Saturday, October 30, 2010

Caprica, Good Riddance

Caprica, Good Riddance

WTF JUST HAPPENED??For once, I’m not disappointed when SyFy cancels a series before its time. Caprica is now thankfully put out of my misery. But let this be a lesson to all the writers out there as an exemplary example of how NOT to write. Let me demonstrate many of the missteps that defined Caprica’s demise.

  1. Broken Promises
    I don’t know if I got this impression from promos or from early episodes, but I was promised to learn the origin of the
    Cylons. That’s literally all I cared about. I wanted to see early Cylons,”By-your-command” and all that. Cylons. Not weird religions and terrorists. Not corporate politics. Not marital difficulties. CYLONS. Where the fuck were the Cylons??
    When you make your readers a promise, in other words, you set an expectation, you form a “contract” with the reader/viewer. The same thing happened in
    Battlestar Galactica. “They have a plan.” What plan?? We never found out. Compare with “I’ll be back.”
  2. Lousy/Non-existent Setting, Bad World Building
    Umm….why does Caprica look exactly like Earth? Everything except the alphabet is identical. Are sets really that expensive? When they went into a CG world it was much better, but overall, there was absolutely nothing interesting or intriguing about the setting. Not only that, but none of the tech really made any sense. It was inconsistent and self-contradictory, some hi-tech, some ridiculously low-tech. I had a hard time suspending disbelief.
  3. Flat Characters
    I didn’t get it. Girls as monotheistic terrorists? Really? Why? I didn’t get any of it. The girl-turned-pre-Cylon Zoe sorta sat around and did nothing…and still does very little. You’re a goddamn Cylon, start wrecking shit! Yeah, it took Anakin 3 damn movies to turn in Darth Vader, but Anakin was driven. Zoe is just boring as hell. It’s like a bunch of talentless gamers wrote this thing after an all-night WoW battle. Really? She’s the mother of all Cylons? REEALLLY????
  4. Random Subplots
    I literally have no idea what they were trying to achieve in Caprica. I thought it was about Cylons, but there’s terrorists, businessmen, Taurons (rhymes with morons), and really no one I cared about. Yeah, the subplots had some drama, but so what? They didn’t matter. All that mattered was that the Cylons will destroy their world. Cyyylllonnss. Ass-kicking terminators.
  5. Relativism
    Stories are allegorical. Caprica wasn’t. The sad thing is that I could see them trying. Terrorism. The internet. Virtual reality. Let’s just mix these all up and see what happens. I really love it during cooking shows when the contestants pull ingredients out of the hat and make a dish. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes horrible. To me, Caprica illustrates the latter, a random assortment of good ideas that produce disgusting slop.

I hope this illustrates how a perfectly conceived piece of creativity can turn into utter crap. When working on NaNoWriMo or whatever your next project is, keep this lesson in mind. It’s perfectly fine (and expected) to have any and all of these issues during your first draft, so don’t sweat it. Just don’t let them get into production/print.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

See my Red Dress Guest Post!

See my Red Dress Guest Post!

I have a guest post up on the red dress club!
Everything you need to know about NaNoWriMo!

Go check it out!

“the red dress club” is a site for women writers…which I am not but I kinda know the hostess a little bit (okay she’s my sister). But it’s an awesome site. Check it out!

Monday, October 25, 2010

NaNoWriMo ‘10 Starts in 1 Week!

NaNoWriMo ‘10 Starts in 1 Week!

creative-murder-demotivational-posterAnd I got nothing. Well, I do have something. But I don’t yet have a plot. I have a bunch of characters, I have a crime or two, I have a couple scene ideas. But beyond that…nothing. Last year at this time I was sitting around just trying to think of anything I was missing. This time around I’m grasping for straws.

Okay, enough of the weak metaphors. There’s no reason to panic. At heart I’m a pantser, so no big deal. Sure, I’ve never written a Mystery before. And now that I’m doing it, I’m finding it incredibly complicated. Clues, evidence, leads, motives, means, it all has to be non-obvious and obvious at the same time. Every line of the story has to be about the Mystery. But I have all these great ideas about scenes that have nothing to do with solving the crime(s). And not many about pursuing the bad guys.

