What Not To Send An Editor, Part 3

Previously (here and here) I’ve talked about what you should not send an editor or an agent. That list continues today. Let’s rock this list like it was organized by a rock star librarian.

1. Please DO NOT send a query letter or manuscript written by hand. This has two effects: If your handwriting is tiny and scratchy, you may look somewhat crazy. Also, this makes you appear like you’re afraid of technology. The problem is that if you’ve sent me a hard-copy (for example) we would have had to correspond, and that’s usually by email.

2. Please DO NOT send a printed/bound softcover version of your book. Yes I know there are GREAT services out there that allow you to produce a book with minimal investment. And I’m glad you made use of them. The problem is that you didn’t send me a manuscript (which I work on), you sent me a book, which is not the same thing.

3. Please DO NOT send photos of your children/pets holding signs saying I should read your work or take you on as a client. When I get a stack of photos in the mail, I usually look for the ransom demands or the photo that includes the line, “Or else I’ll be beaten” and then consider calling the police. Do not play on sympathies to get your work advanced.

4. Please DO NOT include rejection letters with your work. Okay, you’ve been rejected. But sending your emotional baggage along with your work is not the best way to start a relationship if you want the relationship to be healthful and helpful. And for the record, I shred those letters, especially if you’ve added commentary like “Stupid bitch” or “Damn faggot” in the margins after I write the original sender a note.

5. Please DO NOT offer me favors that are in fact threats on other people. Do not tell me you’re “going to take care of X person or Y person” for me if I take you on. I might not like X or Y person, they may not like me…but that’s not really for you to worry about (this is especially troubling if you happen to mention people I’ve dated, who I KNOW don’t like me now). Basically, threatening others to incent to me work with you is not happening. I just call the police.

6. Please DO NOT include hateful things about my friends along with your manuscript. (This is not me reverse bragging, I do have a point here) I know a lot of celebrities and semi-celebrities. Yes, many of those people may have different sexual, racial, religious, political or alcoholic preferences than you do. You don’t have to disparage them (or their opinions, lifestyles or beliefs) to prove you’re a tough person. It won’t encourage me to respond.

NOTE – If you’re going to question my sexuality or habits (insisting that I must enjoy the company of same sex partners or that I am in fact a person who has sex with female parents or that I lack ‘racial purity’ if I don’t take you on as a client) you’re absolutely not getting a response.

7. Please DO NOT include “things you think I might like” along with your submission. I am a nerd. I do not hide this fact. Lately, I’ve stopped hiding the fact I enjoy really good food. And I remain an ardent Xbox enthusiast. If you want me to work with you, just send the work. You do not need to go out of your way to include new Xbox games, thumb drives, pens, mugs, catalogs for bathrobes, sex toys or whatever else “you saw and it made you think of me”. Let’s just talk about work, shall we?

NOTE – I will likely not send the thumb drives or pens back. 

8. Please DO NOT send daily follow-ups. I receive mail everyday. I do my best to take about 2 hours to go through my mail and sort from it packages and manuscripts and all kinds of not-bills from it. After paying the bills, everything else gets prioritized and either delegated or answered. I do this DAILY. The mail here locally is known to be slow. I cannot predict when I’m going to get your package, let alone what specific time of that day I’m going to have time to sit down and respond to it. Calling me EVERY DAY after you’ve sent it is NOT going to encourage me to move faster towards your material. (You should though follow up about 3 to 4 days later with anyone you’ve sent material to but not heard back from).

9. Please DO NOT send “art” along with your manuscript. I put art in quotes because I’m not talking about book covers or graphic files. I mean the map of your fantasy world made out of cheese or the sausage shaped like your protagonist. If you want to hook me into the “feel” of your work, let your pitch, query and manuscript do the talking.

10. Please DO NOT send feces, urine or other bodily fluids. Seriously. Just don’t. Ew. (This did not happen to me, but rather to an industry friend of mine, and she will be closing up shop for a few months because of it).

The moral of the story? When someone (an editor, a publisher, an agent, somebody) says “Send me X”, that’s all you send them. And if you’re confused what ‘X’ is….ask.

Happy writing.

By request – Cliffhangers, Endings and “Tying It All Together”

Today’s post come from a request made on Twitter by @AprilBrownWrite. Her site is here, and worth a look (also she’s really nice, and you should say hi.)

If there’s something you’d like to talk about, or want to know more about, you can email me a suggestion or send me a tweet – I’m always looking for new content and new ways help you write better.

April had a question about cliffhangers and how to end things. She wrote me a rather nice email about it, with some pretty good examples, but I think it’s easier if we just start with broad topics and then work towards specifics.

So let’s lay some groundwork.

What is a cliffhanger?

1. A ‘cliffhanger’ is caused when you break up an action beat and deny immediate resolution. ‘Immediate’ here means that in sentence A, you set up the situation and then in Sentence B, you resolve it. These are most often very visual or evocative beats (beats are scenes or moments, I’m going to use that word a lot), and other media (like television) has taught us that cliffhangers are great moments to go to commercial. Books, to date, lack commercials, so often people tend to put cliffhangers at the end of chapters (we’ll talk more about that in a minute).

2. A ‘cliffhanger’ is only as good as the setup BEFORE the action, and the intensity of the resolution AFTER. This might be unclear, but there are ways to illustrate it. The thinking behind a cliffhanger is that you want the reader wondering how the character(s) will get out of whatever situation they’ve entered. Will Mace Hunter escape being kidnapped by Red Shark’s goons? Will the damsel in distress ever get off those damned railroad tracks?

