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Intro Music by Fretts!

Our intro and our outro music is Your Government Loves You and Wants You to be Happy, by Fretts! If you love it as much as we do, you can find more beautiful music at fretts.bandcamp.com!

Characters That Aren’t Your Main Character.

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What We’re Drinking:

Camarena Tequila. It’s a reposado. I love reposados. This is a very sweet and mild repo. It’s smooth and light, an easy drinking tequila.

What We’re Saying:

What the hell just happened? Why did we spend ten minutes talking about water and horses and Mongolia?

Okay, we’re talking about supporting characters. Characters other than your main good guy and your main bad guy are supporting characters. Supporting characters are really, really important. I started out writing A Guide to a Happier Life with just two characters. I’m not going to lie to you, writing a book with only two characters is really hard, and I’m not that good. So through the development of the book I added in people as I needed them; to provide resistance, to give information, to provide context for the main characters. And these are the ways that writers use supporting cast.

Think of it as the Alfred to your Batman.

These are the mentors, the foils, the contagonists, the skeptics, etcetera.

The reason these characters are so important is that they define the world that your main characters exist in more than any other feature. Through their relationship to the main character they also help define and add depth to your main character. Because those relationships and that context is so important, it’s vital to know who your supporting characters are. It’s genuinely worth spending an hour or two thinking about your supporting characters’ backstories and biases and opinions.

The Lord of the Rings franchise is a great film to take apart and look at the roles that supporting characters play, because there’s a lot of them.

This is pretty common in fantasy books. There’s a notion that in order to have a fantasy story you need to have a party with xyz roles filled, and honestly, I find that some of these roles can be combined in order to make characters more interesting and to streamline the story.

Sometimes a character you think is a supporting character is actually a main character. This has happened to me several times.

Providing sufficient supporting characters also gives you more opportunities to raise the stakes on your main character. They have more relationships that can be at risk, and they can be isolated simply by taking the supporting characters away.

If your supporting cast members are sufficiently interesting and delightful, they have the potential for companion short stories: spin-offs from a larger work and world. Not only are these super fun to write but they can be used as marketing material for your long-form fiction. Also? Writing companion short stories helps you better develop your supporting characters.

Here’s another resource for common character archetypes: Click Me.

 

Villainy.

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20160815_192017What We’re Drinking:

Birthday tequila. My friend Linda brings me a bottle of tequila for my birthday each year. This is the Espolon Anejo, and I hadn’t had it before. I quite liked it. It wasn’t too sweet, it wasn’t too oaky.

What We’re Saying:

Guys, we are spending way too much time playing Pokemon Go.

Bad guys, they’re bad. But they’re also good.

How do you write compelling villains?

The trick to writing good villains is humanizing them. Giving them some weird complicated humanity that readers can connect with and attach to, which causes them to care about the villain’s story while they are at the same time rooting for your protagonist.

It’s a strong brew. But how do you do it?

Severus Snape may not be one of the villains of the Harry Potter series, but he was a bad dude. He took his unrequited love for Lilly, did some creepy stalkery stuff, and as an adult used structures of power to abuse those smaller and weaker than he was as a means of working out the bullying he experienced as a kid.

But it’s the rejection and abuse in Snape’s backstory that makes him so sympathetic that readers are willing to forgive the fact that he’s really awful.

In the film American History X, the character Derek is another really amazing example. He zig zags across the line between acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior so often and so seamlessly that you lose track of where the line is. The result of this is that it blends psychotic neo-nazi behavior with what we think of as normal behavior and allows us to sympathize with Derek in a way that makes the rest of the film exquisitely uncomfortable.

That doesn’t mean that it’s not okay to like a villain just for their badness. We’re all kind of terrible, people have awful wants and desires and reactions and impulses that the social contract requires us to not act on. But we can fulfill these desires at least in part by watching a really awful villain. We may not root for the villain exactly, but there’s a kind of enjoyment there in connecting with that evil.

