- Boskone — Boston February 17th-19th
- Helsinki Worldcon Agust 9th - 13th
- Bubonicon August 25th-27th, Albuquerque, NM
So Tor has a special on a Wild Cards book bundle. If you’re interested to jump in here’s a way to start. Wild Cards Book Bundle. There is a new Youtube interview up where a number of us talk about Wild Cards. Wild Cards Interviews. And finally here is the cover for Tor’s reissue of ACE IN THE HOLE. The amazing and really creepy cover is by the very talented Michael Komarck.
I’m re-reading Tolkien’s brilliant Lord of the Rings trilogy for, I think, the eighth time. I first read the books when I was a kid visiting Los Angeles with my father. My dad had business meetings and in an effort to keep me amused, Rodney Pantages’s wife, Lois, took me off to a bookstore and said, “Pick any book you want.” I fixated on those amazing covers and cajoled until Lois agreed to buy me all four books, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. I then vanished into the upstairs bedroom at the house in the Hollywood Hills and devoured all four books over four days. As I recall I emerged for meals and the occasional swim or hike up to the Griffith Park Observatory. When I finished I realized I had just gobbled these books so I started all over again, this time taking my time. When I was a child I had been obsessed with Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom and wanted to go there. Now on the cusp of being a teenager I wanted to go to Middle Earth and ride with the Rohirrim.
I’ve written on this blog how I didn’t fully appreciate the books until I was a great deal older. I thought all that Scouring of the Shire was really boring. What did it matter after Aragorn became king and married Arwen? With age came wisdom and I realized that those final chapters are the entire point of the books.
On this re-read I was struck by the fact that Tolkien is the only writer who ever made a committee meeting interesting. The Council of Elrond is an amazing chapter and it’s just a committee meeting. On this reading I stopped to consider why the scene worked when so often they don’t. Too often writers use a committee meeting to rehash events they’ve already dramatized. It’s almost a mental throat clearing, a way to vamp while you try to figure out what to do next. And often the decision reached at the committee meeting plays out exactly as planned when the writer finally gets around to dramatizing the plans that were agreed upon at the meeting. My advice — pick either the meeting or the caper/battle/campaign. Or if you must do both make sure that whatever plan is concocted it goes completely pear shaped when they try to execute it.
So why did the Council of Elrond work so well? A few reasons. First Tolkien introduces new and major characters in that chapter — Boromir in particular though Legolas is also present. He skates very lightly and very quickly over the events that have proceeded the meeting and instead focuses on giving us new information — tracking Gollum and his subsequent escape, Gandalf’s capture by Saruman, what’s been happening in Gondor, Strider/Aragorn is revealed as the rightful king, we learn how the sword was broken, etc. etc. Finally it’s a major turning point for a main character. Frodo is forced to make a decision he fears and loathes, but he accepts the burden.
Next time I find I have to include a meeting I’m going to try and remember how Tolkien did it and follow suit.
So I’m working on the fourth EDGE book — tentatively titled THE EDGE OF INFINITY. I’m writing on the plane coming home to New Mexico and I suddenly realize that this book is set about fourteen years after the events in THE EDGE OF DAWN.
All three of these books have been very closely tied to the real world, and real world events and I suddenly realized that Donald Trump will be president and that is going to have a profound effect on the state of the world in 2031. Advances in science will no doubt suffer. The rights of minorities may well be in jeopardy. Women’s rights may be curtailed. The fight against climate change will have been delayed and perhaps derailed. Which given Lumina Enterprises stated purpose to increase knowledge and understanding of the universe and the world we inhabit a real headache. It means my paladins have been fighting a rear guard action. That’s going to change a lot of the tone of the book, and perhaps change the emotional content of the final scene. It might be less triumphant and more the act of people striving to find a better way on a planet far, far away.
Or in the words of Peter Diamandis —
“The meek shall inherit the earth. The rest of us are going to the stars.”
Reality is so damn unforgiving. I’m working on the third book of the IMPERIALS Saga, and one of my main character is the heir to the throne. Her aides aren’t going to let her go into actual combat unless it’s absolutely unavoidable, and she’s not stupid enough to lead the charge. She’s also now an admiral in command of a large battle group that’s going in to rescue some captured soldiers. So, she’s on the bridge, giving orders and others are carrying out those orders. They’re going to be the bullet magnets, not La Infanta.
