I have a Youtube Channel!

So, I don’t know if you know this, but I did a big scary thing, and I’m really proud of the results.

For years (and yeah, I mean multiple years) I always said things like “Oh man, one day, I’m going to start making videos that talk about writing and encourage and empower people to be better writers and creators of awesome things.” And because I was way too scared to be responsible, I found reasons not to do it.

Sometimes these reasons where rational (for a while, I didn’t own a webcam), but mostly they were the chickenshit irrational reasons you make when you’re like seven and don’t want to eat vegetables. Reasons like “It’s raining outside and that’s killing my mood” or “I’m a fat ugly troll who no one wants to look at” or “but if I make a video, that’s going to consume time that I could otherwise spend staring out the window wishing I was making a video”.

Well, things change. And sometimes, you need something big to light a fire under your ass and make you really take stock of things. It’s time to grow up, and adhere to the hockey metaphor of “going where the puck is going to be”, which is a fancy way of saying that you want to be out in front of the curve and pushing yourself to innovate, make new things and generally not be late to your own party of awesome.

To that end, I made a Youtube channel and you should check it out. I’m still figuring out the bells and whistles, so if you have ANY suggestions on how to improve (or add graphics), PLEASE let me know.

NO, you don’t need to include things like “Lose weight” “Go fuck yourself” and “Your a peece of shit”, because I already got those covered in hatemail. Would love the positive comments though.

Rock on.

DexCon 2013 Schedule

So, it’s convention season, which is AWESOME because it’s a chance for me to travel and see my friends and spend dedicated time playing games, talking games and enjoying games.

Yes, you can make an argument that I do that all the time anyway, but at least I get to travel to new places to do it. That makes it pretty cool.

First on the circuit is DexCon, July 3 – 7 in Morristown. Yes, that’s just down the road from me. Yes, I still count that as travel.

This year is my most ambitious DexCon to date. When I sketched this all out in February, I had no idea that July would arrive so quickly. Here now is what I’m doing and where I’ll be hanging out.

WEDNESDAY 

LARP BAZAAR 10p – 2a

From what I gather, this is basically me and my friends hanging out around a table, and people come by and I get to talk to them about the systems I developed for the THREE (yes 3) LARPS I’m associated with. I have no idea what to expect, I don’t know if it will actually go until 2am, but it starts late, so at least I can get some dinner.

THURSDAY

(There is a big opening on Thursday, so I’ll likely use it to finalize, print out and prep things for the craziness of the coming days. Also, it’s 4th of July, so you know, hang out time anyway)

