Just Getting Started: Learning From Some Early Works

GettingStartedWe all have to start somewhere, right?

I recently read three works that are first efforts, or first published works, by three different authors. All science fiction, because that’s me *grin*. The stories are:

  • Agent to the Stars (John Scalzi): a humorous story about aliens making first contact through a Hollywood agent. You know, as you do. Scalzi describes this as his “practice novel,” which he never expected to publish.
  • Golden Fleece (Robert J. Sawyer): a murder mystery aboard a spaceship aimed to explore a distant new world, told from the point of view of the ship’s artificial intelligence. This book won the Canadian Aurora Award for the best Science Fiction novel of 1991.
  • “A Restoration of Faith” (published in Side Jobs by Jim Butcher): the first story about Harry Dresden, a wizard in present-day Chicago who uses his abilities to fight supernatural evil. He wrote this story as part of a class in creative writing, but it wasn’t published until years later when pulling together several short stories about Dresden in Side Jobs, and Butcher agrees that it wasn’t really ready for publication.

First, let me acknowledge something right off the bat. These aren’t really first efforts. I know that at least two these authors had already been writing for a while, or at least learning about writing, in various ways. Scalzi had a previous career in journalism before turning to fiction. Butcher wrote a never-published high fantasy novel before blending his fantasy with noir. I admit to knowing nothing about Sawyer’s career before Golden Fleece, but I’d be willing to bet that there’s a history of learning before launching this award-winning effort. It’s like the old saying: it takes years of hard work to become an overnight sensation. Slogging away in the trenches of my academic writing and my “trunk novel” that’s never going to see the light of day is just part of the cost of doing business. Have I reached the level of the kind of early work I’m writing about here? Only time and a bunch of readers will tell.

Second, I have to acknowledge something else: These works are flawed. There’s good reason why Scalzi and Butcher didn’t expect their stories to be published, and even Sawyer’s award-winning novel has its weak moments. Let me say right off the bat that I enjoyed reading all these works. I am not bad-mouthing them of putting them down to say that they had problems. I can only aspire to reach the level of such problems! But it helps me to be aware of them, so that I can learn from them. Here’s a short summary of what I might have pointed out, if I were the editors of these books.

  • Agent to the Stars. There’s one real rookie mistake here, which is to have character names that are too similar. Two really major characters are named Miranda and Amanda. Another pair of names is Curt and Carl. Readers deserve better ways of telling people apart. My other complaint about the story is that the plot is held together by the most gossamer of threads. Even granting the essential silliness, of aliens who hire Hollywood agents to give them a more marketable image when they introduce themselves to the world, there are too many places where my disbelief fell with a thud. Howling coincidences. Aliens with improbable abilities that are still just humans in funny suits. And then, at the end, (sorry, spoiler here): I’m expected to believe that the Oscar winner for Best Motion Picture was never announced?! Sorry. Not going to happen.
  • Golden Fleece. This story has another basic mistake, one all science fiction authors struggle with: back story. It’s not handled as gracefully as it could be. There’s a spot where a character tells the all-knowing AI running the ship something that is well known to both of them, literally using the deadly phrase, “As you well know,…” I also had trouble swallowing how many issues were buried in one character’s past. This character was a survivor of child sexual abuse, discovered only as an adult that he had been adopted, and that he was the product of incest. I don’t see any relevance of any of this to the present-day story. It didn’t feel to me that it enriched the character at all; it just felt like it cluttered the story. Chekhov’s gun, failing to fire.
  • “A Restoration of Faith.” Here is another name issue, but it’s not confusing names, it’s a name that’s really just a label. The story is about Harry reclaiming his faith in himself and his calling as a wizard, and he rescues a little girl named Faith. Get it? Then there’s the fact that her name is revealed with a flourish, to the reader and to the character, near the end of the story, thumping on the message yet again. Harry was hired to find this little girl, and we’re supposed to believe he didn’t know her name? Or her age (he describes her as being about 8 or 9)? Her speech is also much to precocious for her age. When she sees Harry’s big duster she says it’s like something from the set of El Dorado. He’s tall and craggy, so she asks if he’s supposed to be Ichabod Crane of the Marlboro Man. At the end, after her harrowing experience nearly being eaten by a troll, a cop asks her if she’s okay and she says she’s “a little hungry, and I could use something to clean up these scrapes. But other than that, I’m quite well.” She is apparently 8 going on 45.