But I’m a TV writer and a very visual writer so this is making me crazy. All the exciting stuff is going to be happening on this orphan moon, and my view point character is on a ship far removed from the action, just watching through the helmet cameras worn by her troops. But if I put her in the thick of the action she looks like an idiot, and I look like an idiot for making that choice.
So I’m balancing the frustration of readers who might feel dissatisfied by the lack of a big action sequence versus the readers who will decide I’m an idiot if I let the freaking heir to the throne lead a party of marines staging a rescue, and thus give up on reading my books.
Okay, back to the Word Mines.
There’s a saying in writing that you have to be able to “kill your babies”. Which means that sometimes there is a scene or a character that you just love, but it has to go. It can’t stay in the narrative. I’ve faced two of those in the past week. Both times, on the Wild Cards story and on the novel, I wrote a scene or in one case a set up, and in the back of my head a tiny little voice went “Ah, come on!”
It behooves writers to listen to that tiny voice because when your reader or viewer hits that moment it’s not going to be a tiny voice it’s going to be a bull horn going “AH COME ON!!!” When that happens you’ve lost the audience’s trust and that’s death for a book or a movie. There is a compact or a contract or a promise that flows between writer and reader/viewer/player and it all rests in trust. I believe you are going to take me on an adventure and not disappoint me.
The audience gives us money and in return we promise that we’ll play fair. We won’t tell you the book is one thing and then not deliver. Now that doesn’t mean we can’t surprise readers, but we can’t violate the promise we make in the beginning and if we are good at our craft we keep reinforcing that promise all the way through the book until we deliver a satisfying conclusion. We have to be authentic. A reader can spot inauthenticity from a hundred miles away. If a writer is just doing romances because they sell and doesn’t actually love that genre 99% of the time that will show. That’s also a form of cheating your readers
But back to making cuts — this inability on the part of some writers to lose things they love is why Hollywood is so wary of allowing the author of a book to do the screenplay adaptation. You’ve got to be brutal when adapting. Keep the theme, the feel, the basic narrative but the exact moves that told the story in prose form may not work in this different medium. Scenes are cut. Other scenes are added. Multiple characters get merged into one or cut out all together.
My advice to anybody starting out in this business is “if it doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t.” I don’t sit down to write without a detailed outline, but this is one place where I do listen to my hind-brain.
Over the past two weeks I’ve seen two movies. STAR TREK: BEYOND and last night SUICIDE SQUAD. I only went to see the Trek film because I had been asked to do an interview about it. I had been actively looking forward to Suicide Squad. My reactions to both were polar opposites of what I expected.
NOW THERE ARE GOING TO BE SPOILERS!!!!!!! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
I ended up enjoying Beyond far more than I expected, (I kept murmuring to myself, “why oh why couldn’t we have had some humor and charm in Next Generation?” while I was watching, but I digress. It wasn’t until I sat down for the interview that I realized why it worked. And it all comes back to something that I write about with great regularity — Simon Pegg who penned the script, had an actual theme.
Kirk in the opening is a man who is finding his role as captain of the Enterprise confining. It’s routine missions, patrols. Nothing very exciting is occurring. He chafes in the harness.
Krall is a former Star Fleet officer who had led men into battle against alien threats. When the Federation was formed and forged peace with many of these former adversaries Krall was furious and disgusted. He viewed the peace as a betrayal of the men and women who had fought. Then his ship gets stranded, Star Fleet doesn’t send help and his bitterness becomes rage.
Of course in his own mind he is the hero of the piece. Krall is a man trying to make it clear that human kind can only advance through conflict, war, loss, and ultimately military victory. He leads the assault on the space station partly for vengeance, and mostly to shock the humans out of their complacency. He does not believe that through unity there is strength.
Krall is the cautionary tale for James T. Kirk. During the course of the film Kirk realizes that his chafing at the confines of the Federation could lead him to the same place as Krall. He accepts that his duty is to his crew. It is in this movie that his full maturation occurs. He was a callow, cocky man in the first film. The second film — well, lets just pretend that one didn’t happen. In Beyond Kirk becomes a man and a leader.
There is a wonderful visual moment at the end of Beyond when Krall sees his reflection in a shard of glass and realizes he has become a monster. Which led to one of the major missteps for me in the film. If this had been classic Trek Krall would have recovered his identity as Captain Edison and helped Kirk save the station. Instead he continued to fight. I actually viewed the final fight through that lens and assumed he had helped Kirk, but apparently that was me reading into the moment.
