This is a super-quick post just to note that last week I joined the #AuthorsforFireys program on Twitter, where authors auctioned off books, stories, naming rights, artwork, services and much more to raise money for bushfire relief charities and programs.
(Sure, in a perfect world the government would do that with our tax dollars, but hah hah hah well shit that ain’t this world)
Anyway, I didn’t have a huge amount of things to auction off, but I want to thank everyone who voted on my two offers, as well as the two stars who won:
Dave Versace, who donated $125 to charity in exchange for me using his name for the main bad guy in The Obituarist 3.
David Naylor of Faded Print Games, who donated $150 in exchange for me doing some editorial and development work on their forthcoming RPG Time Without Tide.
Both of these gentlemen are deadset legends, and I’m beyond grateful that they were willing to make the financial effort to help recovery efforts.
I’ve had something on my mind for a while now, but I didn’t feel like it was the right time to get into. It was too soon. Our wounds were still too raw.
But months have gone by, and it’s time to finally step up and admit it.
Avengers Endgame was kind of a mess, y’all.
I’M SORRY BUT YOU KNOW IT’S TRUE
Why was it a mess? Lots of reasons, but two in particular I want to talk about – plot holes and story flaws.
…wait, aren’t those kind of the same thing?
No! And that’s the thing that I actually want to discuss and unpack, using Avengers Endgame (and another piece of media that I’ll get to presently) as my go-to example.
Do I need to tell you that there will be spoilers? Oh my, so many spoilers. Read on at your own risk.
I mean, the film was fun. I liked most of it a lot! And I jumped up and down in my chair like a giddy child when – and here’s the first spoiler – Captain America picked up Mjolnir and used it to smack Thanos in the face. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was very satisfying.
But someone on Twitter said that Endgame was a better experience than it was a movie, and that’s about right. It was a movie terribly susceptible to fridge logic – those moments days or weeks later when you open the fridge, look inside and think ‘hey, wait, that thing in that movie didn’t make much sense!’
Those moments are usually the times when we notice plot holes – ways in which the logical flow of a plot fails. Plots need to have a flow from A to B to C, even if that flow is sometimes only visible when looking back from C. Is that obvious? Yeah, maybe, but this post is about how these terms get confused, so I might as well kick off with some definitions.
Let’s start with a little one – Rhodey changes War Machine armours between scenes without explanation, shifting from black-and-grey to big-bulky-red. Plot hole! And one that doesn’t matter! This kind of minor continuity error might bother a few people, but that portion of the plot flow isn’t too important in the overall scheme of things.
The hole that matters is a lot bigger. And that is – how the hell did Thanos and his army of minions time travel to fight the Avengers? You can’t time travel without a dose of Pym Particles, but the team have just enough to make their own round trips. There’s no scene where the bad guys get more, no explanation of how they break the rules the film spends aaaaaaages detailing, unpacking and using to propel the plot forward.
That, friends, is a bonafide, load-bearing plot hole. As is the question about how geriatric Steve Rogers popped up at the end of the film; once again, this breaks the rules the movie already established, which stated that going into the past created alternate timelines. He couldn’t have been there all along – so how did he get there?
The question is always ‘how’ with a plot hole. It’s mechanical, it’s about process; it’s linking up that chain of causality.
Now, in this case, the Russo brothers have apparently addressed these plot holes (and others) after the fact, saying ‘one of Thanos’ henchmen made some Pym Particles’ and ‘other timeline inventors came up with a way to get Steve across.’ It must be so liberating to just say, after the fact, ‘oh, there’s an explanation that makes sense if you accept that the movie has an objective reality outside what we filmed’ and to have (some) people accept it. Kind of makes you wonder why you’d bother with a plot at all, rather than just three hours of CGI explosions and then naked Stan Lee saying ‘A wizard did it!’ in the post-credits scene.
