InboxWednesday – Social Media

Holy mother of chicken fingers, Wednesday crept up on us pretty quick there. Next thing you know, it’ll be Friday and I’ll get a tweet from someone about to get turnt up for the weekend. (The first time I heard that phrase, I thought someone said turnips, and pictured someone having a really good weekend playing Stardew Valley.)

But we’re not there yet, creatives. So until then, let’s do what we do on Wednesdays and grab a question from my inbox. Remember, you can ask me any question you want, because even the ones that don’t go on the blog get answered.

Let’s do this.

John, I’m a 57-year-old man writing his first novel. My two kids are in college, my wife works full-time. I am financially stable, and I thought writing would be a good thing to do. My question is: what’s the point of social media? What good does it do me, when I’m not a teenager or not really good at it, and what platforms should I use for what purpose? My schedule in the evenings and weekends is open, so time is not a problem, but how do I best use these apps? – J.

J. (you asked not to use your real name, no sweat), thanks so much for your question. Congrats on taking the dive into writing. What you’re asking is big and good and it’s got some moving parts, so let’s do this in pieces.

These are my opinions, other people may disagree, and that’s totally alright. I want you to first know that you need social media. NEED it, like critical in the modern day NEED, because the traditional publishers aren’t going to dump buckets of money at your door to do the marketing for you. You know your book, and you know who you are way better than they ever will, so there’s freedom to being your own marketing machine. You can develop a system that’s custom  to you, and because it’s playing to your strengths, you’ll use it with less difficulty.

What I’ll do is breakdown each platform with a definition, an example where I can, and the pros and cons. Then I’ll use my social media as a case study. J., follow me on this, this is gonna be a lot of words, but you can do this, it’s just one step at a time, it’s not overwhelming unless you let it be. Don’t quit on this, let’s rock and roll.

Can I give you two ground rules? These are important. Write this on a post-it note. Carve them into the foreheads of your enemies:

1. Social media IS NOT just sales link spam. There’s a reason it’s called “social” media – being a person who does X (in your case, writes books) is the honey to the sales spam vinegar when you’re building a group of people you interact with.

2. Practice using it. Regular use, even if you’re just goofing around with filters or hashtags or puns or whatever will help you get better when you do have something important, like links to a blog post or a fundraising page or a promo for an event you’re attending.

Primary Platforms
What I call a “primary platform” is the social media where you’re the most comfortable. Maybe you’ll develop more than one of these, and that’s awesome. A primary platform is where you can reach a certain number of people, and you’ll know you can reach them without having to do anything that you haven’t already done before.

Secondary Platforms
A secondary platform is social media that’s new to you. You’ve never used it before, or you barely use it, and if you gave it more time, and did a little research, you could get better at it, but you’re maybe okay with it being more on the perimeter of your social media stuff.

I’m going to spot you one free primary platform – email. You’ve written emails before. It’s pretty comfortable. And along with the ability to write emails, you’ve got a list of people to sends email to, so that’s a prepped audience. I know what you’re thinking, “John I can’t email these people that I’m writing a book.” And I’ll go ahead and ask you what about being creative is so bad that these people would run from you like your a clown on fire handing out mayonnaise and guacamole? It’s okay to let the world know you’re creative.

With me so far? Let’s look at specific platforms then. Each platform is going to take some time, especially when you’re just learning how to use it. No, you don’t have to be perfect at it, there is no perfect at it, but you’re going to need to take seconds/minutes to write things occasionally. Even if/when they’re wholly unrelated to the specifics of the book you’re writing.

Facebook
For me, professionally, Facebook isn’t my best option. It’s great when I want to tell people about work like we’re sitting on the porch with drinks and I’m just chatting about the day, or I want rant a little about video games or my weird neighbors, but I have a hard time turning that into sales. That’s not to say it’s impossible to do it, I know plenty of people who make that happen, but I know just as many people who keep the sales off Facebook, and use it more as a social pool for communication – one more way they can be a person first and a selling entity second.

The Pros: Everyone’s on it. Okay, not my mom, not that one guy I know who believes in chemtrails, lizard people, and nanochips inside vaccines that will one day activate and subjugate us, but like, loads of other people. Whether you just have an account for yourself, or you get a Page together where you specifically interact with an audience because of something you do or a way you identify (an author, a publisher, a whatever-er), you can communicate with other humans. It’s pretty easy to use, you just type in a box at the top of the page, you click Post, and boom, done.

The Cons: There’s a lot of people on it, and they’re going to talk about everything from politics to babies to work complaints to strange anime references to screeds about how they deserve preferential treatment to questions about robot apocalypses. That signal-to-noise ratio can be tough to parse through, and something as earnest and interesting as your “Hey I started writing a book” can totally get blown out of the water by your friend Sharon going on a rant about how the brown people are ruining this country and how we need to feel guilty about something that happened three hundred years ago that started our alleged national dumpster fire rolling down a hill.

Twitter
Twitter is my jam. I love Twitter. Each tweet is 140 characters, and that includes spaces. Yeah I know, there’s talk about expanding that, but even if they did, I’d keep it to 140. The concision Twitter has trained me to develop is critical when I’m speaking and editing – words are potent, and having to pick and choose how I describe something means I put a premium on clarity over flashy vocabulary.

The Pros: You can find a lot of like-minded people on it. I follow a heap of writers, creatives, editors, agents and people whose opinions and ideas interest and encourage me. Also, because of its fluid nature, I can jump into conversations or start my own pretty easily.

The Cons: It can feel like you’re shouting into the Grand Canyon while standing in London fog. You may have no idea that your words are reaching anyone, and especially at the beginning, it can be discouraging. But every once in a while, you may get surprised about who reads what you’re saying, who replies, or who shares what you say with their heap of people. (I have had a few “Oh shit, that person knows what I write!?” moments in the last year, they’re awesome).

If you do go with Twitter, and need a person to start with, start with me

Google+ (Google Plus, G+)
I have to admit J., I fell out of love with Google+. We grew apart because we both changed – G+ changed its layout, I found my groove with Twitter and other platforms. But Google+ is a viable longer form platform that you can use and build circles of people with. These communities share interest (you can build a writing circle), and there are large and active groups of people doing the same stuff you do, but as with any large mass of people, check that signal to noise ratio and don’t let the negative people poison your progress.

The Pros: It doesn’t have the glut of extraneous content the way Facebook does. It isn’t capped at 140 characters the way Twitter is. You can say a lot on a topic, you can read a lot about a topic, and you can get eyes on what you say. It sounds ideal, right? But …

The Cons: In a world where you’ve got other, more visual social media popping up, where there’s more immediacy and speed and interest, G+ can become an afterthought. Even with this blog, G+ is just one more place where I put posts, and occasionally chime in to specific groups, but otherwise, my attention is elsewhere.

Snapchat
This is a new one for me, as in I really started getting serious about it less than a week ago. This is the first of three platforms I’m going to talk about where you can use stills, video, and audio to get a concise message across. I’m hugely in love with the concept, and it’s easy to use once you check out how other people are using it.

The Pros: Again, concision is valuable. Short video can be personal and effective. Captions and filters can help put together an idea and package it for the current moment.

The Cons: A lot of snapchat is aimed at fashion or celebrity, and a lot of snapchat (at least when you google people you should follow on snapchat) skews younger than you or I, J. But don’t let that throw you off, because you don’t have to interact with that userbase if you don’t want to. It’s not the most intuitive interface, so you might have to fumble a bit early on to get a handle on it, but the good news is that the snaps you do send out only last 24 hours, and so there’s no great lasting shame in the snap of the inside of your pocket while you went to the grocery store, as happened to me earlier this week.

Instagram
There’s an intimacy possible in the visuals we present to the world. They’re a glimpse into our lives that goes beyond “buy my thing”, and I think the sharing of you-see-what=I-see is super important if you want show that what you do is not mysticism or impossible, and that you’re grateful for life. Instagram is tons of photos, it’s primarily visual, and it’s a great tool for showing (literally) more than telling.

The Pros: The peek behind the curtain is interesting. It’s honest, or at least it should be. It’s got a great interface, you can knock it out with a few clicks on your phone. Getting comfortable with hashtags (think of them as indexing tools) will make your production that much easier.

The Cons: If you’re like me, you suck at taking photos you’d call interesting. This is in part due to a lack of practice, and also due to a pressure I feel from the signal-to-noise discussion that Instagram is “supposed to be” all pictures of lunches and random bragging selfies of people better looking than me doing things I can neither afford nor have the means to do.

Periscope
Here now we’re at the fringe of my expertise. Periscope is a video broadcasting tool, that allows you to stream video to an audience. It’s not something I’ve really gotten my hands dirty with yet, but I’m going to be changing that over the course of this week.

The Pros: Streaming video! Live broadcasts! That’s huge. Gone are the static walls of text (said the guy writing the blogpost), and interactivity is at a premium. This is a big deal if you have something to say and want to get it out with immediacy and emotion. But …

The Cons: Building an audience to check out the broadcast takes time, as it does for any of these platforms. Also, given the projected nature of this content, you’ll need something to say or show – a lot of “Uhh” and “Um” won’t hold an audience’s attention. No, I’m not talking production values, I mean pure content. Figuring out what your content is goes a long way to helping steer it out of your head and to other people.

Anchor
Another new one for me, it’s an audio platform where you record short notes and receive other short notes or responses in return (they’re called waves, because nautical theme). I have barely tried this once, and haven’t even set myself up yet, but that’ll change over this week too.

The Pros: If you’re like me, you tend to have a logjam of thoughts that sear your mind and need to be let out, and quick bursts of audio are great for me when I’m feeling particularly laden with urgent purpose. And because you don’t have to see me, I don’t have to feel as awful about being one of the not-pretty people as I do what I do (note: this discomfort comes up for me on Snapchat something fierce) I need to play around with this more.

The Cons: If you’re like me, as you talk, you gesture. You work in the visual space in front of you, making air quotes and hand-based diagrams. They don’t always translate to audio, because despite allegedly having moves like Jagger, you can’t hear my hands make the “so this is like this and that’s like that” gesture.

Pinterest
Pinterest is a repository for static content (like blogposts), where you can collate information about a particular topic. You can have a board (a group) of pins (links) about whatever topic you want, although I have to say they’re a little draconian about butts, curves and intimacies.

The Pros: If you’ve got a lot of blog content to give out, if you want a lot of content to read, Pinterest can be a gold mine. With one of the big two browsers (Chrome, Firefox), you can get an extension to allow you to pin stuff through a simple right-click context menu, and it is an easy way to have a lot of resources at hand.

The Cons: It can be a swallower of your time. There’s so much stuff out there, and so much of it more signal than noise that you can blow a day pinning material one thing after another, stepping away from that writing that needs to happen because “just one more Pin” turns into “three hours later” pretty quick.

Blogging
I was on the fence about calling blogging a form of social media, because social media is becoming more and more conversational and concise, and blogging can range in length and frequency of use. But blogging has a communal aspect, so it’s social media for our discussion.

The Pros: You can say what you want, how you want, as often as you want. Your blog can be a home base for what you’re doing, giving you an unfettered and uninterrupted space to paint your internet real estate how you like.

The Cons: Audience growth is slow, and you can get discouraged by staring at views and thinking you’ll never get past ten or thirty or whatever. You can, you will, you just need to consistently put out good ideas in clear ways. Good content gets read, so make stuff that expresses clearly what you want to say and how you feel.

*

So let’s use me as a case study. Out of the nine social media platforms I just talked about, I’ve got accounts on all nine, but I would call Twitter and this blog my primary platforms. I’m more comfortable here and at 140 characters professionally than anywhere else. Facebook sees daily use, but that’s more personal or anecdotal. I talk about what I do, but I don’t really do what I do with the people on Facebook. It feels weird to me, like I’m asking my family if they want to help me out, and I suppose that idea will need to change, but right now, I like this divide between pro-John and off-hours-John.