But that’s the cut-away-to-commercial moment. That’s the cliffhanger itself. It doesn’t have any meaning as a cliffhanger until we see it in context. We worry about that damsel on the railroad tracks because prior to that, she was kidnapped in the dead of night by the bad guy. We feel tension for Mace because we watched him get overwhelmed by goons and saw him get sapped from behind. The setup to the cliffhanger moment is critical, if you want us to believe the danger is real.

That’s half of it.

The other half is what happens when the character acts to get out of the predicament. If all the damsel has to do is roll to her knees and stand up, the danger isn’t so great. If all Mace has to do is jump out of the car in order to make good his escape, then it’s less perilous than previously indicated. If the resolution to danger/cliffhanger is not well-developed, then the danger wasn’t clearly stated, and the reader isn’t going to think it’s worth getting scared over.

There is an exercise I recommend. You’ll need a note card.
1. Turn the notecard vertically (longways)
2. Divide it into thirds (draw horizontal lines)
3. In the middle third, write the cliffhanger
4. In the bottom third, write the resolution
5. In the top third, write the setup.

So, a cliffhanger for a scene with a damsel tied to railroad track looks like this:

I. Woman is kidnapped
—-
II. Woman tied to tracks
—-
III. Woman escapes (rope use)

This isn’t where you detail it all out, this is where you give yourself a little note of reminder to make sure the setup leads naturally to the danger which segues to the resolution. I tend to find it easier to go from danger to resolution and then reverse-engineer (or hack) the setup to make it sufficiently intense or emotional or whatever the scene needs.

Now, if that’s what a cliffhanger is, what do we do with it?

The first rule of cliffhangers is – Not everything is going to be a cliffhanger. It just…can’t be that intense all the time. Remember this – “When everything is special, nothing is”. You do not need a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter, or at the break in every action. Poor is the reader who believes that your story would be made better by doing this. Find them, shake a fist at them, and tell them they’ve watched too much TV and probably read too much poor writing.

The second rule of cliffhangers is – They’re supposed to be risky. There are no “little” cliffhangers. Just like no one is ever “a little bit pregnant” or “the teensiest bit murderous”, little actions do not warrant cliffhangers. Cliffhangers should make you gasp and worry and turn the page excitedly to see what happens next. (Note: I learned this rule as “No one gives a shit about Timmy making toast.“) Go big or go home on your cliffhangers.

The third rule of cliffhangers is – There should be a cost. To get out of a risky and dangerous situation, the character should be tested. It should exhaust them to have to climb up a sheer mountainside, it should drain them to have to run as fast as they can to save the other character, it should hurt when they got shot, taking the bullet for their loved ones. A cliffhanger without a cost is just another action beat.

If those are the rules, where do we put cliffhangers?

The short version – put them where they best serve the story. For most (90%) of cases, that’s usually at the end of Act 2 or just before the highest point of climax.

The longer version – put them where they matter. NOT at the end of every chapter, or every third chapter when you switch narrators. Use them too much, and they lose impact. Use the cliffhanger as a tool to make the story matter, and to test the characters, not as a way to force the story along or make/force the reader to keep going in the story.

So what does that make all those other endings? If they’re not cliffhangers, what are they?

They’re endings. Things can just end. It’s okay. I promise. What matters is how you daisy-chain these endings into the startings of whatever comes next (I mean otherwise, what, you’re writing 4th edition D&D? – gamer joke) so that you’re not writing a series of “bubble scenes” but rather a contiguous stream of actions, reactions, and development to make a single complete big bubble of your story.

If you feel that your endings (the physical ones, the emotional ones, etc) HAVE TO BE cliffhangers in order for them to matter in your work, then, honestly you’ve failed them. You’ve let them down as scenes in your story and you’re not doing your job as the best writer you can be in telling the best story you can.

A well-crafted story should have lots of things that matter, but not all those things are going to be cliffhangers.

So how many cliffhangers should I have in my story?

I don’t know, author. Why don’t you tell me how many breaths I should take today? There is no magic number. In some stories, you only need one. In some stories you can have one per character arc. In other stories there’s one for every character arc, one of the plot and one for theme (I’m looking at you, hundreds-of-pages-long-fantasy-novel-series).

If you’ve mapped out the story (not the same as outlining it), then you should be able to see where the arc(s) move(s) should take you and the reader from beginning to end of book.  Tying it all together is NOT the job of the cliffhanger, but the cliffhanger should signal that SOME element(s) of the story is/are about to change.

I hope this has explained cliffhangers a little bit, April and all those other people who don’t know what to do with them. If you need more information, just ask.

Happy writing.

What Dreamation Taught Me About Writing, Editing and Business

This weekend, I attended Dreamation. Similar in some regards to Metatopia, this was a much bigger and broader-themed event, tending to be more about playing games and LARPing, rather than designing them, improving them or making an industry rock. 

But it was a good experience on the whole, and I come back to the blog a little dehydrated and sleep-deprived, but a little more savvy than when I was last here. I’d like to share some observations I made.

1. I am 100,000% doing the right thing by shifting my focus more and more into helping game designers and moving out of less-than-satisfying “traditional” novel-editing experiences. Yes, the game industry pays about half (or less) than the usual editing rate, but the upside of it is a far better experience and better turnaround. I know that I can expect quality and commitment from the jump in gaming (I might just be lucky and be surrounded by the greatest people and have the best experiences), and that there’s very little to none of the “throw-the-editor-under-the-bus syndrome” I see in traditional publishing. I’m still getting my feet under me as an industry editor, and working on my tone has SUPER helped, (as have many other changes), but I really feel good about this move. The lesson here – It’s totally awesome to pursue what you love to do (editing for me) in a field you love to be a part of (gaming).

