I’m off at San Diego Comic Con all week, doing all sorts of stuff, but I still wanted to have something here (I’m assuming not all of you are going to be at SDCC with me).  So I figured I’d roll out something I’ve been saving for a special occasion…
            A few years back, a story artist at Pixar named Emma Coats took all the various tips and hints and suggestions she’d heard during her time there and boiled them down to 22 rules.  I’ve seen them presented a few different ways over the years (including a free poster available on Pixar’s website), but this particular one struck a chord with me—somebody memed them.
            (And I’m ashamed to say I don’t know who.  I first ran into them on a website, but an image search just turned up… a lot of websites.  So if anyone can figure out who actually deserves credit, please let me know…)
            If you happen to be at SDCC, please find me somewhere and say “hi.”
            If not—here’s some rules for you…

June 12, 2015 / 3 Comments

Another Chapter Comes to a Close…

            Many thanks for your patience. The past week has been an amazing ride for me, traveling up and down the west coast, meeting a few hundred people, and signing a few hundred books.  And losing a few hundred strands of hair…
            Also, if you took part in the pre-order promo for The Fold, word on the web is that galley copies are starting to land.  Hopefully you got one and can now use it as the teaching example it was always intended to be.
            But enough about me and my book.  Let’s talk about you and your book…
            A few weeks back I opened the floor for suggestions (it’s always open, but I just pointed out all the space on the dancefloor) and a good double-handful of ideas came in.  This week’s little rant comes from one of them.  And it’s a good topic I wish I’d thought of before.
            The question was about endings.  More specifically, chapter endings.  How do I find the right moment to end a chapter without it feeling either dragged out or cut off in mid thought?
            Clive Cussler (author of Raise the Titanic and many, many others) commented years back that chapters should be like potato chips.  Each one should be easy to digest and leave you wanting another one.  That was a great rule that stuck with me early on, and I’ve tried very hard to follow it ever since.
            So, here are a half dozen places in a story  I’d usually pick to end a chapter on.
A question—These moments make great chapter endings.  Sometimes the question’s asked out loud, sometimes it’s implied.  When a what/how/why moment comes up in my story, it’s going to make people want to turn the page in the hopes of learning the answer.  So that’s a great place to end a chapter.
            Keep in mind, though, this only works if there’s a real question and the reader doesn’t know the answer.  Whether or not the characters know is irrelevant (I’m the writer, I can make them go to the next chapter with very little effort).  If this question is already answered or the answer is painfully obvious, it’s not a great place to end.  If I’m writing the novelization of Jurassic World. “Wait, there are dinosaurs on this island?” isn’t a great stopping point.
A big reveal—The flipside of the above.  Getting a long-sought answer can be powerful, especially if it’s going to affect what happens next in my story.  Even if it’s not an answer, revealing a solid, key bit on information can give a moment a lot of weight and make it a great place to pause.  When I tell you “the dinosaurs have gotten loose,” that’s a big moment that’s going to change everything from here on in.
            Again, though, this one will only work for me if it’s an actual reveal.  Vague responses and fuzzy reasoning don’t make for good answers, in real life or in a novel.  Neither do answers we already know.  If I try to dramatically reveal that California is on the west coast of the U.S., that’s not going to do much for anyone.
A big twist—Similar to the reveal but not the same.  I’ve talked about the difference between mysteries and twists a few times in the past, so I won’t go into that again here.  A twist is a fantastic moment for me to end a chapter because it’s very nature means everything’s going to change.  My readers will go to the next chapter just to see the fallout from a good twist.
            I need to be very clear, though, on what a twist is and how it works in my story.  If I fumble it, either with my reveal or what I’m revealing, it’s not going to have any weight or ramifications. Which means my readers have no reason to turn the page. 
A big setback—Any story’s going to have its ups and downs. When my character gets his or her feet kicked out from under them, deliberately or accidentally, the reader wants to know how that character’s going to recover.  Are they going to stay down?  Fight back?  Come at

things from a new angle?  I need to turn to the next chapter and find out!