For the rest of us, plot holes need to be fixed before the book/movie/game is out in the world. Luckily, they usually aren’t that hard to fix. ‘How’ questions have fairly straightforward answers, because they’re (once again) about process. Just work out an explanation, then write a scene or two to insert that explanation and then smooth over the edges. It’s work, but it doesn’t have to be incredibly hard work. Logic can guide you.
Logic is your friend. It’s here for you. Even though you never call.
But it’s not always easy finding logic when you need it, because in these benighted end time, people – and I mean internet people – tend to slap the PLOT HOLE sticker onto anything that they don’t like or understand in a piece of media.
Case in point – I’m not linking to it, ’cause I forgot the address and also can’t be bothered, but there was a fansite that listed multiple instances of ‘The Avengers changed stuff in the past, but it didn’t cause a paradox!’ as plot holes in Endgame. And I’m like… buddy, work on your comprehension skills! That stuff was specifically called out within the film as not causing paradoxes! There were whole scenes devoted to explaining that changing the past actually just creates a new timeline – which, okay, is one of the things that set up that whole Old Steve thing I mentioned earlier.
But yeah – sometimes a ‘plot hole’ is just the audience missing something. And try as you might, you can’t make your plot points foolproof. You just gotta move on.
A much bigger point of confusion is when a ‘plot hole’ is actually a story flaw. And that’s a much more complex thing to unpack.
Quick question: what’s the difference between plot and story? Here’s my take:
Plot: a series of things happen
Story: a series of things happen for reasons
It’s super-reductive but it works – a story is a plot with purpose, rather than just a chain of events. A problem with the story is a problem with those reasons and purpose, not the chains of connection. The links are there – they just don’t feel right.
For me, the big story flaw in Endgame was Steve Rogers decided ‘fuck it, I’ve done enough, going back to the past to dance with my sweetheart for 60 years and retire’. That decision doesn’t click with what we’ve seen of him in the movies up to this point (and absolutely doesn’t work with the character as developed in the comics, but that’s a whole different nerd-argument). The story needed to provide the right context to underpin and justify that decision, which it didn’t; instead, it’s basically just waving it off and moving on.
A story flaw is a why question. Why did that happen? Why did this character make that decision? Why do I find this story emotionally unsatisfying? These are outcome questions, context questions; they’re harder to pin down than how questions, and the answers are murky and unreliable. A fix for one reader/viewer may not work for another, and definitely won’t work for a third. But still, they need to be addressed – if only to the point where you’re happy with your solution and think it makes emotional sense.
The other issue with story flaws is that, well, sometimes they say less about your work and more about your audience. Which is where we turn to our second example piece of media – Game of Thrones.
I’ll be honest up front – haven’t watched it. Haven’t watched any of it. Never plan to, either! But I am aware of its details through geek osmosis and the omnipresent discourse. And thus I am aware that its ending was… controversial? Many people on the ‘webs thought that the ruler of Westeros should have been someone other than Boy Who Looks Like an Sleepy Ferret. To me, that sounds like a story flaw.
Meanwhile, some of the other commentary around that last season was ‘How is Arya Stark so competent, given that she’s a girl and therefore sucks?’ Which sounds like someone’s prejudices dangling in their face like a flaccid dick flopping down from their forehead. And also sounds like about 75% of online geek discussion.
And it can be hard to tell the difference (sometimes) between ‘this doesn’t make sense to me for valid reasons’ and ‘this doesn’t make sense to me because women/PoC/LGBT folks/I-dunno-Norwegians shouldn’t have agency’. Because both those statements are framed the same way, and both get stated (or shouted) a lot in these dying days of human civilisation. So we need to bear that in mind when hearing criticism that speaks to whether something ‘makes sense’.
When presented with a how problem, you get to work. When presented with a why question, you need to dig deeper and decide whether you agree before you try to fix things – or not.
So… why go into this in so much depth? Or at least length? Well, because ‘plot hole’ gets bandied around far too much, and I think it’s good to distinguish between problems. And because the Endgame thing was nagging at me, and I needed to find a way to unpack that.