2. Even at midnight, with very little buzz, I can turn out one hell of a seminar. If I were to speak ill of Dreamation, it’s that I shuffled off to one side. I’m not saying I need or warrant celebrity status, and this is not me playing the don’t-you-know-who-I-am card, this is me saying that I deserve the same opportunity, and the same publicity as anyone else who’s put together a presentation or a game or a whatever. A midnight to 3am slot Friday night into Saturday is great if we’re all hopped up on Red Bulls and we’re seventeen and the world is our oyster. But that’s not the case.

I understand the issue – that people shouldn’t have to choose between a passive sit-in-a-chair panel and an active game experience, and I respect that, but…what about the people who actually wanted a panel? I don’t teach…basket-weaving, I help people write better, and that’s not a very passive experience for them when I take questions throughout the seminar and give people really (well, I think) practical advice in a palatable way.

So ok, I had to jump on Twitter and do some in-person leg work to get people in seats. Yeah it was super late and people were super tired. But I had quite a few people (a lot of them shocked I was actually doing something both at the hour and about the topic) who I think really benefited from it.

The lesson here – I don’t mind doing the legwork to promote myself (I’m always happy to talk about myself, even if I have to work on my tone while I do it), but more important is the idea and actions to back up that I deserve the fair shake. I am good “enough”/ capable “enough” to do what I do, regardless of hour or audience. 

3. When I feel passionate about something, I should commit fully to it. I have a deep love affair with a game called “Night’s Black Agents” that runs about as deep for my love of superheroes, Doctor Who, the Dresden Files and peanut butter. I did my best to squeeze a 4-hour game into a 2-hour slot with a group about 3 players too large…and the results were not (in my opinion) the best. Yes, people had fun, but my concern is that they walked away from it with entirely the wrong sort of feeling for the tone of the game. Oh, and I’m way rusty on running a game. The plus side here? The brownies we ate were delicious. The lesson here – Had I just had trusted myself to do a better job, had I been a little more confident in something not-editing/writing, I could have asked for a slot to play the game, and really made a good show of it. Confidence and passion are going to carry me far, when I admit them and let them help rather than hold me back.

4. When in doubt, I need to go back to “fun”. I can, at times, take myself way too seriously. (See the above item where I just bitched that perhaps people didn’t play a game the way I thought they would). Sure, sometimes the world is all serious-and-business-face, but other times the world is all goofy fun with loud obnoxious barking laughs and imagination and helping each other have a good time. I didn’t play many games this weekend, both because I didn’t want to expose myself to “con crud” (happy to report that aside from tiredness and dehydration, I’m healthy) and also because nothing really jumped out at me – because I was taking myself WAY too seriously. The games I did play (Champions of Midralon, Technoir) were AMAZINGLY FUN TIMES, once I lightened up. The lesson – Stopping and laughing and enjoying myself is NOT an indication that I’m incapable of hard work, or somehow showing disrespect to the people who pay me to help them. I’m allowed to take days off and relax.

Okay, I’ve got about 70 pages left to edit today, so I’m wrapping up this post here.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about cliffhangers, ribbon endings and how to tie pieces together.

Happy writing.

PS – I’ve started using a new hashtag on Twitter lately “#helpushelpyou” aimed at freelancers to give advice to future clients/employers on how we can all make our lives easier working together. I strongly recommend it.

Tone: What John Is Working On

I’m dedicating today’s post to three people, all of them have been incredibly, unbelievably and entirely nice, awesome and I am so fortunate to know them, work with them and talk to them. To Fred Hicks, Amanda Valentine and Chuck Wendig, thank you all so much for the support, encouragement and ass-kicking-when-necessary.

Today’s post is a big personal admission. I’m doing this because I want to be transparent, and because I want to get better at something I really struggle with. And because I know if I say it here, people I know can then call me out on it when I have problems.

I struggle with my tone. And tone is incredibly important. I should explain what that is before this goes on….

Tone is how you sound to other people.

I don’t want to say I suck at it, but let’s agree to say that I need to work on it.

There are times when you want to sound professional. There are times when you want to sound casual. There are times when you want to sound superior to the people you’re interacting with. There are times when you want to sound like the smartest person in the room. These are all, generally, separate times.

My problem is that I all too often fail to separate them. So there will be times when I’m talking to people I deeply respect, and I sound like a jerk. Or times when I am supposed to actually be the guy in charge and I sound like I just strolled in from the hammock in the back yard.

This comes from a few things, which I’ll now detail. [Note: If you’re looking for a place to escape this post, this would be the moment to bail. From here until the end, this gets personal, emotional and possibly raw.]

