Research is a perk of this job

July 27, 2018

I’ve written about the perils of fiction research before. Now I want to share some of the fun.

Writers are masters of the arcane. Historical fiction research will make you an expert on a particular time and place, a single town in a single year, down to the slang and eating utensils. Mystery writers know more about police procedure than anyone but a cop. And writers of thrillers and adventure fiction know seven different ways to kill you where you stand.

It’s all learned in moments of spare time, on late nights and early mornings. Reminds me that the root of amateur means love.

I’m reminded of this because I’m editing the draft of Here Be Dragons — Book 3 of the Tales of the New World series — and I find myself looking again and again at pictures in my ancient copy of the US Army Survival Manual. I’ve been looking at these pictures for three novels now… and they’re all about wilderness survival.

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This is a “figure 4” deadfall trap. Young Simon sees Bogg craft these three sticks, and realizes there’s more to his uncle than he thought.

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When Simon and Bogg get deep into the snowy wilderness of Mira, they need to create a warm shelter to survive. Bogg digs the snow out from around a tree, and they have themselves a stealthy little hiding spot.

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This is bracken fern — delicious if you happen to be starving. Simon and Bogg survive on this for a time in the deep woods of Mira.

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And here is a vivet-style campfire. Flames are below ground, hard to spot from a distance. If branches above disperse the smoke, the villains won’t see you sneaking up on them.

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This is Sam the Novel Dog. He’s not in any book… yet.

 

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How to be a (faster) writer

April 22, 2018

I’ve always been slow at it. But I’m here to post a breakthrough. I just wrote a novel (New World 3: Here Be Dragons) at four times my normal speed. Here are three points about how I did it.

(1) I set a goal that was easy.

I’ve learned that failing to meet a writing goal is quietly devastating to my writing psyche, but achieving a writing goal consistently will unleash a poweful fuel — an explosive mixture of confidence and habit. The best goal is one that you can achieve on your worst day.

My goal was 500 words per day, no matter what. The number doesn’t matter. Yours might be much more or much less. What matters is…

(2) I achieved that goal with machinelike consistency.

I wrote when I was tired, when I was busy, when I didn’t have time. As the words piled up, I learned that I could do it. Some days, I didn’t get my 500, but I always made up the difference the next day.

It began to feel normal. And that’s an important feeling.

(3) I changed nothing.

I felt ready to raise 500/day to something more ambitious. But I didn’t. I got smug, then I got bored… but I wrote on, stopping somewhere after 500 and never holding myself to more. I noticed which days were easy and which were hard, which scenes were easy and which were hard.

I call this phase “Sustain and Observe.”

I want do do 1000/day or 2000/day, but I need to take the time to get strong (writing is a muscle) and notice my strengths and weaknesses, so I can amplify my strengths and sidestep my weaknesses.

The novel’s finished. Now it’s editing time. I’ll start the next one August 1, 2018, and I probably won’t change the wordcount goal. I might go another year at 500/day — and when I finally raise it, I’ll raise it to something I can achieve on my worst day. It’s a long game.

Keep the goal easy, always hit it, and sustain.

(I need to give credit to fast writers Rachel Aaron and Chris Fox, who inspired me to look closely at my process.)

Sam the Novel Dog

Sam the Novel Dog


Dialogue Crash Course

July 10, 2017

Here are cinematic examples of everything I know about dialogue, basic to advanced. Listen…

Basic:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The intersection of your normal world and your story world. Immerse yourself in your character’s point of view… and just tell the truth:

 

Gilmore Girls. Adversarial dialogue. Watch for the set-up… and the payoff:

Intermediate:

Firefly. There’s jargon… and then there’s language. Do you have the guts to try this?

The Avengers. Adversarial, metaphorical, agrammatical, great use of beats:

Bonus Avengers, for the art of the POV monologue, and the importance of character names for each other:

Advanced:

Heist. Now that you get Joss Whedon, you are ready for David Mamet. Once you have the skills to make your dialogue sound totally natural, you can dare to make it sound unnatural:

Brick. Dialogue so good, they printed it in the trailer. If you can write this, there’s nothing more anyone can teach you:


Vonnegut teaches plot

May 29, 2017

Here is Kurt Vonnegut having some fun explaining curves of emotional energy in stories. This is worth four minutes:

I found this referenced in The Bestseller Code, by Archer & Jockers, a book about algorithmic text-mining of bestselling books. Can a computer spot patterns in the text of the novels on the NYT bestsellers list? I’m sure I’ll post about it when I finish it.