I’ve been reading James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Mystery. It’s helpful and daunting at the same time. Frey is a proponent of a “Five Act” structure dealing with the phases of solving crimes. Here it is for those who are interested:

  1. Accepting the Mission. The Hero/Detective is made aware of the crime and thinks about working it.
  2. Tests up to Ordeal. The Hero/Detective starts investigating, finding allies and enemies, and eventually is faces with a Crisis.
  3. Solves the Crime. After passing the Ordeal, the Hero/Detective figures out “whodunit” and goes after them, trying to prove it.
  4. Trapping the Criminal. The Hero/Detective faces the Criminal and finds a way to expose and/or defeat him.
  5. Standard Dénouement. The Hero/Detective lives happily ever after and the Criminal doesn’t.

Well, I kinda have a little bit of Acts I and II laid out. The rest is completely up in the air. I have ~6 days 12 hours to figure it out. Also, according to Frey, there this kind of “Act 0” which is the story of the villain, the crime, the victim, and everything that happens outside of the scope of the book. “The plot behind the plot” is what I think he calls it. What I have so far is 4 actual murders, 2 attempted murders, and some other crimes as well. Woot!

So, how is your NaNoWriMo planning going?

Monday, October 18, 2010

A New Writing Metaphor

A New Writing Metaphor

tiger miror Or maybe it’s an allegory. Anyways, I hear a lot about the peaks and valleys of a novel. Rising action, increasing the stakes, adding tension. Your Hero is climbing a mountain, and must struggle to reach the top, which is the pinnacle of his achievement.


Let me introduce another metaphor. To play along, hover your mouse over the links.

Your Hero starts out in a nice forest, constantly pursued by a hungry tiger, but the tiger is kind of old, been chasing him for a while. He’d like to not have that damn tiger around…think of what he could do without it always messing him up. He’s tried to chase it away, maybe even kill it, but it just keeps coming back, growling, eying him, stealing his food and eating his women.

So one day he’s out, trying to avoid the tiger, and he sees this beautiful meadow in the distance. It’s a wonderful meadow, full of flowers, little sparkling steams, and of course—not a tiger to be found. How wonderful it would be to live in such a place! But there are no roads, no paths that lead there that he can see…except through a dark, cloud-filled valley. He can’t get there. Oh well, another day, another tiger.

Later on, he meets an old man. They get to talking. The old man says, “yep, that’s a tiger alright. You sure you wanna get to that meadow over yonder?”

“Well, it’s quite tiger-free from what I can see.”

“So, what are you waiting for? But be careful, only the strongest survive the passage through the valley.”

“Is it worth it?”

“What is anything worth?”

Pissed off by the old man’s simple-formula riddles, the Hero decides to take a quick peek down into the valley. But this is no ordinary valley. You see, for every one step in, it takes ten steps to get back out. Think of place with down escalators only. Before he’s taken ten steps, the clouds close in, the sun disappears, and the top of the valley vanishes from view. Before him he sees many paths, behind him only murk.

After stumbling around for a while, the old man joins him.

“This place blows,” says the Hero. “I wanna go home.”

“Good luck. Old Mr. Tiger is sitting up there and he’s pissed that you left.”

“Fuck. Then what the hell do I do?”

“There are two paths you can go down, but in the long run, there's still time to change the road you're on.”

“Did you just quote Led Zeppelin at me??”

The old man sits on a rotten log. “Son, listen. You ain’t alone in this valley. We call this here valley, ‘The Valley of the Lost.’ Many people have come in here, escaping their own tigers. Find these people, learn from them. Some will be friends, some will be deepest enemies. But at the bottom of this valley, where it’s hot and fiery, you will face your greatest test of all. If you fail this test, you will wander this valley for all eternity, but if you pass, you will achieve whatever you desire.”

“I preferred the Led Zep to that. Fine.”

