February 22, 2024 / 1 Comment

Balancing Point

As some of you know, I play tabletop games. I have for about… wow, almost twenty five years now. I spend a month or so painting up a hundred-plus little toy soldiers and then my friends and I roll dice and move them around the tabletop. The hobby side of it is kind of meditative for me, the gaming side is a great reason to hang out with friends.

I started out playing a lot of Warhammer 40K and Fantasy, but for the past two years or so I’ve been much more into One Page Rules (shameless, unsponsored plug). It’s a simpler game that lets you use a lot of the same models (if you want), but doesn’t require as many books and charts and dice rolls to do things, which means we can focus more on just hanging out and having fun. Which is, y’know, kind of the point of most games.

But one thing we’re still getting used to is the balance shift. Because OPR doesn’t use as many mechanics as 40K, a lot of actions and results seem under- or overpowered to what my gaming group’s used to. We want things to behave a certain way, yeah, but we also don’t want to discover that something’s drastically weaker or waaaaaaaay too unstoppable now. This is an inherent part of most gaming—no player should have an immediate or inherent leg up over the others.

And it may sound obvious but… games are set up that way so it’s fun for everyone. Yeah, every now and then it’s great to when everything goes your way and it feels like you’re essentially playing in god mode. With the right people, you can even have fun when absolutely nothing works out for you. But if this is the standard result… well, it gets frustrating and boring really fast. Who wants to play a game where whoever gets to play the blue guys always wins? Even when you’re the blue guys, it gets boring.

So, what does all this have to do with writing?

Well, stories need a degree of balance, too. We want characters to have a chance at achieving their goals, but we also want them to face a challenge getting there. If my story leans too far one way or the other, well…

If my antagonist is all-powerful, and my hero never has a chance… that’s boring as hell. There might be a few dramatic moments if I do things just right, but probably not. The truth is, we want to see our heroes win on some level, and if it becomes clear the only real outcome is getting ground into the dirt… I mean, who wants to read that?

I’d also point out that beating the antagonist doesn’t mean defeating them utterly. There are pyrrhic and moral victories, too. But as far as my main character is concerned, they have to have a chance to succeed at their particular goals. No chance means no interest.

The flipside of this is also true. If my main character is completely prepared and capable and never loses or suffers any setbacks… that’s not very interesting either. It might be kind of amusing to watch Reacher take out that one wiseassed teenager, but if all he did for ten episodes was beat up unarmed sixteen year olds again and again, it’d get uncomfortable pretty fast. And then boring. Characters who are basically playing in god mode aren’t interesting because they never get challenged. The reader (or audience) quickly understands there’s no danger or threat the hero can’t deal with. Ever.

Like, okay, let’s talk superheroes for a minute. Look at Thor. An actual god in the Marvel Universe. And the only character to get four dedicated movies. But let’s look at those movies for a moment. They’re not all winners. Even the most die-hard Marvel fan will admit this. I don’t think I’m out of line saying most people would probably say the original Thor and Ragnarok are the better two, while Dark World and Love & Thunder are the lesser two. The exact order shifts for everyone, I’m sure.

Now, if you accept this rough order, let me ask a question. What makes these two pairs different? What happens in Thor and Ragnarok that doesn’t happen in the other two?

Y’see, Timmy, I think one of the big reasons those two movies are more popular is that Thor loses his godlike powers (and his connection to Asgard) in both of them. In the first one they’re stripped away by Odin as a lesson. In the second his mystical hammer, Mjolnir, is destroyed, and much of his power lost (or is it…?). Both times things that would normally be easy for him are suddenly very difficult, and he’s forced to adapt and improvise and change. Y’know, good character stuff.

And in the other two movies he’s.. a god. Dealing with other gods. Doing god stuff. In god mode.

If I’ve got an overly powerful protagonist or antagonist in my story, maybe I should take another look at her or him. Do they need to be that strong? Wouldn’t they be more interesting with feet of clay? Maybe both feet and a leg?

