Bruises Build Character

My brother and I were once discussing movies we love and turned to the subject of Raiders of the Lost Ark, casually getting into why Indiana Jones was so appealing (aside from the innate charisma of Harrison Ford, of course), and I suggested one reason was the fact that Ford played Jones as a plausibly human hero who actually got hurt. Action films often have the hero surviving things that would kill real people—not only survive them, but walk away unscathed. You see thing like people being shot and still being able to fight on. I referred to Indiana Jones as Johnny Take-a-Beating, and that’s become shorthand between us for a protagonist who actually suffers when the plot hurts them.

I’m currently reading a sci-fi novel whose main character is basically indestructible. There are plot reasons for this having to do with their nature and the technology surrounding them, but just because you can come up with a reason to make your main character a tiny god in your fictional universe doesn’t make that a good writing decision. It’s always lazy writing.

Lazy, Lazy for Loving You

It’s always tempting to make your protagonist indestructible. One reason is it streamlines your storytelling, because no matter what kind of pickle you place them in, they can break free. Another reason is the simple fact that having your main character kick ass all over the place is thrilling, for a time; you can set them up against all sorts of strawmen and comically evil characters and it’s kind of fun as a reader to imagine having the power to instantly master any situation through insane violence that would kill any normal person.

The trick is, if you set your character up as indestructible, it should be leading to a fall. Strip them of their power, remove their technological crutches, and have a plot reason for it all. Not only is having a previously super-powered character suddenly vulnerable kind of thrilling, it can turn all the dumb tractionless violence of the early story into set up for the real payoff.

Otherwise, all you have is a boring character who can’t be harmed. If you can’t be harmed, nothing means anything. It’s like revealing that the entire book has been a dream, so joke’s on you if you thought any of it had consequences.

Plus, I hate reading about people who can run and jump and fight without having to sit down and rest all the time. It’s kind of virtually exhausting.

I Am Jack’s Lack of Control

Writing is a funny thing, a private act of artistic invention whose endgame involves trying to convince everyone in the goddamn universe to read your words. You sit for years in a lonely room, typing away, and then you run around all crazy-eyed begging folks to read what you’ve done.

And then they do, and immediately get it all wrong and subvert your vision.

You people have stood in my way long enough. I’m going to clown college!

If you’re writing a novel, you must on some level expect and desire it to be read. If not, if you’re planning to write THE END and then burn the manuscript (and then the computer, and then the printer, and then the server farm where your cloud files were stored) then you’re either insane or the baddest badass performance artist of all time, badder even than the guys who literally burned a million pounds a few years ago.

The rest of us write believing that someone’s gonna read it. But we also write in an attempt to control that experience, don’t we? We intend the reader to see certain things, to take away certain things.

The problem? Once we hit PUBLISH, we lose control over that. And you have to be good with that.

Sure, you could get into endless arguments with folks about their interpretations of your work. You could berate people for not “getting” it, or lecture them on how to read your work, but ultimately, that’s supposed to be baked-in. Ultimately, people get to own your work and decide what they think of it. And ultimately, let’s face it: Someday you won’t be here to argue or lecture, and your work will mean whatever the fuck the future literature students of the world think it means—and as a former literature student, I can assure you some of those ideas are gonna be crazy.

And you’re going to have to just take it, because that’s how all of this works. You send out ideas, people ruin and destroy them, and hopefully some tiny kernel survives.

That’s why I plan to be frozen when I die, so when they cure death I can come back and lecture everyone about what my books really mean.

Points for Style

I’ve mentioned before how non-original your basic ideas must be. Just about every creator pivots from something that’s already been done, for the simple reason that everything’s been done. No matter what your idea for a novel is, chances are it’s been done before, in some way.

So, it’s not the premise itself, it’s how you write it—the style and execution. And you get a lot of points for style. Rather than a superficial metric, style is actually a pretty important aspect of writing, and it can be the difference between an idea being seen as tired and over-done or being seen as exciting and new.

Use the Force

Case in point: Star Wars.

There’s really not a single new idea in Star Wars, and to his credit George Lucas has been pretty up-front about that. It’s a mash up of a bunch of ideas that would have been common enough for someone born in the 1940s to have encountered, starting with sci-fi serials like Flash Gordon and incorporating stuff from 1950s Westerns and other sci-fi classics like Metropolis. It’s a re-hash from beginning to end, and yet it was a huge hit and now influences subsequent generations.

The reason? Style.

Lucas took the raw materials of his influences and gussied them up in a look and sensibility—not to mention editing and screenwriting—that was wholly new and fresh at the time. The set and costume design, the music, the look and feel was something no one had seen before, and thus made a pretty shopworn plot sing.