Snapchat has been my new vector for socializing, and my small as all get out following is clients, friends, a few celebrities who don’t get annoying, and professionals I learn from. My goal there is to get better at using the service, and I’m not going to do that without giving it a go myself. If you want to find me on Snapchat, I’m at johnwritesstuff.

Instagram and I don’t really know what to do with each other. It’s there, I am following some interesting people, but I don’t post much, mainly because I don’t know what to post. I don’t work visually, so I struggle to put up anything other than various doughnuts or foods I’ve eaten, which perpetuate that social pressure and make me feel bad, so then I use it less, and onward and onward that cycles. But I’ve got a youtube video queued up to watch after I write this post, so maybe I’ll learn some new stuff.

Pinterest is my recipe and idea hole. It doesn’t seem very conversational, but it’s a great education tool for me. Want to learn about business strategies,  enchiladas, candle-making, and old movie posters? I can do that all in one fell swoop.

The remaining platforms are on my “To check out” list, and I said on Twitter the other day that I wanted to try Periscope later this week, I’m thinking Friday. Hmmm.

On the whole, I divide part of my workday into check the various feeds, but not all at once. I’m on twitter throughout the day, I check Facebook in the morning and while I eat lunch, I snapchat now when an idea hits. I blog three times a week. I pinterest or read pinterest usually after work, because some of that relaxes me.

Because time is the most precious business commodity, I’m picky about allocating it. Were I new and starting out, I’d pick one or two platforms and get comfortable. I’d give myself a wide deadline of like 3 months with daily experimentation to see how it fits for me. If a platform didn’t work out, I wouldn’t go back. You don’t need to have all of them going in order to market your work successfully, and you certainly don’t want a pile of responsibilities that take you away from the writing when they’re supposed to be supporting it. So, J., you do what works for you, and if that’s one thing, awesome, if it’s eight or more (because there are more platforms I didn’t cover), awesome too.

I believe you (and anyone regardless of age or gender or genre or whatever) can learn to use this stuff and connect with other people both professionally and personally. It might not be instantaneous, but it can be done.

Hope that answers your question J.

I’ll see you guys on Friday for more blog times. Have a great middle of your week, don’t let the jerks get you down.

Happy writing.

BONUS – How I’d Rewrite The Prequels, Part 2

Onward we march in our virtual movie studio. We already covered Episode 1, so let’s get into Episode 2 without delay.

Episode 2: Attack Of The Clones
(again, keeping the title, you’ll see why)

Our opening title crawl tells us it’s been 3 years of skirmishes between the Separatist Trade Federation and the Galactic Senate peace-keeping forces, each side scratching out victories and upsets where they can. Popular opinion is that this will officially bloom into war soon, and that worry is consuming the Senate in overwhelming debates.

We open on Naboo, Jedi Knight OBI WAN KENOBI, 30 now, bearded, stands on the same balcony we left him on at the end of Episode 1, only now instead of overseeing relief efforts, he’s listening to his two military friends and advisors, CODY and REX, advise him on strategy for the system. Kenobi’s not technically leading this army, but he’s always consulted by civilian and military alike. Time and loss have cooled his youth, and he fidgets with his beard as he listens to varying reports of troopers encountering pockets of resistance, and news that more systems speak of joining the Rebellion thanks to a wealth of propaganda.

Interrupting this meeting is ANAKIN SKYWALKER, now in his middle teens, working as a clerk, although lately the position has been more of batman to Kenobi. He presents Kenobi with news that the Jedi Council wants an update as soon as possible. Kenobi sighs, they always want updates. The bureaucracy grinds everything to a halt. Cody and Rex leave the two Jedi alone.

Anakin, bored, levitates some items on Kenobi’s desk while having a conversation with him about how they both could duck over to Coruscant for a few days. Kenobi notices that as Anakin talks, more things levitate, somewhat absent of his focus. He asks Skywalker how training is going, and all the items drop back to the ground. 

Training, Anakin replies, is difficult, frustrating, boring even. There’s an edge to his voice, and as he whines, some of those previously levitated items rattle, as if they’re afraid of him, or there’s an earthquake going on. Kenobi notices this as well. Kenobi reassures the teenager that there’s good stuff coming, and tells him when he wants a sparring partner, to come find him. This cheers Anakin immensely, who then leaves so Obi Wan can talk to the Council via hologram.

To say the conversation goes poorly is an understatement. Kenobi talks about the loss of life, the intrusion the war has on the population, and how he could use reinforcements, or a break. Yoda and Windu talk about the conflict shouldn’t be sought out, but they’ll think it over. They depart the call, leaving only Alama and Kenobi talking.

Alama has been more conciliatory during these updates. She offers reassurance, encouragement, and patience where Yoda and Windu prevaricate. She comforts Kenobi, telling him that Qui Gon would be proud. They talk about Coruscant, and how if he wants to return, he’d just need to put Cody and Rex in charge. They laugh over what could go wrong. Kenobi agrees, and says he’ll come back to Coruscant. The conversation turns to Skywalker, and Kenobi gives a progress report, we cut to Anakin just on this side of the door, overhearing it. He’s pleased, proud even, to be discussed positively. The call trails off and we follow Skywalker on his duties.

Which includes a walk through the Naboo Palace, where from a upper walkway, he spies the Queen. PADME AMIDALA, 18 now, is, in a word, hot. And the Queen knows it. Like the popular girl everyone loved at school, she’s riding that line between arrogant and independent. That edge of attitude and emotion has kept Anakin coming back to watch her from a distance for a while now. He lingers when he stares, and just before she catches him, he barely gets away. It’s become a bit of a cat and mouse game now: he watches, she nearly catches on, he bolts. Anakin runs into Rex and Cody who do catch him peeping on the Queen, and they rib him for it, saying how now’s a good time to for sight seeing, and how if he likes her, he should act on it. Anakin dutifully recites the Jedi maxims of having no emotions, and Cody points out that from a certain point of view caring enough to not have emotions is an emotion in and of itself. This puzzles Anakin, and the three part ways, concluding their conversation.

We get one last look at Padme, she’s talking to C3-P0 about organizing some meetings. R2-D2 takes notes. Padme talks about how the fighting has long since left Naboo, but the military presence here cuts in on her freedom. She’s a teenager with an unfair curfew. She pouts. The droids try and cheer her up.  

We wipe and head to Coruscant, still busy and cosmopolitan. We track inside CHANCELLOR PALPATINE’s office, who is dictating memos to a droid. A secretary enters and tells him he has a call, but it’s not on the agenda. Palpatine Jedi-Sith mind tricks her, and the secretary is sent away. Once she’s out of the room, he dons his Sith hoodie and opens a channel.

The hologram is DARTH MAUL, standing on a windswept rainy bluff. He speaks deferentially to his Master, and tells him he is “in position.” Palpatine tells him to do what needs to be done, but do not expose himself, not yet. Maul obeys and the communication ends, now we’re over Maul’s shoulder and we see where he is. 

It’s KAMINO, a rainy, mostly oceanic planet, he’s overlooking a large domed structure on pylons. Thin chimneys puff smoke into the air, giving the impression that this domed place is a factory of some kind. We watch him Sith leap down off the bluff, and as he shrinks into the midground, then background, we get a glimpse of him Sith-Force-pushing two guards into the waters below before entering the building. 

We cut back to Naboo, the Throne Room, where Cody, Rex and Anakin listen to Kenobi explain to Padme that he’s heading back to Coruscant. He puts Cody and Rex in charge of the military action, and says he won’t be gone long. Padme says she wants to accompany him, that she wants to get off this rock, and Kenobi protests, saying her people need her. She counters with the fact that her people would understand, that she wouldn’t be gone long. We get many long moments where Padme’s eyes drift to Anakin. She has caught him staring a lot lately, and hasn’t let on. She’s been letting him. Eventually Kenobi relents, and tells Anakin to prep a transport. 

One TROOPER, posted as a door guard, follows Anakin to the hangar. Anakin doesn’t notice, the trooper salutes ANOTHER TROOPER and now two guards are walking behind Anakin. Then a third, and a fourth, just as Anakin boards the ship. Once aboard, the troopers remove their helmets, and all four men have an identical face. These are CLONES, posing as soldiers, we can spot them based on a blue shoulderguard each wears. They continue to prep the ship for departure.

Kenobi gives instructions to Rex and Cody, saying they can expect reinforcements within a few days, and to hold down the fort. The three men converse, and both soldiers salute Kenobi, who replies with “May the Force Be With You”, just as Padme and the two droids board. 

We watch the ship take off. It’s a large ship, maybe a royal yacht or mid-size courier. It’s large enough where no one notices Anakin’s absence right away.

But once in the air, Kenobi finds Anakin, training with remotes. He’s up to ten remotes at once now in order to be challenged. Kenobi watches, even admires this. Anakin, mid-fight, asks about Jedi lore, and Kenobi relays how the Jedi long ago were more familiar with war thousands of years ago, how they were different times. He offers to spar with Anakin, and the two circle each other, lightsabers drawn. Kenobi expects Skywalker to be good, but not *that* good. The two Jedi pick up the pace.  They talk about being a Padawan, about Jedi training, about Qui Gon. A friendship is being forged.

Cut to Padme, the four clones now have taken position in her suite. She’s laying out clothes, and the droids offer levity. She’s excited to be heading to Coruscant and not just for a Senate meeting. She exits the room, and two clones follow her out, as bodyguards. 

In the hallway, she encounters a tired, beat up and sweaty Anakin, the sort of time a teenager with a crush doesn’t want to meet the object of his crush. Skywalker fumbles through a conversation, nearly letting slip that he’s been watching her and/or that he’s got a crush on her. Padme, just like the girl at school, listens and lets him think she hasn’t noticed. She dazzles him with a smile, teasing him about being a Jedi Master already, and departs for the front of the ship. We see that Anakin’s quarters are across the hall from Padme’s. The scene ends with him entering his bunk, presumably to clean himself up. 

The ship hurtles through hyperspace, and we find Kenobi up in the cockpit, talking to the pilot. They’re trying to get landing clearance at Coruscant, when a priority message from the Jedi Council interrupts. 

Kenobi takes the message there in the cockpit. It’s from Yoda, telling him to come to the Temple once they’ve arrived, that it’s urgent. Yoda is concerned, and that’s not typical, or a good sign. Obi Wan says he’ll be there soon, and urges the pilot to get the ship there quickly. 

Once they land, the clone troopers disembark, and stand guard at the ship as our heroes depart. It appears they’re going to go in separate directions, against the advice of Kenobi. Anakin offers to go with her. Kenobi says to take two of the clones as guards. Padme relents, saying she’s dressed down and no one will notice her, that she’ll be with her father and family and all their guards. Anakin agrees. After some arguing, Kenobi says to be careful and to meet back with him at the Jedi Temple later. Padme is pleased. Anakin is excited. Two of the clone troopers break off. As everyone goes their separate ways, we linger on the two remaining clones who re-enter the ship. We hear the pilot say, “What the hell” then a blaster fires. No one notices.

Cut to Kenobi meeting with Yoda. They’re discussing a troubling matter, one of the outlying planets, a very “important strategic planet”, Kamino, hasn’t reported in. Yoda authorizes Kenobi to investigate, and says he’ll send a second Jedi along as well. Kenobi suggests Skywalker, saying that if there’s trouble, Skywalker can handle it. There’s a pride in his voice. Yoda starts to sense it and comment, but that’s when the door opens and Windu arrives saying that Palpatine is waiting in a conference room. Yoda says to take Skywalker, and make a full report later. 

