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The write-finer monologues So what's up man? Cooling, man. Chillin' chillin'? Yo you know I had to call, you know why right? To reprise the opening lines from the Wu-Tang Clan's classic track 'Protect Ya Neck'? Well, yes, but also to see how the writing's going. Are you doing it? The big push to finish Raven's Blood? I'm doing my best. Which is... what? Three chapters since...

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The big push Last week I talked about writing a polished (or at least satisfactory) foundation draft, which obviously takes longer than a rougher first draft. In saying all that, I wasn't trying to say that one approach is better than the other; it's all about what works for you as a writer. Write fast, write slow; it takes as long as it takes, and what matters is how happy you...

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First versus foundation (steel cage grudge match) There's been a pretty excellent blog post making the rounds lately. No, not one of mine, he chuckled... oh, no-one suggested it was one of mine? Oh. Okay. That's fine. No, no, just something in my eye. No, it's the very smart 'How not to write a novel' essay over at the Momentum Books blog. Go read it if you haven't already. I'll wait. I have fulfilled pretty...

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Everything I did wrong and more besides Lots of talk about how much money people can make - or not make - from independent e-publishing lately. Author Hugh Howey launched a site called Author Earnings, which uses some maybe-representative-maybe-not data to create complicated reports suggesting that self-publishers can make pots and pots of money. But in the same time period I've read a bunch of blog posts by...

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Wiggle my wordle (Alternative linkbait title: Try this one weird trick for finding repetition in your writing!) So I've had a long and kinda irritating day, and all I really want to do is drink Scotch and grumble, but I don't because I've got a work ethic and I owe you folks a blog post. And I don't want to drink because I have a platelet donation tomorrow. ...okay, fine, I don't...

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The write-finer monologues

Category : ghost raven, superheroes, writing

So what’s up man?

Cooling, man.

Chillin’ chillin’? Yo you know I had to call, you know why right?

To reprise the opening lines from the Wu-Tang Clan’s classic track ‘Protect Ya Neck’?

Well, yes, but also to see how the writing’s going. Are you doing it? The big push to finish Raven’s Blood?

I’m doing my best.

Which is… what?

Three chapters since the start of the month, which is, um… 7000 words in 13 days.

Hey, that’s pretty good!

Thanks. I’m not 100% happy with the level of polish, but I gotta put that aside for the moment. That’s what later drafts are for.

How much do you have left to do?

Probably five more chapters and an epilogue. I’d say about… 11 000 words? Maybe 12 000?

And you’ve got 17 days until the end of April? That sounds doable if you work a little bit harder, do a thousand words a day.

I hope so. I’m trying to wrap it up by the 28th so I can give the finished MS to my wife as a birthday present.

How romantic.

It was her idea, okay?

Fine, whatever. Still, you should be able to make it if you stay focused.

Yeah. ‘If”. Assuming I don’t lose any time to distractions.

Is that likely?

Oh shit yeah. I’ve already lost plenty of time in these last two weeks.

I thought you were working hard at this!

I am! But hey, it’s Comedy Festival season, you know?

Slacker. Any show recommendations?

Yep – Ben McKenzie, Laura Davis and Justin Hamilton all have terrific shows this year. You should go see them next week before the Festival finishes.

I’ll try, but as a figment of your imagination I find it tricky to get out on my own. But that’s been your only distraction, right? Right?

…I might have gone to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Oh for god’s sake. 

Come on, this surely comes as no real surprise to anyone. And I worked on the book before and after!

Fine, fine. Was it any good?

Oh yeah, it’s terrific. A top-notch superhero movie with great performances and a solid thriller aesthetic. And Batroc the Leaper!

Shit, really?

Well, he doesn’t do much leaping, or any savate. Still cool, though. Best Marvel Studios/Avengers-family movie so far – top of the rankings list!

There’s a list?

Yep. The official ranking is:

  1. Captain America: Winter Soldier
  2. Captain America
  3. Iron Man 3
  4. Iron Man
  5. The Avengers
  6. Thor 2
  7. Thor 
  8. Incredible Hulk
  9. Iron Man 2

Hmm. Interesting. Official in what sense?

In the sense that it’s my bloody blog.

Jeez, fine, settle down. But that’s it, right? Knuckling down from this point?

Definitely. Largely. Probably. Okay, look, I’m going to lose some time to shows and gaming and day job stuff, but that’s the way it goes. Nobody gets to just lock themselves in the writing box and only come out when it’s done, okay? Not unless they live in a shack in the woods, peeing into bottles and working on a manifesto. Life has its own demands, and you have to roll with them rather than beating yourself up for being human. The important thing is to work as hard and effectively as you can, when you can, and keep the deadline in mind. It’s like the inverse of Parkinson’s Law, you know? ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’ So if you have a set amount of time available to work, your work level will rise to make use of it.

Hopefully.

Well, yeah.

Is talking to yourself on your blog one of the ways you’re expanding to fill the time available to you?

It’s this or talking to the dog.

I probably would have done that. He’s less critical than I am.

This is true.

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The big push

2

Category : writing

Last week I talked about writing a polished (or at least satisfactory) foundation draft, which obviously takes longer than a rougher first draft.

In saying all that, I wasn’t trying to say that one approach is better than the other; it’s all about what works for you as a writer. Write fast, write slow; it takes as long as it takes, and what matters is how happy you – and your readers – are once you reach the end.

For my part, I’ve been working slow but (mostly) sure on Raven’s Blood. It’s taken nearly two years but I’m into the final act, and I reckon there’s about 20 000 words left to go. At my current rate, I think that would take maybe… hmm, four months to write, giving me a finished, relatively polished draft by the end of July.