In short, you get points for style. A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t telling a story that’s revolutionary, it’s telling a story in a revolutionary way. So don’t get too hung up on the idea of having an idea that’s somehow so unique it does all the heavy lifting for you. There are only so many stories in the universe, and they’ve pretty much all been told. There’s an infinite way to tell those stories, and that’s what you should be focusing on.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to the lab to develop new ways of drinking whiskey. I’ve got an idea involving a pheasant and a trampoline that I don’t think’s been tried before.

Forgetting as a Writing Tool

Ideas are funny things. They come at random moments, and often prove to be so fragile they melt away the moment you take a good, hard look at them. While ideas aren’t worth much by themselves, they are the spark that can ignite the writing kindling and turn into a novel, so they’re kind of necessary. But anyone who’s tried to write a novel knows that ideas can be difficult to control—they’re slippery, and often prove more elusive than you’d like.

I’m not the first person to think of this, of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true: The best thing to do with an idea for a novel is to forget it immediately.

What Was I Saying?

It seems a little crazy at first, but it works, trust me. Your first instinct when you have what you think is a great idea is to capture it, to nail it down. If you don’t make some notes, you’ll lose it.

What happens then? Well, you work on it, develop it, and eventually—whether days or weeks or years later—you realize whether or not it’s really worth your time. And if it isn’t worth your time, then all that effort you just sank into it was a waste.

What I’ve found to be true is that instead of trying to capture that idea, you should immediately try to forget it. Just put it out of your mind. Inevitably, the ideas that have real power behind them—the ideas that have the potential to be great books—will come back to you. A week, a month, a year later they’ll be triggered and you’ll remember them. What seems to happen in the mean time is that your subconscious continues to work on the idea, developing it and strengthening it. If the idea doesn’t come back to you, it very likely wasn’t worth your time.

I don’t have anything scientific to put behind this. In my experience when I jump on an idea immediately in a surfeit of enthusiasm, it usually goes nowhere. When I put it out of mind and it returns, it works.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a heavy day of forgetting things and drinking beer to get back to.

Self-Policing in World-Building

In a few weeks I’ll be sitting on a panel with other writers at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York discussing world-building, and of course I’m worried that I’ll fall asleep on stage, or stand up to make a dramatic point as my pants fall down with a comical whistle sound, or make the mistake of choosing to discuss an author whose name I cannot properly pronounce. Among many, many other anxieties.

One aspect of world-building that doesn’t get mentioned much is actually one I consider to be crucial, and one of the first things you should ask yourself: Is the world you’re building self-policing or not?

The Self Police, They Live Inside of My Head

A self-policing society is one where the citizens handle much of the enforcement of norms, of laws, of traditions. The country we live is, by and large, self-policing; if I suddenly assaulted some old lady on the street and stole her handbag, chances are multiple people would do one of three things:

  1. intervene
  2. call the police
  3. quietly submit my name to some sort of Star Chamber for future vigilante justice

That’s self-policing. We have real police, of course, but not that many of them. We rely on each other much more than we rely on cops to keep order, and we rely on each other 100% to ensure traditions and such are upheld. That’s why I actually wear pants in the first place, the heavy weight of society’s disapproval.

Totalitarian states are not self-policing, either because the population has stopped self-policing (either in protest or out of apathy) or because policing has been forcibly taken from citizens by the state. A self-policing society is more or less stable. One that doesn’t self-police can be a lot of fun, like living in Westworld, but it’s inherently unstable because if no one’s gonna force me to wear pants, I’m not gonna.

So, deciding whether your world will be self-policing or not is a pretty important aspect of your world-building, kids. It informs just about every other aspect of the universe, seeping into the spaces between your characters, driving actions big and small. Let’s call step one the Pants Question: If one of your characters casually took off their pants in the middle of the street in the middle of the day, would anyone do anything about it? That’s your answer.

The Story Behind the Book: Lifers

People often ask me about the process of writing and selling a novel, so I thought it might be useful to walk through the stories behind my published novels (and maybe after that a few unpublished ones that involved withcraft, spycraft, and being banned from several government buildings). So let’s start at the beginning with my first published novel, Lifers.

I wrote the first draft of Lifers when I was twenty-six years old, which means we’re traveling back to the mid-1990s, a magical time when people had email addresses (mine was and I was still writing everything on an old-fashioned manual typewriter. I was pretty broke, so I rarely changed out the ribbon on that sucker, either, so the original first draft of the novel is written in type so faint it’s almost invisible ink.

