Quarterly Update

If you follow me closely, you may have noticed that I missed my last quarterly update, which should have happened around the end of June. I realized this myself around, oh, mid-September. Let’s just say that I had a lot on my plate. A wedding, moving apartments, planning a friend’s bachelor party… It’s been a busy summer, to say the least. And while I wrote consistently, my presence both on this blog and on social media suffered, as evidenced that I have yet to take down my “wedding hiatus” note on Twitter.

(For those of you who are wondering, the wedding and honeymoon were both amazing. We had some great people make the trip down to Florida, we said the magic words, and everyone had a total blast. It was an incredible time and I loved every minute of it.)

And although I’ve been back for over a month, I’m not sure when I’ll take the hiatus tag down. I post on Twitter sometimes, and hell, I may release one of the book reviews I have ready to go, just sitting there in my drafts folder. If I’m feeling super crazy, I may even finish that half-written article about creating flawed characters. But I don’t want to make any promises, because while on the surface, it looks like I haven’t been doing much, I’ve been hitting an incredible work pace behind the scenes. And I think the fact that I’m not devoting 10+ hours a week to responding to comments and writing these blog posts on a strict schedule has a lot to do with it.

Despite all the crazy shit that’s been going on this summer and will be coming up this fall (I might be taking on some extra responsibility at work), I’ve still gotten a lot of editing done for Sundering. My drafting for Sojourn has been moving along a little slower than I had hoped, but I’m still putting new words down when I get the chance. As a recap, here’s where I was at after March 2019:

Sundering word count: 147,000 down to 136,955

Sundering pages edited: 94 out of 499 (18%)

Sojourn word count: 45,301

Sojourn chapter count: 19 out of 64 planned

Here’s where I am now:

Sundering word count: 136,955 down to 129,106

Sundering pages edited: 197 out of 476 (41%)

Sojourn word count: 52,625

Sojourn chapter count: 23 out of 64 planned

So while I’ve only written four more chapters of Sojourn, I’ve more than doubled my progress on editing Sundering, and I think my work pace is only improving. I’ve really gotten into a groove on editing and I’m happy with both my work rate and the quality of work, which is by far the more important of the two. I’m consistently cutting out 20-25% of the words in each chapter, and I’m confident I can get Sundering down to about 110,000 words from the original 147,000, which was itself down from about 165,000 on draft 1.

I’m hoping I can get up around the 300-page mark by the end of the year, which would put me about 60% of the way through Sundering and in position to finish next summer or fall. That seems like a long way away, but a year isn’t much in the grand scheme of things. Much less so if it’s a year of producing quality work. So please keep in mind that while I may not be as active on social media as I’ve been in the past, and while I may not be churning out articles like I was before, all that time is going towards more editing, more writing, so I can get Sundering out there sooner.

If you need to get ahold of me, I still respond to emails and DM’s on Twitter in a timely fashion, so feel free to reach out. As always, thank you for your support and encouragement. It’s what keeps these fingers striking the keyboard long after common sense tells me I should have gone to bed.

The Perversion of Subversion

I had a different blog post scheduled for this month, but I have to write what I’m about to write, lest my brain explode and leave my landlord with some serious cleanup on his hands. Morrie’s a good guy, so I don’t want to put him through that. If you’re like me, you’re feeling a bit disappointed in the final season of Game of Thrones. There were a plethora of issues, everything from pacing to butchered characters to some very questionable plot decisions. I didn’t absolutely hate the season, I don’t hope D&D die in a fire, and I didn’t sign that stupid fucking petition to have HBO redo the entire season because I’m not a delusional idiot.

But yes, it was bad.

At this point, some of you may recall a tweet of mine regarding the eighth season, where I voiced my concerns about having to end my own fantasy series (years down the road), because of the weight of fan expectations and how some fan bases are almost impossible to please. Many people took this as a defense of the eighth season’s glaring issues, which it wasn’t intended to be.

In fact, I’m going to criticize season eight pretty heavily, here. If we can’t change how poor the writing was, at least we can learn from it.

In this post, I’d like to zoom in on one particular concept that is being thrown around in every discussion of TV/movies/writing where someone wants to sound like they know what they’re talking about. I’ll be using some examples from Game of Thrones and Star Wars (seems appropriate, since D&D passed up on doing a full ten-episode final season in order to pen an upcoming Star Wars trilogy) to make my point.

