Like a lot of you, I’m still feeling a little overwhelmed by everything going on right now. Awe-inspiring stuff. Long overdue stuff. But still overwhelming.
I thought about updating my list of top ten B-movie mistakes, but I really haven’t been up for bad movie geekery for a few weeks. So I shelved that idea for a while. Then it occurred to me there’s a related topic I haven’t discussed in… well, years. Not directly, anyway.
It probably goes without saying that I really like genre fiction. I grew up with Doctor Who and Star Wars and comics about Spaceknights who came to Earth to protect us from alien shapeshifting sorcerers. Sci-fi, horror, fantasy—I like reading ‘em, I like writing ‘em.

But you probably knew all of that already.

Point is, I’ve consumed so much of this stuff. In so many formats. A lot of it’s been fantastic. Some of it’s been… not so fantastic.

As I started taking storytelling and writing more seriously, as I started really breaking things down and studying them, I noticed a few similarities. Common problems that showed up again and again, especially in genre stories. Three of them.

To be clear, they’re not confined specifically to these stories—you might see these issues crop up in mysteries or romances or even literary fiction. They’re also not the only problems these stories can ever have (not by a longshot). But it’s kind of amazing how often a problematic sci-fi or fantasy and even horror will have one or more of these three issues.

The first issue is when we bury our stories in too much of our chosen genre. If I have an idea, it gets included in the story. No matter what it is—neat visual, cool character beat, clever way a door opens—I’ll fit it in there. If it was scary in that story, it’ll be scary in my story. Most of us have probably read a genre novel that went to great lengths to explain how the weapons, shoes, uniforms, food, transportation, education, and economics are all very different on that other world or in that not-too-distant future. If it’s a magical world, everything is ancient and magical and built by the fae. If it’s a sci-fi world, everything has nanites and AI and came from interdimensional aliens. People don’t wear glasses in these stories, they have optykwear, and a good set of optykwear can cost you seven or eight neshseks.
The problem with writing like this is my audience has nothing to connect with as they’re overwhelmed with all these unfamiliar elements. The people are different. The setting’s different. Motivations are different. Yeah, it’s a really cool alternate world where the Dark Ages never happened, all coinage is brass,  and wars are now fought with steampunk robot dragons run by difference engines, but the important thing is that my readers need to be able to understand this world and relate to it, while it’s on the page in front of them.
All the worldbuilding is good, but my story needs to have something my audience can immediately identify with in some way, and it’s best if it’s the main character. Someone who hates their job, who wants something they can’t have, or maybe who just feels like an outsider. A person with a universal need or desire.
When a reader believes in my characters, they’ll believe in what’s happening to my characters. It has to do with willing suspension of disbelief—I can’t believe in the big elements of a story if I don’t believe in the basics of it. Once I’m invested in Wakko’s life, then I’ll be more willing to go with it when he goes to work shoveling coal in the belly of a a giant steampunk dragon (but one day he’s going to be the commodore of the whole mechdragon fleet—you just wait and see)
There’s one very closely related issue to this, so close I’m not even going to branch off and make it a separate thing. Sometimes, all the laying-on of more genre gets a little monotone. Dramatic stories that are non-stop drama. The horror movie that’s nothing but horror. The magical fantasy series where everything is magical and fantastic. No matter how much I love this thing, it gets boring pretty quick when it’s all I’m getting.
We want our fiction to mirror our lives as much as possible, and the truth is very few of us lead monotone lives. They get broken up with moments of laughter (not always at appropriate times), random pettiness, unexpected excitement, casual flirting, and more. Our stories should be the same way.
The second issue happens when I try to explain everything. It’s confusing enough that I dropped readers right into a steampunk mechdragon battle, but now I’m going to pause that battle for ten pages while I explain how mechdragons came to be and where the best coal for their boilers is mined and how the creation of functioning wings (and the required steam- piston musculature) changed the nature of battle and hey I should probably talk about dragon tactics for a bit, right?