FRIDAY aka DAY ONE OF INSANITY
State of Gaming 2p – 4p
When Ken Hite speaks, I listen. And not just because he’s my friend or because we work together from time to time. I like Ken’s panels. They’re fun. Also, this doesn’t start until the afternoon, so anything needing more than Thursday prep can get it in the morning. 
BSG LARP 6p- 12a
Okay, so this is the first “signature event” I’m associated with. I wrote the system for the Battlestar Galactica LARP, I cobbled together the character sheet and I’m really proud of both. Here’s to hoping that the tale of ship looking to rejoin the fleet and avoid Cylon-ic death is an interesting one. Also, I get to watch my friends 
act like military commanders, so that’s pretty awesome. 
SATURDAY aka DAY TWO OF INSANITY aka LARP DAY FOR JOHN 5000
Night’s Black Agents Tournament  10a – 6p
Right, so here’s my Saturday. It’s the second “signature event” I’m associated with. The plus side is that I get to hang out with my friends and run one of my favorite games. Round 1 of the tournament is a LARP, while Round 2 is a more conventional Tabletop experience. I’ve written all new, never before seen (but yes, they’ve been tested), LARP rules to emulate GUMSHOE games, and I think I’ve really done well. Also the tabletop round has some great adventures. 
I mean, you get to be superspies and fight vampires. Who wouldn’t want to spend a Saturday doing that?
Please also note the two hour break where I get to quickly eat something. Please note that this will likely be the second meal of my day, so if you see me Saturday PLEASE ask me if I’ve eaten, and if I’m doing okay. PLEASE. No, I’m not kidding, there’s no sarcasm here. Because even at 6pm after 6 hours of high intensity walking, gaming, speaking and organizing, my day is half done. 
The Unofficial Dresden Files LARP: FINAL FROST 8p – 2a
Check this out. This is a Dresden Files LARP that owes its mechanics to Fate Core (and to a lesser extent Fate Accelerated). I am super ridiculously proud of the system and story I was a part of creating. This event in particular is a big deal, because it’s the culmination of a few previous conventions’ plot. Basically, this is where shit is going to hit many fans of many sizes. I cannot wait to see how the players react. 
SUNDAY
Writing Workshop 10a – 12p
As per usual, my Writing Workshop is on Sunday morning. Please note that it follows on the heels of what will be the longest work day I’ve had in MONTHS, and I will very likely be tired and hoarse, but dammit, I will talk about writing and editing and attendees will get their questions answered. 
I expect to sleep for the rest of Sunday and most of the Monday thereafter. 
So, are you coming to DexCon? Are you coming to any event I’m doing? You want to go get an empanada when I’m not running around like a maniac? Leave a comment or two and let’s see if we can make some plans. 
See you then. 

I made a video!

I have been, in some way, shape or form, talking about doing a video series about writing for a long time. And often, this was just a lot of talk, a lot of hot air that I thought people wanted to hear so that they’d be happy or like me, that I was just never really going to follow through because following-through would be done in the future, and that’s like ages ahead of wherever I was in that particular present.

In doing that, in being afraid, in being too scared to try because I was afraid to fail, I didn’t do what I wanted to do. I talked a good game, but acted a rather poor one. And it cost me so dearly, more even than I’m comfortable sharing. It hurts. But this hurt is a chance for growth, if I take it. If I run towards the scary thing and not away.

So this is me, running towards. This is me growing. This is me not letting the scary things win.

Earlier tonight (although it’ll be last night by the time this posts), I held a Google+ Hangout, and talked for 90 minutes about all kinds of writing things, and thinking things. I had a really good time. And I don’t think I failed. In fact, I want to do another one tomorrow night, although likely with an earlier start time. But that’s something you can find out if you’re following me on Google Plus

I loved doing it. I want to get better at doing it. I want to do more.

There will be another tomorrow/tonight (Wednesday night). Stay tuned for details. 

The Power & Potential Of Openings

Good morning.

That’s it. That’s my opening for you today.

Or, maybe those three lines are my opening.

Does it matter? Sure it matters. And today we’re going to talk about what openings can do, what they shouldn’t do and how important they are. Now I’m going to frame this discussion mostly around fiction, but you can easily swap “game setting text” or “non-mechanics rules text” when I talk about chapter or book openings.

What does an opening do?
To my thinking, it does three things:

  1. Establishes: the setting, character(s) that we’re going to follow or the tone of the story
  2. Sets an expectation for how intense (physically or emotionally) the story is going to be
  3. Interests and engages the reader to keep reading
Let’s talk about each of them in turn.
Establishing setting, character(s) or tone – However you start the story, this is the first thing the reader sees. This is your first opportunity to both show off your writing chops as well as introduce the things you want to show off. And yes, I mean show off like “Look at me and my awesome word-skillz” because that’s one of your roles as a writer, so don’t be shy about getting up on that soapbox and being in the spotlight. 
The setting is where you can talk about the stage where all the action is going to take place. Maybe not the specific locale where action unfolds, maybe you’re introducing New York City but this particular story takes place in an apartment building within the City, but you need to start somewhere, so why not show us the big picture and zoom in?
No, don’t tell me the ancient and dense backstory of marriages, wars, soldiers and commerce that established your setting, unless that information is going to prove so incredibly vital to the current-time story you’re telling — I’m looking at you, fantasy author — we seriously do not need “to get the whole history” if you’re just telling me the story of a farmer-turned-questing-knight. Long histories like that can be both incredibly dull and purely masturbatory. Yeah, it’s great that you spent so much time mapping out kingdoms and families and histories, but when are we getting to the story of the rest of the book? 
The character(s) we’re going to follow are likely the protagonists or antagonists. I’m not saying every sentence needs to be about them, that you can’t mention the barista or the bank teller, but by the time the opening is over, we should meet or at the very least have an introduction to the protagonist of the story. This also applies to antagonists, if you want to tell a villain-facing story. (And if you’re telling me a story where the badguys are goodguys, then we need to be clear about that up front)
The tone of the story is how the story is going to read for the next three-hundred or so pages. If we’re in first-person, is the narrator snarky? Jaded? Weary? If we’re in third-person, how close are we to the action and the characters (psychic distance)? Is the exposition conveying a serious tone? Should I be laughing? Should I be worried – although it’s truly hard to be worried about characters we’ve met only sentences earlier.

Sets an expectation of intensity – If you open the story with a bang, either literally or figuratively, it’s like cranking the stereo up to the eleven at the start of an album. You’re setting the bar pretty high, and leading people to think that you’re either going to continue that pace or else it will be really hard to maintain.

For a minute let’s talk about a hypothetical SF novel. Let’s say the first scene is about a planet blowing up. On most scales, that’s a huge deal. Especially if there are badguys and they used a superlaser to do it. It makes it sound like those villains are pretty bad news. And what about the next scene? Well, as a reader, I’m going to wonder what happens next – do they start threatening another planet? Do the good guys launch a counterattack? When the bar is set so high, the expectation is that you’re only going to ramp up.

We get that from exposure to other media, that the best is yet to come, and that as a thing (a show, a movie, a book) progresses, it’s going to intensify, reaching a climax much further along in the story. It’s a serious let-down to find out that the best part of the book is the first ten pages.

Because of the expectation that it’s only going to get better, many stories may start with a big event, but then afterward, cut to a smaller event – using the first event as an introduction to the character or the world. This is an “opening gambit” and is regularly used in television. We see the heroine already engaged in something, usually the big climax of a work we’ve stumbled into, so we get to watch her dispatch the badguys and escape, just before the title and credits. Then we come back to the show and she’s given her assignment for the episode. In this fashion, you can intro the character and the world, but not have to worry about continually escalating in order to engage the audience.

Interests or engages the reader to keep reading – A successful connection with the audience means that they keep reading the story because they want to know what happens next. An introduction is the first time to make this happen, and the events of the introduction, the components more specifically, are the start of this need to know what happens next.

An opening should be interesting. Just like meeting people, the first impression you make is critical, and helps the other person figure out if they want to actually talk to you, or if they’re going find every reason under the sun to get away from you. (“Oh you have to go take your cat to the pet chiropractor? Okay, see you later then!“)

An opening should be a hook for people. There’s an advantage to an opening – it doesn’t have anything that precedes it, so it’s not competing for any in-story attention. That’s the benefit for going first. If you set a really good example, the other sections are going to try and be better. It’s a very interesting internal competition, at least on the reader’s mind-side of things.

You want them to keep reading. So keep writing. Keep telling the story. Tell the ups and the downs, the slow parts and the fast parts, the scary bits and the sweet bits.

What doesn’t an opening do?
An opening is not a middle. The middle of the story is, well, the middle. What that means is that the opening isn’t a bridge between things (because we don’t know what happened before the book started, and even if you tell us all about it via flashback and narration, there’s still some measure of incompleteness because we want to draw our own conclusions). Openings lever us into the story and the world and squeeze us into meeting the characters, either while they’re doing cool things already or just before the cool things kick off.