The magic word is…

Subversion

sub·ver·sion

/səbˈvərZH(ə)n,səbˈvərSH(ə)n/

noun

noun: subversion; plural noun: subversions

  1. the undermining of the power and authority of an established system or institution.

    "the ruthless subversion of democracy"

In this case, subversion refers to undermining not an institution, but the expectations of the reader and/or the tropes and conventions of the genre or storytelling in general. So when you hear someone say that “Star Wars: The Last Jedi was a masterpiece because it subverted viewer expectations,” what they mean is “this movie is good because they did a bunch of stuff you didn’t think was going to happen, or they didn’t do the things that you DID think would happen.”

The early seasons of Game of Thrones were masterclasses in subversion, mainly because they had a wealth of source material upon which to rely. You know what I’m talking about. Ned Stark, a paragon of honor and righteousness, got his head chopped off instead of triumphing like the good guy does in every other story. Rob Stark rides off to war and vengeance and comes to utter ruin, instead of, well, winning. Oberyn Martell, an intensely likable character who fights with peerless skill and grace gets his head squashed like a cantaloupe after he had the fight won.

The good guy doesn’t always win.

George R.R. Martin is an expert at turning fantasy conventions on their head, using your own expectations against you. The massive popularity of Game of Thrones was in no small part responsible for the explosion of the subversion phenomenon. All of a sudden, content creators everywhere looked to defy the conventions of their genre, shake things up, and take a fresh, new approach to telling their stories.

Good.

I applaud the sentiment. A story full of tropes and cliches is boring, bland, and lifeless. Readers don’t want to see the ending coming a mile away, they don’t want to feel like they’ve seen this story before, and they don’t want to have every character pinned down after minimal exposure. It’s thrilling, shocking, and at times, heartbreaking to have the rug pulled out from under you, and it’s fun and engaging to not know what’s to come. Subversion, done well, is a beautiful thing.

But sometimes, less is more, and it’s about time people woke the fuck up and learned to apply some nuance.

I’m sick of seeing glowing praise for something just because it’s “subversive.”

“Dude, this plot point makes no sense. That character would never do that.”

“Yeah, but it was so subversive!”

UsingThatWord.jpg

You know that saying “you have to understand the rules to know when/how to break them?”

While you don’t need a robust understanding of libel laws to call me a jackass online if you so choose (and actually, I’m pretty sure that doesn’t qualify as libel, so feel free, I guess) you should probably understand the conventions of storytelling before trying to defy them. George R.R. Martin doesn’t break every convention in existence. He uses several of them successfully, then turns one around on you when you least expect it, but when it still makes sense within the context of the narrative he has constructed using, in part, stereotypical fantasy tropes.

Jon Snow gets a classic hero’s journey throughout the early seasons. So does Daenarys. That makes it all the more shocking when Rob, who gets a basic fantasy vengeance quest that you assume MUST succeed because they already killed his father, gets brutally murdered. And that betrayal doesn’t come out of nowhere, although it appears to. It’s caused by a series of poor decisions on Rob’s end, all of which are carefully laid out in a well-disguised trail of breadcrumbs that becomes to painfully clear once you’ve recovered from the shock.

If that’s confusing, bear with me for a minute. Let’s try another approach.

Ever hear the phrase “mechanics of storytelling?” That’s because, like any machine, a good story has several different parts, like three acts, character arcs, an inciting incident, a climax, and so on. These pieces connect in a certain order, follow a rhythm, and create a familiar pattern that we all subconsciously recognize and understand on an instinctive level. There’s a common structure to most types of stories, whatever their content.

If you’re really good at what you do, if you really understand the structure of your story, you can bend it a little. Maybe even break it. The red wedding is the utter derailment and destruction of THE main plot line at that particular moment in the story. But GRRM is a phenomenal writer who has other plot lines to fill the gap, and those plot lines continued with that familiar pattern we all know. We might have been surprised, saddened, devastated, but we knew the story was progressing in a logical, straightforward manner.

The takeaway here: Even when he breaks a pattern, a convention, he adheres to others to allow the story to retain its framework.