  • I am not used to being seen as ‘professional’. Yes, I’ve been doing what I do for more than a decade. Yes, I possess quite a few skills and talents in the fields I work in. But to me ‘professional’ has been a term I sought to avoid being tagged with, because it conjured images of suits and ties and hating your job and coming home tired. I wanted to avoid all that. I still want to avoid all that – I love what I do and love that I can help people. But there is a way to be professional about it without being ‘professional’ in comportment. 
  • I’m used to being the very smart fish in a very small isolated pond. Part of this is fear. I was afraid until very recently (read: last year) to step out of my little pond and check out other waters available to me. The problem with staying in the little pond is that I got to thinking I was the only smart fish. Anywhere. In all the waters. Forever. This fish’s head GOT HUGE, so by the time I found out there were other waters, I thought I was god’s gift to ichthyology. I was in fact not super-fish, just one more good fish. And more critically, there are in fact lots of other good fish in a lot of waters.
  • My self-esteem fluctuates like the national voting sentiment. Yes, I know, it’s shocking: A writer whose emotions and confidence aren’t the most regulated. Some days I feel great, and I can weather any storms, and other days, I just want to hang back and eat Oreos and goof off. Lots of people go through this, you say. Lots of people have it way worse, you say. And I totally know this, and I am thankful to be better off than most, believe me, I’m just admitting that my faith and belief in myself aren’t always rock-solid. (Wearing the bathrobe does help, seriously, it’s like a superhero cape)
  • I have not always had (or listened to) any supporters I may have. Funny life lesson: When you have a huge ego, it’s really hard to see if anyone is supporting you. Not so funny life lesson: When you have a huge ego, it’s really hard to get anyone to support you. So when that deflated a little (both through some failings and really uncomfortable but vital moments of ‘hey-get-your-head-out-of-your-ass’) into the created vacuum rushed supporters, as if they were just waiting for me to make one adjustment. I like to think they were just waiting, it sounds cheerier than the alternative. 
  • I do not socialize easily. I can be social. I can even be mirthful and outgoing, but without some sort of context (like work) to bridge the gap, I often prefer not to socialize with new people, usually for the reasons mentioned above, but also because at times I come across poorly (read: bored, boring, distracted). If you know me, if we’ve broken that ice (even awkwardly or uncomfortably), I’m happy to fraternize with you, and even look forward to it. I think this comes from working essentially alone for 12+ hours a day, even with assistants and a dog, I don’t see a lot of people, even if I dash out dozens of emails and hundreds of tweets. I need to do something about that.
So, I’m working on sounding better, sounding situationally-appropriate. Professional when I need to be (like mid-draft when I don’t need to try so hard to make an impression – I already have the job), and comfortable when I should be (like in actual person-to-person conversation where I can/should do more than just being quiet and waiting for my turn to speak) 
I am getting better at this, but oh man this is NOT easy and NOT fast. This isn’t something to be corrected in one conversation one afternoon, I realize that now. (I mean I sort of understood that from the outset, I just thought I’d be better at it faster.) This is an on-going effort to break the old habits and drill into my head some new experiences and new perspectives so that I don’t have to fall back on the “be the smartest guy in the room, be superior…or else” attitude. 
What I’m asking you, yes you reader of my blog, is to help me out. When you and I get together, when we work together, when we meet and chat, help me be better. Let’s have that conversation, let’s talk about working together or  laugh about that funny thing. I’m not saying push my tone to the limit, but I am saying, please, give me the opportunity to practice. And be patient. If I get all lecture-y or egoic, you likely don’t have to jump down my throat and point a finger at me – I’m getting way better at catching myself (except in written comments, still have to work on how I come across on paper/screen), and when I apologize, I mean it sincerely. I am committed to getting better at this. Because you deserve better, and because I deserve better.
Dreamation approaches at the end of the week. I think it’ll be an excellent road test of what I’ve learned so far, don’t you? 
Happy writing.
PS Later this week (Wednesday) I’m announcing the contest I should have announced last Friday. 
PPS I promise we’ll go back to talking about writing theory and practice this week. Thanks for reading this though.

What Not To Send An Editor Part 2

As someone you can hire to help you write better, get published, get edited, improve your sales and get things done, I get a lot of strange requests and offers for help.