So your Hero explores the Valley, learning where there lies food and shelter, finding the company of friends and women, and mastering skills he never dreamed of. But each step drops him deeper and deeper, and the clouds fall like a shroud to block any thought of escape. Friends come and go, some stick for the long haul, others fall by the wayside. Finally he arrives at a steep precipice. Boiling wind and the scent of brimstone blast out from the crevice at the bottom.

With only his most trusted allies at his side, he climbs down the sheer rock face, hands and feet burning, each step full of peril. They make it, scarred, but still breathing.

A wispy figure approaches. “Who dares disturb my sleep?” A Dragon emerges from the smoke. “Why are you here?” With one snort he could cook them like blackened catfish.

“I’ve come to get to the meadow, where there are no tigers. Now give me my test!”

The Dragon swallows laughter. “Good one. You do know what the tiger and the meadow represent, right?”

Your Hero has no clue. “Uhh, shut up and fight. I’m tired of riddles and games. I am sick of frickin’ tigers, this stupid-ass valley, and I’m sick of you.”

The Dragon checks his nails. “Be still, my petulant one. I will grant you all you wish, but only after you perform a simple thing. It’s nothing, really. All you need to do is slay all your little friends you brought with you, and I shall set you free! Go on…start with that chubby one. Daddy’s hungry.”

The hero looks at the chubby one, draws his sword, and cuts off the dragon’s head. For a split second, the clouds part, revealing the one path out of the valley.

So our weary band of the Lost whoop and holler and head back out of the valley and make it to the magical meadow they have sought…only to find themselves surrounded by tigers.

“WTF?” says your Hero.

The tiger that has stalked him all his life approaches and speaks for the first time. Behind him are all the tigers who have chased your Hero’s friends. “Well, well, well. So you made it back. And we are extra hungry. Now in your haste to jump into the Valley, you probably didn’t notice that you could have just walked around the long way and reached here anyways. Dumbass.”

“You woulda followed me,” says the hero sullenly.

“Duh.” He places a paw on the Hero’s shoulder and breaths stinking hot breath on his face. “Now I see you have a couple choices here. First, let me take you back home. You’ll be my bitch, of course, much worse than before, but you’re used to that. Second, you could go back down into the Valley, but I’d eventually find you there. Third—“

“Third,” interrupts the Hero, “me and my merry band can kick your furry ass. We beheaded the dragon, we found our way out, and you’re no match for us.”

The tiger laughs. “That is rich. But there is one thing you are forgetting. One small detail. Old man?”

The old man steps out from behind the tigers. He hands the Hero a hand mirror.

The Hero raises it. “Is this a special weapon? Should I smash them with it?”

“No, look in it.”

The Hero looks in it and sees a battle-scarred warrior. But behind the dirt and blood, there is something else.

He sees a tiger. He gasps. He looks at his fellows. All tigers. Well, the Chubby One is more of a pussycat but you get the idea.

“So,” says the Tiger, “do you understand all the symbolism now? Do you need me to explain in tiny, easy-to-grasp pieces?”

The Hero sighs. It is all clear now. “Yes. All this time, I’ve been running from myself. In the Valley, I learned to face my fears in a controlled environment. And now I’ve returned to finally overcome myself and fulfill my destiny.”

The tiger blinked. “Uhh…interesting, but no. We’ve chased you all your life because you have the potential to become strong, and we can’t have that. We paid the old man to lead you to the Valley of the Lost, because no one ever escapes. We are not your fears, we are the Rulers of the Meadow, and you are nothing, you never were, and you never will be. Now lay down your arms and surrender before we kill you.”

The Hero took one last long look in the mirror. “I am nothing like you. And we will defeat you, and free the world from your tyranny.” He takes the mirror and smashes it over the tiger’s head, and thereby begins the final battle.

So, my good fellows, what did we learn from this? The point I was trying to make was that stories move forward always. Every step leads your characters deeper into the Valley from which there is no turning back except once great tests are passed. Look at every scene, every page. Is your story getting deeper? Give your story a topology, and keep away from any flat areas. Good luck!

Friday, October 15, 2010

WriMo SchmiMo

WriMo SchmiMo

noahs-dilemma Okay, I’m sitting on the horns of a dilemma.

