Keeping Score: April 19, 2019

1,086 words this week, all for the novel edit, this time.

Though I suppose calling what I’m doing a second draft would be more accurate. I’m not just reading through chapters, tweaking phrases and dialog. I’m rewriting some chapters wholesale, others I’m stitching together from bits and pieces of the previous draft like a linguistic version of Frankenstein’s monster.

It’s hard to ignore that previous draft, sometimes, even when I know it’s wrong. Not just bad — though the writing certainly deserves the name vomit draft — but wrong. Wrong for the story, wrong for the characters, wrong for the book. And yet, the fact that its words are done, written there on the page, makes it tempting to use them. Even when I know I shouldn’t.

So it’s easier to delete them, get them out of the way. Of course, then I’m staring at a blank page, that intimidating spotless thing. Who am I to rubbish it up, especially when I know this won’t be the last draft? These revisions will need revisions, and those will need tweaks, and those will need a polish.

I resort to tricks, at that point. Lie to myself. “Just 50 words,” I’ll say, “and then you can go back to Twitter.” Or: “Just describe what this character feels right now. You’ll cut it later, but get it done now, just in case some of it’s good.”

And once I’m going, it’s hard to stop. Even when the clock reminds me that it’s time to close up shop and head to the day job, to earn the money I use to keep my hobby — my art — going.

Every day a new trick. A new lie. But every day the word count grows. The work takes shape. The story comes alive.

Keeping Score: April 12, 2019

1,134 words written so far this week. So I’ve got some catchup work to do this weekend.

About half of those words are from revising the flash fiction story I wrote at WonderCon. I tried to do it right this time: I put it aside for a week, sent it out to some very kind friends who were willing to read it, and then started working on it after I’d had a few days to digest their feedback.

I feel like this second draft is orders of magnitude better than the first. Though even calling it a second draft is somewhat disingenuous; I’ve written three other drafts of the same idea (different characters) before, neither of which really worked. So in some ways I’ve been working on this story for just two weeks. In other ways, I’ve been working on it for (checks date on Scrivener) almost a year.

Ye gods.

Found another gem on Twitter this week, from writer A Lee Martinez, that I’d like to share. It pushed me to re-examine my own dialog tags, and tighten things up a bit in that short story I’m working on.

The whole thread is good, but this is the bit that resonated with me:

It’s like this:

“I don’t know.” He turned to her. “I don’t.”

VS.

He turned to her. “I don’t know.”

Even something as minor as that can turn a sentence, turning a scene, turning a chapter, turning a whole book. It’s not that every word matters, but the ones that do, really do

I realized I tend to do the former a lot, particularly when I’m trying to mimic the cadence of real speech. But his tweet made me realize my writing would be stronger if I stopped using dialog tags and other interruptions as crutches, and just let the dialog speak for itself. True, that might mean changing the dialog. But the writing will be better for it.

What about you? What piece of writing advice has made you change something, however minor, in your own writing?

Keeping Score: April 5, 2019

Written 1,014 words so far this week. That’s a little short of my 1,500-word goal, but given I ended up with 3,805 words for last week, I’m going to give myself a bit of a break.

I hit that awesome word count last week because of WorldCon. Partly because it was so inspiring. Partly because I had more time alone in which to write.

But it was more than that. WonderCon made me feel like a writer.

For maybe the first time, my imposter syndrome was flipped. I started seeing myself the way one of the panelists said we should see ourselves: that like superheroes, the day job is our secret identity, but in truth we’re writers.

And I finally felt that way. Not only did I feel like a writer, I felt like myself. That it isn’t shameful to not be published yet, because everyone starts out unpublished. That it isn’t bad or a barrier to have a day job, because everyone needs a way to pay the bills.

I even got to share this feeling. In the last panel, on “Writing the First Draft,” Jonathan Butler gave us all homework: to turn to the person sitting next to us, introduce ourselves, and build our support network of fellow writers.

But when I turned to the woman sitting next to me and said “So, you’re a writer?”, she looked down and said, “What makes someone a writer?”

I told her what Jonathan Maberry has told us at every Writers Coffeehouse, something I’m not sure I really believed until that moment: “Writers write. If you write, you’re a writer.”

She smiled, and started telling me about the screenplay she’s working on.

I might never see her again, but for that moment, I felt like we were friends, peers, fellow writers making our way along the path.

It was an incredible moment, and for that feeling alone, that feeling of being at the same time an authentic writer and my real self, it was worth it to go to WonderCon.

What about you? What moments have inspired you as a writer, or made you feel comfortable calling yourself a writer?

WonderCon 2019: Day Three

Anaheim Train Station at Night, All Lit Up

Last day of WonderCon arrived too quickly 😦

There were still plenty of good panels, though, with a great interview with Tom King in-between. And it was absolutely thrilling to see a friend of mine, local indie author J Dianne Dotson, share a panel with Cory Doctorow!

All my notes are below. Looking forward to next year!

Technology is Cold, People are Warm

cory doctorow, j dianne dotson, michael grumley, s.b. divya, maura milan, maryelizabeth yturralde

let’s talk about making space for everyone by, maybe, making space-suits for everyone?