Previously, I started a list of what not to send me (or people like me) to get to help you. This is a continuation of that list.
REMEMBER – You can avoid making these mistakes by starting conversations and making things WAY less awkward. You can avoid ending up on lists like this one.
1. Please DO NOT send food OR food for any pets. This is not elementary school, I am totally not going to be swept off my feet because you made me rice krispie treats with peanut butter and bacon on them. And no, it’s very likely you don’t know the brand of dog food my dog prefers. And even if you send me these food items wrapped in cellophane and duct tape, I have no idea if there’s a juicy bubonic / Dengue fever core in your baked goods. Any food I get is immediately trashed, unless I happen to know you and have eaten your cooking at least once before. 
2. Please DO NOT send drugs. I don’t care if your story is best read/edited after a few good bong hits and three tabs of acid. I don’t care if you have a sweet connection for some Bolivian Marching Powder. DO NOT send me drugs along with your manuscript. Two things will happen – I call the police and I tell every agent/editor I can find not to talk to you. 
3. Please DO NOT imply death threats or violence against individuals, families or pets. I’m really sorry that your writing career isn’t taking off the way you hoped. I’m really sorry that you haven’t bought that island with the royalties of your thirtieth novel. I’m really sorry that five agents rejected you in January, and that you have come to me as your last resort, and that if I don’t some how miracle you a best-seller one of us “is going to have trouble in the near future”. Or “that barking dog isn’t going to bother you anymore”. Just as with #2 above, should that happen, the police get called, my lawyer gets called and everyone I know hears about it. 
4. Please DO NOT send “unrated” editions of your manuscript as a “bonus”. It’s so totally not a bonus to know that you have alternate versions of chapters 11-14 where the two protagonists engage in a steamy incestuous relationship involving mustard greens, decorative soaps and safe words with more than ten letters. If the agent or editor likes your work and wants to see it, send them what they’re asking for. 
5. Please DO NOT send encoded materials. Okay, it’s cute, your manuscript has like a Da Vinci Code cipher going on. Great, there’s a whole second act with anagrams and puns. Nifty. But if the agent/editor wants to see the work, they shouldn’t have to break out their Little Orphan Annie decoder ring in order to read your work. Be sure to drink your Ovaltine and send them what they’re asking for, not Roman ciphers and cryptogram paragraphs. 
6. Please DO NOT think you’re ‘doing anyone a favor’ by submitting your work. Okay, your query/pitch was intriguing, someone has asked to see more of your work. This is our job, this is what we do — we’re not singling you out from the human race and taking you aboard our space craft, nor are you the next great supreme chancellor of the galaxy. It’s our job to look at work, and your job to send it. 
7. Please DO NOT include extra material “for when there’s down time” or “when you’re bored”. I’m not sure if you know this, but my editorial schedule is now booked through LABOR DAY 2012. I mean yes, I have a few days off here and there so I can do things like laundry and grocery shopping and maybe, if I’m lucky go out to dinner with friends or family, but huge chunks of each month have been booked (And some months, booked completely). When I get bored, I have loads of other things to do that aren’t editing. Ask yourself – when you get bored at your job, do you do more work to get less bored? Didn’t think so. If I say send me a chapter or a manuscript or whatever, that’s all I want. 
8. Please DO NOT sign me up for magazine subscriptions. If you are going to send me a package in the mail or via UPS or Fed Ex, please do not make use of whatever address I provide and sign me up for magazines, periodicals and random porn catalogs. I can use Google too, you’re not showing me too much I haven’t seen already.
9. Please DO NOT send a DVD along with your manuscript. If you send your manuscript and enclose with it a personalized DVD thanking me for reading your manuscript and/or considering taking you on as a client or student, do you want to know my first thought? That 90% of the time, these videos turn out like bad ransom demands from overseas. It’s extra creepy, even if you use all the cool wipes and effects Adobe has to offer. Just send the manuscript. A thank you note/card/e-mail is totally appreciated after the fact, even if you get rejected.
10. Please DO NOT assume we’re in some weird relationship. Okay, so someone in a position of authority has wanted to read your manuscript, that very intimate creation of yours where you risk your heart and soul to make it work. Yes, someone is paying attention to you, and is maybe even praising your skills. Don’t freak out and confuse “working together” for “loving you”. I love my clients the same way I love peanut butter, good NBA games, new dice and caffeine. But in none of those cases am I getting into a bed with them or whispering sweet nothings in their ear at 3am while we listen to the rain and wish we could dance for hours under the moon. You’re a client. Not a spouse. Not a lover. Not a fling. Not even a masturbatory fantasy. DO NOT send your agent or editor love letters, intimate photos, locks of hair (of any kind) or detailed emails about what you did in the shower. Seriously. DO NOT DO THIS. IT WILL LEAD TO PEOPLE NOT WANTING TO BE ANYWHERE NEAR YOU. Not cool.
The weekend is coming. Hope you’re going to be writing. Rock on.

I Fight For Gwen, and You Should Too.

I’m writing this when I’m supposed to be running out the door to a workshop. And it’s the verb in that sentence, the ‘running’ one, that makes me stop and think.

Time for a personal story:

I was born three months premature in the late 1970s, and I weighed less than a gallon of milk. I was kept warm with doll clothes and tin foil under heat lamps. My parents were regularly told I was not going to make it. Like several times a day for several months. Several local churches in my hometown area started blood drives so that I could keep living.

I grew up, eventually, I mean, I got bigger, I lived. But I didn’t live easily. There were doctors and therapists and specialists and all different kinds of meetings I remember going to and sitting in awkward rooms with awkward people and I’d have to do the dumbest things before my mom or dad heard terrible terms like “no gross motor skills” “no fine motor skills” “neurologically impaired”.

Oh, did I mention the cerebral palsy? I should probably throw that into the story here too.

So, my parents did the best they could to let me have a regular childhood. I had friends, I went trick-or-treating, I had birthday parties. But it came at a cost. A sniffle would send me home for weeks on end and when I did get sick, I got SICK. A 24-hour stomach bug became a 2-week stomach bug. (This may be where I developed my love of bathrobes though) And oh man, all those kid events (riding a bike, playing sports), well it was nice to watch other people do them. (I did always want a varsity jacket though, they looked soft and warm.)

My parents also wanted me to have the best education possible. And I was lucky enough to have the advantages of going to school where I did, and getting an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) that actually got followed. Sure, it was way embarassing to spend days after school learning how to use scissors or spend classes working on penmanship, but I was lucky.

I’m a grown-up now (Yeah, blows my mind too), and while I don’t say much about my personal life anymore, the events of my childhood absolutely stuck with me. And when I find out about other kids, kids who maybe aren’t so fortunate, or kids who need help the way I needed help, I’m going to do anything, everything, all the things possible to see that they get help.

This is why I’m fighting for Gwen. This is why when a state decides to act illegally and prevents a child from getting the opportunities she deserves, someone who can’t even fight for themselves in the proper arena, those of us who can fight, who can speak up and speak out and help, have an obligation to do so greater than any dogma or social obligation.

This is someone’s daughter, she needs help. When I needed help, people helped. It may not have been glorious or a financial windfall, but dammit, they helped.

