August 22, 2019 / 2 Comments

Trilogy vs Series vs Universe

I got an interesting comment on the FAQ the other day. Well, on one of the social media sites where it’s pinned. Someone announced they were going to quit reading the Ex-Heroes books because they just learned “there was never going to be an actual ending.”  Which is true, but… it’s always been true. It’s one of the reasons pretty much every book in the series has ended with a quiet moment that could be “the end.” This was never a trilogy or heptalogy or something where it’d come to a neat, tidy, planned-out-from-the-beginning end.—and I’ve said this at least a hundred times in interviews, at cons, and just to random folks who’ve asked.

I wonder if this person’s gonna stop watching the MCU, too. Pretty sure there’s no “actual ending” planned for that. Or the James Bond franchise. I mean, how does somebody like that watch television? Did they wait seven years to make sure Elementarywould get an “actual ending” and not be cancelled between seasons like so many programs?

It’s funny because we’d just been talking about this at the Writers Coffeehouse last week (or two weeks ago at this point, I guess). How do you approach writing multiple, connected books? And one thing we talked about a lot was howthe books are connected. Because that’s going to have an effect on how I write them and the stories (or story) I end up telling..

…and then we spun off onto a bunch of usual segues.

Now, I’ll warn you right up front, there’s not going to be a lot of “how to” in this post. As I’ve said here a bunch of times, writing’s a very unique process.  You don’t write the way I do, I don’t write the way she does, she doesn’t write like you. So adding another layer on to that—find the best way to do this that works with the way you do that—is just going to be too much. It’s variables on top of variables.

What I’d like to do instead is throw some terminology at you and maybe some thoughts about how we can define some of those terms. Less instruction, a little more food for thought. Things I should keep in mind when I’m sitting down to smack my head against the keyboard.

All that said… let’s talk about stories and the different ways they can be connected. Because let’s face it, this is a big dream for a lot of folks–to have a group of characters, or maybe a world, that’s so cool people will pay us to write multiple books about them. For our purposes here, I want to break these multiple books down into three broad groups. I’m going to call them series, trilogies, and universes.

Also, let me be clear on something up front. I’m just saying “trilogy” for convenience. We could also say quadrilogy or hexalogy or any number of increasingly obscure words with that Greek-logos suffix. I’ll explain more when we get there.

Let’s start with a series. Simply put, this is an ongoing, open-ended collection of books or stories, almost always involving the same protagonists. If you think of a television series, that’s pretty much the same idea. I want every book to end with the potential of another book. It’s also not uncommon for these books to restore the status quo for our characters at the end, leaving them pretty close to where they began on a personal level. It’s why a lot of series get scoffed at as “plot-driven”–because not a lot happens with the characters on a story level.

You may have heard me mention that term before—series potential. That’s what we’re talking about. Each book could have—but doesn’t need to have—another book after it. If you stopped reading with this one, you’d probably be fine and feel like you’d read a complete story. But if I told you there’s another one, your first reaction shouldn’t be “What? How?” Editors love books with series potential. Seriously.
The trick here, of course, is it means I have to wrap up this story while also leaving space for another story. There’s a reason we’ve never seen a Bond movie that ends with “and peace reigned forever after.” And why we always see Jack Reacher wandering out of town at the end of every book.

Next up would be the trilogy. This is when my story’s set across a very specific set of books, rarely hitting double digits. And it’s been planned this way, in the same way I plan where the beginning and end of a book may be. Yeah, I’m saying trilogy for convenience but it could be four books or five—but I know how many there’s going to be when I start and it rarely changes. The Harry Potter books were always meant to cover his seven years at school, one year per book. Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath books are a trilogy (an actual one), as were both the Newsflesh and Parasitology books by Mira Grant a.k.a. Seanan McGuire.

One of the key things here is that even though this may be three or five or seven books, there’s only one main story running across them. It’s not uncommon for the books to have lots of dangling threads, or maybe even a full cliffhanger ending. And that’s okay in this case because we knowthere’s going to be another book. Again, cause this is all one story.