There were silly little things in the movie that bugged me. How is it that Krall and his remaining crew forgot where they parked their ship? Why didn’t anybody stop by now and then and check on the old bucket? How did they learn that the missing part of the alien bio-weapon was aboard the Enterprise? And who flies around with a motorcycle parked on the bridge? But again, those are nits. What worked was there was a narrative that had subtext, dealt with larger issues and didn’t beat me over the head with The Message. (I couldn’t help but feel the script was a direct rebuke of Trumpism, but of course that is serendipity.)
And then there is Suicide Squad. *sigh* I have no idea what this movie was trying to say. That the only way you accomplish anything is to be a stone cold killer? Even our supposed good guy Amanda Waller portrayed by Viola Davis (who made a heroic effort to salvage this film) is a murderous psycho.
Will Smith also gave it his best to inject some humor and honest emotion into the movie, but it fell flat.
When a movie has to spend the first, at least, thirty minutes doing a “let’s look at the files and give you the backstory” to introduce the characters you’re in trouble. Truthfully it felt like an hour had passed while Waller briefed government guys. When Rick Flag was introduced I thought he was going to be the tough but compassionate commander who brings them all together. At last, I thought, this will become the Dirty Dozen. Instead he had all the personality of a wet dish rag. I can’t fault the actor. He literally had nothing to work with.
The story was an incoherent mess. Was the Joker the villain? The Enchantress? Granted she was building a big unexplained argle, bargle, gazpacho (hat tip to Jim Wright Stonekettle Station for this wonderful turn of phrase) machine to destroy all the humans. Because they no longer worshiped her and her brother? Hey, honey, if you kill all the humans then there’s no one at all left to worship you. Tiny flaw in your plan.
If I’m incredibly generous I could say the theme of the film was people acting out of love. Deadshot out of love for his daughter. Flag for the archeologist. Joker for Harley Quinn, El Diablo trying to expiate his sin for not loving his family enough or the right way. But man am I being generous.
I started my new novel (book 3 in the Imperials Saga) a few days ago. Starting a book is always the hardest part of writing for me. I circle the computer warily. I sit down, stare at the screen, remember I should really do some laundry, or wash my hair or go to the market. It’s not that I don’t know where I’m going — the elaborate outline is off to my left, scrawled across my white board, the colored pens showing the arc of the three POV characters I have in this book.
No, the reason I’m always hesitant is I’m certain that this will be the book/script/short story that will pull back the curtain and reveal that I’m really a giant fraud and I can’t actually write. Ultimately the fact I have a contract and my sense of responsibility kick in and I force myself to put down that opening sentence.
When I write I film the movie in my head. I hear the dialog, I move my actors around the set. I had written a fairly long scene, but it still felt wrong to me. Too linear, too familiar. I realized that what I had filmed in my head had a different structure. One that we use a lot in movies and TV. I wanted the moment where we see our protagonist in a point of crises or emotional turmoil and then we do the 36 hours ago. Or my favorite opening of a Firefly episode that starts with Mal sitting naked on a rock in the middle of a desert and he says, “Well that went well.” And we roll back to show how he ended up on that rock naked in the desert. While we use flashbacks in prose they aren’t usually this really fast scenes and that’s what I wanted to try.
I’ve said before that writing for Hollywood made me a better prose writer so I decided to try it. I added a new scene in front of what had been the opening scene using a dialog bridge that in a film would have been a voice over the black screen break. The dialog in the opening scene — “We were going to be rich.” segues into the next scene with the same character saying, “We’re going to be rich.”
I figured if it didn’t work I had only written a few pages, and I could revise them and move them back into the more linear flow of the story. So I tried it. And I think it worked great. Of course I’ll have to wait and see if my crit group and beta readers agree, but for right now I’m happy which meant I’m now past chapter one and happily typing away with all fear removed.
Well, a little bit remains, but that’s just normal. Writers are such neurotic little flowers.
There have been questions about how I plot and outline. I learned this technique when I was working on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it’s used on every television show. I use it for the movies I write as well. And then it occurred to me — this could work for novels too. Not in as much detail, not every scene, but the big scenes, the “tent pole” moments could be laid out.
I’m going to actually put up a photo of the next Imperials novel, but please don’t study it too closely. I’d hate to spoil the plot for people. Just get the overall sense of how this works. Because my cork board is in Los Angeles and I’m in New Mexico I used a white board for this plot break.