I think most people reading this have seen a story or two that suddenly deviated into that sort of excessive, often unnecessary exposition. I’ve read many stories that suddenly go to great lengths to explain how and why the serial killer turned out the way she did. Or how she ended up with superpowers and exactly how they work. Or both. At length.
What this leads to is stories that feel very detailed, but very little ever actually, y’know, happens. Page after page of explanation can add up really fast, and suddenly a third of my book is just… details.  And while I’m going over those details, my characters are just sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for something to happen again. It can also annoy my readers as all this information gets doled out, especially if it’s something that feels unnecessary and unmotivated.
I think there’s two ways to deal with this issue. One is something I’ve talked about here in the past—the ignorant stranger.  If I’m going to explain things, I should have an actual, in-story reason for them to be explained. Wakko may know the day-to-day workings of a mechdragon, but Phoebe’s a stowaway and he needs to help her pass as a crew member or she’ll be “dropped off”… and they’re three thousand feet up. So he has a solid, understandable reason to explain everything and she can ask a lot of the questions my readers probably have.
The other way to deal with this issue is the quick and easy one. Cut it. I can delete anything that isn’t actually necessary to the story. This can be tough, because, I mean… steampunk mechdragon wars! There’s so much cool stuff in those three words. But how much of it do I really need? Is it relevant or is it just me piling more “genre” onto the plot and story? Yeah, ceramic teeth are cool, especially on that scale, and I’ve come up with a crazy way how they’re made, but does my story fall apart if the reader just knows the mechdragon has… teeth? Does it change anything if in their mind they picture the teeth are brass or steel or diamond? Pages are precious—do I really want to spend part of one on this?
The third issue is actually the reverse of the last one. It’s when I don’t explain anything. There’s so much new stuff that there’s no context. I can’t tell if neshseks are coins or bills or maybe they’re not even money. Maybe this world works on the barter system and they’re some kind of gourd. Could be a massage or a sex act or maybe it’s some kind of pet? Maybe it’s a pet that gives great massages?
But it’s not just terminology. The genres also tend to collect mysterious characters who drop vague hints or implied threatsfor… reasons. Creepy messages appear on walls, sidewalks, computer screens and we never learn how they got there. Disturbing objects are discovered in the attic and never, ever discussed again.
I think there are two general reasons this issue happens. First is that, as the writer, I’ve sunk deep into my fictional world for the past five months and I forgot the reader… hasn’t. They have no idea what a neshsek looks like. Or what it’s used for. Or how many you can seriously expect to get from a relative stranger for two tinted sets of optykwear
The other reason is that people are trying to duplicate the sense of mystery and anticipation they got from another story, but they don’t really understand how and why it worked there. A lot of these weird mysteries are just a general lack. There is no explanation or reason or motivation behind what’s happening in the story. It’s just happening right now because… I wanted to tell a weird creepy story.
A friend of mine gave me a great rule of thumb once, and I think it’s the best way to deal with this issue. I kinda mentioned it up above—my main characters should mirror my audience. If my goal’s to make my audience puzzled and eager to learn more, then really Phoebe should be puzzled and want to learn more. If the reader’s angry about something, Wakko should probably be angry about it, too. Likewise, if Phoebe and Wakko are both really annoyed because they still don’t know what’s going on… well, I can probably guess how my audience feels right now, one way or the other…
Are these the only three problems that might crop up in my genre writing? No, not at all. I have faith in you that you will find awesome, all-new problems. But these are the ones I see appear again and again. So maybe they’re worth looking for in my manuscript. Just in case.
Next time… I’ve got kind of a follow up idea to this. It didn’t really fit here, but it’s a genre problem. Sort of.
Stay safe out there. Wash your hands. Wear your mask.
Until next time, go write.
October 10, 2019

Going Over The Numbers

Another quick post. Something that crossed my mind the other day. A little odd for a mostly writing blog, I know, but I wanted to talk about numbers for a few minutes.

I’ve rambled on here once or thrice about characters. Protagonists vs antagonists. Main characters vs.  supporting characters vs. background characters. Who should get namedand who shouldn’t.