But see, here’s the thing:

End of July? No way, no hay. I won’t have it.

Instead, I am devoting myself – deliberately and very publicly – to the goal of finishing this book by the end of April. That’s 20 000 words in about four weeks – completely doable, even with editing and polishing and I go.

That means working harder than I have to date and it means finding time to write. Fortunately, April offers me assistance in the form of the Comedy Festival, which will be taking up the time of my wife and friends. I’m seeing a few shows, but I’m not reviewing for anyone this year, and so I’ll be home alone more nights than not – and since I’ve cunningly made sure to not have any new video games to hand, and since Ernie doesn’t know how to play Netrunner, I’ve got few distractions to feed my addiction to procrastination. Ideal circumstances for The Big Push – the last headlong rush to the finish line, along with the motivation to make it happen lest I humiliate myself in front of the literally tens of people that read this here blog. You have to hold me accountable, folks.

Here’s the mission statement:

Now stand back and let me work, damnit.

First versus foundation (steel cage grudge match)

3

Category : writing

There’s been a pretty excellent blog post making the rounds lately. No, not one of mine, he chuckled… oh, no-one suggested it was one of mine? Oh. Okay. That’s fine.

No, no, just something in my eye.

No, it’s the very smart ‘How not to write a novel’ essay over at the Momentum Books blog. Go read it if you haven’t already. I’ll wait.

I have fulfilled pretty much every single one of these points, including the top-secret-banned-from-public-consumption item #5 (hint: bourbon and marmosets), and I pretty much agree that all of them are problematic. But I want to talk a bit about item #4 – ‘Edit first, write later’ – because maybe things aren’t that cut and dried there.

An accepted piece of writing wisdom is that the first draft does not need to be good, it just needs to be written. Just slam those words out with little or revision, because the important thing is to get them out in the first place – the second and later drafts are when you refine your ideas, polish your prose and edit out all the crap bits. Some writers call the first draft the vomit draft for just this reason (I call Boags Draught the vomit draft, but that’s neither here nor there). That’s a bit extreme, okay, but we can all agree that energy and momentum is more important than polish in the first draft. I’ve agreed with that premise, I’ve told other people to just get in there and write; when I coached the EWF Rabbit Hole Online team a couple of years back, I told them not to bother even correcting typos or obvious errors, just to write write write so that they have something finished to do the real work on later.

But see, here’s the thing:

I can’t do it.

I’ve tried, I really have. I’ve written the first thing that came to mind and moved on – and then I’ve come crawling back, blocked from moving on because all I can think of is a better way of writing that line, of enforcing the tone, of avoiding repetition of overused words. Of writing something that I’m happy with, rather than something I can tolerate for the moment.

So yes, I edit as I go. I edit a lot. I’ll rewrite a line three or four times, and then rewrite back and forward from that point so that the new line sits right on the page. If I introduce something new into the story, I go back to the start and revise things so that there’s textual support for this element and it doesn’t feel out of place. If I’m on chapter 20 and I realise that I’m not happy with chapter 1, then I stop writing chapter 20 and I damn well rewrite chapter 1 – and probably 2 and 3 – until they’re right.

Yes, I know. I know.

It’s this habit – along with procrastination, video games, socialising, mental fatigue, drunkenness and an appalling work ethic – that explains why it’s taken me nearly two years to write 80% of the draft for Raven’s Blood, and why I still need to nail down the last 20 000 words (and possibly revise the first 20 000 words again) before it’s finished.

But here’s the other thing:

It’s a good draft. It hangs together, it makes sense, the characterisation is (fairly) consistent, the voice is (mostly) consistent, the pacing is pretty much spot on if I say so myself… this is a draft that I can show other people right away, rather than needing to rewrite it one-two-three more times to make it fit for public consumption. There’s work that needs to be done, obviously, but I’ve saved myself a lot of later work by doing that work already. (Two years’ worth of work? Well, let’s not sweat that detail.)

Because of that, I don’t refer to this as a first draft; I call it my foundation draft. It’s something I can build on, but it’s something that’s already solid and stable, rather than the collection of raw materials that a quantity-not-quality first draft would give me – concrete and timber, not putty and pencil shavings. (I’m not suggesting that all first drafts are like that – just that mine would certainly be.)

So with the final act still to write, deadlines blown and most readers’ interest looooong gone… I still keep working on my foundation. Because if I build this house – and damnit, I want to – then I want it to stand. At least long enough for someone else to check it for woodworm.

So that’s my approach to long-form writing – foundation, not first; strength, not speed; sumo, not karate.

Disagree? Tell me about it; leave a comment and tell me why you find the breakneck pace of the first draft better for your work.

Think I’m on the right path? Leave a comment and validate me – and get ready for me to argue the exact opposite next weekend.

Everything I did wrong and more besides

1

Category : ebooks, writing

Lots of talk about how much money people can make – or not make – from independent e-publishing lately. Author Hugh Howey launched a site called Author Earnings, which uses some maybe-representative-maybe-not data to create complicated reports suggesting that self-publishers can make pots and pots of money. But in the same time period I’ve read a bunch of blog posts by various writers (none of which my amateurish Google-fu can seem to turn up right now) talking about how little they’ve made from publishing their own work on the Kindle Store or wherever.

Where do I fit in? Interesting coincidence that you should ask that, as I just did my monthly update of my sales- (and cost-) tracking spreadsheet. I’ve been doing the self-pub thing for nearly four years now, and I have some numbers to share.

In 2010-11 (because I track by Australian financial years) I released Hotel Flamingo and Godheads and made $171.98 from them (gross, not net). In 2011-12 I published The Obituarist and made $228.74. In 2012-13 I put out (to no great fanfare) Nine Flash Nine and made $122.71.