What you need: A white board and colored dry erase or wet erase pens. That’s how we did it on Trek and it’s a pain because you have to try to carefully erase a scene if you decide it’s in the wrong place. On Profiler we used a cork board, pins, cards and colored pens. If you use cards you just pull off the card and replace it.
Next step. I write headings — Teaser, Act One, Act Two, Act Three. If it’s a really big book you will need five acts. The example I’m going to show you went to four acts which suggests this next book in the Imperials saga will be bigger than the one I just delivered.
I then assign a different colored pen to each view point character. This is challenging if you are doing a huge fantasy with seven or eight view point characters. Since I have never gone past four it hasn’t been an issue for me yet. I sometimes will pick a new color to indicate a crowd scene where all of my characters will be present and no one person is dominate in that moment.
I then go to the end of the final act, and I write down the final scene of the book with the appropriate color depending on whose view point will carry the climax.
I then go set up the teaser. Something interesting and exciting that will convince that person who is casually flipping through the book that they ought to buy this book.
Next I try to fill in the act outs for each of the other acts. Once those finales are all in place it becomes relatively easy to figure out the scenes you will need to get to those various act outs and the final climax. Sometimes you do go down dead ends and something that sounded good doesn’t look good when it’s laid out. This saves me writing fifty or a hundred pages and then deciding that was the wrong direction.
The reason for the different colors is so I can see if I’m losing track of a particular character and need to up their profile. Or conversely it might suggest that I don’t need that character and they need to be dropped as a POV character.
The other thing I’m studying as I lay out these scenes is how they flow. I think of structure like relay race. A character has to smoothly hand off the baton to the next character who is going to continue to carry the plot forward.
This makes each day’s work very easy. I get up in the morning, eat breakfast, gather up a cup of tea or coffee, glance over at the board and know what is the task for that particular day. I understand this doesn’t work for everybody, but in the high pressure of a TV show or when you have a lot of contracts with hard deadlines it’s invaluable.
And now here is the photo of what will be TIME AND CHANCE.
A final note. You don’t have to do this alone. Bringing in two or three other people who you trust and respect to brainstorm with you can also be very helpful. That’s how it works in Hollywood. The staff works together to lay out the season arc and then plot the individual episodes.
(And yes, I know I have terrible printing.) 😜
I’ve done a lot of adaptations. It’s a tricky skill, but fun. You have to take from the underlying material the essential themes, the emotional sense of the work, keep the characters relatively intact, but be willing to make changes because film and print are two different mediums and they tell stories in different ways. The emotional impact is ultimately the same, but how you get there is different. You have to know what to cut and what to expand.
Right now I’m watching a master class in adaptation. It’s a show called The Magicians, and it’s on SyFy. Yeah, I know, crazy, right? I started watching the show which has great production values, excellent writing and overall a very fine cast. I was so impressed that I bought the first book and started reading.
This is a case where the filmed version is better than the book.
Okay, I’m going to talk specifics from the book and the show which means there are going to be SPOILERS!!!!!!! so stop reading now if you hate SPOILERS!!!!!!
I’ve only read the first book and I have to be honest. While I found the world and the characters interesting the book read more like an outline then a well plotted narrative. It felt like the author was exploring his world, but didn’t totally have a handle on the story he wanted to tell.
Enter the writing team who adapted the book series for television. Right away they made a number of changes. The characters are all older — heading to graduate school rather then high school kids heading to college. That has worked well. They have also slowed down the action. In the book Quentin rushes through Brakebills. In the show he’s still in his first year. It’s working far better.
Apparently the entire story line about Julia, the girl who didn’t get into Hogwarts… er Brakebills, and so becomes a hedge witch begins in book two, but the screenwriters rightly decided to weave her story in with Quentin’s adventures at the school. They find ways to have the two former friends cross paths, and there is an interesting echo in that both of them take casual actions that start to have dreadful consequences.
The show is much darker in tone then the book and the villain far more horrifying. In the book his face is obscured by a tree branch. In the show they use a cloud of moths. Now whenever I see a moth I find myself shuddering. Again as a visual cue it’s brilliant.