TV Tropes will ruin your life.

April 2, 2017

TV Tropes might save your writing, though. It’s a venerable wiki from the early days of the internet that has chronicled countless story elements:

“A trope is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize. Tropes are the means by which a story is told by anyone who has a story to tell. We collect them, for the fun involved.”tv_tropes_is_like_crack

This website is the most undervalued tool for writers I know of. It’s a kick for readers, too.

Don’t believe me, writers? Try these:

Dialogue

Plots

Settings

Symbolism

In the short story I’m writing, I wanted a prison break as a minor offstage event. But how to portray it originally? How to include details that aren’t cliched? If only there were a list of every prison break trope ever portrayed in anime, comics, film, literature, TV, video games, cartoons, and the web? Oh, look! I’m saved!

The folks at TV Tropes say that the site may ruin your life. But you might think it’s worth it. Have fun!


Robot Sci-Fi is going backward

February 16, 2017

You probably know the story of where the word “robot” came from: it was coined by Karel Čapek in his 1920 play R.U.R., or Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The play tells the robot ur-story, in which people build robots, the robots are too human, so they rebel and kill everybody. It’s an artifact of industrial-age Marxism, and has been told and retold ad-puking-nauseum. Isaac Asimov was already tired of it by the 1940’s.

I just saw the pilot of Humans. It’s still alive, 97 years later.

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In science fiction, non-human intelligences like robots or aliens are either going to be stand-ins for humans… or they aren’t. If you want to tell a story about people, just use people. Don’t make them aliens or machines or demons, because the point of writing about those things is to show how different, how non-human, those entities could be. A story that does this well can teach us about ourselves by revealing to the reader what humans are not.

Asimov has been the grandmaster of robot fiction for 70 years, and his title is safe. All he did was write stories in which the robots were tools. Doesn’t sound profound, but if you haven’t read his I, Robot collection, you should. You’ll see what I mean.  Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 explores how an extraterrestrial civilization a billion years ahead of us might spend its time from day to day, and Larry Niven’s short stories showed aliens just as smart as people, but with wildly non-human psychology.

Since its high-point in the 1940’s, robot fiction has gotten big-screen flashy (Terminator, Battlestar Galactica) in its visuals, but has regressed back to the same tired worker’s rebellion trope born in 1927. Here is an English-language two-hour audiobook version of R.U.R. Click around and listen to some of the dialog. The style is dated, but you’ve heard every single plot point before.

I named my short story collection after the robot story in it: “Turing’s Revenge.” The title refers to Alan Turing’s test for artificial intelligence. That test should give you a hint about whether your robots are going to rise up and kill you or not. No spoilers, but I put my own spin on the robot rebellion trope.

To help me get over how much I didn’t like Humans, I’ve decided to give away a bunch of Kindle downloads of Turing’s Revenge and Other Stories. If you have an Amazon account, live in the United States, and would like a free story about robots (plus stories about aliens, a cyborg assassin, etc.), email me.

The official contest is over, but I have a few spare ebooks left.  Good luck!

 

 


British Authors are in Trouble

December 1, 2016

The Investigatory Powers Bill has passed both houses of parliament in the United Kingdom and is expected to become law before the end of 2016.

This is bad news for British authors of mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels if they use the web to conduct research.

Under the IP Bill, security services and police forces will be able to access communications data when it is needed to help their investigations. This means internet history data (Internet Connection Records, in official speak) will have to be stored for 12 months.

Communications service providers, which include everything from internet companies and messenger services to postal services, will have to store meta data about the communications made through their services.

In Britain, every website you visit as you research the plot for your next thriller will be logged by your ISP, specifically so the data will be available to law enforcement.  If you want to get the details of your murder and mayhem right without raising suspicion among the authorities, you really need the proxy feature of startpage.com.

Better yet, get started with Tor if you haven’t already.