The Joker is probably one of the most beloved villains in pop culture, and he’s also one of the most twisted, inhuman, evil for evil’s sake villains that we have. The nature of the Joker already opens the character up to all kinds of derangement and sick behavior.

Writing terrible behavior isn’t necessarily the same as condoning that behavior, and writers shouldn’t shy away from writing villainous acts because they disapprove of those acts. We may want to step away from glorifying or normalizing those acts, but if you can retain the veneer of horror, I say write it. You can write about horrifying acts without sacrificing your humanity.

And as long as  your sympathy with a villain and their actions doesn’t carry over into the real world, I wouldn’t say you’re a bad person for relating to villains.

Everyone has different thresholds for offense; people who find what you write to be too much for them aren’t your audience. And that’s okay.

As authors, sometimes writing a villain is tantamount to an admission that we’re capable of crafting evil, and I think sometimes that’s really uncomfortable. I also think that villains can be a ton of fun to write.

Thanks for the Memoiries.

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What We’re Drinking:

Golden Gate Gose from the Almanac Brewing Company. James liked this, but he didn’t think it was as good as the other sours I’ve brought him. I liked the fact that I could taste more of the beery flavor in this one, though it had a skunkiness that I didn’t enjoy.

What We’re Saying:

Today we’re being mean to memoirists. I want to say before we start that there are good memoirs out there, I’ve read good memoirs, and I don’t think the art itself as a whole needs to go away.

It’s just that there’s so many people out there who are writing memoirs and treat them like they’re the next great book to hit American culture, and they tend to be vanity projects or pieces of family histories. It’s the kind of thing that wealthy ladies seem to start as a part of their retirement. The memoirists that I’ve met seem to be older, middle class white ladies.

James and I have both noticed that in conferences and other gatherings, older folks writing memoirs tend to treat younger authors or popular fiction authors with a certain amount of disdain. I’m not sure where that comes from. Maybe it’s the thought that fiction or genre fiction is somehow trashy or easy to produce. Or maybe it’s  that they feel that fiction is the less honest, less revealing form out of the two.

First thing that bothers me about memoirs, and this is something I’ve experienced on my own when writing narrative non-fiction essays, most of the things that you think are the most impactful or dramatic or touching in your life are that way because you view them through the lens of your own life. It usually doesn’t have the same effect on readers. Your revelation may seem to others as simple and obvious and your memoir comes off as sounding like poorly written satire.

The stuff that people want to read isn’t basically the life story of a former homemaker or whatever, it’s things from other cultures, experiences outside of our frames of reference.

At a recent writer’s conference, James had the unnerving experience of listening to a crowd of writers pitch their books that were memoirs about people and their boats. This was a conference that neither of us would have had any business affording to attend; he was only there because our school paid for him to go, and he describes it like it was a different world.

One of my main issues with the memoir as a form is that it’s a writing style that is unabashedly centered around the author. It serves the ego, instead of serving the reader. And frankly, one of the things about writing fiction that keeps me honest is the fact that I’m working in service to the reader. And for me that’s really the difference. I write about my own personal experiences in my fiction, I just write about them in a more abstract or conceptualized way that makes those experiences more available to the audience.

In closing, I want to say that if you’re out there producing good work, putting in the hours and making stuff that makes readers happy, I don’t give a shit if it’s fiction or not. Just do good work.

 

Milieu: Finding Your Story’s Place.

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What We’re Drinking: Tequila! Gracias a dios! This is only the second tequila we’ve had since starting the podcast, which is crazy since it’s both of our favorite. We’re drinking Cazadores Tequila Anejo. I tend toward reposados more because they don’t have such a heavy oaky flavor, but this was good. There was a slight hint of vanilla, which complimented the natural sweetness of tequila.

What We’re Saying: Milieu. The world, the setting, the place where your story takes place. Specifically, milieu stories. Milieu stories are stories in which the setting is a vital character or an otherwise indispensable part of the story.

