Strolling a Familiar Garden Path: Kubo, King Doug, and the Power of Predictable Plotting

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A few years ago, I picked up a copy of The Return of King Doug from my library, read it, loved it, returned it, and promptly forgot the title. No amount of Googling could call up the book again. “Satirical portal fantasy child…”

Here’s the basic plot: the centaurs, sentient trees and elfin creatures of pseudo-Narnia are gathered for the final battle against the Dark Queen. And they have a hero with them, one the prophecy says will lead them to victory! It’s a human person, named Doug. They put a crown on him, hang their most potent magical bauble around his neck, and declare him king.

Doug is eight years old. He’s happy to be made king, but once talk turns to the bloody battle at 100-to-1 odds to take place in the morning, Doug does what any sensible kid does. He runs all the way away, returning through his magical well to his grandmother’s place in the Poconos. And he brought the bauble with him.

Cut to mumble-mumble years later, Doug is all grown up, divorced with a kid. Years of therapy have convinced him that his adventure was fantasy, but he can’t get his own life together. Then his parents talk him into returning to the old cabin, and his son finds the bauble and falls back into pseudo-Narnia, and…

And you know what will happen. The prophecy he was unable to fulfill as a child will be fulfilled now that he’s an adult, and we’re going to get a satirical tour of fantasy land while we’re at it.

It’s a fun book, and I enjoyed it, but not because the plot was unpredictable. The basic outline of the story was right there, and the only surprises came from the details.

That same weekend, my wife said she wanted to see KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, largely based on the beautiful animation in the commercials. My wife has no interest in fantasy (the only fantasy novels she reads are mine, and the only fantasy movies she sees are the big popular ones or the artsy ones) but she has a long history with animation so, of course, we went.

You should go, too. See it in the theater, and stay for the mid-credits stop-motion clips. It’s gorgeous and affecting, and while Laika’s previous films have been interesting but significantly flawed, this one is a real achievement.

It’s also utterly predictable. Once the first act ends (and this is a spoiler that isn’t really a spoiler) the plot turns into a Quest for the Plot Coupons, with the caveat that the Plot Coupons can’t solve the Plot, only the protagonist’s pre-existing self can do that.

And telling you that doesn’t spoil a thing, because the real joy comes from the details. It’s in the way the characters are portrayed, and in the specifics of the tasks they take on. Finally, when the expected ending arrives, all those little details have fleshed out the story so completely that the denouement carries weight. It satisfies.

This is a lesson that I just can’t seem to learn. No matter how many detective novels I read or action films I watch, I’m constantly trying to reinvent the wheel. I keep making things from scratch.

There’s joy in making stories from scratch, but so many missteps, too. Sometimes I think that what I really need to do is start with a Farmboy of Uncertain Parentage and spiff it up.

Not that I really will. It’s just interesting to think about.

State of the Book/State of the Self

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[I wrote this on Saturday night, before news struck of the deadliest mass shooting by a civilian in this country’s history. Rather than let it go live at the scheduled time, I’m just going to post it later in the week, along with my wish that sensible gun control be enacted in this country, starting with a lifting of the ban on CDC’s ability to study gun violence.]

You’ll be reading this tomorrow, but I just tweeted this:

If you’re not a long-time reader, let me explain: When I finish a draft of a novel I treat myself to a bottle of Arrogant Bastard Ale.

Which means that I’ve wrapped up the zero draft of ONE MAN, and what a fucking relief it is. I started this book in March of 2015, according to the creation date of my Scrivener file. That’s a long time for me, even if you count the amount of time I spent traveling on vacation and taking a digression to work on side projects, like The Way into Fate, the rpg game supplement that closed out my Kickstarter campaign, and short fiction, too.