Jump to Padme and Anakin, sitting as two teenagers do: making awkward conversation that verges on flirting. Anakin makes her laugh, telling her a story about Jedi training. He looks around the penthouse owned by BAIL ORGANA  and when no one else can see, he floats her drink a few inches off the table for her. She reaches for it, and he moves it just out of reach. More laughing. She puts her hand on his, and in that moment, the glass drops, spilling liquid on both of them. More laughing, she’s still touching his hand before she breaks the hold to clean up. He seems confident, coming out of his shell. She seems aware of her effect on him. Enter LEIA ORGANA, in her later 20s, Padme’s older sister who flops herself down on a sofa. The two sisters talk, Leia expressing the exhaustion of politics, and Padme talking about homesickness. Anakin joins the conversation when it turns to emotions and the Jedi. They talk, Anakin makes them laugh with a Yoda impression of how love is forbidden. They talk about going home, to Alderaan, and Anakin says that when he’s made a Knight, he’ll return home to Tatooine and it will be good to see his family. The girls tease him about how they thought he was already a Jedi Master, and they fake the Jedi Mind Trick, before all three descend into laughter. The young man takes a step further from his shell as the Organa women encourage him.

Back to Kamino we cut, as Maul is killing the last of the Kamino troopers. For every trooper cut down, a clone comes along to strip the body, and assume the identity. Maul reports in to Palpatine, “Master, it is done.”

Kenobi reaches the Organa penthouse, where he speaks with Bail over reinforcing Naboo. The Senator hands over some documents affirming this, and when Kenobi says he has a mission from the Jedi, Organa asks that he make sure Padme return to Naboo safely first. Obi Wan agrees, and the two men talk war and teenagers, the frustrations of leadership. Organa compliments Kenobi on his wisdom, Kenobi compliments Organa on his courage and strength. Organa says he gets it from his wife, and sees a lot of her in his daughters. They talk Padme, they talk about Anakin. A good conversation. Bail excuses himself and leaves Kenobi watching the Coruscant traffic on the patio. 

Another wipe, it’s night now, and our heroes are boarding the ship. Bail and Leia have come to see them off. We notice more and more clone-troopers assembled around them, and more of them boarding the ship. Leia and Padme hug, and Leia quietly tells Padme to keep an eye on Anakin, he’s a “good guy”. Padme agrees, but shushes her sister when Anakin tells Padme that her quarters are all set, and the droids are on board. The Organa sisters thank their “Jedi Master”, now the three of them sharing that joke, and our heroes board the ship. Kenobi is the last one, he looks out at Coruscant as if he’ll never see it again. We get a sense that might be the case.

We follow him to the cockpit where he remarks on the new pilot. The clone-trooper-posing-as-a-pilot replies, “Shift change”, a bureaucratic answer Obi Wan has heard before. They talk about Naboo and the course they’ll fly. 

Kenobi leaves the cockpit to find Anakin, sitting in his quarters, spinning his lightsaber. The two move to the cargo hold, and commence sparring. They talk as the fight, Obi Wan mentioning how there’s more to being a Jedi than carrying a lightsaber. Anakin laments how he’ll miss this when he’s back on clerical duty, and Obi Wan explains with a smile that he won’t be on clerical duty, because he’ll be riding shotgun on the Kamino mission. Anakin asks if that makes him Obi Wan’s Padawan, and Obi Wan a little too quickly says, “If you want to be.” The two men cease their sparring to shake hands and hug. A friendship cemented.

Anakin leaves to tell Padme the good news, he finds in her in suite, partially hidden, and partially undressed, in silhouette. She tells him to turn around. He uses the Force to angle a mirror so he can see her bare back as she dresses. She hears the mirror move and exaggerates her actions, giving him a tease and a bit of what he wants. The two continue talking as he shares his Padawan-ship, and she offers him a blue milk to celebrate. She asks, over drinks, if Jedi cannot have emotions, how can he be happy? This gives something for Anakin to think about while he drinks. 

The ship reaches Naboo without incident, and as they disembark, Cody and Rex greet Kenobi, pointing to the sky with hundreds of ships landing and disembarking as well. All the ships are packed with troopers and supplies, the troopers marked with blue shoulderguards. All clones, all hidden beneath helmets. Cody and Rex are happy to see the “General” again, and pleased that Organa authorized the reinforcements. But Kenobi wasn’t expecting so many. He’s thankful for them, but still, there’s a lot of troops. He informs his friends that he isn’t staying, and that he’s here to drop off the Queen then head out to Kamino. Rex tells him that no one’s heard from Kamino in weeks, and he’s worried that the Separatists took it over. Cody echoes these sentiments.

Over Kenobi’s shoulder we see Padme share a close moment with Anakin, as this is where they go their separate ways. They’re closer now, not intimate but close friends. They laugh, wish each other well, and she kisses him, “For luck” she says. Anakin blushes, emotions getting the better of him, and the droids interrupt just before he can kiss her. 

Guards and the droids escort Padme away, and she calls back to Anakin to be careful and send word when he can. Anakin runs to join Obi Wan, eager to head off on their mission. The ship is reprovisioned. Cody and Rex pull Anakin aside and rib him about his “girlfriend”. The young Jedi blushes, saying it’s really nice to have someone care about him. Kenobi steps in and says they’re leaving. 

The two Jedi talk about Padme, since Anakin is distracted. Obi Wan talks about his past some, about a girl he knew when he wasn’t yet Qui Gon’s Padawan. About how they were close. Much of what he shares parallel’s Anakin and Padme. This pleases Skywalker greatly, swelling him with pride. They re-board the ship and prepare to leave.

Cut to Palpatine talking to Yoda, Windu and Alama, explaining how he’s worried about Kamino, and how he’s aware that it has strategic value. Windu explains that they assigned Obi Wan and Anakin Skywalker to check out. Palpatine digs for more information on both of them, and when the answers are not forthcoming, he makes a motion to indicate he’s using some Sith sorcery to influence the conversation. The Jedi Masters don’t pick up on it, it’s too quick. 

Cut to now hundreds of clone troopers marching all around Naboo’s capital. We see Rex and Cody talking about how so many planets have troopers everywhere, and they can’t account for the quick numbers. Maybe it’s conscription, maybe not. But with a bolstered army, the Separatists won’t stand a chance. As they talk, we montage through other planets: Corellia, Tatooine, Sullust, Kashyyk, all packed with clone-troopers coming off ships. 

Back to Kenobi and Anakin. They’ve reached Kamino, and on first inspection there’s nothing out of place. Except each of them see random blaster fire scorching a few panels on walls and the ground. They intensify their search. One of the Kaminoans, a scientist, greets the two Jedi and offers them a tour, assuring them that’s nothing wrong.

This factory is a cloning facility, and under an executive order from the Senate, it’s been in operation for some time now. We see the creation and maturation of clones. We see them training with blasters. We are seeing the growth of a test tube army. Both Kenobi and Skywalker are surprised. 

The tour continues, and Kenobi stops the scientist, to say he should check in with the Jedi Council. The scientist says he’ll continue the tour with Anakin, and Kenobi can use their communications center. Kenobi and Anakin share a look – be careful – and split.

Kenobi makes his way to the communications center, and when he opens the door, he takes a boot to the face. It’s Maul, waiting for him. Lightsabers out, the two men fight. 

Meanwhile, the scientist has led Anakin down another hallway, and to a dead end. When Anakin realizes this, the scientist drops his disguise. It’s DOOKU, blaster drawn. Anakin wants answers, and Dooku explains that he’s been ordered to kill him. A fight breaks out, and Dooku reveals some Force ability. Many objects are hurled or exploded. Big fight. 

Kenobi and Maul fight just as intensely. We intercut between the two fights. Maul taunts Kenobi over Jinn’s death and Dooku taunts Skywalker over his weaknesses. Back and forth both battles go. Kenobi this time is patient, not falling for it. 

The same cannot be said of Anakin who has taken an aggressive position and looks to be unstoppable. Dooku loses a hand, yet still compliments Anakin on how much like a Sith he could be before making an escape.

Maul and Kenobi stalemate, with Maul Force-kicking Kenobi down a hallway before closing a blast door between them. Kenobi can only watch as Maul and Dooku board a ship and escape. Kenobi yells in frustration before searching out Anakin. Skywalker is back in the room we last saw him in, looking down at his own hand. Dooku’s severed one is just out of focus on the ground below. Anakin is shaken. And the two men talk. It’s Anakin’s first battle, and he was angry. Kenobi says that’s normal, but a Jedi controls his emotions. Anakin says “That’s just it, it felt good.” 

Kenobi consoles him, struck a bit by Anakin’s answer. This is an unexpected part of having a Padawan. He never got a chance to ask Qui Gon about how to handle it. Kenobi says that together they’ll be mindful about it. Each man catches the other up on what happens. They attempt, and fail, to send word to the Jedi Council, but the system has been disabled. Anakin patches it together well enough to get a message to Cody and Rex who report that they’ll pass it along, but everything’s fine on Naboo.

Cut to the ship with Dooku and Maul. Dooku sets the navicomputer and gets up from the cockpit. He finds Maul in communication with a Palpatine hologram, and overhears the status update Maul is giving his Master. Palpatine ends the transmission with, “You’ve done well my Apprentice. Now we move onto the next stage in our plan.” 

Dooku wants to know what the plan is, and Maul explains it has to do with seizing control of many situations at once. Like a fist closing around a victim’s throat. Dooku starts to say something about not having faith in so aggressive a move, but Maul Force chokes him replying, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” Dooku is dropped, and just before we wipe, we hear Maul ignite his lightsaber. 

Back to Naboo, a hologram of Palpatine speaks to one of the clone troopers, one by one appearing on their helmet display. The hologram says, “Commence”, and as if by magic, troopers begin drawing weapons. We cut to other planets: Endor, Mustafar, Bespin and see troopers beginning their assaults. 

There on Naboo, a platoon marches on the throne room, taking Padme and the droids by force. Rex and Cody rally their men and begin mounting a counter-offensive. 

On Coruscant, troops flood the Jedi Temple. They overwhelm a majority of the recruits and their families. The more experienced Jedi Council retreat to the Council Chamber, hunkering down. They send out a distress call to Kenobi and Skywalker. 

Word reaches the two Jedi as they’re setting a course off Kamino, and each side relays the relevant information – a clone army looking like their own troopers, Maul, Dooku, Jedi under siege. Once the call ends, Anakin worries over Padme saying they should check on her. Kenobi says their priority is the rest of the Jedi. The two friends disagree, Anakin’s emotions getting the better of him as pieces of the ship fly off shelves. Kenobi calms him down saying they will get to Naboo, get Padme and some troops then head to Coruscant. 

Naboo is in full-on battle. Troopers are only distinguishable by blue on their armor, or they’re unmasked. It’s pitched warfare everywhere. Skywalker puts the craft down on the Palace roof, and meet Cody and Rex, who are shooting their way through clones. The foursome rescue Padme and the droids and make it back to the ship. 

As they break atmosphere, they can only watch as the giant Separatist ships come out of hyperspace and begin to bombard Naboo’s surface. 

We go to credits as we watch Padme cry against Anakin. Rex and Cody each put a hand on Kenobi’s shoulder. The war has certainly escalated.

*

So that’s part 2. Part 3 will be up soon.

The Writer and Pain

I’m writing this when I’m tired, despite the numerous people telling that the best thing I can do is go to bed for eight to ten hours. I am writing this because today I hurt, and I hurt in a way that goes deeper than bone or marrow, and it wasn’t until about twenty-six minutes ago that I even thought today was a good day.

See, on Friday, I had a big dream of mine crushed. And I don’t mean crushed like the way you lose a video game by an embarrassing score, I mean crushed the way an addict grinds up a good pill, or the way the weight of the world hangs like an anchor down between your shoulder blades when you’re just worn down to the last nerve. I will spare you the specifics, but just know this – I had hope, I had a plan to do a very awesome thing, and it would have in turn lead to some very awesome praise, which would have led to even more awesome things.

And this isn’t just about me being told “No.” I hear “No” a lot. This didn’t feel like a “No, we’re not interested in what you’re offering to do“, which I hear all the time, so much so that it’s just a part of doing business. This felt like “No, you loser, no, you sad fat sick piece of shit, you don’t get to sit at the big-kid-table of success, because you spent every single one of your formative years out of your mind, and all your best experiences happened outside the normal boundaries, and this thing you want to do, this idea, it’s not inside the box we expect ideas to come in, so take it and roll your ass out the door.”

