The Twisted Path

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Most of you reading this know that, a few years back, I said I was setting the Twenty Palaces stories aside due to a lack of sales. Readers were unhappy (although not as unhappy as I was) but I think they understood, for the most part. You understood. I wanted a growing readership that spread across the land and the seas and conquered all, but 20P wasn’t going to be that. Not for me.

I didn’t want to abandon it, but I’m not prolific enough to write a Ray Lilly book and a non-Ray Lilly book every year. Could I grow my readership by self-publishing more 20P, and only 20P? Clearly not. Even with Del Rey behind me, sales dwindled.

That extremely nebulous plan I had for the overall series went onto a back burner.

However, it wasn’t long after that I heard about other authors supplementing their series with novellas. I could do that too, couldn’t I?

The answer turned out to be No. I knew what came next in the series, but I wasn’t sure how to tackle it. After I finished The Great Way trilogy, I took a stab. I tried again after I revamped A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark. Both times, the story felt dead in the water. I was getting nowhere with it.

Then I talked it over with my son. I told him that the pacing was all wrong and the whole thing felt lifeless. He recommended I restructure it in an unusual way, and I’ll be damned if his advice wasn’t so on the nose that I took it verbatim. If you read the story, you’ll see what I mean.

Are you new to Twenty Palaces? This isn’t the place to start.

The Twisted Path picks up shortly after “The Homemade Mask,” (included here) which is set only a few days after the end of Circle of Enemies. This is the true beginning of the next phase of the Twenty Palaces story.

Yeah. Remember a few paragraphs ago when I mentioned that extremely nebulous plan? The first three books were meant to be about Ray working with Annalise against the predators. The next set digs deeper into the society itself and the spell books that pre-date the human race. That’s why the title style has changed from “[Noun] of [Noun]” to “The [Adjective] [Noun]”. When this series of stories wraps up (assuming things go well) Ray and Annalise will move on to the next phase, and the titles will change again.

But while the first four books were written so that readers could jump in with any of them, this one won’t be much fun unless you know what’s come before. I’d recommend starting the series with either Child of Fire, or the prequel Twenty Palaces.

Does that mean there will be more Ray Lilly stories after this one? I hope so. Circle of Enemies came out in 2011, more than six years ago. Is there still interest? That’s the real question. Time (and the Amazon.com Author Dashboard) will tell.

Which just means that, if you read it and like it, please spread the word.

Pick up your copy here:

Amazon | B&N | iBooks | Kobo | Smashwords

New Twenty Palaces Novella Coming Soon

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I’ve been talking about this here and there, so let’s hit the topic one more time, but with art.

The new Twenty Palaces novella, The Twisted Path, will be released soon. I just got the copyedit back, so sometime in the next few days, I guess? Being a novella, it’ll be ebook only, and I hope you’ll buy yourself a copy for Christmas.

Here’s the photo the cover was created from and the original.

My wife took that picture in the public square in Evora, Portugal. My son adjusted the image (in GIMP) and I did the text. I’m pretty happy with it.

And I’m pretty happy with The Twisted Path too. I’ve come at this story several times over the last few years. It was only this last effort where I feel I “solved” the story.

Of course, you guys will be the final judge of that.

If you want to hear about the novella as soon as it’s released, sign up for my newsletter right there in the sidebar.

Seeing the Forest for the Algorithm: a Review of Past Edit Notes and a Hard Truth

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In which the author makes an embarrassing confession

One of my little secrets is that, in between projects, I’ll sometimes read a book about writing. It’s always useful to reinforce the basics, and seeing how other writers approach the blank page gives me insights into my own work.

Sometimes I get the impression that I’m supposed to be past all that, but I’m not. I’ve never really felt that I’ve mastered this craft. Some aspects of it, maybe, but I still struggle.

And since I’m brainstorming something new, I took another writer’s casual mention of his favorite book about writing, Stephen King’s On Writing, and borrowed it from the library. I had barely started when I heard a discussion of a different book over the radio. You can listen to that here, if you really feel you have to. It’s not an interview with either of the authors, and the interviewee’s Wired article is more interesting and informative with fewer dopey questions.