Remember about 6 weeks ago I made an announcement that I would write a sequel to Steam Palace for NaNoWriMo? Problem is that I have this other idea that’s been festering in my head for a long time. It’s a detective story. Not Steampunk, not Sci-Fi, future, past, or anything. Just a contemporary mainstream murder Mystery in a local setting. (Okay, there will be high-techy stuff in there…come on).  Have I ever written a mystery? No. Not even a short, not even a flash. Do I read a lot of mysteries? No. I do watch them on TV…does that count?

So why this story? Why am I considering this crazy idea? I’m not going to talk about the specifics of the concept here, at least not until after NaNo. Suffice it to say that it’s a mother-son sleuthing duo, told from the son’s POV. Here is my reasoning:

  1. Steam Palace 2 (SP2), from everything I’ve worked on so far, is extremely complicated. Sophia meets her eviler twin. That’s going to take some doing. Not only that, but I want to do it “right”, meaning that I want to focus more on quality during the first draft, and hopefully reduce the editing load. More organized, planned, thought-through, etc.
  2. I want to build some more writing “chops” before I start SP2. I feel I am still missing some core writing skills, mostly in the area of characterization and POV.
  3. Why write SP2 before SP1 is sold/contracted? Yes, it may be easier to sign a contract with at least a first draft of SP2 completed, but maybe I’m carting before horsing. I think it’s of minimal benefit.
  4. I am intrigued the idea of crafting a short novel, 60K or so, and self-publishing it. If there’s success then maybe I follow with a full-length version I can try to go to publishers with. Or it might help sell SP1.
  5. I might be good at writing mysteries. I don’t know. But I feel the need to take a “break” from F/SF for a month. And absolutely no one in my critique groups writes them…so maybe there’s a need. (Or I’m just misguided). Whether it’s a success or not, I think exploring the mystery genre and tropes may help me in other genres.
  6. I really love the concept. I think I have some unique characters. The problem I have is creating a compelling crime with clues etc. But that’s what the next 2 weeks are for. I’ve defined all the main character-character conflicts, so now it’s more about the nitty-gritty details. I want to keep it simple and the word count low.

So maybe those reasons are wonky. I have some great thoughts for SP2, but I don’t think I’ll be ready to draft it quite so soon, it needs a lot more thought. And after NaNo, I’m also going to turn my attention to another neglected project, The Immortals, and try to figure out what to do with it. Meanwhile I am still working on marketing SP1, more about that in an upcoming post.

So as of now I am strongly leaning towards the mystery concept. This should be fun.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Plots and Characters and Settings, Oh My!

Plots and Characters and Settings, Oh My!

wizard of oz scared So, you have some general ideas for characters. Heroes, Villains, Allies, Mentors, etc. You know where and when the story takes place. You have some idea about the general flow of the story. So what is the next step?

Two of the hardest pieces of the story to create are the beginning and the ending. Right after that comes “the saggy middle”. But I’m speaking more specifically about the very beginning and endings. 


One piece of advice I’ve heard is “start the story as late as possible.” This means start your story the moment your character’s life changes irrevocably. Avoid long life stories or explanations of who they are and how they got there. In Steam Palace, the story starts when Sophia loses her job and Thomas loses use of one leg (in separate incidents). But are life-changing events, but note that they are not “The Event” that sets them upon their journey of discovery. People are tempted to start their stories right off with the “Inciting Incident” or “The Call to Adventure.”  The thing is that you need to establish your character’s core problems and/or goals before you give them their mission. In Steam Palace, Sophia faces a crisis: she’s lost her job and can no longer support her family. Thomas can no longer earn his commission as Sky Captain and is discharged. Their Calls come later when they are presented opportunities.

So you want to start off by giving your characters some fairly insurmountable or intractable problems. Show them struggling. Then shine the light of hope on them.


Think of your story as a thesis paper. If the first chapters establish the premise, the final chapters “prove” the thesis. Every chapter in between is a supporting argument. The main premise of Steam Palace is “Despite our differences, we are actually quite alike.” Sophia meets Viola, her polar opposite, but through a series of adventures, they learn that they share far more than they are different, and they learn to respect their differences. The ending is the final proof.