Check out the website. Help in any and every way you can. Because this one time, it was for a little boy in New Jersey who just wanted to grow up so that one day he could have friends and go play and feel like he could belong somewhere and maybe be happy.

And now it’s a beautiful little girl. Who loves punctuation. Who smiles and means the world to her parents.

And maybe next time, it’s someone else’s boy or girl, someone else’s princess or little buddy and seriously, what’s more important than helping a child be happy?

I’m late for my workshop. This post was totally worth it though.

Writing/Gaming – Character 101 – Part 6 – The Relationships

This is Part 6 of the Character 101 Series. The previous parts can be found here.

Here’s a brief summary:

  • Characters exist within a world that defines possibilities and suggest challenges
  • Characters have a set of abilities that distinguish them within the world and makes the reader want to inject themselves into the story
  • Characters are on a path that leads them through more than the book-plot.
  • Characters are more than a physical description, they also have mental and emotional attributes worth depiction.
  • Characters have a defined morality and philosophy that influences actions and decision-making, in more than just the plot. 
Today, we could end Character 101 with this post. And it may end, if the recent traffic is any indication (either what I wrote was too deep or too boring), but let’s give today a fair shake. 
The last element of Character 101 can be expressed like this:
The character has relationships of varying depths, complexities and degrees so that the reader can see the created-person in a more complete context, and can sympathize/empathize.
It’s a little appropriate that it’s Valentine’s Day as I write this bit about relationships. Today is the day for making mention of your relationships, even though I am of the part of the population that believes that if you’re happy with your relationship, every day is/can be Valentine’s Day in a new and different way, and that to commercialize love is the lowest form of obnoxious sales tactics and money hungry manipulation. But that’s coming from me, so consider your sources……
Characters don’t exist in a vacuum, they aren’t adrift in some Void-space, they aren’t just blobs of ink on the page. (Even if you did hurtle your character into the Void, it’s likely you’d still make them think or feel stuff, so there would be some kind of bridge built to other characters). It’s about those bridges that I want to focus today.
I am notorious for burning bridges and salting the earth. In the last few weeks, I’ve been launching an aggressive program to clean that up, because a lot of it comes from this horrifically insecure place and it’s all misdirected anger and fear blah blah blah…..but it’s really made me take a look at my relationships to other people and see just how I built those connections. (Yes, I did make a chart, shut up. They help).
Some of those connections are great, and I do not want to burn them. Some of these connections are awful, and I should do all that I can to put the past behind me and get some Grand Canyons between me and them.  I say this not to bitch about my personal life, but to point out that through these relationships, you can get a sense of who I am and/or what I do and how I do it. 
Characters are no different. You can look at their relationships and get a sense of who and what they are. Go get a legal pad, let’s make a chart.
The Character Relationship Chart
note: Yes, you can do this more visually in a web, but I’m just blogging here, so I’ll work linearly
1. At the top of the page, put the character’s name (we’ll call him A)
2. Write the name of the other character in the relationship (we’ll call him B)with them (then in parentheses, write down the type of relationship next to the name)
3. List then a few phrases, adjectives, quotes or ideas that demonstrate how the character (A) feels about the other. (B)
Skip a line and repeat steps 2 and 3 until you have the character’s relationships mapped out. Here’s an example:
Character: Gordon Jeremiah Nevins
Bryan Alfred Nevins (brother)
* “What the hell trouble has he gotten himself into this time?”
* “Stupid dumb naive kid, but he’s all I got.”
* Begrudingly over-protective
* Only acts tired of the relationship.
Wynona (woman he sleeps with)
* Loves her, can’t commit to her
* Would take a bullet for her, but wouldn’t tell her that, in case someone has a gun handy
* “You look good” = “I love you”
By mapping out the relationships characters have with each other, you’re able to also test their philosophies and see their paths play out over the course of the work. If your characters’ relationships don’t undergo growth from beginning to end (at least ONE of the parties involved has to change a little, otherwise readers are going to feel like they’ve wasted time and effort getting invested), then the sandbox they play in isn’t testing them sufficiently. 
Here’s an example from my life:
When I was feeling very down, disputatious and grumpy I treated other people poorly, and gave many others the impression that I was in fact, a melo-dramatic asshole with delusions of grandeur. (Or something, I don’t know, but it wasn’t good). After a few rather intense conversations with people who actually gave a damn about me (rather than just giving a damn about the work I could do, or the benefits I could give them), I started to rehab my image and after some rather big-deal admissions of apology and truth, quite a few people came around. So, because I had a particular philosophy, the world I inhabited tested me a certain way, which lead me down a particular path, that brought me to certain experiences and plots. Only when I made an effort to change, to push myself and change my thinking, did I discover and occupy a new path, that led me to new experiences and plots. 
It is through your characters’ relationships that readers/players/consumers/others are able to draw a complete picture of the character. Just giving them a description and abilities is nice, but very bland and generic. Even if you throw in a moral code and a path, it’s amorphous without a set of relationships to see it explored and strengthened/altered.
The point I’m making here is that all the elements of Character 101 are INTER-RELATED. To make those strong characters for people to gravitate towards, you need lay out all the pieces and get your Frankenstein on (put.the.candle.back.) 
There’s no doubt in mind that if you take care to go through each step in Character 101, your characters, big and small will exponentially intensify and be far more satisfying to both create and use. 
Enjoy your Valentine’s Day. Happy writing.