And in the eight months to date of 2013-14, I have made a grand total of… twenty-five dollars and thirty-three cents.

Amanda Hocking I am not. Especially since I racked up expenses of $1037.98 creating and promoting those four books, which means (I’ll spare you from doing the sums) I have lost almost $500 doing this whole self-pub thing and would certainly be better off financially if I’d simply spent 3.67 years sitting in a dark room huffing paint with my underpants on my head.

I mean, okay, I could have done that and published unsuccessful books, but you take my point.

Fortunately my Google-fu is strong enough that I can find tonnes and tonnes of advice about what I can do to guarantee hundreds and hundreds of ebook sales. Well, frankly a drunk kitten could find that advice; Google ‘self-publishing’ and you’ll get a million hits of people telling you how to make it big.

According to various places on Teh Intarwebs, here’s what I should do in order to be a runaway success:

  • Spend more money on marketing: Sure, I bought ads on Goodreads and War Rocket Ajax, but I should have done more and directed ads towards people who would really dig the premises of my books, such as crime fans, horror readers, undertakers and flashers.
  • Spend less money on marketing: No-one reads ads! That’s the old way of thinking! I should have focused on engaging directly with customers through things like witty blog posts, outright begging and investment of time – because time is nothing like money, nothing at all.
  • Use social media more: I’m on Twitter and Facebook, even on Google Plus (ha ha), but I should be in other places – where’s my Pinterest board? And I should use what I have more aggressively, sending out press releases and links several times a week/day/hour.
  • Use social media less: Twitter’s dead! Facebook’s dead! Shut off the social media hum and just write write write; if you write it, they will come! (Having somehow learned that you did write it through mysterious means, possibly involving blood sorcery.)
  • Use word-of-mouth and the personal touch: If I’d just reached out to every person I knew and got them to buy my books, I’d be sitting pretty. Especially if I’d then nagged and cajoled them into writing reviews and pressing them on others. It worked for Dianetics.
  • Automate all that marketing shit: Robots is where it’s at! Why speak to a human being when an automated bot can spam reviews onto a bunch of sites or auto-DM anyone who even looks at my Twitter profile for five freakin’ seconds?
  • Write more books: Readers respect dedication. They want to keep reading more books from authors they trust. They want to print out your books and build houses with paper walls thick enough to stop mortar fire. That’s why Robert Jordan was so popular.
  • Write fewer books: If I’d written just one book, I could focus all of my marketing and promotional activities on it. I could tweet the same information about it every week! Mention it in every discussion! Tattoo the cover onto my eyelids and blink constantly!
  • Go exclusive with Amazon: Exclusive deals are the strongest deals. KDP exclusivity opens you up to a huuuuuuge market of people who only use Amazon Prime, don’t want to pay full price for ebooks and are generally disinterested in anyone but bestsellers!
  • Publish in as many places as possible: I’m on Amazon, and Smashwords to 12 other outlets, but is that enough? What if I sold PDFs through RPG stores? Epubs through university libraries? Animated GIFs through Tumblr? Braille on posters? What else?
  • Establish my personal brand and platform: I need to create my own unique identity, one similar enough to other, more popular unique identities that I will be accepted into their tribe. There’s still time to murder Warren Ellis and wear his beard like a suit.
  • Eschew concepts like ‘personal brand’ and ‘platform’: Hollow buzzwords! Marketing 101 crap! People engage with personal, genuine, artisanal work; if I grew idiosyncratic sideburns and wrote my novels in Moleskine notebooks, I could find a whole new audience
  • Charge more for my books: The era of 99 cent/app-style pricing is OVER! Customers want to feel like books are priced like quality products for discerning buyers. Plus, if I sold just five novellas for $15 each I could totally afford some really good scotch.
  • Give away more free books: People love free books! People read free books! People review free books! Freebies definitely lead to hundreds more sales, rather than dozens of unread MOBI files gathering electron dust on Kindles just like mine!
  • Blog more: …I’m not sure I can.
  • Blog less: …I’m still not sure I can.

Here’s what I will be doing:

  • Shrug and keep writing.

Lots of people are willing to tell me what I’m doing wrong. But the only person who gets to decide what’s right for me is, well, me.

I’m not getting rich. I’m not breaking even. I’m not reaching the largest possible market for my work. But I’m writing the stories I want to write, telling the stories I want to tell, and making enough from my day job that I don’t feel I have to justify my time by making much (or any) money out of it. Which is a pretty sweet place to be.

None of which means I wouldn’t like more sales, because more sales mean more readers and more people (hopefully) enjoying my work. And, okay, perhaps more people getting interested in Raven’s Blood and making it more attractive to a publisher, or looking forward to The Obituarist 2: The Secret of Curly’s Gold when I self-publish that around June/July. Those would be good things.

If I can get those things doing just what I’m doing now… that would be good too. So I’ll try that.

Wiggle my wordle

2

Category : writing

(Alternative linkbait title: Try this one weird trick for finding repetition in your writing!)

So I’ve had a long and kinda irritating day, and all I really want to do is drink Scotch and grumble, but I don’t because I’ve got a work ethic and I owe you folks a blog post.

And I don’t want to drink because I have a platelet donation tomorrow.

…okay, fine, I don’t because I’m out of Scotch.

So as a quick, (hopefully) useful post tonight, I want to talk about a tool I like to use when writing, and especially when editing, to examine which words I’m using the most in the work. It’s especially handy when writing a large piece, such as this goddamn friggin’ novel that refuses to end.

You’ve probably heard of it – it’s the website Wordle, which generates word clouds from copypasted text. If you’ve not visited it yourself, you’ll surely have seen its outputs; there was a real fad in the late 2000s for using it to generate English textbook covers or irritating Facebook image posts.

