It Is Not Rocket Science

I have a day off work today, and as usual I don’t quite know what to do with myself.  I ran some errands and did some shopping this morning.  Cleaned the kitchen and the catbox.  Got the trash out. I’ve been trying to write, of course, but my mind’s not on it.  Too much craziness going on in town, and now it’s snowing, too.

I’ve been trying to watch television.  There are a number of series that I have called up on Netflix, but I haven’t been able to sit through the pilots. Part of it, of course, is that I am distracted.  I’m waiting to see if I get called into work to shovel snow, or if someone is going to decide to burn my house down.

It got me thinking, though, about the pilot of a TV series, the first chapter of a novel, or the opening of a film.

Beginnings are an invitation to a voyage.  The writer or composer or filmmaker is asking me to take a journey with her or him.  Once I’m on board and we have some miles behind us I have something invested in the work.  The creator of the work has gotten me this far and I’m willing to do some work to keep going.

Before I start on this trip, though, I want to know some things, and I’m not very patient about getting the answers.  There’s a fairly small window while we’re still sitting at the dock and I’m making up my mind whether or not to jump ship.

Inside a dozen pages or a dozen minutes I have to know who is going to be travelling with me, what kind of scenery we’re going to be seeing, what kind of vehicle we’re taking, the sorts of adventures we’re likely to encounter, and that the pilot knows where she or he is going.

That sounds like a tall order, and I suppose it is.  Writing is hard.  It can be done, though.

Who is going to be travelling with me?  Introduce me to your characters and give me a reason to want to go places with them.  Tell me enough about them to want to know more.  Convince me that they are going to be interesting companions and won’t spend the whole trip complaining or boring me. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

What kind of scenery are we going to be seeing?  Where are we?  When are we? What kind of world is this? How much is familiar and how much is new to me?  Make me want to look out the window.  Show me that the world around us is real and interesting. You don’t have to build a whole new planet for me, just leave me feeling that there is more than I can see through the window, and that there could be surprises around any corner.

What kind of vehicle are we taking?  Victorian steam engine, composite polymer hang glider, Byzantine cataphract? There are advantages and disadvantages to each.  I want to get a feel for the pacing and tone of the work.  If you open in media res with a combat scene you creating an expectation in me, likewise if the piece opens with the hero engaged in long monologue about the nature of good and evil.  Genre conventions are part of what I am calling “vehicle” here, but how the author incorporates those conventions into her or his individual style is also very important.

What sorts of adventures are we likely to encounter?  This goes back to the old “Man vs. Nature”, “Man vs. Man”, “Man vs. Himself”, “Man vs God”, and “Spy vs Spy” lineup.  In broad outline, what kind of conflicts drive the story?  Is there a hero and a villain, or are the characters more ambiguous? Like my comments about the “vehicle”, the adventures are part of what is called genre, but even within genres there are different kinds of conflicts.  And you don’t have to stick to just one conflict–there’s no reason that your protagonists can’t have to fight off giant alligators and at the same time worry about the traitor in their midst.  But inside the first chapter/episode I want to at least get a glimpse of the rapids in the stream ahead.

Does the pilot know where she or he is going?  Obviously, I don’t want to know where we’re going–what’s the fun in that? But I do want to know that the author knows. Give me a feeling that the character(s) have a definite goal–even if that goal is simply to be left alone or just survive the night.  Goals can come and go–the hero may decide that he would rather forgive the villain than destroy her.  That doesn’t matter.  What matters is a sense that this story is going someplace, not just sitting at the station.

Again, this is a lot to cram into a few thousand words, but I think these are all important areas to engage your readers.  The opening of a story is negotiating a contract, and you have to let your audience know that you have stock on hand and a willingness to deliver.

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The Legalities of Shooting People


A discussion of deadly force and the law that is well worth reading.

Originally posted on Monster Hunter Nation:

I’m writing this blog post because I’ve seen a lot of really ignorant comments from a lot of otherwise intelligent folks about some recent shootings. It is really easy to be swayed by knee jerk emotion, but luckily we live in America, where we have a justice system based on evidence and the rule of law. I’m not going to get into the Brown shooting too much because I wasn’t on the grand jury and haven’t read the evidence presented in that particular case, but I’m going to explain how use of force laws work so I don’t have to keep repeating myself.

This will vary state by state, but these are the fundamentals for most places in the US. There are some legal differences between police and regular folks shooting people, but basically the rules are similar. I’m not an attorney in your state, and this is not meant…

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It’s Like Forgetting The Words To Your Favorite Song

I saw Intersteller yesterday.

I have very mixed feelings about it.  The parts that it did well it did very well.  Christopher Nolan is a brilliant visual storyteller.  The principles were all excellent in their roles.  There are scenes in this film that left me breathless.

Unfortunately, about a third of the way into the movie I lost my willing suspension of disbelief, and after that there was no narrative tension for me.

Now, I am not a physicist or an engineer, but I have an interested layman’s grasp of general and specific relativity and a good head for figures.  I felt that the filmmakers set up the rules for their particular cosmos and then almost immediately began arbitrarily violating their own rules to build narrative tension.

It had the opposite effect on me. I felt that everything was arbitrary, the rules were selectively enforced and the filmmakers were just killing time with pretty lights until it was time to get to the ending they wanted, and that it was a forgone conclusion what would happen to whom. I predicted (accurately, as it turned out) the eventual fate of every major character by about 35 minutes in.  After that, there wasn’t much to hold my interest.

If I’m watching a character cross a tightrope between two skyscrapers, I am going to be on the edge of my seat, because I know that one misstep means immediate death.  If, on the other hand, I see the character step off the rope and simply float in mid-air for a while before stepping back onto the rope, the tension is gone.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from seeing this film.  A lot of people really love it, and as I said the visuals are extraordinary.  The characters are very real and the emotional impact of many of the scenes is undeniable.

