Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas

Essential. Maas describes the elements of a “breakout” novel, showing how to make any plot or story more compelling. He pulls examples from recent (well, recent to the year 2000, which is when the book was written) novels to illustrate each of his points, and even has exercises in each chapter you can do for your own novel.

I’m already mixing in his approach as I prepare for NaNoWriMo. It’s given me another set of questions to ask about my characters, plot, and setting, to help me push them to a higher level.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • People have been talking about the death of the mid-list since the 1970s. Don’t let it phase you.
  • Escalating stakes doesn’t mean making the one danger greater. It means adding more, different, dangers for the protagonist.
  • Characters need to be larger-than-life. Find the extraordinary in ordinary people, and bring that to life.

 

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Masterful. It’s a classic for a reason: a locked-room mystery on an entire train, that builds slowly through lie after lie until the truth comes rushing out all at once.

Damn, but Christie was good.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Skip over the dialog that doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s enough just to say “so-and-so made a suitable response.”
  • Even adventures that get stumbled into have to be driven by the protagonist’s choices. Poirot doesn’t ask for the mystery, but he deliberately pursues it to the end, because that’s who he is.
  • Put the description at the start of the scene, briefly. If the position of something isn’t important, leave it out. It’s enough to report that “there were pencils and paper,” we don’t always need to know exactly where everything is.

Back to Basics

Realized a few weeks back that I wasn’t making the progress on the short stories that I wanted to. And I wasn’t making any progress on editing the second novel.

And NaNoWriMo is coming.

At first, I made the usual excuses to myself — I’ve lost my morning hour to write, I can catch up on the weekends — but I knew the real reason: fear.

Fear that I wasn’t going fast enough. Fear that I wasn’t writing stories that were good enough. Fear that without an hour to write in, I wouldn’t be able to get anything done.

So I’ve gone back to an old habit: write every day. I have a reminder in my phone, a little task that I can only check off when I’ve done some writing that day.

How much doesn’t matter. 100 words, 250 words, 400 words, don’t care. So long as I write something.

And it’s working. I finished the first draft of one short story early this week, and I’ll have a draft of a second story finished this weekend. When those two are done, I can start planning the NaNoWriMo novel.

So I keep telling myself: Step by step, day by day. One word at a time.

 

How to Fix: Blade Runner 2049

What Went Wrong

Almost nothing. This is a gorgeous movie, an obvious labor of love that evokes the spirit and setting of the original flawlessly.

And yet. There were some plot points that didn’t quite add up for me. Some sour notes in this otherwise perfectly bittersweet symphony of a movie.

Take Jared Leto. No, I mean take him away, please. He’s too young to be playing the character of Wallace, who, if he was saving the world in the mid–2020s, should be in his mid-forties by the time the movie starts. Leto sports a beard, true, but that doesn’t make him look any older. Instead, he looks like a kid that shaved off his dad’s beard and glued it on backwards. Threw me out of the setting every time he was on-screen.

Then there’s the rebels. They pop out of the woodwork late in the third act, and we’re supposed to believe they not only have a plan for a rebellion, but they’re about to execute it…if they can just…get…more…time. And that requires killing a human that doesn’t know anything about them? Because any knowledge Deckard may have had is about three decades out of date.

Finally, Joe’s “conversion” to the rebel cause is a little sudden. Their leader gives him at the end is just a few sentences. Too slender a reed to hang a turncoat on.

How to Fix It

Fixing Wallace’s character is easy: recast him. There’s plenty of middle-aged actors that could give the role the gravitas and menace it deserves. Jude Law. Idris Elba. Mads Mikkelsen. Pick one. (I think it’d be interesting to see the role gender-flipped, as well, though some of the commentary on man-reduces-woman-to-just-her-reproductive-function would be lost, in that case)

Fixing the rebels is harder.