But anyway, Wordle generates word art where the sizes of the words show their relative frequency in the text, something that can make things sink in much more viscerally than a plain word count. And in the process, it lets you see which notes you’re hitting the most often.

Here’s the entirety of Raven’s Blood (so far) in all its glory:

Wordle1

Okay, so what can I learn from this?

  • I use Kember’s name a lot. Which makes sense; she’s the viewpoint protagonist and in every scene. (I also use ‘she’ and ‘her’ a fair bit, but they’re filtered out of this.) But even so, is she in too prominent a role? Is there a balance between her and the other major characters? I don’t live to change POV, even in a third-person novel, but if I was trying to go for more of an ensemble story this would help me juggle the cast.
  • Two other major characters, the Ghost Raven (the masked hero) and Silas (the love interest) have roughly equal prominence, which does surprise me; I thought the Raven would loom much larger. Still, that will shift as the novel nears its end.
  • Of the other notable characters, only Jesseck, Roland Arrowsmith and Deathgrip make an appearance here; others like Idana, Blackvine and the Coglord haven’t played much of a role so far. Again, a bit surprised by that; I need to push some of those characters into a stronger position soon.
  • There are lots of movement and positioning terms in the mix – left, back, behind etc. I’ve tried to make fight scenes engaging and kinetic, and to create clear visuals of what’s happening, and these are useful tools for that. At the same time, prepositions and placement adjectives aren’t as engaging as active verbs, and those are barely a blip here. Does that mean I’m varying them effectively, or that I’m not using enough? I’ll look for that in my next major editing pass – and try to work out why I use ‘back’ so often.
  • ‘Like’ pops up a lot, which either means my characters are Valley girls or (more correctly) that I’m using a lot of similes. Too many similes? Should I try to pull things back to more literal descriptions, or push it further to replace some similes with metaphors? What’s more appropriate for a YA novel? I think I have it right, but this helps me be aware of it.
  • I use ‘man’ a lot more than ‘woman’; I use ‘girl’ a lot more than ‘boy’. I have no idea if that means anything.
  • And so on.

None of this is OH MY GOD LOOK WHAT I HAVE WROUGHT insight, but it’s useful stuff for the editing cycle. And as we know, most times editing takes a shitload longer than writing the book in the first place. (Christ, I hope that’s not true.)

So yeah, try plugging your work-in-progress in and turning it into a word cloud – you might see something unexpected. And if you do, feel free to come along and tell us all about it.

Now, back to staring angrily into the corner until a bottle of Wild Turkey suddenly materialises. It has to happen eventually.

Bullet point theatre

Category : linkage

Folks, you know what we haven’t had here for the longest time? A good old-fashioned roundup of links to other things on the internet!

Other things are great, aren’t they? They’re useful, they’re interesting, they distract you from the inevitability of your own mortality… why deny you such a vital necessity any longer?

(Also, I don’t have the time/energy for another superlong post (that no-one comments on, sob sob), and the thing I wanted to write about this week hasn’t materialised yet.)

And so, to celebrate (checks Wikipedia) Quirinalia – sure, why not – and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s birthday, here’s a bunch of things you should go poke at until the TAB key comes off your keyboard.

  • Kate Cuthbert, lead editor for Harlequin Australia’s digital imprint Escape Publishing, talks about digital publishing and the Australian romance writing scene. I met Kate at GenreCon and she’s awesome, as well as someone who appreciates my karaoke stylings.
  • Did you know that RPG designer Greg Stolze also writes fiction? And that, after kickstartering stories, he gives them away for free? If you didn’t before, you do now, so go download some crazy surreal horror-fantasy from him now.
  • How much does it cost to hire a hitman in Bosnia? What’s the price of meth in Australia? How many prostitutes are there in the United Kingdom? If you need to answer questions like this for your modern crime/crime-related novel – and I think that’s the only reason any of us would want to know that, right? Right? – then check out Havocscope, a site that crowdsources data from a variety of places to build a picture of the global black market and its prices and services.
  • “It’s been like five years since the last video game about rubbing all over the bodies of underage girls to find out if they’re witches.” Just one of the signs that there’s probably no more misogyny in the video games industry. (Note: sarcasm sarcasm so much bitter sarcasm)
  • Have you heard about Storium, the online storytelling platform that’s a kind of hybrid writing/roleplaying/collaboration tool? They’re doing a second round of playtesting ahead of a Kickstarter, and everyone’s favourite beardgoblin Chuck Wendig is part of their team, so maybe you should sign up. (I did. It’s pretty neat.)
  • And speaking of El Wendigo, the Beard That Walks Like a Man, he’s been talking a lot about regular publishing vs self-publishing lately, and a bunch of people have been picking sides and virtually glassing each other about it. I’m not. But I will direct you to his last (for now) word on the subject, ‘Self Publishing Truism Bingo’, which is a smart read and that thankfully has comments turned off.
  • Do you have babies? Have you considered getting one? Absolutely everyone’s doing it. But few of them are as fun or funny as my friend Scepticmum, whose blog is fecking (her term, she’s Irish) hilarious.
  • You know what’s not fun or funny or hilarious? This online comic by a former Serco employee talking about working in Australia’s refugee detention centres. But you should read it nonetheless, because it’s fucking important.
  • If you live in Darebin Council and you’re a writer, then a) we should get together for a shut-up-and-write session, and b) check out the inaugural Mayor’s Writing Award, which is running until the end of April. Mentorships, publication, book vouchers and sweet sweet cash for both adult and teenage writers!
  • And speaking of awards, the Australian Horror Writers Association’s Short/Flash Fiction competition is open, and entries close at the end of May. Will this be the year I finally win a prize? Probably not, since I have no ideas for a story to submit – but if you enter and win I can cruise in a haze of vicarious victory!
  • And speaking even more about awards, the 2013 Aurealis Awards finalists have been announced! Big ups to all those nominated!
  • And speaking of totally different things to awards, here is CHVRCHES doing a cover of ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, and it is even cooler than you might have wished.