Writing/Gaming – Character 101 – Part 5 – The Path

Good afternoon everyone, I hope you’re enjoying the post-Super Bowl glut of breakdowns of commercials and the halftime show. And for the record, I don’t know why they did that thing with the thing on that commercial. Yeah, it was unbelievable.

Shall we do some writing today? We’re continuing Character 101, you can catch up with Part 4 here.
This is more a “Writing” post. The “Gaming” version will go up later, I’m still putting it together.

Today we’re going to look at “The Path”, which is the course for the character is on before, during, and after this particular plot of this particular book.

The rule can be expressed like this:


A path, that when started, will lead through the designated plot and result in change (either positive or negative) from his starting state

Characters need to do things. Without actions, characters are formless humps, full of potential, but without the ambition, focus or interest to do anything. Often, people draw up wonderful concepts of characters and fail to deliver on that potential, chiefly because they either set the bar too high (making the character into a superhero, without elevating the plot) or they ignore the plot’s linear motion in an effort to show just how flawed the character is.

There has to be a progression for these characters that starts either on page 1 or even before page 1, and lead them until the last word on the last page, or even beyond. (You can imply or infer that people either began or will continue something when appropriate). I am not suggesting you place the character “on rails”, narrowly limiting the scope of the character growth to a particular strain – a character that only grows through the specific actions you shows is boring, no matter what those actions are, and is also unrealistic.

This path is NOT the plot, as in; it is NOT ONLY the specific actions of the plot (it’s not about ONLY defusing the bomb, saving the woman from the burning building or discovering that he loves babies) but the path of the character must at times join with the plot.

Key words there? “AT TIMES”.

If you rigidly and inflexibly adhere to the plot as the only tool that gives a character growth, then your book is going to be lean, because if you only need a main plot, then absent are the character arcs (which are the native tool for growth) and the sub or secondary plots (which are the native tool for connection between characters and the world). Also, without any deviation or wiggle-room, this main plot better be absolutely riveting, and can NEVER let me go. That’s a great deal of pressure to put on one set of actions. Don’t do it.

Characters in any story are not only limited to the plot, we (the reader) are only meeting/seeing/interacting with the character when they MEET this plot. It’s a snapshot of their life, and we get to tag along for however long or crazy this ride is. This idea that a character is on a particular path greater than the plot is critical for firming up the idea that the character is INDEPENDENT of the plot, and exists, fully-formed in dimension and detail large and small.

Where the character and plot intersect, there has to be an impact, like two items colliding. The plot has to have an effect on the character; otherwise the character has no reason to be invested in it (and neither will the audience). The plot, for all the twists and turns and new scenes it brings to the character is going to change the character. And maybe yes, the plot is going to change that already-started path (redemption is good for this, for example) but for the most part, the plot and this particular book is just a slice or section of the character’s overall path.

Now, to speak more pointedly of the plot, the plot has to matter to the character, because the two form a cycle:

Character Acts to Impact the Plot –>> The Plot Evolves and Presents New Challenges –>> And the Character Acts to Impact the Plot Anew 

And the character has to matter to the plot, because if the plot is beyond the scope of the character, then there can be no investment or hope to make a difference. Without the help of the plot, remember, it is just a snapshot of the overall growth, then the character’s growth is stunted.

The path is never fixed, and no end result is guaranteed. But the path contains the plot, and a limitless number of similar conflicts (in terms of emotional or psychological weight, not necessarily the physical events – how many times can terrorists threaten the globe?) If we were to chart it, it would be this:


|| Character at start of the story >> Actions that define who/what the character is based on experiences seen and unseen to date >> Plots that challenge and expand definition >> Continued maturity and resolution of problems >> Character Conclusion ||

The acts that define the character are not necessarily those given at an early age, or through flashback. This is where the developed philosophy of the character is interwoven with the character description and the boundaries of the world to create a character-in-context.  Events transpire some large (like the possible plot of this story) and some small (plot of another story) that lead to the evolution of the character in philosophy, action and description. Eventually, the character reaches a point of maturity, having been presented with all manner of challenge and overcome all level of odds. It is at this point, the writer may move on from the character, retiring or killing it off as warranted.

Remember: The path does not have to be positive. Negative traits are as compelling as positive traits (or moreso) depending on how they’re told.

Remember: The path is NOT ONLY the plot.

Remember: All elements of Character 101 work together and regularly intersect. So yes, the Path can be shaped by Morality, Abilities, Description and the character’s Sandbox.

How have you found your experience with Character 101 to be? I’d love to hear about it. Leave me a comment or find me online. 
Happy writing. 

Writing/Gaming – Character 101 – Part 4 – Morality

Good morning everyone. We’re continuing Character 101 today, so if you need to catch up on the previous posts, go here and here and here.

Today’s a little crunchy, so you might want to get a glass of water and read this a few times.

We’ve so far looked at what can best be described as external qualities. We’ve talked about the world, some character description and some character abilities. Let’s get into this though, let’s be serious about our craft and our characters and make these creations live and breathe. I mean, you don’t have to, but I think it’ll help you out.

Today’s Character 101 rule can be expressed like this:


A clear and distinct morality, set of principles and philosophy that an audience can see tested and explained throughout the story

Keywords:

  • clear and distinct morality
  • set of principles and philosophy
  • audience sees it tested and explained THROUGHOUT the story

When I was a young writer, I was mentored and taught by a great man, fiercely brilliant, absolutely not governed at all by anything other than his own rules and one of the most encouraging teachers I’ve ever experienced. He’s long dead now, but this lesson, and most of Character 101 is my homage to him.