If breaking patterns is your ONLY pattern, then you’re not creating a cohesive plot with overarching themes and long-term character arcs. You’re characterizing your story by what it isn’t. If you ask someone what kind of food they like and they say “Not Italian,” you’ll probably think they’re not being very helpful, or reasonable, because pasta and pizza are amazing.

So why are we doing this with our writing?

If an architect wants to build a unique building, he doesn’t defy basic principles of construction and design. Why? Well, because the building still has to stand. Sure, nobody’s ever made a 36-story high-rise out of bamboo shoots and gorilla glue, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

And that’s what subversion for subversion’s sake gets you: a flimsy piece of shit that lacks any sort of structural integrity. Constantly yanking the rug out from under your readers with no rhyme or reason doesn’t make you a visionary. It means you’re too lazy to write a nuanced, compelling story with consistent setup and payoff, and the only way to keep your readers “invested” is to constantly trick them by having your characters do things that nobody sees coming because they AREN’T FUCKING LOGICAL.

If I was writing a medieval fantasy story and halfway through, aliens came down, gave the good guys super powerful alien weaponry, and that was how the good guys won, you’d feel pretty cheated right? I hope so. But hey, didn’t I just “subvert your expectations?” After all, nobody saw that coming right?

Because it’s a terrible idea that makes no sense given what the narrative has previously established.

Game of Thrones suffered from this in the later seasons. For example, Arya killing the Night King wasn’t set up whatsoever. Before you bring up Melisandre’s comment about shutting brown eyes, blue eyes, and green eyes, please remember that the showrunners themselves said they knew since season five that Arya would kill the Night King, which means there was no way that comment was inserted into season three as potential set-up. Or was it as early as season two, even? Either way, that one-off comment was not intentionally thrown in to reference the white walkers, and even if it was, one line of dialogue in eight season does not adequate foreshadowing make. Hell, Arya didn’t even know the Night King and the army of the dead were a real thing until season eight.

So yeah, I felt surprised when she killed him, and also a bit cheated. I’m fine with her killing him on principle, as in, if they had set it up better. But not when Arya and the Night King were never given any sort of history, connection, or conflict.

Bran, Jon Snow, and Daenarys all had much better narrative reasons for taking out Grand Daddy Ice. Hell, even Beric Dondarion, as the Lord of Light’s seven-times-resurrected champion, was a better candidate.

Bran and the Night King have a mystical connection that transcends time itself. There was so much cool potential here. I could write pages on this. How was this not used whatsoever?

Jon Snow was brought back from the dead by the Lord of Light and had fought the Night King since season one. The entire purpose of his character, his core driver, the culmination of his long-term arc, was to lead the living in the fight against the dead. Why, exactly, did he come back, if not to kill the Night King? Or you know, at least play a pivotal role in the battle. He did fuck-all in an episode in which he should have been MVP. His biggest contribution was trying to scream a dragon to death.

Dany and her dragons are the antithesis of the Night King’s magic. Did the showrunners forget that the series upon which the TV adaptation is based is titled “A Song of Ice and Fire?” Considering the Night King whacked Viserion, you’d think she’d do something more than unsuccessfully try to roast him and then park Drogon directly in the middle of a horde of wights and let him almost get eaten alive for literally no fucking reason whatsoever. I’m not mad that her attempt to immolate the Night King didn’t work, I’m mad that she and her dragon(s) contributed basically nothing to the defense of Winterfell. Especially after she singlehandedly annihilates, obliterates, incinerates, TOTALLY FUCKING DESTROYS King’s Landing, how was she so criminally underutilized against the creatures that are the very opposite of her, her dragons, and her bloodline?

And yes, 95% of people were betting on one of those three being the one to end the long night. Because those were the outcomes that made the most sense given previous setup.

But nope, go with Arya because nobody will see it coming. Nevermind that it wasn’t foreshadowed nearly as much or as well. Nevermind that it left a whole bunch of other plot threads dangling in the wind, forever to remain unanswered. Just pick the thing nobody expects and it’s automatically good.

And that leads us to the second part. You shouldn’t subvert expectations that you’ve already laid down in your own narrative. The Red Wedding subverted readers’ expectations because in every other fantasy story, the guy who goes off to avenge the death of a loved one wins. We expected the same thing to happen, despite the fact that in Game of Thrones, every character who thirsts after revenge and/or willingly marches off to war dies. Every single one. So why were we surprised when Rob Stark got killed? Because every other story we’ve read has led us to believe Rob would triumph. However, the events of the red wedding were internally consistent with the universe of Westeros and the themes of GRRM’s writing in general. That’s the true genius of his work.

