is why they’re useful, but they should never be used in such a way that the the telling of the story trumps the story itself (unless that’s the point of the story, in which case have fun). In my opinion, authors should be invisible in their stories, while using a story drug to force it into a preferred path is as diametrically opposed to ‘invisible’ as it’s possible for an author to be.

At one point FanFiction.net had a button on their pages, so a person could share a story link on WordPress, which made it very easy for me to talk about the chapters of my fanfiction stories as I was writing them. Unfortunately they lost the button at some point.  I’ve still been writing, I can’t really stop, but when a story dominates my mind I have a hard time doing something else in addition, like make blog posts. I did just two posts last year, and I still see people hitting my blog at some ridiculously low rate.

Hopefully that will change this year, as I have just yesterday written the last chapter of the last episode in my fanfiction epic ‘Nine2five‘. I started it in April of 2012, just a few months after my favorite show, Chuck, had aired its series finale, a very unsatisfactory finale. It prompted me to write a story to fix it. This led me to think of another story idea, somewhat more experimental in nature, but that’s one of the things fanfiction is good for.

While I was writing that, it occurred to me to write a story about a season of Chuck that I saw great value in, but most others did not, season 3 (S3). Chuck started out simple, about a nobody who got stuck with a computer database in his head and gets sucked into the world of international espionage, It quickly grew more complicated, with a strong romantic comedy element taking over from the spy drama. In S1 and S2 they maintained a decent balance. At the end of S2 they seemed to be firmly in the romcom camp, but S3 starts with them firmly in the spy-drama camp. Needless to say the fans were unhappy, and the show never recovered that balance.

I decided to rewrite S3. 19 episodes, broken into 4 chapters each. Not the story I saw underneath the plot (which was a darkly dramatic tale of betrayal and the recovery of trust), but the plot itself, written to mesh better in tone with the first two seasons (a humorous mix of adventure and romance), but do the same things, i.e., follow the same major plot points and come out at more-or-less the same place. And I did, although it came out to 80 chapters for various reasons. Then I decided to move on to S4, and then S5, in addition to making a prequel episode for the first one. In some ways this was a mistake, S4 is by far the weakest and most poorly written season of Chuck, while S5 is stronger plot-wise, but utterly devoid of humor or charm. I really ruined the latter half of the show for myself. Fortunately I’ve got my own version to take its place.

And now I’m done at last, with the last chapter written. I still have to post them on FF.net, but that’s easy enough, and doesn’t involve any more writing. All told I think this series will come out at over 600K words, or approximately 7 novels. (If I revised the first several chapters to have the amount of narrative the later chapters do, it’d be even bigger. I originally thought of it more as a script, with dialog and action, but not much scene-setting. As the story went on this didn’t work so well.)

This means I can spend a bit more time blogging, as well as working on my other stories, which have been hanging fire for years now. I met Tamora Pierce at Confluence years back, and she was very interested in one of them, which I came up with for their writing contest, so I’ll probably start with that one.

The usual method of deduction we see in the mysteries proceeds from a given state of affairs, from which the detective deduces the actions that have resulted in that state. The carpet reveals a circle crushed into the material, from which he deduces a man standing there, moving his foot in a circular motion. He’s got a dead guy to explain, after all, and people to question about what they were doing at the time. Unless it’s a show like Pushing Daisies, where they usually start by questioning the dead guy.

A story, like a computer programs, can be represented as a series of transitions from one state to another. The detective looks at the state and deduces the previous transition (or series of states and transitions). This is not the only way to use this series, though. One can also look at the transitions (the actions of the characters), and deduce the states that caused them. Which is sort of what I do as a Production Support specialist. I look at the behavior of the program and deduce the initial state that created it.

This works because computers are logic boxes, with nicely determined behaviors. Well, the behaviors that the programmer thought about were nicely determined. It’s usually in the incomplete specification of the behavior, the  intersection of behaviors, the addition of new code, or the creation of new inputs, that we find our problems. Or the failure of any of these when they’re expected to occur. I like to read the code backwards to see where the tangle (the unanticipated state) could occur.

Characters are less straightforward than that, but still I prefer to treat my characters as rational beings possessing an internal logic which drives their actions. For the most part.  Pure Vulcans are dull people. Completely random actors technically aren’t actors at all. I’m not nearly as interested in the werewolf as I am in the guy who becomes the werewolf. How does he deal with his curse? Once the curse strikes he’s just a ten-ton death machine, ho-hum, but before that he’s a guy scrambling to minimize (or maximize, if he’s not a nice person) the fallout, or get it lifted, or something. Far more interesting.

To me, the most creative moments in the writing of a novel are not the actions but the states. States aren’t really of interest to me, except as they provide a springboard to action. Read my stories (please) and you will find very little extraneous detail about the environment in which the characters live and move. I’m not nearly so interested in the stand of oak over there minding its own business as I am in the piece of earth on to which Joe is about to step, and even more why he’s about to step there, and where his further steps will take him. Spinning out the logic of Joe’s actions is child’s play. Inventing the world he acts in, not so much.

In A Warrior Made, I remember being stuck in the middle of the book, because I’d written myself into a place where the characters were walking down the road from one place to another. Boring, and already done by lots of other people. I was there for quite some time before I had a sudden flash of inspiration, a state that caused all my characters to go off in wildly divergent directions. The rest of the book was told as a set of intertwining adventures as each set of characters followed their own path until it all came together somehow at the end. St. Martin’s Moon took that idea a step further. Five divergent and unrelated plot threads, that intersected to resolve a situation that none of the actors even knew existed.

Maybe this is why I don’t write mysteries.

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.

 

I had a story idea the other day. No surprise there, I have story ideas almost every day. Some of them are for new stories, but most are for ongoing stories, of which I have only one active at the moment, but it’s a monster. I don’t know too much about how other people get their story ideas, but a lot of mine come out of my daydreams. Not directly, of course, that would be too easy. I’ll have a daydream about something stupid, for some stupid reason. A good one is a song playing on my phone, but there are others. The story part comes when I manage to step out of daydream mode just enough to look at that dream without destroying it, which is a tough trick. I’ve had many ideas come from trying to grab a dream too soon or too hard, and it falls apart in my hands, and when I think I have something I forget it before I get it written down. Once you have the idea, you take that sideways step that turns it into a story. This particular story idea was an embellishment of a dream brought on by a song, that became the basis for a space-opera of epic proportions. Then I made the mistake of mentioning it to my son, who’s read a lot more epic space-opera stuff than me. He immediately started comparing it to three different series that he knew of, to which it was similar in some relevant way. I can’t for the life of me remember any of the names he mentioned. Talk about synchronicity, he just called. Some of the books he mentioned were Iain Banks’ Culture series, and Warhammer 40k. And Mass Effect for the Reapers. No idea why, but he says my initial idea sounded depressing like Warhammer did. Which it was, I suppose, but that doesn’t mean the whole story after that had to be. Anyway, I reminded myself of both The Madness Season and The Day the Earth Stood Still. I don’t know about you but that sort of thing really kills my incentive. As an author I strive to write stories that are as unique as possible, so finding out that there are five famous or at least well-known titles out there whose dust mine would be eating is a downer. I would of course be writing it from a character-oriented perspective, so the book would still be pretty different, but still… How soon in your creative process do you want the comp titles to enter into it? I’d be good with never but maybe that’s just me.

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.


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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