But it struck me that one thing that almost never comes up is, well, how many characters should I have. How many can my story really support? How many does my story need?

Yeah, that sounds a little odd but some stories need more characters than others. A murder mystery with two characters doesn’t leave a lot of room for red herrings—especially when one of them is dead on page two (thanks, Owen!). If I want to write a slasher or torture porn story, well, I’m going to need a few extra teenage campers to send off into the woods. Heck, think how much it could limit my sci-fi story not to have a red shirt or three that can head up to that ridge to look around.

The truth is, a lot of stories have certain minimums. Nothing’s written down, mind you—there’s no chart somewhere that says romance=8 characters, mystery=15, urban fantasy=23.  But, as I just hinted, I can start hitting some odd problems when my story’s understaffed. Suddenly my murderous alien monster seems a little less genetically superior because, well, it’s not managing to kill anyone. Because there’s nobody for it to kill.

One of my Saturday geekery movies a few weeks back had this problem. It was a slasher film. Nubile kids up at the lake smoking pot and having premarital sex (a recipe for sudden death). Thing is… there were only four of them. Two couples. Which… well, it didn’t give our murderous killer much to work with. He just kinda stood around for a lot of the movie. And then he had two “attacks” where he didn’t kill anybody. Or even wound them.

If I had to guess, based off my own experience with such things, the screenplay went through a lot of revisions and had a lot of cuts. A LOT of cuts. And one thing that went away was extra characters. All those people with just one or two lines, anybody who only had a single contribution toward advancing the plot, everyone who was only there to look good in a bathing suit or a wet t-shirt.   They all got trimmed and cut and combined and suddenly—again, this is my just my guess—this summer camp went from nine or ten counselors to only four. And, sure, each of these four had a lot to do, but they were just too rare for our mystery murderer to kill one of them off at the end of act one. Or even act two. The story couldn’t afford to lose a character, so the killer kept… not killing them.

Essentially, it was a slasher film where nobody got slashed.

Sometimes, weird as it sounds, we need that nubile teen in the wet t-shirt running through the woods. Okay, we don’t need her specifically, but we need somebody there because what happens to that person is setting a certain mood and letting us know some things up front. More characters raise the stakes and heighten the mystery. We need the red shirts, the lab assistants, and that guy who’s acting shifty but has a pretty solid alibi for the time of the murder because sometimes they really are advancing the plot.

And, yeah, I know this may sound a little odd to say because I’ve talked a lot here about paring away excess. I’ve made many posts about trimming the fat and figuring out if I really need this character or not. But this is one of those odd balance things we all need to figure out for ourselves. Which really sucks, I know. I wish that chart did exist so I could just tell you how many characters is the correct number for your story.

Y’see, Timmy, this is one of those things that just falls under experience and empathy. It can’t really be taught, it just needs to be figured out. And I’m going to need to figure it out every single time, because my mystery in the Hamptons is going to (hopefully) be different than my mystery in the Catskills and neither of them are like my Long Island mystery (which partly takes place at the club, so there are at least a dozen suspects. Three dozen if we’re going to consider staff). I need to figure out that perfect balance between enough characters to propel the plot forward, but not so many that I’m bogging it down.

It’s tough, but it can be done. And you can do it.

I was going to say “count on it!” but that’s just way too cheesy.


This weekend is the Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies and also the Dystopian Book Club at the Last Bookstore. If you’re in the southern Californiaarea, maybe I’ll see you there for at least one of them.

Next time here… okay, look. Next time I’m probably going to do something quick. I’ll explain why then. But if you’re in the Dallas area, leave the 20th open.

Until then, go write.

May 2, 2019

That Figure in Black

Today, I was hoping we could have a quick talk about that mysterious figure across the street.  You know the one.  Over there.  The person in the hat and trenchcoat who’s just standing on the edge of the shadows, watching us as we dig up this old time capsule.  The one who said something cryptic as you walked by.

You know who I mean.

No, seriously.  We all know the character I’m talking about, right?  The one who shows up in the first chapter, spouts a few  statements, and then vanishes for the next three or four hundred pages.  Heck, maybe they don’t come back at all.