  • maura: there’s a whole bunch of tech that people can modify into the suit, to accommodate themselves; for fashion, she tends to make everything black; it’s kind of camouflage in a way
  • dianne: how fabulous can you make it and it’s still fashionable? always wants style and function; wants to think space should be for denizens, not dilettantes; everyone should be able to go, in 2019, we should have suits that fit everyone on the international space station
  • s.b.: comes at it in an economic angle; money talks, it’s often used as an excuse for not accommodating everyone; the way she approaches it in her fiction is protagonists from economically disadvantaged backgrounds having to use the tech designed for the advantaged
  • cory: works on a non-profit who wants to abolish the phrase “so easy your mom could use it”, because it takes more ingenuity to use something when it wasn’t designed with you in the room; “so easy your boss could use it” is a better phrase, since they’re the ones bullying employees to bypass firewalls

let’s talk about some of the emotional aspects of interacting with tech (for example, apologizing to siri when asking q’s)

  • maura: has book where “monitors” control the room, interact via holographic projection; you can’t just order them around, though, you have to negotiate with them, or trick them
  • dianne: on the space station in her book, there’s a variety of bots and drones to interact with; there’s a character that has a problematic relationship with an AI that he’s altered to resemble someone he used to be involved with
  • s.b.: fascinated by how tech impacts lives and relationships of people; any tech derived from our needs as human beings: to remember appointments or navigate a room or communicate with our family a long way away; teleporter’s are cool, but become more impactful when think of what it can do for your life
  • cory: thinks most salient thing is not what it does but who it does it for and who it’s designed for; likes exploring those power dynamics; in his book walkaway, explores the “how did that get there?” effect with the interaction of human beings and drones helping them build homes out of garbage

another emotion we like to experience is security; problem with consuming or creating science fiction is the burden of knowledge; we have cool medical apps now, but also hackers that can go in and change medical records; how does that knowledge impact you personally?

  • s.b.: in her fiction, she turns it around; enjoys thinking about what we gain as we give up privacy; we expose ourselves to risk, but we gain so much: connections with family and friends, etc; likes the pendulum to swing both ways, showing the dark side of our tech and the bright mirror of what good things we could achieve if we wield these technologies appropriately?
  • dianne: comes from a place of wanting patient data being secure; informs how people in her books come into a medical situation, and the ethics of their privacy and possible manipulation
  • maura: something she worries about; with all the data she has to give to a company everytime she downloads an app; but there’s always something about yourself that they can’t get to; in her book, everyone knows a character’s crimes, but no one knows what makes her tick, you have to make a personal connection in order to figure that out
  • cory: his motto: “this will all be so great if we don’t screw it up”; skeptical of accounts that say we’re indifferent to losing our privacy, just because we give our info to facebook; being with your friends is an unalloyed good, and we hope that we can control these companies with democratic solutions; best we can hope for is to use cryptographic tools and networks as tools to help us advocate for building a better state; there’s no parallel world, no getting away from a state that is often captured by the powerful

Spotlight on Tom King

nothing but audience q&a 🙂

recommends word balloon podcast, interviews with comics creators, awesome for people that want to break in, he listened and picked an origin story he wanted to follow — brad meltzer’s — who wrote a novel, sent it to comics publishers, and got in

The Art of Garbage: Writing the First Draft

dr billy san juan, jonathan maberry, christine boylan, dr travis langley, dr janina scarlet, jonathan butler, danielle jaheaku

how do you take that first seed and turn it into a first draft?

  • janina: lots of panic attacks and coffee; lots of late-night writing, lots of “this is the worst piece of garbage i’ve ever written”
  • maberry: process changes a lot; first novel, had no expectation of selling it, just wanted to see if he liked doing it and wrote something he’d like to read; hated it at various times, but wrote an outline and basically wrote to the outline; now writes the ending first, and aims for the ending; writes an outline but doesn’t stick to it; “first draft is you telling the story to you, cut yourself a break” (ray bradbury)
  • christine: there’s a huge different between an assignment and something you’re writing on your own; some plays have taken her 10 years, and some episodes of tv she wrote in a weekend; sometime you’re first draft is what’s on the board in the writer’s room, second draft is the outline, third draft is the first full crack at it (and might be the last)
  • travis: for him, writing nonfiction, the first draft is the book proposal

how do you overcome the “this is terrible” voice?

  • butler: it needs to be really rough and ugly, the first draft, so those feelings of “it’s terrible” come with the territory; you should feel that it needs work early on, those are good instincts, but you’ve got to ignore them to get the draft done
  • danielle: for her students, the hardest part is often getting started; she tells them to just write it down; don’t worry about what it looks like, if you get wrapped up in self-doubt, you’ll never get it down
  • maberry: a lot of us get hit with imposter syndrome; each freaking books, even the pros reach a point about 2/3 through where they email their friends saying “this is going to be the book that sinks me”; we never lose our insecurity
  • christine: yes, that text or that email that says “i’m done, i’m going to walk into the sea”; get a group of people you can send those texts to, so they can give you a reality check (and you can do the same for them)
  • butler: don’t leave this room without those people; we’re all here to do the same thing
  • christine: definitely work on yourself; do self-care; do not try to get rid of that voice; but pushing against it will give you the energy to do your work
  • travis: writer’s group is so important, yes, even if they’re outside of your genre or your area of writing; also having deadlines with that group can give you motivation to finish things
  • maberry: started the writers’ coffeehouses because when he was writing his first novel he thought all the problems he was having were things that were unique to him; the coffeehouses give you a chance to see other writers going through the same problems and trade solutions
  • janina: likes the writing groups because she noticed we tend to be more compassionate to others’ writing than we are to our own; these anxieties show up because we care, because we love this product so much, and we want to put it out there and see other people enjoy it; for her, keeping that person who’s going to read it in mind has helped her through the dips in the process

WonderCon 2019: Day Two

Day Two of WonderCon was packed with panels and interviews. I admit it was almost too much; towards the end of the day I stopped taking notes, and just sat back and listened.

But I still took down lots of good advice, from building a career in comics to getting hired on staff for a TV show.

Many thanks to the creators who took time away from their work and their families to share their insights and advice with us!