Happy birthday, JGL. This one’s been for you.

Ridiculous fishing and the narrative pull

Category : writing

Go to a writing conference or group and you’ll hear folks talking about the ‘through line’, the theme or concept that drives a novel.

I’m not here to talk about that kinda line. I’m here to talk about a different kind of line that can run through your narrative.

A fishing line.

Yes, really.

Okay, not really.

But there is a line you can draw from your strong beginning to your kick-arse ending, and if you have a line you can use it to pull readers from one end to the other, and at that point the fishing metaphor works as well as anything else I normally serve up on this blog.

So listen: I’m going to share with you a secret technique, so secret that only thousands of other writers use it to create effective fiction. It is a FOOLPROOF* (*note: not in fact foolproof) method of engaging a reader and GUARANTEES* (guarantee not valid in any known human society) that your book will be described as ‘pulse-pounding’, ‘a real page-turner’ and ‘unputdownable’, and that last one isn’t even a proper word!

I do this because I love you. All of you. Even the spambots.

And yes, I call this technique The Fishing Line, because that sounds snapper snappy, and it consists of three angling-themed parts, thus making my metaphor actually accurate for perhaps the first time.

Hook it

The first thing to do is open your story with a hook. What does that mean? It’s something that grabs the reader’s attention and then keeps it – and that second part is important, because it’s too easy to open strong but then lose your iron grip on the wandering eye. Don’t start with the weather, or a page of description, or a scene where not very much happens for ages – open strong and in the middle of things, for whatever value of ‘middle’ makes sense. The mission statement is part of the hook, but so is a sense of urgency, immediacy or compelling uncertainty – an opening where the reader quickly understands what the book is going to be about but wants to see how you’ll fulfil those requirements.

Can I give examples? Sure. For a self-aggrandizing one, Raven’s Blood opens with both a mission statement – this is a fantasy novel, our heroine is rebellious, there’s magic, something strange is going on – and the urgent hook of a man falling to his death, delivering a cryptic statement and then exploding in flames. That’s as strong a hook as I can manage. Or for a less egotistical example, how about the first issue of Grant Morrison’s awesome All-Star Superman? It opens as Superman saves a spaceship and fights a monster within the Sun’s chromosphere, then finds that his power levels have increased immeasurably from exposure to so much solar radiation – to the point where the overexposure will inevitably kill him. It’s a perfect issue – smash opening, high concept, mission statement, lots of character moments and Frank Quitely artwork.

Drag it

Once the reader is on the hook, the next step is to drag them from the first segment of the story to the next. What’s a ‘segment’? A chapter, an issue, the bit of the episode between commercials – whatever the natural break points of your story are. (If you don’t have those break points – say if you’ve written your book as one long chapter – then for god’s sake go back and put them in.) The thing about a break point is that the reader is naturally inclined to stop reading at that point, so you have to give them a reason not to – to instead turn the page right freaking now. A cliffhanger is an obvious drag of the line, but there are subtler, more controllable forms; the key thing is to end each chapter (or whatever) with a question (although not literally). Who shot the hero? Where are they taking her? How will she tell her father that she’s gay? Is that bomb going to go off in the middle of dinner? All of these mean the same thing: what happens next? You have to make the reader ask that question, and you have to make them want to know the answer.

What’s the drag at the end of issue one of All-Star Superman? Clark tells Lois his secret identity. What’s the drag in the first chapter of The Obituarist? Kendall gets punched in the stomach by a mysterious neckbeard. In Raven’s Blood? Kember is being literally dragged off to see the Mayor. What happens next?

Land it

What happens next is that you have to answer the question in the next segment of the story – you launched the reader over the break point and now you have to bring them in for a landing. Make sure to resolve whatever question/situation you used to end chapter 1 within chapter 2 – don’t string it along for multiple chapters. You don’t have to do it right away – it can be in the middle of the chapter, or even very close to the end – and you don’t have to wrap it up 100% cleanly, but the payoff has to come before the next break point. That way you’ve piqued the reader’s curiosity, made them take the risk of continuing with the story, then rewarded them for that risk before giving them a chance to question that decision.

That still leaves room for mysteries, big stories and complex plots. We don’t find out who the neckbeard was in chapter 2 of The Obituarist, but we see that he had a reason for attacking the hero. We meet Mayor Roland Arrowsmith in chapter 2 of Raven’s Blood, but that doesn’t tell us why a man exploded. Lois goes to the Fortress of Solitude with Superman, but isn’t really sure he’s telling the truth, and Superman is still dying. But our small knot of tension has pleasantly undone itself, leaving us to resettle into the story and continue on our way.

Until we get to the next gap. Now do it again.

That’s the unspoken fourth part to the three-part technique – you keep doing parts two and three over and over again. At the end of every chapter, drag the reader to the next one, land them into a new status quo, give them a second or ten of breathing room and then shoot them into space yet again. It’s a roller coaster that bounces readers up and down without ever making them puke (unless that’s your thing) and gets them to the very end vibrating like a plucked string, ready to burn all that energy off with the final resolution of your book.

I told you, it’s a perfect technique.

Is this a perfect technique? Of course not. It’s something that’s well suited to plot-driven/genre stories but not necessarily to thematic, character-driven or literary ones. Done badly it’s a string of spurious cliffhangers with meaningless payoffs, creating not tension but eyerolling. And even if done well, it’s sort of artificial – it’s the kind of thing a reader notices, no matter how many variations on the drag you can come up with.