And maybe because this year’s batch of Seasonal Affective Disorder is finally wearing off, and I wanted to write something for a change.
And I did.
Anyway. Fix the things that need fixing. Be clear about which things don’t need fixing, and which audience members can be ignored and ideally jettisoned. Don’t sign over your kingdom to Baby Liam Gallagher.
And remember to include the goddamn Pym Particle scene next time. I swear to god.
I’m making kind of a habit of disappearing for long periods.
Maybe you thought I was dead.
Nah. My computer was, though, for close to three months, during which time I shelled out a bunch of money to get files recovered, Googled every step required to take the PC apart and put it back together, made lists of all the software I needed to installed and generally got no writing done.
And while all that was happening, my day job went through a big shake up and a bunch of people got laid off. I didn’t, and my job changed to have more of a writing focus, which is a plus – but my workload went through the roof, and it hasn’t stopped climbing yet. Which explains why I spent my entire weekend in the office, shooting videos and developing content, and don’t have any downtime scheduled until maybe next weekend. If I’m lucky.
So I’ve had no time, energy or spoons for writing. Or blogging. Or doing much more than sleeping of late. And I’m not getting enough of that.
Still. I ain’t dead yet. And after I nursemaid four textbooks off to print in the next three weeks, I’ll hopefully get a chance to fall down, go boom, get back up again and revise my writing plans for the year.
I’ll tell you about that when it happens.
But right now it’s nearly 6.30pm and I’m stuffed. Time for another early night.
When last we spoke, I was getting ready for a February of working towards solid yet achievable goals, culminating in a finished Obituarist III draft.
Then on Saturday, this happened.
Yep, my PCs went from useful implement to oversized paperweight, and no amount of cajoling or crying has fixed it. Or (so far) allowed me to retrieve any of the files on it, which include not just the O3 MS but every document, video, photo and piece of music I own.
I should be freaking out. Good thing I’ve started taking meds.
So in the short term, February is going to involve talking to IT people, trying various solutions, writing what I can on my wife’s old laptop and generally cursing fate.
Oh, and writing occasional posts from work while on my lunch break.
Okay, it’s the end of January and approximately a hundred degrees in my office, so it’s time to knock out a blog update before my brainmeats sizzle and fry within my melting skullfat.
At the end of 2017 I talked about depression and recovery, and wanting – needing – to put in the work to make 2018 less godawful and more worthwhile. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do the last few weeks – put in the work.
I’ve been aided in this by starting a course of anti-depressants. Well, I think I’ve been helped; it’s hard to quantify the effects, and nothing dramatic has happened. The key thing is that I don’t feel… overwhelmed all the time. Which is something.
(Mind you, I don’t love the side effects, which including gaining weight, getting dizzy-drunk on two beers and becoming reeeeaaalllly gassy, but I guess you take the rough with the smooth.)
Work has to have direction and purpose, of course, and so I set myself a slew of goals on January 1st while still bleary and hungover from a big NYE involving dogsitting and beer. (It’s important to start as you mean to continue, after all.)
Obviously, my main goals are writing goals:
finishing, revising and publishing Obituarist III by the end of March
doing a new set of revisions on Raven’s Blood by May and getting it back out to agents
starting my new YA-wrestling-horror-mystery-romance novel, Piledriver, and getting it about 75% finished by the end of the year
On top of that, I have reading goals, gaming goals, blogging goals, social goals, health goals, sleep goals, emotional goals… I’m basically entirely comprised of goals at this point, like some kind of sports-themed Voltron.
The next step (according to all the advice books) is making things concrete, so I broke down a set of tasks for each goal and peppered them throughout my January calendars and to-do lists.
Now, at the end of the month, I can go through, check myself against all my milestones and mini-goals, and see how well I did.
How did I do?
Not that well.
Setting goals is easy, but when it comes to kicking them, I’m not exactly Pele or David Beckham or, um… Serena Williams? Look, I don’t understand sports, you know that.
Ultimately I took on too many things to handle in one month (especially one heat-wave heavy month), and with the best intentions, I was still only able to achieve a few of the tasks I’d laid out.
What that tells me, though, is that my problem isn’t that I can’t do these things, it’s that I can’t do all of these things. Not yet, and not all at once. Not while my mental health is recovering and my writing muscles are atrophied.
But muscles get better through use. And I’m not giving up on using them.
So for February, I’m setting a smaller, more controlled set of goals, focusing on just a few of the big picture plans rather than everything in a blender. Will that work better? It should do, if I stick at it.
I plan to stick at it.
One of those goals is getting back into a more regular, more interesting blogging routine, where I write about more than just not writing. At this point I’m aiming for at least one post per month, at around this time, looking at what I’ve achieved and what comes next. If I can, I’ll try to get a second one in there every month about something engaging that I can talk about in a fun, useful way.
Let me know how I go with that.
Huh. It got cooler in here since I started working on this blog post.
Worse for a lot of people, in a lot of ways – and yes, there were some high points and victories in there, but not enough.
For me, it was a year of poor physical health, poor mental health and zero creative health, which I’m pretty sure is a thing. A year when I couldn’t see any point or purpose in writing.
Will 2018 be better? If it is, it’ll only be because we work at it – if we turn the anger and sadness and helplessness of this year into fuel for making change and building something better.
So that’s what I want to focus on from this point – putting the work in. On my health, on my mood, on my writing, on my professionalism, on my drive, on my projects. Less pie in the sky, less survival thinking; more getting shit done, more setting and (important) working towards goals.
But first I’m going to get drunk and celebrate 2017 dying in a fucking fire.
I’m currently working on The Obituarist III: Delete Your Account, the final instalment in the novella series. (Well, what eventually became a series.) While I write by the seat of my pants, I try to stuff the arse-pockets with ideas first, and I had a pretty decent idea of what I wanted this book to be – how the story would start, how it might end, the themes it presented and the characters that would carry them.
And when I sat down to write it, it was like peeing out a kidney stone. I had everything in my head, but nothing engaged me or made me interested in putting things down to find the next bit of story. I wrote some chapters and scenes, but it was slow and unenjoyable going and I started to wonder if this project was doomed, if I’d lost the ability to write, and whether it was time to just give it up and devote my life to mastering PS4 games.
But last week I had a sudden epiphany about why I was struggling. I’ve been writing the wrong story – worse, the wrong kind of story.
I meant to write a mystery, but instead I’ve been setting out a thriller.
What’s the difference?
Other people have opined about the difference between these two related genres, and I don’t want to retread well-trampled ground, but let me give it a quick try.
A mystery is about solving puzzles and answering questions – the who, the why, the how. Classical whodunits are all about the puzzle, and giving enough info to the reader that they can solve it before being fed the answers – as are stories like mine, that pretend to be honest whodunits for a bit and then cheat like crazy.
Meanwhile, thrillers are about defeating challenges. Almost all the problems and obstacles in a thriller story are defined or at least hinted at before the action starts; the protagonist doesn’t have to seek out information about their existence or what they did in the past (although he/she may need to discover what they’re planning in order to dickpunch them).
Mysteries are about finding solutions; thrillers are about overcoming obstacles. Both may have elements of the other, but the point of the mystery is not the frantic chase, and the point of the thriller is not piecing together the clues.
Alternatively, the short version: Mysteries are games. Thrillers are sports.
Why is that a problem?
Because I like games but I’m not much for sports, other than pro wrestling (the sport of kings, the king of sports).
In other words, I think mysteries are more fun (for me at least) to write than thrillers are. Mysteries are a puzzle from this side as well, with lots of questions to solve – what clue fits here? How can I misdirect the reader? Where is this story going? Oh damn, who am I going to pick as the murderer, and how can I backtrack to justify that? Answering those questions as I go is awesome – it’s the sort of thing that leaves me awake at night, or turning over ideas in the shower, building up a head of steam that drives me to the computer to write.
Thrillers aren’t bad or anything – I like reading ’em just fine – but they’re more straightforward stories to read and to write, at least for me. There’s an inevitability to their direction, and while there are questions that need answering as you write, they’re more about details and processes than swerves, tricks and fake-outs. Again, at least for me.
What needs changing?
When I conceived this book, I thought I wanted to do something more straightforward, to break the pattern of the previous stories. But you know what? I was wrong. It needs to be a mystery, or at least to have some mysteries in it. To have questions that Kendall Barber, king of bullshit schemes and getting punched in the dick, needs to answer.
But I couldn’t just start a murder in the middle of…. okay, like five-six chapters into the book. That’d be weird. So I came up with a whole new first chapter, kicking off the book with an early morning funeral rather than a bout of self-pity, and gave myself a new plotline to chase through the book. The existing chapters needed some modification, but less than you might think – I tend to compartmentalise the A/B plots until they cross-pollinate later in the book, so A just had to add some contextual markers, tweak the pacing and break the story up with investigation scenes.
And I still have the original plotline to play with – someone is trying to kill Kendall, his whole life is falling apart, his business and relationship are failing, he feels useless and the local cafe makes really shit coffee.
So, you know, there’s stuff going on.
Has it helped?
Oh yeah. I went from totally blocked to banging out the new start in like two hours, and I’m still riding that momentum into exploring the new parts of the book. And more – the energy I’m getting from activating my puzzle-posing, puzzle-solving neural circuits is carrying over into the fast/furious/fiery explosions chapters, so I’m having more fun writing them too.
Having fun while writing. What a concept.
I mean, it’s not like I’m going to bang this book out immediately – it’s only a novella, but I have a day job and many social commitments, and I can’t manage more than a couple of pages a day.
(I have a friend halfway writing her third novel just for this fucking year AH GOD I HATE HER SO MUCH but I don’t think she needs sleep or feels pity or remorse… wait, that’s the Terminator, never mind.)
But a couple of pages a day is a lot better than I’ve been doing. So I’ll take it.
The moral of the story
Eat your vegetables.
Cheats never prosper.
Write the genre you want to write, not the genre you think you should be writing.
I went back to full-time work today after three months of freelancing and drinking at noon.
It’s going to require some adjustment.
And I’m tired now.
So in lieu of a proper post, please read Peter Ball’s fantastic essay on how the art of wrestling ‘booking’ (choreographing matches and deciding winners) provides incredibly relevant tools for writing. It’s way better than any of my recent blatherings.
And with that, I’m gonna have a sandwich, hug the dog, watch some grappling and hit the hay.
So I want to talk about professional wrestling for a few weeks.
If that immediately turns you off, it’s okay to tap out and come back another time.
When I was in my early 30s I freakin’ loved pro wrestling. I caught the bug from a friend who’d been into it his whole life, and before long I too was invested in the world of spandex, piledrivers and shit-talkin’ promos. I was also dating a girl who loved it, so we’d watch WWE shows and PPVs, go to local indie shows, hang out with wrestlers and – this next part is very important – get very, very drunk in the process.
It was a pretty sweet time.
It’s a time that culminated for me, just before I moved from Brisbane to Melbourne, with Wrestlemania XX – a night when my two favourite wrestlers, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, overcame all the odds to win the two championship belts. The pay-per-view ended with them in the ring together, hugging and holding up their belts in triumph, confetti raining down around them. It’s a moment that gave me so much joy.
A couple of years later, both men were dead – Guerrero of a heart attack, Benoit killing himself after murdering his wife and son – and all the joy was gone out of wrestling for me. I was done with it.