The inspiration for the book was simple: I was spending a lot of time drinking in bars, hanging out with friends, and hating my job. So I wrote about that. Any time you’re lacking in inspiration, you can use this one weird trick: Imagine your life, then imagine something strange happening in it. Meteor strike? Future You appearing in a ball of energy and warning you not to eat that sandwich? Doesn’t matter. I imagined my life but with me deciding to commit grand larceny, and a novel was born.

I wrote the book pretty fast; it’s not a very long novel, clocking in around 40,000 words, which people will tell you is too short to sell. I revised it once—exactly once, mainly to produce a clean typewritten copy since back then you didn’t have to submit electronically, and often couldn’t. I didn’t really change any of the story or even the actual words—I just typed out a clean version making minor fixes as I went. That was it for revision (until the publisher asked me to add a sex scene, that is), so the published novel is about 96% the same as the first draft.

I thought it captured something about that moment in my life even though I resisted every urge to have anything dramatic happen. No one gets the girl, no one gets arrested, and no one’s life changes in the story, on purpose. At the time that sort of non-dramatic story felt powerful to me—and to be honest remains one of my worst habits, opting for a non-event climax to a novel. So, impressed by myself, I started submitting it to agents and publishers.

I’ve told the story of how I sold Lifers elsewhere, so there’s no need to repeat it her verbatim. It was the end result of a lot of submissions, though, which is the important bit. I worked my ass off mailing that manuscript out to the world, and two years after finishing it I sold it, and two after that it published. And I got some polite reviews and low sales and that was that, really, until 2011 when I re-released it as an eBook.

So what are our takeaways here? One, selling a novel takes a lot of grunt work, not even counting the actual writing. Two, selling a novel might not change your life in any way. And three, I need to get out that old manual typewriter and start working on it again. That thing is a monster.

Get Used to It

Writing can be a brutal career. Not brutal in the sense of getting shot at, or breathing in coal dust, or having your loved ones kidnapped by supervillains and held hostage while you battle enormous mechas to save a city from destruction, but, you know, brutal. There’s a lot of rejection, even when you’ve attained a certain level of success. I’m no Stephen King, but I’ve published nine books with the tenth on the way, a few dozen short stories, and I supply about 67% of all the content on the Internet related to books. Yet my career is still soaked in rejection, because that’s the nature of the business.

First there’s my own inner rejection, when I suddenly realize that the story I’m working on stinks, and tell myself to give up or re-work it. That’s always a pretty crappy moment. Then there’s the regular, run-of-the-mill rejection when a beta reader or my agent reads something and tells me in no uncertain terms that it’s just not that good. There are short story rejections, heavy revisions from editors, rejected pitches for freelance stuff, bad reviews—it goes on and on. Rejection comes in many forms.

It’s part of the game, and you have to let it roll off your back. Which is why you need to push your work out there, no matter what.

Can’t Hide

I have a writing acquaintance who has rarely submitted work, either for potential sale or even just for feedback. He writes and writes and never shows his work. And now I suspect that he’s waited so long that sending out work and getting feedback is terrifying.

This is why you should submit your work, start submitting early, and submit it often. Because you’re gonna get kicked in the crotch by negative feedback and rejection, and the more you get, the more inured to it you’ll become. I got my first rejection letter when I was twelve years old. The more you try to avoid that sort of negative reaction, the harder it gets to move forward.

So, stop waiting for perfection. Just submit your story, your novel, your novelty rap song. Take your licks and get used to it. The big mistake some folks make is assuming that if they stay under cover and work at their craft, when they finally do emerge they’ll have diamond-sharp writing to show that will be critique-proof. There’s no such thing. If you submit often and recklessly, you’ll get a lot of rejection—and soon enough rejection will just be something that happens, a tool you can use to improve or learn or make a sale.

Unless I’m the only one getting all these rejections. In which case, don’t tell me.

The False Sense of Reality Security

There are a million ways to fail at world building and just a few ways to succeed. Creating a fictional universe from whole cloth without props, without visuals, actors, or any other crutches can be intimidating at best and maddening at worst.

Some writers retreat into scrupulous realism. No matter how fanciful their imagined universes are, they imagine that if they soak the text in facts, details, and thoughtful minutiae they will be insulated from any sort of Imaginary World Failure. They figure if they base every single aspect of their universe on something more or less “real”—something that actually happened, or is a naturally-occurring phenomena, no matter how rare, then no one can possibly find fault in their world-building.

Imagine this next part in the voice of Ron Howard: They can.

Fake It ‛til You Make It

It’s frustrating, but sometimes fictional universes seem more realistic if you don’t bother getting into the nitty-gritty. Vaguebooking your world-building seems counter-intuitive, but it works, because it keeps things simple.