But hey, all writing is artificial, all of it is a crafted thing that a writer made; there’s nothing wrong with embracing that. Noticing the drag-and-land doesn’t make it bad for a reader, any more so than noticing that the writer uses a lot of simile-based descriptions or run-on sentences. I used this all the way through The Obituarist, for example, and had a number of readers complement me on the way I did it; they enjoyed being pulled through the story, even if they could see my hand on the line.

That’s the best kind of fishing. When the trout throws itself on the hook and then voluntarily climbs up the line to meet you.

…god, it would be weird if that happened. I should put that in a story.

Thanks for sticking around for tonight’s thoughts on writing and for this little series on beginnings, middles and endings. Though not in that order. Let me know what you think! Argue with me! Agree with me! Analyse favourite books to see if they fit this model!

And come back next week, by which time I will hopefully have thought of something else to write about.

Cheers.

To all things… AN ENDING!

Category : story, writing

‘Endings?’ you snort derisively. ‘What would you know about endings? You’ve spent nearly two years working on the same novel and you haven’t finished it yet, distracted as you are by day jobs, video games and watching Japanese tokusatsu shows on YouTube!’

That’s true, Hypothetical and Unpleasantly Confrontational Reader, although I’ll thank you not to drag my burgeoning interest in Kamen Rider into this. Raven’s Blood is taking too long, but I am drawing close to the end of it, and endings are on my mind, especially after last week’s post on beginnings.

More to the point, that’s not my only project, and last weekend I wrapped up Exile Empire, the 4th ed D&D game I’ve been running for the last 3.5 years. (Only 24 sessions in that time, true, but so it goes.) After adventures throughout Stormreach and against a variety of enemies, the party of heroes ventured into Dolurrh, the Realm of the Dead, to rescue the soul of another adventurer. It was pretty damn fun, lemme tell you – you can read the details here, if you want a bit more context for what follows.

Empirebanner

Now, running a roleplaying campaign ain’t like dusting crops boy writing a novel, but there are things each can learn from the other, as I’ve written about before. Plus, story is story no matter how it’s packaged and delivered, and a satisfying end to a narrative has certain elements no matter whether it’s communicated through deathless prose, dice rolls or a dance battle.

So with that in mind, here are four things that, based on my experiences with good endings and bad (and with the end of Exile Empire as an example), make for a satisfying and engaging ending to any story.

Resolution

The payoff, the big finish, the wrap-up; the ending needs to resolve the core line of the story. That’s not necessarily the same thing as ‘resolve the story’, especially since you might have multiple plotlines going on in a big story and this book might only be the first instalment. But the start of your book is a promise of what the story may hold, especially if you use the start of the story to make your mission statement (and you should); the end of the book is where you need to make good on that promise. In other words, you need to finish, not just end; don’t just come to a sudden stop and say ‘well, book’s done now.’ You might think that would go without saying, but any number of novels make this mistake, including up-to-that-point good ones like Neal Stephenson’s early books.

The premise of Exile Empire was ‘heroes forge new lives in Stormreach and have adventures’, and that’s a formless enough thing that there are many ways I could have ended it. But in those first few sessions we lost two PCs, and that brought up a plot hook where someone stole one of the bodies, and it’s that plot thread – along with arcs that tied back to that hook at some point, and a couple of stand-alone why-the-hell-not side treks – that formed the spine of the campaign; it didn’t start as the mission statement, but it certainly became one soon enough. If I hadn’t made that the central element of the last arc, if I’d dropped that and brought up something new to cap off the campaign, then it might have been enjoyable in and of itself but it wouldn’t have been satisfying. To say nothing of not being as cool as going to the afterlife and beating up a dracolich.

More books should end with dracolich fights. Catcher in the Rye, I’m looking at you.

Closure and breathing room

As resolution is to story, closure is to character; the time to bring their personal arc and growth to a head and draw a line. Imagine for a second the ending of your favourite big action/adventure story – and then it stops right at the climax, with no glimpse of how the characters feel or cope with their victory (or defeat). Sounds pretty dull, right? Right? (Come on, agree with me.) If you hit all the crescendo notes in the climax (or anti-climax, if that’s your thing) and then stop, it’s like coaxing the audience into a sugar high and then telling them to go to bed right now. The dust needs to settle, the wounds need to heal; we need to see how the fulfilment of the story’s promise has changed the characters and how they move on from where they were. Without that character focus, it’s like seeing fight scenes in a loop; cool at first, sure, but eventually boring. And to do that, you need some time post-climax (stop sniggering) to focus on your world and characters, even if only for a quick scene; enough breathing room for everyone to settle into the new equilibrium.

The odd part of Exile Empire’s climax was that it was all about a character who was dead and who didn’t have a strong relationship with any of the surviving PCs. So to make it satisfying I had to give them reasons to care about saving his soul and to brave Dolurrh. Slaine’s master had been hurt when the corpse was stolen; Ash and Spark were caught up in the Prophecy motivating things; Caleb turned out to have a secret connection to the other dead PC, Jin; and Kaddik… okay, he was mostly along for the ride. I backed that up with encounters with the dead villains they’d defeated, plus chances to see how they’d changed Stormreach for the better, so that the players felt invested. And once the dracolich was defeated, we had quick scenes of everyone’s personal aftermath, giving players room to define for themselves how their characters had grown (or not).