In a Guide to a Happier Life, the desert set the tone entirely, for both the harrowing scenes and the restful ones.

Milieu stories have a very simple plot arc, generally speaking, and the plot itself will be very much driven by the setting. An example is Mad Max: Fury Road. The plot there is extremely simple and very focused, there’s not a lot of subplots or red herrings or anything like that. A lot of what the story is doing is allowing us to explore the world through the eyes of Max. Max himself is the main character, but his character arc is pretty much flat. Because Fury Road wasn’t a character driven story.

Despite all of that, we follow Max throughout the entire story, regardless of the fact that he’s not really the protagonist. And it works; it is thrilling and satisfying. But it wouldn’t have been without such a detailed and textured world.

We don’t really see a lot of milieu style stories in fiction these days, because they’re not popular anymore. But we do see the milieu functioning as a kind of sub-genre in fiction, especially in fiction with fantastical settings, like horror or sci-fi.

We see it more in film these days than in literature, I think because it can be difficult and time consuming to describe the setting well enough and yet also unobtrusively enough to keep the reader interested. Setting in a film is done simultaneously with everything else without you even having to pay attention to it.

The setting can be used in this way to communicate not just the tone, though that is really important, but also themes in the book.

James talks about how a sense of place frames traditional Apache storytelling in a way that is both brief and yet essential to the form. This is particular to teaching stories, so that the lesson can be connected with the place, and the land itself could serve as a reminder of that lesson.

So we can look at how setting is used in other kinds of stories and stories from other cultures and we can learn from that. Because that’s what we’re all here for, right? To become better storytellers. Another tool in our toolbox always helps.

 

Writing to Market: How to Sell Your Soul in Six Easy Steps.

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What We’re Drinking:

Wassail Mead from Honeymoon Meadery here in Bellingham, Washington. It is really excellent stuff; the Wassail and everything else I’ve had from them is well balanced, and mead is almost always much too sweet for me. If you’re in town I recommend their Rhubarb mead particularly, but I think it’s summer only. I looked into ordering and it doesn’t look like it’s available outside of the state, sadly.

What We’re Saying:

Today we’re talking about writing to market.

I don’t a hundred percent believe in writing to market; once you see a trend happening, you probably aren’t going to be able to write and produce a quality book in time to cash in on that trend.

Writing is an artform, and as such it has to come from a genuine place. But I think we start crossing dangerous waters when we become too precious about our work.

James and I have two different opinions on this that are informed by our publishing goals. As an indie, my market is readers. And I want to write books that my readers will enjoy.

James on the other hand is interested in a traditional publishing track, so his market is a little different. He’s actually selling to publishers.

These are two completely different things; when you’re selling to a publisher, you’re not selling to people who will enjoy your work. You’re selling to a company who is eyeing your work for marketability. That marketability isn’t always a bad thing, but it can impose significant restrictions on what they pick up.

Chris Fox has done a lot of writing to market, and he does his market research through sales rankings on the Kindle store. Through that research he determines what trends are picking up steam, but have not yet peaked, and writes something for that particular market.

It doesn’t mean that he writes to a formula, and I’m sure he writes books that I would be unable to write, simply because I’m not Chris Fox. It’s still his work, it still comes from some genuine Christ Foxness. It’s just interpreted through the lens of a particular genre or story type. And I don’t have a problem with that; in fact I think authors should write in as many different genres as they can, even if it’s only short fiction. It increases the number of tools in your toolbox.

James is writing a book for the Twisted Tree universe, which is a world with an established market. The book, Drag Down the Sun, could easily be written independently of that world, but he’s choosing to write it in that world because  he kind of fell in love with it.

But I don’t think that writing to market and following your artistic passions are mutually exclusive.

I really do think that the art of fiction has to serve the reader first.

James has a different and equally valid opinion, which is that writing serves the author first.