The third acknowledgement is that these authors know how to tell a story. That’s what makes these works worth reading now, with all their flaws, and has launched them into successful careers. Readers can get past all the flaws listed above if they care about these people and what’s happening to them.

  • Scalzi’s journeyman agent is smart, caring, and resourceful. He talks tough to people who are rude and heartless, but he is kind to a neighbor’s old dog. You have to like him. By extension, you like the people around him who are working to make things better for people, even clueless people, even inhuman people. This makes you care about how he’s going to solve his problems and be victorious in the end.
  • Sawyer’s central character is harder to fall in love with, being an artificially intelligent computer network, but he is still driven to do what he does in service of the greater good. This story is more about the mystery. It’s not a whodunit, but a whydunit; we know from the first pages that the computer committed the murders, but the full reason is not revealed until the last pages. Here we are caring about the whole human race.
  • Butcher’s wizard is wisecracking and flustered, but intent on living up to his own standards of right and wrong. Even when the darling child is at her most obnoxious, he cares about her well-being, to the point of risking his life for her. Again, you have to like him and want him to succeed. It’s a bit of a cheat to hinge the story on an endangered child–who can root against her?–but he mitigates that with her hostile attitude. Butcher successfully shifts the emphasis of the story from the child’s immediate survival to her long-term welfare.

So that’s what I learned from these three early stories.

  1. Keep working, keep writing. It’s a curve you have to climb, not a cliff.
  2. Everyone makes mistakes. As we get more experience we make fewer of them. (And it’s always SO much easier to see them in someone else’s work than in your own.)
  3. Story is king. If you have characters people can care about dealing with problems people can worry about, readers will forgive any number of mistakes.

Thanks to these three authors, and to all the other countless authors whose works have furnished my mind and my writer’s heart. We learn from each other; I’m learning from you.

Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing

SwingRecognize Duke Ellington’s jazz classic? It’s been running through my mind lately.

I’ve been working on getting my swing on.

As I fill in the gaps in the first half of my middle section, I’ve found an idea that works well for me: highs and lows.

In any good story, you need to balance the moments of high tension, stress, and conflict against calmer, more peaceful periods. Let’s look at an example I’m familiar with: The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. Here’s a way of analyzing that story, with the “down moments on the left and the HIGH MOMENTS ON THE RIGHT. Even if you don’t know the story, you can see the up and down pattern here.

Relaxing, smoking a pipe, joking with Gandalf


Peaceful travel on ponies


Beautiful Rivendell


Sneaking through tunnels (and finding the Ring)


Reconnect with dwarfs who now respect me


Beorn: safety, and horses


Lake-town people like us


Safety with the dragon hoard


Back home again, with treasure

Most stories have this kind of structure. It’s sometimes called pacing, sometimes scene and sequel (though that’s more properly applied at a smaller level of analysis). The point of this is that I’m using it to figure out how to find my missing elements. I know how many chapters I need in this section. What I want is for each chapter to go either up or down: start with a calmer moment and ratchet up to a crisis, or start at the crisis and relax down to calmness. It’s helped me to come up with a couple of good ideas to match that map. I’m not quite done yet, but I still have time in my schedule!

Another thing to notice about the Hobbit plan outlined above is that right through to the last crisis point, each crisis is more critical, more threatening, than the one before. The stakes keep climbing, from dwarfs trashing my house through fighting trolls, then orcs, then a dragon, then finally five armies fighting together against a common enemy. That kind of relentless climb is what I’m aiming for.

Have you seen this kind of see-saw structure in stories you’ve read, or written? Share some examples here!

Thoughts About Thoughts

Thoughts  What are thoughts, anyway?

Synchronicity, again: two different things came together in the last few days that had me thinking about thoughts. What do they actually mean?

