Category Archives: Writing

The Hiro and the Failure: thoughts on Snow Crash and Timmy Failure

I recently finished reading two books virtually simultaneously. I would like to claim that this is because I’m an incredibly dedicated reader with amazing time management skills, but actually I cheated. One of them was an audio book. Which, while we’re on the subject, is it appropriate to tell people you’re “reading” an audio book? It feels like a lie, but the absolute truth feels clunky and awkward to explain.

ANYHOO.

Book one was Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephen Pastis.  It is a book with pictures. It is a book for children. It is amazing.

Book two was Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. It is a seminal work of science fiction with high action mixed in with history, philosophy, and comparative religion. It is…okay.

Now at this point I’m thinking I sound kind of shallow, but hear me out. Because you know what Timmy Failure had that Snow Crash didn’t? A polar bear named Total.* No wait, I’m sorry. What I meant to say was, “internal conflict and character development.”

In Snow Crash Hiro Protagonist is trying to save the world from an virus that infects your mind. In Timmy Failure, our eponymous (I love that word) hero is trying to get back his mom’s Segway which he was not supposed to be riding around before his mom finds out he’s lost it.

Now here’s the thing. In Snow Crash, that’s it. That little snippet I just gave you encapsulates the entire plot in a nutshell. None of the characters, and I mean none, ever have to deal with any kind of internal conflict, never have to overcome any personal failings. It’s all swords cutting people’s heads off and Gatling gun duels, interspersed with long conversations about Sumerian mythology and hacking. Which is fine as far as it goes. I really did like the bits with the mythology, and it was nice to have the spoonful of fictional sugar to help them go down. But in the end the story had very little depth.

In the case of Timmy Failure however, there was nothing but depth. Timmy claims he does not live up to his last name. Timmy lies. In fact his detective agency doesn’t actually solve any of the cases he’s given in the book. But the charm of the story is in the layers, in the way we see the world through Timmy’s eyes.

Timmy Failure is an entirely unreliable narrator, because he’s seeing the world through a egotistical, child-sized lens. Through that lens we see the troubles his mom is having with the bills, and how she’s dating a guy who’s a bit of douche in the hopes of bringing some stability back into her and Timmy’s lives. We see how Timmy’s nemesis is really just a girl who wants her dad to spend more time with her.

In other words, the story is about more than what the story is about.

Is Snow Crash a bad book? No. But it’s utterly flat. It makes the mistake of thinking that what the readers really care about is whether or not the world is saved.

Screw the world. Let it burn. What readers really care about is personal. It’s the inner journey that brings power to the story. Without that, all you have is spectacle.

 

*Seriously, how hard would it be to have a polar bear in a book named Snow Crash? Talk about your missed opportunities.

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Advice for Singles in Fact and Fiction

There’s something that’s bothering me more and more lately about single people. Not all single people necessarily, but many of you at the very least are obsessed with not being single anymore. You think you can finally be happy if you find a suitable mate, that one person that understands you like no one else, and you’ll finally have the chance to share life with someone instead of going it alone.

And yeah, as a happily married person, I can say those things are pretty awesome. If you find the right person to spend the rest of your life with, you can count yourself very very lucky.

But lets examine that phrase at the end there shall we? “The rest of your life.” The rest of your life is hopefully going to be quite a long time. I mean even if you’re smoking like a chimney, drinking like a fish, and singlehandedly keeping your local Burger King afloat, you probably have at least twenty or thirty years ahead of you. And the thing you’re missing, the thing I missed until after I was married, is that you’ve got an incredible amount of freedom right now. You probably don’t have a house payment, you don’t have to worry about your kids having enough diapers.

How well do you think James Bond would function as a married man? And I mean really married, like to someone he cares about with long term goals and kids and stuff? How about Luke Skywalker? You think he’d have dashed off to join the Rebellion if he’d had a couple of mouths to feed back on Tattooine? If you do ever run into a fictional character that’s married or got kids, he’s either estranged from them or they’re getting kidnapped for him to go and save. Heroes almost never have to deal with normalcy. 