The book is The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers. Maybe you remember when it came out last year, or maybe the title is enough to guess what the book’s about. The authors created an algorithm to analyze a variety of modern novels, then ran all sorts of books through them: bestsellers, non-bestseller, midlist books, self-published, the whole deal. The algorithm noted the differences, then sorted out the ones that were strongly predictive of bestsellers. According to the authors, their “bestseller-ometer” was capable of predicting whether a book would be a bestseller with 80% accuracy.

It’s correlation, sure, but the authors found nearly 2800 factors that were present in books that made the NY Times list but not present in the ones that didn’t. Yes, the NYT has issues with the ways it manages it’s list and it’s not a true sales meritocracy, but it is a powerful cultural signifier, and Archer, a former Penguin UK editor, wanted to better understand the differences.

The Bestseller Code is an exercise in finding meaning in those differences.

I don’t know if you remember when the book came out last year, but I do. I scoffed at it. Computer analysis? Of a creative endeavor? Please.

But that interview, flawed as it was, piqued my interest, so I borrowed a copy from the library.
It turned out to be interesting stuff.

What we talk about when we talk about luck

First, I want to say that the technology Archer and Jockers deployed—sentiment analysis, topic modeling, and more—was pretty impressive. The field is more advanced than I would have guessed.

Second, it turned out that the way they applied those tools, and the conclusions they drew from them, were entirely unremarkable. (Bolded because I want folks to take note.)

It’s common for folks to talk about success in the arts as part skill, part talent and part luck. I’ve talked at length on this blog about my opinion of “talent”, and at a little less length about “luck.” The effects of luck have been proven experimentally.

My question is always: what are they calling “luck”? What confluence of choices and incidents brought about this fortunate outcome? Because, to me, “luck” is what you call a series of events you don’t understand well enough to predict or control.

But what if we had the tools to look at things more closely? What if we had a better understanding of the differences between what people want to read and what we’re offering? What if we could narrow that gap?

Data doesn’t frighten me. Nihil veritas erubescit.

Besides, I’m a published writer with starred reviews and even, if you can believe it, fans. I already have the skills I need to break through to a larger readership, don’t I?

This is where my agent comes in

As I was reading The Bestseller Code, I kept thinking My agent could have written this.
Let me take an example. Using topic modeling, the algorithm breaks down what each book is “about.” Maybe a certain percentage might be concerned with crime and police work, and a smaller percentage for domestic matters. The next smallest percentage would concern, say, hospitals and medical concerns.

It seemed weird to me that algorithms are sophisticated enough to manage this task until I remembered Pat Rothfuss talking about programs that could handle the task five years ago.

Anyway, the books that sold well had fewer topics (around four), and those topics offered opportunities for dramatic contrast. Books that didn’t sell as well had more topics (around six, if I remember correctly). The subjects were more wide-ranging, less unified.

What’s more, one of the most important predictors of success was that a book devoted a certain amount of time to human interaction and connectedness. If one of the four topics was characters being with the people they cared about, living their lives and dealing with each other, that was a strong indicator of good sales.

Guys, my agent has been trying to teach me these lessons for years. For my whole career, I’ve been trying to establish relationships between characters the way a movie would: with a single, significant gesture or remark. She has been telling me, book after book, to give them more time on the page. To let them relate to each other. To let them bond. It turns out that human interaction in fiction is incredibly powerful, and I’ve been giving it short shrift.

She has also told me—many times—that I need to simplify. Often times I have too many storylines, plot turns, or characters. Especially characters. Too many “topics.” Maybe my work would reach a larger audience if it was more unified.

Another thing the algorithm does is generate plot curves through sentiment analysis. When the language of the book is full of upbeat words, like succeed, kindness, rest, and peace, the plot trends upwards. When it’s full of words like loss, failed, grief, and pain, it trends downward.

