Honesty is the best plot twist

Ages ago when I began this blog (March, actually, but it feels like ages ago), my first entry was about creating a believable “reluctant hero”. In it, I discussed how Terin, the main character in ARCH ENEMIES, never becomes a superhero, but saves the day “with intelligence, honesty, and bravery.” I then promised to discuss honesty in a future blog, and then never did.

Which made it seem like I was lying. Time to clarify and rectify.

I value honesty as the highest virtue. No! Wait! Decisiveness. Definitely decisiveness is the highest. Or maybe punctuality. No, decisiveness. Or charity.ArchEnemies-510

All kidding aside, I define “honesty” very broadly to include having high ethical standards, honoring your word, and being trustworthy. This is not an easy standard to meet but it is always a worthy goal.

This is a lesson that young Terin in ARCH ENEMIES learns through his adventures. No, it’s not the Pinocchio story, nor is it a heavy-handed morality play. But (as I stated in another blog post), character development is very important to me. A story in which the hero is unchanged by his journey is unsatisfying.

In ARCH ENEMIES, the final chapter isn’t the one where the goal is achieved and Terin is proclaimed a hero due to his bravery during battle. It’s the next one — where he feels guilt over his deceptions and faces a challenge just as daunting: admitting the truth to everyone even when it could hurt his own interests. That’s the kind of conflict I love.

I’ve never had to face something as serious as what Terin faces, and I hope I could do the same. The closest I’ve experienced is having some of my clients decide to fire me as their lawyer because I refused to let them lie or present false testimony. The damage there is only a loss of income.

Being brave and true sometimes requires much more.

Conventional wisdom: Self promotion to your intended audience

Talent isn’t enough.

Unless your daddy’s rich or has connections, every single person who has made themselves successful has been obsessive about their craft. They understand that it takes more than talent to get ahead — self-promotion plays a large role, along with a willingness to never give up no matter the rejections. 7

Without getting too far into that discussion, however, let’s limit this to the topic of appearing at conventions. Assuming you are an aspiring writer and assuming you want to promote yourself, you need to go where you can meet (a) other similar writers, editors and publishers, and (b) readers who may be interested in your work.

Since I write in the science fiction/fantasy genre, I have tried to attend as many science fiction conventions as possible. (See my schedule to the right under “Upcoming appearances”.) Since I had published a magazine on film animation in the 80s and early 90s (Animato!) and since I wrote a Rule Book and Players Guide for one of the largest live action roleplaying games in America (see The Alliance), I was able to present myself to these conventions as someone they would want to have as a guest, to speak on their panels. This provided me with free admission, a few perks, and the opportunity to promote myself to people who would actually be interested in what I had to say. I also was listed on their web pages and in their program books, along with a short bio.

When ARCH ENEMIES was released, it provided one more opportunity for promotion, and I now was able to sell myself to the conventions as a published author.

A few days ago, I returned from the World Science Fiction Convention which this year was held in Montreal, Canada (a lovely city but with the world’s worst Chinese food, even in Chinatown). It’s in Australia next year. I don’t think I will be able to make that one.8

It was tremendous fun. I had the opportunity to meet and speak with many famous writers, editors, and artists, and was on a number of panels — the largest of which was about computer animated films. (As an aside, it was a pleasure to meet Mike Resnick in person after interviewing him for this blog a while ago. “Ask tougher questions!” he admonished me.)

Most importantly, I had my book for sale in the dealer’s room, and was listed in the program for a reading and a book signing. Not surprisingly, in a convention packed with many things to do, I did not receive a huge crowd for either, but the books in the dealer’s room sold out — a good sign that perhaps my promotions were successful.

For the reading, I decided to present the pirate short story I am working on (“X Spots the Mark”). I loved doing the pirate accents and the audience seemed to have a good time. After, they requested that I read some from ARCH ENEMIES and being the ham I am I was pleased to oblige.

The nicest encounter came during the book signing. I was given the assignment of being at the signing table from 6:30 to 7:00 pm on Saturday night, when basically everyone is at dinner and preparing for the big Masquerade an hour or so later, so I had nice conversations with the other not-so-well-known authors, artists and editors who wondered if anyone would show up. A teenage girl came to me and asked me to sign her autograph book. “Ah, in case I become famous some day?” I asked. “Well,” she shrugged, “you’re already more famous than me.”