Also think about those original problems and goals. How were they finally surmounted or achieved? Do your characters laugh about it? And what was the cost? Sophia finally has what she wanted…but the cost was steep, almost intolerable. Thomas is whole again, but he also faced great challenges that tested him to his limits.

Saggy Middles

Ah. I tricked you. This is actually the hardest part. How do your characters get from Beginning to Ending? What is their journey? How do they do it? I hinted at it, but let me spell out a few things.

  • Acquiring knowledge, skills, objects, allies, etc. Think of a video game where you have to achieve certain things to get to the next level. Perhaps half of your book will involve your Hero’s training. The rest is putting that training to use.
  • Successes and Setbacks. Every win comes at a cost. Very little cost at first, extreme costs by the end. Think of stairs where each step is larger than the last. The stakes keep growing, as does the cost of failure. Keep making things harder.
  • Fears. Your characters must conquer their fears…but first they must face them, again in increasing order of difficulty. First the fears may be simple. Leaving home, dealing with unfamiliar settings and people. Then the fears become more personal. But at some point, your character must face their worst fears. Death. Loss of loved ones. Cancer. The Extinction of Mankind.

So as you plan your story, start thinking about the journey. Think of all the crap you can put your character through. Test your thesis. Your Villains should hold a viewpoint that is in direct opposition. In Steam Palace, the Villains believe that people who are different are inferior and should be suppressed. The believe their way is the only way. They want to crush anyone who disagrees. This is why Sophia must challenge them.

I hope that helped. Now to figure out which story I’m actually going to write for NaNoWriMo

Friday, October 8, 2010

Novel Design: Plot Structure

Novel Design: Plot Structure

plot structure With just 23 days before NaNoWriMo, you should have a nice outline of your story drawn out.

Oops. I got nothing. In fact, I’m working on two completely separate story ideas right now. But plots are coming…I hope.

Anyways, despite the “No plot? No problem.” mantra of NaNoWriMo, constructing the barest outline of a plot can help you immensely.  A roadmap of your novel provides scope and direction for your writing. Having the final outcome in mind allows you to focus on the journey.

Here are some popular methods for plot construction:

Heroes Journey. I’ve written a crapload of posts on this, please read at your leisure. To sum up, Heroes Journey is a 12-step program to construct a novel, based on mythical storytelling. It is perfect for almost any story that involves drama and action, where your Hero transforms from Billy Bob Joe Everyday to Mr. Super Dude, solves a case, falls in love, learns a lesson, or fights the Underworld.


  • Based on thousands of years of storytelling tradition.
  • Defines character types and general obstacles Hero must face.
  • Almost every major motion picture is based on it.


  • It’s not actually a plot, it’s just a collection of somewhat optional elements in a rough but non-binding order
  • It is a little formulaic, makes everything sound like Star Wars or Avatar
  • Specific genres have specific requirements which it doesn’t address (so research your specific genre to find those requirements)

The Snowflake Method. A very intuitive method that involves creating broad strokes and then filling in the details as you go. For instance, start with a one-line description of each chapter. Then a paragraph. Then a page. For each character, do the same. For each setting, etc.


  • Gives an easy drill-down into your story
  • Allows you to work at any level of detail
  • “Pay as you go” writing. Makes the big details right so you don’t write sections that will be deleted.


  • Once again, it’s not a plot. It’s a method.
  • Commits you to the big picture
  • Sometimes the devil is in the small details. Sometimes my best insights into my characters have come from the things they let slip in conversations or small acts.

X-Act Structure. Now we’re talking. 3, 5, 7 act structures are all out there. Also, there are books like “20 Master Plots” that literally explain every possible plot. Let’s face it, there are really no new ideas out there, everything that can be done has been done. But this is good news. This means that the “winning” plots have been identified and are ripe for the taking.


  • Definitive framework to craft your story upon
  • Identifies high and low points such as setbacks, breakthroughs, and ordeals and where they go in your story
  • Proven structures that appeal to readers


  • They don’t help you figure out what your story is about, just how it flows.
  • It’s not a methodology, just a analysis.
  • NaNoWriMo is more about exploration than conformation. Crafting a story is hard work; sometimes it’s better to just write it, then worry about structure during editing.