About a year ago, wrestling started pinging my radar again. Lucha Underground is cool, people said. Chikara have intricate comicbook storytelling, they said. WWE’s NXT spinoff have brought back the joy, and wrestlers aren’t suddenly dying the way they used to, they said.
I resisted the urge to dive back into the ring for a long time. But then I started getting some ideas about a YA urban fantasy story centred around pro wrestling, and I had a poke around the internet for things to cement those ideas together, and I watched some matches… and the hooks were back in.
I marked out. Again.
So what did I love about pro wrestling, and what am I rediscovering now?
No, it’s not ‘real’ fighting, but wrestling is absolutely real action, in the same way that you see action in martial arts and superhero movies, gymnastic performances and dope dance numbers. It’s practised and (to a limited extent) choreographed, but that doesn’t stop it from being exciting and entertaining (and more fun than real fighting, which is mostly just sad and horrible).
I’m particularly enthralled by the smaller, faster performers who jump off ropes, hit crazy spots and generally have a ‘flip-dee-doo’ style (phrasing stolen from the hosts of the excellent How2Wrestling podcast). I could watch cruiserweights, high flyers and luchadors go at it all day – especially if ever now and then you bring in a big muscle dude or a skilled technical wrestler in to change things up and show another dimension to the dance.
Yeah. It’s a dance. And dancing is fun as hell.
Telling stories with action
Almost all of my storytelling focus these days is on action – not just on writing engaging fight scenes, but using those fight scenes to demonstrate character, progress plot threads and develop the tone of the overall story. And the start of that focus was watching wrestling and looking at how they used fights to communicate plot and character.
A typical wrestling match isn’t just ‘two guys fight’, although that happens sometimes. What makes a match engaging is stakes and conflict – making the fight about something and giving the fighters a personal reason to win. Even the simplest feud sets two wrestlers against each other, usually over matters of ‘dignity, family or money’ (according to wrestling wisdom), and then that conflicts builds and becomes more personal through fights, confrontations and occasional promos. Plotlines may be simple or intricate, but they’re always immediate – and they find resolution through physical action. And all of that translates one-to-one into prose writing.
Wrestling is also a masterclass in demonstrating character through action – in what people do and how they do it. If a heel cuts promos about his courage, then runs away from danger in the ring, you immediately understand that he’s both a coward and a liar. If a face is outnumbered and overwhelmed by enemies, but refuses the offer of help in the ring, preferring to fight – and maybe lose – on his own terms, then the audience knows more about his character than any interview or vignette could tell them. Character is what you do – that’s one core principle of wrestling. The other is even simpler – everything that matters happens in the ring. Again, this plugs directly into writing engaging action.
Also, sometimes an alien superhero fights a dragon.
OMG WHAT A WANKER
Look, I know that’s a ridiculous thing to say, but it’s true – the very first thing that attracted me to wrestling was the strange tension between performer and character, and the plotlines that mixed real-world and fictional (‘kayfabe’) realities. Wrestling is a world where there is an actor called Dwayne Johnson, and there is an athlete called The Rock, and they are two different men except on those occasions when they are the same dude and sometimes they are both and neither at the same time and everyone agrees to accept this and pretend it isn’t weird. AND I LOVE THAT.
Wresting is a world where the fictional and the real grind together, informing and shaping each other and generating story from that grind, and from Day One I found that completely fascinating. And I’m not alone; Roland Barthes wrote about the metatextuality and symbolic density of wrestling – yes Roland Barthes the father of semiotics he loved wrestling and I HAVE (most of) AN ENGLISH DEGREE SO GET STUFFED – back in the 1950s and he was FRENCH so you know it was very clever.
That’s why I love wrestling. Simple-but-effective storytelling; complex-yet-straightforward commercial metatextuality; fit people in short shorts doing crazy stunts.
What’s not to love?
So please, join me over the next few weeks as I explore the new world of WRESTLE 2016 and try to make storytelling fodder from it.