Thursday, December 14, 2017

Family Tree

            Ugh.  Completely missed last week.  So very sorry.  I was trying to get a pile of outlines done. 
            Yeah, I know.  Me doing outlines. The world really has turned upside down.
            So, a few weeks back and I asked about possible topics and I got one request that seemed... well, it could be very relevant.  I’ll know in a couple hours, but I won’t say anything.
            Most of us are related to someone.  It’s really rare for someone to have no relations. So rare that it’s usually a major issue—for someone to have no parents or grandparents, no siblings or cousins. It’s almost off-putting, isn’t it?
            Likewise, most of our characters are going to be related to someone. Because our characters are realistic, relatable people.  And again, if we’re introduced to a character with no family at all... it usually says something about them, doesn’t it?
            Over the past ten or fifteen years, maybe, it’s become a big thing to have notable relations. Everybody is someone’s daughter, the brother of that guy, or the second-cousin of her mother-in-law.  Historical figures, mythological figures, other fictional characters.  How often have we seen a character who's descended from this line or heir to that empire?
            Now, there are some plusses to me doing this sort of thing.  The quickest one is that it’s an easy connection to previous stories and can save me some worldbuilding.  Just by telling you my next book is about King Arthur’s secret daughter, I’ve established a timeframe, the general world, some potential history,
            Plus—it can be a bit of fan service—which isn’t always a bad thing.  If you’re a comic book fan, you may be familiar with the Huntress.  In a simpler time, the Huntress was living proof that Batman and Catwoman hooked up (something we now just kind of take for granted).  So her parentage was very important to her character.
            Which is kind of the big point with this sort of thing.  If I’m going to bring up these relations... well, there should be a reason for it.  If I decide to bring up Wakko’s uncle and tell you he was the guy who invented lasers, yeah, it’s neat, but so what?  Likewise, if my peasant Dot is secretly the illegitimate daughter of the king, this better be a story about bloodlines and inheritance.  Because if it isn’t... well, why does it matter that she’s the illegitimate daughter? Why did I waste precious time and word count telling you this?
            I’m stressing this because there’s also a bit of a trap with this device, and I think the trap is what people tend to think of when they gripe about this sort of thing.
            Y’see, Timmy, sometimes this relationship to another person is all the character development someone gets.  Characters get defined by their relationships to other characters rather than by actual, active traits of their own.  Or the relationship’s a stopping point—once we know this, we don’t really need to know anything else.  They cease developing at that point because... hey, look who his mom is.  What else could you possibly need to know about him?
            I’ve seen this happen a lot.  If I had to guess, I’d say at least a third of the time when I’ve seen a big “relative reveal,” that’s pretty much it for character development.
            And I’d guess another, somewhat overlapping third of the time, the relation’s completely irrelevant to the story.
            That overlap’s a bad place to be.
            Just sayin’.
            So don’t be scared of giving your characters a family.  Even ancestors, if it comes to that.  Just make sure there’s a reason for it in the story you’re telling.
            Next time...
            Okay, I still feel bad about missing last week, so I’m going to try to make next week a twofer.  Tune in Tuesday and we’ll talk about getting feedback from your (former) friends and how to avoid being disowned when you give it.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

One Of You... Is A Murderer

            Sorry for the blast of posts this week.  Feel free to blame it on my love of storytelling—my own and other peoples.  Or rampant consumerism.  Or on me wanting to pay rent in January.  Any one of these answers is true.
            But now... let’s get back to some plain old writing advice.
            Readers tend to love a good mystery.  It’s kind of like the original VR game, where we get to see all the same clues and evidence as the protagonists and try to piece them together first.  We do it with books. We do it with TV shows.  Hell, there are some fantastic comic books you can do it with.  Alan Moore made a compelling argument once that comics are the perfect medium for mystery stories.
            But...
            As writers, let’s be honest.  Mysteries are tough.  They need to be in that perfect sweet spot—not so tough they’re impossible, but not so easy that my reader solves it before my character does (and then my character looks stupid for the next 150 pages for not figuring this out yet).
            Plus, there’s so much to keep track of.  Who saw what.  Where they saw it.  When they saw it.  These are all super-important, because readers hate it when they get to the end of a mystery and find a gaping hole there.  It’s probably the second-most annoying thing I can do when I’m writing a mystery.
            (And now I’ve got you all wondering, don’t I...?)
            At the Writers Coffeehouse a few weeks back, one of our regulars, Hal Bodner, offered a brilliant tip for writing mysteries. It eliminates this issue almost altogether.  Honestly, it’s so clever... it’s the whole point of this little rant.
            If you’ve ever seen or read an older mystery, they almost always have a chapter near the end when our fearless detective (or sleuths or investigators or what have you) bring all the suspects together and walk them through the crime.  They’ll go over the evidince, the clues, the alibais.  They’ll explain what each one means, which ones were red herrings, which ones they immediately discounted, and which ones pointed to...you, Widow Humphries!  Or should we call you, Isabella, the Viscount’s estranged sister!!
            You know this scene, right?  I’ve heard it called the parlor scene, the tea room room speech, the summation gathering, and other titles along those lines.  Hal called it the detective's speech.  You might still catch it today on shows like Elementary, although it’s often pared down to just the detective and the guilty party.
            So... here’s the tip.
            Write that scene.  Even if my hard-boiled action story doesn’t really call for it, I should spend a day or three and write it out before I get going.  Have my investigator pace the room and point at people and say how he noticed this and saw those and learned about this.  Explain how this theory was discarded and where that idea came from.  And then point that finger right at the guilty party and scream “J’ACCUSE!!
            Or maybe your detective plays it cooler than mine and just stands there with her hands in her trenchcoat.  Maybe she gives a little nod and a faint smile when the murderer gets hauled away. And then she pulls out her flask and crawls deep inside until she can re-bury all those memories about Jenna that this case dragged up again...
            Anyway...
            I don’t need to keep this scene, mind you.  Very likely this will just be one of those things I write that doesn’t get used.  Probably best if it isn’t.  Like I mentioned above, it’s kind of an archaic, cliche scene, and on the off chance it shows up it’s really pared down and tight.
            But once I have it written out, I have a mini-outline for how the mystery is revealed in my story.  Literally, who knows what when.  When they met the suspects.  What they see.  When they see it. When they make which connections.  It’s all right there in that speech—what my investigator needs to solve the crime.
            So gather your suspects—yes, even the butler—get them all seated in the parlor, and tell us about the first thing you noticed when you saw the crime scene.
            Next time, I wanted to talk about Luke’s father.
            Until then, go write.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Other Awesomer Books