And that’s you right now. You have options a married guy or gal couldn’t imagine. You can go on a secret mission overseas. You can fly your X-wing and destroy the Death Star. You can move without being bothered by the the fact that you’re underwater on your mortgage.

Okay, so maybe mostly just that last one. But that one’s bigger than you’d think. You have the freedom to take risks us married folks don’t have.

So stop your whining. Stop being bitter. Stop turning Valentines into Singles Awareness Day.

Finding someone to love is awesome, sure, but so is having the option to jump in your car and drive to the Grand Canyon, picking up odd jobs washing dishes along the way. One day you’ll be married. One day you’ll have a kid and a house a dog and, oh yeah, a job you can’t afford to lose because your family counts on those health care benefits.

Don’t stop looking for Mr. or Mrs. Right. But don’t forget to celebrate what you’ve got right now.

Oh, and writers? About all those single characters: I know how tempting it is to write characters with no attachments, believe me, but maybe you could at least consider the fact that attachment raise the stakes. And not just in the cliched sense of “I’m worried the bad guy might kidnap my family.” What kind of character would James Bond be if he had to worry about paying his mortgage, or deal with the guilt of the fact that his child sees him so rarely he doesn’t even recognize him, on top of having to save the world? Think about it.

Hodgepodge and Miscellany

It’s been a while since I wrote anything really substantive in this space. That’s not an apology so much as an observation. Things have been busy. I’ve been busy. I probably could have made myself blog more than I have, but if I’m forcing myself to do something I don’t like…well what’s the point in that. If I’m going to do things I don’t like, I’m at least going to get paid for doing them.

But there are a few things I thought some of you might like to know. First, Thing 1 and Thing 2 are out of our house once again and working toward a more permanent placement with some relatives. They packed up everything last week and headed out of state. The odds are decent that I won’t see them again, at least not for a very long time. I would be lying if I told you I didn’t cry when they left. But I would also be lying if I told you that I wasn’t at least a little glad that they’re gone. Between their school schedule, and trying to spend time my wife and our baby, things were stretched a little thin for us. I’m looking forward to having a little more free time to write.

Speaking of writing, I’m working on a new story which I think is going to be titled, The Death and Life of the Human Electrode, which is about a homeless superhero. And I’ve got one out for beta reads right now called In the Shadow of Doubt which is about faith and giant spiders and a tribe of squirrels that lives in a world-tree.

In other news, the parenting adventure continues. Baby AJ is now mobile. Which means you’ve got to keep an eye on him, because if you don’t the next think you know you’re hearing the thump of the trash can in the kitchen and when you get there he’ll be eating used coffee grounds right out of the filter. Really.

Also, he likes dog food for some reason. I’ve tried to convince my wife that this is a possible way to save money over all that expensive formula and baby food she keeps buying, but so far she’s not going for it.

Here is a video of him wearing pants on his head:

 

Some Loosely Connected Thoughts on Interactive Fiction, Second-Person Perspective, and Writer’s Voice

I’ve been playing a lot of interactive fiction lately. I like the term “interactive fiction” a lot. As a writer it helps me justify my time-wasting so much better than, “games with text instead of pictures”.

If you’re not familiar with interactive fiction, it’s the type of game where descriptions print on the screen and you have to tell your character what to do. For example, the opening to an IF game might look something like this:

You step out of the wreckage of your dad’s Starspeeder 3000 onto the surface of the planet. The ground squishes beneath your feet like soggy bread, and the air of the planet, though breathable, smells distinctly of unwashed feet. To the east you see something swelling up from the earth that resembles nothing so much as an inverted mushroom covered in electric blue fur. From the north you hear a haunting kind of music that seems to swell with the wind. As you contemplate exactly how long you’re going to be grounded for crashing dad’s space ship, you realize how lucky you are to have landed on a planet with a stable magnetic field, for otherwise directions like “north” and “east” would have no meaning.

You’ll notice something about that little fragment. It’s all in second-person. There are probably exceptions to this, but for the most part these IF games are all written in second person, feeding descriptions and dialogue to “you” allowing you to immerse yourself in the adventure.