Breaking in and Staying in Comics

jim zub, max dunbar, chip mosher, ivan salazar, kiersten wing

jim zub: currently writing the avengers and iron man; did the rick & morty vs dungeons & dragons comic

max dunbar: artist, worked on dungeons & dragons, various comics at dc and marvel

jim zub: unlike a lot of other industries, you can go to conventions and show off your stuff, meet people; easiest way to get started in comics is to start making comics; got his own start in animation, because it seemed easier (to him) to break into (so many people needed for every project); started doing his own comic in the evenings after work (c. 2001); what’s amazing about the internet is a lot of the barriers to getting your work out there are gone

max dunbar: x-men cartoon blew his mind when he was young; drew all the time, thought “there’s a job where you get to draw non-stop”; much later, started taking his work to conventions; first breakthrough was convention in 2012, getting into a portfolio review, talking to editor directly, showing them his work

kiwi: there’s a lot of different jobs in comics: marketing, editorial, etc. lots of other ways to get in

chip: got into comics in ’82, parents let him have a subscription to rolling stone, which was a mistake, but it had an article about the dark knight, and he thought “this comic’s going to be hot”, so he went into the shop and bought two number 1s; soon followed with swamp thing, watchmen, etc; one his favorite comic companies at the time was kamiko: robotech, johnny quest, grendel, mage, etc; worked in a comic shop when he was a kid; somehow talked his parents into letting him take a bus from houston to san diego to let him go to comic-con when he was 16; he volunteered because he couldn’t afford a badge; ended up meeting bob and diane with kamiko, who took them to a party where he got to hang out with mark hamill, ended up working for them, and then moving to boom studios and helping them staff up and become a major player, then to the movie side for oni press, then…

max dunbar: make as many contacts as you can early on, never know when those contacts are going to provide an in

jim zub: joined a creative community early on, they would go to the cons and then to dinner afterward, and all look out for each other as each of them got their foot in the door

kiwi: and not only those contacts help you get in the door, but they become your support system later on

jim zub: though if you take a hunt-and-kill approach to making contacts, just looking for the next person to help your career, people are going to notice and you won’t be the kind of relationships you need to not only get in but become a better artist, a better collaborator; seek out the people on the sidelines, who aren’t being mobbed, they’re all important, and they can become part of your support system (and also: it’s just good people to recognize the humanity in others)

ivan: got his job in marketing not on the basis of his professional stuff, but on the strength of his fan-mix covers; because (according to chip) they were more him

jim zub: agreed; so many people pitch stories that they don’t really care about; but the biggest successes in indie comics over the last 25 years have been passion projects; nothing else is going to keep you going when you’re juggling a day job and grinding this out on the side

audience questions:

  • for jim: how do you get in the mindset for villains? jim -> when writing, he’s done so much d&d, he’s literally roleplaying all of it; villains are people that think they’re good and can always justify how they’re working towards their goals; they’re driven people; if you don’t know who your characters are, if you’re just putting them in there because “we need a bad guy” they’re not going to feel real to the reader; finds villainy for villainy’s sake to be boring, always wants to find their motivation
  • if you come in later in life, with a day job, how do you balance that?
    • jim -> can be really difficult, he’s still teaching, and writing at night, it’s nuts and it’s hard to get in the right amount of writing; like any hobby, like exercise or dieting or anything habit-forming, you need to be able to carve out that time; and hopefully the people in your life understand that and will give you your space; it’s so important to stop pretending like “i’m going to take 6 months off and do my creative project”, that’s a lie; make incremental progress constantly, daily, and then you’ll look in the rearview mirror one day and marvel at your progress
    • max -> start small, on anthologies, short comics; it’s important to work on projects and finish them, put them in your portfolio; put in the daily effort you’ll need to work on your craft
    • jim -> definitely don’t do things like cashing out your retirement account early so you can take a year off work to produce a comic; the problem with getting advice from successful people is that none of the bodies strewn on the fields around them speak up and talk about how things didn’t work out for them
    • max -> you can keep your job and work in comics, it’ll just take more discipline to juggle the two
  • american market is saturated with superheroes, can you talk about pitching stuff that isn’t that?
    • jim -> would not recommend trying to break in with a superhero comic; better to do a different genre, and build your rep there
    • max -> plenty of other stuff out there; his first superhero book was just last year
    • ivan -> for pitching, look at editors, see what they’re working on, look for similar stuff, and pitch your stories to those editors
    • jim -> check the names in the back, be targeted in your pitches, look for the people/names in common with the work you like; when you reach out to them, be genuine, don’t blow smoke, make a real connection based on your research and your fandom
  • jim: don’t send generic emails out to companies; meet people, and send your stuff to them

Spotlight on Scott Snyder

with whitney moore, host of the DC Daily (podcast?)

“what does it mean to have 80 years of batman?”

  • batman was one of his favorite comics when he was little; he’s from New York, grew up when times square, etc wasn’t considered safe; batman resonated with the problems he saw growing up, every day
  • and you want him to win, because he’s the most human of the heroes; no super speed or strength or anything else

didn’t handle his first year of writing batman well; got the book when he was in a low place, was really unsure of himself; was writing short stories at the time, one of them caught the attention of editors at DC, was only supposed to do background for the book, and then suddenly got handed the whole book; thought he’d only have that one shot at batman; wasn’t handling pressure well, was drinking too much at cons and parties, getting into fights with editors, etc; ran into grant morrison, who told him the only way he could deal is if made his character have a birth and death, and that’s when he started working on zero year; wanted batman to deal with the problems his kids are dealing with (shooter drills, terrorism, things that scott didn’t have to deal with when he was little)

batman laughs is his chance to vent, be crazy; write the anti-batman; let loose with all his little problems like “i got stuck in traffic today”

what is it about the horror genre that draws you?