What surprised me is that, when the algorithm studied bestsellers, it produced plot curves very similar to the ones writers see all the time. One is quite similar to Freytag’s Pyramid; others matched different but fairly common models.

I’ll admit that I was startled to see a computer pull the old tried-and-true plot diagrams out of bestselling books, and how non-bestsellers seemed so flat. It made me question how well I manage the rise and fall of a plot curve and whether the language I use is appropriate for it.

There were other findings beyond those, obviously. The data was all descriptive, and it covered books that were popular but critically derided as well as popular but prize-winning. Except for a few surprises, like the need for scenes of human connection and a general distaste for sex (::shakes fist at America::) it’s standard stuff. Create a character who really wants something. Have them go after it. Make the plot turns powerful. Keep things focused. Write in a naturalistic style. Hook them in the first few pages.

Honestly, my agent could have written this advice, and as I was coming to the end of the book, it occurred to me that she sort of already had.

In which I step back from my edit notes to examine my edit notes

Just last week, my agent got back to me about a book I’d sent her. The news was bad, I don’t mind admitting, and of course she had some notes to give me.

As I was thinking about how closely the advice in Archer’s and Jocker’s book matched what my agent told me, I got the idea to go back through all her editorial notes for all of my books and look for patterns.

I’ve been happy to take her input—I signed with her, in part, because I knew she’d help make my work better—but I’ve been looking at them case by case. Book by book. It never occurred to me to look for trends.

To be fair, there was usually a year in between each new book, and sometimes more, and I’m a forgetful, disorganized person. It’s easy for me to carefully study a bunch of trees without once considering the forest.

So I opened all my old emails from my agent to review the notes she’d given me. My first thought was that past-me really needed to be more practical with his subject lines. My second thought was that I’d always thought of myself as a slam-bang thriller writer, a guy who could spin out an exciting story. It occurred to me that I wasn’t being exciting enough, because that self-conception wasn’t matched by outside reality. The work I was doing was earning fans and selling books (by my estimation, The Way into Chaos, which was self-published, has sold a little over 13k copies, which would be a fine, fine number for most NY genre publishers) but I wasn’t breaking through to the larger world.

What if I had placed myself in the “Good But Not Good Enough” category, and was missing out because I wasn’t really addressing persistent flaws in my creative choices?

So what were those persistent flaws? Obviously, each book had its unique problems, but there were several that popped up over and over.

Here they are:

  • Book started too slowly
  • Too many characters/plot complications/names
  • Characters not sympathetic enough/don’t have time for personal bonding

The hook must come sooner. More unity. More time for the characters’ relationships.

Honestly, I thought I’d already learned all the skills The Bestseller Code suggested I would need. I thought I was already working at that level. It’s pretty clear that I’m not.

The nice thing is that I’ll have a chance to be mindful of these persistent issues as I start a new book. Will it help? Shit, I hope so. I have ambitions, you guys, and I’m not meeting them.

My agent will still have notes for me, but maybe she won’t have to tell me the same old things she’s had to tell me every other time.

There’s more to say on the subject of computer analysis and the services various tech companies offer publishers, but that’ll have to be next time.

(If you thought this post was interesting or useful, why not share it?)

Justice League (no spoilers)

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Okay. I wasn’t going to see it until next week, but reviews said it was sorta good, so I caught a 7pm sneak tonight.

The theater was mostly empty, a very bad sign.

The movie itself was “pretty good for superhero movies” if that’s any kind of rating that matters. They finally got the heroes right. The villains were still cgi ciphers for a supers plot, with three macguffins that have to be gathered and joined to end the world, etc etc. The parademons were effectively animated but Steppenwolf was an empty shell.

Still, this is the first time I genuinely liked Cavill as Superman. He’s always looked the part, but I never really felt he was playing the Superman I grew up with. Affleck was terrific as Batman, and the others were excellent. Gadot especially. I’m glad they skipped the origin stories and I’m glad they cast charismatic people.