A recent episode of the show is the one that really made me hope I have the opportunity to meet with the creative team behind The Magicians and shake their hand. First a bit of context. In The Magicians there is a beloved fantasy book series about a magical place called Fillory and the three children who got to travel there. Yes, very much a call back to C.S. Lewis, but that’s the set up. At the end of book one our heroes defeat The Beast, and have a conversation with the sister who tells why her brother turned into this monstrous figure. In the book she casually tosses out the information that the author of the Fillory books molested her brother when he was a boy. It is literally almost a throw away line.
The show found a far more powerful and interesting way to give us this information. Out of a sentence or two in the book the television writers crafted an entire episode and it was a damn good one. Our heroes have gone to tour the author’s home in search of a magical object. They break in after-hours, and since they are all magicians they begin to see ghostly scenes from the past. They see the author coercing the brother into undressing while the older man takes photos, and then it’s very clear they go off to have sex. Quentin who has adored and revered this writer is sickened, horrified and we see him start to lose some of his geeky innocence and self-doubt and become a man.
As for this magical object. In the book one of the characters just buys it from a magical junk salesman and it happens off stage. He then just turns up and says, “Hey, I have this magic thingee and it takes you to a different world.” Again the adaptors allowed the protagonists to “protag”. They go in search of this object after they’ve discovered that it exists instead of it all being by happenstance.
Bottom line if you’ve toyed with adapting take a look at this show. In its own right it’s a terrific hour of television, and for writers it’s an inspiration and, like I said, a master class in adaptation.
I’ve been doing my final rewrite of the second novel in my space opera series. I’ve only got a couple of chapters to go before it’s as cooked as I can get it. Late this afternoon I went back to a scene that had stumped me earlier in the day.
I realized I had used internal dialog where a son is reflecting on his father’s devotion to the ruling class and how the son rebelled against that. The moment just felt flat to me and then I realized, both men are in the same space. Why not have them say the words, actually talk to each other? Offer insults and retorts. Actually dramatize the passion of the moment.
So I rewrote it and turned it into an exchange instead of a rumination. It works much better. Because dialog to me is active, vibrant, energetic. You can show the emotional ebbs and flows rather then telling the reader how a character is feeling.
Basically I don’t like internal dialog. In a novel it’s often unavoidable, but I think if you can actually put people together and have them interact you’re going to be in a much better place. I believe there is nothing more intriguing and fascinating and exciting then watching people expressing their hopes and dreams and fears and loathings to each other.
I’ve heard some people say that an action sequence is the most important thing to keep a book driving forward. I don’t agree. I think the interactions between humans are far more exciting. In visual medium such as film then yes, an action sequence can be exciting, but think about the scene between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs when she interviews him in his jail cell. That scene was far more chilling and terrifying then Clarice running around the serial killer’s house at the end of the book or the movie.
In terms of what kills the momentum of a book dead I’d argue that poorly done description and internal dialog can often suck the life out of a scene. I’ll take people communicating any day. Probably wouldn’t hurt if we had more of that in real life.
Money flows to the writer. Not from the writer.
That’s the rule. Remember it. Tattoo it on the back of your eyelids. Nothing makes me angrier then when I hear about an aspiring writer who had paid someone a lot of money to read their manuscript and comment. These so called “writing coaches” are preying on the hopes and dreams of people who want to write and it’s disgusting. They have no power to put your manuscript in front of an agent or an editor. They can’t do anything to further your career. They’re just taking your money.
Join a good writers group and you can get the same thing for free. The only cost to you is that you have to play fair, read other people’s submissions and comment. There are on-line critique groups like the OWW. They do charge a membership fee of $49.00 for a year, but that’s a much better price then paying a single individual five hundred, or a thousand or more to get that one person’s opinion. There are writing organizations in most cities where you can connect with other writers and aspiring writers. There are proven courses like Clarion West, or Odyssey or Taos Toolbox which are taught by actual writers and editors.
Are there exceptions to this rule? Yes. If a person is determined to go the self published route then it behooves them to hire an actual copyeditor to check for typos, correct commas, etc. A copyeditor deserves and should be paid. You’ll probably have to pay for cover art for your self-published novel. All of which are reasons I don’t recommend going the self pub route.
Publishers have editors who can help you improve your book and you don’t have to pay them. They have art directors who specialize in putting evocative covers on books that you don’t have to pay for. They have sales forces that market your book so you don’t have to spend all your time doing self-promotion instead of doing what you should be doing which is writing. They have the means to set up autograph sessions and a distribution network to get your book into bookstores so you’re not driving around in a van filled with copies of your book that you paid to have printed. You’re not sitting behind a table in a dealers room at a convention trying to hand sell your novel instead of mingling and networking, meeting editors and colleagues, being inspired.
