Kill The Dream Sequence. No, Seriously. Kill It.

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If you haven’t watched Dead Of Summer yet, I don’t really care either way. It’s meh, mostly. Yet I was in a binge this weekend to get caught up and noticed something that was particularly relevant for me right now. I’m writing a horror novel – about 40k words in to a targeted 90k, and so I’m particularly concerned with how to get someone on the edge of their butt, chomping their tongue in anticipation and as nervous as I can make them. While this show is fun, it’s not scary in even the smallest sense, though I think it tries to be. Maybe we should have a look at why it fails to see how I can succeed. It’s what I thought, at least.

Go read reviews from the second Avengers movie. One thing you’ll find is a lot of people annoyed with the weird dream sequences. Should you peruse what the masses had to say overall about Batman Versus Superman, you’ll find similar irritation with dream sequences. Let’s not get into whether you dug those movies, okay? I get how divisive that is right now – it’s been Marvel Versus DC since the seventies, nothing to see here. The point I’m making is about the overuse of this narrative technique and how it practically forces an audience to disengage. In movies, it’s probably an excuse to just show some cool visuals. In execution though, it’s a signal to me I’m good to go get a refill on my Coke Icee. Know what I mean?

Anyway, back to Dead Of Summer. Here’s the marketing blurb:

“Set in 1989, school is out for the summer, and a sun-drenched season of firsts beckons the counselors at Camp Stillwater, a seemingly idyllic Midwestern summer camp, including first loves, first kisses—and first kills. Stillwater’s dark, ancient mythology awakens, and what was supposed to be a summer of fun soon turns into one of unforgettable scares and evil at every turn.”

If you read that, you agree they want to be scary, right? Their narrative structure follows the same style as Lost, involving individual character flashbacks to flesh out each main player. Honestly, that part works for me, though the flashbacks they showed had little to do with decisions characters were making in the storyline. It came off cheaper than it did in Lost for that reason. However – and this is my overall point here – about a gajillion times, we are shown visions of a dark, mysterious man from the 19th century who’s supposedly tied in with the mysterious goings-on at the camp. I mean over and over and over, we see this guy and some blood streaming off something, or eclipses or bugs or murders or whatever…and EVERY SINGLE TIME you know it’s going to be a vision with no consequences. You can’t possibly get scared because even though somebody gets pushed into a grave or dunked underwater or whatever – I can’t even remember because I checked out during so many of those – that they’re just going to wake up and be okay. It’s foreboding but not much more.

Let’s set aside movies like Inception, which broke ground with this concept and the Freddy Krueger films (the good ones, let’s not discuss the Dream Warriors, shall we?) which staked their premises on the dream sequence. The difference with stories like those is they established consequences – you could die in those dreams. How boring would The Matrix have been if you couldn’t die while inside?

I run into this problem of consequences a lot, actually. If you’re a science fiction guy, you might think a lot about the vast distances in space and how slow moving any real-life story would be…months to get anywhere and hours to talk to each other. You might go the road of setting up avatars or virtual reality-style storylines to account for that; but honestly, you’re still looking at ridiculous lag times for the signals. If you hand-wave all of that and just say ‘tachyons’ or ‘entanglement’ to get the science-snobs off your back, you’ll be looking at this problem of consequences just like I am. If your guy is actually laying in a booth in Utah or wherever directing the action, how are there any stakes for him?

Right. So there have to be consequences and some kind of danger that’s entirely relatable. If you watch Game Of Thrones or The Walking Dead enough, you start to think at any moment this freaking show is going to kill off one of your favorite characters. Mercilessly. Back in the nineties, Joe Quesada who was then Editor-In-Chief at Marvel Comics (pre-Disney) established a “dead is dead” rule for killing off characters to restore some kind of drama given the prevalence of resurrections. Fantastic concept, actually, though he drifted wide off the mark over his tenure.

That’s what I wanted to say, guys. Dream sequences and visions are tired and boring and are basically tickets for your audience to disconnect. Don’t do that. Avoid resurrections too, while you’re at it. Kill a major character early on just for giggles, to challenge yourself, and to set the bar for your reader that YOU AREN’T PLAYING AROUND…THIS IS SERIOUS!.

Have fun!

 

Less Whining. More Inspiring.

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I miss Arthur C. Clarke. When I was a kid, I wrote him a letter in pencil on notebook paper, asking him to explain to me what a ‘tesseract’ was, since I’d seen it in A Wrinkle In Time and was lost on what was going on. When my dad found out my desired pen pal lived in Sri Lanka, he told me he’d “look into it”, which of course meant exactly what you think it meant. So my letter went nowhere. Anyway, the reason I loved the guy so much is that his books inspired me. It got me thinking recently when I was trying to recreate that feeling with another book what it was he did right that Larry Niven did so wrong. Basically, what makes a book inspiring?