Surprises

The thing about the 100% dramatically appropriate ending is that after you see a few of them they become kind of dull. All those expected character and plot ‘beats’ (god I hate that term) sounding at the expected time – even if they’re beautifully crafted, the gloss wears off. And if they’re not beautifully crafted, you get the same ol’ Hollywood ending we always sigh and roll our eyes at. So mix it up some when you get to the end and throw in something no-one expected, maybe not even you. Kill off a major character! Transform an enemy into an ally! Reveal that Rosebud was a sled, but it’s a talking sled and it’s come for revenge and oh god the sled is calling from inside the house! Or something else that isn’t perhaps so crazy. In my defence it’s very hot in my study and I think my brain has curdled.

The big surprise at the end of Exile Empire was that someone would have to stay behind in the Realm of the Dead in order for Alarich’s soul to leave. I hadn’t foreshadowed or suggested that (although it’s a classic ‘journey to the underworld’ trope), and so even though they knew this was the final session, the players had to wrestle with the notion that it would be very final for one of them. That led to earnest discussions and volunteering to stay behind, but when Spark elected to stay it felt both surprising and right – a shock (including to me) but a satisfying one. The other, smaller surprise was learning of Caleb’s connection to Jin and the secret plot he’d been working on all along – again, no real foreshadowing on it, but it felt right nonetheless.

A few loose ends

The other thing about Hollywood endings, while I’m badmouthing them, is that they can feel pat and contrived; they always wrap everything up neatly at the end. So too do some other stories, especially large ones with lots of subplots and hooks (comics/serial fiction is a particular culprit), and for me that rarely feels genuine. At best it feels too easy; at worst it feels rushed and super-forced. I think there’s value in a slightly messy ending to a big story, one where not every prop introduced in Act One gets used in Act Three (sorry, Chekov). Obviously you have to wrap up the core and most important things, but leaving a couple of things dangling, in a way that doesn’t interfere with the resolution of the main plotline, can make an ending feel that little bit more real. And leave room for a sequel.

Like most ongoing/serial games, Exile Empire had a bunch of story hooks and lines that came and went. The last arc of the game wrapped up the main ones – the Storm Hammers, the Prophecy, the trip to the Underworld – but I deliberately left others undone. Whatever happened to Janda-Shen and Ballast? Will Ash’s demonic relatives ever come for him? Who were those people chasing Spark? What was the real story behind Jin, Caleb and Jaris Cantar? What of the Prophecy and the power behind the Emerald Claw? We don’t know, and it’s okay – it didn’t hurt the story to leave those fallow at the end. (In the case of Spark’s story, in fact, the sudden twist of him staying in the Underworld made dropping those threads all the more dramatic.) I have material to work with if I want to return to the campaign (not any time soon, but it may happen), and the players have that sense of being part of something larger, messier and more interesting than the snippet we saw over 24 sessions.

Well, this was meant to be a short and punchy blog post, but that plan has obviously collapsed and died in the heat. Take a note, RPG writers – examples always eat up the wordcount.

What are your thoughts on a satisfying ending? Leave a comment and tell us what you think, even if – especially if – you disagree with my take. And come back next weekend for a look at one way from getting from the beginning to the ending without losing your readers’s attention.

It involves fishing. Yes, really. Metaphorically. Sort of.

The mission statement

3

Category : writers, writing

If you read genre comics, you know who Mark Waid is – one of the industry’s most respected writers, a thirty-year veteran of commercial superhero comics (and more than a few in other genres). He’s written almost every major character for both Marvel and DC, from his run on The Flash (close to the high water mark of ’90s supers) to his current Eisner-gobbling run on Daredevil.

(Also, I met him once when he was in Australia in the 90s – really, really nice guy.)

Anyway, over at Comics Alliance (a website about comics, but you probably already figured that out) he talks with Chris Sims (another guy whose work I like) about his upcoming run on The Hulk, which is emerging from his work for the last year or so on Indestructible Hulk – and the very first question-and-answer in that interview is something worth discussing:

Comics Alliance: The thing I liked about Indestructible Hulk, and this is something that comes up in a lot of your work, is that you’re a guy who’s big on mission statements and explicitly laying out your direction in a comic. You had that very simple phrase you repeated throughout the book, which was that Hulk destroys and Banner builds.

Mark Waid: I think it’s really important to hit that note. You don’t want to hit readers over the head like they’re completely incapable of picking up on subtlety. At the same time, when you do a first issue, the art and craft of the first issue, something that’s gotten really badly lost in my time in comics, and I’m not saying I’m a master of it either, I’m just very cognizant of it when I sit down to write a first issue of anything, is that the requirement is that it lays out the mission statement. Like the pilot of a TV show, like the first book in a long trilogy, whatever, any sort of serialized entertainment, I want to know what I’m supposed to be getting out of this. It doesn’t mean that you have to know everything, it doesn’t mean there aren’t surprises or twists, but I should know what I’m buying at that point so I know if I should come back.

The rest of the interview is here, and you should read it if you have any interest in the craft of writing comics, or indeed any interest in the Hulk.

Anyway, this idea of a mission statement – the willingness to communicate to your audience just what your story is going to be about, and to do it at the start of your narrative – is a bloody fantastic idea and one that more writers need to embrace.

The most important thing your story has going for it is your personal and unique voice – no doubt about that. But unless your prose style is so distinctive that readers immediately get drawn in by it – unless you’re Nabokov, more or less – then you need to get and keep their attention long enough to get into your voice, rather than stop reading and pick up some other book. That’s particularly the case in genre fiction – no matter how good your fantasy novel, there are lots of other novels out there that seem to be covering the same ground. So you have to make it clear what you’re doing that’s different.