An opening is a not a conclusion. Even if you’re telling a story backwards, and we see the after effects of some big event, and you spend the rest of the book showing us the big event, then end the book with how the big event came to be, the ACTUAL opening of the book is still the ending of the story – all we’re doing to moving forward in reverse time and order. So, yes, the ending of the book could be the opening of the book if we reshuffled the scene order, in theory – but that’s a pretty tough thing to pull off casually.

An opening is not the spot for an author rant. I don’t mean that author should break the fourth wall and  address the reader directly. I mean the author shouldn’t launch into a manifesto about how pine nuts are a vast conspiracy or how landscapers are secretly placing microphones among the shrubbery, unless your book IS a manifesto. But if we’re talking fiction, then these pages you want me to pay for and reader, they should be about the story. Sure, you can totally insert commentary about issues into the story: the characters can have opinions that mirror your own, the plot can parallel something that happened in your own life.

How important is my opening?
If you’ve come this far in the post and you’re expecting some percentage or some specific number, you won’t find it. There’s no magic formula to determine how critical your opening is, or how much energy you need to put into it. It IS important, since it invites the reader into the world you’ve created, but it’s not *more* important than the climax where your threads all come together or the resolution where the rewards and desserts are dispensed.

Should I worry over my opening?
You mean like, “Should I worry and obsess over my opening so that I’m always re-tooling it, practically paralyzed by thoughts of whether or not it’s good and never really making progress into the deeper parts of the story?

No.

I’ll say that again.

No.

Yes, the opening is where people start the book, but if you keep toying with it, when are you going to tell the rest of the story? And if you spend so much time on the intro, will you spend that much time on the other parts of the story, or are you going to let there be some kind of emotional or pacing drop-off because the post-opening chapters don’t live up to the hype?

So what can I do?
Get the whole story out of your head and down onto paper or the monitor. Just get it all down, you can get it edited, you can reshuffle the pieces later, but get it all out first – yes, even if you think some parts are awful. Develop the discipline to tell the whole story and then put it under the knife, rather than working piecemeal.

And if you do all that and you’re still stuck, send me an email. I’ll help you however I can.

Happy writing. We’ll talk later this week, with more Editing Out In The Open.

Finding A Good Editor – What To Look For, What To Avoid

Today’s pair of questions come from Josh Hoyt:

How can you tell if you get a good editor?

What are some things to look for when looking for an editor?

It’s a good one.

To answer this, first we have to talk about the word “good”, because we’re going to use it in two different contexts here.

A “good” editor is a talented person with knowledge of mechanics, structure, story building and who is helpful to the author in applying and sharing that knowledge. It’s also someone who doesn’t make you feel stupid for not being “perfect” or making mistakes.

A “good” editor is also someone you get along with, can have multiple conversations with, and who ultimately brings the best work out of you. It’s also someone available for communication in a timely fashion.

There are editors who are nice people, but who don’t meet many of the conditions in the above two paragraphs. Some people are really good at their craft but move slower than tree sloths to get back to a writer, or who can comfortably explain what their notes mean about as easily as my dog can explain quantum physics to me.

There are editors who are awful at their craft, who are destructive in their criticism, who condescend and patronize, and because they subscribe to some idea of competition (in short, writing is supposed to be survival of the fittest, and it’s up to them to figure out who’s fit), they make writing either mysterious or harder than it should be.

There are other editors who are good at what they do, who answer emails promptly, who you can talk to easily and without discomfort, but you never find them because neither of you are looking for each other, or you just travel in different circles.

Not mentioned here is the expense of an editor, because editing is not an inexpensive thing. Yes, if you go traditional publishing, that cost is something you don’t really see or experience, but if you’re going self-publishing, plan accordingly. When you find an editor, ask their rates. Figuring out your budget in advance is a huge boon here. Let’s put the numbers to one side though, because like so many other purchases, you should make them based on more than just cost.

So, a good editor has some combination or all of the following traits (note: I’m not prioritizing these, just listing them):

+ answers your questions, big and small, promptly and with a level of detail that doesn’t leave you scratching your head
+ applies in-line edits and comments that actually improve the content on the page, rather than just tell you what they’d do if they were writing
+ is able to explain to you why a thing does or doesn’t work and when things don’t work, help you stop making the same mistake over and over again
+ knows the rules of grammar and structure and follows them, and when necessary, knows which ones to bend or break
+ makes use of fair contracts and rates without manipulating the client, especially careful not to take advantage of inexperience or nerves
+ is someone who challenges you to work harder and better, without bullying you
+ is someone who doesn’t talk down you, as though you’re an idiot, a child or completely terrible at writing
+ supports and promotes clients’ efforts on social media
+ is someone who can occasionally cheerlead and encourage you, picking you up out of whatever self-doubt hole you’ve dropped into

So there’s a list floating out on the internet of questions you should ask an editor, like if they know what different style terms are, or how they feel about the Oxford comma, or what style guide they use.

And that’s great, but understand that if your first interaction with an editor is a blitz of a dozen technical questions, you’re going to put people on the defensive, making them have to qualify themselves to be good enough to work with you – and no one likes jumping through hoops.

There’s a practice of offering a page or two of sample work “to see if you like their style”. This is an occasional trap. Sure, it lets you know whether or not you can work with a person, but sometimes writers use this as a way to score free editing – which is unfair. You can figure out if you want to work with the person through a few email exchanges or a phone call.

Editing is a two-way street. Yes, the writer employs the editor to some technical degree, and pays the editor according to whatever terms are in the contract, but if either party finds the relationship untenable, either party can fire the other, take a kill fee where appropriate and walk away. It’s about equality: the editor and writer are partners with the goal of making the manuscript the best it can be. You’re in this together, and as an author, I get it, you’re risking an investment and trusting this person you just met with this project you’ve been working on for however long, but you do need to TRUST the editor and let them do their job.

Now let’s talk about some red flags, again, not in priority, just a list.

An editor you don’t want to deal with:
– bullies you, makes you feel worse about your writing than before you started
– discourages you from continuing
– changes the terms of a contract without notifying you, and offers no explanation why
– doesn’t use a contract
– doesn’t answer emails or phone calls in a prompt fashion
– makes unreasonable demands of your writing schedule and discipline, bending you to their schedule or expectations
– makes you feel like you don’t matter to them, no matter whether you’re their first or fiftieth client
– does not explain the root causes behind the mistakes and issues within the manuscript (this is called “8th grade English teacher syndrome”)
– provokes, rather than allays, your fears
– doesn’t deliver edits or notes according to the schedule within the contract
– trashes clients on social media

Absent here is mention of “catches every mistake the first time, every time” because that’s why editors make multiple passes – which is negotiable within the contract – so just because a mistake in Chapter 3 gets through in the first pass, don’t expect in that second pass it’ll still be there. NOTE: This is not code for “intentionally make mistakes to see if the editor catches them, so if they don’t, you can point a finger and complain about their quality”

So how do you find an editor? Look on social media. Google “list of freelance editors”. Ask people on social media. Find an editor’s blog (like where you’re reading this!) and contact them. Expect to have a conversation with them before either of you commit to anything. Don’t rush. However, don’t dawdle, as an editor’s schedule fills quickly, and if you want space on it, make sure you follow through on your emails and promises.

For me, I have a few hard and fast rules:

1. Be as honest as possible. Be transparent as possible as often as possible. – Sugar coating and obfuscation do no one any favors.
2. Support the writer, be encouraging, handle the fears and anxieties – I’m here to help you make the best thing you can. It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to be new at this. Let’s work together.
3. Answer emails promptly, and with detail – No one likes not-knowing.

Josh, I hope this answers your question. Enjoy writing.

If you have a question, feel free to email me, and I’ll do my best to answer it.