Rendezvous With Rama is an Arthur Clarke book, and an absolute classic. I won’t go into it because it isn’t the real point here; but the idea is a mysterious spacecraft comes flying in, gets boarded by some intrepid folks, and unfolds in the warmth of our sun internally as the most well-designed engineering marvel you could imagine. A sense of wonder infuses that book that feels like a crackling fire to me. I was thinking about it recently and looked into the sequels. An overwhelming tidal wave of reviews indicate I’d better avoid them  for various reasons. I found it interesting reading through the reviews that so many people appreciated the original for the same reasons I did. It made them either dream of joining those explorers on the spacecraft or of writing something as interesting as Sir Clarke had. Get that part – people like me are inspired by this book because of how it launches our imagination into ways we could engage with its ideas.

In my day job, I study and manipulate what engages people; and the overriding principle is always self-interest. We probably won’t stop to look over the charts on the wall the boss keeps posting unless there are pictures there of my friends up there or something showing me how close I might be to getting a bonus…that sort of thing. Self-interest. With our fiction, we want to relate to the characters in some way:

-For a horror novel or a thriller, you’re probably second-guessing every decision the characters make to decide what you’d do

-For a science fiction book like this one, you’re probably dreaming about how cool it would be to be doing those things

So I had a copy of Larry Niven’s Ringworld for some reason, and took it on a plane to try and recreate that sense of wonder and awe from Clarke’s book. Should have been a slam dunk: a massive ring-shaped partial dyson sphere constructed around an alien world gets explored in all its wonder. How can you screw that up? I’m sorry if you love this book, let’s keep in mind that fiction is subjective; but it’s just awful.

I groaned every time he used ‘tanj’ as fake profanity. There’s no way to tell which character is speaking without labels because everyone from furry warrior-aliens to 200yr old earthlings to multi-headed pacifist-aliens all speak exactly like Larry Niven does…like an old white physicist. They stand around philosophizing about the math behind how dense something must be or how the orbit would be affected…blah blah blah. Oh my God. I put it down multiple times, slugging to finish hoping something would redeem it. No idea how it ended because I just yielded. Whatever. It’s an award winner and always makes the big lists though. Somehow I’m missing it.

So here’s the point: if we’re writing something we really want to make inspiring….something for the ages that will stoke people’s imaginations or really change the way they look at the world (and what wordslinger doesn’t want that?!), then keep things simple and avoid whatever will distract from the feeling you’re trying to engender. In Niven’s case, he spent way too much time trying to make his cardboard lame characters interesting and introducing some ridiculous side-story about breeding luck, when the sales pitch for the book is an incredible sense of wonder and exploration of the Ringworld.

In whatever you’re writing now, or what you expect to write next, think about the feeling you want left behind when the reader is done…boil away everything that doesn’t produce that…and focus.

Einstein And Writer’s Block

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Yes, I’m definitely a nerd. It’s cool, I’m comfortable with that. What it means is I get interested in loads of things where most people might not see the attraction. Equally true,  if you ask me how the Royals are going to do this year, you’re probably going to get a change of subject from me. I’ll be polite; but I have no idea what to say to you when you ask me that. So I was studying Einstein’s Field Equations the other day…

I’m not trying to impress you here, just bear with me. There’s something about Einstein’s life that is of tremendous interest to an aspiring writer, especially one that’s seen the horror of a blank page blinking back and weedy plot points all twisted and ensnared, sudden contradictions that make the original idea nonsense…maybe even the whole premise that felt so much like warm, gooey chocolate sloshing around in your imagination in the beginning, suddenly frozen and hammered by an idle comment somebody made that trashes it entirely.

fieldHere they are: Einstein’s Field Equations defining gravity. Why things fall down.  All the jibber jabber on the left-hand side is just saying that spacetime curves. It doesn’t say why, just that it does. Einstein came up with all that on the left just to make the math work out, not because he was a prophet or anything. But he started with the doohickey on the right…the ‘T’. He knew he’d use that, and the idea that energy is conserved; and then he just started diddling around to see what he could do with it. Let’s say that was his original inspiration, the way a writer might suddenly string two things together to make a story idea. How pregnant with potential and thrilling, right! So what’s ‘T’, then?

