May 21, 2021 / 4 Comments

Daily Supplements

I’m going to be honest with all of you. The clown thingisn’t coming together. I’ve got an idea but I haven’t been able to focus on it enough. My attention’s been split a couple of ways with that big pitch document I told you about and a few other things I can’t tell you about (not yet, anyway). Plus, while you’re reading this, there’s a good chance I’m in the twisty line of cars at the Del Mar Fairgrounds while my lovely partner gets her second shot.

Have you gotten your shots? Faster we all get ‘em, the faster we get to an actual herd immunity. Which means faster we get back to Writers Coffeehouses, conventions, book signings, book clubs… all those things where we get to meet face to face. Get vaxxed!

Anyway. No clowns. We’re putting that one on the back burner.

For now, I’ve got another question from Tantilloon, who decided to push their luck and see what other bits of advice I might have. It’s a bit of a submitting/ publishing question… but it also isn’t.

“I’ve created some drawings, maps, and renderings of things from the story. Do you think these supplemental materials add value when trying to find an agent?”

This is the main question, although Tantilloon also brought up blogs and playlists. And it’s one of those questions that has the answer in it. Which makes it great for me on days like this where I’m a bit behind.

Really, all of this boils down to “supplementary material.” It’s stuff that, well, supplements the work. Stating the obvious, yeah, but it’s one of those things where I think it’s important to make the distinction. Supplemental material, pretty much by definition, is separate material that adds to my work. But it can do this in a couple of different ways…

First off, it’s really common—I’m tempted to say it’s standard—that we create more than we put into a manuscript. We know details about characters that never get used. We write out whole scenes that get cut. We have diagrams in our head showing where and when and how things happen. This is a normal part of the writing process, for all this background material to exist. And, as I mentioned above, for it not to be in the book. But its existence still adds to the book and enhances it.

For example, I scribbled out a bunch of base diagrams for Dead Moon. I knew how the Caretaker bases were laid out. I had three or four diagrams for Luna City—big overall ones and smaller ones that had details for the different streets. And these added to the story because it let me write about Osiris and Luna City as if they were real places.

Which brings me to the second kind of supplemental material. Sometimes this behind the scenes stuff I just mentioned (or other, original stuff) gets used for marketing purposes. Little added bonuses to tease people who haven’t read my book and please those who have. Because I think a lot of folks like seeing that other layer of things. To get a peek behind the curtain, or to get parts of the story from a slightly different point of view. And when it’s so easy to spread things across multiple media… why wouldn’t you? Lots of folks release free short stories involving the settings or characters of their books. Sylvain Neuvel did a fantastic (and very educational!) series of videos about rockets and the space race to promote his latest book, A History of What Comes Next. Hell, I called in a bunch of film favors and created some book trailers for the Ex-Heroes books (about four months before they moved to Broadway Paperbacks). I also made up a side-blog about the Kavach building and its residents for 14. And an early chapter that got cut from Paradox Bound became a digital bonus for a PageHabit promotion.

Important sub-note. If you’re actually a fan of my writing, there’s a good chance you haven’t heard of any of this. This stuff is great, but most of the time getting our bonus material seen takes just as much effort as getting our actual work seen.  Which really means my marketing plans were really more like cautionary tales.

And all of this brings us to the third type of supplemental material. I see… well, I don’t know if I should say “a lot,” but I definitely see a number of folks who view the supplemental stuff as part of the whole storytelling experience. They need this other material to understand the story. The readers will find hidden clues to the mystery if they check out those two or three blogs, more details in the lyrics from my playlists, and a better understanding of the nuances of my protagonists’ relationship if they sign up for the OnlyFans account I created.

The catch here is that what I’m describing is less a book and more of  a… a multi-media experience. Or cross-platform non-linear narrative. Whatever buzzphrase currently describes this kind of thing. Point is, it’s not a complete, contained book. Not if I have to go hereto understand the plot and there to make sense of their motivations and subscribe to that if I want Chapter 16 to make any sense whatsoever.

Y’see, Timmy, complete books are what agents represent and publishers buy. Not most of a book. Not 83% of a book but all the character arcs are right over there on a website I set up. If I’m submitting to an agent or an editor—especially as a first time writer—I need to have a coherent, contained manuscript. If this playlist is necessary to understand something in the book, then it needs to be part of the book.

And if I don’t need it… then it’s probably a marketing tool. Nothing wrong with that, but it means nobody needs to see it until after the book’s found a home somewhere. Maybe not for a while after that, even. Even for an agent, that’s real cart-before-the-horse stuff.  I’m talking about wedding venues and they haven’t even decided if they want to go on a first date.

“But… I mean, come on. Won’t they be glad to know I have a plan to market the book? It has to improve my odds a little!”