For a while now I’ve been thinking about a various ways second-person could be implemented in fiction. For whatever reason, there’s something inherently awkward about straight second-person in long fiction. It can work well enough in shorter stories, but once you stretch into novella length and beyond second person starts to feel tedious.

Part of the reason for this is that straight-forward second person feels as if someone has invaded your psychic personal space, telling you what you’re thinking, doing and saying, without you having any control over it. But maybe the way to make second-person more palatable would be to come at it indirectly.

What do I mean by that?

Well, let me answer by asking you a question: which “person” is this blog post written in? Seems like most votes would go for first-person. After all you keep hearing me talk about myself and what my perspective it don’t you? But in the sentence before this one, “you” was the subject. Except you can clearly see that I’ve included first person elements and- okay yes, you caught me, I’m doing it again.

Point being, “person” isn’t as concrete a thing as you might’ve been led to believe. This is something I learned a good while back from reading a book of short stories by H. G. Wells. In many of these stories Wells would use a framing device in which a first-person narrator opened the story and then related the bulk of the narrative as something he’d been told by someone else. As such 95% of the story came through in third person despite technically being first person. And, since the framing-device narrator is speaking directly to the implied “you” that is the reader you could even argue that there is an implicit layer of second person there as well.

And here was where I thought I’d been struck by an epiphany. The key to making second person work might lie in making the person doing the telling a character as well as the person being told. If there were a distinct enough “I” delivering the “you” maybe it would translate into more readable second person fiction.

I say I “thought” I’d had an epiphany. Because what I realized later was this: it doesn’t matter which person you’re trying to tell a story in, there is always someone doing the telling. This is something that’s obvious to us in first-person fiction. When you’re writing first-person the teller is a character in the story. But when it comes to third-person we forget that the person telling that story is a character as well.

Now you might be thinking, “But I’m the one telling the story. I’m not a character.” But you forget that everything that makes it onto the page is filtered through you. You’re the one who tells some details and leaves others out. You’re the one who decides which characters you’re going to focus on and when. And, perhaps most importantly, you’re the one who decides the way the story will be told.

This is that mystic and unfathomable thing called “voice”. Except maybe it shouldn’t be so mystic and unfathomable. Because what it really boils down to is the author accepting his status as an “invisible character.” The audience is seeing the world though his eyes, and the fact that those eyes belong to him and no one else, matters.

When I write a story, the thing I’m saying without saying is, “Hi, I’m Albert. And I’m going to tell you a story.” And when I pick up a book to read, I’m entering into an implicit understanding with the author that he is going to deliver the tale from his heart in his words.

So when you sit down to write, in whatever person, don’t be afraid to let the you shine through the story. Always remember: you can’t tell a story without becoming part of the story. And if you do it right the story just might become a part of you.

Not NaNoWriMo (But Similar)

I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year. I probably should have waited until later in the post to say that, kind of lead up into it sort of thing, but meh. It’s not like I can go back and fix it or anything.

Okay, I kid. In actuality going back fixing what I’ve already written is the reason I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year.

There’s something Chuck Wendig often repeats on his blog, a phrase, a fundamental axiom of writerdom. That phrase is not, “Complete thy poop,” but you get the idea. It’s good advice, both for writers, and those afflicted by constipation.

Thing is, for the writer completion doesn’t happen all at once. There’s that first stage of completion when you finish your rough draft, and you feel all giddy about finally being done with this monstrosity. Except, of course, you aren’t done. Then come the rewrites, and the editing, the beta reads and the queries, and, hopefully, publication in one form or another.

Put simply, your poop requires polish.

And this year I’ve got some stories that need polish. Two years ago I wrote a story for NaNoWriMo called The Dark Mile about a young man trying to deal with increasingly disturbing dreams and visions that seem to focus around one particularly desolate spot along his nightly paper route. It’s been sitting for all that time, untouched, while I’ve pursued other things. It’s been waiting long enough.

Several years before that, I wrote a story called In the Shadow of Doubt about a holy war that breaks out in a tribe of squirrels living in a tree that fills their entire world. I sent it out to a number of agents, received zero response and eventually got discouraged and shelved it. But the other day, reading back through that story I found that there was a lot to like in it. It needs a little touching up, a little smoothing out, but the bulk of the story really works.

