Moving Past the Trope: Creativity Through Lists

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At the moment, I’m brainstorming for a new novel, and I thought I might help myself along by writing about the process. (And by “help myself along” I mean make myself stop goofing off on Twitter.)

In the moment that any writer looks at a blank page without a good idea of what to put on it, the possibilities are basically infinite. I could write about anything, really, including a random jumble of geometric shapes and nonsense squiggles.

But I don’t, because I’m a fiction writer. And I like magic and crime. And I’m a white dude living in America 2017.

And each of those things narrow that range of infinite possibility, because there are some things I’m more likely to write than others. Sounds obvious, right? Sometimes it helps me to think through obvious things.

Other times, I narrow that range with an easy answer. So the question: “Who will be the main antagonist in this book?” could be answered quite easily with a trope: A vampire. A werewolf. A Voldemort. A Lucifer.

And that’s fine. Some people love those tropes and want to play with them. Nothing wrong with that, if that’s the intent. For me, it’s not the intent. I’m hoping to find something on the far side of that trope. Something weird or unusual that readers maybe haven’t seen before.

Some readers don’t like that. That’s fine. But for me, the question is always How do I get there?, and the answer is almost always With a list.

I came across the idea of using lists for creative purposes in a book about writing comedy, especially a standup comedy routine, and it’s served me well in my fantasy/horror books ever since. The first step is always to identify the question. The second is to list the easy answers I won’t use in my book

So, “Who will the the main antagonist in this book?”

Possible answers:

1. Werewolf
2. Vampire
3. Voldemort
4. Lucifer
5. Ghost
6. Genius Serial Killer
7. Shadowy Gov’t Agency

And on and on.

I put them on the list because I want them out of the way. I don’t have to think about them anymore because they’re already on the list.

And let me say once more that I’m not bashing these tropes. I’ve written two novels with werewolves in them, so I recognize that they exist to be used and they persist because of the readers who love them. But sometimes that’s not what I want.

Next, I force myself to keep going. I write down terrible answers, like “ghost horse” or “newborn god of public transit who’s sick of waiting for his human sacrifices”.

Eventually, I get to weird stuff, like maybe “super-intelligent hive-mind of wharf rats”. What do the rats want? How intelligent are they? Will they join the longshoreman’s union?

It’s weird. Twenty years ago, if you told me my most creative work would come from a nearly rote exercise of making lists, I would have been horrified. And yet, here I am, writing a book about a rat colony that share a single mind.

(Obviously, I’m just kidding. No way am I writing a rat book. The research alone would give me the heebie-jeebies.)

“You have nothing but a war inside you.” Final Punisher trailer and premiere date

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The show airs on Nov 17, which is less than a month after it was announced. I wonder if Netflix is hoping to build anticipation by delaying the release day announcement as long as possible.

Not that it matters, since I’ll be binge-watching it on the first day, and I won’t be watching previous Punisher movies to get myself in the mood.

Here it is:

One thing I didn’t realize at first was that this is the same day the new Justice League movie premiers. Marvel is literally counter-programming DC’s big gamble. And as much good will as DC/Warner earned with their Wonder Woman movie, I’m not all that excited about it. I hope it’s great, but I suspect it’s not.

One quibble about the trailer: nothing that I noticed suggested they are going to introduce superpowers into the series. If they don’t, that would be a huge mistake. It’s one thing to have a 13-episode action miniseries. That can be a lot of fun if they manage to vary the fights: context, situations, resources, etc.

But how much more fun would it be if they threw in a scene where Castle has to take on someone who’s bulletproof? Or someone who can regenerate?

All I’m saying is that the MCU is full of untapped resources. Put that shit on screen.

[Added later: Comments off because of a deluge of spam]

Bringing It Home: a followup to last post

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For the last few years, I’ve been putting more and more of my thoughts into Twitter threads, and it’s time to pull back from that. The people on Twitter are great, except for the ones who aren’t, but the company is a parade of fail. What’s more, it’s all so ephemeral. If I write about a Star Wars reboot on my blog, it’s always available to me when the subject comes up. If I put it Twitter, it falls into the memory hole before the day is out.

So, more posts in spaces I own.

This is probably a terrible decision, considering how little traffic I get. But I’ve been on Twitter for seven years. That’s a lot of bullshit to type out, and a lot of time to waste. It’s time I reclaimed time, if you know what I mean.

And as a followup to my last post, remember how I said I was working on a 20P novella? I just turned it over to my agent.

At the moment, I’m as free as a bird to watch creature features and daydream a new project. And I have a tall glass of celebratory bourbon beside me.

Happy Tuesday, you guys.

The State of the Novelist Address: I just sent a book to my agent

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I thought I’d pop in and update things for folks, writing-wise.

First, earlier this week I sent a new novel to my agent. It’s a crime/mystery novel, a genre I’ve been reading for years. This isn’t my first attempt at this style, but it is the first one that I feel comfortable with. Some aspects of it fall right down the middle of the genre, while some are probably all wrong and will make me tear my hair out in revisions. We’ll see! But it feels good to start a book and send it to her in under six months. I’m not usually that prolific.

Which means I’ve returned to revision on my Twenty Palaces novella. I know I’ve been talking about this for a while, but this mini-book has resisted several attempts to write it. At this point, I feel I’ve solved most of the problems and hope to have it on sale before the end of the year.

Once I finish that, I’ll be working on something new. No idea what it will be, but I’m just going to pick an idea that sounds cool and run with it.

Thank you for reading this, and being here.

Randomness for 10/2

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1.

2. How to control Alexa and Google Home through commands that are inaudible to the human ear.

3. A domino run in kaleidoscope: Beautiful. Video.

4. A Quick Beginner’s Guide to Drawing.

5.

6. Roald Dahl’s publisher threatened to drop him for being a jerk.

7. Why is it so hard to judge a screenplay from the movie that’s made from it?

Are you a writer hoping to improve their synopsis, pitch, and query skills?

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Joshua Palmatier has put together a collection of essays on each subject. Remember link farms? Well, we have them again.

Here’s the one on writing a synopsis.

Here’s the one on putting together a short pitch.

Here’s the one on writing a successful query letter.

If you find those links helpful, please feel free to share.

For God’s Sake, Don’t Talk in the Elevator: The Social Media Pitch

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[Added later: This post has been included on Joshua Palmatier’s blog round up of posts about creating pitches. If you want to read more (after you finish mine, ‘natch) check it out.]

The elevator is a terrible place for an elevator pitch.

The idea behind an elevator pitch was that maybe someday Earnest Hopeful, young production assistant at Big Wig studios, might unexpectedly find himself alone in an elevator with Mr. Big Wig himself! How could he best describe his movie idea so that Mr. Big Wig falls in love with it, gives it the green light, and casts William Powell and Veronica Lake to star. Earnest has to be prepared! His pitch has to be shorter than the elevator ride but compelling enough that Mr. Big Wig invites young Earnest to get off at his floor.

But that’s not why we need an elevator pitch. In my entire life, I’ve never had reason to talk to a stranger on an elevator unless I couldn’t reach the button for the floor I wanted.

No, elevator pitches are supposed to be for the writer, and for social media.

For a long time, elevator pitches were mixed up with the idea of the “log line”. Log lines were the short descriptions of TV shows or movies that appeared beneath the listings in the TV Guide. But, if you went online during the late nineties hoping to find advice that would make you a pro, creating a log line for your story was commonplace advice. In that context, the log line was:

[Protagonist] struggles to [goal] in order to [what’s at stake] to prevent [terrible price of failure].

Or something like that. It was always a little different each time, but the basic Mad Libs of the thing are in that line above.

The point of a log line was to show beginning writers where their story could be found. It was about [Protagonist], not a million side characters. [Protagonist] was in pursuit of [goal] because [what’s at stake] was so important. They didn’t laze around mom’s basement, feeling sorry for themselves. And so on. It’s a fine way to highlight the important parts of a certain kind of story (essentially: stories that are like movies or tv shows, which is where these ideas come from) but it didn’t apply to every sort of fiction.

Eventually, this Mad Libs-ed log line idea merged with the elevator pitch to become the most basic way a writer could describe a story. It told you where to go with the story. It told you what mattered. It was extremely limited and limiting.

But it’s a tool, and all tools are limited. When we teach writing, it’s much easier to gas on about basic story construction than what most new writers really need: the skills and judgement needed to organize sentences and paragraphs in an enjoyable way. That’s what I really needed to study but that shit is hard to teach in a 300-word blog post or message board thread, so instead the internet filled up with “How to make your protagonist compelling” and Freytag’s Pyramid.

So, has an elevator pitch/log line ever been useful to me before I wrote a first draft? Yeah, actually, in short fiction. The format has helped me keep the story from spinning out into an unpublishable length.

For novels, which are a complex, sometimes digressive form, no. Not ever.

After the book is started, I’ve found some use for these pitches/log lines. Has the plot started to wander? Have the characters motivations become jumbled? Does this one particular scene seem to be going nowhere? That’s a good time to remind myself what, specifically, each character wants and what’s in their way. When I’m blocked in something as small as a few lines of dialog, filling in those blanks can help point the way forward.

But really, the elevator pitch is the social media pitch. It’s the short description that fits inside a tweet (oh for the luxury of a five-story elevator ride) that piques readers’ interest. It may not sell the book, but it might get readers to download the sample. I didn’t have one for the Twenty Palaces books, but I did for The Great Way: “An epic fantasy trilogy about a sentient curse that destroys an empire.”

At one point a reader asked me if I hadn’t gotten that wrong: shouldn’t elevator pitches focus on the character? Who’s the story about? What are they trying to do? This reader was focussing on all the log line essentials: Shouldn’t I fill out that Mad Lib? I responded by saying that a pitch should highlight what’s most unique and compelling about a book. If that’s the lead character and their goal, awesome. Going that route is easy enough, and it can be effective. If, instead, what’s unique and compelling is an apocalyptic tone and a weird antagonist, then some other format has to be created. The Mad Lib of a log line is a fine tool to start with when organizing a pitch, but it’s a poor fit for a lot of books. Sometimes the work has to be done without that tool.

For example, the pitch for A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark was: “It’s a pacifist urban fantasy with a hero who’s a cross between Auntie Mame and Gandalf.” Nowhere does that define her goal (which is to solve a murder) or what awful thing will happen if she fails (because she doesn’t know at first and it’s supposed to be a fun surprise) but it does highlight what I think is unique and compelling about that book.

Currently, my agent is shopping One Man, a fantasy/crime thriller, and I’ll have to create a social media pitch for it. That means I take a sheet of scrap paper and list elements that I think are fun/unusual/exciting. Not all of them will make the cut, but lists gives me something concrete to work with. Should I focus on the protagonist, a former golden boy responsible for the deaths of those nearest to him, who now bears unknown magic? The setting, a city built within the skeletons of two “dead” gods (both killed while fucking)? The plot’s macguffin, a piece of forbidden healing magic that might lead to civil war?

Nah. For me, the most unusual and interesting aspect is the stakes. The protagonist isn’t trying to destroy a magic ring, or defeat an evil army, or slay a sorcerer-king. He wants to rescue an orphaned little girl that no one else in the whole world cares about. They’re small, personal stakes for a book filled with fighting, magic, and impending war, but that’s what makes it interesting to me. Will readers feel that same way? It’s impossible to know. Fantasy readers like their stakes to be big. Epic, even. Will pitching the stakes in One Man push people away from a book they might love if they read it?

I haven’t worked that out. But then, if it were easy, everyone would do it.

That’s my take on so-called elevator pitches. Once in a long while, they’re useful during the writing process, but they’ve become necessary after the books comes out to help attract readers. Start with a log line, if you want, and make a list of unique and compelling elements that you believe will intrigue readers. And good luck. None of this is easy.

But please don’t talk on elevators.

“There it is again.” A Mini-Review of The Defenders

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First, the show has flaws.

Second, I enjoyed it a lot. A whole lot. Spoilers upcoming.

Third, kicking the Netflix version of Iron Fist has become something of a competitive sport, but I think The Defenders is an explicit effort to rehab the character after what Scott Buck did to it in Season one of Iron Fist. And it was successful. In The Defenders, they took the foundation laid in Iron Fist and had some fun, making Danny Rand a likable character.

Not that people want to admit as much.

Fourth, there were some odd choices with the other three main characters.

For instance, everyone is in a holding pattern when the story starts, no matter how long it’s been since their last season ended. Danny is hunting The Hand but not having much luck. Jessica is… what? She’s not taking cases. She’s not helping people. She’s drinking and hiding out. Even in the MCU version of New York, which has been wrecked by aliens and overrun by ninjas, I can’t see how she’s covering the rent in her trashed apartment.

Matt is doing pro-bono work. Does he really win an 11 million dollar settlement for that family and get nothing for himself? Plus, he’s not putting on the Daredevil suit anymore.

(That bit of dialog in the subject header is my favorite in the show, and obviously the “it” is that red and black suit.)

Okay. They’re the good guys, and each has to be established with their own quirks. But only Luke Cage has a real excuse for being stalled: he ended his series by going to prison.

One thing I liked about the show was the way it gave an episode for the four heroes to establish themselves and reintroduce themselves to the audience. I liked that the second episode paired them off. Then the end of the third brought them together.

Fifth, the fight scenes mostly worked, thank god. Even when they were jumbled and mediocre, like at the beginning of episode 4, they still mostly worked.

That fight at the end of episode 3, though, was hot.

The worst choice came in the final episode, where the inexplicably dropped a Wu Tang Clan song into a fight scene, to show the heroes turning the tide of the fight. Honestly, it’s as if someone pointed out they had the rights to the song, and they had a fight scene, so they should be combined! Because that always works!

Except it doesn’t. The way it’s shot, the setting, everything, works against it.

Sixth, I thought the villains were great, except Bakuto. The mild-mannered bad guy thing is played out. Yet another Scott Buck mistake.

Seventh, Jessica Jones really needs to learn karate.

Eighth, you should watch it.

Randomness for 8/26

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1) Twenty-five terrible book recommendations.

2) What not to do in a disaster.

3) The rare-book thief who looted college libraries in the 1980’s.

4) North Carolina church accused of luring Brazilian worshipers on student and tourist visas, then making slaves of them.

5) Man kayaks through grounded cargo ship off the coast of Romania. Video. This would be a terrifying horror film set.

6) “What did you think of my screenplay?” a Clickhole quiz

7) There’s a World Championship for Excel Spreadsheets

Detective Twitter and the Case of the Unexpected Bestseller

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I spent a fair portion of yesterday watching online amateur investigators look into an unexpected appearance on the NYTimes bestseller lists. Short version: a nerd-oriented site published it’s first YA fantasy, then identified bookstores that report sales to the New York Times and bulk ordered their own book.

It’s a time-honored tradition to try to scam your way onto the Times’s list, and for all the cultural cachet (not to mention the sales boost) that comes from putting “NY Times Bestselling Author” on the covers of your books, the process has plenty of flaws.

The Times itself curates it’s lists, leaving off the romance genre, for instance, because they would dominate any list that was truly fair. It’s a prestige thing, I guess. When the movie Julie and Julia hit the theaters, it bumped Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking back onto the lists several decades after it came out. When the Lord of the Rings movies came out, the Times decided they weren’t going to list the books, no matter how well they sold.

The list is fudged in other ways, too: it’s compiled from the sales figures of a number of bookstores around the country, a list that’s supposed to be secret. It can’t accurately chart actual sales, because only the publishers have those figures, and they aren’t sharing.

Plus, book-buying is stronger at some times of the year than at others. You can make the list with lower sales in February than you’d need in July or December.

But still, it’s not a big deal to say that bestseller lists are imperfect. Everything created by human hands is imperfect, and imperfect systems can be exploited.

See also this article by an author who hired a company to buy enough copies of his business book to put it on the NYTimes list. The news articles about it have been vanished or are behind paywalls, but the author spoke candidly about what he did and why he did it.

One thing you notice is that the author wasn’t simply trying to sell more business books. For him, writing books was a stepping stone that would lead him to 5-digit speaking fees. Buying three thousand copies of his own book would be cheap compared to what he stood to make.

And reading through the detective work from yesterday, it concludes by saying that the author was expecting to turn the book into a film, and that she would be cast in the leading role. Once again, it’s not success in the book world these people are seeking. For them, books are a stepping stone.

So, sure, the lists are imperfect, but they still matter quite a bit. Not only are they worth a lot of publicity, they give negotiating power to authors when they negotiate with their publishers. But if you’re going to scam your way onto the list, be more careful than these people.

[Added later:] the author speaks to Huffpo, insisting that she didn’t game the system and that she worked to build buzz at Wizard World Comic Con events. She also claims there’s a bias against “new voices” even though her book bumped a debut novel by a black author that has been getting widespread buzz for months. So, yeah.