So, that’s a long haul, and I’m still not done. I have a list of 90-some changes that need to be made, from small ones like adding a couple characters to a scene or changing someone’s name, to systemic ones like giving certain characters their own slang. Then, once those changes are done, I have to manage the numerous comments I’ve left myself recommending I check various details in the book. Then, once THAT’s done, I have to reread the whole book, smoothing out the text, searching for word echoes, and generally prettying things up. If I were sensible, I’d do that twice.

Only then will this draft be truly done and ready for my agent to read. If you’re waiting for THE TWISTED PATH, which is the next Twenty Palaces story, you’ll have to wait until then. Sorry. Gotta get this book on the market.

Personally, I’m relieved to have accomplished even this much. This has been a difficult book, and I’m not entirely sure why. It’s a fantasy with a made-up setting. It’s a crime story. It has a bunch of POV characters. It has stakes and magic and betrayals and secrets.

And if this book flops, too, I’m going to have to rethink my whole approach to writing.

Last announcement: I’ll at ECCC signing books today

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Today, I’ll be at ECCC (my first time there) signing books at the UW Bookstore booth (space 5100) at noon. The bookstore will be bringing the Del Rey novels but I’ll be packing in the books from my Kickstarter: copies of The Way into Chaos/Magic/Darkness, copies of A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark, and copies of Twenty Palaces, the prequel to the Del Rey books.

I’ll also have a few (rare) copies of King Khan, the game tie-in novel I wrote about the gorilla who’s an Oxford professor and his pitched battle against an intelligent fart from space.

(Spoiler)

Stop by! Visit! You don’t have to buy something and I promise not to make sad pathetic expressions if you don’t. Nor will I touch the covers of my book and sigh loudly. In fact, depending on the level of ambient noise, I’m more likely to squint at you and shout: “I’m sorry, did you say you wanted me to climb a hook?”

The more stuff I sell, the more space I’ll have in my back to pack stuff home, and I sorta promised my kid a t-shirt. But no pressure! Just drop by!

Not with a bang but a buy link: the rpg supplement from my just-finished Kickstarter is now ON SALE

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For writers, the huge projects that we put hours of toil and sweat and heartache into typically end when something goes on sale. That happened today.

The Fate Core supplement, titled The Way into Fate, that covers The Great Way and A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark has been sent to backers and is now available for sale on Drive Through RPG. It’s over 53K words (far more than intended) and is basically a world-building document expressed in Fate’s (deeply intuitive) game system.

Plus, there’s a 50-page adventure covering a historical incident briefly alluded to in the books. The Key/Egg section of the game covers Marley’s Farce Magic, and both sections include many story seeds for possible campaigns/adventures.

It also means my Kickstarter campaign is officially over.

The campaign that I launched in Oct, 2013 to fund books that were released one year ago, has now, with the publication of this game supplement, ended. To say this is a load off my shoulders is understating things significantly. If you’re a backer and I owe you books, check your Kickstarter messages. If you don’t have a working link, message me through Kickstarter.

And, to bury the lede, check out that final Kickstarter update for a big Twenty Palaces update.

In the meantime, if you like games and fun, pick up your copy of the game supplement here.

They say ideas aren’t worth much…

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and “they” are correct!

Long time readers know that I give away story ideas on my blog (the ones I’m never going to write, I mean) under the tag “seeds”. And you might remember last year when I mentioned that writer Stephen Kotowych took one of those ideas, wrote it up, and sold it to an anthology called Caped.

Well, now that story has made the short list for the Prix Aurora Awards under Best English Short Fiction.

First of all, congratulations to Stephen; the idea of superpowers that spread virally through punching is a fun one, if I say so myself, but it’s worthless on its own. Execution is everything.

Second, I have no idea how the Prix Aurora works, but if you (yes, you, the person reading this) have a vote, why not vote for Stephen’s story, “Super Frenemies”.

Third, it’s an interesting world, and getting more interesting all the time.

Batman v Superman is a bad movie, but it’s not incoherent

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I saw Batman v Superman on Friday, despite the reviews. as expected, it was full of (dark) spectacle, but as I said on Twitter, it played as if it had been made by people who didn’t understand how stories work.