The reason I feel the way I feel is that I had this experience where I hung an art show in a coffee shop several years ago, and one day I was in the shop and this woman came up to me. She asked me if I was the artist. I said yes, and she went on to tell me about how she had had a baby and was struggling with post partum depression, and that for whatever reason the work that I’d hung helped her with that.

And that’s what I want to do. I want to help people feel less isolated, less alienated.

And James also wants to help people see themselves in his work.

And at the end of the heated conversation, it sounds like maybe James and I don’t disagree as much as we had originally thought that we did.

It’s Time to Take Action!

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What We’re Drinking:

We’re drinking Briny Melon Gose from the Anderson Valley Brewing Company. This is another sour beer, and it’s not my favorite that we’ve had, but I kind of love all sour beers, so most of two thumbs up from me.

What We’re Saying:

Action scenes.  Action scenes are super important in your writing. They’re one of the most common means of regulating tension, especially in pop fiction. Classics, by which I mean old books and not necessarily good ones, though some of them are, often use different methods to regulate tension, and particularly modern writing set in the modern day we have so many more options in terms of action scenes than we might have once had.

Not every book you write is going to have violence in it, and not all books will have what is typically thought of as an action scene. For books that have action, the tension can get too high when you’re reading action scene after action scene after action scene, and it can create a great deal of discomfort in the reader.

So the use of action in your book can be to increase the tension, or to provide a resolution to existing tension.

When you’re writing an action scene, it’s important to keep realism in mind. Anything that doesn’t feel real to the reader can bring them out of the narrative.

When your character’s injuries disappear or don’t seem to have any impact on your character’s ability to move around and continue to fight, that robs action scenes and fight scenes of their drama. I hate to see writers shoot themselves in the foot by blunting their own tools.

Additionally head injuries particularly are spectacularly downplayed in modern fiction. I suffered a head injury that resulted in a skull fracture, a moderate concussion, and six months of recovery, and it did not result in my losing consciousness. Now of course a lot of this depends on how the head is hit and where the head is hit, but if your character gets knocked out, they’re injured. They’re potentially badly injured.

So you’ll want to do some research when writing action. There’s lots of medical resources online for various injuries, and your local MMA group, or Marital Arts school, or SCA club, will probably let you watch.

Also, James recommends the book Violence: A Writer’s Guide by Rory A Miller. Also? Your friends on social media have hidden competencies. Some of them might know about firearms, some of them might be former police officers or soldiers. Even something as common as being punched in the face might be something that you can assume feels one way but that actually feels another way.

There’s changes in how a character in an emergency situation perceives the passage of time, and there’s a change in what the character is most focused on. So keeping in mind that narrowing of the vision can help you write scenes that are really compelling.

We all think about heroes as being without fear, but nobody is entirely without fear.

Action scenes are fun, tight writing is important in writing them. Short, punchy sentences tend to be most effective in communicating a fast pace and a sense of urgency. There are other ways to play with the perception of time in these scenes that are very useful, and you can learn a lot of that from reading good action scenes.

And on a final note, violence changes your character. The experience of violence is a traumatic experience. Different characters will respond to this trauma differently, but they will have to deal with it.

 

Writers Blocking: Not What You Think It Is.

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What We’re Drinking:

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Cucumber Crush by the 10 Barrel Brewing Company. It’s a sour beer flavored with cucumber, and I love it. It is the perfect summer beer, with the refreshing cucumber and the bright sourness. I highly recommend it.

What We’re Saying:

Today was James’s push ups day! James offered to do a certain number of push ups per share of the podcast, and today is the day he’s going to do those. We did not record all of the push ups because the only thing that’s more boring than watching people do push ups is listening to people do push ups. We did record 76-100 for purposes of posterity.

I’m participating in JuNoWriMo this year, and I’ve been working on the first book in a new sci-fi series and the writing has been going wonderfully. For everyone out there, if NaNoWriMo is too hard because it happens during the holidays, JuNoWriMo is a fantastic alternative run by fun amazing people. I work best under externally imposed deadlines, so things like NaNoWriMo, JuNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo work particularly well for me.