Maybe—and let’s be honest here—maybe we’ve even written a character like that.  I know I have.  It’s okay.  Admitting it is the first step to getting better.

Truth is, characters like this are the one of the reasons so many agents and editors say they hate prologues.  So often, these characters don’t do anything except waste our time building a  false sense of mystery, dropping psuedo-hints that rarely, if ever, amount to anything.  They just… they’re awful.

So… how could we make them better?

Let me ask you this.  Forget the aura of mystery. What if they spilled their guts in chapter one instead?  They’re standing there across the street, then they walk over and just start telling us everything.  I mean, almost uncomfortable amounts of personal information.

What would this character say?

Who are they?  No, seriously—who are they?  What’s their actual name?  Who do they work for?  Why are they here?  Why are they dressed all in black?  Why are they saying these words?  What do they know? If they know more, why aren’t they just explaining everything?  Are they on my protagonist’s side?  If they are, why don’t they stick around to help?  If they aren’t, why aren’t they taking more direct action against the protagonist?  Why are they so cryptic?

Now, once I know all that… let’s look at my original version of this moment.  Is my mysterious figure acting believably?  Naturally?  This is my chance to make sure everything lines up, so my readers—including agents and editors—won’t feel cheated later on.

I’ve talked about something similar to this before—the detective’s speech.  That sometimes it’s worth writing out a chapter I might never use because it’ll help me figure out exactly how things are working in my story.  Because… well, I should know how things work in my story.  And why they work that way.

And why that guy’s sitting in his car across the street, watching us talk.

Next time… Look, I’ll be honest.  Next time might get a little explicit.

Until then, go write.

April 11, 2019


Well, it was fun taking March off, but now I’m back to work on a new project.  Working on a new outline.  And buffing a few rough edges off the thing I turned in back in February.

Of course, I’m still making time for the ranty blog.  And for drunken movie critiques on Saturdays.  It’s all an important part of the process.  Trust me.
Speaking of seeing things my way, I realized I haven’t talked about points of view in a while.  I’ve mentioned it here and there, but I don’t think I’ve focused on it in… a couple of years?  It’s about time to bring it up again.
Point of view is one of those things we all learned about in seventh or eighth grade and kind of memory-dumped once we passed that test.  It’s really important if you’re a writer (or a high school English teacher), but for everyone else it’s…
Well, it’s kinda irrelevant, to be honest.  I think most non-writer/schoolteacher folks have only the barest idea of how point of view works.  And there’s a pile of evidence that says they don’t really care if it doesn’t.  Yeah, sad but true.  All too many people won’t notice if my book has some major POV issues.

That doesn’t mean we, as professional and aspiring writers, shouldn’t care about getting it right.  I mean, most people can’t tell you the difference between an alligator and a crocodile.  Doesn’t mean the difference isn’t there.  And if I want to be taken seriously as a herpetologist—especially in the overall herpetology industry and community—I should probably learn what that difference is.  And what using them means for my story.

Points of view.  Not crocodiles.  Using crocodiles in my story… well, okay, it really depends on the context and the genre.
If I’m going to take this whole being-a-writer thing seriously, I need to understand how the different points of view work so I can use them without confusing (or frustrating) my readers.  A lot of otherwise good stories I see get derailed by an irregular point of view… or by a complete lack of one.  They’ll just jump from character X to character Y to an omniscient point of view to Z’s journal.  Which means, as a reader, I’m constantly getting knocked out of the story as I try to figure out what angle I’m seeing things from.
So let’s talk about these a bit…
First person is when the narrator is a character in the story.  Usually (but not always) they’re the main character.  Everything I see or read in the story is filtered through this character.  I see what she sees, hear what she hears, feel what she feels, know what she knows.

On the plus side, first person can feel very easy and freeing to write.  I just get myself in character and go.  It’s great for lots of little train-of-thought sidebars and segues.  It’s also easier to build a connection with the reader, because I’m speaking directly to them with/through this character. 
On the downside… well, it’s all filtered through my character.  I don’t know what’s going on in that other room or Meanwhile, back in Washington or any of that.  Everything rests on this one character.  They’re our window into the story, and if they’re not a very clear or open window… well…

That makes me think of another point that’s probably worth mentioning.  In a first person story I’m getting access to all the narrator’s thoughts.  I know what they know, realize what they realize, and so on.  I mention it because this means I have to be very careful with any sort of reveal or twist.  About how I structure a lot of stuff in my story, really.  If I’m going to bring readers inside my character’s head, my character can’t suddenly decide notto think about something just because it makes things more dramatic.  Sure, if you ask me a question I can give you a vague answer out loud, but I guarantee you that in my head I’m thinking of the exact, precise answer.  When I see a giant crocodile in a clown suit, I don’t think “but then I saw something far beyond my wildest nightmares, which I will detail after the chapter break.”   I just think “oh holy $@#% crocodile clown!!  RUN!!” 

First person’s become fairly popular over the past decade or so, especially in YA fiction.  I’m just pulling numbers out of the air here, but I’d guess anywhere from a third to maybe even half of the books you’ll stumble across these days use a first person POV.

Second person is very rarely used, but I’ve seen it done once or thrice so I think it’s  worth touching on.  This point of view makes you, the reader, the main character and the writer projects all the action and emotion onto you.  “You walk across the parking lot and a feeling of unease begins to creep up your spine.  You hear a sudden noise and bolt for the shop door!” 

Plus side, second person is immediately personal for the reader.  I’ve dragged the reader into the story and made them part of it.  These things are happening to you, which makes it a bit easier to get invested.

Down side is that I’ve dragged the reader into the story and made them part of it.  I’m taking control of them, which means I’ve robbed my protagonist of their agency.  You’re going to do these things and feel like this and react like this.  If you’ve ever played D&D (or any RPG) where the dungeon master just takes control of the whole game, it’s a lot like that.

Second person requires an incredible level of empathy.  I need to know exactly how my readers are going to react as the story progresses so it will feel natural for them.  If I can pull it off, though, it can make for a truly amazing experience.  I highly recommend the Welcome to Night Vale episode “A Story About You” if you want a great example.
And this brings us to third person. It’s an independent, non-involved telling of the events of the story.  In a third person story, the reader (and the narrator) are just spectators.  Think of a television show or movie—we’re “there” but we’re also outside of the events, looking in at them.
Now, third person breaks down a couple different ways.  You may have heard of third person omniscient.  This is when I, as the writer, give the readers access to everything.  We see everyone’s actions.  We hear everyone’s thoughts.  We get everyone’s reactions, even the hidden, internal ones.  We can start here in the diner booth, going back and forth between the young couple on their first date, then leap into the server’s head to see his horrified reaction to their awkward displays of affection, and then drift over to the short order cook who’s secretly a serial killer and is debating which one of them he’s going to murder first.
Hey, these things happen.
Third person omniscient is great because it lets me dump everything.  I get to show every action, reaction, motivation, reflective character moment, all of it.  It lets me cover every base and round out every character.

The downside to third person omniscient is… well, I’m showing everything to my readers.  And one of the major aspects of storytelling is concealing things from them.  Deciding exactly when this gets revealed, that gets seen, this gets realized.  If I’m inherently showing everything, then it’s going to be clear—maybe awkwardly clear—when I’m deciding not to show something. It’s like trying to do a striptease when you’re already naked.  It can still be fun and sexy, but it’s also going to be painfully apparent what your hands are blocking.

Now, there’s also third person limited.   This is when my story keeps the reader as a spectator but I’m much more selective about what they see.  I may decide we’re only going to focus on Yakko and his thoughts.  Think of it as seeing over his shoulder.  Or perhaps I’ll only let the reader see actions but not get access to what any of the characters are thinking.