It just couldn’t engage me intellectually, and without that I wasn’t able to care.  It was very frustrating because it wouldn’t have taken much to make the science internally consistent–they could have told almost the same story and held my interest.  I know they had science consultants on this film.  I really wish they had listened to them more.

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Read Tuesday will Launch with Thunder


Getting closer…

Originally posted on ReadTuesday:



Read Tuesday is a Black Friday type of event just for book lovers on December 9, 2014.

Authors can participate for free. Signing up and participating is easy.

Readers and gift-givers just need to browse the Read Tuesday catalog in early December. Find the books you like here, but buy them at Amazon or Smashwords like normal. Except for saving big, of course.

To help spread the news, we have a ThunderClap promotion scheduled for the morning of December 9.

Our ThunderClap currently has a social reach of over 300,000 through 100 supporters (thank you, everyone), with 18 days left to improve these numbers. We have our sights set on a million, and we’re nearly one-third the way there.

What the ThunderClap does is announce the big Read Tuesday sale by synchronizing posts on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. It’s easy to add your support (see below).

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Guilty Feet Have Got No Rhythm

Over on The Dragon’s Rocketship Facebook page I posted a graphic commenting on one of my least favorite tropes in film.  It’s something that might be called: The Awful Choice. 


The point that I was trying to make is that while it is presented to the character and the audience as two options (“cut the chain”; which is impossible or “cut off your foot”; which is horrible) there is actually a third option–“cut the pipe”; which would completely defuse the drama of the scene.

Now, some people wanted to argue about the practicality of cutting the pipe (as a maintenance man I am used to working iron pipe, and it would take time, but I think it would be perfectly possible) and some people pointed out that the poor judgments by characters are not technically “plot holes”, which I will grant.  It’s like that insurance commercial that says, “When you’re in a horror movie you make bad decisions.”

What I found most interesting were comments made that complained that getting bogged down in technical details detracted from the story.

I disagree.  I think that the technical details are the story.  That particular scene depends upon technical details–the relative hardness of bone and tempered steel versus the cutting power of a hacksaw blade.  It simply requires the audience to ignore one relevant detail–the hardness of the pipe–and accept the other two.

I think that’s cheating.

I write about things that are impossible, and I expect my readers to accept them as if they are possible.  However, I also follow what I call Consensual Suspension Of Disbelief. To sum up that article, I believe that suspension of disbelief is both negotiated and limited. The example that I use in that article is the TV show The Walking Dead.  Viewers of the show know from the onset that it is about zombies, and are willing to accept that or they wouldn’t be watching.

That doesn’t mean that the writers are then allowed to break natural laws whenever they choose.  It is perfectly reasonable to complain about inaccuracies in the portrayal of firearms because, as I say in my article, “Zombies were negotiated.  Magic guns were not.”

I think that deviating from what the audience has specifically agreed to accept as possible weakens any story.  On the director’s commentary the writer mentions a scene in the original script in which the photographer cut a different section of pipe to find a clue.  That scene was not in the shooting script because the writer didn’t want the audience to consider cutting the pipe as an option.

When you break the rules that you have made in order to advance the plot, you are weakening your story.  God is in the details, and you are God of your worlds.  Get the details right.

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Is Not Perfect Better Than Not At All?

I have been reviewing my first three books as part of getting started on my fourth, and while I enjoy them, it’s clear that they could stand to be professionally edited.

However, given the cost of editing compared with my sales, it’s also clear that it would be financially prohibitive to do so.  The total profit that I have made from the sales of all three books over the last three years would cover only a fraction of the cost of editing one book.

I don’t believe that editing would boost my sales considerably, either.  Having these books edited might result in a few more sales, but I don’t believe that I would suddenly start selling a hundred times as many books as I am now, which is what I would need to recoup the costs.

I have a choice, to either continue to release books that are self-edited, or not release them at all.  I have had enough positive feedback that I believe that my readers are willing to put up with the errors for the sake of the story.

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All The Devils That Disturbed Me And The Angels That Defeated Them Somehow

I have a diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder. It’s what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder.  I spent a lot of time in therapy. working with a childhood trauma specialist, and I am a very high functioning dissociative.

My character Catskinner is based on my own experiences.  He is what is called a protector alter, however I have fictionalized his perceptions and certain other aspects of the James & Catskinner system.

I am currently listening to the audiobook version of Catskinner’s Book, read by the talented Brandon McKernan.  Hearing Brandon bring my words to life has reminded me of Catskinner as a person–not human, but possessed of his own desires and emotions, alien as they are.

I need that reminder.  It would be all to easy to make Catskinner a plot device, just a BFG that James can pull out when he’s in a jam.  I don’t think I quite crossed that line in Cannibal Hearts and The Worms Of Heaven, but I can feel that temptation.

Catskinner is a hard character to write.  I have put a lot of work into the metaphysics and pseudoscience behind my novels.  It’s important work, I think, because suspension of disbelief can be such a fragile thing.  With each novel I have more data to keep organized and consistent.  If I say that something works a particular way in one book I have to make sure that it works the same way in every book. (For example, I find myself wishing that I hadn’t given the Ambimorphs such inhuman eyes, but it’s something that I committed to working with.)

Consistency of facts is only half of the story, though.  I also have to make the people who inhabit my strange world consistent.  People do change, of course.  Nancy, for example, is in the process of rewiring her own brain with the help of her symbiote and that shows in her personality.  I have to be careful not to lose what my characters appealing as people, though.

People like Catskinner, and what they like about him isn’t the technical nuts and bolts of how Orthovores function, it’s his black ironic humor and his passionate care for James.  I need to remember that.

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