The simplest way would be to just drop that plot thread altogether. It’s only given a few minutes of screen time, and it’d be just as convincing for them to be concerned for the child on its own merits, as well as worried about what Wallace will do if he masters replicant reproduction (a line like “Imagine it. An infinite number of slaves, living forever, never their own.” would fit in fine).

But I think the best way would be for the rebels to reveal to Joe that there’s not just one replicant child. During Freysa’s “join us” speech, she explains that Rachel and Deckard’s baby was just “the first of many.” She steps back, and we get that overhead shot of Replicant after Replicant standing there, all about Joe’s age. Freysa explains that once Rachel and Deckard showed it could be done, they made others, and hid them, too.

And there’s more: because they had real childhoods, the second-generation Replicants can pass the Replicant tests as human. They’re free.

When they have enough for their own off-world colony, they’ll pick some new planet and settle it themselves: a new world, where no Replicant will ever be a slave, ever again.

But that dream will be destroyed if Wallace gets his hands on that first child.

That’s the cause that Freysa and the others were willing to die for. Not one child, but many. Not some far-off rebellion, but a long-waited-for escape.

Writers’ Coffeehouse, Oct 2017

Another great meeting! Peter Clines graciously agreed to serve as host, prior to his signing at Mysterious Galaxy (you can order his new book here)

We tried out a slightly different format this time, formally splitting the time between writing craft questions (first half) and publishing/sales questions (second half).

Many thanks to Mysterious Galaxy for the venue, and to Peter Clines for running the show!

My notes:

  • Absence of sci-fi thrillers currently, editors starting to mention it
  • Character delineation: how to do it? How much is enough? Too much?
  • Clines: doesn’t like recommending writing books, because writing is so personal and unique from person to person
  • Protagonists need to be: likeable, relateable, and believable
  • 3 easy ways to express character: what they say, what they do, and how others react to them
  • Indy: when intro side character, will give reader info that the main character doesn’t have, to increase tension
  • Plot is what happens outside, story is what happens inside, the character. Every book needs both, the plot to move things along, the story to move us
  • Save the Cat: at start of story, main character needs to do something small and simple that lets audience know they’re the person to root for
  • Things need to go wrong. We all say the wrong thing sometimes, or have plans go awry, and how we react to that shows a lot of character
  • Techniques: one person wrote poems about each of his characters before the book, another wrote backstory for the door her character couldn’t touch, another person puts together portable “murder” boards for her books
  • Potato-chip chapters: point is to make each chapter either small enough or end on tasty beat enough to make reader want to go to the next one
  • Q: have book that is on the edge of ya and adult, how to market it? Have two versions…
    • A: write it the way you want, submit it the way you want, let editor push for the other if they want it, let them worry about marketing it properly once it’s published
  • Q: how to design a book cover?
    • A: hire a book designer, don’t try to do it yourself, if you’re going indy
  • Q: do you really sell books on twitter?
    • A: yes, because people tweet that they just bought the book; though took four years of building audience before the book was published
  • Social media: different posts for different sites, since the audiences are different between them
  • Facebook ads: basically not worth it; check the veritas youtube channel for a good breakdown of how the ads actually perform
  • Q: are they going to ask me about how many followers i have on facebook?
    • A: if you have a lot, that’s great, but they care more about how good the book is than anything else
  • If you hear about a cool gimmick for your query letter, don’t do it; by the time you’ve heard about it, the gimmick’s played out
  • Q: Querying for comics?
    • A: get an artist on board, have the first issue done, and the rest of the arc outlined
  • Q: What about hiring an editor?
    • A: nice if you can afford it, may be a good learning experience at first, but not essential to selling a book (just get it in the best shape you can before sending it out)
  • A lot of hired editors will start out with just fifty pages, critique that, see if you two want to work together, then continue on with story edits, then finally a copyediting pass

 