That hurts. It hurts because I had to have conversations with people I respect, people I admire, my friends, people who look at me as a mentor and as a friend and I had to tell them, “Yeah, this didn’t work out.” I had to be more than mature, I had to be brave and strong and big and ready, and I wanted so badly to tell them I’m none of those things right now, because I hurt, just like you. Maybe not the same way, but I hurt too.

I had a good day Saturday. I laughed and smiled and was with the person I love and despite freezing temperatures, for the first time in my adult life, enjoyed a baseball game simply for being in the seat, not because I was obligated to attend it – I got to be me. Side note – I love all times when I get to be me.

But I thought that “being me” meant that I could only be the positive me, the me with good news, the me who was excited to share this whizz-bang set of mechanics that makes something fun, the me who laughs an obnoxious laugh that makes prudish people stare at restaurants.

This weekend taught me that being me means I get to be me with the bruises showing. That it’s okay to sit in a car in a Starbucks parking lot, biting back tears because you’re just so tired and just so hurt, and you’re past anger over the not-getting-a-thing, you’re fighting and clawing your way out of a hole lined with oil and glass, sliding and getting cut. Bleeding and falling.

Because, I don’t know if you know this, but sometimes, it’s hard not to feel like a failure. It’s hard, even in the face of people who can point to your successes and you say to them, “Yeah, but that’s the past.” and you look at the present and you see things you’re *not* doing, and you look at the future and all you see is, even if for a moment, how hard it might be to do the things you want.

Now I don’t know if I’m going to feel this way come Monday morning. I hope I don’t, this sucks. This sucks because it hurts, and it sucks because it’s draining. It’s a leech, and it makes every breath feel like I’m taking it through concrete cheesecloth and that every limb is weighed down in lead blankets like at the dentist’s office.

I’m tired, this hurts. This is my illness talking. This isn’t me. I don’t know if it is me or not, but at this moment, this is my experience, and these are my feelings. I don’t want any of you to feel the ache that comes with wanting something and not getting it, I don’t want any of you to have to push off your plans and dreams because there’s any measure of other-people-telling-you-no.

I make a living somewhat invisibly, which is why I started doing development and why I reignited the fire under me to do more interviews and speaking. This is not a post where I want your praise. This is not a pity party. This is a tired man’s ramble. These are the disjointed thoughts of someone in pain. These are the thoughts of someone who is taking his one talent, wordcraft, and making something of it.

Big sigh. Pause here a minute. Exhale. Wish you were getting a hug right now. These are the things I say to myself when only the dog is listening.

When you get a chance to go after a big dream, go for it. Let nothing stop you. Not even the fear of getting hurt, which might happen. If it happens, it happens, you manage it the best you can. And if you get hurt, be hurt, not immobilized. Not paralyzed. Just hurt, for a little while. Wounds mend. Moods pass. I learned that tonight in a Starbucks parking lot.

I’m tired. I got denied one dream and yeah, it feels like right now there’s this dryspell, that I’m not in the center of a great productive hurricane like I was a few months ago. But that’s nobody’s fault – it’s not always going to be the busiest you’ve ever been. It is what it is. I wish it didn’t hurt sometimes to say that, or type (each finger striking a key feels like falling down a flight of stairs) it.

Here’s to hoping things improve. Here’s to tomorrow, which is a better day because it starts new and hasn’t been written yet.

86 Things I’ve Said on Twitter, Part 3

This is Part 3 in a continuing series of things I said on Twitter last week. Part 2 is found here. Today, there are ten items. Rock on.

I’m an editor. My job is to help you get your story/creation/thing into the best shape it can be. Not a “gatekeeper”, unless YOU say so.

“Gatekeeper” as a buzzword cropped up a few years ago (at least as far as I can tell), to explain that in traditional publishing models you have to get your work past some literary Cerberus before your creation can hang out in the word-Underworld.

And this idea set up this them-vs-us sort of barrier, that whoever was a gatekeeper was an obstacle, some additional wall you had to climb or hoop you had to jump through.

Yes, there might be some old crusty guys still adhering to the old model of publishing, and they may very well be quite the gatekeepers, arbitrating and adjudicating whether or not your work is “good enough”. But by and large, that model is on the decline.

I’m an editor. It says so on my business cards. I don’t ever feel like a gatekeeper. I am an enabler. I help you get your creation into the best shape it can be, both so that it may later blow the socks off whatever gatekeeper in encounters, but also so that you can see that you’re good at this, and that you tell good stories and that your stories deserve to be a part of the marketplace and pantheon of creations.

I’m no gatekeeper unless you make me out to be one. Approach me timidly, approach me coming from that place of “Oh John I hope I’m good enough to have you look at this.” and watch me have no choice but to play that role for you, even if I don’t want to. You are good enough to have me (or any editor) look at your work. You just are.

P.S. Please don’t make me be a gatekeeper. It sucks.

If writing is important to you, if it’s a thing you want to do or a thing you want to be called, why aren’t you making time for it?

Far and away, the biggest complaint I hear is how people don’t have time for writing. And they’re quick to trot out a ton of reasons why – they have jobs, they have kids, they’re tired, the phone kept ringing, etc etc. Some of these reasons are valid. Some are not. Usually when this statement gets made at me I point out that some of the reasons aren’t valid and don’t have as much weight as the person thinks they do.

And other times I ask the person to write out their schedule (in big blocks of hours), so that they can see where exactly they’re spending their time, and to see that (for example) while the dishes run, that’s 30 whole minutes where they just sort of sit on the couch. In those same thirty minutes, I bet they could write several paragraphs.

I wrote a whole blogpost about this – Making Time To Create.

If it’s really and truly important to you, you’ll make the time. Just like you make time for exercise or playing with your kids or tending your garden. Make time for what matters to you.

How long are you going to call yourself “new” at writing? When are you going to accept that you love it, and it’s okay to succeed?

Next week, 60 workers are descending upon my home and installing nearly two dozen new windows. This has not only set off a great deal of anxiety (because, hey, new people) but also really rubbed my comfort level the wrong way. In order to give them access to the windows, I’ve had to move all my furniture and bookshelves. This gave me a chance to count my books on writing.

195.

There are three whole bookcases (the floor to ceiling kind) lined with books about how to write, how to plot, how to figure stuff out. And for a long time, I thought that I could find the “right” book that would tell me the perfect way to tell the best story from start to finish. I found a few that came close, but they didn’t exactly  get me there.

Books are often aimed at new writers, or people about to become new writers, because they’re hungry for advice. You know why there aren’t so many books aimed at experienced writers? Because the experienced writers figured something out —

That you figure your own process out as you write. The act of doing the thing teaches you about the thing. In your own way. Tailored precisely for you. That’s not something a book can teach.

How long are you going to chase the books? Sure there are great morsels of advice in those books, sure they might help you. But there’s no substitute for sitting down and writing and discovering yourself by taking the action.

It’s okay to be new at this. It’s okay not to be new at this. It’s okay to succeed. People want you to succeed (not all people, but that’s for another time). You want you to succeed. So, get writing. And succeed. Book or no book.

You know what’s great? An author excited about their work. You know what’s not great? An author paralyzed by bad advice and fear.

Here’s the other danger in books – some of them discourage people from writing by making the process sound scarier or confusing, when in fact, writing is just taking an idea out of your head, and painting it into other peoples’ minds with words.

How can a book of bad advice get published you ask? A couple reasons: 1) If bad advice leads you to not get published, it makes it all the easier for other people to get published (smaller pool of applicants for a job) 2) Some people don’t realize that their advice is bad, thinking so highly of themselves that what they spout is verbal gold, not verbal sludge. 3) Anyone can get anything published (see: whatever awful book you most recently suffered through).

Be excited about your work. Don’t let yourself be dissuaded from your goal. Keep writing, keep going. You can do this. (I mean, unless you can’t, but that’s for another discussion.)

You can curse in your work. In your work, you’re like Aladdin, showing us a world. Do whatever feels best for the story.

I have a client who loves to write arguments. They enjoy creating back-and-forth moments between characters. They love the tight exposition and the chemistry between people in those moments.

And then they write a line like this, “[Character A], you’re a real lame-o.”

When I flag this sentence as being both an eyesore and not indicative of tension, I ask “What’s up with ‘lame-o’ and get told something to the effect of “I didn’t think it was okay to curse.”

It’s totally okay to curse. It’s okay to have sentence fragments. It’s okay to do whatever you need to (short of totally wrecking grammar and punctuation) in order to give the reader the details they need to see this created experience the way you see it / the way you want them to see it.

Curse like a sailor. Kick ass. Take names. Do whatever feels best FOR THE STORY.

Rule #1 – Writing is the act of making decisions. The sky is blue until you say otherwise. Make choices. Own them. Go forward.

I teach this rule to as many of my clients as possible. This is the first thing I say to new writers. I usually say this three or four times during workshops.

How do you know what happens next in the story? You decide. How do you know where to start? You decide.

You’re in charge. Make choices. Put your foot down. Go forward from that point. The only “wrong” choice is not to do anything at all.

Don’t tell me you’re only an author AFTER publication/sales. Are you writing? You’re an author. Sure, you can love how other authors write, you can want to be like them. BUT YOU ARE AN AUTHOR TOO, AREN’T YOU? BE YOU!

There’s a lot of focus on the end-goals of writing. Being published. Being “legit”. Making tons of cash. Living the jet-setting high life. But you don’t get the title of “author” after you write. You get the title AS you write.

This usually partners with another thought – that in order to be an author, you have to sound like an already established author, or you have to do whatever they do. Curse like a Wendig. Emote like a McGuire. Explain like a Hammett.

You don’t. You have one job to do — to write like a [whatever your name is].

That’s what readers want. Not a clone. They want you. Your voice. Your way. Your words.

How much writing is “enough” for a day? You need at least one new word a day. Everything else is icing on cakes.

I’m a big fan of “two new pages a day”. It works great for screenwriting. It makes short work of theater pieces. And in text, when you’re double-spacing, two pages can fly by if it’s a conversation. But that’s my pace. That’s a speed I figured out that works for me, given my schedule and how fast my fingers hit keys. Your speed may be totally different, and that’s okay.

But don’t conceive of writing as a race. It’s no sprint. There’s no bonus waiting for you if you write faster than the person to your left. Your pace is your pace, and at its heart, even one new word a day on the page gets you one step closer to being done. If you can get one more word, then the next words come all the easier. One word at a time. And if you can string several words together into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into pages, and pages into chapters…that’s just awesome.

Worried about your “platform”, your “presence” or [other buzzword here] ? JUST WRITE YOUR STORIES PLEASE. AND THEN TALK ABOUT THEM A LOT

Want to find the people to avoid at a mixer, cocktail hour or slightly douchey conference? Find the people who spout buzzwords more than pronouns. Your life as an author is not about your platform. Yes, you need a platform (read: website, social media presence) if you want to engage/interact with your audience, but it’s just a set of tools to interact with people IN ADDITION TO writing. It’s no measure of your quality as a person, nor a reflection on your work. And anyone who inflates your platform ahead of your writing needs a swift kick in the pants. And/or they’re trying to sell you something.

So what do you do? You write. Then, in whatever media you’re comfortable (me, I like Twitter, podcasts and blogposts) you talk about what you’ve written. Then you write more, then you talk more about it.

Buzzwords can suck it.

How do you make a scene more tense? Focus on big AND little details, but in tighter sentences.