I just finished reading Freda Warrington’s breathtaking Elfland. In this book Aetherials, people born of a fantastical Otherworld, live in our world, indistinguishable from humans except to each other. I loved the intensely magical atmosphere in this novel, and was caught up in the wondering what has become of the Gateway between our world and the magical Spiral, and what the future holds for both worlds. I recommend this to anyone who is interested in contemporary fantasy. There was one thing, though, that rankled a bit. Almost every character was caught up in deeply destructive behavior because of persistent, uncontrollable thoughts that amounted to obsessions. Some of these were thoughts of love, particularly for the main character, Rosie, who spent decades pining for love of a boy she hardly spoke to and who never expressed the slightest interest in her. Others were thoughts of revenge, or of terrible guilt. These characters saw themselves as helpless before the strength of these thoughts, and it seems the author saw them that way as well.

I’m not a fan of this way of thinking about thought. Thoughts are important, of course. As a cognitive psychologist I know that we don’t actually respond to reality, but to how we think about or interpret reality. Still, we don’t have to be slaves to thoughts and ideas; we can change how we think about or interpret our experiences. I especially resist the romantic notion of love at first sight or the idea that we are helpless in the face of some mystic force of love. We are not destined to love one and only one person in the world for life. (The smart and outrageous Tim Minchin  expresses this view in his own way in the song If I didn’t Have You – go listen. Now.)  I can have sympathy for characters whose unhelpful thoughts overwhelm them, but only not when all the characters do so, and none of them seem to think there is any possible resistance. Even when Rosie tells herself she shouldn’t love the one who spurns her, she does it with a sense of helplessness: “I shouldn’t love him, but there’s nothing I can do.” Too much of this, and I want to slap people.

This is one half the the synchronicity I experienced. As I was reading Elfland and thinking of how much these folks were being driven by their thoughts, I finally discovered Invisibilia, a National Public Radio show that ran just 6 episodes before shutting down (temporarily, I hope). It “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.” Through the miracle of podcasts I’ve started listening to the show from the beginning, and it is right up my alley. That first episode focuses on just the topic I’ve been thinking about: “The Secret History of Thoughts.” In this episode they investigate how psychology’s understanding of thoughts has changed in the last hundred years. We have gone from seeing thoughts as important reflections of our deepest reality, expressing who we really are, to seeing them as surface phenomena we can ignore or discount if we don’t like them. As I listened, I realized that this is what bothered me about Elfland. The story comes at thoughts from an older, Freudian perspective, while I take a more modern, cognitive or mindful view of thoughts.

Which of us is right? Well, naturally, I think I am. *smile* Whether that’s true or not, it helps me to understand why I wasn’t able to love Elfland as much as I otherwise would. Looking at the story with this better understanding, I can set aside my discomfort and become more open to the magic of the story.

See? We can change how we think about something. I just did.


Blood, Boobs, and Carnage

Blood Boobs Carnage Blogfest

I stuck in my thumb, and I pulled out a Plum!

Picture this: A Jersey girl, born and raised, with a perfectly nice set of boobs, thank you. She figured out which way to point a gun in her new career as a bounty hunter on the mean streets of Trenton, so she’s drawn her share of blood. And as for carnage, just check out the cars she’s crushed, blown up, or set on fire. She’s the total package baby. I give you: Stephanie Plum!

Stephanie Plum

Stephanie’s story began in One for the Money, by Janet Evanovich. To date there are 21 numbered Plum stories, plus four shorter holiday novels and a feature film starring Katherine Heigl. They are all tightly-plotted mysteries full of plot twists and zany but believable characters: Morelli, the cop who looked up her skirt in middle school and whose eyes draw her in today; Ranger, the monosyllabic scary-sexy professional bondsman; Lula, the hooker turned file clerk; Grandma Mazur, the blue-haired terror with the gun in her purse; Sally Sweet, the six-foot star of the transvestite rock band; and on and on, more than I can list. They are all hilarious. I would listen to these books at the gym and have to stifle giggles as I panted on the treadmill.

One thing I find impressive about this series is that Evanovich is largely successful in maintaining the consistency of her characters while allowing them, especially Stephanie herself, to grow and change. Her style of humor appeals to me as well. It’s often over the top, but never seems forced, growing organically out of the basic nature of her characters and situations. I would be happy if I could do half as well half the time.