  • was a very weird, anxious kid; lots of worries and anxieties; horror helped him deal with them
  • found a loophole in the video store: they wouldn’t rent R-rated videos to kids, but they would deliver them to your home; remembers getting night of the living dead, made a huge impact on him, so bleak, so socially conscious, lived in his imagination for months
  • horror is the perfect distillation of conflict; even if you’re writing a drama, you’re pitting the hero against their own worst fears; if you’re writing horror, you can go at it directly
  • takes your worst fear and makes you face it; takes the worst version of what you’re afraid of, and makes you face it, and then you come back ok

but even your horror has levity, how do you approach that? is a formula of timing, or..?

  • tries to throw in jokes because you need some release through the book

always puts himself in the work; it comes from what he’s struggling with personally; if you’re an aspiring writer, be prepared to be vulnerable, because the only way you’ll make these characters original is to bring to them your fears and problems

advice for aspiring writers and artists?

  • you gotta write your own favorite story that day; doesn’t have to be the smartest or the funniest, but the story that would change you that day
  • pragmatically; it’s going to suck; there’s going to be lots of years when everyone else has careers, and you’re like “i’m a writer!” with no credits
  • you can’t wait for the muse, you have to think of it as your real job, your secret identity, and work it like a real job
  • when he started out, he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the class when it came to writing, but he wanted to do it, and so he kept at it

audience questions?

  • writer’s block is just the fear of writing something shitty; even on the days where you suck, you have to write anyway
  • what if you don’t want to confront yourself on the page?
    • there’s no way to avoid it; whatever you write will be you; even if you don’t want to face your fears, write what about something you love, and make the villain the thing you hate, and you’ll still be confronting yourself on the page

Inside the Writer’s Room

chris parnell, gabrielle stanton, ashley miller, steven melching, ryan condal, deric hughes, bo yeon kim, kay reindl, jesse alexander, sarah watson, brian ford sullivan, marc bernardin, mark a altman

haven’t done a breaking in panel in a while, let’s do that, shall we?

focus on the staff writer today; how do they fit into the room?

gabby: levels: staff writer -> story editor -> executive story editor -> co-producer -> producer -> supervising producer -> co-executive producer -> executive producer, and that’s wobble for a while

who hires writers?

  • mark: writers hire writers; he wrote comic books for a while, didn’t work out, agent got ahold of one of his comics and said what do you want to do when you grow up; need to be able to write a pilot, need to come to LA for meetings, need to wow a show-runner, need to be able to plug holes as a staff writer; your job is to help the show-runner execute their vision
  • ryan: even show-runner has to get approval up the chain

in order to get hired, have to get your name on a list. how do you get on a show-runners list?

  • sarah: once you’ve written your one great script, write your second great script; you don’t know what show-runners are gonna be looking for; having a breadth of material helps; write as much as you can, because you get better with every script

recording this for inside the writer’s room podcast, which will launch later this year

jesse, how many scripts had you written when you got staffed?

  • wrote mostly features first, got into tv because a friend did and said it was fun
  • found his voice very early on, but now he’s so old that he’s lost his voice
  • write what you love and what you want to see, just crank out tons of it
  • wrote 40-some scripts just to learn how to do it

understand: the show-runner’s been moving up the chain for years, and this is their one shot to get their vision out, so they want to build a room that can get their voice out there

as a show-runner, what are you looking for?

  • jesse: had series with nbc, young writer submitted 2 spec scripts for other shows, and they were amazing and they were two very different shows, and so he hired her
  • kaye: is always looking for the writing; tip: read lots of scripts, read good ones and bad ones; most scripts aren’t bad, they’re just average; when you read something with a craft to it and a point of view to it, it stands out; she’s looking for someone that has their craft working for them
  • mark: wrote an original pilot that got him on castle; but he’d written features for years

when trying to get in a room, should they focus on specs or original material?

  • mark: recommend writing original material; really depends on the show runner; he prefers reading original
  • gabby: have a spec in your back pocket, because a lot of the writing programs now are asking for a spec and an original
  • sarah: have a spec because it teaches you how to write in someone else’s voice
  • kaye: also helpful to learn how to breakdown a show

when staffing colony, ryan only show sci-fi scripts, but he really wanted drama writers, because the show was meant to be character-driven in a sci-fi backdrop; also looking for diverse voices, even someone that doesn’t like science fiction to find out what kind of show they would watch

gotta market yourself to get on staff, right?

  • deric: yes, you want to pick a lane, get known for something to get on a list, and then once you’re established, you can move out of the lane; writing a smallville episode got him representation, but writing a rescue me episode is what got him his first job; gotta prove that you can write, no matter your lane
  • ashley: i’m supposed to have a lane, but i’ve been drinking, and so i don’t know the lane until i get home; been doing a lot of sword&sorcery lately; finding a lane is good advice, because it’s about knowing who you are as a writer; having a ground truth you can start from is very powerful; should constantly be creating material and developing skills

nelson, any different in animation?

  • in the early days, in the 80s, was studio staff driven; building full of writers would be assigned to whatever shows they were doing
  • then it became a freelance model, with single show-runner
  • now it’s more like tv model, with staffs of writers working on show
  • want to emphasize that it’s important to find your voice and where you fit, because it’ll be soul-crushing to be stuck somewhere you’re not happy working in (imagine being stuck in a show type you don’t like for 4-5 years)

what sets a good script apart from a bad script?

  • ryan: voice; it’s the hardest thing to quantify, but when you read a cormac mccarthy novel, you know it: that’s a voice; that’s the thing that leaps off the page, especially for people reading tons of scripts every day
  • jesse: looks for craft in the scene; needs someone who can tell a story and knows the format of tv; know how to tell a story in a scene
  • kaye: no more excuses for not having the right format for your script; when reading for a competition, knew she had a good script just from the way the writer started off the episode (just five pages in)
  • sarah: it’s character; wants to feel like she knows those characters; nothing more boring than a cop show that’s just about cop stuff; hook her with the characters, and then she’ll be into everything else

what’s a good pilot character?

  • jesse: put specifics in it; don’t say “i love a car” say exactly what car; this is nuts and bolts stuff that’ll make your work stand out
  • marc: it’s a character that’s never satisfied; the show is them trying to cross that gulf between where they are and what they want (ex: buffy and her need to be normal); mulder is much more interesting before he finds his sister

brian: got in through the warner-bros workshop; made it through a scene of house he wrote

what are options out there for getting in the room?

  • warner brothers writers’ workshop
  • abc/disney
  • writers on the verge (nbc)
  • cbs writers’ mentoring program
  • writers’ assistant is another way in; they’re the keeper of the wikipedia of the show, they keep all the notes and all the discussion from the room; they have to take everything and collate it into coherent thought at the end of the day, and send it out to the writers
  • marc: don’t be a dick; conduct yourself with grace; a lot of this business is people you know, and if you’re a dick, people will find out and they won’t want to hire you
  • also: don’t go on twitter and tear other shows down, it’s not a good way to get known; people look at your social media when considering whether to hire you
  • sarah: twitter is an optional platform with real-life consequences

audience questions:

  • can you be too old to break in?
    • marc: got first staff job at 43 years old
  • what about show bibles?
    • deric: no do not write the show bible, the show runner has that and they don’t want to read yours

kaye: don’t save anything from the pilot, don’t assume you’ll get a second episode; just blow shit up in the first episode, and deal with it once it gets accepted

Writing Fear

nelson soler, lia martin, kristine huntley, kayreth williams, suzanne park, teresa huang, ken choy

feeling fear makes you a writer; wants to create a safe space; teach you how to utilize it

if you don’t have a writing support system, get one, to help you through your periods of doubt

take those traumas you’ve been through and turn them into fodder for comedy; it can be very cathartic

one method to add the comedy: have a character that can do things they wouldn’t normally be able to do (example: if they have cancer, there’s a lot of taboos they can break)

the rules: be funny, be honest, and be ugly; if you’re going to go (expose trauma) go all the way; dig deep, write all the ugly into the script

“all procrastination is fear”

epiphany: the fear never goes away; you have to learn how you’re going to live with it; stop fighting it or feeling bad about having it

technique: use creative kindling; give yourself 5-15 min to write something else: from a writing prompt, or a diary complaining about how things are going; then set timer and write during the whole time

every story is about fear; fear gives you the stakes, and the tension

take your fears and build them into stories, that’ll make them resonate with other people

for a tv show, need to take that fear and make it big enough to form an umbrella for 100 episodes of a show; example: fear of failure in college, make the college a super-prestigious place where failure means derailing your entire life (and maybe ruining your family): now all the normal events and stresses become much more dramatic

WonderCon 2019: Day One

I feel like a real test of a good Con is one you can attend by yourself and still have a good time. WonderCon passed that test this year, with flying colors! My wife couldn’t make it this year, so I was on my own. But the panels were fantastic, the dealers in the exhibit hall were warm and friendly, and everyone in general seemed to be having a blast. I also learned a lot about world-building, dealing with fear while writing, and what to expect when trying to break into comics or TV writing. My notes from Day One are below. I’ll post Days 2 and 3 later this week!

Fantasy Set Decoration

sam sykes, mary e. pearson, tricia levenseller, kali wallace, livia blackburne, with nadine armstrong

kali wallace: has a PhD in geophysics

dr livia blackburne: wrote first novel while researching neuroscience of reading

to sam and livia: what was the first thing you did when creating new world to make it stand out and be different?

  • sam: i don’t know, i just started writing; details of a different world comes after; my worldbuilding technique is all about designing things that will inflict pain and suffering on the main character, and everyone’s pain is unique; started with the protag with a cool gun, made the gun sentient, then it just spiraled out from there
  • livia: akin to sam, starts with something really cool, had an image of snakes while hiking in san diego, thought about how people inject themselves with venom to get immunity, what about a rite of passage where you have to build up your immunity and then they inject you with three types of poisons and if you survive, congrats you’re a healer; flowed from there to what kind of society would that be, etc

to mary: how do you keep a long-running world feeling fresh?

  • map on the inside, 12 kingdoms, trilogy only explored three kingdoms, all kind of different, gives glimpse of how world works, built on ashes of bygone civilization, in the spin-off duology, set in a very different geography; geography informs a lot of how people live and how they dress, etc; every little culture on our planet builds their own mythology, and the point of her series is to explore different mythologies built by these different kingdoms

tricia: wrote two novels with lots of swordfights, didn’t want to write more swordfights in her next book, but needed an action hook, so thought of gimli and his battle-axe, so decided it’d be cool to do battle-axe fights, so from there thought “why would you use a battle axe? it’s not very practical…what if the monsters have tough exoskeletons and the only way to get through them is with a massive battle-axe?” and went from there

kali: changes her worldbuilding based on the perspective of the main character, thinks a kid would notice different things from the world than an old person would or a 12-yr-old, etc

sam: cool stuff alone is not enough to tell the story, it only matters as much as it impacts the character

livia: tends to not like reading journey novels, but then she wrote one, and needed to figure out how to deal with it; had things happening in two far apart locations across a big empire, had to figure out how they communicate, etc; in the end, pushing her characters out let her show off the empire, and created challenges for the characters that made things more interesting

tricia: had to give her character a reason to come back home, even when she didn’t want to; likes tackling problems that are really hard; thought “i’ll just have my characters kill a god,” but didn’t know how that would happen; important to keep in mind what a character’s goals are, and what problems they have to deal with

sam: people will remember gimmicks, magic systems, all that cool stuff, but it’s not what makes you go “oh!” and tell your friend about the story that hit you; it’s all set decoration unless the plot and characters pull you through it; the world-building feels more thorough when we see the impact of things on a character (or characters) that we like

mary: the world has to help carve and mold the character; if we can plop them in another world and their problems are the same, then either the character’s forgettable, or the world is

sam: magic system in most recent book has a price; it’s a deal with an eldritch creature that takes part of what makes you, you; was him being lazy, instead of having to worry about the impact of magic and the price, just made it directly affect their personality

livia: went into a series of questions to look into how people tick; like what if you lose your memory? and while it’s gone you fall in love with someone you despise? and then what if your memory comes back?

tricia: main character was betrayed by close ally; wanted to explore how do you work to get trust back once your trust has been broken?

mary: her character came to large fork in the road; even while writing it she was wondering what her character was going to do; part of the fun of writing is looking at choices and how we make them, and how we learn to forgive ourselves

tricia: had a lot of fun making monsters in her last book; took her fears and made monsters that encapsulate them

how to build a good magic system?

  • start with what your character needs it to do, and then make it cause more problems than it solves
  • pay attention to whether magic is innate or trained, because that’ll affect how your character experiences it

how much worldbuilding changes over drafts?

  • mary: has a lot of it in her head before she writes, it feels a little flat in her first draft, and gets richer from there, but nothing changes radically; most important thing is to go back and ensure it’s all consistent from beginning to end
  • sam: you can always flesh something out later, but if it doesn’t impact the characters, the reader won’t care

Pak Talk!

greg pak

grew up in dallas, tx

shows some of the earliest comics he made, from when he was a kid

went to film school, made a movie called “robot stories”, then got a gig writing comics for marvel

best-known for planet hulk, also co-created amadeus cho, who even became the hulk for a while (“the totally awesome hulk”), got to put together a superhero group called the protectors (largest group of asian-american superheroes)

also wrote “the princess who saved herself” and “the princess who saved her friends” (went to college with joco, based these on his song)

with boom! studios, done “ronin island” and “mech cadet yu” (creator-owned comics)

what he does: combine genre hijinks with real emotional storytelling

things he thinks about while working on these stories:

  • heroism: how does that work? heroes don’t do the right thing all the time; characters are trying to do their best in a complicated world; he really enjoyed writing superman, there’s something compelling about characters that are really concerned with other people
  • written several sequences where monsters turn out to not be monsters, and it’s the hero that recognizes their non-montrousness
  • diversity: he’s biracial, half-korean, half-white (his terms), very conscious of the need for justice in the world; “why isn’t there an asian kid in peanuts?”; now that he create comics, he’s consciously bringing in more representation; it’s great to get one diverse character in there, but when you get a whole bunch of them together, you get to show the diversity within the diversity, and no one character has to stand in anymore for everyone in their group (immigrants vs second-generation vs third-generation, etc); and this isn’t new, matt murdock is a great character because he’s very specifically irish catholic
  • he’s also noticed in a lot of stories with biracial histories, they become tragic backstories for someone else, or they’re always being torn by their two cultures, instead of the real experience of people that just live as 1/4 chinese, 1/4 white, 1/2 black, etc.
  • kingsway west: chinese gunslinger searching for his wife in an old west with magic

Science of Game of Thrones

dr travis langley, tamara robertson, allen pan, steve huff, jenna busch, jonathan maberry

q about joffrey: he was poisoned, and that poison seems to be similar to some real ones?

  • travis: there’s so many ways to poison joffrey; he dies fairly quickly; he’s checked with his chemist friends; can mix up different poisons with belladonna, and several others, but it seems to have been strychnine (rat poison)

let’s jump to wildfire

  • tamara: definitely similar to greek fire, but even more so like napalm, in the way it sticks to its victims and can be launched long distances; greek fire was famous for being able to float on sea water and explode on impact
  • travis: napalm was actually around in world war ii
  • jonathan: martin inspired by napalm, he thought it was one of the most horrific things ever invented
  • allen: have to address the fact that wildfire burns a very bright green; boron, for example, will burn green (borax mixed with rubbing alcohol); copper also burns green; “don’t do that, but that’s how you would do that”

let’s talk about the ice wall: could you build one? and if you did, how would it work, and could a dragon take it down?

  • jonathan: no, you couldn’t do it; it’s too big, the temp’s not cold enough for it; you’d have to sculpt a glacier
  • allen: 700 ft tall, 300 miles long; 300 feet wide; 6 trillion gallons of water; the entire flow of the mississippi river for 15 days (!)
  • tamara: u of alaska looked at this, for it to be 300 ft thick, would need to be 20 miles (?) thick at the base
  • travis: what if it wasn’t all ice? their great wall froze over
  • allen: no way, we’re still talking an order of magnitude bigger than the great wall of china
  • jonathan: also, the whole idea of a dragon flame taking it down; i know it’s dead but they had it breathe flame for 2 minutes, that’s too long; also cruise missiles couldn’t have taken that thing down, let alone a 2 min flame; but where does all that gas come from?
  • allen: dragons, breathing fire, closest actual animal is a bombadier beetle; the beetle has two glands in its abdomen, has hydrogen peroxide and ??? mixes the two together so the two react and boil, expansion of steam is enough to shoot those chemicals out of its butt at those temps (to defend itself); is lethal to smaller predators (spiders, etc); hypergallic chemicals: rocket propellants that combust when mixed; his two candidates? hydrogen peroxide and kerosene; that would work, but doesn’t cover the volume
  • tamara: can look at cows if you want it to come out of the mouth; cow produces 66-132 gallons of methane in a day; just before the dragon died we see a huge sac under the throat burst, it could be holding the gas there
  • travis: there’s a discworld book where that is how it works for their dragons: they fart fire, and it’s how they fly

dragon flight?

  • travis: dragons have 2 legs, and then the wings! no four legged things with the wings
  • allen: devil’s advocate here: pegasi have six limbs, maybe dragons and pegasi have a common ancestor?
  • jonathan: also the mass to weight ratios are completely wrong, there’s no way it could fly because it’s too heavy; for the show, they studied how birds and bats fly, so they do some cool stuff when they take off, but they get airborne way too fast
  • tamara: but it could be thermal currents, giving them extra lift?

let’s talk about valyrian steel and dragonglass steel

  • steve: idea behind valyrian steel is that it’s a sword of loss; similar to damascene steel in our world, because it was a lost art; both damascus and folded steel you’re looking at layers; different from japanese swords, which tend to be harder, with a soft core, which makes the edge brittle (so they would never go edge-to-edge when fighting); so we have methods of forging steel that’s similar to valyrian steel; and dragonglass is basically obsidian, which can be quite sharp and strong, but can snap
  • travis: what about under high heat?
  • steve: that’s where you get into the fantasy bit; a real sword should have a bit of flex, you should be able to bend it and it come back to true; but under high heat, it’ll damage the blade and it’ll become brittle or start to warp
  • allen: if valyrian steel is lost, wouldn’t melting it down and then making two more a terrible way to make a sword?
  • steve: yes; in the real world, if a sword breaks, they would just resharpen it an use it as a smaller weapon; also forged blades are stronger than anything that’s cast
  • jonathan: q about the obsidian: that’s chipped, not forged; they’re bringing in a swordsmith for those, wouldn’t you rather get a sculptor?
  • steve: definitely would want someone that has experience with knapping, not forging

what about jaime learning to use his other hand?

  • steve: he and his students train with both hands; just because we never saw jaime train with his other hand, it doesn’t mean he couldn’t do it
  • jonathan: surprised they didn’t go into that; he trained with both hands as well, with jiu-jitsu; losing one hand might make him a lesser swordsman, but he’d still have a great deal of skill
  • steve: most of combat is mastery of concepts; he’s not going to suddenly lose those skills because he lost a hand

psychology question: let’s talk about hodor; anything that would cause someone to continually repeat one word

  • travis: yes! expressive aphasia: the person has trouble with communication that they previously didn’t have, because of a brain injury; dr broca, the researcher that the language area of the brain is named for, had a patient that said “tan”; when travis was an intern, he had a patient who could only say two words: “party” and “shittin”

let’s talk about white walkers: could they exist? wouldn’t any liquid left in the body freeze?

  • allen: ok, we’re gonna talk weird animals again; like, how are the white walkers even moving around if they’re some kind of frozen? there’s a wood frog in NA, can be frozen solid for up to 7 months at a time, and when spring comes around, it’s fine; creates glucose and urea in its cells, that act as cryoprotectants; lowers the glass transition temp of tissue; main issue with walking around, is that it should not be able to move; he proposes, as part of their conversion process, they develop these cryogens in their tissues
  • jonathan: there’s a couple other squirrels and creatures that freeze like that, but they don’t move; each zombie book he writes, he has to mug a bunch of scientists to come up with different theories to make zombies make sense; closest he ever got were parasites that hijack the nervous system to operate it after the loss of intelligence; but the cold factor you can’t get around, there’s nothing that allows frozen tissue to be flexible enough to walk; they don’t act according to any laws of physics in those fight scenes
  • allen: i would like to counter, with the idea that, the temps around the wall can’t be that cold because there’s a forest there; there’s a lower limit to the temps there
  • jonathan: so as winter arrives, they should freeze?
  • allen: not if they invade westeros! i think that if you took a dead body, and reanimated it, and injected it with glucose and urea, and put it in a tundran environment, where there are still dire wolves, i think that body is still mobile

what about the psychology of evil?

  • travis: narcissism isn’t enough; you need the dark triad: sadism, narcissism, and psychopathy; people with just one of the three can be high functioning and members of society; there’s a measurable difference in brain activity with psychopaths, particularly in the p3 wave, so they think there’s a biological component, but they don’t know; current theory is that they might have some kind of very early brain injury; and the novels mention joffrey having had a brain injury early in life
  • tamara: there’s also the genetic anomaly of being born from twins; they see increased incidents of schizophrenia with incest

audience questions:

  • is there some way for daenarys to have gone into a pyre and coming out ok?
  • why the irregular seasons? tamara: a volcanic eruption, around valyria, would both explain the long winters and the sheer amount of dragonglass they have (as well as explaining what happened to valyria); reference: explosion of krakatoa in the 19th century, which erupted in southern pacific but affected winters as far away as europe

Keeping Score: March 29, 2019

Something V. E. Schwab tweeted earlier this week really struck me:

It’s often hard to start, but wow, I always forget how much BETTER I feel after writing/editing/working. It’s like a pressure valve. My chest feels looser. My head feels quiet.