Screenwriters talk about structure all the time, which is a concern that goes beyond the usual cause and effect of plot and character. How does each scene play out? What effect will this have on the audience? How does this scene play in relation to the scenes that came before and after it? For example, if you watch the scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier where Nick Fury is attacked in his super spy van, you see a standard (and effective) escalation of threats. First, Fury faces a squad of well-equipped gunmen and kicks their asses. That extended scene demonstrates that he’s a badass. The scene ends when the Winter Soldier takes Fury out in a second or two, sending Fury running.

First, you establish a character as super capable, then you present someone who outdoes them.

The similar scene in BvS, where Batman in his Batmobile dismantles Luthor’s security team on the road, only to be stopped by Superman, tries to hit the same note and fails. You don’t need to establish Superman’s power level. He’s Superman. And Batman isn’t being a hero in that scene, he’s being an anti-hero (because he’s stealing from a villain and murdering his henchmen), so we’re glad he’s been foiled.

And it just doesn’t work on multiple levels, and that’s just one scene.

But a number of reviewers are calling it incoherent or saying the plot’s baffling, and that’s a separate issue entirely. It’s extremely common for viewers (critics included) to see a movie, decide they’re not enjoying it, then mentally check out. They stop caring, stop paying attention, and quickly get left behind by the plot.

Why didn’t the protagonist just kill that guy? Why did they have that long scene in the courthouse? Why this why that? Why not fly the giant eagles straight into Mordor?

For viewers who are paying attention, the answers are right there in the film. For viewers who aren’t, their self-inflicted confusion is just another strike against the filmmakers. Although of course this happens with books, too.

There must be a name for this phenomenon, but I don’t know what it is. But whenever I hear someone say “I didn’t like this movie, and it made no sense” I always believe the first half and remain agnostic on the second.

State of the Self, 2016 (aka, the “We’ll see” post)

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On Tuesday, I hit 100K words on the work in progress, currently titled ONE MAN, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to assess where things stand in a general way. No encouragement or advice, please, especially about the medical stuff.

Me, personally

I turned 50 last year, which I guess is supposed to be a big thing but it didn’t feel like it. Mostly, it felt (and continues to feel) like a timer ticking down. As more and more of “my” pop culture figures pass away (and more and more of them are closer to my own age) I’ve become increasingly aware that my own time is growing short. Right now, somewhere inside me, I probably have a cancerous tumor that’s lying quiet, small for the moment, but ready to expand aggressively under the right circumstances. If I’m very very lucky, I’ll live long enough to see my son married and living a stable life, to have earned a sense of accomplishment with my work, and to feel as though I’ve lived enough.

I can’t really imagine that, but that’s my hope.

The petty medical issues that have plagued me since 2012 haven’t gone away, but I’ve decided to work through them to focus on my weight. I’m down 10lbs in the last two weeks and plan to continue. The first few are always the easiest, of course. We’ll see.

Finally, for a long time I’ve pretty much avoided social situations. I talk to my wife. I talk to my son. I order coffee at the cafe. Beyond that, it’s extremely rare for me to speak to anyone aloud; all my interactions have been online. I guess the only exceptions have been the two-hour SF2W meetups that Django Wexler arranges, and I’ve been to, I think, two in the past year. Once in a rare while a reader drops me a note and we’ll meet face to face. Very rare.

Aside from that, I’ve been actively avoiding social events. I don’t go to conventions. I haven’t contacted the roommates I had 20 years ago to suggest we grab lunch. It’s been a very quiet life, and I like it.

But a week ago I cashed in the Christmas gift that my niece gave me: a tour of some of her favorite brewpubs in Ballard. It was extremely mellow, and we got the chance to just hang out and talk, which I don’t do much.