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Generally excellent. Where the first book was broad, with multiple locations and times, the second one goes deep, diving into the political minutiae of a single system. And it works, drawing us further into the world of the Radch.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Be careful of “I knew that she suspected I thought I knew about this lie that she told me three days ago” plots. Unless your narrator is very explicit about their thoughts, you can lose the reader in too many significant looks that aren’t explained.
  • If a cool gimmick from the first book isn’t available (lost because of story), instead of bringing it back (and reaching for a retcon), try to find a different way to achieve the same thing. Here, the data relayed to the narrator by Ship gives us the ability to view scenes we wouldn’t otherwise, preserving the narrative trick of the first book by a different means.
  • For a sequel, you might be tempted to go broader than the first book (especially if the story of the first book was epic in scope already). But you don’t have to. A smaller scope can work just as well to let you show who your characters are, and deepen their relationships.

Rejected

Got multiple rejections this week.

One was from an agent I’d queried about representing my novel. That was the fastest rejection I think I’ve ever gotten. I emailed in the query, and 24 hours later I had a rejection in my inbox.

Second one was for a short story I’ve been shopping around. The editor included feedback on what they liked and what they feel the story needs to improve, though, so I’m taking that as a good sign.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to fight off a cold, edit my third short story from this summer, and start editing my second novel. Oh, and now I need to find a new market to send that newly-rejected short story to.

Sometimes I wish I could take a week off the day job just to catch up on everything. Sometimes I feel like I’d need a month.

How to Fix: Guardians of the Galaxy II

Damn, what a missed opportunity.

I enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and hoped the second would be more snarky fun.

Instead, it’s a stiff, nonsensical mess.

What Went Well

The fight scenes and set pieces are absolutely stunning. I mean just gorgeously filmed, with excellent special effects, and clever shots.

The soundtrack was similarly inspired. Any Cat Stevens fan is a friend of mine.

Zoe Saldana continues to do great work with slight scripts. And Kurt Russell was a great choice for Ego.

What Went Wrong

Ye gods, so much.

Almost everything feels stiff and forced. The weird sniping between Rocket and Peter is overwrought and comes out of nowhere. The opening credits sequence with Groot is cute but completely drains the background fight of any tension. The feud between Gamora and Nebula feels rushed and shot through with bad timing, from the “not ripe” yaro root joke that falls flat to Nebula’s kamikaze run entrance that has absolutely no effect on anything else that’s happening.

So many things seemed designed to drain the events of any meaning. Yondu loses his control-hawk, but it doesn’t matter because he gets it back within a day of getting captured. The Sovereign tracks them across the galaxy, but it doesn’t matter because their pilots are so bad they can be held off by one ship while Peter flies around asking for tape. It doesn’t even matter that they “kill” so many Sovereign pilots, since their ships are all remote-controlled drones. Nebula takes out Yondu for a bit, but it doesn’t matter (in the sense of her becoming the new captain) because the writers want to make jokes about Taserface.

Then there’s the big, gaping, passive hole at the center of the story.

Peter’s relationship with his dad is supposedly at the heart of the plot, but there’s no tension there, either. Peter is never forced to choose anything, he just gets carried along with events. He meets his dad, and just goes along home with him. He finds out his dad is evil, and then immediately is forced to go along with his plans (until rescued by his friends).

There’s no drama, no moment of choice anywhere. It’s just one set piece after another, all of which we know the Guardians will come out on top for, until credits roll.

How to Fix It

We start with the spine of the story: Peter and his encounter with Ego. We strip out the parts that add fake tension: he killed Peter’s mom, he smashed his walkman, etc. We take out the forced usage of Peter as a battery.

Instead, we push Peter into a terrible choice: his father or his friends.

Maybe Ego is dying, and only Peter can save him by staying on the planet and serving as a second battery. Or maybe Ego promises Peter he can bring his mother back, if only he helps him “recharge” by overtaking those planets he’s placed seeds on.

Either way, we need the climax of the story being Peter making a choice. He needs to be forced to choose either the father he never knew, or the ragtag family he’s assembled on his own. We need to see both choices as something Peter could do. Whatever he chooses, he’s going to lose something.