The other key thing, I think, is the story itself. I don’t want to plan out a trilogy when I really only have enough story for one book. Or plan on seven when I’ve only got enough for three. You get the idea. Despite the multiple books, we’re talking about a set, self-contained story, so I need to be honest with myself about how much story I’ve really got.

Again—sorry to be repetitive—I’m just using trilogy as an umbrella term for a single story told over a set number of books. I want to be clear because it’s a term that gets slapped on to a lot of different things and, to be honest, I don’t want to read someone’s six paragraph spiel in the comments about how valid duologies are or that, no, that ISN’T what a trilogy is because abcxyz.

Finally we have a universe. This is when a number of books have a shared background and common elements, but don’t necessarily connect in any way past that.  There are a lot of popular media-tie in ones, like Warhammer 40,000, Star Wars, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Heck, lots of comic publishers work with shared universes where their characters coexist, like Marvel, DC, or IDW’s Hasbroverse (where Rom the Spaceknight once bodyslammed Optimus Prime after killing some GI Joe team members who were secretly Dire Wraiths). You may have read a few books set in Paul F. Wilson’s Secret History of the World. All of these different universes include multiple plotlines and story arcs that stand completely independent of one another, even if we see some connective tissue here and there.

The important thing to remember here is that story universes rarely start out as such. They usually begin with a single series or trilogy, but then popularity demands a sequel or a prequel or a spin-off or what have you.

Another key thing in a universe is the world building. I just talked a few weeks ago about what’s possible within the reality of my story, and it’s important that the different stories within my universe don’t contradict each other. I can’t say magic doesn’t exist here, then have a sorcerer there. Aliens can’t attack the city but people one block over in another book are still insisting aliens aren’t real. When I get to the point of universe-building, consistency is key.

One last thing. Now that we’ve got these three broad definitions, let’s talk a little bit about exceptions. Well, about why I’m not really going to talk about them.

While there are times these three groups might overlap, the simple truth is it’s a much-later-in-my-career sort of thing. We have to acknowledge these exceptions happen after I’ve established my norm.  It’s just not something to be thinking about at an early stage of my career. Believe me, if I walk in to my first (or second, or third) meeting with a publisher saying “it’s a trilogy of trilogies set in a shared universe with…”

Well, honestly, I can probably say whatever I want at that point because the odds are pretty good everybody’s already tuned me out. I’d written ten fairly successful books before I got to say “I think this one’s going to be set in the same universe, but isn’t really going to be part of the same series.” And even then, it kinda made some people uneasy.

So if I want to start thinking those bigger, grander multiple-books thoughts… go for it. But I should try to keep a couple things in mind and be clear about what I’m really trying to write. Especially so I can be clear to interested parties.  
Speaking of writer-thoughts, if you missed it, earlier this week I did a mini interview with my friend Craig DiLouie where we talked about his new book Our War, his writing process, and stuff like that.
Next time, I want to address a software issue real quick.
Until then, go write.
April 29, 2010

Mad Men

Not a reference to the show, I assure you.

So, I ranted about this a while back, but a few recent things made me want to revisit it…

If I may, I’d like to go classical for a moment and talk about Jane Eyre. Yes, the 1847 book by Charlotte Bronte a.k.a. Currer Bell, sister of Emily and Anne. Now, Jane Eyre was one of Bronte’s earlier books, so we can excuse some of the clumsiness in it (her Villette isn’t as well known, but it’s a much smoother, subtler book). There’s one thing in it we can’t forgive though, and that’s Charlotte falling back on a cop-out character to drive several huge events in her story.

I’m speaking about Bertha Rochester, the crazy wife in the attic. She gets loose every now and then from her attic prison and glares at Jane. She’ll just stand in Jane’s bedroom and stare at her while she’s sleeping. Sometimes she does it from windows when Jane is outside. It gets so disturbing it drives a wedge between Jane and her beloved Edward “Mr.” Rochester (Bertha’s husband) and sends her fleeing. We eventually discover that Bertha sets fire to Rochester Hall (off-camera, so to speak) and throws herself from the roof during the blaze, thus clearing the way for Jane and Edward to be married at the end of the novel.