The following Friday, I had the event at the UW Bookstore, where a number of authors in the anthology Unbound signed books for readers. I suspect most of them were there to see Terry Brooks, but people were nice and it was good to talk to them. It had no noticeable effect on my book sales, but I enjoyed myself, and I enjoyed hanging out with the other authors afterwards. (What I could hear of it, anyway. People in bars are noisy.)

So I’m thinking I should put more energy into that sort of thing. Talking to people. I dunno. Maybe.

Family

My wife is doing pretty well, especially now that she has an APAP machine to help her sleep through the night, which she can do now, sometimes. She’s also spending more of her time painting. Making art was hard for her after her father died. She and her siblings inherited his canvases, which no one outside the family wanted and no one inside could bear to dispose of.

She began to feel the same way about her own work. Our apartment is already crowded, and she didn’t see a point to creating more stuff that her kid will have to deal with when we die. Slowly, she’s moved past that and is doing the work for its own sake, which is fantastic and makes me very happy. She’s also gotten into a couple of shows. Did I say it makes me happy? It really really does. Now I just need to write a hit book so we can afford a place with a studio. North-facing, naturally.

My son turned 14 a few months ago and starts high school in the fall. Homeschool is coming to an end, and I’m hoping that a) he’ll make more real life friends and b) I’ll have more writing time. It’s going to be a rough transition, but he’s ready for it. His sleep schedule might not be, but he is.

Games

I’m still playing Sentinels of the Multiverse on Steam. In fact, I’m playing it too much. I should probably download a program that will block Steam for most of the day. I’d get more done, and do less obsessive clicking.

BUT! I should say that, when I’m playing SotM, I don’t feel hungry, or itchy, or sad. I’m almost completely absorbed, even moreso than when I’m writing. It’s worth keeping around just for that. I just wish it was less irresistible.

Reading

After several years of feeling burned out on reading inside the fantasy genre, I’m finally feeling burned out on crime and mystery. It doesn’t help that I tried to shift from old classics to books that are popular and current, and really really did not enjoy them.

Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names, which I picked up solely out of a sense of gratitude for the social events mentioned above, is a flintlock fantasy that I enjoyed way more than expected. Recommended. At the moment, I’m reading Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon because everyone on reddit loves those books passionately. I’m 80 pages in and mostly enjoying it, despite the fact that I’m not usually fond of high magic settings.

Watching

I took the family to DEADPOOL, which is an objectively bad movie, but hugely enjoyable anyway. It’s been a while since I saw a modern Hollywood film (that wasn’t SPY) that made me laugh really hard. Now I hear that the people behind Batman v Superman are planning an R-rated version, because… I don’t know, they think it was the rating that made DEADPOOL a hit and not the humor? Don’t know. Don’t care all that much.

I’ve also dropped a number of TV shows that I was watching through sheer momentum, not because I enjoyed them. Most of what I found compelling in season one of ARROW is long gone, and I just don’t have space for it anymore. After trying both LUCIFER and LEGENDS OF TOMORROW, I’ve decided that they aren’t going to do that Star Trek thing where it takes them a little while to find their rhythm and they become awesome. Both are dropped. At this point, I’m only watching ELEMENTARY, FLASH (which has been way less fun this season) and AGENTS OF SHIELD (which has been improbably improving).
I’m looking forward to season 2 of DAREDEVIL, even though it will probably be a disappointment. We’ll see.

No one in my family is remotely interested in the upcoming DC adaptations. We’ll see, redux.

Writing

As I mentioned above, last week I crossed the 100,000 word mark of ONE MAN. What I didn’t mention is that last August 26th, I was at 31,000 words.

I know this because of this horrible new record-keeping that other authors suggested I do. All it does is tell me things that make me unhappy.
For example, last fall I took a month-long trip to Portugal, and my plan to squeeze out a few pages during quiet moments never worked. I got zero new words done that month.

After Thanksgiving, I stopped writing the first draft and went back to revise what I had. Revise it extensively, which took a month and a half.

