Smoke, Mirrors and Monsters

Everyone loves a good mystery. The feeling of reading something, that feeling of need to know the answer that forces you to keep turning pages even after you promised yourself just one more chapter eight chapters ago.

The bigger the mystery, the better. The ones that seem unsolvable are the best. They make you wonder how it will resolve satisfactorily. Only, so many times they seem unsolvable because they are. Because, as great as that mystery is, the low that comes from a conclusion that is a total letdown is even worse. It was a dream – they were dead all along – it was in someone’s head and a myriad of others make me drop books (and shows and movies) in utter disgus

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Me, upon finding out your character was dreaming or dead or some crap

t, and makes all the good from the first 90% of a story seem bad.

 

So, dear reader who is also a writer, how do we avoid doing this ourselves? Or, more to the point, to our readers?

In the first place, never bet more than you can afford to lose. What I mean by that is, never raise the stakes beyond what your payoff can be. If your reader is heavily invested every step of the way, and you let them down at the end, your work will not be remembered fondly. BUT, if you give them a solid payoff – even if the mystery itself isn’t as deep – they’ll like it a whole lot more. So if you have this great premise, make sure you have an equally great ending.

Also, don’t go all in at the end (to continue the betting analogy). If you have a super crazy twist that no one will see coming, clue them in a bit. Give your readers some hints that something is coming, or at least some Easter eggs that make sense upon re-reads. Obviously, you don’t want to telegraph what is coming (otherwise it’s not really a twist), but if your story just takes a hard turn out of nowhere, readers will be bewildered, not intrigued.

Finally, know when to fold. Some ideas just don’t work. It’s better to walk away and work on something that does work – and, let’s be real, will sell – than to waste time on something that will ultimately overwhelm. Make a note of the idea, let it stew, and work on other, better projects.

And, for the love of all that is good, please do not let them just be dreaming.

-DESR

Reader Debt

Every so often, I see a plot post/meme/tweet/pagan incantation about what readers owe authors- reviews! Word of mouth! – or something along the lines of this:

Which.. no, no that is not. The only way you keep writing is if you keep writing (Note: Tez is quoting from a newsletter there). You may or may not make some/much/any money from it, but that’s the definition, folks.

But let’s be abundantly clear about what a reader owes you: the price of the book. That’s it. If, for example, you wish to read *my* book (which you should- it has been favorably compared to Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Firefly and Twilight Zone!), you may purchase it for two dollars and ninety-nine cents, which you should most certainly do. Once you have done that, our transaction is concluded! I hope you enjoy it!

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What readers owe authors

And, in the event that a reader does like it, I hope they do leave a pleasant review and tell all their friends that they should purchase said book as well. But they don’t have to. And so many authors see this as a must. But, friends, it is not. Do they help? You bet! I only have 16 reviews on my silly little collection, mostly favorable, and that helps. Is it the end-all, be-all of book selling? It is not. Does it have any bearing on my continuing to write? Certainly not. If everyone in the universe went and bought it and my next royalty check was for some absurd amount of money, or simply had more number to the left of the decimal place rather than the right, it would probably make writing more easier. But it doesn’t determine if I do.

 

Likewise, if you do not enjoy my book, I hope you keep your pretty little reader mouth shut and not tell everyone what a steaming heap of prequel-level garbage my book is, and leaving a scathing review that makes me want to never even think about words again. But you can do those things if you want! You don’t owe me jack beyond the two dollars and ninety-nine cents you spent on my book. In fact, if you want everyone who reads your book to write a review, you might regret that. I’m sure people didn’t enjoy mine and refrained from saying so. That is probably a good thing.

So authors, please, enough badgering. Market to people in a way that makes them want to buy your book, and write books that people will want to leave (favorable) reviews of. Stop worrying about how each review and each sale affects your career/sales ranking/ego/whatever.

DESR

In Praise of Leia

There’s a lot of talk these days about strong women in fiction, and rightly so. There is also a ton of talk about Rey being overpowered, and… not so rightly. It’s particularly idiotic when we accept at face value that literally any dude handed a gun in an action movie is automatically Rambo, including, ya know… Rambo. Hell, including Luke himself, which the puppy/GG crowd will fight to the death, but let’s talk about that original trilogy for a second.