You watch TV? Ever pay attention to the where the camera focuses? Sure it shows up close-ups on our favorite actors, and it shows cars on a road, but did you see how the camera focused on the picture of the character’s wife on the wall when the guy was talking about missing her? It’s showing us a detail that isn’t the character, so that we learn more about the character. 
And that builds tension. See, tension isn’t just what you build when you want to make the next scene more exciting. Tension is any built-up feeling. It could be comedy, like we’re all waiting to laugh. It could be nervousness – will the spy get caught before she can escape? 
How that gets built in visual media is by the camera. In text, we have to go with sentences. Long sentences draw our eye across the page slower than short sentences. 
Compare:
He moved across the room with all determination and purpose, a skulking panther in fleece pajama pants and a grubby t-shirt. 
In his grubby shirt and pajamas, he skulked across the room with a purpose.
21 words versus 14. Shorter sentences have a greater punch, moving us from one thought to the next faster than the longer sentences, which consume time and energy to read. 
Also, what the sentence talks about gives us a clue about what to think about. A character who forever gets dumped upon and is weighed down by the world has a lot of power in their first, “No”. 
During the scene where we’re to be focused on what the character is feeling, try anchoring that feeling to something tangible. A mother’s locket. A picture of a spouse. An image of their kids playing ball in the yard. The dog at their feet.  
The details that aren’t expressly about the character say as much about the character’s world and the character’s place in it as the description of how the character felt at a particular time. 
Remember: You control what the reader pictures. You paint the images on the mental canvas, so what do you want to show us? Where should we pay attention?
Part 4 will be up next week (likely not Monday, maybe Tuesday). Happy writing. 

86 Things I’ve Said on Twitter, Part 2

Last week, I started a new series on the blog: 86 Things I’ve Said on Twitter, a lengthy collection of Tweet-sized advice covering all kinds of motivation, writing, and publishing advice.

Part 1 is here. This is part 2, with eleven items.

And there’s still time to pre-register for tomorrow night’s online workshop.

No one’s going to know if you wrote the thing you did over the course of a month or a year or a decade IF YOU DO THE BEST YOU CAN.

I’m not sure why, but a lot of people, and a lot of books about writing put a large emphasis on how long it takes you to write something. Novels in 90 days, poetry in sixty minutes, twenty-seven overtures before lunch…and I get it, in part. If you give yourself a deadline, you’re challenging part of yourself to be disciplined, and treat it like a short-term goal. And I’m a big fan of discipline when it comes to accomplishing your dreams. BUT, the downside to that discipline is this — sure I can write something in 90 days, but if I’m new at it, if I have my doubts as to my ability, is it going to be any good? (I mean from my own perspective, let alone some other person’s).

Yeah, I can paint a wall in two minutes, but it might not be the prettiest job. I’ve always been the sort of guy who freaks out during timed elements in video games, always worried that I’m going to be late for appointments, always worried that I’m behind some curve — so why would I impose that sense on my work?

There’s no prize for getting it done quickly (and in a lot of cases, instead of a prize, you get a nice assumption that it’s done poorly). It doesn’t matter how long it takes you, so long as eventually, it gets done. Want an example? Check out George RR Martin’s writing/release schedule. Dude’s like a glacier with words.

When you’re explaining what makes your story cool/exciting. THAT’S THE SAME THING AS A PITCH, just less dressed up.

So much emphasis is placed on the pitch – making it sound good, giving it to the right person in just the right way, making sure it has the right words and not these wrong ones over here…it can get really overwhelming and confusing.

Let’s simplify it. When someone is listening to (or reading) your pitch, what are they looking for? Action, the juicy exciting parts that make them want to read/hear the rest of the story. Isn’t that much simpler to think about?

Here’s an example. Pick your favorite movie of all time. Now pick your favorite part of it (just a scene or two). Describe it out loud. Sprinkle in some back story and some explanation on who the characters are, and that’s a pitch.

If you wanted to dress up that pitch, you’d probably use more formal language, maybe chop out a few um’s or uhh’s or something, right? But on the whole, you just pitched your favorite movie to me. You can easily repeat this process for your favorite book, or for the thing you’re writing now.

Have you considered taking one of your characters and changing a trait you take for granted? A king who curses, thieves who like cats?

Characters are a tricky thing. They can be the centerpiece of a great story. They can be memorable for reasons both good and bad. They can also be staler than old crackers. How do you prevent that? How can you keep your characters from “just” being whatever they are, somewhat generic and a little dull?

When you map out your characters, when you write out a character’s aspects, make one of them stand out from the others. I don’t mean suddenly make a guy green or something (though maybe that’s okay, depending on what you’re doing), I mean give the character a trait that isn’t typical for who and what they are.

An alcoholic divorcee who always wanted to get into snorkeling is far more compelling than another drunk lech who mistreated his wife. Having one element of a character stand out is something people will connect to, and make the character memorable.

If you’ve got a word count (like in a contest), don’t forget to cut out adverbs, double-verbs and excess dialog tags. Make words matter

As an editor, I love word count. I make a living on word count. But as a writer, as a game creator, word counts make me break out into cold sweats. They seem like limits that I’m uncontrollably rocketing towards at Mach 1. They seem like hurdles I have to leap…or else meet some grisly fate.

You can trim down the adverbs, they get to be like a crutch, not clarifying the verb as much as you think they do (why can’t you just use a different verb?).

A double-verb is something like “was running” or “had been thinking”. And yes, there’s a place for this sort of construction every once in a while, but on the whole, show this stuff out the door if you’re trying to be more declarative about what your character is or isn’t doing. (Hint: Being declarative is a good thing)

If there are only two characters talking, and you just spent the first two lines of dialogue establishing a rhythm that he-said, then she-said, you don’t need to keep reminding us of that.

Like this:
            “I like your hair.” he said.
            “Thanks.” She blushed. It made her prettier.

Whatever line comes next, we can assume that HE’s going to say it. Save a little space here by not reminding us “he said” “she answered” etc etc. You may need those words later for awesome sentences.

If a character gets shot/blown up/stabbed/burnt in Chapter 1, I’d expect them to be limping/in pain/hurting in Chapter 2.

Unless you’re writing Superman, your character is not a superman. Especially if you’re aiming for “gritty realism” or whatever hot new buzzword corresponds to “realistic”. Many authors, especially new or nervous ones, think that the best way to hook readers is to really go all Michael Bay on the opening pages, blowing up a building or something, as if to set a bar about what you can expect within the next three hundred pages or so. Which is awesome, except…

It sets both a pace and a “power level” for the story that might be too hard to maintain. Blow up a building and I expect repercussions, else the building didn’t really matter to the landscape. Shoot a guy in the gut and I expect blood loss, pain and likely a slow death.

When story elements happen early, I treat them like setups for what happens later in the story, and am satisfied as a reader when they pay off. When things happen (and often they’re fights or injuries) but are immediately shrugged off as if they don’t really hurt or don’t matter, I have to ask myself, “Well, why did the author spend time telling me about them if they aren’t important?”

If that question comes up too many times in a book, I will likely stop reading that book. That’s not a good way to build an audience.

Don’t write a trend into your book. Your story is whatever your story is. It’ll find an audience. It just might not be the one you think.

Trends are short term waves of popularity for ideas and concepts. Remember when everyone told supernatural romance stories? Or when everyone really liked saying sports were “extreme”? Those are trends. And while they make great fodder for magazines and blogs and get scrutinized and predicted by talking heads everywhere, a writer should never feel like they have to include a trend or two just to capitalize on it or be perceived as popular.

It’s not the trend that makes an author popular. It’s what the author does in their story, with their words, in sharing their vision and their world that makes an author popular. Trends are short lived. Audiences last longer. And every book will find an audience eventually, if the search is honest, open and earnest.

If you want to show two characters in love, saying “and now they’re in love” doesn’t cut it. SHOW us scenes to help draw that conclusion

Love is really hard to see. Sure there are actions we undertake to demonstrate that we love someone else, but there’s no giant neon sign over our heads pointing out “she’s in love!”or “he digs her!”.

So look to our actions to figure out whether or not we’re in love. And when you’re trying to convey that character A loves character B, sure they can say it to one another, but proving it is another matter altogether.  Granted, if you’re working in a visual medium, the characters can look at each other and we can see it, but if you’re in print, you need to play out those scenes that help us draw the conclusion that yes, this couple is in love.

Think of exposition like a camera, zooming in on details or pulling back to show us how big the picture is.

This idea is called “psychic distance” and I teach a lot about it in workshops. Your exposition is where we get to see the whole stage, so where are we to focus? We’ll follow the narration. How are you describing the birds in the trees? If it’s just a word or two, then maybe they’re not a big deal. If you’ve broken out two paragraphs on the merits of sparrows, then clearly, you’ve got something to say about birds. (The amount of words you spend on a thing tells us that the thing-described has more “narrative weight”, meaning, it’s a big deal)

You control what the reader focuses on, from the littlest detail about an eyebrow quirk to the big importance of the wind during a hurricane. And we want to follow the ‘camera’ as it tells us the story.

You know what’s annoying? Written st-st-st-st-st-stutters. When a person stutters, we get it.

S-s-s-s-s-s-ee h-h-h-ow ann-n-n-n-n-oy-y-y-y-y-y-ing th-th-th-th-th-is looks? Don’t do it. Don’t use the actual display of text to convey something. Typography is great and cool when we’re doing layout and games and things, but when we’re cranking out 300 pages of fiction, how about you just say “he stammered” and move forward?

Shockingly not every story has to risk the whole of existence, the fate of all beings or the entire kingdom. Small stories work too.

We talked a little before about how a story’s “power level” can be this huge monumental thing, which causes a story to be very much weighted towards the maximum side of whatever scale we’re talking about. It may seem obvious that when a story involves all a race or an entire planet or whatever, that we’re supposed to care extra because of the quantity of danger.

But can’t the flipside also be true? If you’ve only introduced four characters in the whole story, and you risk a pair of them, that’s 50% of the characters in the story. Keeping the psychic distance close to the characters and keeping the story intimate is what makes us care about the risks. It’s only a numbers game in comic books, summer action movies or those B-movies on SyFy.

You don’t have to write in dialect in order to be understood in dialect. That’s for the reader to manage.

Before we go further, congratulate yourself on reading this far. Now, our last point of the day. Earlier in this list we talked about that annoying stutter. The same is true for breaking out accents and dialects. It might be funny the first time character A encounters character B, but on the sixtieth time, when I’m supposed to have these two characters as buddy cops solving a crime, I’m more wanting B to just make some damned sense so the killer gets caught.

You accomplish more saying “He spoke in a brogue” than trying to parse out the vowel sounds and where the apostrophes go in the lines of dialogue. You’ll get less frustrated typing it, your editor will gripe less at you, and most importantly, the reader won’t be confused as to what a character is saying.

Part 3 will be up Friday. Happy writing. 

86 Things I’ve Said On Twitter, Part 1

If you’ve been following me on Twitter over the last two days, I’ve just been bombarding social media with punchy little lists of writing tips and advice. I hope I didn’t upset or offend anyone in blasting a stream of thoughts, it wasn’t my intention.

In part this is because I have a Workshop (I’ve recently found the phrase “creativity workshop” which is pretty great) coming up Tuesday night (details here) and in part because these thoughts constantly rocket through my brain and I usually just bite my tongue because some other editor or a respected writer says these things at a much slower pace. And frankly, it’s felt pretty good to just throw all these things out there, and see how they help people.

So, rather than just drop all 86 without explanation, I’m breaking them into chunks. Here are the first six.


1. Don’t think about writing in terms of “getting published”, think about it in terms of “I want readers to read stuff”. Aim for audience. 

It’s really tempting, and a lot of books reinforce this idea that publishing is some be-all, end-all that once you get published, it’s all sunshine and roses and puppies. But, talk to published authors, and a lot of them are working harder now than before they were first published — almost as if publishing isn’t the end of the marathon, but the start of a new one. To that end, I caution you not to go so far down the “must get published to be legit” road, and think instead of what publishing translates to, which means readers get their hands on your creations. The goal is to get readers (as that assumes they’ve spent money to purchase your things, right?). Think of all the books that sit unread on a shelf. Sure, they’re published, but are they being read?