And then we can echo that conflict out to the other plotlines. Nebula can still take out Yondu, but then have her take over the control of the Ravager ship. She jettisons Yondu and Rocket out of an escape pod; they’ll have to fend for themselves. Meanwhile, she’s decided to take the ship and track down Gamora, for her revenge.

When she arrives, it’s in the middle of the battle between Ego, Peter, the other Guardians, and the Sovereign. And Nebula will have a choice: to protect her sister, or to stand by and watch her fall.

Meanwhile, Yondu and Rocket are facing a choice of their own. Having hobbled over to a nearby star system to lick their wounds, they have to decide what to do next. Yondu tries to induce Rocket to join him as a Ravager, saying something to the effect of “this is where you belong.” They can steal a ship, and then keep stealing, for as long as they want. No Peter to keep them from grabbing a few batteries when they want.

But then they see news of the Sovereign fleet heading to Ego’s planet, and they realize their choice could mean all of their friends will die.

Finally, we need to fix the character of Mantis. Currently, she’s Ego’s plaything. Her role in the story is to be a love interest for Drax. She doesn’t affect the story in any way, or have any choice she has to make.

So let’s give her one. Make her one of The Sovereign, a mutant named Bug that the gold people think of as a mistake. She stows away on the Guardian’s ship to get away from the home where everyone hates her. Drax discovers her during the initial fight with the Sovereign, and decides to take her under his wing.

The rest of her storyline can play out normally from there, with one twist: during the final battle, she gets contacted by the Sovereign command with an offer: betray the Guardians, and earn a hero’s welcome back home.

More than polishing up the dialog, or making the actors do more takes until it feels natural, or dropping the weird cameos from Howard the Duck and the Watchers, it’s these changes that will push the movie into a meaningful, purposeful shape.

Writer’s Coffeehouse Notes, Sep 2017

Went to the Writer’s Coffeehouse at Mysterious Galaxy again yesterday. This time it was hosted by author Henry Herz, so we got to dig into the details of writing and submitting children’s books. I might try to polish up and submit that picture book draft I have, after all 😉

Many thanks to Mysterious Galaxy for hosting, and to Henry for running the show!

My notes:

Possible to have agent and still indy publish; Indy Quillen does it, because her agent sent book to publishers first, she indy pubbed only after publishers all passed on it

Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators: has local chapter, can join and get critiques

San Diego Writer’s Ink: has critique groups

Can take classes at local colleges to meet other writers and get feedback

Indy: recommends using real name (or pen name) for twitter handle, makes it easier to find you

Posting comments on blogs of authors you like in your genre can help drive traffic to your own website

Picture books: birth to 6-7, then easy readers, then chapter books, then middle grade

400-500 words, perfect for 6-7 yr old protagonist

Don’t do art notes! Leave that for the illustrator, they’ll come up with better art than you can

Leave out all your normal descriptive text

Run your manuscript through an online tool to check the vocab level, needs to be appropriate for your age group

Usually don’t send artwork with the book, publisher picks them

Educational tie-in great for selling picture books to editors, something for teachers to hook into

La Jolla Writer’s Conference: small, but pulls big names; November

Southern California Writer’s Conference: September in Irvine, good for people that haven’t been to a conference before, low key, Indy got her agent there

Tuesday, Sep 12th: look for #mswl on twitter (manuscript wish list)

Recommended reading: Donald Maas’ Writing the Breakout Novel; Invisible Ink

Ghost Road Blues by Jonathan Maberry

Simply put, a fantastic ghost story. Like a horror film from the 80s updated and put in novel form.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • 3rd person omniscient works only if you stay out of characters’ individual perspectives. Say what happens, and report what they think, but as an outsider
  • Tragedy for a minor character has more impact if we spend some time with them first, however little, to see how they act normally
  • Remember that characters only know what they see, and that can mislead them sometimes. That’s okay. Let them be wrong when they should be wrong, so that when they’re right it’ll feel like triumph.