When that was finished, I realized the game supplement I promised my Kickstarter backers was way overdue, and I spent three weeks revising that.
When I returned to ONE MAN, I re-outlined the rest of the book (using the virtual whiteboard app Scapple, which I like) and now things are tearing right along.

It’ll take another long revision process, and it’s going to be a long-ass book: at 100K words, I’m still looking ahead to the beginning of the climax. Still, I feel like this is good work. I just hope the market agrees.

I haven’t decided what I’m going to work on after that. The next book in the series is TWO DRAGONS, but I have a short story due for an anthology (soon) and I might want to write something else in between. Plus there’s that game supplement.

I wish I could be more prolific.

And that’s where things stand.

Hacking Popular Books But Still Confusing Popular With Good

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Every question can be answered by computers, apparently, including What’s the difference between bestselling fiction and fiction that doesn’t sell?

Oh hell, am I supposed to make you click a link??? Have this relevant blockquote instead:

They took the first 1,000 sentences of 4,129 books of poetry and 1,117 short stories and then analyzed them for various factors. They looked at parts of speech, use of grammar rules, the use of phrases, and “distribution of sentiment” – a way of measuring the use of words.

They found that successful books made great use of conjunctions to join sentences (“and” or “but”) and prepositions than less successful books. They also found a high percentage of nouns and adjectives in the successful books; less successful books relied on more verbs and adverbs to describe what was happening.

More successful books relied on verbs describing thought processes rather than actions and emotions. The results varied by genre, but books that are less successful, the researchers reported, used words like “wanted,” “took” or “promised.” Successful authors employed “recognized” or “remembered.”

“It has to do with showing versus caring,” Choi said. “In order to really resonate with readers, instead of saying ‘she was really really sad,’ it might be better to describe her physical state, to give a literal description. You are speaking more like a journalist would.”

Communications researchers believe journalists use more nouns, pronouns, and prepositions than other writers because those word forms give more information, Choi explained.

“Novelists who write more like journalists have literary success,” she said.

And to think that I deleted all those prepositional phrases from my books because I thought they were unnecessary! Josh Helman might be playing Ray Lilly in the movie version right now if only I’d left them in.

More seriously, color me skeptical that Choi’s analysis above, which boils down to showing vs telling, is more than post hoc rationalization (or a mundane error in science journalism) since it seems to contradict the paragraph before, which says “actions and emotions” take second place to “thought processes” in successful books. It’s almost as though the data has to be twisted to fit the popular model of how to write well.

It’s almost enough to make me grab a Lee Child novel off the library shelf to see how much ink is spent “retaliating first” and how much analyzing story beats.

At the back end of the article, a writing teach claims that the research must be all wrong, since it’s verbs that make for good writing, and that people choose books based on subject matter rather than style.

Both statements might be true, but good writing is not the same as popular writing, and if you’ve got the subject matter, maybe there’s a boost to be gained by writing in a journalistic style.

Which, honestly, is interesting to think about, but which I’ll completely forget about by the time I return to my current book. I just gotta do my own thing. As much as I’d like to be successful, I suspect I’m immune to the advice that could make that happen.

Have a Nook? In the UK? Back up your books

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If you’re in the UK and you have a Nook (there must be at least ONE of you out there) be sure to back them up. Nook is pulling out of the UK market and relying on a third-party to take over for the Nook books people have already bought.

Personally, I don’t put a lot of trust in maintenance arrangements with third parties.

Details here.

Authorial Self Sabotage: first in an informal series

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The common wisdom is: if you publish in the genre, go to conventions. Here:

Now, to clarify (because this has bitten me in the ass before) I’m quoting Kameron Hurley to talk about her assertion, not to blindly agree with it.

I’m going to relink the article she’s linking above because it’s worth reading, and I’m going to quote it, too.

Check this part out:

Here’s another wrinkle: at least in SFF writerdom, there is really no meaningful distinction between friends and colleagues. Which, sure, is true of a lot of fields. But these relationships are particularly close, and the professional utility of these friendships can be very high. There are costs to missing out, to not being at the right place at the right time to meet the right person. Missed connections are a real thing. Because here’s another wrinkle: it’s not just about being talented. It’s about being noticed.