(Note – this post is my response to the Blood, Boobs, and Carnage Blogfest sponsored by Alex Cavanaugh and Heather Gardner. Thanks to them for setting this up!)

Pint-Sized Pandora (Review: The Girl With All the Gifts)

GirlWithAlltheGifts  I just finished M. R Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, and I’m heartbroken. And thrilled. And wonderstruck. It blew my mind. Let me ramble a bit about why I liked it, then try to dig into its structure a little more deeply.

Though it never uses the word, this is a zombie story. Humans are fighting a last-ditch action against “hungries,” people who have been infected by a fungal spore that shuts down the brain’s cognitive functions and hijacks the body and nervous system as a host for the fungus. Hungries live on protein from uninfected animals and humans, and the fungus is transmitted in their saliva to infect those they bite. They are mindless hunting creatures, solitary and terrifying–except some that are different. Melanie, the girl at the heart of the story, identifies herself with Pandora, whose name translates as “the girl with all the gifts” and who brings to the world great trouble, and also hope. She is one of a small number of children infected by the spore who retain their mental functions. They have been isolated at a heavily-guarded military base north of London, where they attend a school to see how much they can learn while a medical researcher tries to understand how they have been spared the brain-killing aspects of the infection. What makes this different from a standard zombie story is the depth of characterization. The military men tasked with keeping the humans safe, the doctor trying to find a cure before it is too late for humanity, the teacher who opens her heart to the terrifying children, and most of all Melanie herself, are fully realized three-dimensional people, and I cared about each one of them. As the story progresses inevitably to its tragic, heroic end, possibilities fade and flicker out for each one, but there is still hope, from the girl with all the gifts.

I find myself these days reading stories for fun and delight, and also for the workmanship of the plot. This story is a spot-on example of the three-act structure, with everything precisely in its ordained place. Since I’m going to be taking it apart and discussing different events from the story, beware:


  • Inciting incident: The event that disrupts out the uneasy, unsustainable status quo we opened with is Dr. Caldwell’s decision to dissect Melanie and Miss Justineau’s determination to stop that from happening. This event takes place at the 20% mark, which is rather late in some ways. However, in a story like this one, which takes place in a world so different from our own and is largely told by a person very different from anyone we know, a lot of ground had to be laid out to begin with.
  • First plot point: What tears everything apart happens precisely at the 25% mark: suddenly there are sirens and explosions and a window shatters, “and the hungries swarm over the sill.” Four adults (Dr. Caldwell, Miss Justineau, and two military men from the base, Sergeant Parks and Private Gallagher) and one mysterious girl (Melanie) escape, trying to get to the human enclave at Beacon, 74 miles to the south.
  • Midpoint reversal: After narrowly escaping the most terrifying hungry attack yet, two things happen. They are quieter than most of the big action-packed events in the story, but they represent an upheaval at a core level, and they’re exactly at 50% in the story. One is that we’ve now seen two hungries with unusual behaviors, closer to human though not nearly at Melanie’s level: a woman blindly pushing a baby carriage that held the dead body of her baby, and a man thumbing mechanically through family pictures in his wallet and singing snatches of an old song. This opens a whole new vista about what hungries can be. The other is that Melanie, who until this point has only wondered what she is, now realizes that she is herself a hungry, a monster. It rocks her, but she goes on.
  • Second plot point: The five have fought their way to what seems like a miracle: a mobile lab, built just after the breakout and designed to enable scientists to travel in safety and study the infection. For Caldwell it is the chance to study the infection under the best possible conditions. For Parks and Gallagher it is firepower and armor plating and a motor to get them through London and on to Beacon. For Justineau it is safety from the hungries who surround them ever more densely the farther south they go. Only Melanie is not cheered by the vehicle. She is fighting her nonhuman nature more and more as she spends time with the humans, and needs to get away from them and feed so that she can get her hunger under control. But she runs across something that sends her mind reeling: a group of hungry children who hunt in packs and communicate with each other, just like her but feral, without the benefit of school. At this point, exactly 75% through the book, things tip and start racing to the inevitable conclusion.
  • Climax and denoument: One by one everyone dies except Melanie and Justineau, and Melanie makes a frightful decision. If things go as they are, the attempts of the last few humans to kill the hungries will endanger the children, but there is no hope for humans in the end. It would be best if all the humans on the planet to become infected right away. Some of them will make new children before the fungus destroys them, and those children will be the future of the planet. So Melanie makes this happen. True to her alter ego as Pandora, she has unleashed the ultimate horror on the world, while preserving the most slender thread of hope: Miss Justineau, sealed in an environmental suit, begins teaching the next generation of children.

It is certainly true that a good genre novel doesn’t have to hew this precisely to the rules of the three-act structure, but this book is an example of how it can be done. I learned a lot by analyzing it, in addition to the pleasure of reading such a gripping tale.

Lessons from Rom-Coms

Hearts Hubby and I watched a couple of movies over Valentine’s weekend. They were both, appropriately, rom-coms – romantic comedies – recommended to us by friends. We enjoyed them both as good examples of something light, fun, and sweet to watch while cuddled up with someone you love. But I liked one better than the other, and I think I’ve figured out why. NOTE – there are some spoilers here if you haven’t seen the films, but nothing that should really ruin it for anyone.

First up: Letters to Juliet (2010, Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Egan). Sophie, who wants to be a writer, visits Italy with her fiance. She learns about the tradition of young women writing letters to Juliet (of Shakespeare’s play) for advice, and turns her hand to writing a response to a letter just found that was written 50 years ago. This draws her into an adventure with the original writer who has come back to Italy to find her long-lost love, and the woman’s grandson (Charlie) who thinks this is a bad idea. He comes around, though, and Charlie and Sophie wind up together, as do the two long-lost loves. The message of the movie is that it’s never too late to find love, and once you find it you must never let it go.

Next: Music and Lyrics (2007, Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore). Alex is a relic from an 80s pop band, living on his past as a kind of impersonator of himself. He has the opportunity to write a hit song for a hot young talent, but while he’s great at the music he can’t write lyrics. He stumbles across a young woman (Sophie) who has a brilliant way with words and convinces her to work with him, and they are successful despite her fears and his desperation. Along the way they find romance and also find the courage to be themselves without apology.

Here’s why I liked Music and Lyrics more than Letters to Juliet: because the characters and their relationship felt more real and more trustworthy.

Let’s take the two Sophies. In Letters to Juliet, she is engaged to a chef who is opening his new restaurant in New York City in 6 weeks. They go to Italy because it will be the last chance they have to go on vacation for a long time. He is passionate about food and cooking; she is less so, and winds up feeling left out and ignored as he travels around visiting suppliers and wine auctions. This annoyed me. If someone is about to open a restaurant in New York, where else would his focus be? If she’s so uninterested in food and cooking, why is she engaged to a restaurateur? At the very least, she should have come to peace with their differing passions and have expected them to spend time apart.

In Music and Lyrics, Sophie is timid and self-effacing at the start, because of a bad experience in her past. She spends much of the movie learning to have faith in herself and to be open to taking the risk of trusting others. This is a straightforward need and character arc that is rewarding to watch. At every step her character is acting in a way that is believable for her, and that kept me rooting for her the whole way.

Then there’s the male lead character. Charlie, in Letters to Juliet, is a jerk the first time we meet him. He specifically searched out Sophie for the sole purpose of scolding and insulting her, because her letter sent his grandmother on what he is sure will be a heartbreaking quest. That brow-beating, nasty facet to his personality couldn’t just have evaporated, and I didn’t see any convincing change to his true nature. And how do we know he loves her? He says he does, but we don’t see him do anything that shows this love. Finally, I can’t conjure up any image of the life they might have together. All they’ve shared is his grandmother’s quixotic romantic journey, which is nothing like the real life they will have to go back to.

Alex, in Music and Lyrics, is charming from beginning to end. There’s something sad about him hanging onto his long-past moment of glory, but he is comfortable with himself and never pretends to be something he’s not. From his first interactions with Sophie he is gentle and encouraging. He’s kind first, in love second. He shows his love for her by doing the thing that’s hardest for him: writing lyrics. They also have something they share besides just being in love: they write hit songs together. It’s easy to imagine them living a contented, rewarding life for years to come.

Let me repeat: Both movies are fun. They both do what they set out to do and do it well. I don’t want to discourage anyone from watching either movie. See them. If you like the genre, you’ll like these examples.

For me, for the writing, I take away two important lessons about character and relationships:

  • If I want readers to root for a character, I need to show why, especially at their first appearance. Show whatever it is that makes the character rootable – is he kind, is she smart, is he funny, is she generous? This is what Blake Snyder calls the Save the Cat moment – the hero is first seen getting the cat out of the tree, so we know he’s the hero.
  • If I want a couple to wind up together romantically, I need to show that they are in love and can have a life together after the final curtain. It’s not enough that they say “I love you,” there have to be actions, especially sacrifices, to back it up. And they need to have enough in common for this relationship to hold.

So that’s what I learned this Valentine’s Day about character and about love. Not a bad way to spend a weekend.

Close. REALLY Close

NearMiss  I’ll call it close enough.

This week I met my word goal, with just over 1,200 words. I did it in two days, not three, though, so I didn’t hit my butt-in-the-seat goal. The reason is a simple, silly one – I was thinking all week that I’d already written one day this week, so I just had to do two more on the weekend, and guess what – I hadn’t. So I buckled down and did the words, so that’s good, right? And I got through the transition I’ve re-started three or four times, into the next thing that happens, so it’s real progress. I’m over halfway through Chapter 3, and we’ve met the bad guy up close. Not the ultimate bad buy, but what looks like the ultimate bad guy at this point in the story – later we’ll find there’s another, even badder, behind this one. Bwaahaahaa!

I did have a very down moment this week. I’m reading Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer, and one of the characters is a hard-drinking drug-addicted author skating along on the success of his first book, failing entirely in his attempt to write his second. As we follow him through yet another day of being a failed author, he sits down in a coffee shop and knocks out 1000 words. He loses concentration, gets some coffee, and writes another 1000 before giving up for the day. What a failure. On his worst day, he wrote almost twice my weekly target! Yeah, yeah, his job description is “author” – he doesn’t have a “day job,” like being a college professor [classes start Tuesday, yeep], but he does all kinds of consulting and media appearances and such. I almost snarled at him and at Shafer and wanted to toss the book, but actually it’s really good so I just kept reading. Not writing, mind you. But hey, it’s words, right? Got to be good for me, right?

But seriously, I met my target, or close enough. Not anyone else’s target, but MINE. I’m okay with that.

Story Promise

I just watched How to Train Your Dragon – 2 (yes, I’m behind the curve on this, but better late than never). I enjoyed it enormously. There was drama, excitement, humor, emotion, and truly amazing animation. I highly recommend it if you’re into the DreamWorks line of movies. However, I confess that the ending left me, not disappointed exactly, but just a little unsatisfied. Why? Because the story didn’t quite match up to its promise. WARNING: This discussion has spoilers for those who haven’t seen the movie.

In one of the early scenes, as we’re (re)introduced to Hiccup, the protagonist, we find his major concern: that his father, the chief of his village, is grooming Hiccup to take over as chief. Hiccup doesn’t want to do it and doesn’t think he’s able. The rest of the movie shows his journey to becoming the person who can and will take over to lead his people effectively. This is an important story promise that is completely fulfilled in the movie.

But there’s another story promise that happens just a little later. Hiccup is arguing with his father about how to deal with the newly-discovered threat from his old nemesis, Drago. Hiccup wants to go find Drago to talk to him, convincing him to stop capturing dragons to build a relentless dragon army to conquer the world. His father insists that there is no talking to someone like Drago, and all we can do is hunker down and try to protect our own. Hiccup insists that he can be very persuasive: “If I can change your mind, I can change anyone’s mind.” He then takes off on Toothless to find Drago and talk him down.

So what happens? He and Toothless defeat Drago in the end, saving everyone, and it’s very heroic, with good triumphing over evil and all. Still, Hiccup never changes Drago’s mind. I kept waiting for this to happen, though it seemed less and less likely as things went on. In the end, that promise was unfulfilled, and it left me unsatisfied.

This is one of the rules of storytelling that I’m trying to hold to in my current work. What does my protagonist really want? How does the whole story document her struggle to get it, overcoming long odds on the way, growing and changing into the kind of person that can have this one, crucial thing?