So I hope that left you more confused than when you started reading this. Personally, I use parts of all three methods. I start with Heroes Journey, writing a few paragraphs about each aspect. Then, using the Snowflake Method, I fill in the details until I have a list of potential scenes. I use 3-Act Structure to define the turning points in the story. Then I write it.

Here’s the other problem I’ve found. Recently in my critique groups, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend for writers to throw everything in their stories, every piece of description and characters they can think of. I’ve been calling it “detail diarrhea.” During the course of plotting and planning your story, you may come up with 2-10 times the number of great ideas more than you can use in the story, and then when you actually sit down and write it, double those figures again. Ideas happen.

My final piece of advice is to plot small. Heading into NaNoWriMo, plan for a story somewhat smaller than what you’d like. Perhaps fewer subplots, a reduced cast, not as many settings. Recently, I came up with a list of everything Sophia must achieve in Steam Palace:

Sophia must find a way to rescue Viola, restore Thomas’ honor, convince Ghost to join their cause, locate the mythical Sea Key, and fight off her country’s invaders before war claims the remnants of a once-proud kingdom.

That’s even an edited-down list, and it’s TOO MUCH. If I had that in my original planning document, I’d probably freak out. Give your character ONE GOAL to achieve during the course of the story, otherwise you' may dig yourself a huge hole that 200,000 words won’t fill.

Good luck!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Adventure Genre No-No’s

Adventure Genre No-No’s

conan I was inspired to write this post by my response to a post on the NaNoWriMo forum: What not to do in Adventure? Now these replies are a little tongue-in-cheek, but sometimes during critique I find my work evaluated with a literary eye instead of an Adventure eye, so here are some guidelines to consider when writing or reviewing adventure stories.

Things to Avoid When Writing Adventure

  • Well-thought-out arguments and reasoning. Adventurers act, sometimes without thinking about the consequences. They don’t spend much time contemplating just the right way to say something, they just blurt it out.
  • Weak Villains who throw hissy fits. Strong villains are everything in Adventure. The more wicked, evil, and outlandish, the better.
  • Mary Sue's. Let your hero fail...a lot. A hero who just blows through the obstacles is no fun. Let him flounder for a while, and earn everything he gets.
  • Deep Emotional Scenes where your characters explore their tender feelings...except how much they hate the bad guy. Adventure is not therapy…except for that satisfied feeling you get when the villain falls into the tar pit.
  • Paranormal. That's like a totally other genre. I mean beyond an Indiana Jones or Pirates of the Caribbean level of paranormal. If you have sexy werewolves or sparkly vampires then get out.
  • Deep Romance. Now of course the good guy gets the girl (change genders as needed) but only because he's the toughest SOB around, not because he "understands" her. He wins her…literally. See picture above.
  • Moral Ambiguity. Not to say the characters can't be conflicted, but the good guys need to fight for a reason that resonates with the reader. You’re either with the hero or against him.
  • Everyday Settings. The hero must explore uncharted waters (or space or desert or tombs etc). No one wants to read about an adventure to the kitchen (Unless it's Hell's Kitchen). These settings should be fairly real-world or you’ll find your story drifting into Sci Fi or Fantasy, and no one wants that.
  • Conversation. Dialog should be limited to "Look out behind you" or the equivalent. This is not the place for Chatty Cathy's. Two characters talking over coffee should be avoided unless someone dies at the end of the conversation or large sums of money are exchanged.
  • Mercy. Do not under any circumstances show your characters any mercy. You are the author, not their mother. Test them to their limits, and just when they think they've caught a break, drop the other shoe. Kill them if you have to. Nothing perks up your characters more than when one of their own kicks the bucket.
  • Don't Kill the Cat. Don't go overboard. The Wizard of Oz would have been bitter if Toto died. Dorothy would have been like "Fuck you all, I'm outta here" if Toto kicked it. Give the hero a reason to keep fighting, something to hold onto when all hope is lost.

I hope that helps.