Look, think about it this way. A publisher’s either going to have their own plan to market the book (one thought up by their marketing and publicity people), in which case my plan’s very likely irrelevant to them. Or they’re going to be expecting me to take care of all the marketing and publicity myself, in which case it’s still irrelevant to them because I’d be doing it no matter what.

And I feel like I’m babbling now. So to end on a slightly happier note… here’s a picture of my friend Tammy dressed as Stealth for those book trailers I mentioned, They’re still up on YouTube if you go look.

Oh, also–this Sunday at 5:00 (Pacific) I’m doing an online interview with my friend Elena Taylor, talking about writing and publishing and whatever else you might have to ask. It’s completely free and open to everyone, just sign up to reserve a space and have your questions at the ready.

Next time, I may have a little worldbuilding tip for you. Or maybe I’ll be answering another question. Only one way to find out…

Until then, go write.

June 20, 2019

The Negative Zone

Today’s musings got inspired by a couple things. A headline. A few twitter posts from people I know. Some thoughts that’d been bouncing in my head for a while. And a movie I watched last weekend during my usual bout of Saturday geekery… So, let’s take a moment and talk about negative space.

No, not the Negative Zone. That’s another thing entirely. Like, a completely different universe.


You’re probably already familiar with the idea of negative space in art even if the term might not be familiar.  It’s the space around the subject, rather than the subject itself. Negative space is a necessary thing—it helps us isolate and define elements. We need that open, less-defined area for our brains to process things correctly.

Think of this page. There’s open space between the letters and the words, which help us to read. There’s also spaces between the paragraphs. That’s more of a modern web format, sure, but even on a printed page we use indents—more space—to help mark off new paragraphs.

And here’s the interesting thing. We all know the space is there. We register it and process it. It’s blank, but it’s serving a purpose.

There’s also space within storytelling itself. We often leave things blank, so to speak. We don’t always explain everything or describe everything or answer every question. Because we know the reader can do a lot of it for us. They’re going to make their own images in their mind and fill in little details. And we all process it a little differently, which is why we don’t always picture things the same way as everyone else.

What does blank space in a story look like?  Well I’ll have the famous bank robber ride into town with a big sackful of cash. Wakko might have a scar on the side of his face. Dot could have a necklace she never takes off.

Negative space in a story is all these things, some minor, some major, that I don’t spell out for you. I mean, just off those random sentences, I bet you came up with an explanation for all of those things.  It’s something I don’t need to explain because it’s either not that unusual (lots of people have jewelry they always wear) or because we can figure it out pretty easily (gosh, where do you think Iron Thorpe got that bag of money?).

Now, you may remember I’ve mentioned Academy Award winner Billy Wilder here once or thrice. He had a great little aphorism—if you let the audience add 2 + 2 on their own now and then, they’ll love you for it.  I’m a big believer in this. I think it’s one of the honest, physical joys of reading. Figuring things out—even small, simple, subtextual things—gives us a feeling of satisfaction. It sets off a tiny little squirt of the happy chemicals in our brains, the biochemical reward for doing something right or solving a puzzle. That moment of adding 2+2 together is why we enjoy reading.

So if we’ve got the stuff I’ve explained to you and the stuff you figured out on your own, what parts are you more likely to enjoy? Which ones are going to stick with you? Sam Sykes (professional bear wrestler and author of Seven Blades in Black) has pointed out that when it comes to backstories and mythologies, the parts we figure out on our own are the ones we love. We like parsing out who the bad guy was in that hundred-year-old conflict, or the realreason Yakko and Phoebe get so icy when they end up in a room together.

And sometimes… we just don’t need to know. We don’t. Period. Sometimes the explanation’s just completely irrelevant.  Sometimes it’s better to leave the past shrouded in darkness and mystery. When we find out all the details about how Wakko got that scar sometimes… it’s just kind of a let down  We like the mystery aspect of it, the uncertainty, far more than the actual answer (Neil Gaiman once said as much in his Sandmanbooks—Cain and Abel openly discuss it with another character). I’ve mentioned William F. Nolan’s “bug in the closet” idea before, and how it limits horror, and that’s kinda what we’re talking about. Sometimes letting the reader make the final decision is much more powerful.  ‘Cause when we don’t know the answer to something, there are lots of possibilities, so many things for our minds to dwell on. But once we know… there’s only one. That’s it. Done.

I’ll add one last thought to this before we wrap it up. From a basics mechanics point of view, if I leave these things unsaid… it leaves me space to say otherthings. As I’ve mentioned before, any story only has so much room. Books only have so many pages. Movies can only be so long. The five paragraphs I spent explaining how alchemy works in this world are five paragraphs I could’ve spent on advancing my plot.  Or developing one or two of my characters.