Isn’t my story going to be a bit more interesting if the outcome doesn’t seem guaranteed from the start?

I mean, I think it would. But I’m weird that way.

Next time, I’d like to talk about something simple.

Okay, technically, next time will be the newsletter going up here. But after that… something simple.

Until then, go write.

February 9, 2024

Birds AND Bees

Last week was a bit of a flop, sorry. It happens sometimes, and I’m trying to be better about not letting it throw everything off for a week. We’ll still talk about throwing things out, don’t worry. I’m rescheduling a bit, moving a few things back on the calendar

Speaking of the calendar… Valentine’s Day is next week! With all the fun indoor (and sometimes outdoor, if you’re daring) activities many of us associate with said holiday.

So I though, in the spirit of the day, it might be worth revisiting the sometimes awkward topic of… writing sex scenes.

Don’t worry. None of this is going to be too explicit or NSFW and it probably won’t get your work machine flagged. You know your boss better than I do. Move forward accordingly.

Like sex itself, a lot of writing sex is going to come down to our own personal preferences, comfort zones, and what works in a given situation. As such, it’s going to be really tough to offer any specific advice about when and where and how these moments should happen in your book.

What I wanted to talk about here is more the act itself, so to speak. Writing sex scenes is a skill, just like writing action or gore or anything else. It’s a balancing act of too much vs. too little, exciting the reader or maybe horrifying them, and it’s ridiculously easy to make people roll their eyes.

No, not like that.

So here’s a few things I tend to keep in mind when writing a sex scene.

One is that we don’t always need to show sex happening in order for sex to have happened in my story. Nuance and subtext are a huge part of sexiness—on the page and in real life. If Phoebe drags Yakko off into the forest while the rest of us are siting around the campfire, we can make an educated guess what they’re probably doing out there. Especially with context. If they’ve been flirting for the whole trip up to the mountain, whispering to each other while setting up tents, and they come back half an hour later with stupid grins, wrinkled clothes, and leaves in their hair… I mean, is anybody confused what they were doing out there?

So depending on the overall tone of my story, maybe I don’t actually need to write out my sex scene—I can just let my reader fill in the blanks themselves. And again, like so many well-done subtle things, this can end up being much, much sexier than actually spelling everything out. As an artist friend once pointed out, “nudity isn’t sexy. It’s what you don’t see that gets you turned on.”

Probably worth noting that, like any kind of subtext, there’s always the possibility it’ll slip past some folks. So depending on how important this particular hookup is to my plot or my story, I may want to be a little… y’know, less subtle. Just to help keep things moving. Still don’t have to show anything, but maybe drop one or two more clues when we return from our walk in the woods.

Two, if I’m going to show my sex scene, I want to remember that sex is… well, action. Not necessarily in “expending lots of energy and effort” (although that might be the case in this story), just that actual, physical things are happening in my story. And like any other action, it gets dull fast when it’s written poorly. Yes, it can get dull.

There’s going to be some exceptions, but I think most action shouldn’t take much longer to read then it would take to happen. Nobody wants to read about a three paragraph sniper shot or a four page fist fight. When I over-analyze or over-describe anything, I’m slowing the pace of my story, and I don’t want to slow things down to tell my reader how fast things are happening.

And writing about sex works the same way. I’m not saying every sex scene has to have the frantic intensity and enthusiasm of two college sophomores, but If I’m telling you these two people are eagerly ripping each others clothes off and it’s taking six paragraphs for it to happen… you’re probably going to start skimming. And that’s never good. Strong action trusts that the reader’s going to fill in a lot of the blanks and understand what happened between A and C.

Now, since we’re talking about describing all that action…

Three would be personal taste. I think the catch with writing explicit sex scenes is they essentially become porn. Porn, as a friend once pointed out, is when we see everything. And after a certain point, that’s pretty much exactly what we’re talking about with any written-out sex scene. And some people like porn, some don’t. No judgment either way. That’s just a simple truth.