Everything on the right-hand side except for the ‘T’ is just a bunch of numbers. If I gave you a calculator and a reference, you’d tell me the number. So forget those. Focus on the ‘T’. The Stress-Energy Tensor. It’s a thing. It was already a thing before he got started, that’s why he knew he’d use it. It describes energy and momentum. The big ah-hah for him, the thing that made General Relativity something you’ve heard of, is that it’s the energy and momentum, the ‘T’, that’s causing spacetime to curve. Great; but here’s what he said about it:

“But it (General Relativity) is similar to a building, one wing of which is made of fine marble but the other wing of which is built of low grade wood. The phenomenological representation of matter is, in fact, only a crude substitute for a representation which would do justice to all known properties of matter.” -from Physics And Reality.

He was bummed about ‘T’. It was crap to him. It didn’t explain any of the other whizz-bang stuff matter does. The guy that shook the world in 1905, starting entire branches of science from his work, and that explained why things fall down in 1916…the guy whose name became a nickname for geniuses, spent 40 years till his death trying to come up with a Grand Unified Theory that would settle this for him. No dice with that. He died frustrated. Sheesh.

I’m writing a horror novel right now; and one thing I struggle with is making the big baddies really scary without making the point of view characters useless. I can’t stand people in fiction that just stare like deer in the headlights and who don’t try something. Anything! The original idea I had for the book though, the thing that made me shiver and consider it worth a year of my life, brought that helplessness with the original spooky image. Okay, great; but if I’m not going to be like Einstein and just stay stuck with the original paradigm, then I’ve got to be willing to grow beyond the original idea. The point is, I can see I’m going to have to capture that first image and the feelings that went with it, but then let things grow to wherever they need to grow. Even if it’s not where I’d thought the narrative was headed.

In my first novel, I had a fantastic image I wanted in there so badly! I could hear Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars as background music. I could see the camera pulling back from the scene. I could see my three main characters, young and scared out of their minds high on a rooftop spire looking down on the horrors they’d come through…freaking beautiful. I lost months trying to figure out how to get those guys into that circumstance. Finally gave up. Wasn’t going to happen. It stopped making sense for it to happen. That’s my point with all this, actually. To recognize when you’re there.

So if it happened to Einstein, it can happen to you, right? Recognize when your idea needs tweaking, and when it needs to be blown up. Be willing to turns things loose. Burn things down when you have to, so something else can grow in its place.

 

What A 19th Century Crazy Guy Taught Me About Writing Spooky Stuff

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I want to talk about Guy De Maupassant; but I’ll come back to that in a minute. Stick with me here.

When someone asks me the scariest thing I’ve ever read, they usually expect me to say something from Stephen King. If they’re literary, they may want to hear Henry James. Whatever. Truthfully, 1984 by George Orwell scares the crap out of me more than anything; and I’m not sure how you could top it.

Especially during an American presidential election season, anybody can relate to that desolate feeling of trying to talk to someone so caught up in their beliefs and convictions that the eyes have glazed over, they’re not listening at all, and confirmation bias squeezes out any facts running contrary to what they want to believe. It’s horrifying how mobs of people can get caught up in the momentum of anything, and how quickly and viciously they’ll turn on dissenters. We should all just take a breath, right? When I read 1984, I think of how likely a world it describes, how people have behaved much like that. I can see how easily we’d slip into such a knot, and how impossible it would be to break from it once you’re inside. Shivers, man. Just shivers. That guy worked magic. It’s why we still quote that book so often.

You may have or heard the short story by Guy De Maupassant called The Necklace where a really poor lady borrows an expensive necklace and loses it, works her butt off and ruins her life trying to pay for a replacement, only to find after years and destroyed health that it was an imitation anyway. Not sure why that story hit the mainstream and gets taught in schools so much when the same author put out so much skull-slamming treasure! He went nuts, probably because of syphilis but kept writing while dipping into his madness.

“Every other time I come home, I see my double. I open my door, and I see him sitting in my armchair.”

Guy said that to his friend, Paul Bourget. It wasn’t fiction, though this exact thing happens in a story of his called He? Guy wound up slitting his own throat unsuccessfully and lived in an asylum for another 19 months. Here’s something he tossed out in a letter to his friend, Dr. Henry Cazalis:

“A saline fermentation has taken place in my brain, and every night my brain runs out through my nose and mouth in a sticky paste. This is imminent death and I am mad…”

Sheesh. Anyway, I consider one of his very short stories one of the most perfect scary pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. In the same manner as why 1984 spooks me so much, it is realistic and possible and shoots jolts of terror in ways you don’t normally see with no real strain on your suspension of disbelief. It could happen to you. That’s the basis of real horror, isn’t it? The story is called “Two Friends“. To read it yourself shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes. Go ahead, I’m about to spoil it for you.