            Monday I posted the usual ego-stroking Cyber-Monday list of my own books and some anthologies I’m in.  Today--as I have in the past--I thought I’d toss out some other books I’ve enjoyed this year that were written by much more talented people than me.  They’re not really in any order, and a few of them aren’t exactly new, but if you’re looking for something for that special somebody (or for yourself), it’s going to be tough to go wrong with any of these... 
            As always, you can prove you’re a morally better person by visiting your local bookstore.  There’s still plenty of time for them to order something for you if they don’t have it in stock.  Plus, some of them have connections and can get you autographed copies and stuff like that...

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire—the short, simple explanation is that this book is about all those kids who find mystic gateways or enchanted wardrobes or interdimensional touchstones, have fantastic adventures... and then eventually end up back in their normal, mundane homes again and having to cope with real life. The best thing I can think to say is that I’m so ridiculously jealous of this book. It’s just magnificent.

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig – I am super-late to the table with this one, because Wendig’s been writing this series for five years now.  Miriam Black is a foulmouthed alcoholic who’s gifted (or cursed) to immediately know how and when everyone she touches is going to die. After years of dealing with said ability, she’s seen someone’s future death that involves... her.  It’s funny and dark and fantastic and I think there are five of these books now.

Heroine Complex/ Heroine Worship by Sarah Kuhn –superpowers are real. So are superheroes.  The two aren’t always connected.  Oh, demons are real, too, and they can possess all sorts of things.  Evie and Aveda are such crazy-fun -lovable-exciting characters that you’ll devour each book in a day.  I did.

Killing Is My Business by Adam Christopher—I mentioned the first book in this noir-robot-detective series a while back. Adam’s written more of said series.  They’re still amazing, and now there are mysteries-within-the mysteries.  You should read them.

An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King – I got to read an early copy of this and it’s just brilliant.  A dystopian tale set in future-China, where the one child policy has gone... well, just like everyone predicted.  Our four protagonists are trying to form a family while also each hiding an array of personal secrets and deciding who to trust with them.  It’s a fantastic, slow-burn book that reads like the wonderfully twisted love child of The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Love.


Sleeping Giants/ Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel—another one I was late picking up (but got caught up quickly).  A fantastic epistolary tale about the discovery of a giant alien robot and the team that comes together to figure out how they use said robot to defend the Earth.  It’s Contact crossed with Pacific Rim, and if that idea doesn’t excite you we have nothing else to say to each other.
            Good day to you.
            I said good day.

We Are Wormwood by Autumn Christian – a beautifully surreal tale about a young woman growing up with insanity and then... well, descending into it herself with a few nudges from her demon girlfriend.  Christian also has a fantastic collection of creepy/scary/sexy short stories called Ecstatic Inferno that I wolfed down in about a day.  I befriended her on Twitter just so I can constantly prod her to write new stuff for me to read. I'm selfish that way.

Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black—okay, this glorious space opera’s kind of tough to explain, because in the future Earth has shifted over to an entirely new form of technology.  In short, its about a group of people developing new weapons, learning to use them, and learning to be them.  It may take a little bit to get into this one, but it’s sooo worth it.

Revolution –by John Barber and Cullen Bunn—I was a die-hard comic fan for years, but got driven out by the constant (and often substandard) crossover events.  I started reading some of IDW’s “Hasbroverse” books last year and was frustrated when they announced Revolution, their own upcoming crossover event.
            Holy crap.  This was my favorite comic book event in at least twenty years. It begins with a conflict between the GI Joe team and the Autobots which gets disrupted when Rom the Spaceknight shows up and uses his Neutralizer to incinerate General Duke before flying off again. If you were already a fan of IDW’s GI Joe or Transformers books, you can guess how a silver robot showing up and killing the Joes’ CO goes over.  If you’re a fan of Rom you know what this killing implies...  Revolution is honestly suspenseful and dramatic, and has amazingly solid ties to all the books involved.  It’s clearly a crossover that was planned far in advance, and it made me a regular at my comic shop again.

            And anyway, those are some of my favorite things I read this year.  Any one of them would make for a fantastic gift.  And if you’ve got some suggestions of your own, please mention them in the comments down below.
            Tomorrow... regular old writing advice.  Thanks for your patience.