James is working on editing his novella and it sounds like he recently got himself past a sticky part. Editing can be difficult, but perseverance will bring rewards.

James and I are here to let you know that Barely Salvageable Press is seeking submissions for the Fall 2016 edition of Hot Mess, our pulp sci-fi anthology. Find more information here!

We’re both struggling with finals and projects and papers for the end of the quarter, too.

I streamed live video of James’s push ups, which was available on our group on Facebook (and still is, unless James has deleted it.)

Today we also want to talk about scene blocking and action scenes.

Poor or inconsistent blocking will pull a reader out of your scene. It is one of the big crimes; the reader will stop reading and try to retrace the steps in order to square the position of the characters in the book with the image they’ve built in their heads.

What we say when we talking about blocking is knowing where the characters are in relation to one another and where they are in relation to the things around them in the environment that they’re in. It’s making sure that the environment remains consistent, and that the objects that your characters are interacting with are somehow placed in the environment so that it doesn’t seem that they just magically appear.

You don’t necessarily need to spell it out for your reader; in fact doing so can interrupt the narrative, but there are ways that you can signal blocking using the point-of-view character’s senses. You can have them look, listen, and feel to establish the details of a new environment without breaking the narrative.

James talks about how he establishes blocking when outlining a scene. He determines where the characters are, what props and objects are they going to be interacting with, and where they’ll be located and what they need to accomplish during that scene.

I actually have a hard time with dropping characters, and that’s a huge blocking issue. Once the characters have played their role in the scene, if they’re not the point-of-view character, sometimes I just forget about them.

Sometimes when you’re having a hard time, stepping back and establishing blocking, regardless of the method, can help clear up what your objective is in writing the scene.

One method that I use to establish consistent blocking is to draw out a map of what’s going to happen in the scene. It doesn’t have to be art; I usually just use little circles for people and squares or blobs for objects, and you can use arrows to indicate movement.

It’s likely that this kind of thing is where the big wonderful maps in the fronts of fantasy novels come from. When I was a kid trying to write fantasy, I would draw maps of places.

 

Chuckanut Writer’s Conference Minicast

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What I’m Saying:

What happened to this week’s podcast?

Allie and I have both had a crazy week after graduating, and I stayed at a writer’s retreat for three days.  The Whidbey Island Writer’s Refuge was beautiful and relaxing.  This week’s episode ended up falling between the cracks, but we’re not offline.  We’ve got more juicy content for you coming soon.

I also really want to get some feedback from you guys about our recent episodes with Tiger Gray.  It’s going to help us figure out the future thrust of the podcast.

Additionally, I’m attending the Chuckanut Writer’s Conference.  I went into some details about what I’m learning and experiencing while I’m there.  There were two great keynote speeches by Claire Dederer and Erik Larson.  I attended a brilliant workshop on the color line in poetry with Roberto Ascalon.  I also had an interesting panel that discussed the effects of imprinting on your writing with Stephanie Kallos.

Swimming Against the Current: When You Know it Won’t be Popular.

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What We’re Drinking:

Granny Strong’s Cucumber Vodka! I thought this was delicious. I would definitely drink it again, and it’s local!

What We’re Saying:

Tiger Gray has joined us again! I’m sure you can tell this is one of our “third episodes,” which means we’re probably all a lot drunker than anyone should be to make a podcast.

We’re talking about writing stuff that you KNOW will not be popular.

This can cover a lot of things, from failing to cater to what the largest audience finds “relatable,” writing characters from marginalized backgrounds, or tackling subjects that might make people uncomfortable.

Tiger has experience writing things that they knew that people would have a hard time identifying with. This can include the content, or, as Tiger points out, it can include stylistic choices as well. Chuck Wendig, for instance, wrote a Star Wars novel that received a lot of criticism for stylistic choices, including use of sentence fragments and writing in the second person point of view, which is a daring choice to say the least. He also got taken apart for introducing what I understand is the first gay character into Star Wars canon.