When my kids were very young, there was one particular July 4th night we were all sleeping; and I was awaken by a very loud CLAP sound downstairs. It sounded like two pieces of ceramic tile smacking together. Thinking something had fallen, but suspicious maybe of a break-in, I went groggily downstairs with my wife hovering at the top of the stairway with the ‘9’ and the ‘1’ already dialed, touching the ‘1’ again just in case she needed it.

I saw a massive spider-web in the dim light on the far wall, too massive to believe. It wasn’t there when we went to bed, right? Anyway, I was deep into the living room downstairs and exposed, gently extending a finger when I realized it wasn’t a web at all…it was the drywall cracking from a bullet hole. Someone outside had fired a gun into my home. Wasn’t that kind of neighborhood. This was the suburbs, for pete’s sake! Lawless teenage vandals, devil worshippers, whatever…I had to bolt for cover just not knowing who or what or where. The silence was maddening thereafter, with the thought of how a slightly different angle of the barrel, and I’d have awaken to a paralyzed or bleeding son or daughter!

The scariest things I’ve read fall into the same kind of chill:

  1. Mundane, maybe even pleasant events jarringly turn a different and terrible direction
  2. I can relate and sympathize with the character thrown into this surprise
  3. None of the decisions the character makes seem out of line with what I’d have done (nothing breaks my fright faster than an author breaking this rule)
  4. There’s a sudden realization that there isn’t a way out

In Two Friends, Maupassant presents two pleasant country guys who just love fishing. Even though there’s a war on in the countryside, they work through a military friend to get out of the village and to the shore of their favorite lake. Prussian troops show up, present the option of revealing the password back into the village or die, then shoot them dead where they stood when they won’t do it.

“The water spurted up, bubbled, swirled round, then grew calm again, with little waves rippling across to break against the bank. There was just a small amount of blood discoloring the surface.”

Guy broke the rules of literature, man! He killed off the point of view characters and shifted focus to people that had just been introduced. There’s a silly joke by the Prussian commander at the end about fish. It’s creepy and cold and absolutely believable. Honestly, the part of the story where the Prussians show up makes me feel exactly like I did tracing my finger on cracked drywall. That was a drunk neighbor barbecuing, by the way.

Anyway, go read more of Maupassant. The scary stories. They’re public domain and awesome. Let me know what you think!

Let The Trolls Speak: Principles Of 21st Century Storytelling

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Every previous generation in human history, it’s been more difficult to move around and certainly more difficult to be exposed to the different stories people tell around the world than it is right now. In fact, you can go back less than a century and see a world where people largely stay where they were born. A guy’s library and his best storytellers were the primary means of being exposed to new stories. There’s been a sea change caused by the internet, electronics, and our own leisure time & mobility. So here you are…knowing stuff. Good for you. Now what does that mean?

I went into my thinking corner about that very question; and I baked up something for you that I believe you’ll like. It’s free – go read it. I also kept it short. Printed, it’d be less than 30 pages. Shouldn’t take you long at all. I stirred in some stories you’ve heard of, and one or two maybe you haven’t.

Would be great to hear from you on what you think. Let me know!

‘Google Translate’ For Dream-Speak: Beginning With Pictures

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I’ll tell you something interesting about how your subconscious works; and I’ll do it without referencing Jung. Maybe. Anyway, there was this girl in my elementary school that I thought was kind of cool and who’d call me every once and a while. She was pretty and one of the popular kids, so I was into that but not because I had any great fascination for her. She often forgot how good a friend I was when we were back in school on Monday anyway, strangely; but we’ll just let that lie there. It’s important to my point here that you get this – I wasn’t in love or like or even considering it until a particular turning point. A dream.

Nothing nasty here. I just had a dream about her one night where we were hanging out on a farm looking at the stars or something when she tried to kiss me. That was all, seriously. I can still describe to you now, however, the incredible attraction she had in that dream…like a mask with the power of all of human myth behind it just hanging over the dreamwork cardboard cutout of this girl. She was everything about girls in that dream, all girls who are fascinating and maddening. From that point on, I had a thing for her I couldn’t understand at all. Weird, yeah? Hold on to that. I’ll come back to it.

A nightmare I had when I was probably thirteen is as clear to me now in my forties as it was the night I dreamed it. The plot is thin; and you probably won’t get what’s spooky about it. I was outside my house bouncing a basketball alone; and it echoed. I remember it echoed. I knew in the dream no one else was home. Yet when I felt someone watching me, I turned around to look up in the second story living room window. The curtains were split open; and a pale old man was grinning widely back at me. The end. I chilled up just now typing that because of the malevolent feeling I had about that guy up there. It wasn’t what happened or that I recognized him or even knew his intentions. It was the mythic power of everything that’s dark and frightening and wicked pasted into a mask hung over the cardboard cutout of a stranger in my living room window. It was the feeling then that is still with me now.

