As of this writing, it’s early November and the “National Novel Writing Month” has begun again – and if you’re reading this after that’s over, you know how well you did. It’s a time that many people take the opportunity to try their hands as authors – either as a hobby, as their first real attempt, or just an excuse to get back on the saddle again. And, I know from experience it’s also a time when a lot of people decide to try their hand at being a professional too – even if they don’t broadcast that publicly. Hell, I started my first novel in a November (and didn’t finish it for some time later).
It’s an exciting time for some but kind of dreadful for others and generally for similar reasons. There’s an anticipation for the end result that can be both exciting and scary for newcomers and seasoned writers alike. Because, regardless of which side of that spectrum you happen to fall on, the end result will be the time when you can finally put it in front of people and see how they like it. It’s like our own little roller coaster as we experience excitement, fear, and sometimes a little nausea all at once. But, because no one is perfect and tastes aren’t universal, you’re going to run into criticisms.
And that part is going to hurt a little.
It’s unavoidable, but part of the process, and how you deal with it is usually more important than the criticism itself. Someone who can take criticism well and adapt to it will prove to have a long career if they want it. In a field where almost everything you do is up for public debate, you need to be able to hear it out and not let what’s being said consume you. But one of the problems that I often see with creative types, sometimes even within myself, is a tendency to take one of our easy outs – a view that the criticism is something that’s beyond our ability to fix, and thus something we can’t do anything about. It makes things a lot easier if it feels like it’s out of our hands, like a weight has been lifted from our shoulders and we don’t have to worry about it anymore.
It’s funny when you think about it, but the most productive times for some forms of writing are generally the ones that look the most idle from the outside. You know that you wrote 2,000 words in a day and edited a couple chapters from your last project, but the outside world isn’t going to know the difference until you’re ready to publish. And in a stroke of irony, the people who look the most productive to the outside world, broadcasting their progress and talking about their process, are the same people who had to step away from the work to do it. It’s a balancing act, how much of your mental bandwidth are you going to dedicate to the actual tasks at hand and how much are you going to dedicate to making sure others recognize what you’re doing. But some people are masters at doing this and come across making it look effortless, weaving between productivity and self-promotion with grace and charm.
I am not one of those people.
I’ll make a confession today that I’m sure is no surprise to anyone who’s actually spoken to me: social media is exhausting. I’m an introvert and spend a lot of time in my own head, so the notion of spending time specifically trying to appear social is actually more tiring than just doing the work. It’s not that I hate people either, just that I kind of like to daydream and if I am going to talk it’s going to be a long form ramble about some silly idea I just came up with which is far too long for a 280 character limit. To put it simply: I am an opinionated blowhard and twitter can’t contain me.
But recently, after finally getting caught up on a couple projects, I discovered something amusing: apparently my recent twitter activity made some people (and “people”) think I was a bot. Continue reading I Am Not A Robot (I Think)→
There’s a saying that has always stuck with me over the years: “everyone sees themselves as the hero of their own story.” And it’s true, no one does an action thinking they are the absolute villain. They had reasons, they felt motivations, they were doing what they thought was right. Yes, they may later regret their actions, but in the moment of doing them they felt correct even if everyone in the world may think otherwise. No one commits crime because they want to be the bad guy – either they’ve convinced themselves that they are in the right or they have a mental condition that detaches them from a sense of right and wrong. Even the greatest monsters in human history were convinced of the righteousness of their own cause, no matter how abhorrent their actions seemed to the rest of the world.
So then applying that sort of thinking to your fictional characters can make your villains feel all the more real. If you make it so that you can see where the villain is coming from, it feels more natural to us by default because we can understand, on some level, why they would act that way. Do we have to agree with their actions? Not at all. But if we can understand why the villain thinks they’re right then we can at the very least feel like that villain was realistic, even if their methods and actions are far outside of the realms of reality. For instance, while none of us would have the opportunity to assemble a gauntlet of god-like power, a lot of us could understand the motivations for wanting to do so.
But one of the problems with writing villains in those grey areas is that sometimes people mistake moral objection with a plot hole. We all do it on some level, seeing mistakes made by characters – whether they be due to a lack of planning or lack of moral fiber – as a mistake by the creators and not simply a failure of the character. Sometimes, this results in people demanding answers to questions that were actually answered within the material. And our balancer of the universe, Thanos, is no exception to this. Faced with the uncomfortable ramifications of Thanos’ ruthless “solution” to a problem he saw as a threat to the universe, a lot of people online cried foul and some even said it was a failing of the movie. Then, in almost every case where someone pointed at this “failing”, they inevitably recommended a solution of their own – almost always the same solution.
Ironically, the solution those critics recommended kind of prove that Thanos’ mistake wasn’t a plot hole. Because, when you step back to actually consider it, the solution everyone recommended would actually kill more people than Thanos did… Continue reading Thanos And Objectionable Choices→
Being a speculative fiction writer, or a genre writer of any sort, is an interesting experience because of the strange grey area we’re all placed in. We’re simultaneously the easiest to label and yet the hardest to classify. There are only so many variations on something like “drama”, but you can get pretty specific about what kind of sci-fi you write. Are you writing a hard sci-fi space action adventure? How about a soft sci-fi/fantasy space opera? There’s a lot more words for our facets than the “non-genre” works as the most specific they get are labels like “dramedy”. And yet, funny enough, it’s also surprisingly hard to figure where you really fit despite all of these available labels.
I felt the sting of this myself in the past. My own work has often been a bit of a blend between different genres. My books have been a kind of crime/mystery sci-fantasy – which can be a pain in the ass to identify to a book market – and I know I’m not alone. But it gets stranger when you consider just how often a trope can be shared across multiple subgenres but “claimed” by a specific one to such an extent that people may misidentify you by default. Does including vampires in your work naturally make your story fantasy? What if they’re alien vampires?
Though it can sometimes be a bit tricky to deal with, the driving force behind creative industries is the passion of their fans. No one could make a living off of their ideas simply by putting them out there unless there was someone willing to buy, and the biggest challenge for any creative person is to find that audience and reach them. And the more passionate that fan base gets, the better our chances are for survival as they will generally make their favorite creators part of their proverbial family in many instances, even part of one’s own identity. They put on costumes, they recommend to everyone they know, and they find ways to include your work into conversations. They are, by and large, the most powerful advertising tool a good product can have.
But sometimes, they aren’t quite enough.
Though we try to distance ourselves from the possibility, both as fans and as creators, there are times when the love of a fandom just isn’t enough to prevent an untimely end for an IP. As creators it’s an uncomfortable thing to think about because we don’t want to picture a time when we can’t keep doing what we’re doing. As fans, we can’t bear to think of the fact that there just wasn’t enough like us to keep something alive. And for television in particular, there’s even a season when we have to come to terms with this. Coming around May to June, the season for renewals and cancellations comes to pass and the same routine happens. Something that was beloved by an audience gets cancelled, other shows that seem to have gone well past their prime manage to survive, and inevitably the question is asked:
One of the things that unites speculative fiction genres is dealing with a world that’s different from our own in ways that seem impossible. With fantasy the line is easily drawn, we know that there aren’t actually wizards or dragons no matter how much we want to believe. But with science fiction there’s always this grey area where we’re not entirely sure just what is and isn’t really possible. It’s that grey area that gives the genre its unique flavor as we explore worlds that seem completely insane but still have that vague sense of truth to them. In essence, when you describe something in science fiction as not possible you can always feel that lingering sense of “yet”.
It’s because of this that I’ve always been a big fan of Clarke’s laws – particularly the third law. According to Arthur C. Clarke, sci-fi author and futurist responsible for stories like 2001: A Space Odyssey, any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. It may sound like an easy excuse for writing impossible things and calling them scientific, but when you think about the real world you realize it’s surprisingly accurate. To this day there are people who believe everything that NASA does is an elaborate hoax because, to them, everything NASA does seems impossible. Even people who do trust in science will doubt some things are possible just because a theory sounds insane despite evidence.
And one of the most interesting aspects of this concept as a speculative fiction writer is that some of those theories may shape our future. We can’t be entirely sure which will actually happen, but we know that the world of the future will be drastically different from the world of today. In fact, in academic circles they say that we may one day hit a “technological singularity” – a point at which technology has advanced so far that society would be near unrecognizable to us. Some people have a hard time wrapping their heads around that, but anyone who reads this right now is doing so through a device that would have been considered witchcraft a thousand years ago. So how is it that we can have experienced such dramatic changes and yet still feel like things can’t go further?
For the long time readers of this blog it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I’ve been watching Star Trek since I was a child and to this day still watch the reruns. In fact, in the last couple of years I’ve been watching the H&I “All Star Trek” block every day. As a result, though I don’t actually pay attention to every episode (I’ve seen all of them several times before), reruns of Star Trek have been running as the background track to my daily activities for quite a while. It’s habit, mostly, and every once in a while I’ll look up from whatever I’m doing to either watch one of my old favorites or come to recognize some of the flaws that I overlooked as a kid. The franchise taught me a lot about speculative fiction, for better or worse, and to this day I appreciate it for what it is – flaws and all.
One of the flaws that Trekkies debate constantly is just how consistent some aspects of the world actually are. Continuity is a big deal to the average nerd, and continuity tends to get stepped over often for the sake of an individual episode’s plot. As I’ve said in the past, while the little details may not necessarily matter to the plot, they’ll usually matter a lot more to your audience than you expect them to. And one of the greatest inconsistencies in Star Trek over the decades lies in the distances they travel and how fast they actually do it. Everyone is familiar with the idea of “Warp Speed” and has an understanding that it’s faster than light, but only Trekkies are aware that there are times when Warp Speed is sometimes less about the speed of light and more about the speed of plot.
“Oh god,” I can hear you saying, “a Trekkie is about to complain about numbers, just like mom warned me would happen.”
But when I bring this up I don’t bring it up as some jackass with no life who obsesses over the details of fictional worlds. No, I bring this up as a writer with no life who obsesses over the details of fictional worlds. You see, there’s something to be learned not only from the inconsistencies but the reaction those inconsistencies get. It’s been long known that Star Trek’s technobabble can be a barrier for entry for some audiences, but something often overlooked is that there are times when decisions are made, for the sake of technobabble, that actually run counter to their intention.
Your audience’s expectations are a strange balancing act. People like the familiar, they cling to the well worn and comfortable, but they can just as easily reject something as being unoriginal. We’re hard wired to want something that we recognize but at the same time demand something new, meaning that we’re often put off by things that are either too familiar or too unfamiliar. And, generally, we go into everything that we read, watch, or play with some expectation of what we’re going to get and what we want from it.
You’re under no obligation to meet all of these expectations, of course, because it’s impossible to hit every single expectation thrust upon you. But, as I mentioned not too long ago, you shouldn’t just brush off those expectations either. If you prep someone to expect a payoff, you owe a payoff, and using someone’s expectations without intending to include a payoff is eventually going to backfire. So clearly there are two completely different kinds of expectations – those that work for you and those that work against you.
Anyone who’s had any exposure to other people will know at least one person who’s said that there was no such thing as a new idea anymore. These people come in a few flavors, from the people who say that all “new” ideas are really amalgamations of old ideas to the ones who endeavor to be pedantic by pointing out that “ideas” were just things waiting to be discovered and someone would do it eventually. But the most common, and arguably the most annoying to creators, is the cynic who believes that we’ve run out of ideas and that creativity is dead. And, frankly, when you look at the swath of similar products coming out at once from studios and publishers, it’s kind of easy to see where they’re coming from.
From the perspective of these people, once any idea is put out there, everyone is going to race to copy it as fast as possible. There’s no coincidence between similar products, it’s all a matter of quick cash grabs. After all, how else can you explain so many similar stories being put to print and film back to back? It’s hard to argue with, because we can all see with our own eyes how publishers and studios can churn things out. So whenever one thing becomes successful, dozens of copycats will follow up. Is a dystopian YA story the new big thing? We’ll see 20 of them by the end of the year. Did a formerly terrifying monster suddenly become sexy? We’ll run that into the ground. And if you’ve managed to put out something original in that time, there’s a good chance you might get lumped together with the others whether you knew of them or not.
But what those cynics don’t realize is that often this race to hit the iron when it’s hot usually means the studios and publishers are digging up old submissions or overlooked IPs, and that the creators behind those ideas generally had no idea the others existed – but came to the same idea anyway. Continue reading Multiple Discovery→
For those familiar with my work, you’ll know I like to blend genres. The two most obvious genres in the blend are science fiction and fantasy as I take creatures from legend and use science and sci-fi tropes to explain the various quirks those creatures have. But the third genre I threw into the mix for my books, arguably the most important, was a dash of mystery. Part of this was because the idea first came to me as: “what if vampires really existed, who would police them?” But the other aspect of the decision was that it felt like solving mysteries would give an opportunity to explore the world with a bit more depth. Every detail that my protagonist uncovers or considers while doing his job is, in turn, a detail the audience would learn about the same world. It felt like a natural fit.
So I’ve made it a point over the last several years to do my best to be a student of mystery. Though I always knew the basics and I think I’ve done reasonably well, it’s important to learn new tricks and make sure you’re ahead of your audience a touch. I even shared a few of these tricks in the past as writing tips on this blog. Despite seeming fairly straight forward and even common sense, it’s not as easy as it looks and I’ve known people who struggled with it. There are so many approaches and techniques to delivering a good mystery, and learning all of them and mastering them is something I know will improve my work as I carry on. But not every technique I come across is equal. Some of them are even bad. And one in particular, a fairly popular one depending on which medium you’re looking at, has always proven itself to create more problems than solutions (in fact, as I’ll get into later, that’s by design).