Could not agree more. Particularly this week, when I put off working on the novel for…well…most of the week, only to finally sit down on Thursday and bang out most of my word count.

And it was like a spring uncoiled inside me. My shoulders relaxed. I realized I hadn’t listened to music all week, either, but after writing I finally felt like listening again. I felt like singing.

I hope I don’t forget that feeling, today, tomorrow, or next week.

Particularly today, when I’ve only got 1,034 words in towards my 1,500-word goal. The number’s a bit of a jumbled mess; I’ve hit the point where I’m leaving most scenes intact, but still need to rewrite whole sections to make it work. So I’m taking the total word count for each scene, dividing it by two, and moving on.

That means I need to go through 1,000 words this weekend in order to hit my goal. Note to self: remember how good it feels to be done writing? Hold onto that.

What about you? Do you find you’re more relaxed after writing? Or is it like taking a bite of your favorite pie, and once you get going you never want to stop?

Breakout Breakdown: Empire Falls, by Richard Russo

So I’ve given myself homework.

I decided to take the list of books the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook uses for examples of good writing, whittle them down to the ones whose excerpts intrigued me, and read them all.

I figure I’ll discover some new authors, learn some new techniques, and get exposed to genres I wouldn’t normally read in.

First up: Empire Falls

Motivation

I liked that it wasn’t Russo’s first book, but his fifth, that broke out. It makes me feel like writing is a craft that you can get better at over time, and so long as I keep practicing and working on my technique, I can write a truly good book.

I was also intrigued because it broke out in a big way: it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. So not only did it make it seem possible to eventually write a good book, it means it’s possible to work hard at it, and write a great one.

Breaking it Down

Point of View

Third-person tight, with flashes of omniscience, plus jumps.

In other words, it’s all told in third-person, and mostly sticks close to one character’s thoughts and perspective during a chapter, but will occasionally jump over to someone else for a paragraph, then come back. Oh, and also the author’s voice sometimes comes in, to render a judgement on someone’s personality.

It works, though it breaks all kinds of rules.

Writing Style

Conversational, bordering on rambling. I can’t think of a single page that doesn’t have at least one flashback, possibly two. It’s all relevant material, and it fleshes out the world completely, but it definitely slows things down.

Overall effect is like an AMC show from around 2006: deliberately slow and relaxed pacing. As if there’s no final destination in mind, so there’s no reason to rush off there.

Breakout Techniques

Even though nothing happens for the first 3/4 of the book, the stakes for the characters involved are clear. Nothing happening is exactly the problem, and the reason so many of them are miserable.

And the plot threads are tightly woven. All that backstory has knock-on effects decades later, and Russo manages to pull otherwise random events together and make it all match up.

That said, “tension on every page” is something the book doesn’t have. If anything, there’s a complete lack of tension. It made reading it rather relaxing, oddly enough; hanging out with the sad sacks of Empire Falls after a stressful day at work felt like unwinding.

Re-readability

None.

I appreciate the mastery of technique here; no dispute about the Pulitzer. But the technique is in service of a story that I don’t want to read again.

It makes me think: if I could write that well about something with more action, more movement, how much fun would that be?

Keeping Score: March 22, 2019

Only 751 words written so far this week. Seems I’ll be playing catch-up again this weekend.

I’ve had some trouble writing the new scenes, particularly dialog. I want to be sure to capture each character’s unique way of speaking, along with their thoughts and feelings in the moment, all the while maintaining the right intensity level for the scene.

It leads to doubt, which leads to feeling blocked. Which means no words.

To unblock me, I’m trying something new: let them swing for the fences. As in, instead of internalizing something like:

I wanted to tell him to go to hell. But I knew I shouldn’t, because that might set him off again. Get me in trouble with the Warden.

I go ahead and let the characters say what they want to say:

“Go to hell,” I blurted. “You’ve wanted my job for years, and you’re just looking for an excuse to take it. But I’ll be damned if you’ll get it without a fight.”

…and then, sure, they get in trouble. But it’s more interesting to write, it’s easier to write, actually, and hopefully it’s more interesting to read.

What about you? How do you get over the fear and doubt that come from staring at a blank page?

Tracking the Books

I need to find a replacement for Goodreads, because I hate using it.

Its UI is terrible. It looks like something I would’ve designed back in high school, and I’m a color-blind back-end developer that wouldn’t know a good font choice if there was only one to pick.

The performance of the site is terrible. Searching for books takes too long, and (and!) if you type too much of the book’s title into the search bar, the one you want will go whizzing by, replaced by books that are nothing like the one you’re looking for.

Even when you finally do locate the exact book you want to add to one of your shelves, if you later want to, say, find a list of all the books you’ve read this past year (as I tried to do back in January), you’ll find that Goodreads does not fill in the date every time you mark a book as read. I think somewhere between a quarter and a third of all the books on my “read” shelf have no dates attached to them, so they end up in a jumble at the bottom of the list, no rhyme or reason to them.

But what choice do I have? I have a few hundred books in hard copy in my house. Another two hundred or so scattered across various ebook formats: Kindle (follies of youth), Nook (ditto), Kobo (simply the best), and iBooks (don’t judge me). All of which I need to keep track of, if only to keep myself from buying a book I already own. Goodreads, for all its flaws, at least lets me do that.

I suppose as a developer I’m supposed to build my own solution. And I’ve thought about it; I could write an importer to take the xml junk Goodreads’ api barfs out, clean it up, and then shove it into a text search engine (probably Elasticsearch) for easy retrieval later.

But that’s a fair-sized project, and if I can, I’d rather take advantage of someone else’s work (and pay them for it, gladly).

So: Are there other, better, apps out there for tracking a personal library? If you use one, which one, and why?