            The catch for this one (there’s a lot of catches on these, have you noticed?) is that I need to have either a good solid character or a really compelling plot for this to work.  If my reader doesn’t care about the stakes—either internal or external—they’re not going to care when my characters fail.
A big leap forward—The flipside to the setback.  When my characters find the hidden button, manage to make it past the security system, or get the power running to the velociraptor fences again, this is an achievement.  We can all pause for breath, and that’s a good time to roll things over into the next chapter.  There’s a natural break there, and I should take advantage of that existing rhythm.
            Again, though…I need strong characters or plot for this to work.  I also need to be aware of what’s going to be seen as a leap forward.  Sharpening a pencil or avoiding a sleeping guard are not big accomplishments, so my readers won’t feel that need to pause for a breath.
A cliffhanger—The classic.  I just stop right in the middle of things, right as the action is kicking into high gear.  My antagonist pulls the trigger, the T-Rex gets me cornered in the museum, or the zombies spin around when I accidentally step on a branch.  These are moments when the reader mustknow what happens next.  And if the next chapter is there, the reader will go to it.
            The catch here is that the reader needs to care about my characters.  If not, there’s no tension when I put said character into that dangerous spot.  It’s like me telling you someone’s in danger.  You care in a sort of abstract way, but how often are you going to ask a follow-up question?
            So, there’s six solid ways to end a chapter.  Each one’s got a slightly different flavor and works better in different situations.
            However, going over this list, there’s sort of a glaring issue, isn’t there?  What if my story doesn’t have any of these things?  What am I supposed to do if I’m a hundred or so pages in and I haven’t had a big setback, or a reveal, or asked any questions?
            Well, my first thought would be… why don’t I have any of these things?
            A while back I did a big block of posts about structure.  As I mentioned above, every story’s going to have ups and downs.  There will be unanswered questions, revealed answers, challenges, and successes.  It doesn’t matter if I’m writing a torrid period romance, a sci-fi space epic, or an apocalyptic horror novel.  Every story is going to have these moments. They’ll take different forms, but they will always be there.
            Y’see Timmy, if those moments aren’t there… well, my story has bigger issues than figuring out where chapter breaks should be.  In fact, this probably is part of the reason I can’t figure out where chapter breaks should go.  Without these highs and lows, my story’s just going to be a drab, monotone mess.  And it’s impossible to place breaks in something like that because it’s all the same.  There aren’t any landmarks that stand out.
            So I need to make sure I have something that can be broken up. And then I can break it up.
            Next time, I might offer a few quick tips on drafting.
            Until then, go write.
March 12, 2015 / 5 Comments