I understand that my subconscious has these basic universal ideas about the feminine mystique and about bad things and a host of other patterns that are incredibly fundamental to how we perceive and filter information. The feeling of adventure and new horizons, for example. What it means to me to be a man. You can imagine others. One thing that happens to me and which I know happens to many other authors is we either have these patterns laid over an image we encounter by happenstance, or we dwell on an image we find striking on its own and overlay the pattern ourselves to make something of it.

In It All Began With A Picture, C. S. Lewis explained that he carried around a picture in his head of a faun carrying parcels in the snow with no idea what it meant for years…till he finally sat down to ask questions about it. I imagine it carried the sense of adventure with it, which is why it stuck around. George Lucas explains in Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplay that he really just wanted to remake Flash Gordon because he was looking to recapture the sense of exploration and adventure from the serials he watched as a kid. Stephen King explains in one of his introductions to Wizard And Glass that he walked out of The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly pondering the unearthly western imagery he’d seen and knowing he needed to recapture the way it made him feel watching it – a journey that gave us the amazing Dark Tower series. What I’m offering you is that images we find interesting are all around us or inside our heads. What we can do as writers is poke and prod on them a little to see why they’re lingering with us…which mythic pattern overlays best on them and makes them most real. They fit like a lock and key when you figure that out.

In my case, I was in a rock gorge in Oman with some friends particularly missing John Wayne movies on a long Navy deployment and making my way through the first three Dune books. The picture of a guy in a torn and dirty uniform slamming open saloon doors and drawing all eyes on him came to my mind all on its own. Everyone in the bar was afraid of him though he was unarmed. I knew him to be a leftover of some war, and that somehow he had people with him. He felt tired to me, and dangerous…desperate. That came with the picture. I held on to that for a long time, till I ultimately sat down to write Tearing Down The Statues and put him in a different setting to answer all my questions about him, and just what those people were frightened of.

See? No Jung. Now go think of an image that’s stuck around in your own head and start asking which pattern did it bring with it to unlock whatever story it’s trying to tell.

Imagery With Teeth: Learning To Write For Millenials From Treehugging Haiku Poets

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Call me a dork if you want; but haiku is like a cherry Starburst for me. When you’re in the mood and they’re just right, it’s like a shot of happiness straight to your cortex. My point here is going to be that this poetry form and its old masters have plenty to teach a 21st century wordslinger how to write fiction. Try this one, from Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):

A bee

staggers out

     of the peony.

No picture needed. The word choice is fascinating because the bug isn’t said to just be there; and its little hairs or whatever aren’t described. He says the little guy is staggering in the center of a flower after blasting down a bunch of nectar. If you’re at all like me – and this is one of his famous ones so I’m not alone here – then this image pops right into your head like zooming in with your iPhone. I basically stole this one for a Salt Mystic quote in chapter 5 of Tearing Down The Statues. Here’s another one I stole from (Sylhauna’s gift in chapter 9):

First snow

falling

     on the half-finished bridge

And another (chapter 9 again, referenced in the computronium ruins they sail past):

Summer grass –

All that’s left

     of warriors’ dreams

Give me a minute on this. Hear me out. We’re bombarded by pictures in all our entertainment now and have been for a while. Most of us think in pictures. We absorb information more quickly that way. Interesting images grab us as readers and stick around maybe even after the plot has faded. I read something from a cyberpunk guy (maybe William Gibson, not sure) way back in the nineties that I couldn’t begin to tell you the title or story or even the point of it all. I just remember a line where the narrator described some rain on a lake as ‘furring it over with needles’. The image popped for me and was really an interesting way to describe that. I saw it and liked the way he said that. If you’ll just stop playing around and go read either Viriconium or Light by M. John Harrison, you’ll see what I mean about crazy-cool ways of describing imagery that are uniquely wired to the way our brains work…basically interesting images that are pregnant with stories.

The classic example of an image pregnant with a story is the six word flash fiction (probably) wrongfully attributed to Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Ugh, man. That’s heartbreaking. Lean and straight for the jugular! Their baby died and never got to wear the freaking shoes. That’s awful. Usually haiku isn’t trying to rip your heart in pieces like that, but is often saying something more than what you’re looking at. How about this one by Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1827):

     The old dog

leads the way

     visiting graves.