Look, world-building is tangentially-related to lying. You’re making something up. And the easiest way to make people suspect that you’re lying to them is to supply way too much detail. If you’ve ever gotten nervous when spinning a lie—to your parents, your teachers, your probation officers, or ex-wives—then you know that some point you just start babbling, throwing all sorts of supposedly confirming detail onto the bonfire of your dignity. And the more you talked, the worse it got.

World-building can be like that. Tell someone that your futuristic society has developed hard-light technology that allows you to create structures out of pure light, and they go hmmn, sounds fancy. Start getting into pages and pages of explanations and equations and citations from real journals, and your reader starts to get a shifty look on their face as they slowly close the book and wonder what you’re really up to. Keeping it simple is usually better.

Unless you have actually created hard-light structures in your garage, in which case you are reading way the wrong blog.

The Han Solo Rule of Technology

Research continues to be the great bugbear of many writers’ lives. Writers in general trend to suffer from pretty severe Impostor Syndrome because we just sit around making shit up instead of doing literally anything else, and so there’s a certain sense that we have to become literal experts in anything we write about, so we can take on all comers when someone complains about the way we imagine space travel in our interstellar ice pirate epic.

This is tosh, of course. When writing sci-fi and dealing with speculative technology or science—even stuff based on real-world science—the key is similar to lying. As long as you believe it, you’re golden. In other words, look to Han Solo in Star Wars and worry less about scientific accuracy and more about sounding like it all makes sense.

The Spaces Between

In the original Star Wars, if you recall, Han Solo brags that his ship the Millennium Falcon is the ship that did the “Kessel Run” in 12 parsecs. The Kessel Run is a great example of a Noodle Incident—a cool-sounding feat that is never actually explained. Why is the Kessel Run famous? Why is speed important? You can imagine answers to those questions, but you don’t have them.

Now, saying you did the Kessel Run in 12 Parsecs sounds pretty cool and impressive, especially when delivered with Harrison Ford’s trademark sarcastic charm. But it’s meaningless. A Parsec is a measurement of distance, not time, and it isn’t even very commonly used. So Han Solo dropped some grade-A gibberish on us.

(Note: Some super fans have twisted themselves into knots trying to argue that it actually does make sense, but these arguments are by and large kind of dumb.)

So, the lesson here is simple: Don’t sweat the science. Take a page from George Costanza from Seinfeld, who once famously advised that something is not a lie if you believe it to be true. Your science doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to sound good. Making it sound good is the challenge, here.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go tend to my quantum particle fields.

Write a History

There are times in every fiction writer’s life when they fantasize about writing one of those experimental novels that boldly go against all literary tradition—for example, a novel without characters, because characters are difficult, complicated imaginary beings. They often arrive in our stories flat and empty, and stubbornly refuse to become interesting no matter how much effort we put into them.

Sometimes characters fill out and become interesting through the organic process of telling the story and giving them something to do. Sometimes they never rise above the mechanics of their plot roles. When the latter happens, you can end up with a terrific story that has a surprising and interesting plot but no believable people to make your reader care about that plot.

Or, sometimes, you have the opposite scenario: Characters who pop off the page or screen as living, breathing personalities you’re certain your readers will want to spend time with, but your story meanders pointlessly. In either case, one way to jolt things into working order is to step away from the main plot and write up some history.

The Secret Histories

Recently George R.R. Martin broke hearts and shattered minds when he announced that he might not get The Winds of Winter out the door this year, but 2018 would see the publication of 2 Game of Thrones-related works, one being a history of Westeros called Fire and Blood. While fans tore their shirts over the steady delay of the sixth A Song of Ice and Fire book, I wonder if Martin needed to step back from his story to write that history as an exercise.

A history of your fictional world, or biographies of your fictional characters, don’t ever have to see the light of day. But they can clarify motivations, codify patterns of behavior, and give you heaps of material that inform your characters, fleshing them out, and give you hints as to where your story needs to go. History repeats, so if your secret histories yield up some interesting Noodle Incident, maybe bringing it into the main plot will move your story past your block.

A secret history or biography could be a few paragraphs jotted down, a complete other book-length work, or something in-between. I used to write lengthy histories of my epic fantasy universes, often with a brusque, academic tone, simply seeking to get ideas on paper, and it worked wonders for convincing myself that my fictional universe was real, and the characters I’d populated it with were living, breathing folks.

Next time you’re struggling, step back and write a history. And then pour yourself a drink. Not for any particular reason, just because drinking is fun.