So while the rest of you busy beavers and bashing your heads against your keyboards desperately trying to get to 1,667 words each day, I’ll be hunkered down here with words I’ve already written, trying to make the bad into good and the good into better. I’ll let you figure out which of us has it better. At least you have the luxury of some measurable metric of success.

Oh, and speaking of that:

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about how 50,000 words does not an actual “novel” make. Not according to “the publishers”. I’m not generally disposed to bash of one form of publishing or another, but in this particular case if I were not a man of gentle words I would instruct you on exactly which sexual act you might perform on “the publishers” and in which orifice, and which brand of garden rake might be best for the job. Why?

Because A STORY’S LENGTH IS NOT A SIGNIFICANT MEASURE OF ITS VALUE. Did you catch that? You there in the back, where you able to hear me?

Your story should be as long as it needs to be. You can tell a good and compelling story in 50,000 words. You can go longer if you want —and if you’ve got your eye on traditional publishing it wouldn’t hurt to keep their preferences in mind— but don’t let anyone make you feel like less of a writer because you’ve reached the end of your tale when you wind up at 50k.

So to all of you out there, no matter what you’re doing this month, I hope it works out better than you could ever dream. And to that one guy reading this post on his phone while he’s taking a dump, well…you know.

Acting in the Theatre of the Mind

Sometime in the past year I changed my radio listening habits. I started tuning out the conservative talk radio I had grown up with (don’t judge me; or do: whatever) and amped up my consumption of NPR. Of course on NPR the tone of discussion is radically different, but on a basic level it’s not much of a switch. Talking is talking no matter which way you slice it up, and they do a lot of talking on NPR. They talk about politics, news, world-culture; and of course, they do interviews.

Sometimes they do interviews with people who actually matter, like politicians or financial experts or whatever. But sometimes they do interviews with other people; the kind of people that a lot of other people think matter, but they don’t really, except for the fact that so many people believe they matter kind of means that they do? That sentence: it got away from me.

I have a sliding scale for how well I tolerate these kinds of interviews. On the bottom of the scale is musicians. Call me crazy, but given the choice of hearing someone talk about music and listening to, you know, actual music, I’m gonna go with the latter.

Slightly higher on the scale, but not by much, are the writers. In theory I should be really interested in what other writers have to say. I mean, those be my people,  amiright? I don’t know, maybe they’re picking the most boring writers possible for these interviews, but I think it’s more likely that out of all the different professions out there, writers just tend not to be that interesting to talk to. Hellooo? That’s why we’re writers! If we could talk we wouldn’t be glued to our keyboards.

Then comes the third group. The group I should probably dislike the most, but somehow end up disliking the least. Actors. Actors tend to be way more interesting to me than writers or musicians. I’m not sure I can justify this. Probably it tickles the same bone in me that makes people buy supermarket celebrity news tabloids.

But there’s more than that too. Because when I listen to writers talk about how they write, most of the time I don’t get much out of it as a writer. They talk about why they chose a specific setting for their novels or what it is about one of their characters that appeals to them and it’s all very…safe.

More often than not though, I feel like I can learn something from actors talking about how they do what they do. The whole point of what an actor does is to create a character. Their job is to step out of who they are and into someone else in such a way that the audience believes in that person.

Now I know what you’re thinking, “Albert, the guy who wrote the script created that character. He’s the one who came up with the guy’s motivations, he’s the one who puts the words in his mouth. The actor is just following the writer’s instructions.”

And you’re wrong.

Yes, the writer does write the lines for the character, he does come up with his backstory, maybe he even has an idea of the character’s mental and spiritual state in the story. But no matter how good the writing is, it’s going to fall flat if someone doesn’t step into that role and become the thing the writer envisioned, mannerisms, ticks, facial expression, and a million other tiny things that the script writer might have never conceived of when he penned the story. The actor is more than just a puppet spouting the lines he’s been giving, going through the actions he’s been assigned. In a very real sense he must become the thing he is portraying as the film cameras roll.

At this point you might be thinking, “Yeah, but I’m writing a novel, not a screenplay you doofus. Why should I care about all this Hollywood mumbo jumbo?”