I like Chuck Wendig a lot. Like, a lot a lot. You should read all his stuff.

I like reading about characters that are different from me, that have different experiences and backgrounds from me, because it’s a window into another part of humanity. If you broaden your consumption of fiction to include characters and writers that are different from you, you might find that you end up reading something that you wouldn’t have otherwise, and you might really like it.

Also, these styles of writing come into fashion and then fall out of fashion. Writing in a style that’s fallen out of fashion might make your writing sound dated (or not, depending on how old the fashion is), but that doesn’t make it bad. And it doesn’t mean it’s not worth writing.

The Hero’s Journey is very popular, to the point that some people will make the claim that unless you’re writing the Hero’s Journey you might as well not be writing.

And there are a lot of other kinds of stories out there apart from the Hero’s Journey. One way to become more exposed to different kinds of stories is to read literature from other cultures and looking into indigenous storytelling.

Some of the writers who basically created modern science fiction were odd beans to say the least, and that oddness showed itself in the words that they wrote. So someone’s disability can bring a depth to their writing that you and I and all of us can benefit from reading.

I read the book A First Rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi, and it really changed the way I viewed mental illness. It’s a non-fiction book that examines mentally ill leaders in history and how their mental illnesses both helped and hindered them. It was really interesting to me and it helped me come to understand that the struggles we have with our brains can bring blessings as well as trials.

James published a story titled NDN Bones in the inaugural issue of Hot Mess, and he says that he received feedback from people on the story that they couldn’t connect with his main character, and that at least one of them specifically cited the main character’s indian heritage as the cause. I have to tell you, I have two short stories in Hot Mess, and NDN Bones is maybe my favorite piece in the volume overall. And the reason that story is so good is because James was honest with it; he put into it shades and hues from his background that took it from being an interesting idea and a good enough story to something magical.

Fifty Shades of Fan Fiction!

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What We’re Drinking:

Fireball Whiskey! Tastes like sci-fi conventions.

What We’re Saying:

Tiger Gray came back! They weren’t scared away by the first episode! And they’re here to talk to us about Fan Fiction, one of the most reviled corners of the literary world.

I admit it, I’ve hate-read fan fiction. I’ve never been a huge fan, but I tried to come into this episode with an open mind.

Cassandra Claire started out writing the Fellowship of the Ring Diaries, which was a work of parody based on (you guessed it) The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. She went on to write some Harry Potter fan fiction, which served as a jumping off point for her original series.

E. L. James started out the Fifty Shades of Grey series as Twilight fan fiction, and regardless of what any of us might think about that, she is successful, and people enjoyed the book.

I found out from Tiger that there is a Band of Brothers fandom, a fact of which I was previously unaware.

Tiger started writing fan fiction at age twelve, and finds that sometimes when they’re stalled out on writing original fiction, they can turn to writing fan fiction in order to have a creative outlet, and to be inspired.

There’s potentially a marketing edge to fan fiction, as members of the fandom are already invested in the world and some of the characters, and it’s easier to get buy-in on an original piece of fiction. After all, how to you make someone care about a character that they’ve never read before.

Selling fiction, particularly novel-length fiction, is kind of a difficult endeavor. It’s not a situation like visual art where you can get an impression of the piece almost immediately. It’s an investment of time and effort to read a book.

There are also subjects that you wouldn’t find in published fiction that sometimes crop up in fan fiction. It can be an opportunity to work out issues of gender and sexuality and taboo emotion in a kind of a safe way. Things that would be considered too risky or strange for mainstream publishing.

And there are quality pieces of fan fiction out there, it turns out. The same concepts and situations and conversations that you see in original fiction can just as easily be worked out in fan fiction. Maybe more easily, since the author doesn’t have to worry as much about building the world.

So give fan fiction another chance!