About Writing

Trust the Outline

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.

The Intern

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.


Confuse Them and Lose Them

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”.

Orphan Black Season 3 – Reflections on Violence

For those of you who may not have seen season three of this show be warned; there may be SPOILERS!

Let me say right up front that I think this show is terrific and that Maslany simply brilliant.  Kudos to the Emmys’  for finally figuring out how to get her a well deserved nomination.  But…..

I think this season was weaker then seasons 1 or 2 and I think that was due to a couple of things.  One was the focusing more on Allison then the other clones.  While Maslany’s performance as Allison is great that particular character can become extremely grating and that was what happened for me.  I found myself actually fast forwarding though some of the tedious school board election scenes.  The other problem may be unique to me, but it did start me on a long process of considering the place of violence in entertainment.

Here is the moment that left me feeling ambivalent about the show for the first time.  It was when Helena kills all the drug dealers with an axe because they have taken her “babies”.  I’m not arguing that the drug dealers were dangerous and violent and evil, but what bothered me in the scene was that it was played for a laugh.  There is the initial confrontation with the hapless Donny and Helena facing down the gang, then Donny leaves and after several beats Helena emerges covered in blood with gore dripping off the axe.  She has her babies and a pot load of money which she gives to Donny.  It was clear this was meant to be funny, but I wasn’t laughing.

Maybe it’s because the past month has held the senseless deaths of nine people at a bible study class who were murdered for being black, and the murder of five young men whose only crime was to wear the uniform of the United States.  Whatever the reason the scene bothered me a great deal.  Not only in the moment, but in the aftermath.  There was no repercussions for Helena’s action.  I wasn’t looking for a reaction by the authorities and the court system, but I needed some acknowledgement inside that family that Helena is dangerous.  If I were Donny I wouldn’t be terribly comfortable about having her around my children or my wife.  Instead there’s just the flippant “We came into some money,” to Allison as he stacks bills in the freezer.

I was discussing this with a friend who pointed out the burying the body in the garage sequence, and she asked if that bothered me as much?  It didn’t, but I wonder if that began this sense of queasiness that culminated in the Helena scene.  I could justify hiding the death of the doctor since the company had already declared him dead, and if Donny had gone to the authorities it would have revealed the sisters and endangered them.  He would also have been charged with involuntary manslaughter and the writer’s probably thought a trip through the court system wasn’t where they wanted to go.  But —

Just as I don’t care for redemptive violence as a solution to a conflict in a book or a movie I’m becoming very tired of violence as a source of humor.  I think violence should have power and meaning.  If it’s used constantly as a joke or as a chest thumping Oo-rah!  Go us! then I think it makes us as readers and viewers more coarse and desensitizes us.  There is a reason that cops are sent to therapy after a shooting incident.  Why soldiers suffer from PTSD.  Taking a human life is consequential.

I love action movies and shows.  The books I write tend to have a lot of action, but I make the point in my Edge novels that my hero, Richard, keeps a count of every person he’s ever killed because he doesn’t want to become inured to it.  He wants it to never be easy.

I dislike the fact that creators and writers are making it easy.

The Rabbit Problem

Today as I was working on the second space opera novel, EVIL TIMES, I was faced with the perennial science fiction problem.  What do you do about animals on alien worlds?  Or in a fantasy novel?  In my universe Old Earth is a climate change decimated hell hole.  The capital of the Solar League is on a planet called Ouranos, capital city Hisselek.  Naturally Earth animals have been brought with the settlers, but there are local fauna as well.

The problem isn’t that there are going to be native fauna, the problem is what the fuck to call them?  Do you make up an annoying name — rabbithorn — or do we assume the human settlers will just use familiar word to describe the critters?  If it fills the spot that rabbits fill on Earth why not just call it a rabbit?  Or use a foreign word — lapin or conejo or a older word like coney or hare.

I was thinking about C.J. Cherryh’s FOREIGNER series where the riding animals aren’t called horses, she uses the alien’s word mechieta for the critters.  (Except she admits she’s misspelled the word in her own novels.  Maybe just saying horse is easier).  The difference in my books is that there wasn’t an evolved race living on Ouranos before the humans arrived so I guess the humans get to call the native animals whatever they’d like.