The reason you should care is this: if you want your story to be believable, if you want your work to make an impact, character matters. As a fiction writer you have more in common with the actor than you think. You’re not just writing dialogue. You’re writing actions and reactions, mannerisms and habits. You can’t rely on someone else to come along and realize the character in your reader’s minds. The whole burden of the process is on you.

The characters aren’t your puppets. Well, they can be. You’re the godlike writer, you can make them do whatever you want them to do. But if you want their story to be believable  if you want people to care about what happens to them, you’re going to have to do more than that.

You have to be able to step into their skin, understand what makes them who they are, and make sure that is reflected in every page that they’re on. This is more than just slapping on a backstory, a goal and a phobia. This is investing each of them with a soul of their own, making them into a living breathing person in your mind, and ultimately, in your moments of creation, becoming them.

Full disclosure? This is something I need improvement on. But sometimes I think I get it right. Sometimes I can feel what my characters are feeling, I can get inside their heads in such a way that their actions become my actions.

This is what writers mean when they talk about characters living inside their heads. We’re not schizophrenic; but maybe we are just a little bit crazy. Maybe we have to be.

Because in the end our insanity is infectious. The more we start to believe our characters are real, the more they start to live in and through us, the more the reader will believe that they’re real. Our characters will act out their story on the stage we’ve built in the theatre of the reader’s mind; and we can count ourselves successful if only for only a moment we can make our vision of the world feel more honest than the truth.

Beginnings for Beginners

I am a literary hobo. I panhandle my way through the library, I paw through the dumpsters of remaindered books at Barnes and Noble, I shop the discarded treasures at the local Goodwill.

And, of course, because I can often pick them up for cheap or free I read self-published stories.

There’s a lot of good out there in the self-publishing world. It’s true that there’s more bad stuff than good stuff, but on the whole I haven’t had difficulty finding compelling books that were competently edited and reasonably well-written.

But.

When reading self-published books I’m aware that what I’m seeing many times is the work of someone new to the writing scene. Someone who is still polishing their craft, who hasn’t had access to the professional feedback the “real” writers get. (This is another blog post all on it’s own, but make sure you’re getting someone who knows what they’re talking about and isn’t afraid of hurting your feelings to read your stuff and give feedback before you hit “publish”. Listen to what they say. It will make a world of difference.)

And in reading these stories there’s one thing that I’ve noticed many new writers have a hard time getting right. The beginning.

See, beginnings are important and difficult things. Actually stories are important and difficult things, but I’ve only got a few hundred words here so lets focus our attention shall we?

Beginnings have to do a lot of work. They have to introduce the main characters, they have to set up the story world, they have to set the tone of the story.

And most people get that stuff right. Even the beginning writers I’ve seen faltering at this, usually understand the basics of setting up the story. But the problem is that beginnings have to do more than just set things up. They have to set the hook.

How?

A good opening scene makes the reader ask a question. It doesn’t really matter that the question is. It could be, “Why does a fifteen-year-old girl have a unicorn in her room?” or “Why is a cyborg fighting through a horde of aliens with a paper heart stapled to his chest?”

That advice you’ve heard about opening your story in the middle of the action? It’s fine to do that —though I would argue not completely necessary— but the action can’t just be there to look pretty; it has to plant a question in the reader’s mind.

Note however that the opening scene shouldn’t do the asking directly. You drop a line like, “So, have you noticed that John disappears every month around the time of the full moon? Wonder what that’s about.” and you’ve just lost about half of your readers.

Instead, the opening scene insinuates the question into the reader’s mind. It makes him believe that he came up with the question all on his own. And that makes him care about the answer. That’s why this moment is so important. Because that question is what is going to pull your reader further into the story looking for answers.

Of course the question and answer cycle doesn’t end at the opening scene. The beginning is just…well the beginning. Making your readers keep turning the pages looking for answers is what drives good fiction forward. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: in the end, all good stories are mysteries.

So take a look at your opening scene. Be sure it’s going to make the reader ask the question you want him to ask.

Because the reader will ask a question. Your job is to make sure that question isn’t, “Why am I reading this?”