As action movies go, it was exciting, if a bit repetitive. Next time I hope they mix things up more.

Honestly, I can’t decide if this is the power of low expectations, or if I just had fun. Now I’m honestly looking forward to movies for these individual heroes.

Anyway, it’s a quarter after 11 at night and I’ve got a pint of black coffee beside me. THE PUNISHER starts in 45 minutes, and I’ll be sitting up to binge it.

Randomness for 11/8

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1) Why you should crack an egg in your coffee grounds.

2) “Why these all white paintings are in museums and why mine aren’t”

3) Dungeon Hobo Signs

4) Five Tips for Preventing Sexual Harassment We Apparently Need

5) An expanded list of Netflix genres, with links: “Dramas starring Virginia Madsen,” “Gritty Biographical Music and Concert Documentaries,” “Successful Korean Revenge Movies”

6) “Optimization is a form of calcification”: Cory Doctorow on a decade and a half of life-hacking.

7) Every Batman: the Animated Series Villain Ranked from Worst to Best.

Mohawks, Barrel Fires, and a Few Nice Shots: a highly qualified defense of episode 7 of STRANGER THINGS 2

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This post contains spoilers for the second season of STRANGER THINGS 2. You should only read it if:

a) You have already seen the show
b) You actively like spoilers
c) You enjoy discussions of storytelling but have no interest in this particular show.

Moving on: episode seven, is widely regarded as the weakest episode of the entire show, for good reason. It steps away from the setting we, the audience, are invested in, and it drops all of the regular characters except one: Eleven. (I should start calling her “Jane” but I’m not ready to move on.)

Do we care about Kali and her band of punk murderers? We do not. Kali herself has a few nice moments, but the rest of the group never gets a chance to be funny, or charismatic, or to have a worthwhile goal the audience can root for. Their dialog isn’t clever or witty, either. They make fun of Eleven’s clothes, for god’s sake, by singing “Old MacDonald”.

The members of the gang say they’ve been “saved” by Kali, but that’s something that needs to be shown, not told. If you can’t actually show why these punks are so dedicated to her–and all it would take was to show Kali using her power to calm someone’s panic attack or withdrawal symptoms–then it seems that the real reason they’re with her is that they really enjoy is robbing and killing people.

And no cutesy slow-mo walk is going to make that palatable.

As 80’s nostalgia, it’s dumb and also pernicious, on the level of an episode of QUINCY, ME.

Frankly, STRANGER THINGS has always played with the other people’s ideas. The whole show is an homage of one kind or another, but those old tropes are either actively pleasant (like the boys riding their bikes around the neighborhood) or their given an interesting tweak (see: Steve Harrington). Kali’s gang has zero interesting tweaks, and all the barrel fires and in-jokey graffiti in the world can’t make them pleasant.

Authors like to encourage newer writers to steal anything they like, because each writer’s individual voice will make these old tropes their own, but this episode proves that’s not always true.

But why talk only about the episode’s flaws?

First, there are a number of lovely little storytelling moments that elevate the show above the schlock it’s mining. Not just the steadicam single shot that turns 180 degrees to show both the gang’s pov and the cops’ pov or the edit from Kali’s face reflected in the van’s window to Eleven’s in the bus window, but a bunch of smaller choices, too. Each little edit from the moment Eleven sees the picture of Ray with his kids to the moment she TKs the gun from Kali is perfectly structured. Brava to the director.

Second, the show gets some much needed girl-to-girl time.

One of the problems with STRANGER THINGS is that its female characters are so isolated from each other. The women and girls on the show are surrounded by dudes and maybe a mother. Eleven has Mike and his pals. Max has those same boys and her step-brother. Joyce has her sons and Hopper. Nancy has Steve and Jonathan.

I’m convinced one of the reasons fans had such a strong reaction to Barb was that, aside from being a sort of Everywoman among all the TV-beautiful actresses, she was half of the only woman-to-woman peer relationship on the show, and that’s not something they can afford to throw away.

