Last week I ended up finishing the editing/feedback draft of my new project (as mentioned in the newsletter), which meant I woke up Thursday morning and said “crap, I need to write a ranty blog post!” But as I started hammering away at it I quickly realized this topic wasn’t quite as quick and easy as it was in my head. So it didn’t get done Thursday. And Friday is errands. And now it’s the weekend again and okay look, I missed a week.

Anyway, I’ve talked about worldbuilding here once or thrice before, but I thought it’d be worth revisiting a certain facet of it that I talked about on Twitter a month or four back.

And that facet involves my time machine.

Well, okay, let’s back up a bit.

We’ve all read stories that revolve around some shiny-new technology. Supercomputers. Self-aware androids. Teleportation machines. Dimensional gateways. They’re the basis of so many books, comics, television shows, movies, games, and probably some other storytelling format I can’t think of. Oral tradition? Probably lots of androids in those eastern European folk tales that are verbally passed down through the generations.

I think we can all agree that having some kind of future/super technology as the basis my story is a kind of worldbuilding. If I’ve got a machine that’s going to change the world, I need to understand the machine, the world, and what kind of changes it’s going to make. So, like any type of worldbuilding, I need to have a lot of it planned out from the start. I have to be able to answer basic questions about it, because my readers will ask these questions. And they’ll ask because, by it’s very nature, we expect technology to operate in specific, predictable ways. That’s one of the things that makes it different from magic (hold your Clarke’s law responses).

And that brings us to my time machine.

If I tell you I’ve got a time machine, there’s a bunch of things we can expect people are going to want to know. For example, is the time machine real? Did you build it or just find it? No, seriously, is it real? How did you build a time machine when you can’t figure out custom ringtones on your phone?

Past those, though, there’s a bunch of things people might ask. Can you travel in time both ways, forward and back? Does the machine travel through time or does it just send you through time? If the machine travels with you, does it need some kind of energy or fuel? If it needs fuel, is there a limit to how far back/forward it can go in one trip?

And that’s before we even get into all the other bigger, standard time travel questions. What happens to the present if I change something in the past? If I know the future, can I change the future? Does the time machine compensate somehow for planetary motion?

This is a standard part of any worldbuilding. If I want to alter the world in my story somehow with a new element—for example, with a piece of technology that doesn’t exist—I need to stop and think about all the ramifications this new element is going to have. How will it change things? How will it interact with the existing world? To paraphrase Fredrick Pohl (who I think was paraphrasing someone else when he said it), a good sci-fi story doesn’t predict the car, it predicts the traffic jam.

If I, the writer, don’t know the answer to any of these basic questions, I think it tends to create problems somewhere down the road. There are two big ones, I think…

The first is general inconsistency. People use the time machine this way in chapter four, but then use it this way in chapter twelve. And, yes, we killed Hitler in 1938 but we’re… uhhhh… we’re just not going to talk about it. It’s a huge, major, historical event, but let’s, y’know, just pretend it didn’t happen. Everything turned out exactly the same anyway. Because the time machine ran out of the, uhhh, chronoline that it runs on.

See, if I don’t know the rules it’s hard for me—or my reader—to know if I’m breaking them. Which kind of means I’m cheating. It’s something I’ve talked about before—trying to world build in the third act.

The second issue is that if I don’t set any rules for how my technology works, I’m going to be trying to create tension/ conflict/ drama out of nothing. If I have no context for how the tech works, it’s hard to tell if something is difficult or dangerous or even impossible.

For example, if I say I’m using the time machine to send Wakko a million years into the past for two hours. Okay, so is that… risky? Supposed to be impossible? A normal Friday? Is there a reason it’s two hours and not three? If I don’t have any ground rules for how the tech works, I can’t tell if my characters are doing something amazing with it or not. And I can’t tell if their reactions are rational, irrational, or completely melodramatic.

Really, both of these boil down to needing context. My readers aren’t going to know how to feel about something if I don’t know how I want them to feel about it. And I can’t know unless I’ve established some sort of norm.

Look at it this way. If I tell you I’m taking a plane to Boston, you’d say “Oh, okay.” If I tell you I’m taking a plane to Cairo, Egypt, you might raise an eyebrow and say “Really?” And if I tell you I’m taking a plane to Jupiter, you might think I was nuts. Or drunk. And if I told you I was taking a plane to heaven, because heaven is up in the clouds and that’s where planes go, you might be tempted to call someone for my own safety.

Let me give you one more. There’s an old WWII Bugs Bunny cartoon where he’s fighting a little gremlin on a plane. And after several go-rounds between them, the plane ends up in a nosedive, hurtling towards the ground as both of them scream. Fortunately, the plane runs out of gas at the last minute and ends up stopping a few feet from the ground. Laughter ensues.

All of these different statements and examples make sense because we know how planes work and how they’re generally used. It’ s pretty standard to fly cross-country, but a little unusual to fly halfway around the world. We know planes can’t fly to other planets and definitely not to the afterlife. And we absolutely know a plane isn’t going to stop moving in mid-air because it ran out of gas.

If I’m creating a new tech, I need my readers and characters to have this sort of understanding of it. Because maybe my time machine would stop in mid-air if it runs out of fuel. Or maybe it slingshots back to wherever it started. Maybe it just goes to the last destination date we gave it. Or it might just sit there until we can figure out how to channel 1.21 gigawatts into the flux capacitor.

Now, let me toss out four conditionals.

One is that I don’t need to explain everything about my time machine and how it works. Within my story, a lot of people are going to know how X works, and people usually don’t sit around talking about things they already know. Especially if they’re well-established in my world. People don’t need to have conversations about how cars work every time they go for a drive. But people in our world all understand cars well enough to know something’s wrong when the engine makes a grinding noise or fluid gushes out from beneath the hood. And something’s very unusual if the car takes off vertically and flies away. My characters should be acting and reacting in such a way that readers can tell if something’s normal or very odd or horribly wrong with how this piece of tech is working.

Two is that in my story there might be a very good reason people don’t know how my tech works, or won’t talk about how it works. Maybe they accidentally invented it just last week and are still figuring parts of it out. Maybe they’re hiding that it runs on the life-energy of kittens. Maybe it’s got some side effects they’d rather not talk about. But even then—as the writer, I should know how it works. Which means it should still act consistently.

Three is that maybe my tech isn’t doing the thing we think it’s doing. It’s not uncommon to have stories where we find out thing X is actually thing Y. My characters thought they found a time machine that projected people into the past within their lifespan, but really it just creates incredibly lifelike holograms of their own memories. Absolutely nothing wrong with this. But my characters should still have their own ideas of what the tech is doing, and there should be an understandable reason why they think this. And it should be consistent when I reveal what the tech is really doing. That’s just how a twist works.

Fourth and finally, I know somebody’s frothing at the bit to bring up Clarke’s Law, so let’s talk about it real quick. Any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. I seriously love this one (and it’s inverse, if you’re a Seventh Doctor fan). But by it’s very nature, this also excludes any such devices from this discussion. Clarke’s law literally says we can’t recognize X as technology. So we shouldn’t expect to follow tech rules while we’re writing about it.

Anyway, I’ve been blabbing on about this for a while now and I think you’ve got the idea. If I want to make a time machine– or a teleporter, a psychokinesis drug, cybernetic eyes, bio-booster armor, whatever– I need to have consistent, thought-out rules for how this technology works. And these rules need to be in place on page one. If I’m not going to even think about how time travel in the past affects the present until I’m 2/3 done with my book… I’m probably going to hit some snags.

Next time, I want to talk about Neil Armstrong’s left foot.

No, wait. Your left foot! That’s what we’re going to talk about!

Until then, go write.

December 23, 2020 / 2 Comments

It’s Not Christmas Without…

And here we are, at that wonderful time of year when a young man’s thoughts turn toward… Nakatomi Plaza.

I wanted to do a holiday-ish post, and then (while watching a favorite seasonal movie) it hit me I could address a fierce debate that’s surged up over the past few years. And maybe I could even make it semi-educational. From a writing point of view.

Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?

Now, let’s be honest. If you’ve got strong opinions about this, I’m not going to change your mind. But if you’re somebody who cares a lot about stories (and if you’re reading this, I’d guess there’s a semi-decent chance you are) maybe this week’s little ramble will make you look at Mr. McLane’s late December adventure a little differently. And maybe some other stories, too.

With that disclaimer out of the way… let’s start by talking a bit about the difference between an element and a genre. I’ve mentioned this before, so I won’t go into it too much. Simply put, there are a lot of labels we can slap on both story elements and genres, but the presence of one doesn’t automatically create another. For example, there’s a strong romance element in Bloodshot, the Vin Diesel movie that came out earlier this year. It’s also got a few funny moments. But I don’t think any of you would be surprised to learn Bloodshot isn’t considered a romantic-comedy. Romance, comedy, suspense, mystery, horror, sci-fi… all of these things can be in a story that’s not in that same-named genre.

So let’s talk about Christmas as an element and as a genre.

As an element, Christmas can be a couple things. Easiest is the setting—it’s a specific timeframe that pretty much everyone on Earth knows and can understand to some extent, even if they don’t celebrate the holiday themselves. Also worth noting that Christmas is one of those (if you think about it) rare holidays that has a very fixed date, unlike lots of other that slide around the calendar a bit each year.

Christmas is also in the details and descriptions. Christmas trees, wreaths, presents, garland, lights, a Santa on every corner and a snowman in every yard. These are things I can mention in my story (or show in my movie) and they create an immediate association for people.

It’s also a mood, and a lot of traditions. If I’ve got a story set at Christmas, it’ll probably show up in dialogue. Let’s face it, people interact and talk a little differently in December, no matter which way they feel about any particular holiday. Scrooge is a little nastier. That super-peppy woman at the coffeeshop is almost scarily happy and peppy.

I think there’s a lot of movies and stories out there that get marketed as Christmas tales, but really just have a few random elements tossed in. We could move said movie to Memorial Day weekend or a random bank holiday and nothing notable would change. The romance would have the same meet cute, the comedy would have the same awkward moment at the dinner table, the zombie movie would have the same stupid montage of our protagonist fighting the horde witha baseball bat.

And this would bring us to Christmas the genre. There’s a lot of thoughts on defining genre (I’ve shared some too) but I think one notable thing is how abundant those elements are. Eventually the romance or the comedy becomes a dominant aspect and we think of this story as a romance, a comedy, or maybe a romantic comedy if it’s got both. The horror or sci-fi elements are so intrinsic to the plot my novel would crumble without them.

What marks something as part of the Christmas genre? The setting, absolutely. Sometimes the characters. It’s really hard to do a movie where Santa or Rudolph’s a main character and not have it be a Christmas story. And we see a lot of common themes in the Christmas genre. Joy. Peace. Happiness. Love. Togetherness.

Simple, right?


There’s another aspect to this, and it’s something I hinted at up above and once talked about with (shameless name drop in three… two…) Shane Black. Christmas, maybe more than any other Western holiday, is an amplifier. Everything hits a little harder at this time of year. Romance is great, but Christmas romance is even better. Friendship is wonderful, but being with your friends at Christmas is fantastic. Family squabbles can be funny, but during the holidays they’re even funnier. And, yeah, puppies are great, but have you ever seen CHRISTMAS PUPPIES?!?

(seriously, you just grinned at the thought of Christmas puppies, didn’t you? See?)

And, yeah, this goes the other way. If something’s tense, it’s three times as tense at Christmas (scientifically measured). When something horrible happens, it’s even more horrible because it happened at Christmas. And to touch on a serious issue, depression’s never great, but depression during the holidays is just awful.

So I think it’s fair to say there are stories that may lean heavily toward non-Christmas elements, but the Christmas setting amplifies these stories. It inherently makes them more than they would be without it. Not a coincidence how many Christmas stories involve finding true love or reuniting with your family. And there’s a serious glut of Christmas horror movies. No, seriously. They’ve been a thing for decades.

Now… keeping all that in mind… let’s talk about Die Hard.

Die Hard is loaded with Christmas elements. I mean, 90% of it is set at a Christmas party gone very bad. And it’s a high-end party so decorations are everywhere. Really, look at a lot of these scenes and check out how often there’s a wreath, a garland, a Christmas tree, something. I’d bet half the scenes in this movie have a direct, visual tie to Christmas. And the music! It’s all Christmas music. All of it.

Plus, this setting is a big driver for the plot. John’s out in LA to see his kids and maybe patch things up with his wife. The Christmas party is why there are so many people conveniently in the building after hours to be taken as hostages. The watch she got as a Christmas gift from her boss is a point of contention (and a great Chekhov’s gun). When the FBI wants to shut down power to the building, the main reason there’s a fight is because it would mean shutting off the electricity to ten blocks of LA on Christmas Eve. Hell, John’s last minute surprise for Hans Gruber and his Huey Lewis look-alike pal? Remember how he pulls that off…?

Finally… the amplification factor. Realizing your relationship is collapsing is always bad, but on Christmas Eve? Sweet jebus, that’s a gut punch. Getting taken hostage absolutely sucks, but when it happens at the company Christmas party? And issuing ominous threats to the bad guys is badass, but when you get to tag on Ho-Ho-Ho…? Seriously, it’s one of the most memorable moments in a movie filled with great moments.

And so many of those moments get cranked up five or ten percent higher ‘cause we’re constantly reminded… it’s Christmas.

So… is Die Hard a Christmas movie? I mean, I think it is. And if you want to argue it isn’t then I think there’s a lot of other movies (many of them with Christmas in the title) that we’d have to toss out as well. ‘Cause if we’re saying hitting all these benchmarks doesn’t matter… well…

Look, nobody likes a grinch, okay?

With that, speaking of grinches, I give you one last shameless capitalist reminder that you can give people ebooks as last-minute gifts, and I happen to have a ton of them out there.

I hope this long weekend is wonderful and peaceful for you, no matter who you are, whatever you believe, and whatever you celebrate this season.

And maybe we’ll squeeze in one more chat before 2021.

November 10, 2020

The A2Q Master List

Hey, since I’ve been asked about this a few times now…

When I did the A2Q how-to-write-a-novel thing at the start of the year, it was every other week, and then every week, and trying to find those posts now, in reverse order, can make it a bit troublesome. So here’s a master list of more or less the whole thing. Now I can just point folks here, or you can just save the one bookmark. Y’know, if you felt this was bookmark-worthy.

Part One—The Idea

Part Two—The Plot

Part Three—The Characters

Part Four—The Story

Part Five—The Setting

Part Six—The Theme

Part Seven—The Outline

Part Eight—The First Draft

Part Nine—The Editing

Part Ten—The Criticism

Part Eleven—The Revisions

Part Twelve—The End
For the record, there were some other posts I slapped the A2Q tag on—the supplemental material, if you will—but I didn’t include them here. They’re useful, but most of them were afterthoughts and they’d feel a little jammed in, I think, if I tried to work them in here where they should be. When I someday bind all this into an ebook, I’ll make sure they’re all incorporated from the start.

Next up, rocks. And right after that, I’d like to do one holiday tradition a little early.

Now go write.

August 27, 2020

On the Third Day…

I got a request from Rhyen, which is great because I still haven’t really hammered those ideas on endings or comedy quite into shape. So that’s still some stuff for the future. Or, y’know, somebody else could ask something.


Rhyen wanted to know about worldbuilding. Not just “our world, but with secret werewolves” but full-on, hardcore fantasy worlds, sci-fi worlds, and so on. How (and when) do you come up with histories, cultures, and all that other stuff?

Y’know what? Let’s make this post super-active rather than me blathering away. Right here, right now, let’s look at werewolf world. The other version of it where everybody knows werewolves are real.

Now, I know, we said we were going to do more hardcore settings but just go with me for a minute.

I’ve mentioned Charlie Jane Anders once or thrice before, and her little note that there’s no such thing as “a world just like ours, except…” because any noteworthy “except” is going to change everything. If there really were werewolves and everybody knew about them, so much would be different in the world. Tonsof things.

Don’t believe me? Let’s go over a few things real quick. Just off the top of my head…

Here’s an easy change. There probably wouldn’t be any silver coins. In WereWorld anything with even a scrap of silver would’ve been gathered up and turned into anti-werewolf weapons or defenses. The government would be treating silver like uranium. 

Which, hey… how would warfare be different? Forget atom bombs… imagine if the Manhattan Project involved deliberately infecting a hundred or so troops with lycanthropy and then dropping them all on Nagasakiand Hiroshima on the night of the full moon. A hundred unstoppable killing machines running wild in each city. That’s a terror weapon, right there. And of course, if the Japanese capture two or three alive, now they’ve got their own werewolves.

But now without the USpouring all that money into nuclear warfare and missile programs… where does it all go? Infrastructure? Social programs? Schools? Would there be a Cold War? A Bay of Pigs? And if the Soviet Union leaned into werewolf warfare… what kind of arms races would there be? Would the USSRhave financially collapsed?

And we haven’t even talked about dating or sex in WereWorld. Hunting laws? Home security? Profiling? Legal issues—if I kill someone as a werewolf, am I legally responsible? Is it murder, which requires a degree of forethought, since the werewolf’s essentially an animal (or is it?)?

And all of these assume we just “discovered” werewolves somehow back in the early 1940s. What if it was even earlier? How would global exploration and trade have gone differently five hundred years ago if every twenty-nine days  one of your crew members might kill everyone on the ship? How different would the world map look right now?

Again, this is all off the top of my head. Seriously, I’ve spent maybe ten minutes on this. But I’ve completely rewritten the world, just by being aware that things would inevitably change in this situation.

So, with that in mind…

Creating a setting, any setting, is a lot like creating a character. I want to know them backwards and forwards. It’s fantastic if I have lots and lots of factoids about them easily on hand (you may remember that back before we all took the pandemic plunge, I talked about characters and their underwear choices).

I’ve mentioned character sketches once or thricebefore, and I think worldbuilding can be approached the same way. We come up with the bare basics and then we start fleshing it out by asking questions and maybe following a few paths to their logical outcome. Like I did up above with WereWorld.

Or let’s do something even more divorced from our world. Let’s say it’s going to be a fantasy world, maybe one with some gearpunk elements. So, easy one—is there actual magic in this fantasy world? Is it kind of rare or very common? Does it need components? Are they rare or common? Do people have spell-component gardens the way we might have an herb garden?

How about the gear-tech? How precise is it? Do you need mathematically perfect brass gears or do lots of people carve wooden ones after dinner? What do they use for power? Springs? Counterweights? Two or three big guys turning a crank?

Does magic dominate the gear-tech, or vice versa? Is one notably newer than the other? Does either have detractors, vocal or secretive? Are magic and/or gear-tech novelties or parts of everyday life? Do they ever cross-pollinate, so to speak? Are they expensive or so common everyone has access to some aspect of them?

Considering all of this, now… is this mostly an agrarian world? Are more people farmers? Hunters? Are there gearpunk tractors or crossbows? Magic millstones or knives that can skin anything? And if none of this ever filters down to the common folk… how do they feel about that?

Has the magic or gear-tech made travel easier? Are people still isolated in villages or are there much bigger cities, made possible because of these advances? Do people know more about the world?

Heck, how fantasy is this world? Are there supernatural or mythological creatures? Are they common? Domesticated? Are there things we know or all-new creatures? Does the farmer have a six-legged hexox dragging his plow? Are there gods? Demons? How do they feel about humans playing with magic and gear-tech?

Or heck… is it even humans? Is this about magical halflings or gearpunk elves? I just pictured a gearpunk lizardman and that seemed pretty cool.

If you’ve answered a lot of those questions, I bet you’ve got the beginnings of a pretty solid world in your head. And probably spun off a question or three of your own. Enough so that you can start setting up your plot.

And one thing to keep in mind—just like with characters, this might change as I go along. As the story grows and progresses, I might change a lot. I might add even more. It’s an ongoing process. Halfway through my outline or my first draft, I might realize I need to address currency. And, hey,  maybe this world has a really crappy exchange rate, so it matters if you’re getting paid with glowing quartz or brass gear-coins.

Again, the world is here to serve the story. You’re going to change and tweak it as you go. Maybe all the way up to your last draft. And just like with characters, you’ll keep coming up with cool little details and anecdotes.

Now… there’s three key things to remember…

First, I know I talk about editing things down a lot, but we can all breathe a small sigh of relief here. If I’ve got a story set in another world—a drastically different world—most editors are going to give me a little bit of leeway, word-count wise. They understand I’ll need a few extra pages to explain why Yakko is riding a gearpunk tractor powered by magical crystals.

This doesn’t mean I can go crazy listing details. Or that I can be really blunt with them. No pausing for two pages to randomly describe the wooden sun-and-planet gears in Yakko’s trailer. Or the long history of the mining guild that provides those magic crystals. One more time—say it with me—the world is here to serve the story. It’s okay to have a little extra flavor here and there, but I shouldn’t lose track of what my book is actually about.

Which brings me to my second point. Whenever I create a character, there’s a lot of things about them that are never going to come up in the book. Or maybe they come up, but they’re never explained. I might have tons of rich backstory and weird little details, but a lot of it just never becomes relevant.

For example, in the Threshold books, I know a ton of things about Veek. I know why she’s abrasive with most people. Why she likes wearing men’s suits and ties over women’s power suits. Heck, I made a note of when/how she lost her virginity. But the truth is, none of this has been relevant to any of the books she’s been in. It’s stuff I know, and it helps me make her feel more three dimensional on the page, but ultimately… it’s all kind of irrelevant if it doesn’t have anything to do with this book—with the plot I’m telling and the character’s arc through that plot.

Worldbuilding is the same way. No matter how fantastic or amazing the details of this world might be, they only matter if they’re going to have some kind of impact. While it may be very interesting how this society ended up with a hexadecimal/base sixteen number system, do we need to know any of that history for this story? Yes, WereWorld does have eleven continents and there’s a fascinating story behind it… which has nothing to do with this book.

And even then, I’d argue that if there’s no real reason for something to be different… maybe it shouldn’t be. I think one thing that confuses some people is they see this rich, historied world that the story’s set in and forget the world only exists to serve the story, not the other way around. If you look back at my A2Q discussion about the world Phoebe and Luna live in, I made choices based on what would be interesting for the plot and story, not what would make for an interesting world.

So I shouldn’t be coming up with (and using) new things just to come up with new, different things. I mean George RR Martin just uses leagues for distance in worldbuiding heavyweight A Song of Fire and Ice(perhaps better known by it’s Hollywood stage name, Game of Thrones). It sounds good, a little archaic, and he doesn’t have to waste half a page explaining what hekkrets are.

Or heck, here’s another example… any of you remember that old 70’s indie movie, Star Wars? There’s a great scene where Ben and his would-be-protégé are trying to hire a ship from some lowlife smuggler. And Ben tells him “We can pay you two thousand now plus fifteen… when we reach Alderaan.” Remember that?

So… two thousand what?

No, no, no. Don’t run to novelisations or books or articles that retconned this. Right there in the movie you watched… two thousand what?

Truth is, it doesn’t say and it doesn’t matter. For this story, the type of currency’s irrelevant. I don’t care if it’s Imperial credits or Old Republic scrip or gold-press latinum or Jawa skulls. Okay, I might care if it’s Jawa skulls because WTF Kenobi why do you have two thousand of these laying around?! What the hell have you been up to out in your little desert hut?

Anyway… no, all we need to know is that two thousand is a good amount (judging off everyone’s reactions) and fifteen more makes it a very good amount. Past that, we just don’t need to know why Solo wants all these Jawa skulls Kenobi’s collected. It’s not important. The dialogue’s solid and sounds believable, which is far more important that a brief segue to explain the various types of Galactic currency and their exchange rates.

This brings me to my third and final point.

Worldbuilding is, in my opinion, a really easy trap to fall into. Because worldbuilding is fun. Seriously. That question game we played up above? We can do that for weeks with worldbuilding. Months. Maybe even years. My world is going to be so huge and so complex with so many races and creeds and economies and social structures and seriously we can spend so much time doing this instead of…

Y’know, actually writing the story.

And that’s how I generally approach worldbuilding. You may need to change this approach a bit, depending on your own story and the kid of setting you want for it, but hopefully this’ll get you a little further down that path. Or help you find your own path.

Next time… endings.


Until then, go write.