And a great way to do that is by communicating your mission statement – by frontloading your premise (or your theme, if that’s your approach) within the first discrete chunk of your work. For a book, that’s probably your first chapter, or maybe your prologue (and if your prologue doesn’t communicate the point of your book, DELETE DELETE DELETE). For a serial work like a comic or TV show, it’s your first instalment – there’s a reason the concept of the pilot is so strongly entrenched in the TV scriptwriting industry. For a movie, it’s, um, maybe the first ten minutes, or maybe the trailer; for a short story it’s perhaps the first page, maybe even the first paragraph for a flash piece. That’s the point where the rubber hits the road; where you make a case to the reader for sticking with it long enough to fall in love with it rather than changing channel.

(I practice what I preach here, or at least I try to. The first chapter of Raven’s Blood tells you that there’s magic and shenanigans and men in masks, and introduces the main character. The first chapter of The Obituarist tells you what Kendall Barber does for a living, shows you that he’s in trouble and makes some promises about his narrative voice. And the first chapter/instalment of Hotel Flamingo didn’t fuck about with displaying the weirdness. They’re not the greatest books ever written, sure, but you know what you’re getting into early on.)

I get wanting the slow burn, the appeal of carefully developing a world and its texture; I get wanting to take your time. Well, I get it as a writer. As a reader? GET TO THE FUCKING MONKEY. Start off with the mission statement in mind and give me at least the initial outline of it – tell me at least as much of what the story’s going to hold as the blurb does.

Because the slow burn just leaves smoke and ashes; you want to kick off with the fire.

This week I’m talking beginnings; next week I’m talking endings.

Talk to me somewhere in the middle. I’m so lonely.

Jack to the sound

2

Category : writing

I’m not sure exactly when I got out of the habit of listening to music when I write. In my thirties I listened to music whenever I wrote – but then again, when I was in my thirties I listened to music at pretty much all times, my life a constant soundtrack of breakbeats that drowned out the rest of the world. I guess maybe I started paying attention to my life when I was in Melbourne, rather than Brisbane? Well, that or I got old.

No, you’re right, it must be the first one.

But in any case, I’m trying to get back into the habit of having music when I write, because it’s a way of signalling to myself that this is work time, creation time, not-fucking-about time. And so I’ve been grabbing a lot of music of late to be my own personal soundtrack, and I thought I might tell y’all about some of the better ones.

Speaking of soundtracks, I’ve been listening to a lot of them. They’re often tonally interesting, the lack of lyrics means I don’t get distracted while writing, and they play double duty as tools for my gaming.

I’ve been trying a lot of superhero movie soundtracks, because I’m writing a supers story (and playing a supers game), but a lot of them are kind of dull, especially those connected to the big Marvel movies – generic sludges of stirring horns and strings repeating variations on a core theme until you nod off dreaming of spandex. The Avengers and Captain America are both rubbish, and even Patrick Doyle – whose Henry V soundtrack is one of all my all-time favourites – turned in an underwhelming effort on Thor. But composer Brian Tyler bucks the trend; his Thor the Dark World is really engaging, and his Iron Man 3 soundtrack is great – especially the bossanova version of the main theme at the end. Still, probably the best is from a separate franchise – Henry Jackman’s X-Men: First Class soundtrack, which had a greater variety of instruments and dares to bring in some interesting electronic stings here and there. It’s terrific stuff, and it’s made me hunt out Jackman’s other efforts (and I’m hunting Tyler’s as well).

More than film soundtracks, though, I’ve been listening to videogame original soundtracks, where composers seem freer and more willing to work with electronica – ‘cos while I may be old, I still have a raver’s heart. (It’s in a box somewhere; I should probably give it back.) Gravitating to SF games, the Mass Effect 3 OST is a particular fave, perhaps largely due to Clint Mansell’s involvement. The Halo series dipped badly with the second game’s OST (it had frickin’ Hoobastank on it!), but the series has really bounced back with the music for Halo 4 and Reach. I’m not as big on fantasy game OSTs, which tend to hit more traditional notes, but I love the bluegrass electronica of Darren Korb’s Bastion and the weird prog-folk-rock of Jim Guthrie’s Sword and Sworcery. I’ve also got a few horror-themed OSTs I enjoy – Mikko Tarmia’s Amnesia: the Dark Descent, Gustavo Santaolalla’s The Last of Us, a shitload of Akira Yamaoka’s Silent Hill works - and some that I want to check out, such as Petri Alanko’s Alan Wake, all racked up for when I want to get back into horror writing. Which might be later this year, the good lord willing and the creek don’t rise. (And I don’t fuck up or get lazy.)

Outside of soundtracks, I picked up Chvrches’ The Bones of What You Believe a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been playing the hell out of it since – there’s some perfectly crafted synthpop on that album, and while a few tracks are weak, ‘Night Sky’, ‘We Sink’ and a couple of others deserve to be smash hits. It took me ages to get into the last Los Campesinos! album, Hello Sadness, but new album No Blues is fantastic right off the bat; I still miss their own sound (circa Romance is Boring) but if they’re going to go to a darker, moodier kind of sound then at least they’re doing it well. I got that for Christmas along with Deltron 3030: Event 2, which sadly isn’t as good as the first Deltron joint – and that’s no great surprise, since that’s an amazing piece of hip-hop concept art that set an unmatchable high bar. But for a different Del tha Funky Homosapien effort, check out Zartan Drednaught COBRA and Iller Than Thou, a free LP he just dropped on Soundcloud – it’s Del embracing his badweird self, and it’s sweet in its cheerful roughness. I have to bump this and try writing while it’s on; I want to see what comes out.

I’ve also been listening to a lot of old Kanye West. I don’t really know why.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve had on high rotation the last month or so, and hopefully it’s gonna push me into the Danger Writing Zone the more I listen to it. How about you? What’s spinning your dials right now, whether an old faithful or the hot new sound? And does it help you get into that writing mindspace and stay there?