Dogs are always awesome. I can see a loyal little guy with his tongue hanging out and that fuzzy white fur on his snout, not even knowing this is a sad thing, being in the graveyard. Since he knows the way, he’s been there many times before. That leads my mind off into all sorts of imaginings about the dog’s master, and just which graves he’s going back again and again to visit. I may have to wipe my eyes here – hold on.

If we’re wired for images, if we absorb information more effectively and make it stick more effectively with images, and if a writer can successfully convey an important message through that mechanism – or at least resonate with an important theme, then the work has a shot at immortality in someone’s mind. That’s what this whole gig is all about, right?

Here’s what I get from all this:

  1. Stay lean, avoid a bunch of useless words that don’t add value
  2. Craft a striking image that’s memorable and describe it in a novel way
  3. Consider resonating the image with a theme from the story – make it mean more than the picture itself if you can

If you’re ever stuck for coming up with something, go steal from Basho and Issa. They won’t mind.

Getting Over Free And Rewiring Your Imagination

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Back in the day, pre-internet and when the only way to hit it big was to get signed by a big publishing house, you hounded magazines to sell short stories as much as you could. You got in print. All the names you’d recognize from those days offered that advice; and I sadly admit to listening to my dot matrix printer bweh-bweh-bweh in the corner of my desk while I bent those little metal clips on the manila envelope time and time again patiently sending off stories so I could make a name for myself to finally see the way clear before me. The only cool story I have from those days is a terribly cruel rejection letter from the guy who ran Asimov’s magazine accusing me of stealing the story idea (naming some obscure piece I’d never heard of and saying the other guy did it better). Now that I think about it – there was a guy named Vampire Dan who ran something called The Story Emporium at one point, who said nice things about what I sent him and always said I was ‘close’. He was awesome; but that’s beside my point.

Where I’m going with this is – you sold everything. Nothing was free. Guys like Harlan Ellison were brutal about it, chasing every dime for reprints and mentions and ripoffs. Basic economic common sense says you don’t give your hard work away because it has value. Giving it away means it’s crap and you couldn’t sell it. Right? Hold onto that for a minute.

My brain builds up steam. What I mean by that is my job can be technical; and if I’m not careful, I’ll be exclusively reading science journals and history books, learning statistical programming, building robotic arms, or whatever my left brain decides to chase with precious little stretching of my imagination. It can make my writing a little dodgy and stiff, and the ideas a little plain-Jane and cardboard because I’m not exercising that part that mishears things on purpose, that plugs and unplugs things I see around me to rewire them into something else. Everybody says you’re supposed to write every day; and they’re of course right about that. It matters. Our brains are neuroplastic, meaning you can rewire them yourself just by what you think about. It would be incredibly helpful for a writer to be able to dredge up an inspiring idea to stretch on like taffy any time he needs it. Confidentially, it helps me tremendously at work too because I’m always being presented something people are stuck on. Different ways of thinking break out of that kind of rut.

When I recently started in earnest to build a platform for future book launches, I finally got the light bulb to spark on – that old school thinking about not giving things away for free doesn’t hold true in the internet age. Nothing gets attention on-line like FREE. It’s amazing. Book giveaways are critical because of how you get reviews; and no book sells without reviews. Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads or whatever media you want to talk about, they’re all swamped and crowded with authors pumping books. Nonsense. Sales are about trust; and somebody who’s looking for an author needs to trust them. It is an incredibly intimate relationship between author and reader…a joining of the minds that must be honored and treated as precious. What this all means is it’s not only okay to give your work away for free, it’s important to do so. Setting up a place on Facebook where you can share a piece of flash fiction or a story idea you never intend to build a book around – that gives you a fantastic place for people to get to know your style, to trust you, and also forces you to sit down once a day and do it!

Go see what I mean here and let me know which ones you like best. I’ve come to notice already that people seem to appreciate most the ones with images attached. Give it a shot yourself and see if it doesn’t stretch you to look for slick story ideas around you more often.

The Making Of A Mind-Bender

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Standard warning – this is not a book review! I’m going to analyze how a science fiction author twists a story idea around like a diamond to craft a fascinating mind-bender of a book. Though I’ll likely spoil the crap out of it, we’ll hopefully pick up on best practices for anybody looking to squeeze novelty and freshness out of a concept they might have for a book or story.

“With a hollow booming sound the Third Time Fleet materialized on the windswept plain. Fifty ships of the line, the pride of the empire and every one built in the huge yards of Chronopolis, were suddenly arrayed on the dank savanna as if a small city had sprung abruptly into being in the wilderness”

Because I’ve read it a jillion times and because you should too, I picked for this exercise a 1974 time travel novel by a guy capable of turning your brain into salt water taffy but still leave a smile on your face. Seriously, why are you not reading Barrington Bayley? Go get Knights Of The Limits if you want a sampler pack. The book we’re going to look at is The Fall Of Chronopolis.