Now, it’s never made clear what drove Bertha insane. We also don’t learn exactly why she feels the need to glare at sleeping Jane from high windows and the end of her bed. Never discover why she sets fire to her home or decides to kill herself. Bertha just does all this because, well… she’s insane.

Shenanigans, my friends. I call shenanigans.

If you skim through that list of keywords on the side, you’ll see several rants about characters and a few on motivation. They’re related, after all. Believable characters are what make a story come to life, and good motivations are part of what make characters come to life.

One thing many people have trouble with are the bad guys in their stories. We all tend to use little bits of ourselves in our characters, but of course few of us have lots of criminal experience and none of us (hopefully) have homicidal impulses. It can be tough to get inside an antagonist’s head and come up with a rationale for whatever they’re doing.

Not only that, but sometimes certain events or moments just have to happen in a story. It’s been all plotted out and we need a reason for the characters to do this so that and that can happen a bit later. The writer also knows they need an in-story motivation for these events, no matter how bizarre or unlikely they are.

Faced with these challenges, a lot of people fall back on the quickest, easiest solution they can. They say the character is insane.

Now they don’t need a motivation, right? He or she is just doing this stuff because, well… they’re insane.

This is pretty much hands-down the laziest writing someone can ever do. All characters need a solid motivation, and when a writer decides to use insanity as carte blanche for any actions or behaviors of a character, it just shows that he or she was too lazy to work out a real motivation. The plot needs to be driven forward, and there’s no logical reason for this to happen, so we’ll just say someone’s insane and relieve ourselves of the need to be logical. It’s a cheap way to hide the writer’s button-pushing.

Another common occurrence is for the insanity to be a twist, something that comes out of nowhere and takes the reader’s breath away. The flaw that usually goes alongside this is that once Wakko’s insanity is revealed, his behavior does a complete 180 and he begins to act like a lunatic. Yes, Wakko’s been calm and rational for the entire story, but now that we know the truth he’s started foaming at the mouth and grabbing for kitchen knives. You can’t have a rational villain and fall back on “he’s insane.” This is a major cop-out. Dan Brown took a perfectly passable techno- thriller, Digital Fortress, and killed it in the last fifty pages when one of his leads turned out to be insane. Had nothing to do with the main story, this guy just happened to be nuts and started twitching as soon as we found out.

Just to be clear, insanity in and of itself is not a bad thing (speaking from a character point of view, of course). Hannibal Lecter. Renfield. The Joker. Davros. All of these characters are unquestionably out of their skull and are pretty much across the board magnificent either in print or on the screen. The thing is, the writers behind these characters all realized the key point I’d like to make here.

Y’see, Timmy, insanity is not a motivation. It’s the lens the characters are seeing their motivation through.

There’s an old joke you’ve probably heard that one definition of insanity is repeating the same action and expecting different results. But let’s really consider that for a moment. The implication is that Wakko, our insaniac, is choosing to repeat a given action–say, dropping anvils from a great height–because it’s his belief that the logical outcome of this action will be a certain, predictable result (just not the one he’s getting). He isn’t just dropping anvils for the heck of it. He has a motive fueled by what he sees as logical expectations.

In my college novel, The Trinity, the villain is completely insane. Homicidal, in fact. He believes that God only wants blood sacrifice, preferably human. That’s why, in the Bible, he rewards Abel for sacrificing a sheep but turns his nose up at Cain’s much larger sacrifice of harvested fruits and grains. When Cain does spill blood later (Abel’s), God rewards him with a mark that says no man will ever be able to lay hands on him. Thus, my modern-day villain has determined God wants us all to kill as many people as possible. A very twisted interpretation, granted, but I did tell you this guy’s insane, right? He’s not killing people because he’s insane, mind you, he’s killing them because, through his insanity, he believes this is how he should follow God’s will. We can point at it and say he’s doing Y because he believes X and expects Z as a result.