Quitters Prosper

            Never say never…
            I wanted to blather on about quitting for a couple of minutes.  There comes a point in many endeavors when you realize you’re not getting ahead.  That all the time, effort, and enthusiasm that’s been expended on this project just isn’t enough. For one reason or another, I didn’t make the cut.  The team picked that skinny kid with the limp and the glasses over me.
            At which point, I need to make a choice.  Do I keep trying to get on this team? Do I continue throwing myself unto the breach?  Forging on despite all odds with the strength of my convictions?
            Or should I give up?
            Honestly?  After working at this writing thing on one level or another for a good chunk of my life…
            I think it’s time to quit.
            If I’ve spent the past decade trying to get any publisher in the world to just look at one of my book manuscripts, and they’re not interested… that’s a sign.  If I’ve spent thousands of dollars on screenwriting classes and books and contests over the past ten or twelve years, but I still don’t even have a toe in the door…I should consider saving my money this year.  When I submit a story to a hundred magazines, journals, and anthologies and get back a hundred rejections… I need to take that hint.
            I should quit.  Cut my losses.  Stop beating my head against the wall, demanding to be recognized, and move on.
            No, hold on.  Don’t leave yet.  Keep reading ‘till the end.
            What I’m getting at ties back to an idea I’ve talked about a few times here.  I need to be able to look at my own work honestly and objectively.  Knowing when to give up on a project is part of that.  After querying a hundred or so reps or editors and not getting a single nibble, I need to consider the fact the problem may not lay with them.  My writing may be perfect, it may be gold, it may be what everyone in America is dying for.  At the moment, though, for one reason or another, it’s not what those specific people—those, dare I say it, gatekeepers—are  looking for.  And, right or wrong,  they’re  the ones who make that decision. 
            Now… here’s that important part.
            I’m not saying I’m going to stop writing altogether.  This doesn’t mean I should never touch a keyboard again or that it’s time for me to forget the big leagues.  It’s just time to sit back and look at what I’ve done and how I’m doing things.  Maybe the problem is the characters.  Maybe it’s dialogue.  Perhaps even something as basic as an overwhelming number of typos.   Heck, it could just be my cover letter.  At the end of the day, something is holding me back, and that needs to stop happening.
            I’ve met people who wrote one novel way back in college and have spent the past twenty years sending it to agent after agent, publisher after publisher.  They haven’t changed a single word since they first set it down on paper.  They haven’t written anything else since (“Why should I write something else nobody’s going to pay me for?”).  They’ve just got that one novel going out again and again and again…
            Same thing in Hollywood.  People write a screenplay over a long weekend, never polish or revise it, but try to use it as a calling card for years.  I know of a guy on the contest circuits who pushed the same script for almost a decade.  He hasn’t done anything else in the meantime, just sent that same script to contest after contest, waiting for fame and fortune as if winning was a lottery and he had to keep playing his lucky numbers.
            Knowing when to quit and move on isn’t a weakness. It’s not a flaw in my approach.  It’s a strength.  It’s the only way I can grow and learn new things, because I won’t get any better if I keep rewriting the same manuscript again and again for decades.  Sometimes you just have to give up on something. 
            It took me almost eleven years to finish my first solid novel, The Suffering Map.  Not an idea, not a work in progress, not something I’ve been poking at.  A complete, polished book manuscript, first page to last page.  Beginning, middle,and end.  Yeah, that’s a long time, but close to a decade of that was the film industry convincing me to go work on screenplays instead.  It probably only took about two years of actual work.
            So, eleven years of on-again-off-again work, and then the querying.  Letter after letter, rejection after rejection.  Go through it again, create a new draft, and then start the letters again.  Some folks asked to see it (one or two of them were powerful, well-placed folks).  Many letters and emails were traded back and forth. 
            In the end, though, after almost a dozen very major revisions, all of them passed on it.  And then I realized, this was done. I’d been working on that book on and off since graduating from college.  It was time to expand my horizons and write something else. 
            And that something was an early draft of a book about a government teleportation project gone wrong.  Which I followed up with a book about superheroes fighting zombies.  And then a few things since then.
            If I’d stayed focused for years on that novel no one wanted to see, though, I wouldn’t’ve done any of it.  I’d still be back there at square one.  And my list of published credits wouldn’t be the size it is now.
            I’m not saying I’ll never go back to The Suffering Map.  Many writers will tell you if your screenplay or novel gets rejected, put it in the drawer and wait a few years.  I’m also not saying it will sell in a heartbeat if I decide to try again in five years.  For now, though, I’ve given up on it. 
            So the next time you’re frustrated by months and months of trying to find a home for your work… stop and really think about it.  Maybe it’s time to move on and try something different.  Something new.
            Because that next thing could be the big thing.
            Next time might be a bit delayed.  Sorry. But when it happens, let’s flip this around.
            Until then… go write.
May 16, 2013 / 4 Comments