The core idea:

There’s an empire that stretches across time instead of space

Time travel has been done to death; and it’s usually stupid and full of holes. Look, you’re probably nowhere near the Doctor Who fan I am – I adore that show in all its forms; but mostly they contradict themselves at will and skim over uncomfortable goofs. Admit that, so we can move on. Here, Bayley has an interesting twist on the galactic empire idea that’s been around since the 1930s. Already a good start. People go back to those 1930s pulps even now. They did a lot of things right; and so did he with this one.

But how to make that work?

Bayley built a theory of how time is structured to try and solve how his core idea could function, how the citizens would travel across the empire and how they’d be ruled. It’s a natural progression once you have an idea, right? Just answer the obvious questions about your idea. He tells us time is like a frothy ocean with our reality and perception of it like stable skim on the surface. Yet under special circumstances, you can go deeper into the potential realities lying below, a horrid and ghostly place where souls can be dissolved into nothingness. Nice – loads of chance for drama and action there.Giant freaking time barriers were set up at the rearward past and forward future like walls around the empire. Specially protected ‘achronal archives’ exist inside buffers which are compared to duplicate archives outside the buffers enabling them to become aware of any disruptions to the timestream…like people or cities disappearing from history. There’s your empire.

Which raises more questions…

There are obvious problems that are going to come up with all of this…you can imagine the debate that went on in his head at this point. Like a courtroom, putting his idea on trial, my guess is he knew right away he needed a way to smooth contradictions, and a way for them to have a conflict of some kind. So his theory of the ocean of time needed to expand a bit. If you can imagine standing ripples on the water, no different from you and I holding a rope at the two ends with me popping up and down quickly so my end goes up when yours goes down…that point between us where the direction switches is called a node. Bayley imagined us existing at a node in time – stable points that move forward one second per second. There are just several of these; and the empire stretches across seven of them. Since they’re all that’s stable though, wrecks in the hinterlands between nodes dissolves all souls onboard into the terrible sea of potentiality. Come on! Once you stretch out an idea like that, of course it’s going to happen in the story! It’s writing itself at this point!

…and implications…

I can also imagine in Bayley’s spitballing session on this idea just trolling over everyday things to bounce his time empire idea across them and see what comes out. Relationships, for example. He imagines a young narcissistic prince who seduces his future self into a romance at node 1. He constructed a religion around how his empire would view the sea of potential, and the special reverence attached to the sacred moment when a Physics lab assistant first discovered the principle which would enable time travel.

Add the conflict and stir…

Once the initial idea is set up, it just needs tension. I imagine Bayley still working his central idea, twisting and turning it to see what war would look inside this framework. Giggling maliciously, I’m sure, he gave us an enemy empire existing in the future beyond a long period of unpopulated nuclear wasteland, begun by dissident time travelers from the empire itself. Cool beans. Conflict was automatic with this one, wasn’t it? Suddenly, the archivists start reporting entire sprawling cities have vanished from history, which no one remembers. The automatic rule of science fiction is to keep pushing the idea – how far can this go? Bayley describes the ultimate goal of a time war as disrupting the founding of your enemy – basically, get behind them and muck it up. It’s really fascinating to read all this…just incredibly innovative.

I’ll wrap it up to leave at least a little mystery to it all. The overall point this time around is the ideas will come from mishearing something around you, from hammering differences into something you see in a movie or book or something somebody tells you, whatever. The job then is to twist it around in the light for:

  1. Your first-pass explanation of how things will work with this idea
  2. Answers to the obvious questions resulting from step 1
  3. Teasing out implications of all that on everyday things
  4. Finding conflict that leverages the idea, not something boring that didn’t need it

That’s my take on it, anyway. You can go read Bayley now.

 

Let’s Pick Apart Great Writing To See Why It Works

revival

“The most terrifying conclusion Stephen King has ever written” Not my words. The inside jacket says that; and it’s a huge claim.

This is no book review. If you’re planning to read Stephen King’s Revival and spoilers bother you, skip this one. My purpose isn’t to tease you with it or give you enough zap to want to read it. I’m going to dissect this little guy like a Roswell alien to see…when it does work really well…why it works. I could have picked perfect works for this exercise, like Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, Frank Herbert’s Dune, or even King’s 11/22/63. One reason is I read this recently. The other is it isn’t perfect; and in particular breaks down like a clunker at one point. Just like almost everything King puts out, when he’s bad, he stinks. When he’s good, he’s freaking brilliant and outshines almost everybody else putting words together. Let’s see why that is, so we can distill some basic principles that would be of value to someone crafting their own stories. Cool?