This does mean when the books move to the worlds native to various aliens I’m going to have to come up with the Hajin, Isanjo, Tiponi Flute, Sidones words for rabbit.


Another Hugo Nominee

Yesterday I finished reading the second book in Ann Leckie’s series, ANCILLARY SWORD.  I really enjoyed this book, and it was in this volume that her use of only the female pronoun “she” was revealed to me in all its true genius.  I was suddenly aware of a subtle bias in myself that I had hitherto been completely unaware existed.

HERE IS A SMALL SPOILER *********************BEWARE***********

One of the sub-plots is about the heir of a house or “daughter of the house” as they are called who has been preying sexually on field workers in the tea plantation.

Because everyone in Leckie’s universe is referred to as she you have no idea of the actual gender of the person unless she gives you a physical hint which she almost never does.  When the plot revealed that this character was a sexual predator I immediately assumed the character was male.  Then I discovered the victim was a young man of 16, and I realized this person demanding sexual favors by dint of their position of power could just as easily have been female.

My bias had been revealed in the most stark way, and I loved it.  It made me stop and consider societal norms and the danger of assumptions.

That’s what good, ambitious books do.  Bravo to Ann Leckie.  I’m really looking forward to the next book.

Musing on Starting a New Novel

First let me say upfront that I find starting a book to be the most difficult part of the process.  What drives that?  Stone cold fear.  Fear that I can’t possibly do this.  Fear that this will be the project that verifiably proves that I have no talent and I have just been fooling publishers, editors and readers all along.  I’m like a dog or a cat circling the pillow trying to figure out if they will lie down and in what position they will do so.  Once I type that beginning sentence and once I get to the first paragraph down I’m generally fine.

As I’m getting rolling on EVIL TIMES the second volume in my Imperials saga a couple of things have presented themselves.  First my male protagonist is a really angry guy and it’s not much fun to write him.  I feel like I’m sipping his anger and it’s affecting my mood in the real world.

Second, that the first part of this book really seems to want to be about my female protagonist which is  very different structure then I had on book one where I pretty much alternated scenes between Tracy and Mercedes.  For the moment I’m going to go with the flow and see how this works.  That’s the great thing about writing — the rewriting.  Or as I sometimes say — “I’ll fix it in post.”

Puppies! — My Two Cents

I’ve hesitated to wade into this mess.  Not because I’m particularly cowardly, but because so many thoughtful people with far more stature in the field then me have very eloquently spoken out about the Hugos and the slate.  I’m speaking of course about George R.R. Martin and Connie Willis.  Here’s what I thought I could add to the discussion.

Brad Torgersen who is one of the Sad Puppies wrote the following on his webpage —

“A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.

These days, you can’t be sure.

The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings?

There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?

A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women.

Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues.

Or it could be about the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy.

Do you see what I am trying to say here?”

Torgersen presents these alternative stories as if they are a bad thing.  I don’t agree.  The world has changed.  People have different expectations about what is normal or accepted, and the rules have changed which means while the traditional has its place it’s not the only place where we all have to live.

We inhabit an amazing world where technology has advanced to the point that I can have a real time conversation with a person on the other side of the planet.  A person whose race and culture and gender are vastly different from mine.  Where in the words of Carl Sagen we are all living on a “small blue dot”,  “…a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”.  Yet we’re all the same species with the same drives and loves and passions.  These are the things that bind us together.  Why we have told stories around campfires for thousands of years, familiar stories of love and loss, bravery and heroism, themes that cross every culture and transcend our differences.

While the underlying themes may be the same the solutions to these themes can differ and that’s wonderful.  It would be such a boring world if there was only chocolate ice cream or just vanilla ice cream.  How much better to have Spumoni, and raspberry, tutti frutti, butter pecan….

Science fiction is now a world wide source of entertainment from our movies to our TV shows.  Shouldn’t our prose also try to reflect this wonderful kaleidoscope of human diversity?  In fact prose is probably the best place to present this fascinating dance of differing outlooks and beliefs, to speak to and hear from people who aren’t just like us.

I think it deepens and enriches our genre when we have women, and people of color and the LGBT community, and different religions or no religions discussed and explored.

Over the years I’ve had people ask “what do you do?” and when I tell them I’m a writer their initial reaction is “oh cool”.  Then they ask what I write and when I say science fiction the reaction becomes “Oh, that’s kid stuff.  I don’t read science fiction.”  By broadening our field to include this rich symphony of different voices I think science fiction has graduated from being that “Buck Rogers, kid stuff” into a genre which is perfectly positioned to discuss big issues and the deepest human motivations in really interesting ways.

This isn’t to say there isn’t a place for some good old fashioned buckle and swash, but that shouldn’t be the entirety of our field.  Let’s not eat just vanilla ice cream or sing one kind of song.  Let’s explore all of the wonder that the minds of humans can imagine.  I see no evidence that the buckle and swash is being forced out in favor of a more diverse fiction.  The pie is getting bigger not smaller.  More books are being published.  More voices are being heard.  Today readers have an expansive feast to be enjoyed.

What I’m trying to say is none of us should be afraid.  It’s a small blue dot and because of advances in technology we have the ability to hug each other close and face the void united in our humanity and celebrating our differences.

Taking a Note

So I’m writing a very emotional scene in my current Wild Card story and George R.R. had given me a note to add in thoughts and mentions of another character and earlier events in a particular exchange.  I was trying to answer the note because it’s a valid note, but it was a jarring leaden intrusion into the flow of the scene.  So I went looking earlier in the scene and found the perfect place to insert this call back to previous events.

That’s one of the harder lessons to learn for a new writer (actually the hardest lesson is learning to take a note, but more on that later) — you want to please the editor/show runner, but you don’t want to write a bad scene.  You have to trust your instincts and talent enough to find that alternative.

Globe Trotting Aces

Hey, the new edition of ACES ABROAD, the fourth book in our Wild Card series is now available from Tor books.  It also has extra crunchy goodness with two new stories.  One by Carrie Vaughn www.carrievaughn.com, and another by Kevin Andrew Murphy Kevin.A.Murphy.  Do check it out.  The Wild Card series has often set stories in diverse places around the world, and our alternate history can be both fun and alarming.


When Writing Is Really Fun

Most people who know me know that I’m a big proponent of the outline or the story break.  I think it helps you meet deadlines and not fall into seductive dead ends that look good at first then you write a hundred pages and realize you’ve been dumped in a swamp.  The argument against the outline is that it’s rigid, a straight jacket, confining.  But it’s not.  If you know the big scenes and the ultimate end of the book there is still plenty of room to move and breath and adjust.

Yesterday afternoon I finished a big scene about economics and using money as a weapon.  Then last night I realized that I could go back to a chapter much earlier in the book and add in a small exchange between my hero and his father that will resonate incredibly in the scene between my heroine and her father.  I won’t draw any attention to it — it will be a bit like an Easter Egg embedded in a video, but I’ll know it’s there and that will delight me.  And some readers will spot it and that will be fun too.

It’s always a balance between being too subtle and “hiding the football”, and being too “on the nose”.  That’s when beta readers really come in handy, and I’ll be looking for one once this book is completed.  I want fresh eyes to see if the entire story holds together.

My Process

I’m closing in on the end of the first book in the space opera series — THE HIGH GROUND.  I knew in a general way what the big action sequence was going to be, but I’m almost there, and it’s crunch time.  A general sense wasn’t going to be good enough.  I needed specific scenes.  So I grabbed the cards, assigned a colored pen to my two POV characters, and another color for my antagonist, and settled onto the floor in front of the board and started tossing up actual scenes.

What is Mercedes doing?  What is Tracy doing?  What will go wrong?  What do we learn about non POV characters?  Amazing how this all started coming into focus from just the act of writing.  I still have one outstanding question regarding the antagonist, but I have some cards and questions to myself off on the far side of the board.  Sometimes just writing down the questions starts the brain turning.

I know that “pantsers” or “gardeners” would have just started writing and hoped the subconscious took them in the right direction, but sometimes the subconscious gets lost and confused and then you’re just typing aimlessly waiting for inspiration to strike.  I prefer to find the pitfalls before I’ve written several thousand words.

Scripts Are Easier

On Tuesday evenings I go over to Len Wien and Christina Valada’s house for dinner, and then Len and T and I watch three TV shows back to back — The Flash, Agents of SHIELD and Person of Interest.  Len has dubbed it Action Tuesday which is a great name for it.  Person of Interest continues to be the best show on television (more on that later), but it was a moment in AOS that caught my attention and made me think again how much easier it is to write a script where shorthand and outright hand waving, or no explanation at all is perfectly acceptable.

SPOILERS if you haven’t been watching the show or following the movies ——

SHIELD is not in very good odor around the world.  It’s been branded a terrorist organization, and law enforcement is hunting down SHIELD agents and agent… correction, Director Coulson.  So Coulson needs to go talk to a U.S. Senator, and we simply cut into the scene where the Senator enters his office and finds Coulson waiting for him.  They have a fraught conversation and make a deal.  Okay, pretty standard stuff, but what struck me is that in film the writers feel it’s perfectly acceptable for Coulson to be waiting in the office without any explanation or even a scene showing how this wanted “criminal” managed to enter the Senate Office Building undetected.

In a book we could never get away with that.  We would have to show either the planning or the execution and make it believable or we would be faced with a reader’s inevitable  ah come on moment.  But not in film.  It bumped me briefly, but I just went with it, and filed away this little nugget to write about here on the blog.  Is it because when we’re watching rather than reading we’re willing to accept more shortcuts to keep the action moving?  God knows planning scenes/committee meetings are death in a book, and triple death on screen, but a hint at how this was accomplished would have helped me over that one rough place.  And maybe nobody else noticed it and was bothered, and this is the price I pay for knowing how the sausage gets made.  I would love to hear from people if they are more tolerant of logic lapses in film than they are in books.

Then there was Person of Interest.  (I don’t shorthand that title because it’s disrespectful to a great show.  🙂 )  Anyway the week before the episode had been dark and hell and very depressing.  This week was almost comedic, and then came the kicker at the very end like the lash of a scorpion’s tail.  I just can’t say enough in praise of the writer/producers on this show.  I bought the first three seasons of the show and I’m looking forward to starting the series all over again, and sharing it with Carl when we’re home at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The Problem With Contentment

I ran up against an interesting problem today while I was working on the space opera.  Given the trouble we ran into on Star Trek: The Next Generation I should have seen it coming, but it really hit home today.  Contented characters aren’t very interesting and the problems that afflict them are usually of the emotional variety and that’s hard to dramatize.

I’ve got two view point characters in this book (I touched on the problems that may cause in my last post) but today a new issue raised its ugly head.  My hero is lower class, put down.  He has “the-I-wants” really badly.  She’s The Infanta of the Solar League.  Yes, she has the pressure placed on her by her father and the looming knowledge she’s going to have to rule this messy empire, but that’s a problem for the future.  She’s not poor, she’s not disparaged she doesn’t have anything obvious against which to strive.

On Trek this manifested one day during a story meeting where we were trying to “break” a story that revolved around Troi.  Our boss, Ira, was fulminating, cheerleading, trying to get the rest of us engaged, and he tapped a colored pen against the white board and asked, “So, what does Troi want?”  We stared at him, and he suddenly got this funny expression, threw the pen across the room, and declared.  “Fuck, I don’t know what she wants.  She doesn’t want anything because she doesn’t need anything.”

And that’s my current dilemma.  So I’ve got to find something that can test my heroine and place pressure on her that isn’t just an arbitrary problem that I’ve throw in to address this problem.  What ever I come up with needs to be integral to the plot.  It has to have real meat, and real stakes associated with it, and as I sit at my computer at 10:30 at night I have no fucking clue what that’s going to be.


Points Of View

You may not know it but a lot of writers like to set challenges for themselves.  Can I write a novel or short story strictly following the fairy tale format?  Let me see if I can write an unreliable narrator.  I’m going to tackle first person (much harder then you think).  So the writing challenge I set for myself with the space opera was having only two view point characters — my hero and heroine, and alternating scenes between them.

So I’m closing in on 60,000 words and it’s been working.  Where I’m seeing the problem coming is in the later books where they are going to be separated by vast distances.  I’m beginning to think that at that point I will need two more view point characters to interact with hero and heroine in their disparate locations.

I’ve also found that I know a lot more about my male character and what motivates him then I do about the woman.  As I write her and dig deeper into her really screwed up family situation she’s coming more and more into focus, but it’s sometimes harder to write about a person who has great privilege.  They have challenges to overcome, but they are less obvious than the poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks.  Basically they are “first world problems”, and those are harder to make dramatic and interesting.