The scene with Kali and Eleven on the roof is a moment that the show needed: a scene of bonding and caring between female characters. They had an opportunity to revisit that at the beginning of episode nine when Max met Eleven, but they shrugged it off for an understandable but unwelcome moment of jealousy. (If season 3 doesn’t open with Max and Eleven as the best of friends, I’ll be seriously disappointed.)

This episode was also a mentoring moment. The show has routinely showed how much stronger Eleven’s powers were becoming, but with Kali she managed the leap that justifies the climax.

Third, it provides space for an unexpected escalation of the stakes.

Most of us watching these Netflix miniseries recognize by now that the climax is spread across the last two episodes, and the big oh shit! moment comes at the end of the episode just before that climax.

STRANGER THINGS 2 thwarts that expectation in a pleasant way. I was genuinely startled by the end of episode six, when the baby demogorgons begin to climb out of the hole, and there’s Chief Hopper looking incredibly vulnerable in his hospital scrubs.

It’s a nice cliffhanger, arriving as it does an entire episode early, and all of episode seven leaves us dangling off the cliff. Personally, I enjoyed the anticipation, but I would have enjoyed it more if ep seven had been a little stronger.

Fourth, it expands the world and sets up Kali as the villain for season three.

The show wisely opened the second season with the gang on the run from the cops, then Kali’s nosebleed and tattoo. That it later fumbled those elements doesn’t negate their importance in continuing and expanding the story. Eleven can’t be the only test subject in this world, and the others can’t be duplicates of her.

Season three will need to introduce other kids with tattoos and powers (all of them little girls, if they’re smart), and it will need Kali as one of the villains. Establishing her as a betrayed sister in this season was a good move.

Besides, you can mine a lot of terrifying moments out of a horror show where people can’t trust their own senses. Season three can’t get here fast enough.

So, to sum up: the episode had a lot of necessary and worthwhile elements, but was hobbled by the thoroughly ham-handed way it handled the supporting characters. Definitely a weak moment, but still interesting.

How about that! A Buzzfeed Video worth watching (about TV settings)

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This is my first time trying to embed a video from Twitter. I’m curious to see how it turns out.

And btw, I did binge S2 of Stranger Things when it premiered overnight, and it’s terrific.

Blade Runner 2049: Beautiful and Sad and WTF? Come on, Guys

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In my attempt to return my online activity to spaces I control, I’m going to be dropping reviews here, too. To start, Blade Runner 2049.

First of all, it’s a beautiful movie. And it’s a sad one, too. That’s not a spoiler; it’s obvious from the first few minutes that this shit will turn tragic.

Also, it’s part of the Staring School of filmmaking. Nowadays, when filmmakers want to signal that their movie is Capital A Art, they show lingering shots of the actors staring at something without speaking. It’s meant to suggest that there’s a lot of emotions churning around on the inside, but hey, they’re underplaying it.

I’m honestly getting a bit bored with the Staring School. Imagine a film where eloquent people expressed their feelings in compelling ways! I’d love to watch that.

Another problem is the way the film treats women. Does it seem even remotely likely that every hologram advertisement in the future will feature a fully or semi naked woman? Not one dude at all? What happened in the future to remove the cigarette-holding cowboys and the models with washboard ads and half-buttoned pants? It just doesn’t make sense.

And it’s clear the film won’t be a financial success, although I’m certain it’ll turn a profit over the long run. I saw a matinee on the day it was released and, flaws aside, I loved it. On Sunday, my son asked me to take him, so we went.

He loved it. (The Staring School is one of his favorite things.) But as we left the crowd of friends in front of us were complaining about how boring it was. “Nothing happened!” they said, which I guess is code for no chases, no big action set pieces, and a lot of looking at things with no expression.

Which is fine, if that’s what they like, but honestly, I wasn’t bored for any part of the 2+ hour run time. If they’d been smart, they would have cast more non-white actors in major roles, which boosts ticket sales. Yet another missed opportunity.

So, a flawed movie, but also a beautiful and sad one, and I really liked it.

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]