You can misdirect readers with clever writing, you can blind them to certain things and throw red herrings in their way. That’s how we get fantastic twists. But you shouldn’t undo pages and pages (or years and years) of narrative setup and character development for the sake of a “gotcha!” moment. Don’t weaken your own writing by going back on pre-established rules and concepts within your universe.

What do I mean by this?

Time to rag on The Last Jedi. The movie was a fucking trainwreck. Sure, you’re allowed to like it, just like I’m allowed to like Transformers 3, but that doesn’t make either of them any less objectively terrible. Plot, pacing, character, and dialogue issues aside (“Let’s go, Chrome Dome,” I mean, seriously?) TLJ blatantly disregarded any and all canon before it, as well as committing one of the worst character assassinations of all time. A few brief examples:

  1. Force ghosts can now create lightning that affects the real world. Sure could have used their help in EVERY OTHER BATTLE EVER!

  2. Hyperspeed jumps used as offensive weapons. See above. Even if nobody bothered to weaponize this technology (which is ridiculous, it’s the first thing we do with any technology), this still raises the issue of how there aren’t fatalities when people use this technology for travel purposes since now ships at hyperspeed can crash into things.

  3. Leia being able to survive in outer space with no protection and having dramatically stronger force powers than ever shown before. Seriously, how does she survive the vacuum of space? Does Rian Johnson understand what outer space is?

  4. Luke Skywalker, the eternal optimist who found good in Darth Vader, who tried against all hope to turn him to the light even after he had committed countless atrocities and war crimes, decided to murder his own nephew, his sister’s and best friend’s son, because he thought he had some darkness in him. WHAT?

  5. Luke Skywalker dying because he force ghosted too hard. I can’t even write about how catastrophically stupid this is without shaking my head in disgust. Why not just have him show up and fight for real if he was going to die in the first place? (which I expected, and sort of wanted, as long as he got a decent death). But no, let’s break more preexisting rules for the sake of another “see, gotcha!” moment.

You see what I’m getting at here? None of these fit with any previously established rules. In fact, they break them. It doesn’t matter that nobody saw this stuff coming. That doesn’t make it good. That doesn’t make it visionary. It just means Rian Johnson couldn’t have been bothered to come up with an interesting plot that respected the lore and the characters while advancing the narrative in a cohesive, meaningful, and fulfilling way, so he threw in a bunch of whacky shit nobody would expect (because they were terrible ideas) and pretended like he was better than everyone when they criticized him for it, like they were too infantile to understand his sheer, unparalleled genius. What a fucking chode.

Ok, I’m getting pissed just thinking about it.

Deep breath…

And…

Let’s end on a positive note of encouragement here.

There’s a lot of pressure to be great in this industry. We all feel it. I constantly ask if my story is unique enough, my characters interesting enough, my world rich enough. That’s good. That means you care. You should want your story to be the best possible and you should scrutinize it. Harshly. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking you must break any and all rules for your story to be worth reading.

Pick up some classics and some modern best-sellers. Write down every time you notice a familiar theme, convention, or trope. Hopefully looking down that long list shows you that you can do things that have been done before and still have a great story. Find a fresh approach to a tried-and-true gimmick, by all means. But don’t throw three books of character development out the window for a cheap twist. When luxury car manufacturers put out a new model, they don’t reinvent the wheel. They adjust the suspension and put in a better stereo system or… something. Yeah, I don’t know shit about cars.

Back to what I do know.

There are so many things that make a book enjoyable besides crazy twists, such as subtle, poignant themes, satisfying plot point resolutions, and rewarding character development. Don’t rely on one storytelling device to affect your readers.

Or to put it succinctly, as I have so far failed to do in this post:

Subversion is a tool in storytelling, it is not the goal of storytelling.

Editing to Add: The Forgotten Stepchild

In an earlier post titled Thanos Editing, I showed you how to cut your manuscript in half, much like the ruthless and slightly-insane supervillain Thanos erases half of all life in the universe in Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War. I felt really good about that article until someone commented with a simple question.