But there’s more to it than that. Because even the people who do like porn don’t all like the same kind of porn. This particular act really turns me on, but you find it kind of quaint and almost routine. Reading about that might weird me out, this might be a complete non-starter for you, and that… okay, that seriously disturbs both of us. On a number of levels. It’s a pretty safe bet that the more explicit—or shall we say, exotic—my sex scene becomes, the less people it’s going to appeal to. And the more people it’s going to… not appeal to.

This is going to be one of those points where I want to have a very clear sense of who the audience is going to be for this story. And I need to be honest about that. What kind of sex scene I put in, and how I describe it, is going to have an impact, so I want to be sure it’s the kind of impact I’m trying for.

Four, last but not least, is something I’ve also talked about with my rules of love that I bring up now and then. Y’see, Timmy, for a long time Hollywood tried to convince us if two good looking people (or even average-looking people) ended up alone in an apartment, a car, an office, a cave, whatever… they’d have sex. It was just what people did. What else were they going to do? Talk? Watch television? Read?

And there are a lot of reasons to think this way. A fair number of people enjoy sex. A decent amount of folks have a phase in their lives where sex is a high priority. And crass as it may sound… sex sells. More than a few filmmakers sold an additional ticket or three (or four or five rentals) off the promise of skin and naughtiness.

But the truth is… most of us don’t have sex at the drop of a hat. And there are times and places that it’s just not going to work. For any number of reasons. Sometimes the reason that sex scene feels kind of forced and gratuitous is because… well… it is

So go forth on this holiday and write your sexy moments. But please consider if you really need to show them. And how they’re paced. And who you’re writing them for. And if they should be there at all.

Next time… I’d like to talk about the new tabletop game my friends and I have been playing. And how it relates to writing.

Until then, go write.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

January 30, 2024 / 2 Comments

January Newsletter

Welcome to 2024! The future! The far future, as I always imagined it!

Not sure exactly why but I find myself randomly thinking back to a Superfriends cartoon I saw when I was very little. Mid seventies, maybe? The Superfriends met an alien visiting Earth from a planet where ha-ha-ha air pollution had destroyed their environment and caused massive climate change. So the Superfriends went and helped clean up his planet. And assured all us kids we’d never let it get that bad here on Earth. Because now we knew better!

Ha ha ha ha ha, fake laugh. Hiding real pain.

Also, random thing– should I be numbering these or something? I’m seeing some folks do that. Should this be Newsletter Episode #18– <funny title> or are you all happy just getting more casual emails? I’m still playing around with it, y’know?

Anyway, let’s get into updates and news and all that stuff you’re here for.

I finished the big rewrite on GJD and I’m very happy with it. Tightened up some things. Hammered a few other things so they fit better. Added some things. It’s a better story on a few levels. So when you hear people complain about “oh, but an agent will just make you change stuff” try to remember that sometimes that can be a good thing.

I also sent out a comic book pitch. Nothing IP related. Well, it’s my own original idea, so technically it’s my IP. But it’s not connected to anything of mine, either. Just an original superhero-ish idea. My college roommate became a comic editor and we’ve been talking for a while about doing something and I finally got off my butt and said “okay, what do you think about this…?” And he thinks it looks pretty fun sooooo we’re talking about it some more and we’ll see what there is to say about this in next month’s newsletter…

At the moment, I’m back working on TOS. Which really meant I’ve spent the past two days rereading what I’d already written to get back in the voice and flow of it and really today’s going to be the first day back out on the deck with a legal pad. Yeah, I’m writing a lot of this draft on a legal pad. Don’t know why. It just sort of worked out that way.

Wow, that’s a lot of stuff summed up pretty quick. What else could I tell you about…?

Cool Stuff I’ve Been Watching– We decided to try out Apple+ and have quickly converted to the church of Ted Lasso. Still making my way through Blue-Eyed Samurai, still loving it. Really enjoyed High Society. I’ve watched about half of What If… and it’s pretty entertaining so far. Think I might like it a little more than season one.