Character Assassination

            My lovely lady came up with the title.  She’s kind of fantastic that way…

            Eventually it all comes down to this, doesn’t it?  I’ve crafted a character with a detailed backstory, some wonderful nuances and habits, and even believable speech patternsthat stand out in a crowd scene.  It’s a character every reader can picture in their minds and relate to on a personal level.
            And it’s time to put a bullet in their head.
            Killing people in a story is a delicate thing.  I don’t mean this in some artsy, poetic way.  I mean it more in a “cutting the wires without disturbing the mercury detonator” way.  It’s something that has to work precisely on several levels for it to be effective.  And just like that detonator, if I’m going to do a half-assed job with it… well, I’m really wasting everyone’s time.
            But probably not for long.
            Here’s a couple of loose guidelines for killing someone… and getting away with it.
            Firstoff, if I’m going to kill a character… well, it means I need a character, right?  A real character.  I can’t expect there to be a lot of emotional impact from the death of a tissue-thin stereotype.  Killing cardboard cutouts is fine to drive a body count, but it’s not going to drive a plot and it’s not going to motivate anyone on a personal level.  It’s not going to affect the reader, either.  If I say Joe, Tom, or Mary just died in a car crash, that really doesn’t mean anything to any of us.  I can’t create Wakko on page fifty, kill him on page fifty-one, and think it’s going to have any emotional weight—either with the other characters or with my readers.
            Second, this character’s death needs to drive the plot forward.  That’s what good story elements do, right?  They keep the narrative moving—not necessarily upward or into positive place, but forward.  Killing a character who’s well-developed but has no connection at all to the plot doesn’t accomplish anything.
            I’ve seen a couple writers fall back on this sort of thing in an attempt to build tension.  The plot will be rolling on and then we’ll pause to meet Phoebe.  She’s thirty-one, blonde, likes to wear combat boots with everything from jeans to her little black dress to her bikini on the way to the beach.  She’s been seeing a great guy for a couple of months now and she thinks on this upcoming ski trip he might even get down on one knee—OH, she’s dead.  The bad guy got her.  Or the zombies.  Or the giant spiders.  Now let’s go back to the plot for a few chapters before I take a moment to introduce you to Yakko.  He’s a college dropout who went to work for the park service.  He’s also been seeing a great guy for a couple of months now (not the same one as Phoebe) and he thinks on this upcoming ski trip he might even get down on one knee—OH, the spiders got Yakko, too.
            This kind of thing works once.  Maybe twice.  But it gets old quick because it doesn’t really build any tension.  When my story is about Wakko and Dot hunting the spider queen in Brazil, telling the reader that two unconnected strangers were killed by giant spiders in San Diego doesn’t have much effect on my plot .
            If I’m going to kill a character, I want it to inspire my other characters.  It needs to motivate them one way or another to strive for their goals.  Alternately, this death needs to become a major challenge in reaching those goals.  If my partner Wakko is one of the only people who knows the spider queen’s vulnerable point and he just took a talon to the head… well, crap.  Where does that leave me?
            Thirdis that this death needs to fit structurally within my story.  As I’ve mentioned before, the dramatic structure of a story needs to be a series of ups and downs.  There need to be slowly increasing challenges, which require greater efforts for my characters to overcome, and help build tension.  If I’m going to kill someone off, their death needs to fit within this general structure.
            To go back to the example I just gave, if Wakko’s one of the only people who knows the spider queen’s weak point and he’s killed by the guards just outside her nest… that’s awful.  In a very good way.  I’ve just created a major stumbling block, because I’m out in the middle of the Amazon, at the center of the web with no one around for miles, and I’ve got no idea how to stop the queen before she fills her egg sac with ten thousand giant spider eggs.
            If my partner Wakko dies in the first fifty pages, though…  Well, it’s a big spike at the start of the story, which means everything after it is either going to be lower, or it’s all going to be just as high and my story’s going to stay at the same level for ages.  Plus, there’s no real tension here.  If Wakko dies on page forty-eight but there’s four hundred pages left in the book… well, odds are my characters have time to find someone else who knows those weak spots.
            Now, all that being said…
            Some writers push a school of thought that says killing characters is no big deal.  These folks almost brag about it, that they end lives randomly.  This is more artistic, after all, more like real life.  Absolutely no one is safe in their books.
            I find this to be a rather stupid approach.  For a few reasons.
            One is that we’re not talking about real life, we’re talking about fiction. Real life is chaotic and structureless and people often die for no reasons at extremely inconvenient times.  In my stories, though, I’m God.  Nothing happens without a reason.  Everything in the world of my story is part of my master plan, and if it isn’t… well, why is it in my story?
            Which brings me to reason two.  If my characters are dying at random in ways that don’t advance any element of the story, then it means my story has no structure.  A death is a big setback (especially for the person who died), and odds are if there’s no spot for that big setback in the narrative structure I’m going to mess up my flow.  Plus, if I’m a hundred pages in and Phoebe, my main character, has an unknown aneurism burst in her forebrain so she dies instantly… well, what happens now?  Is the story over?  Does Wakko take over as the main character?  If I was going to have him as the main character (in this world, I am God, after all), why did I spend a hundred pages on Phoebe?
            And that’s the third reason this view isn’t too smart.  Odds are a random death means failure.  One way or another, Phoebe has dropped the ball big time—even if it’s not her fault.  She stepped off a curb without looking, ate an egg without cooking it all the way, or just stood up a little too tall while on that away mission.   She’s failed to reach her goals (she had goals because she was a real character, right…?), and that means we just spent a hundred pages identifying with and investing in someone who didn’t win.  On any level.  We’ve been identifying with a loser with crap luck (she must have crap luck—she just died randomly, yes?).  I don’t know about any of you, but that isn’t going to make me happy.
            So, a good death (if there is such a thing) is going to have real characters.  Their death is going to help drive the plot (one way or another).  And it’s going to happen at a point in the narrative that makes structural sense.  If I’ve got two out of three of those, I’m probably in good shape.  One out of three… maybe not so much.
            And if I honestly don’t know if I’ve hit two or three of those points… well, maybe we should stay the execution.  Just until we can confirm what the governor said in that last phone call…
            This time next week I’ll be up in Seattle for Crypticon, so I’m going to try to get this post up Wednesday night before I leave (assuming I don’t cut things too close). 
            And if you’re in the north-west neighborhood next weekend, please stop by and say hullo.
            Until then, go write.