Money flows to the writer. Not from the writer.
Yesterday I completely rewrote a chapter because I had decided that a major event that had been the climax of the second novel in the space opera series was in the wrong place. What this involved was me walking away from the carefully and painfully plotted outline sitting on 3×5 cards on the cork board. But I did it anyway and spent a day of work redrafting an entire chapter.
Then I came wide awake at 5:00 in the morning because I realized that I had just blown the end of this book. It was going to end with a whimper rather than a bang. Yes, the outcome for my hero is dreadful and horrible for him, but it’s not creepy and it doesn’t serve as a powerful spring board into book three. My original ending — the one on the board accomplished all of that.
Also by deviating from the plot as outlined I ended up with people not reacting to a shocking event which makes them look dumb or they have to start dealing with this event and it will drag the book out longer then it needs to be and I’ll have lost focus on the theme of this particular book. As you know theme is important to me. If you don’t know it and pay it off you won’t end up with a satisfying story.
So today I get to rewrite this chapter yet again and to back to the outline.
I like movies. I like to go out to the movies. So today I went to the movies. A lightning strike had fried my old modem so I headed out to Best Buy to buy a replacement. The Best Buy is just a few short blocks from the movie theater here in Santa Fe so I decided to run by and see what might be playing at around 1:00 p.m. Turned out THE INTERN starring Robert de Niro and Ann Hathaway had a 1:10 showing. I had wanted to see this film so I went in bought a ticket and a hot dog and settled down to be entertained.
The movie didn’t disappoint. It’s a small story, personal and character driven. Nothing blows up and nobody gets killed, but it has a good heart and it raises real questions that face driven career women. Believe me, I know. I’ve faced them. De Niro has gone from the raging bull to the kind and avuncular figure and he does it very well. I know there’s been a big hate on against Ann Hathaway, and I don’t get why. I’ve always liked her in all her films and she was great in this movie as well.
I know going to the movies probably doesn’t seem like work, but it is for me. Not only because I work in television and film, but because watching a story develop can often spark something in my own work. Earlier in the day I had been working on a scene in the space opera. I realized as I watched this movie that I didn’t have enough heat, enough pain and enough passion in the scene.
My female protagonist is facing betrayal by her husband and I was playing her far too matter-0f-fact. This is a gut punch and I needed to get in and face it. I had to let experiences in my own life come out, be raw and get laid on the page.
And I did that tonight. It wasn’t fun. It hurt, but the scene got a lot better and a lot more real. That’s the hard part about writing. Sometimes you have to pick off the scab and let it bleed. I know teachers often tell aspiring writers to “write what you know”. By and large I think this is terrible advice. People who write science fiction haven’t been in space or met aliens.
Today I realized what those teachers might be groping to say is that what you know is the pain and grief, joy and celebration that you’ve experienced. Those you do know. You just have to have the courage to put them on the page.
There’s a tendency in writing for people to think that if a three ring circus is good a five ring circus must be better and a seventeen ring Circus must be awesome. Except it’s not because a lot of stuff happening doesn’t mean it’s exciting. In fact it’s usually means that things are confusing for your reader/viewer. Worse it suggests that you as the creator don’t have a clue what you’re doing. That you’re just flinging stuff at the wall and praying something sticks. When that starts happening you’ve lost the trust of your readers/viewers and it’s very hard to get that back.
This is on my mind right now because I was looking at an outline for a script and also did a plot break with a friend for their novel. In both cases there were backstories and plots within plots and plots that went nowhere, and a plethora of characters and frenetic action and neither of these projects worked.
They were missing the basic theme. What is this about — and no, don’t tell me the plot — and they were both missing a through line. Another way to say it is what is the spine of this story. What are the moves that have to be there to make this story understandable and satisfying? Once you have that you can hang ornaments and lights on the spine, but you always need to be asking if this particular glittering bauble or flashing light actually helping me tell my story or explicate character of is it just activity for activities sake that isn’t going anywhere.
Yes, it’s a tightrope. Too simple and linear and your readers or viewers are going to be ahead of you, will never be surprised, and will get bored. Too much going on and you’ll confuse them and lose them.
Next up — I’m going to write about protagonists and how they really need to “protag”.