The Joker believes he can prove that everyone, at heart, is ruthless and psychotic, just like him. Renfield believes eating insects and spiders means he’s eating their life-essence and extending his own. Hannibal Lecter isn’t bound by the standards and taboos of the human race, giving him a cold ruthlessness that makes the Joker almost look rational. The writers behind these characters didn’t just fall back on “they’re insane.” They all have actual motivations for their specific actions.

Now, just to be clear, there are times where mindless insanity is just fine. Want someone gibbering in the corner reciting the same numbers again and again? You need somebody chopping up nubile teens out at Camp Crystal Lake? The purposeless madman was made for these tasks.

It needs to be said, though, this only works on a certain level of storytelling, and it isn’t a very high level. The stories of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers are, at their core, campfire stories. It’s that same story of the escaped madman with the hook except here he’s got a machete. And that story’s great around a bonfire (or with popcorn), but you can’t really bring any clever twists or subtle nuances into it. Which means you shouldn’t expect a larger audience to be interested in it.

That’s why Friday the 13th just gets a decent opening weekend and Silence of the Lambs gets twelve weeks in the top five and a pile of Oscars the following spring.

Next week, six years is almost up, so we need to get in one last discussion about that mysterious island.

Until then, go write.

April 9, 2010 / 4 Comments


Running a little late this week. I blame it on my landlord, who insists I have rent money every month. He’s very capitalist that way.

Anyway, pop culture reference in the title, but only the old people will get it..
Speaking of getting it, want to hear the absolute silliest thing I ever read online? It’s not a dirty joke or anything like that. This was in a defiant post someone made on a movie-predictions board I used to visit on a regular basis. Essentially, this one misogynist gent– who took great pains to tell everyone (frequently) that he was a writer– was explaining why he’d never read one of several classic books that were getting the adaptation treatment that season. I think one of them may have been the second Narnia book. There was another one, too, but I can’t remember what it was.
Anyway–the reason he’d never read any of them?
REAL writers don’t have time to read.”
No, seriously. That’s what he said. With the capitals and the italics. I can’t really blame it on him, though. I keep seeing or hearing variations on this once a month or so. Just heard it recently at a housewarming party.
Now, I write full time. Eight hours a day or more, five or six days a week. It is how I make my living. So far this year I’ve already done a dozen articles for the magazine and another half dozen or so for the weekly newsletter. Plus I’m poking at a short story for an anthology, a sequel for Ex-Heroes (shameless plug–order your copy over there on the right), and scribbling notes for another book idea that’s been poking at me. Jabbing, really.
Keeping all that in mind… I’ve already read well over a dozen books this year.
We’re barely into April and I’ve already read sixteen books–more than one a week. I’ve read classic novels like Dracula and shiny-new ones like Under The Dome. I read The Terror by Dan Simmons and then followed it up with an actual history of the Franklin expedition. I’ve read books on ancient Egyptian history and early 20th century spiritualism. I’ve read an end-of-the-world story by Dave Dunwoody that was really fun and another one by Dean Koontz that really wasn’t.
Plus I have to read a lot for work. Screenplays for Alice in Wonderland, Nightmare on Elm Street, Season of the Witch, and several other films. Heck, I read a couple scripts for films I’m not even covering.
I love reading. There’s nothing like getting caught up in a great storytelling experience. It’s like eating a good meal. It relaxes me and gets my mind spinning.
Y’see, Timmy, you can’t make something out of nothing. A physicist needs to study what’s been done in order to develop new theories. A film director has to study the work of previous directors. Writers need to read.
Look at it this way. Bodybuilders need to take in protein to create new muscle. If they continue to do all those strenuous exercises without taking anything in, it actually becomes more detrimental than beneficial. They burn up calories, their muscles wither, and very quickly it starts to affect their performance. Suddenly they can’t lift as much or go for as long. In the end, not taking in material will ruin their chances of being a successful bodybuilder.
In a like manner, a smart bodybuilder knows what to take in. They know eating nothing but steak is just as bad as eating nothing but Twinkies. There are times to eat steamed broccoli and lean turkey breast, but there are also times you need a cheeseburger. No, seriously. I used to train with a professional weightlifter and bodybuilder who made a point of eating a huge fast-food cheeseburger after every competition. In the days before he’d work his body fat down to dangerous levels, but once the competition was over it was important to replenish those levels as quickly as possible to stay healthy. He knew there was a time he had to eat fatty junk food in order to be a success.
So when you read, read everything you can. Don’t just limit yourself to your chosen genre or format. Break up all that horror with some satire or sci-fi. If you’re writing romantic comedy scripts, pause to check out a drama or two, and vice-versa. And don’t forget to mix a little bit of not-so-fantastic stuff in there, too.
It’s also worth mentioning that while the classics are great, make sure you’re staying current. Dickens is fantastic, but make sure you’ve got a vague idea what Dan Brown and Stephen King are doing. Casablanca and Chinatown are fantastic scripts, but the first draft of Wanted was a heckuva lot better than the movie and that’s what sold it. No one’s saying the classics aren’t good, but if you’re reading the ranty blog I’m guessing you want to sell something in the near future, not a few decades in the past.
Next week, how a lantern can let you get away with almost anything. Honest. You’re going to love it. Plus I’m going to get to name-drop a lot, and that’s always fun.
Until then go write. And read a bit, too.
December 17, 2009 / 4 Comments