The story follows Jamie Morton, a boy growing up in 1960s Maine who first encounters a Methodist minister, Charles Jacobs when Jamie is six and the reverend’s young family moves in. Jacobs apparently heals Jamie’s brother using snake-oil sounding hoo-doo he describes as relating to “secret electricity”, a practice that forms the backbone of the whole book. The reverend’s family is killed in a terrible accident, sending him into a bitter tailspin; and over the decades, fate swings these two together again and again in  occasional intersections. Jamie falls in almost-love, then out; and he gets first hooked on heroin, then cured of it by Jacobs. There’s rock and roll and carnivals and fantastic characters along the way. Things finally culminate with Jacobs bringing Jamie in for his grand experiment: bringing someone back from the dead to finally know where his family has gone…to at last know what happens after you die.

1- The opening is chatty and conversational, though immediately alludes to Jacobs being somehow entangled in horrors.

2- Within a few pages, we’re given a host of mundane details we can relate to like comic books, a kid’s imagination, crappy family gifts, toy army men

Straight away, he’s trying to hook you…to make you interested within a page or two before most of us would put it down.  He invented neither foreshadowing nor characterization; but he excels at getting you inside his people’s heads with slice-of-life details. That’s my point. Read it and see how he uses specifics like the name of a TV show his mom is watching to lend flavor and engagement to what he’s telling you…little details we can relate to. A majority of the reviews for this book gush about how much they enjoyed the first part of this book when he’s doing this. In fact, he almost always does this. I had to put down Under The Dome because he was vomiting details and overdoing this trick.

3- Much like the accident it describes, chapter three hits hard and fast with horrifying descriptions of a brutal car accident

Following a brief opening with more relaxed details like: “Three miles away, a farmer named George Barton – a lifelong bachelor known in town as Lonesome George  – pulled out of his driveway with a potato digger attached to the back of his Ford F-100 pickup.” It goes on to describe him as “a good neighbor, a member of the school board, and a deacon of our church”. Then a paragraph later, there’s a scorpion sting that stuck with me for a couple of months after I finished this book. Seriously, it’s brutal how the accident is described. It was fast and brutal. It drew me in, horrified me, scared the crap out of me because of how likely it could happen with nothing supernatural. Incredibly well written. This was brilliant. If you’re trying to scare a reader, striking quickly like this with graphic brutality on characters we’ve been made to care about and relate to is a genius move. It drove everything else that happened. Just genius.

4- The narrative winds and builds, resonating with the title quite well, leading the reader on to believe these ‘secret electricity’ experiments we keep hearing about are going to bring the family back, just in more of a “Monkey’s Paw” style probably. I was thinking it the whole book.

Except when he at last gets to the end, that’s not really what he does. A really brilliant use of the title and narration to make you think you’ve got one ending coming when you don’t.

5- Jacobs brings back a corpse to ask about the afterlife, to know where his family is. Clunk! We’re shown the monster.

To previous generations, it was expected of a horror writer to show the monster. Read Lovecraft – he was very much into that. Abraham Merritt was an incredibly successful sci-fi writer back in the 1920s and 1930s; and he spent pages in lush detail on his visuals. Understanding preferences in fiction are subjective, I can still confidently tell you the prevailing aesthetic in the 21st century is we’re much more frightened when it’s in our heads and the imagination runs wild. Troll Netflix horror flicks and have a look at how many have grainy, security footage-style or lost footage-style preambles for three fourths of the movie before you finally get to the money shot, which is even then only a glimpse of some lady crawling backwards on the ceiling or whatever. King broke the rule with this one; and he has a habit sometimes of cracking the horrifying dread he’s conjured in us like he did this time by describing the afterlife as a place of torment like something from Dante’s Inferno, with massive basalt columns and wide-eyed people led in chains by ant-things to punishment.

On one hand, I’m impressed that a horror genius like Stephen King has picked the most frightening thing about being a human, not knowing what happens after you die, and built a book around it. That’s the mind of a guy who knows what he’s doing. Point in his column. On the other…’ant things’? When he got to this point, the atmosphere and pacing were incredible, driving the quick page turns and breathless wait for what happens next…excellent wordcraft. It’s just for me, when he showed his answer, I disengaged. It isn’t just me, many of the reviews make similar comments without the details of why they felt that way.

Anyway, that last principle is what made me think writing this article made sense. A quote from Great Gatsby came to mind, which is saying practically the same thing:

“No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart”