The annoyingness of verisimilitude

In the face of fantastic elements, it’s crucial that your narrative remains consistent both from a physical and a character standpoint. While working on TPOAP* yesterday afternoon, I ran into a perfect example of both. These are the kinds of things that if you just let them slide as a writer, maybe your reader won’t notice on a conscious level, but in the part of their brain that re-assembles what they read into memories, the little cognitive bits will notice that things don’t quite add up. The story won’t stick with the reader, because it breaks the subtle rules that their brain has come to expect from reality.

Here’s what happened.

There is a fight (shocker), and at one point, Lincoln’s gun (Fox) ends up on the ground several yards away from him. Action proceeds in such a way that there is no chance for him to pick it up. Several pages later, he has to run away, carrying a rather precious piece of cargo. This is how the physical reality kicks in. This could just be hand waved. I’ve seen books where this sort of thing is just ignored, and in the next chapter, Lincoln simply has his gun again. Most readers won’t consciously notice that.

However.

This doesn’t build a world in their heads. Too many of these kinds of little misses, and their brain no longer respects your Universe.

You have to address it. Not only does it fix the problem of “but wait, his gun was on the ground,” it’s another opportunity to develop your characters. Life is full of little annoyances like this, and how we deal with them says things about us. Does the character get the gun before taking car of the important matter at hand? Do they try to do both at once? Do they ask someone else to grab it for them? It’s a great chance to let your reader learn about how your character handles life.

You have to do the same thing on the character side too. If you’ve read my series on “How to write a novel,” you’ll know that you’re going into each chapter with a fairly detailed synopsis of what’s going to happen there. When you go to actually write the words though, sometimes it exposes glitches in your synopsis. The key to maintaining a real sense of character is in being able to recognize when that happens and to adapt accordingly, instead of blindly sticking to the synopsis.

Take a look at this sentence:

Shar calls for cleanup and orders Lincoln to take the body back to the safe house.

Once you’re writing, you can maybe get a page or two out of that one beat. There are two problems with it though. We’ve already indicated that Shar’s character really has little interest in anything to deal with the aftermath of one of her missions. Zilch. The point of structuring the plot as above was to generate some conflict between her and Lincoln because he needed to do something else. But the character as constructed would not actually care enough to order Lincoln to help with cleanup and transportation. Once I realized this, I also realized that I didn’t the additional mini-conflict it would generate.

It was out of character for her, but at the synopsis level I couldn’t feel that. Once the words started coming, I understood that it was as mistake.

Maintaining consistently, both from a physical and character standpoint, is crucial for getting your reader to believe in the world you’re creating, and ultimately to enjoying and retaining your story. It’s tough to watch out for, and sometimes requires extra willpower to fix, but it will be worth it!

* Transformative Paraphysics and Other Alchemical Phenomena

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)

Follow up link for “Now Go Away”

I should have mentioned that my thoughts on writing (and creating in general) as expressed several posts ago in Now Go Away were inspired by my daughter’s own ruminations on why she writes. You can read her take here:

http://madzapan.tumblr.com/post/160091859616/do-writers-enjoy-writing

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)

When characters lie

Sure, we’re all familiar with bad guys in fiction (both written and filmed) who lie. In fact, it’s one of the things that makes them bad guys. A great example of this is Hans Gruber in Die Hard. He engages in multiple levels of lying, and a lot of it is crucial to the plot. He lies about being a terrorist to the hostages and the authorities. He lies to his own men, by way of not telling them everything. And, in one of the best scenes in the movie, he lies about who he is and pretends to be a frightened escaped hostage when caught by off duty police officer John McClane. His lies are purposeful and well executed and they really add to his character.

There are plenty of terrible examples when bad guys (or gals) lie or deceive the protagonists, but they aren’t really worth mentioning.

In LFBD, both Dan and Brigit lie pretty much every time they talk to Lincoln or Gwen. So yeah, they’re the bad guys.

But what happens when good characters lie? And what’s the effect when they do it for a really good reason?

I just rewatched the Season 1 finale of The Flash (yes, I’m a fan). The episode is replete with good characters lying for all the right reasons, and it is absolutely heartbreaking to watch. You want to know how to right a complete tearjerker of a scene? Let’s take a look at Joe’s conversation with Barry.

Barry (the Flash) is trying to decide whether or not to go back in time and prevent his mother’s murder. This would mean that he would never have to go live with adoptive father Joe West. Time would be changed and Joe and Barry would not only never have been a family — they wouldn’t even remember that they had been. Joe and Barry have a great relationship and some real love between them. All of that would be gone as though it had never happened.

But Barry has never wanted anything more than to find his mother’s killer, and Joe knows it. Barry says to Joe “I don’t think I can lose you.”

And Joe says “You won’t ever lose me. Ever. You hear? Ever.”

But Joe knows that’s not true. Maybe he hopes that somehow it is, but the rules have been explained. He’s lying to Barry, putting aside his on feeling of impending loss of his son so that Barry can be encouraged to do what he needs to do. Of course, Jesse Martin’s (Joe) acting really sells it, and you can see the pain he’s going through as he lies to Barry. It’s really moving.

Let’s talk Barry deciding not to save his mother. Um, spoilers, but this is three year old now, so get over it.

Once he goes back in time, he decides to not prevent his mother’s death, being warned by a future version of himself. So he stays hidden and listens to her being stabbed through the heart. Only after the action is over does he enter the room. His mother is bleeding out, and he goes to her. After a few moments, he reveals that he is her son Barry, grown up. She says that she doesn’t understand. So what does Barry do? After he has come back in time to prevent this from happening, then stands by and lets it happen?

He lies. He tells her that he was given a chance. Not to save her. But to let her know that he was okay. And that her husband was okay. That everything was okay in the future, even though it wasn’t. He lies to her, and she dies comforted by his words. It is, once again, incredibly moving.

Sometimes in fiction, the good guys and gals can lie as a sacrifice to a greater good, or even in the service of a simple one. They lie, and it’s clear that it costs them to do so. I’m really impressed by how effectively writers Gabrielle Stanton and Andrew Kreisberg pulled it off.

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)

Transformative Paraphysics: Back Cover writeup

Because the TPOAP plot synopsis is finished, I feel pretty confident putting this out as the teaser copy for the book:

Magic makes murder super easy and nearly undetectable, so how can the world’s most paranoid and powerful magic users ever get together to agree on anything? They convene in Pittsburgh, where the environmental iron left over from the city’s dark days makes using magic next to impossible. It’s up to Lincoln Baker and friends to protect them from the increasingly nasty creatures that keep popping into existence, while trying not to piss off the Praecants who are about this close to turning everyone into little, smoking bits. Like last time, things start weird and just get weirder. Can Lincoln figure out who is behind the appearance of the creatures and why? Will Fox meet a sentient holster and finally settle down? Will Babd ever eat her kibble?!

Get your fix of applied psychology and magical physics, old gods running around in the bodies of dogs, and intelligent firearms in this wild second installment of the “Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog” series.

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)

Now Go Away

This is categorized under Writing/Publishing, because this is how I feel about writing. My daughter (awesome, talented writer, check her stuff here and here) writes because she loves it. I write because if I don’t… well…

Now Go Away

See? I’ve done it.

Now head back up the hill.

Take your tail and your paws

And your lupine eyes

All made of silence and night,

Take them up behind that tree,

The big one with the roots

All sticking out.

 

Don’t think I didn’t see you.

Maybe you think I can’t,

But I can.

Out of the corner of my eye

As I walk

And you there,

Always keeping pace.

Waiting with patient breath

For me to try to pretend

That you’re not real.

 

Today I reached

Into the ether,

Again,

Stirred the entropy and

Drew close a handful,

Poured a speck of my tiny life

Right into the core of it

And transmuted it

From chaos

Into order.

 

So see?

There’s your sacrifice.

Now go away.

Leave me alone.

Anyway,

We both know

You’ll be back tomorrow.

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)

New tools: 2013 Chromebook Pixel and 4k monitor

At work, I’m nearing the end of my second year with a 15″ Macbook Pro. I love the high def screen enough that I feel a little pain even when I’m working on my dual (but standard def) 24″ monitors for my desktop workstation. It holds true at home too, where I do my writing. Up until yesterday I was using a Dell 13 Chromebook docked into a nice backlit Logitech keyboard, old-school Logitech Wingman trackball and a 29″ standard def monitor.

And when I undock that Dell 13? The screen size and resolution are more than a little painful. It’s rough. It’s a great little Chromebook, and has served me well for almost four years, but that Macbook Pro has spoiled me.

About a year ago, I decided that I wanted to move to a 4k monitor for my home workstation, which was a pretty beefy Linux box running Xubuntu. The problem was that I didn’t want to go through the rigors of getting a 4k video card that would work with my system (bus issues) and then deal with what was less than stellar support for 4k on desktop Linux. At about that time, the wireless died in the system and after several hilariously frustrating attempts to get it working, I decided to just bag it and start docking my Chromebook.

It turned out to be a really good experience.

So, a couple of months ago, I started looking for a Chromebook that would capably drive a 4k monitor. There aren’t a lot. In fact, there is only one. The HP Chromebook 13. Reviews on it were mixed, and with the high def screen option, it was over $500. One of my friends told me that he’d bought one, didn’t like the build quality and returned it. He’s a maniac when it comes to devices, and I trust him. So the HP 13 was out.

The Samsung Chromebook Pro is coming out sometime soon, and it has a high def display. This same device-hungry friend as the Plus model and really likes it. I tried it. It’s fine. The Pro will cost around $600, and it pained me to pay that for a Chromebook.

Of course, the flagship of all Chromebooks is the Chromebook Pixel, Google’s Own Special Computer. There was a model made in 2013, and an update in 2015. They’re expensive ($1200+). Superior build quality. Amazing (backlit!) keyboards. High def screens.

Because I work at Google, I was hoping we had some kind of “buy the 2015 remainders because we don’t sell them any longer” program, but alas we don’t. I started digging around the internets, and learned that you can buy 2013 Chromebook Pixels, New-In-Box, for around $340. How are they still new? No idea. But they are.

I found a site (blinq.com) that carried them. They were a Google Trusted Store, and had a “return within 30 days even if you just don’t like it with no restock fee” policy, so it seemed about zero risk to order one.

So I did.

I’m now set up with a new 2013 Chromebook Pixel, driving a Samsung 4k display over the Pixel’s mini DisplayPort. I have the Pixel pushing somewhere between 1080p and 4k to the monitor, and it looks fantastic.

So if you’re in the market for a Chromebook and your top two requirements are high def display and backlit keyboard, this can be had (along with the superior build quality) for around $350 in the 2013 Chromebook Pixel!

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)

Category and possible cover change for LFBD

Even though LFBD is “Urban Fantasy” by the standard definition, when it comes to Amazon categories, it probably isn’t the best fit. I didn’t really discover this until I started working with Amazon’s marketing services and their Sponsored Product Ads. It really got me digging into their product hierarchy and look around at what others would see if they started at LFBD and browsed around. The top seller for almost the entire first page of “Urban Fantasy” on Amazon? Harry Potter.

Yep.

So, that’s not really somewhere you want to be. I started digging around and looking at the other books that people who had purchased LFBD had also purchased. I noticed that LFBD had a lot more in common with the books in the “Dark Fantasy” category than they did with Harry Potter. I changed the book’s category, and immediately sales picked up! That’s a good sign.

My quest right now is to tune things like ad content, categorization and the book’s landing page to actually start making money from the ads. The ads are generating consistent sales, but they’re not enough to cover the cost of the ads. Obviously, that’s not a sustainable business plan. However, as I’ve refined these things, I’ve gotten closer to breaking even. The hope is that getting all of this stuff just right, and continuing to build a base of good reviews will result in a virtuous cycle and profitability.

With that in mind, I’m thinking about changing the cover art. Originally, I’d gone with a classic 80’s layout. Looking at the competition in “Dark Fantasy” on Amazon, I’m making it more modern. Here’s the original, and what I’m thinking about doing:

      

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)

Writing Software and Writing a Novel: Magic

This morning, I was struck by one of the similarities between working on both a well thought-out software project and a well thought-out novel, and why it feels like magic.

When you’re designing a piece of software (I mean the information design and architecture, not the visual design), you can’t foresee every possible implication and use of it. You can take a guess. But at some point, you have to apply what you know as well as you can, trust the process that got you this far, and just write the thing. You’ll encounter problems along the way, little details that you didn’t consider, but you’ll work your way through it. Then, you launch.

Here’s a practical example. At work, I wrote a task management system, because the ones we had available didn’t meet my needs, and we weren’t allowed to use popular third party systems. Now, about a year later, about 1,000 Googlers use my software to manage their projects and day-to-day tasks. They think of ways of using the software that I never considered. They have needs that the original design didn’t take into account. They show up at my digital doorstep asking for features that will help them do a better job.

Here’s where the magic happens.

Quite often, I’m able to go into the existing software and add the feature with very little work. Here’s this problem I had never considered (I need the software to do something it doesn’t do), and yet the solution presents itself as soon as I look at it, nestled nicely within the original architecture and design. I write it, and launch a new version. The software is better than it was before, and it’s because of a collision between good design and the real world. When that happens, it feels like magic.

What it actually is though, is a good original design.

How does this relate to writing a novel?

Well, right now I’m in the synopsis stage, where I write a fairly detailed synopsis of each chapter, following the story beat cards that I detailed Writing a Novel: Part 1.5 post last time. As I add detail at this level, and later on when I go to write the actual book, problems pop up. Things I hadn’t considered at the story beat level. Somehow, almost like magic, those problems resolve themselves. And when they resolve themselves, it’s in ways that actually make the story stronger. The feeling is exactly like the “new feature” feeling when writing software.

When either happens, it’s a rush. Like you won something.

Like magic.

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)

Writing a Novel: Part 1.5

Way back when I started this blog, I wrote a “Writing a Novel” series of posts. In step 1, you got your concepts, characters and images together. In step 2, you wrote a summary of each chapter. That’s how it worked out for me when writing Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog.

Now that I have my Step 1 materials in place for Transformational Paraphysics, I found that I had a gap before hitting Step 2. I had everything I thought I needed, but as I was planning the pacing of the book I realized that I needed more action in key places. The plot, while interesting, logical, etc., necessarily had a non-action based resolution. Well, there was some, but not enough for a good literary/adventure novel climax. This book is not supposed to be some moving pastorale, so I needed a change. Well, not really a change — I just needed more. The story itself was solid from a character and theme perspective.

I need a B Plot. LFBD did not really have a B Plot. It was a straight-through story. TPOAP has a different pace, and the action isn’t always being driven externally. A lot of it is the team figuring stuff out, which can be a little boring if done wrong. Enter the B Plot. I found something that made sense thematically, spurred off as a logical consequence of the A Plot, and had tie-ins throughout the story.

The problem now was in exactly how to weave the A and B Plots together. It wasn’t necessarily straightforward.

So, I’ve found myself at Writing a Novel: Part 1.5. Before I was able to start the chapter summaries, I needed to make sure that everything worked and that the right pacing was maintained. I try to maintain an even/odd cadence of chapters where we do Action, then Rest, then Action, then Rest, etc. It doesn’t always work that way, and maybe leading up to big Action you have two Rests.

I knew all of the story beats of the A Plot, and all of the beats of the B Plot, so I used one of my favorite organizational tools (Trello) to write each one out as a movable card (check the software to see what I’m talking about). I made two lists, one for each plot line. Then I made three more lists: Act I, Act II, Act III. Then I started putting the cards into the acts and shuffling them around until it all made sense.

As I did this, the great thing happened where opportunities started to present themselves. Like “Oh, if this happens after that, then this person could go _________ and it would be awesome!”

With all of the story beats for both plots nicely interwoven on the Trello board, I was able to start writing up the chapter summaries with confidence.

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)

New working title for “The Inversion Mechanic”

I stated in my last “Writing Process” post that I didn’t really like The Inversion Mechanic as the title of the next LFBD book for a variety of reasons. I’ve found that I end up with a bunch of impressions in my head, and that they don’t end up with detail until they either come out of my fingers through typing or my mouth through talking. When I’m at this stage in the creative process, typing is too slow and “permanent” for me to really workshop things. I need to talk it out.

I also can’t allow worry or the editing impulse to kick in yet, so I can’t really talk it out with anyone else. Even if I trust them completely and believe they are unbiased, etc., some part of my brain will still be tuning my outputs toward them, and I don’t want that. I need to talk it out with myself.

So, I hitched up the dog and went outside to “walk the grounds.” It’s about 1/8 of a mile to walk the perimeter of my property and with time for wandering and dog-sniffing, it only takes a few minutes. But that was all I needed. As I walked, I talked through the major points of what happens in the book. Similarities emerged among threads that I hadn’t noticed before.

I said a bunch of stuff, trying out how things sounded and how they felt actually coming out of my mouth.

By the time I was done, I’d settled on something. I don’t think it’s perfect, but I like it a lot better than The Inversion Mechanic. It’s more in keeping with the offbeat nature of LFBD. Not sure how it will market, but I like it and for now that’s what is important.

The new working title is:

Transformative Paraphysics and Other Alchemical Phenomena

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)