Dating Tips

Seven shopping days left to get something for that special someone.

Oddly enought, this week I wanted to prattle on for a moment about one of those off-writing things I tend not to talk about much. It’s more of a mindset, and it applies to writers of prose and scripts alike. Simply put, I want to talk about dating.
I want to toss out a hypothetical situation for you. More exact, a hypothetical person. I’ll call her Phoebe. If you want to substitute a different name, go ahead.
Phoebe’s my dream woman. She’s what every man aspires to. I can’t think of anything I’ve wanted more than to be with Phoebe–and you can feel free to take “be with” any way you like and you’d be right. She is, in all ways, perfect.
Well, perfect might be overstating it. Just a bit.
To be honest, she’d be much hotter if her hair was a bit lighter. And not so long. If she was more of a platinum blonde, Phoebe would be unbelievably hot. So really she’s just a haircut and a box of dye away from being my perfect woman.
Okay, maybe if her chin wasn’t quite so sharp. Makes her face a bit too pointy for my liking. Rounded would bring out her cheeks and her smile more.
Speaking of which… slight overbite. You can’t really notice it until you’re close to her. That’s when you can also see one of her incisors has this little twist to it. Nothing braces couldn’t fix, though. Maybe those transparent ones.
Also–please don’t think I’m shallow for this–maybe a little more in the, well, the chestal region. Phoebe is a touch on the small side. Not flat, by any means, and they’re nicely formed. I’m not talking about anything grotesque, mind you, but something in a B-cup would give her an absolutely killer figure. Again that’s minor. Heck, I think these days it’s just outpatient surgery.
Y’know, if she wore some nicer clothes, it’d help show off that figure, too. Everything Phoebe owns is that kind of frumpy-baggy look. It was kind of cute in college, but come on. Dress up a bit now and then. Would it be so wrong to wear something eye-catching? Once we’re together, I ‘ll take her on a nice shopping spree before we go out anywhere.
Although I don’t know where we’ll go out. We don’t have many of the same interests. Her taste in movies sucks, to be honest, and she’s not really much of an athletic person. I’ll work on that, get her to watch something better and stop subjecting me to that crap stuff she likes to watch.
At least the sex will probably be worth it. As long as she doesn’t make that same weird noise she makes when she’s excited. That sound creeps me out.
Still my dream girl, though, and I’d love to be with her–in any sense of the phrase.
So, at this point I can guess what a lot of you are thinking. Why the hell is Phoebe my dream girl if I want to change everything about her? She sounds like an okay person as is, but it’s pretty apparent she’s not what I’m looking for, despite my insistence that I want to be with her. I mean, why would anyone want to be involved with someone just to change everything about them?
Which, as it turns out, is the point I wanted to make.
There are lots of folks who talk about how much they want to be writers. They’ll tell you it’s been a lifelong dream to see their name on a shelf in a bookstore, or to hear actors reciting their dialogue. There’s nothing they want more, and they’ll do whatever it takes, make any sacrifice necessary, to make that dream become a reality.
Then, just after this, they’ll tell you all the things that are wrong with Hollywood. That there aren’t enough musicals/ torture porn/ funny animal movies being made. Why scripts need to be put on the screen in their pristine, untouched form. How they need to let people walk in and pitch ideas without all these hoops to jump through like a resume or a list of credits.
Or maybe they’ll tell you how biased the publishing industry is. How publishers need to give as much time and interest to new writers as they do to Stephen King or Dan Brown. That they should be accepting all submissions, agented or not. And how books that aren’t interesting and would be hard to market need to get a fair shake from these publishers.