Third person limited can strike a nice balance between getting my readers invested, because I can get very close to a character, but still restricting what I’m showing them.  It works well for almost any kind of story or genre.  To the best of my knowledge, it’s still the most common point of view for fiction, even with the rise of first person stories that I mentioned up above.
The trick with third person limited is I can see these certain things very clearly, but not other things.  It’s a little bit like first person in that sense.  I’ve chosen to limit things to this one character, whether I’m inside their head or outside of it.  So my story needs to depend a lot on what they experience, not what’s happening to other people in other places.
Hopefully it’s clear that point of view is a big part of storytelling.  It’s going to affect how my narrative unfolds.  It’ll also determine which things I can tell you or explain during the course of the story.  If I have an inconsistent point of view, it’s going to be jarring and break the flow of my story.  If I’ve chosen the wrong point of view, things may come crashing down around me right from the start.

Whoa, whoa, WHOA!  The wrong point of view, you say.  How can there be a wrongpoint of view?  Sure, it may change the story a bit one way or another, but how can the point of view be wrong?  It’s just an arbitrary decision I make about how I’m going to tell my story, right?

Well… consider this.
Let’s say I’ve decided to write a mystery novel in third person omniscient. In fact, let’s say it’s that little diner scene I mentioned up above.  So here’s our first chapter with Dot and Phoebe out on their date.  Dot’s thinking about first kisses, Phoebe’s thinking of morning-afters.  Here’s their server who was raised a bit too conservative and can’t stop himself from inwardly cringing at two women clearly out on a date, even though he’s trying to be more open and accepting.  And over there, looking out from the kitchen, is Wakko the short order cook, who’s thinking about Phoebe and Dot and—
No, wait.  Hang on.  We can’t see what he’s thinking.  That’ll kinda kill the mystery aspect of this, won’t it?

Okay, so we’ll just never peek inside Wakko’s head.  Of course, any mystery fan is going to wonder why we’re seeing inside everyone’s head except his, and they’re probably going to assume (pretty quickly) it’s because he’s the killer.  And they’ll be right.  In which case my mystery has faceplanted pretty early on.

Of course, I could just decide to see inside Wakko’s head from the start, but now this isn’t a mystery.  If we know he’s the killer from the start, this is more of a thriller.  And it’s a tricky one, because now the investigators searching for Dot’s killer (yeah, sorry, he went after Dot) are going to be playing catch-up with the readers for the whole book.  We’ve know it’s Wakko since chapter one, after all.

So, choosing the right point of view is important in a story.  At best, the wrong one can mean a lot of extra work.  At worst… it means I might do a lot of work and then discover I’ve written myself into a corner.
Another important thing to remember is that my point of view needs to be consistent.  If ninety-five percent of my book is focused on Phoebe and her thoughts and her actions and what she sees, it’s going to be very jarring on page 324 when the narrative suddenly jumps into Wakko’s head for a few paragraphs.  If I switch viewpoints five or six times in the same chapter, it can get confusing real fast. Likewise, we can’t start over Wakko’s shoulder and then driiiiiiiiiiiiiift over so we’re suddenly looking over Dot’s.
Now, this isn’t to say we can’t change point of view in a story.   It’s cool to switch POV and there’s nothing wrong with it.  My Ex-Heroesseries regularly switches between third person points of view in the present, and goes into first person for flashback chapters.  But I’m also very, very clear when I’m doing this. 

Think of it this way.  Whatever POV I choose, it’s kinda like looking through a pair of binoculars.  I can see this.  But if I suddenly whip the binoculars over to look at that… well, it takes a couple of minutes.  I need to find that, focus on it.  And if I didn’t know that shift was coming—or that it even happened—imagine how disorienting it would be.  What am I looking at now?  Am I seeing it from a different angle?  Is this even the same pair of binoculars?  I need to make it clear to my readers this shift has happened. If they abruptly start seeing things from new angles or hearing new pronouns, they’re going to go back to figure out when things changed.  Which means they’re not moving forward with the story anymore. 

And that’s never a good thing.

And this concludes my  not-so-quick overview of different viewpoints.
Next time, I’d like to talk about Guido a bit.  No, not downtown Guido.  The guy from X-Factor.

Until then, go write.