Cool Stuff I’ve Been Reading
Lots of ARC’s for stuff that doesn’t come out until later this year. Started the year by finishing Django Wexler’s How to Become the Dark Lord and Die Trying which was freakin’ fantastic. Then I read Jennifer Brozek’s new Shadowrun novel, Auditions, which is very fun. I’m currently about halfway through Craig diLouie’s How To Make a Horror Movie and Survive which is just beautifully gory and creepy. Got a new one from Jonathan Maberry on deck after that.

Cool New Toys – Christmas was good to me. My lovely lady gave me the ‘Final Swing” Spider-man figure and also a ReAction Gigan to fight Godzilla. My parents sent me an Elita-1 Transformer and also a LEGO set of the Mandalorian’s N-1 starfighter. And my friends Marcus and Gillian got me the What If… Hydra Stomper (the WWII version), which is a massive hunk of action figure.

January 25, 2024 / 4 Comments

Get It Done

Okay, I want to bounce one of those “seems obvious in retrospect” things off you. Some of you may already understand this. For others this may be a bit of an “Ohhhh…” moment.

I’ve talked here a few times about drafts and different ways to approach them. One thing I tend to do in my first drafts—and maybe you do, too—is to skip over things. Maybe it’s a story beat I haven’t quite figured out or a plot point that needs some more research. I freely admit, every now and then it’s just that I know the next bit is going to be really fun to write so maybe I’ll just skip ahead a little bit. It’s 100% okay to write this way. It’s a first draft. Nobody’s going to see it.

But at some point I need to go back and fill in those blank spots. For me, it’s usually what I call my second draft. It’s my cleaning-up to make a complete manuscript pass. Some basic edits and tweaks. Weird notes to myself get answered (“WOULD this work like that???”). All the gaps get filled in.

There’s also another point stuff like this gets added in, and that’s during/after edits. I realize this chapter needs a little more description. This fight needs a few more beats. This conversation should be a lot longer. Hell, maybe I need a whole new chapter. All of this would honestly work so much better with a big flashback right here. Or maybe an interlude to see how Phoebe’s doing with that ancient translation.

That’s what just happened with GJD, the book I just finished a second round of editing on. I cut four whole chapters out of the book—pretty much a whole day of story I realized was ultimately just slowing the whole thing down. But I also realized there was stuff the story needed. So I wrote three all new chapters and worked them in.

Where am I going with this?

There’s a frequently-recurring joke in Hollywood– “we’ll fix it in post.” Sometimes used to lighten the mood, sometimes used… a little too seriously. The idea is that if we can’t make something work here on set, we’ll make it work in the editing room with a few careful cuts. Or maybe CGI. Or in reshoots. Or maybe… look, did we actually need that shot?

Now, the reason this is a joke is because most filmmakers (above and below the line) realize you can’t fix something that doesn’t exist. If I didn’t get the shot I needed on set, it’s not going to magically appear in the editing room. If I don’t have the shot, my options for fixing the shot are very limited.

And the same holds for writing. I can’t tweak and clean up a chapter if I haven’t written the chapter. I need to have it all there, on the page, for me to be able to work on it.

BUT… here’s the catch.

When I go back through during that second pass or maybe even later in the process, I need to be aware that I may be editing everything else, but I’m creating this. In the middle of my second or third draft chapter is this first draft page. Or maybe a whole first draft chapter in my fifth draft manuscript (like I was just dealing with). I can tell myself I just finished the fourth pass, but really some of this is first-pass material.

Y’see, Timmy, if I wait until the very last minute before scribbling out that transition or that action scene or explaining exactly how Phoebe figured out that ancient translation… there’s a chance these bits aren’t going to get all the attention everything else did.

And I want to be sure they still get the same amount of love and polish the rest of the manuscript did.

Like I said, might be obvious to some folks. Might be a lightbulb moment for others.

Next time, I’d like to talk about some of that stuff you were going to throw out