“What about those of us who need to add to our story?”

Crap.

I’d forgotten there was an entire group of people who have the opposite problem of many writers. Instead of explaining every conceivable facet of their world, necessary or not, down to the most excruciating detail, and later having to attack their work with a chainsaw whilst fighting the urge to smash their computer and/or cry themselves to sleep, these fabled “underwriters” have the opposite problem. When they look at their first draft, it isn’t cluttered with origins of the world, family lineages, ancient bits of context and history that don’t matter to the story, and long-winded explanations and observances.

Instead, when these folks look at their first draft, they see that it’s rather… thin. The scenes feel lacking, or perhaps disconnected from each other, like separate entities instead of sequential occurrences that are linked together as part of an overarching plot. It may feel like there isn’t enough meat on the bones of the story to offer the reader a full, satisfying experience. Maybe the characters and events are well-written, but there’s no context, no true environment, so the main content falls flat. There are a million reason why a story could lack depth, richness, or flow.

For these writers, the act of filling in those gaps, editing to add, can be pure torture. After all, if they had more to say, they probably would have done so already, right? It doesn’t help that most of the editing advice out there is focused on reducing your word count, chiseling away at your work until it’s a tightly-written fraction of the original draft.

Let’s change that.

Adding during your initial edits can be extremely helpful, even for the classic overwriter. It’ll give you more material to choose from once you begin whittling away at your content, smooth over any minor gaps in the storytelling (we all overlook things), and add some color & flavor to the page. You might end up cutting much of this out again, but the process will be worth it for those few moments where an extra detail or two brings a new level of authenticity and vividness to the scene.

I’m in the midst of my sixth or seventh editing wave (they all tend to blur together at some point), but I distinctly remember spending my first wave or two adding content, whether it was a bit of scene-setting or an entire chapter that served as a bridge between two other important events. While there are some things I struggle with, such as interior environments, scene-setting, and general description, I still find I’m able to add content rather easily. I may find it tough to come up with the proper description, but I can intuitively grasp that I need more description in the relevant section.

However, not all of us are so lucky.

If you don’t recognize what’s lacking in your story, you’re dead in the water. So let’s come up with a checklist to help you find the gaps in your story. You may not personally find all of these elements important, and, of course, you won’t find every single one of these in every chapter, but these should help you pinpoint what needs fleshing out.

For example, I generally dislike reading what characters are wearing. Descriptions of “long, flowing dresses the color of lilacs, laced with gold trim,” bore me into a coma. However, after my first draft, I realized I literally never said, not once, what anyone wore. So I included a few references to plain homespun dresses, purple robes, and black jerkins. Nothing fancy, but it filled an obvious gap in my writing and helped to dispel the troublesome notion that everyone runs around Corbryn totally naked.

Character Gaps

  1. Thoughts, feelings, fears, hopes & dreams: This is a big one. If the reader isn’t in your character’s head, privy to their innermost desires, thoughts, and reflections, you’re wasting a big opportunity to allow the reader to see the world as your character sees it.

  2. Core value systems, motivations, reasons for acting: What drives your character to make their decisions? Emotion? A code of honor? What do they believe in? Why do they do what they do? Make the reader understand.

  3. Quirks, habits, body language, speech patterns: Does your character smack their lips when they eat? Touch their ear when they’re nervous? Pick their nose, scratch their head, crack their knuckles? Do they have an accent or a lisp? Do they play with their food or spit a lot? Give them something unique that fits their personality.

  4. Appearance & clothing: Don’t go overboard here, but the reader should generally know what people look like. Even minor characters deserve a cursory description. “Tall with a hooked nose,” or “young, cheerful face” say plenty. Little details can paint a strong picture of an otherwise forgettable character.

  5. Backstory: Everyone has a history, and that extends to your characters. While a detailed account of their life after age ten isn’t necessary, a few lines here and there, a well-placed paragraph or two, or some sneaky dialogue can say a lot about a character and bond the reader to them that much more.

Plot Gaps

  1. Mechanics: How do the wheels of your story turn? Is everything linear, logical, and coherent? Does the plot make sense, progressing from choice to consequence to another choice with another consequence? Is it well-paced, with ample build up and investment before big payoff moments? Are character arcs and relationships given enough time to play out? If things feel choppy here, add a scene or two.