2. How long should a book be? Long enough to show me a plot arc, some interesting character growth and some insight about you as a writer.

One of my favorite amusing things to Google, aside from “the A-Team theme song”, is “how long should a book be” because the answers are so varied, yet so certain of themselves. Novels have this many words. Novellas have that many words. Oh you have some other number that’s just a hair over? Well then you fall into this third category.

See, these categories are imposed on authors by publishers for a lot reasons (read: costs to print, edit and produce) and aren’t really indicators of quality or requirement. A novella is a short novel, but a short novel is also a short novel. A book of poems might just be ten words, but a children’s book might also be ten words. The labels and connotations of those labels don’t always translate well to the people writing whatever they’re writing – because if you get it into your head that you have only a certain number of words to say what you have to say, then you’re going to panic as that number approaches.

Take a different tack. Let the story be however long it’s going to be, so that over the course of the story, the reader can see the plot get introduced, developed and solved as well as the character(s) involved get some expansion and maturation as well. How you do this, however you choose to accomplish those goals will share some insights about who and what you are as a writer. (Because you’ll favor certain terms, build sentences in a certain way, shy away from some details while promoting others, etc)

3. If you’re writing for young adults, the keyword is “adults” – treat them smartly, accept them. Don’t lecture or talk down to them.

I have a lot of cousins. And while they’re older now, for many years family gatherings were packed with children, running around, making noise and generally being children. Universally though, across age ranges and gender, every single one of them would roll their eyes, sigh and take a tone with an adult who got it in their head that as an adult there was a great deal more superiority than there actually was.

As an author, you’re the adult. But, don’t be THAT adult. You’re not doing these kids a favor by coming down from on high to grant them a little morsel of word-ambrosia. You’re SHARING a story with them, you’re SHARING this experience of “I made a thing, I hope you enjoy it”.

Children aren’t miniature adults, you can’t expect them to express the full depth of maturity and understanding that adult readers do – but not because they lack the understanding, merely because they lack the experience. Let your book be something that gives them an experience they can take forward.

4. Not every kiss is fiery. Not every embrace is passionate. Not everything a character does is at 100% efficiency. Let them be wrong

I’ve talked about this here and elsewhere – that a character who never fails and always super-succeeds is kind of a let-down. It’s the risk in a character’s actions, the chance that they’ll fail, that makes us care about the character.

And while that talks about big potentially bad things that the character faces, we can also apply it to the not-dangerous behaviors as well. What’s interesting about a character who always kisses the best kisses on the planet? Or who always makes the best omelets? Hyperbole aside, if everything is special, nothing is special. Also, the more perfect the character becomes, the less connection to them we (the imperfect audience) feel. Because our kisses aren’t always earth-shattering. Because we burn breakfast. Because we get really nervous talking to one another. It’s our mistakes AND our successes that define us, so why isn’t that true for characters?

5. If you’re setting the story in a kingdom and we’re not learning about politics or social class, why do we need to know it’s a kingdom?

This is about focusing and distributing details. As readers we assume that what you’re giving us is important, because you’re, well, giving it to us. Telling us about something, tossing some adjectives about down on paper draws our focus to it. And if you spend even more than an adjective on it, we conclude that it has to be even more important than that, so when you talk about it and then move on without ever coming back, we feel deprived and a little misled. (I’m looking at you numerous unfinished plots in TV dramas)

If the scale (how big the set pieces within the story are) doesn’t include or involve the big landscape details you’re giving them, why are you giving them? (Hang on a second, we’ll talk more about this)

6. When figuring out which details to keep and which to cut, ask “Does this detail show me a new thing or explain an old thing?” Stay new.

Just like we talked about above, it’s important to know WHY you’re giving detail X at the moment you are. If I’m describing…the room I’m writing this in, I may talk about the way to the desk is worn and aged. I may talk about the view out the window to my left. I may talk about the mess of papers to my right. Those details help you paint the mental picture about what the desk looks like and tells you a little about how I keep my office space. But…do you need to know the color of my shirt? Sure, you can find out about it later (purple t-shirt), but how does knowing the shirt’s color tell you more about the desk or the office? It’s a stretch to say “oh he’s wearing a t-shirt, that explains a lot about how organized he is” — that’s you imposing your conception of how an office should run onto my story. And that’s not fair to you or to the story.

When it comes time to edit and trim, one of the things I look for is why details are in the places they’re in. That question above asks “what’s the purpose of this detail?” which is key for knowing what has to stay in a draft and what has to come out. Likewise it helps pare down the number of different ways I express the same detail. How many various ways can I call my desk “full” or “active”? Breaking out the thesaurus doesn’t further the story, it just moves things laterally, heaping similar repeated statements atop one another in a slowly stalling strata of story.

Part 2 (the next ten) will be out on Monday. Have a great weekend. Hope to see you on Tuesday night.

Post 101 – Where I Speak Honestly About Writing

Good rainy afternoon (well, it’s raining here as I write this),

I’m feeling a little frustrated today. It’s the kind of head-shaking frustration you feel when you catch a glimpse of someone else making not just mountains but Himalyas out of molehills. It’s the kind of frustration because it’s the sort of thing you know you’re guilty of too, but at least this time you’re observing it from afar, rather than experiencing it.

What I’m talking about today is a few bullet points about writing and editing. I will disclaim in advance that I may get a little vulgar, and that I will very likely make statements that rankle a few readers. I’m not doing either of those things to be malicious, I am doing both of those things to express how I feel.

Here now are those thoughts on writing and editing

Quit making it harder for yourself. Viewed from far enough away (zoomed out) writing can be scary. You have to tell a complete story, use characters, have a plot, show some talent, find an agent, get the story edited, get the story published and hope that people like it enough to pay money to read it. That can be A LOT of stress and A LOT of anxiety.

By that same token, if we look at another activity: cleaning a room in your house, we can just as easily find ourselves overwhelmed by the amount of mess, the perception of how long that’s going to take, and how tired that will make us when we’re all done — we have to clear a path to the garbage can, take out the garbage, clear the counter, wipe the counters down, fold clothes, put away clothes, probably have to vacuum or wash the floor, recycle papers, take out the recycling, and then still have the energy to do all that in other rooms in the house.

Or we could change our perspective and do all in our powers to act like writing is just the act of putting one word down after another, and that cleaning a room is working in one 2-foot radius after another.

There’s a lot of things you can worry about when you get into writing. You may even believe that some of the terms are serious and you should devote a lot of energy into warding them away. You may needle yourself into a panic attack over just how third-person your third-person point-of-view is, you may give yourself a headache because some blog somewhere said you can’t use “of” more than thirty times in a chapter.

It’s all bullshit. Horsefeathers. Nonsense. Overthinking, committed to pages and screens.

Burying yourself in jargon or “terms you totally read on the internets” and then hiding behind them as a shield or a crutch is just one more of the many ways NOT to get any writing done.

Seriously, do you think the reason a book got published is because they used a certain word a certain number of times between pages 30 and 47? How reasonable does it sound that a story sold thousands of copies because there was a very crafty application of gerunds in the middle of the book?

Conversely, do you think the reason your story didn’t get published is because you split a few infinitives in chapter 6? Or because you have (gasp!) used a “filter word”? (we’ll get there in a minute).

Your story likely didn’t get published because:
1. The story itself is weak.
2. The characters are flat, uninteresting and fail to present the author’s desired lens on the world
3. The market is saturated with stories of similar ilk.
4. The writing (the specific words on the page) is of a poor quality.
5. The story is fraught with errors big and small that an editor should have examined before you went ahead and submitted it

Yes, there are other reasons, but those are the big five I keep telling people about. They are NOT in any particular order (other than the order I typed them).

Basically, writing is sort of a test. Authors/creators test themselves to see if they can complete a goal – it takes time, discipline and skill…and at no time should they complicate that efforts. You don’t see marathon-ers suddenly adding hurdles to the last six miles do you?

Tell the best story possible. Get help when you need it. Get an editor. Practice your craft (that means improving your writing as well as writing regularly).

Don’t make this harder.

The problem isn’t the finer points, the problem is what you do with them. Show of hands – how many people know what “filter words” are? Or “Deep POV”? Or “Sustained suspension?” Does anyone know if they’re good or bad in storytelling? How about why they’re good or bad?

The answer, by the way, is that those things AREN’T GOOD OR BAD. Filter words are just words. POV is just how the story is told. Sustained Suspension is how well you tell the story. That’s all.

It boils down to what you do with these things, whether or not you let a weak story be told because of poor word choice, inconsistent or weak point of view, and weak commitment to world-building.

I edit what seems like ALL THE THINGS lately. My editorial calendar is dense, my schedule is so packed I don’t even update Google Calendar so much anymore (yay for handwritten desk calendars), and there’s conventions and panels to be at (GenCon in less than a week!). And not once in the 18 years I’ve been editing things has anyone (publishers, agents, other editors, writers, librarians, consumers) ever asked me one damned question about filter words. When I go out to a meal with other editors, they don’t double-check my work to see that I’ve correctly flagged errors with suspension or point of view.

There’s no reward, there’s zero “bonus” for touting that you’ve eliminated such jargon-y traps from your work. The goal isn’t to find alternatives to “touch” because “touch” is a filter word…the goal IS TO MAKE YOUR WRITING BETTER BY PICKING BETTER WORDS, WORDS THAT MORE CLOSELY RESEMBLE AND REFLECT THE WORLD OF THE PROTAGONIST OR CHARACTERS INVOLVED.

Here’s where I get all rage-y.

Do you know why there are blog posts and blogs and podcasts about these little nuances in writing? Because people have to fill webspace and audiospace with words. Because repeating “Tell the best story the best way you can, taking the rules you need and discarding whatever doesn’t serve you” would be a pain in the ass to hear over and over again (although it would totally help).

In the course of spitting out tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of words, one of the goals you’re trying to accomplish is to create a world where these characters exist, and the reader will follow one or more characters more closely than the others and see this created world through their eyes and experiences. (Those characters are protagonists and that created experience is the reaction to the plot). The method on how you accomplish this goal is ENTIRELY UP TO YOU.

There are authors who don’t use a lot of punctuation or capitalization. I know this, because I’ve bought their books at my local bookstore — so somehow they got published.
There are authors who (gasp!) use sentence fragments. I know this, because I’ve bought their books — so somehow they got published.
There are even authors who break EVERY single grammatical rule I talk about and some I don’t — and I’ve bought their books at stores, so they’ve been published.

Forget the bullshit coward cop-out of “well those people are the exception to the rule, I’m not like them, I’m not special enough, waah waah” and seriously look at your writing. YOU CAN MAKE IT BETTER. THERE EXIST PEOPLE AND SERVICES YOU CAN AVAIL YOURSELF OF TO GET BETTER AT DOING THIS.

It has nothing to do with you sucking ass while other people are special. We’re all capable of getting published. It might take some people longer, and they may have to work harder, but IT CAN BE DONE.

You’re going to face critics, bullies, jerks, haters and idiots. What you do in response to that is what matters. Sometimes people aren’t going to like what you do. There are LOADS of people who don’t like this blog, scores of people who think I’m still a lying douche, quite a few professional people who find me obnoxious, heaps of folks who don’t like my edits, and I’m sure an assload of people who don’t like what I say on Twitter.

Prior to about three weeks ago, I’d totally let their vitriol and commentary keep me from writing, out of fear that every time I’d be doing something, they’d be upset. And I…didn’t want to upset them, because I wanted everyone to approve of me, like me, and tell me I was doing a good job.

And then I had a few really intense things happen to me, and I got a big dose of reality mashed into my face. Now, I’m not seeking that approval (because in many cases, I’ll never get it), and I cannot control if other people are upset over something I do or said – so long as I know I didn’t write or do something intentionally to upset them, all I can do is accept that their reaction is their choice, and it’s on them to own it and be with that.

While there is no shame in backing down, hanging up your typewriter ribbon and ceasing to dream of writing professionally (hey, it’s hard and not everyone is cut out for it), there exists an equal amount of potential that you can succeed. Not to spite the haters or prove them wrong, but just because YOU want to succeed.

Personal story — I spent YEARS (like 2 decades) doing things because I thought other people wanted me to. If I go see a doctor, my girlfriend won’t leave me. If I curb partying, people in my life won’t hate me — I was doing these big huge tasks so that other people (who I couldn’t control or influence) would make some kind of invisible decision (that I thought they were making, even though they weren’t) and I’d get the happy results I wanted. 

And then I did those things, and didn’t get the happy results. 

People were still upset, I was angry and resentful, I still lived in this pattern of shitty behavior. And yeah, I thought that made me a bad person. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to do EVERYTHING for myself. The important distinction here is that I’m not being selfish, I’m not doing what I do to put down others, I’m doing what I do to make me the best me possible, because that’s what I want. I’m sick of the pattern of shit, I’m tired of the fear and the doubts and the approval seeking, so what would happen if I’m the only approval I need? And what would happen if I didn’t have to fall into that pattern, what’s that like? 

Everything changed, that’s what happened. I’m doing things for myself, and I’m benefiting. Yes, the haters still exist, but I don’t go out of my way to bait and engage them. They…just cease to be the source of where I’m seeking approval. I approve, and therefore I keep doing what I doing. 

I think that empties my thought jar on the subject. This is very likely the last post I’ll write before GenCon starts up. It’s possible I’ll have the ability to write something during the Convention, but I’m not expecting random folks to say “John, do you need a laptop?”

So we’ll talk post-GenCon. You can follow me on Twitter if you want.

Have a great weekend.

Ask An Editor: Plot, Similarity and Length

In the last two weeks, this blog has really taken off. Part of me wants to say this is because all the seeds I planted about it are finally bearing fruit, but more than likely, people are responding better to the more honest tone I’ve been taking.

One of the new experiences I have to acclimate to is this idea that I’m now getting a lot more mail. Now while some of this mail isn’t great (really, people still send trolling hate e-mails in 2012?), a lot of these messages ask the same things, which has led me to start this new post on the blog, “Ask An Editor”.

Now, some disclaimers:

1. The answers I’m giving ARE NOT to be etched in stone, and they’re not the be-all or end-all of information. They are a combination of many years experience and my opinion, melded together to help you.
2. My answers are not sugar-coated. I…don’t really like to sugar-coat things, and quite frankly, it doesn’t do you a whole lot of good to get a pat on the head when you may sometimes need a kick in the rear.
3. You don’t have to believe what I’m telling you, you’re very welcome to think I’m full of shit, but please consider at least reading what I have to say and then filing it away for later – you may surprise yourself.

Onto the questions (note: If you said it was okay to use your names, I’m using them. Otherwise, they’ll get  reduced to initials.)

Plot

C asks:  I’ve been working on this novel for three years now. I’ve written and revised this plot so many times because a lot of the rejections I’m getting say my plot is too complicated or “too much”. But I read published books all the time where the plots are WAY more complicated…what gives?

C, I have no idea what your specific plot is about, and please, don’t go send me an email explaining it. It’s not important to the answer I’m giving you here. No, really, I’m sure you’ve put a lot of detail and love into it, but in explaining it to me, you’re not going impress me with it. We have to start with some basics:

i. “Too much” is shorthand for either “boring” or “too complicated”. Suppose you’re writing a multi-generational romance saga with three eras of family members grow up, find love and experience life. And now suppose you add some quirks into this story like time travel, maybe some lasers and magical tap-dancing fairies. You know, to spice it up. The plot hasn’t changed really — it’s still going to be the story of character 1 going through plot points A to B to C and then character 2 going through their version and so on. But all those bells and whistles? Well, that’s not plot detail.

Here’s how you find your plot — strip out all the names for people, places and things. Boil down all the verbs to their most simple and active. Using really simple nouns and active verbs, spell out what happens in the story. That’s it. No rocket science required.

Here’s an example of a complicated, congested “too much” plot:
Sally Heaven is a hard working college student who graduates from school and moves into her ancestral home, only to find that because she is the fifth daughter of a fifth daughter born under a full moon, she is also the sole heiress to a vast fortune of pirate treasure, assuming she can figure out the map before sunrise on her next birthday.

Here’s the same plot concentrated:
A young woman learns she can inherit a treasure, assuming she can find it before her birthday.

But, I hear you say, you’ve taken all the “spice” out of my story! It sounds boring that way, story-ruiner! And before you come to my door bearing fire and pitchforks, I want you to learn something — SPICE IS NOT PLOT. Plot is just an expression of the problem(s) the characters are challenged by over the course of the story.

ii. You don’t have to ‘give it all away’ in the query. No, seriously, please don’t. The query, as I’ve said before, is just an opportunity to lead the reader into the manuscript. It acts as bridge, seductress, chat up line and movie trailer…not Cliffs Notes version. We should want to / have to read the manuscript to find out more details than those offered in the query. If you tell us how it begins and ends in the query, why should anyone bother with the manuscript?

Similarity

Next, we have a message from Thomas who writes: “I’ve been following a lot of agent blogs and re-tweeting a lot of agent tweets lately, but none of them are really talking about what I need them to. My problem is that I’ve written a story and well, it sounds a lot like three other books that just got published. How big a deal is that?”

Thomas, we need to first figure out what “sounds a lot like” means. Are you saying you and these other authors wrote exactly the same story? Or are you speaking more generally, because if we look at all stories from a wide enough scope, we’ll see similarities. If I zoom out far enough, all stories share the same set of traits and genealogy, all we’re ever doing is putting new skins and spins to them.

Yes, it’s very tempting to concern yourself with the ideas of originality, that whatever you’re created be the only one of its kind…but we’ve been telling stories for millenia, and while the foundations are universal, look to use that originality on whatever springs up beyond the foundations.

Great, it’s a story about woman overcoming Nature, (I know your specific book isn’t Thomas, I’m just giving an example), but what element of Nature is she overcoming? How is she overcoming it? What’s trying to stop her? What is she risking? These are the sorts of questions that sit on the foundation of “woman overcoming Nature”, and this level is where you start to define your story against the backdrop of all these other stories.

To distinguish your story, we come back to the very commonly discussed idea of voice and craft – what do you do, author (Thomas), that other people do differently? What makes you stand out from the rest so that were I to pick your story out a hat (or crowded inbox) I’d know it had your fingerprints all over it. That’s the sort of “deal” readers/agents/publishers/your grandmother is looking for.

I say again: No one wants you to or expects you to re-invent the wheel. And if you feel that you have to do that in order to get published, please leave all pursuits of writing behind and go take a knitting class or learn all about cat food or something, because you’ve entirely missed the point of writing and you’ll continue to miss it every time you charge up these batteries of “scarcity” “pressure” and “publication equals success”.

The reason why people say things like, “Just tell your story.” or “Just write the f#$king thing.” or “When in doubt, write.” is not to get you thinking about all that crap that publishers and agents and publication want you to swallow in copious amounts. Yes, writing’s hard. Yes, writing’s scary. But it’s a thousand times harder and scarier when you’re writing your guts out AND worrying that you sound too much like other people.

Believe you have the story in you to tell. That’s step 1. Transfer the story from your brain to some format. That’s step 2. Step 3 involves getting your story read, your craft honed and your first taste of feedback and revision. You’re going to repeat Step 3 for a while, until the story is complete and told to the best of your ability. Publication and an agent don’t even factor into most of step 3 so long as you’re still working out the story that you’re trying to tell. Also, you don’t always need one (the agent) to get the other (published), and I’d seriously look twice at anyone who stills holds so doggedly to that maxim.

And while we’re at it, what do you think the point of Twitter is? Retweets are not yours. You’re just passing on someone else’s thoughts to your audience. Now while I’m all for shouting to as many people as possible, every once in a while I like to have my own thoughts mixed in there, not just a grocery list or an update about what I did in the last two hours. When I say thoughts, I mean YOUR thoughts on publishing. Your fears. Your anxieties. Put it right out there in 140 character sandwiches for us to nibble on. It’s yet another way to tell YOUR story.


Length

And lastly we come to a quick note from M, whose message I’m paraphrasing because they’ve written it with a lot of emoticons and acronyms and I’m not sure I’ve got the patience to figure out why M is laughing at the end of every second line.

M writes: “I’m writing a novel. Can you believe it? (see, this is where there was a LOL, mind the gap) But I’m stuck. How come there are so many different listings for how long a novel should be? (also a LOL here)”

Okay, I’m going to let you behind the curtain and give you some special writing secrets. Are you ready? Are you sitting down? Here’s your answer M.

Your story will be as long as your story needs to be in order to be complete and told to the best of your ability.

Now before you get snippy and say I didn’t answer the question because I didn’t mention that there’s about 250 words to a printed page, or that the average book is 300 pages in paperback, remember that you’re in charge of this story. If it’s coming up short, that’s not some random publisher’s fault. That’s on you, dear author. (Yes, I will further argue that you can’t really have an idea of “short” because it’s grossly subjective.)

The reason people can’t agree on what’s “right” for a novel is because thanks to the wonders of publishing, there can be more than one “right”, and they’re all acceptable. You may talk to Agent X who says a book should be a certain length, while Publisher Q says it should have twice that, and maybe Editor H says you have eight times too much, cut it back.

Who’s right? They all are. But that doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. They’re not the boss of your work. Yes, you may hold onto the notion that they’re “gatekeepers” and they’re opposition for you on some kind of publication-chessboard, and you may also think that editors want nothing more than the cackle gleefully over the charred remains of your life’s work.

Your story (novel, novella, piece, manuscript, baby, whatever) is however long it needs to be. Rather than worry about some label when people ask about it (or what you’re doing) tell them ABOUT what you’re doing. It’s way more interesting to hear that you’re writing a story about a man who wants to build a golem out of cereal than to hear you’re writing a novella.

Find those opportunities to talk about your love, so that you can grow your love and make new opportunities.

I hope people found the answers to these questions useful. I’d really like to make this a regular blog feature.

Happy writing.

The Nine-Step Checklist

We start today with a story from my youth.

I was about ten or maybe eleven and my family was heading down to our shore house for the month of July, which meant that my dad got use “The Checklist”. As if he was prepping an Apollo moon launch, he made sure all the bags (I have a feeling we always overpacked, a trait I’ve inherited from him) were first staged in the living room the night before, and then loaded into the car just after breakfast while my mom packed the huge Igloo cooler with food  (I don’t remember if we yet realized there was a grocery store ten minutes from the house, or maybe it wasn’t built yet or something). The cooler would go in last, and we’d be all set to go. And then we’d be in the car, all buckled in, me with my books, dad behind the wheel, mom in the backseat with my brother and some cross-stitch. But we wouldn’t leave.

My dad began the next stage of his checklist. He’d check his wallet, to make sure he had money. He’d check the front door (3 stiff pulls, practically slams) to make sure it was locked. He’d look in every first-floor window to make sure the lights were out. And then he’d start the questions, aimed mostly at my mother.

“Is the oven off?” (It wouldn’t matter that this was late June/early July, and my mom hadn’t likely baked anything since mid-May.)
“Did you lock the back door?” (No matter how she answered, he’d go check, meaning he’d open the front door, check the back door and then re-check the front on his way out.)
“Is the TV unplugged?” (This later became my responsibility when I was twelve. I remember getting this job because my wrists were narrow enough to slide behind the monster set and pull the plug out.)
“Is the freezer closed?” (In filling the cooler, my mom emptied the giant basement freezer, and would go so far as to defrost it if she got up early enough. Years later she started stacking things in front of the empty freezer in case it ‘just popped open’, but I think it was more to fuck with the old man.)

The answer to all these questions was, “Yes John.” (A sentence to this day that makes my skin crawl.) And I was impatient – the beach was waiting! While this checking took maybe five minutes, it felt like it took hours, and I remember being incredibly frustrated with every slam-slam-slam of the front door and the sound of my father riffing through the stack of bills in his wallet. I don’t know what he was expecting to find or not find, but I just wanted him to get the car moving.

I asked my dad once, “What’s with all the checking?” And his answer was, “It’s just what you have to do, to make sure you get everything together before you move forward.” Now, the chances are great that I rolled my eyes while he answered my question, in fact I’m sure I even threw in a sigh for emphasis.

The sigh was my sign that I’d never be like that, that I’d be able to leave the house without the almost superstitious dance of pocket and door checks.

That sigh was way wrong. I might not check the door three times, but I’ve definitely caught myself a little freaked that maybe I didn’t put my wallet in my pocket, or maybe I didn’t put my credit card back in my wallet after dinner, or maybe I didn’t shut the freezer door all the way six hours ago when I put that bag of ice in there. There’s a little wrestling match in my head about whether or not I did or didn’t do something, and usually it’s resolved either by me going and checking or by whoever I’m with at the time reminding me I did.

Checklists are good tools, and you don’t have to take them into Super-OCD land for them to be effective. Here now is my not-so-OCD checklist for your story or script or game, so that you can make sure everything’s together before you move forward.

Act 1

Have you set the table? “Setting the table” means have you rolled out the three P’s (Protagonist(s), Place(s), Plot), so that your readers (or players, if we’re talking games) know who’s doing what where and why.

What’s the palette like? By the time we’re well invested into the first Act of your creation, we should have a pretty firm grasp on the tone, feel, vibe and scale of the story. If you’re writing about a save-the-universe sort of sci fi adventure, then I’d sort of expect the story to be a certain size and scope. Your word choice will tell me the “color” of the story: if your protagonists are fighting an uphill battle, if the world is “gritty”, if the badguys are more intense, etc.

Is it clear what the next action will be? If you can’t get an idea of what’s next based on what just happened, (it doesn’t have to be a directly linear idea, it can be somewhat inferred or logical) then what just happened wasn’t enough. Or it’s not done cooking. Or you need to spice it up a little. Insert your favorite food metaphor here.

Act 2

Are we seeing skills (gamers: the opportunity for skills)? By this point in the story, we should be seeing the protagonist doing what they do (and hopefully that means doing things different or better than how we do them) and how the results (successes AND failures) drive the plot forward (don’t confuse “forward” for “success”, failure IS an option that can transform and evolve characters).

Do the options you’ve created have purpose? “Options” is a broad term meaning the off-shoots of the main plot. This could be the suspects in a crime story, the different avenues or routes to take in a travelogue, the number of topics in your book of essays or anything that demonstrates that you just don’t have a really simple plot that can be wrapped up in like six pages and you’re just filling space and killing time.

How high is your climax? While you’re still in the bulk of the book, and while you’re still laying out the dominoes so they can topple later, it’s a good time to start seeing how high this stack builds up so you know how far (and how fast) it will come tumbling down. The climax is the highest point in a story. The greatest moment of tension, the most intense scene(s), the most knockdown fight. If your story ratchets up the tension, emotion, action or stakes AFTER that, then that new scene is the climax. Map out your scenes, climb that ladder (I guess in a future post I’ll have to talk about the climax ladder) and adjust accordingly.

Act 3

How are your loose ends? I know, a lot of writers want to be “edgy” or “creative” or “smart” and they lay out these intricate plots where you have to super-focus on some detail because it’s the lynch pin of the whole book. And there’s nothing worse than realizing that the detail that clinches the story is something you (or gamers, your players) overlooked because it didn’t seem important at the time. Likewise, those characters you drop into a scene, just for the sake of the scene, they’re only momentarily memorable. You’re not breaking new ground in having that three-line-delivering guy from Chapter Six show back up in the end and play a bigger role. You don’t need to tie EVERYTHING up in a nice (read: convenient) bow anymore than than you need to trim the number of loose ends down to the barest essentials. Just keep track of them. If you’ve got a few that don’t go anywhere and sort of disappear, maybe they don’t need to be there in the first place.

What’s the resolution look like? So the climax happened. And now the story’s emotional and action roller-coaster coasts back down to a normal range of possibilities. Here we can start to see things end both internally (the plot) and externally (the book is running out of pages), so what happens AFTER climax? You don’t need to spend an equivalent amount of time bringing us back down to earth as you spent getting us into the heavens, but you do have to spend a little time so that we can catch our breath and start to organize ourselves to end the story. Again, mapping it out is CRUCIAL.

Is the door open or closed? The “door” here is whether or not you’ve explicitly or not created the possibility to revisit this world and these characters again. NOTE – I am not saying that all stories need to be serialized, I’m just asking you if this particular one is built for it. If the door is open, then we as readers are free to continue these adventures in our imagination, essentially taking the storytelling reins from you. If the door is closed, then we better be satisfied by how things wrapped up, else we’ll just take the reins from you and pretend it didn’t go down like that (I’m looking at you Sopranos, third Hunger Games book, Lost and the Mary Russell series).

That checklist will help you take your stories wherever they are, in whatever shape they’re in, and help them go forward, so that you can too can go to your vacations (metaphoric and literal) fully confident that everything is awesome.

Happy writing. Enjoy your Cinco de Mayo.

See you Monday (now if there’s no blog post on Monday, it’s not because I partied too hard this weekend, it’s because I know Monday is PACKED with work, some of which I can’t yet talk about it.)

Forward Vs Lateral Movement

No, not football.

What I’m talking about today has both a writing/gaming component and a writing-lifestyle component. I’m not really sure where to start, so let’s start with the broadest and work our way down. 
How’s Your Life?
Lately, I’ve been doing two things differently — I’m eating decadently (on a budget!) and paying for it afterward. I guess it’s because I’m in my thirties now, so this shouldn’t be a scientific breakthrough or great revelation for anyone, but I can’t eat the same things or the same way I used to, say, ten years ago. 
I can eat pretty much anything I want, barring allergies, but not that doesn’t mean, I’m discovering, that I should.  Big heavy meals weigh me down and put me in a fog. Meals that scream “Yeah I’m healthy, look how cruciferous I am!” often taste like lint and leave me ready to gnaw off someone’s arm. I will even admit to getting way too freaked out that what I’m eating (which is seldom fried, seldom battered and seldom wrapped in other foodstuffs) is going to immediately kill me (thanks scare tactics of diets and nutrition, way to make me feel powerless). 
After one weekend where I ate far too much, I started taking stock of my food-life. Sure I’m getting the 8 glasses of water a day (sometimes more), and sure I’m avoiding too much junk food (because there just isn’t any in the house), but I look over my life and see that I’m not in the best health. Forget the shape, forget muscles, I just want to be healthier. 
To that end, I’m making better food choices, eating regular portions, eating regularly and doing my best to stay hydrated. It’s not a thorough diet plan, it’s not a complete panic-inducing revamp of the food I eat. This is forward progress, I’m moving towards my goal.
Lateral progress was all that time I spent thinking about getting to the goal, but not taking any steps to get there – reading reviews, putting off going to the bookstore, listening to podcasts talk about the book, etc. 
This same question of lateral-vs-forward comes up every time I look at other things in my life.
My book — GOAL: Finishing it
Forward Progress – Writing new pages
Lateral Progress – Buying/reading books about how to write those pages, watching movies and tv shows that demonstrate how scenes look, talking about writing pages.
The state of my office — GOAL: Cleaning it
Forward Progress – Cleaning the desk off, filing papers away, throwing out/shredding what I don’t need
Lateral Progress – Buying organizational racks, shelves and items to sort out things (while still leaving so many piles), thinking/feeling that I’ll never make any headway

My income — GOAL: Having more of it
Forward Progress – Being visible and helpful to others, finding clients, doing work, sending invoices
Lateral Progress – Bitching about how after I pay my bills I don’t have much money left, scrounging up change out of laundry, swearing to never again buy stuff all week (see above)
See what I’m getting at? 
Sometimes, the lateral progress looks like forward progress, and for whatever reason, I guess because it’s not difficult or changing the state of anything, it feels like I’m making progress to my goal. 
Forward progress isn’t always fun. Forward progress on eating better means I have to amend my grocery lists, exercise some willpower and spend time actually cooking better things rather than settling. It takes work, but the goal is worth it, isn’t it? So why not do it? That’s the lesson I’m learning now. 
Forward and Lateral Around The Table And At The Desk
We revisit this idea of forward and lateral progress when we sit down to play a game. Board and card games aside, let’s look at role-playing experiences. 
The Forward element is the plot of the campaign. Whether that’s killing the dragon, solving the murder mystery, reaching level 10 or defeating the conspiracy against you, Forward comes in when the player(s) do things that bring them closer to resolving that goal. 
The Lateral element is a little trickier, since sometimes people will argue that the lateral movements are just as important as the Forward ones. For example, my brother and I spent WEEKS playing Final Fantasy X when it came out, maxing our characters’ stats, acquiring all the items and weapons and basically lording over everything on the digital landscape. We didn’t advance the plot too far while this was happening, because we were too busy in making it easier for that to happen.
You see, we had this idea in our heads that if we did all these side quests and branches off the main plot tree, the main plot would be easier. And while that’s true (the items we got as rewards totally made the endgame simpler), it speaks to the underlying issue – we thought the endgame would be hard, and that we were too unprepared. 
As GMs we can offer players a lot of paths to follow, no matter the game system. We can give the paladin a sidequest to get a horse, we can tell the secret agents to spend some time protecting their family members from attack. Sometimes, the players jump at these actions because it’s a break from the main story, or because it offers them a chance to be at the center of attention for a little while, but other times they take based on how it’s sold to them.
If a side quest is sold with the same intensity as the main quest, you can’t expect them to be able to make the distinction that one is superior to the other, and by extension, that they should or shouldn’t throw their full weight of focus towards that new (and perceived important) goal. 
A lot of this has to do with how the hook is baited, and if the players are invested in their characters. A lot of this also has to do with the reward offered. Too great a reward, or if the reward is thought to be bigger, more immediate or more useful than the reward of the main plot, naturally the players are going to jump at it. How could they not?
Some games mechanize around this possibility by creating conditions that lead the hero(es) into side quests so that they gain material or knowledge they must apply to the main quest — Link can’t fight Ganon until he has all the pieces of the TriForce nor can Mario reach Bowser without first traversing the level(s) of the castle. 
Writers I didn’t forget about you – many genres (detective in particular) hinge on the idea that the bigger case is related to the smaller case or its solution. Likewise, we can bog down protagonists with side quests that develop emotions or responsibilities or new character arcs outside of the change represented by the main plot. 
So What Can We Do?
Writers, it’s time to face the possibility that you’re going to finish your book. And that this book isn’t going to be perfect, but it will be complete – with a plot and character development and all the trappings therein. Forget the idea that you have to X number of plots and subplots, that you have to have exactly this number of scenes that develop specifically this or that idea and that flashbacks all have to be a certain and specific length. Accept that you’re going to finish the story, and it’s going be a good thing, and it will get edited and become a better thing.

Gamers, take a good look at your players. (Designers, you take a look at your audience) There is a very good chance that they’re not going to take the bait on many of the hooks you throw at them. The problem is that you don’t know which hooks they’ll take and which they won’t, so you just have to keep putting them all out there. Sometimes they’ll move laterally, sometimes they’ll go forward. What you can do is offer them the best path forward (the most compelling, interesting, superlative story) and the most evocative path laterally (so that when they step off the plot, they’re immersed in the flavor and the world(s) you’ve built).

Remember – this isn’t a one-or-the-other, all-or-nothing prospect. You can do very well for yourself making steps forward while laying out side routes along the way. It’s also not required that you sprint towards the finish line. We all want that end goal, we all want our work to be published, there’s no reward for finishing ahead of other people, because the market(s) we’re going into are wide enough to support all of us. Don’t fall for that scarcity-trap. We can all “win” at this.

Happy writing