We start with a quote of his.
Characters have beliefs; even if they are not expressed by the author or conceived of in great detail there exists within each character a philosophy, even if that character is built with a single purpose or for a single instance.

What I didn’t understand about that quote, where the magic trick is in that quote is the idea that characters have beliefs even if I (the guy who wrote the character) didn’t flesh them out.

Hearing that as a punk kid, that sounded stupid. Characters are things I made up, right? They occupy the spaces I give them, do what I tell them? Sure, they can do that. They can be puppets who follow scripts and linear actions like stiff automatons. And when you’re a bit of a control freak, or scared to do anything other than express control, that’s great for characters.

Move your chess pieces. Watch them dance on your strings.

Over time, with practice, with experience, with heartache, with passion, you don’t have to control them. They’re more than just extensions of a single part of your personality or just creations who follow some simple program. They are partly fueled by your imagination, and when you take that off the leash, you’ll be amazed by what you can discover characters do.

I didn’t get that when I younger. It sounded florid and spacy and I probably said it was “kinda gay”. And then I grew up and learned that there’s more to writing than sitting in place and typing for six hours, but also that there’s nothing less than that too.

That quote clicked for me when I was reading a comic book. I was upset, I was alone, I was pissed off, and I was reading Batman. And for whatever reason, perhaps because it was a visual medium, there was more said in a look between characters than you can ever do in a block of text.

It was like the story was occurring even when I wasn’t reading the comics. Like the characters had things happening while I was reading Superman, watching TV or wishing I was anywhere other than where I was.

Big click.

When that quote says“explained” it certainly does NOT mean that the simple statement of beliefs is given in exposition, although there are times when it can be advantageous, depending on style or nuance — But you don’t have to have some big block of text saying “THIS IS WHAT I BELIEVE IN” because you’re supposed to be better than that.

Leave it for dialogue; leave it for the emotions and subtext. Making it too clear, too visible, when the story by nature does not support it, cheapens it. It turns characters, who you create to be as close or better than humans you co-exist with, into caricatures and parody. And in gaming for example, it makes you sound like one of those bad RPGs where people only can say things like “It is nice day here yes in City?” and other Engrish.

No genre is spared the necessity of characters with morals. Not even in the most lowbrow crude comedy is there a character devoid of ambition based on a belief, even if that belief is something as small and finite as “I’m going to lose my virginity before the end of the school year.”

Everyone believes in something. Figure out what, and you’ll also discover how to express that belief to the audience.

So, the question then becomes, how do you create that morality? How do we develop philosophies for characters?

Here are two methods, described below:

Actions -> Reasons for Actions -> Philosophy
(What)      (Why Do The What)      (What Gets Believed)

&

Stated belief > Action in defense of position
(Say It)             (Do Something About It)

First we have an action-oriented approach, something that works best for characters of  small purpose or minimal import. By looking at their actions, we can develop reasons for the actions, and from those reasons, create a philosophy.

The guy/NPC/background mook who cheers on the heroes during a fight, does it because it shows that the heroes have support. The random person who tells the detective something in passing that resonates seven chapters later. That’s an action provoked by a reason that in turn becomes a philosophy. 

This is a clear, causal relationship that we can understand especially when not all characters have more than one or two things to do or say.

However, as we add complexity and depth to the characters and situations those characters find themselves in, we must shift from the clear A to B progression and try the reverse: that a stated belief leads to an action.

While this is more complex in a writing capacity, it is more intuitive as people, because we interact with people based on their statements and pursuant to their actions.

You go out with the guy because he makes you laugh because he does what he says he does. You married your spouse because she made you feel something positive on a consistent basis. You hang out with those people because you all share a hobby or believe in the same principles. You think that librarian is great because they helped you when no one else would even give you ten seconds of attention.

You decide what you believe in, then you go do something about it. (Here again, we see Rule #1 – Writing Is The Act of Making Decisions) If you do it, the character(s) can do it.

To reach these decisions, you must BE the character, giving them full faculties and capabilities independent of the story and the context of the story. Yes, you can argue that it is the story that shapes them, therefore you must put them into context, HOWEVER you must divorce the character from the story and the plot when you create the character. The proximity to the current story, and the temptation to use current-story material is too great a risk for the writer: how easily our characters become malleable when viewed only in the current plot.

Because our characters are our reflections, shadows and desires put into text, we must make all efforts to see them as living breathing beings that only happen to exist in our minds. I am not advocating schizophrenia, but rather a full-fledged imaginative experience, creating an idea so complex and rich with detail that it exists for more reasons than a single plot warrants.

Remember: This is a cooperative process, a great contract you’ve entered into with your reader, so please, do your part and make your end as interesting and exciting as possible.

Gamers embody this in the most obvious of ways, assuming to even ACT as the characters to drive the interactions. I do think writers would be well-served to try a little role-play now and then…and if not, at least go talk to people who excite you about whatever you love. It’s a lot easier to do this when you’re fired up than when you’re dreading it.

So what can you do about it? Have you ever tried writing down what you believe in? Get that legal pad, get to writing. Do the same thing for the big characters. Try to do it for the small characters, even if it’s just one line (the politician wants to win the election at all costs, the grocer wants to retire happy) related to the plot. The more you can list, the richer that character becomes and the less ‘like a character’ they are.

I end today with another quote (Sid had great quotes)

Characters, John, are what we have when we’re not thinking about what WE can do but what WE want to make happen.”

Happy writing. Enjoy your weekends.