  2. Emotional significance: What do those consequences mean? How do they affect your characters? How do the consequences of their actions change them, and how do those characters interpret and deal with those consequences and changes? Think of mechanics as the battle, and emotional significance as the mourning period afterwards. What happens versus what it means for your characters and the story.

  3. Stakes: What do your characters stand to gain if they succeed, or more importantly, what do they stand to lose if they fail? It doesn’t always have to be the fate of the world. If your character stands to lose something dear to them, this will add weight to the story. Conflict must always have stakes to be interesting, and the more the stakes matter to your character, the more they will matter to the reader. Take the time to flesh out what exactly your character wants, why they want it, and what will happen if they fail.

  4. Future possibilities: Understand that for every choice your characters make, there are several potential outcomes branching out from that choice. The more of these possibilities the reader is aware of, the more tension they feel, because they can’t predict the plot as easily. Use uncertainty to your advantage by illuminating the various directions the story could go. This ties into the first category, but I differentiate them in this manner. Mechanics is what does happen, whereas this is what could happen. Your characters (and readers) should think about both quite a bit. Dangle the threads.

  5. Context: Sometimes, major plot events need additional information to be fully appreciated. Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame ahead: Think about when Captain America is able to wield Mjolnir. That’s a “holy shit!” moment that gets the whole theater cheering. But if someone has no idea how special that hammer is, and how it can only be wielded by the purest, most worthy souls, then it goes from a mind-blowing, epic moment to “Oh cool, he has a weapon.” End spoilers: Weaving background information, lore, and detail into the story will give your big moments more impact.

Setting Gaps

  1. Geography & immediate environment: This is more important in some genres than others, but basically, where is everything happening? In sci-fi & fantasy, a vivid world with a sense of scale is absolutely crucial. Maybe your story takes place in a castle owned by a duke in service to a king who rules one of two rival kingdoms on one of three major continents in your fictional world. Understand and convey the scope and scale of your story and world. If you’re writing a romance novel set in a sleepy southern town, don’t worry. You can still create a rich atmosphere by detailing the town, the ranch, and so on. Weather, seasons, landmarks, and of course, the places where your characters live and spend their time are all important.

  2. Government & law: What sort of government is present in your story? Does it play a central role in the plot? Who holds power, and do they wield it responsibly? How does the government affect everyday life for your main character and others around them? For SFF, this is absolutely critical, but less so for other genres. Also consider the rules and laws of the society your characters are a part of, what behaviors are legal, illegal, frowned upon, expected, accepted, etc.

  3. Religion: Again, this won’t be necessary for every story, but it’s worth discussing. Even non SFF stories may want to consider the following. Are your characters spiritual or religious? Does it play a role in their everyday life? Religion can be a strong social bond in small communities and can affect peoples’ behavior on many levels. It can serve as the backbone of a given culture (think how powerful the church was in medieval Europe) and factor into a character’s core belief system.

  4. Economy: Does your character work? What do they do? How does it affect them, shape them? Is their job respected, stigmatized, or overlooked? What role do they play in the community, society? How do the wheels turn in the world around them? There’s no need to get into digressions about the country’s (real of fictional) GDP and chief exports, but a few lines about the livelihood of that east-coast fishing town or the bustling tech hub that anchors a metropolitan complex may fill in some gaps.

  5. General culture & attitude: This is a gigantic section that encompasses everything from the types of food people eat to their attitudes towards sex, relationships and marriage, the way they dress, views on family and relatives (some cultures, for example, venerate their elders while others shun them), how they spend their leisure time, and so much more. Dropping in little bits of culture will bring your setting to life and give your character walls to bounce off of in their journey through your story.

So there you have it- fifteen things that you might have overlooked in your first draft. Hopefully, when it comes time to add meat to the bones of your story, this list gets you going down the right track. Don’t throw everything in with reckless abandon, though. Stitch in the details carefully and invisibly over the course of the story, never hammering too specifically on one piece (the dreaded infodump), but always adding something to enrich your work. Rinse and repeat with various aspects of your story until you have a manuscript that feels complete.

When you’re done with that, you can give yourself a pat on the back and scrub the tears from your eyes to make way for new ones, because now you’re ready to edit everything back down. And we all know how brutal that is on our psyche. Isn’t being a writer fun?