Which calls back to some other, previous posts of mine about luck. (Don’t roll your eyes, people, I’m going to be brief this time.) If you maximize your interactions with other people and with new experiences, and you remain open to new opportunities, you increase your chances of a “lucky” break. That’s why people who say you can’t control luck are wrong. You can’t control luck in any specific situation, but you can increase the chances that something lucky will happen over the long term.

Therefore: conventions, where you meet colleagues who become friends. The benefits of that are unpredictable but they’re there. The costs are there, too.

See this post by Chuck Wendig listing the upside and downside of attending. As Chuck says, the point is to meet people you like and be liked in return. It’s a professional opportunity to make pals, not to cynically acquire names and resumes who will give your career a lift. Chuck also makes an extensive list of the downsides, one of which is cost. Marko Kloos broke down the cost of attending Confusion, an event he really enjoyed and which is apparently the cool new thing.

Clearly, $1,888 isn’t chump change, and it’s clear that no one is going to make back that money on the weekend itself. The money I just paid to Bookbub was not tiny, but the extra sales more than made up for the cost. But that’s short-term thinking. That almost-nineteen hundred dollar ConFusion expenditure will pay off, if it pays off at all, in the long-term benefits that come from the friendships formed at the event.

For example: we’ve all seen writers pushing their books on social media, and most of us know that, while it works once in a while, it’s not an effective way to sell. You reach your core followers, they buy the book, and the positive effects of future promotion nosedives.

But being promoted by other writers to their followers, with a personal recommendation? That’s gold. Meeting an editor who remembers you as smart, funny, and sensible the next time your agent submits your work? Making a good impression on a handful of fans who decide to try your books, then love them so much that they evangelize for them? Also gold.

And it can’t be predicted or forced. It’s like the old saying: “If you want to find someone to love, be someone worth loving.” Authors just have to go, spend the money, the energy, and the time, and hope good comes of it.

For those who have found benefit that way, great. I’m glad Kameron Hurley’s career is doing well and I hope she becomes a best-seller (or whatever her goal is). But it’s important to be wary of Survivor Bias. My own experience at big meetups is not all that positive. Usually I leave feeling that I should have spent that time writing.

And then there’s this:

No conventions. Hear that? They don't attend many conventions

Excerpt from ‘The Career Novelist’ by Donald Maass

That advice is more than 20 years old and it’s the exact opposite of what authors are told now. Conventions may have been around for a long time, but could things have changed so much?

I’m open to the possibility that social media magnifies the effects of creating a F2F friendship with your colleagues; it’s possible that folks who witness fun and funny online exchanges between pros would be willing to sample the work of a whole clique. I also suspect that’s where “cool kids” rhetoric comes from (as in “I’ll never be one of the cool kids”). In social media, casual expressions of camaraderie are a public act and it’s easy to feel excluded when it looks like everyone but you gets to take part in the fun (Not to mention getting the reviews, the blurbs, the nominations…)

Then again, what looks widespread and pervasive on social media is usually neither. The ongoing drama in one person’s circles goes completely unnoticed by the world at large. And those people that look like they’re among the “cool kids” are struggling with their books and their insecurities just like any other writer. The only difference is that their circle of friends has a high(ish) profile.

Still, the idea that long-lasting sales comes to those who don’t waste time on the social stuff is very very tempting.

Back and forth. Back and forth. Is it worth the time and money? How many cons does it take to start making friends? Is it even worth it for me, a guy who hates to be jostled, who can’t hear in noisy environments, and is terrible at recognizing faces? (also names?)

Maybe it would be worth it, but feh. I’m terrible at that stuff. We only get 52 weekends a year, and I don’t want to use one of mine on socializing when I could be working on a book.

I could be shooting myself in the foot with that decision, but it wouldn’t be the first time.