That Saturday geekery movie I mentioned up top? It spent tons of time in the very beginning explaining how the different magical sciences worked and where they came from. Which turned out to be a big waste of time because, naturally, once the story got going we were shown how they worked. And where the sciences came from… well, it never really had any bearing on the story. 

With all that said, would you be shocked if I told you most of the characters were pretty thin? Their motivations were all sketchy at best. Hell, I couldn’t even tell you most of their names.

A big hurdle we need to overcome as storytellers is figuring out that negative space.  Realizing what parts we don’t need to tell. What parts might be good, but just aren’t relevant.  And what things actually improve my story by being left out of it.

And what things are weakening it or slowing it down because I’ve left them in.

Next time, I’d like to offer you some investment advice.

Until then… go write.

April 4, 2019

Shadow Agency

This week—requests are granted!
Also, as you may have noticed, the majority of responses I got in comments/ tweets/ DMs/ etc were in favor of the new layout, so I’m going to stick with it for now.

A few weeks back someone asked about characters.  How do I get a sense of who they are.  How do I make sure when they do something it’s what they’d do instead of just what the plot (and by extension—I ) want them to do?
Okay, these are two related-but-different questions.  Let’s look at each of them on their own, then figure out that relationship-overlap.  Which I think is what we’re aiming for with this request.

Also, because there’s a lot to unpack here, expect a lot of links to previous posts.  I don’t want to bury you in too much rehashed stuff.  You’re here for exciting hot takes on the art of writing, yes?
First off, how do I get a sense of who my characters are as individuals?  What makes them unique?  What makes them stand out?
One thing would be their general backstory and personal preferences.  If I’ve got a character—especially one of my main characters or important supporting ones—I should know a lot about them.  And I’m talking about me, the author.  For almost all of my characters, there are things I know about them that never make it into the books.  Maybe it’s about their relationship with their parents, their worst class in school, or their favorite bands.  It can be games they play, people they’ve slept with, or their first car.  A lot of this sounds like weird stuff, yeah, but all of this says a little something about who someone is, which means it’s going to affect how they react to the world around them.
There’s also their voice.  The way people phrase things and the words they choose.  Their background will have an effect on how they act, and it’s also going to effect how they talk. This is one of the easiest ways to make characters distinct on the page (or in an audiobook).
Also, I could think about how people react to this character.  Do folks wince at the sound of Dot’s voice?  Do they instinctively lean away from Wakko?  Do they lean toward Phoebe?  And are people right to react this way, or is it because they know something else that we don’t?

All of this should give me a really good sense of who my character is.  Again—I probably won’t use all of it.  I may never see Yakko stumbling through a date or listening to music or reminiscing about his old VW Bug.  But these are all the little elements that help move a character from a basic stereotype and into actual, memorable person-hood.
Okay, the second part of all this is about these characters making decisions. 
There’s a term you may have heard around the interwebs called agency.  It first appeared back in the 1700s, when people were having Enlightening discussions about philosophy and sociology.  At its simplest, agency refers to free will.  Can a person make their own choices and affect the world around them?  How much does the world they exist in restrict that ability to make choices?  If I can’t travel alone, vote, or choose who to love… do I have free will, or just the appearance of free will?  Do people in prison have free will?  Free will may have gotten them there—or maybe the conditions forced on them by society did—but now they have almost no freedom to make choices at all, so…?  Is there a point where I no longer have free will?

Anyway, that’s all heavy stuff.  It’s a little different (and easier) for us when we’re talking about agency in a literary sense. Fictional entities don’t have free will because they’re… well, they don’t actually exist.  But as a writer, I need to make my readers believe these characters are real people who are having an actual affect on the world around them.  They need to do things, and these things need to matter.

If cowards are suddenly going to leap forward and be brave, there should be a clear reason.  If a cold person falls madly in love, we should understand why and how.  If someone decides to open the spooky mystery box after it’s killed half their friends… well, we should be with them on this, even if we don’t like it.

Yeah, sure, it’s possible to make inconsistent decisions or choices that move the plot forward.  We’ve all seen it happen.  The wonderful A. Lee Martinez(he of the Constance Verity books and the Save The Movies podcast) came up with plot zombie a little while ago to explain this.  It’s when characters are only acting in service of the plot, not out of any actual developed or established character traits.

This is, just to be clear, a bad thing.

Y’see, Timmy, my characters need to face challenges and need to respond to them.  They need to make choices—ones that are consistent with who they are.    And the results of these choices should have a real affect on how the story plays out. 

Because if they’re not… Well, then they’re not really doing anything. They’re just empty puppets.  Not even the good kind of puppets.  They’re just sock puppets that I’m using to try to convince my readers this is a real story. 

So make your characters do things.  In character.

Next time, I’d like to look at some things from a different angle.
Until then, go write.