Don’t even get these folks started on agents. Agents of all types need to be a lot more open. They need to read everything that gets sent to them, and offer feedback if they don’t like it. All seven of the agents in the world need to start accepting more clients and getting more stuff sold to the top studios and publishers.
And as a finale, they’ll tell you all the things they’d change about the industry. The policies that make it so reprehensible. All the things they’re going to change once they’re in that position of power. In fact, the industry’s changing now and they’d better watch out and grab these would be-writers and their golden manuscripts before they all change their minds and become house painters or accountants, thus depriving the world of their genius.
By what I’m sure is a complete coincidence, none of these people have ever sold a book, or a screenplay, or even a short story. Which, they’ll hurry to tell you, only shows how corrupt and broken the system is and why it needs to be fixed.
Then they’ll continue to work on their epic nine-movie saga about cyborg ninjas from the future who’ve come back to our time to deal with their father issues.
Y’see, Timmy, you can’t go into any sort of relationship thinking I’ll be the one to change her! Or him. Or them, if you live on the wild side. Relationships like that are doomed to failure of one sort or another. Either they collapse altogehter or they “succeed” with one person or the other becomes a twisted, compromised version of themself (and probably hating the other person for it).
Likewise, you can’t expect to have any sort of success in the publishing world or in Hollywood if you’re starting from the mindset of “they’re all wrong.” It’s no different than my mad pursuit of Phoebe just so I can change everything about her. You either have to love it for what it is or… well, find something else to love.
I can sense a rising argument already, though. “Ahhhhh,” says Yakko, “but what if I don’t want to go with a traditional publisher? What if I just want to self-publish, or shoot my script myself with my friends?” And honestly, I see no problem with this. None at all.
…you’ve gone over your manuscript five or six times; listened to impartial feedback; gone through line by line looking for spelling, grammar, and consistency errors; sent it out to dozens of publishers or producers; sent it out to dozens of agents; and made necessary changes and edits and sent it out to all those people again.
Wash, rinse, repeat. You notice that Johnson & Johnson doesn’t tell you when to stop that process. They figure you’re right there in the shower, you’ll know when your hair’s clean without further instruction from them. What’s implied, though, is that you have to go through the process at least once before you can claim your hair is clean.
Maybe perfect Phoebe really is the girl for you. You got yourself cleaned up, best clothes, fresh flowers, and she still turned you down. Then maybe you should take a second look at Denise. Because there’s a good chance she’ll recognize all those good qualities Phoebe somehow missed, and the two of you will be happy together.
Some of those folks I mentioned above, though, like to skip the shampoo process and just announce their hair is clean. They declare themselves worthy of Phoebe and then say a lot of nasty things about her because she turns them down. In fact, what they tend to say is “I wanted to be with Denise, anyway. She’s way better than that #%@$ Phoebe!”
In the romance world they call this settling. It’s what you do when you don’t want to make an effort, or when you’ve already given up.
Hopefully, that’s not where you’re headed with your writing.
Next Thursday’s kind of a big day for everyone, so I probably won’t post anything. Perhaps a little something quick on Wednesday for the holidays.
Until then you’ve got a week. Go write!