Because while you can debate Luke’s Hero’s Journey all day long (Luke sucks), the fact of the matter is Lucas lucked into one of the bad-ass women of all time. I say lucked into, because I have zero confidence in Lucas’ ability to A) write a decent character in the first place and B) because his track record of treating race and gender with respect is… not good. And C) because all the things that makes Leia awesome, I am pretty sure he did by omission. Here is a non-exhaustive list of Awesome Shit Leia Does:

  • Fights tyranny, not just with guns, but through proper channels and peacefully
  • Also guns
  • Resists torture by a Sith Lord
  • Watches her home planet be destroyed rather than give up information
  • Still manages to get off a snappy line when she is rescued*
  • Realizes her rescuers are, uhhhhh, kinda idiots who have no plan, and takes over
  • Comforts Luke (who sucks) about his friend dying**
  • Coordinates and attack on the Death Star right after all that
  • Doesn’t leave anyone at Echo Base until she is literally dragged out
  • Watches the same Sith Lord torture her crush
  • Saves Luke’s stupid ass
  • Tries to save her BF by going undercover in a mob
  • Gets captured and shoved in a bikini (click that link, kids)
  • Chokes the guy/slug that shoved her in said bikini
  • Volunteers for super-dangerous mission
  • Finds out her dad is the Sith lord who tortured her and her BF
  • Saves her BF
  • Finishes super-dangerous mission
  • Completing super-dangerous mission leads directly to conception of Poe
  • Sorry I got distracted there
  • Son turns to the Dark Side
  • Husband peaces out
  • She leads a new Rebellion… thingy
  • POE
  • Sorry
  • Husband comes back!
  • Son doesn’t
  • Son kills husband
  • Makes sure Rey, who she just met, goes to Luke (why? HE SUCKS) to train

That’s just so far. Most of us would have curled up in a ball and cried from half of that.

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By Chris Trevas

Which brings us to the writing side of it, and the asterisk up there is why I say Lucas lucked out here- that line wasn’t in the script, it was all Carrie coming up with it on the spot. I think Lucas wrote Leia to be a damsel in distress through a lot of it. Because, and maybe this is just me, but if I write about someone getting tortured and watching their planet blow up, I would want to explore the effect it had on them. But Lucas just moves on, as most movies and books do when a woman goes through something traumatic. It’s a plot point, a thing to motivate the actual protagonist (Luke, who sucks) along.

 

Which brings us to the double asterisk up there- Luke loses a friend who has known for… two days? Ish? Leia watched her home go all ‘splodey. Granted, Luke lost his family and home too, and his pain would certainly be real, but… whole planet. And there she is, comforting him. Lucas & Co. just gloss over her pain, but in doing so, make her stronger. Because she, through all of, handles herself. The only person we see her vulnerable with is Han, and that makes their romance more compelling than the standard guy-gets-girl narrative.

I don’t have a super-huge point here, besides:

  1. Leia is bad ass
  2. Luke sucks
  3. Don’t talk shit about Rey, she is perfect

And, maybe, from the writing side of it, there is a good lesson in not over-thinking things. Let your characters be who they are, and maybe they will be stronger for it.

DESR

PS Seriously, don’t talk shit about Rey. I will cut you.

Stories I want to Read

We focus so much on the big names- Batman, The Avengers, Luke Skywalker, etc., which is fine and good, but what about everyone else? Here are stories I want to read:

Insurance Claims Adjuster in the MCU: His name is Marvin. He always wears a white shirt and black tie, the knot is always loose by noon. He is a little pudgy, and plans to go to the gym, but there just isn’t enough time. His marriage isn’t perfect, but it’s OK. His wife talks about Captain America a little too much for his liking, but she doesn’t have to deal with the damage that shield causes, ya know?

Bruce Wayne’s maid: Esmeralda. Let’s be real, Alfred is the butler, but he mostly dispenses sage advice. He doesn’t clean shit. Esmerelda keeps the manor clean. She has a son, and Mr. Wayne has always been good to her. She likes him as more than an employer, but doesn’t want to be forward, since it’s a good job and she’s not sure if he has noticed her. He has, and they would be perfect together, but neither ever makes a move. One day, she notices something amiss with the secret entrance to the Batcave (which she doesn’t know about), and almost opens it, but doesn’t. She moves on, and forgets the incident.

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this has nothing to do with this post. It’s just great.

 

Moisture Farmer on Tattooine: Just kidding, this is way too boring.

Random Soldier who Dies: They joined up for a decent reason. They’re not super patriotic, but hey, you get to see the universe and get an education. Turns out they’re a pretty good soldier. Not the best, but a couple promotions and medals. Kept in touch with their BF/GF throughout, and they’re planning on getting married after this last hitch. They are the first one the alien/big baddie kills in a forgettable scene which establishes the plot (of someone else’s story).

I kid (mostly), but in all honestly, those are the people that inspire me to write. We read for lots of different reasons, but the heroes journey works because it lies to us- in real life, there is no ring to throw in Mount Doom, no Darth Vader. In real life, we go to boring jobs, and never go on grand adventures. These stories let us pretend we can.

3024_Kindle_2015But what about the average person in those universes? And what about the momentous events in history, just like the real ones from our history- what are they like in those far-flung universes?

Thinking about those people is what drove a lot of 3024AD- there is something happening, but it is happening outside of the lives of the people met in this series of stories – but it still affects them. They’re living ordinary (sorta) lives, and the universe is changing. Some of them have a  hand in it, some are just along for the ride. Some will be at the center of it, but like real history, are actually powerless to change it.

Sorry for the commercial (sorta). This started off as a semi-serious post about those stories, then I got on the “that’s-what-I-write” tangent. If that sounds good to you… *nudge nudge*

DESR

How to Write Longform

The concept of TLDR eludes me. The longer a read, the better, is my semi-humble opinion. OF course, I am a firm believer in the economy of words. Your YA book should be 150,000 words of rambling first person exposition. But, as long as it’s engrossing and interesting and has lots of parentheses, please let me read forever.

Of course, most of the internet, to say nothing of this attention span-lacking generation, disagrees completely. If it can’t be digested in the length of a .gif, it is TL. And therefore, DR.

So some places have ‘longform’ articles as sort of a nostalgic holdover, I suppose, the internet-age equivalent of a curiosity shop. Something you can look at and remember when people read, man. Or show to our children and tell them when mommy and daddy were little we used to read long articles all the time, but it’s no use, because the five-year old has a smartphone and is busy using it to move brightly colored gems around.

But I digress. To be sure, I’m firmly in the antiquity camp about a lot of things, but this longform thing is stupid. Because every single one is exactly the same. So here is the DESR guide to writing your very own longform piece (Slate, Vox and the like will love you):

Pick something semi-obscure and semi-important. It can’t be something that everyone knows. Your longform piece on the spirituality of The Force Awakens won’t fly. And it can’t be completely out of the public consciousness, either. Think the movie Dodgeball as a perfect example. Everyone knows dodgeball (the sport), but did they recognize the spiritual transcendence of playing in adult league? You do, so you’re well on your way to the perfect longform article.

shut up

Have some stakes. But again, not too big of stakes. Human-interest stakes. The most integral part of your piece is that people care, and care deeply. Otherwise, prepare to be filed under TLDR. So you must, preferably in sentences that demand tension, to be read breathlessly, communicate that this matters. ‘But DESR,’ you’re saying, ‘then why ever did you say to pick something that doesn’t have big stakes? Why don’t I write about sex trafficking? People care about that.’ To which I say, you’re an idiot. The point of these articles is not for people to read them and go out and effect change in this world, it is to get them to spend time on the website and generate ad dollars. So they need to read the article, care about it, but be able to walk away without it gnawing at their soul. They’ll go volunteer to clean up the earth or feed orphans or some crap, and you can bet they are not surfing the internet from a Tibetan orphanage.

 

Say something that sounds really profound. Again, it shouldn’t actually be profound, but it should sound that way. This is the line that people take away, and feel moved by, because people are idiots. Take the best* piece of longform in modern history, which appeared on Vox: The “I love the Victorian Era So I Decided to Live in it” lady. She concludes thusly:

This is why more people don’t follow their dreams: They know the world is a cruel place for anyone who doesn’t fit into the dominant culture. Most people fear the bullies so much that they knuckle under simply to be left alone. In the process, they crush their own dreams.

Hoooo, boy, that sounds profound. I need to follow my dreams, you think from inside your cubicle as you hope your boss doesn’t notice you’re not working. Except, the person who wrote that is an idiot. But goddamn if it doesn’t sound profound.

Also, Vox has a great description of the longform thing there:

First Person is Vox’s home for compelling, provocative narrative essays

Sound great! It’s another way of saying ‘ramble about semi-important stuff, as long as it sounds profound’.

Patronize the ever-loving shit out of everyone: This is where SB Nation messed up- not in victim-shaming, or total whitewashing of a despicable human being**- but the fact that nearly every paragraph did not come with some sort of caveat about how ‘you might not agree’ or ‘this is not for everyone’. Patronize everyone. This keeps them on the page and entranced with your climb up the lower Withcita County Dodgeball standings, even after Jeremy broke his ankle and Sonja got pregnant with twins, even though her husband just had back surgery and his job fired him without cause. But they’ll be courtside for the championship. Because we all fight together. Not everyone loves Dodgeball. But we do. And isn’t that what dreams really are?

See how easy that was?

DESR

*Worst

**I am being facetious. That was their mistake.