But back to the topic: Every time you attend these things, you get better known in the community. People say “Oh, I remember him; he spoke well at that panel. Maybe I’ll try his book.”

And you make connections. I had a nice conversation with Jim Morrow, for instance, who agreed to submit to a future interview for this blog.

Now I just need some tougher questions.

Ideas aren’t everything

More than once, I have been approached by someone saying, “Oh, you’re a writer? Listen, I’ve got a great idea for a book. Tell you what, I’ll give you the ideas and you’ll write it and we can share authorship.”

Are these people coming to me because I am not a successful full-time author (yet)? Would they approach a famous writer with the same request?

I’ve actually had one person get upset at me when I refused, as if I had turned down free money. “Don’t you understand? I’m going to do all the hard work; all you have to do is write it down.”the-writer2

Obviously, these people have no idea what it means to write. Everyone has ideas; I have more book ideas than the time I have to write them in. And I expect everyone reading this has ideas as well.

Expressing those ideas? Not everyone can do that.

As a lawyer, I see the same thing in court. Some attorneys are much smarter than I am yet don’t go to court very often and don’t know how to present their arguments. Having control over your words is not an easy skill to acquire.

God knows, I am still trying to acquire it in my writing. Some reviews for ARCH ENEMIES spoke of the great plot twists and character development while at the same time noting that the writing was still rather pedestrian.

Hey, give me a break; it was the first novel I ever wrote. I’m just thrilled it was at least good enough to get published.

But it’s true. The sequel (THE AXES OF EVIL, expected to be published late this year or early the next) is a big improvement over the first. I’m learning each day that little tweaks here and there can make huge differences in the story.

A few months ago, I attended a writer’s workshop that pushed this further, and in the last week J. Thomas Ross, a professional editor, while once more admiring my story and characters, reduced the first two chapters of THE AXES OF EVIL to bits, making points about my writing style that seem so obvious that I slap myself and say “Why didn’t I see that?”

It’s kind of like when I learned to play guitar. I was justly proud of myself, and the bands I played in as a teenager were not bad, but in retrospect amateurish. It took years of practice and playing until I felt really confident. Writing is the same.

This blog is meant to help those writers who, like myself, are just starting out and making mistakes along the way. I learned early on that coming up with a good story is not enough. I am still working on the second part: the writing. And I probably will always be working on that part.

When I think about this topic, I am often reminded of my favorite author, Charles Dickens. I read PICKWICK PAPERS years ago, and had an epiphany at one point. Dickens was describing Pickwick’s meal and dinner conversation, and at the end of the chapter, it hit me that nothing had happened. Nothing in that chapter pushed the plot forward or developed the characters in new ways, but I couldn’t put it down. Dickens, being such a master writer, had kept me enthralled writing about nothing. Ideas aren’t everything.

Very few authors can accomplish that, but the very best can come close. And that’s the lesson for today: The best ideas in the world are meaningless if you cannot express them in a way that makes people want to read them. And that’s a skill that you have to learn.

The Curse of Enthusiasm: “Don’t Get Cocky, Kid.”

You’ll never get anywhere in this business if you don’t have a healthy ego and believe that you are indeed producing good work that people want to read.

But in the words of a famous pilot, “Don’t get cocky, kid.”

The biggest mistake I made when I began was in being too confident in my abilities.

A few years ago, I finished writing my novel ARCH ENEMIES. Filled with enthusiasm for my baby, I rushed it off to every agent and publisher listed in the traditional resources. Surely they would see it for the masterpiece it was! How would I decide between the multiple offers that would flow my way?ArchEnemies-510

As you have guessed, I spent a year collecting rejection letters.

One reason for this, which shall be discussed in a future blog, was due to poor query letters (an art in itself, I have discovered). But the real reason was that the book deserved to be rejected.

After some time, I went back and re-read it. And found that while the characters and plot were fun, the writing itself was clumsy and pedestrian. I was so excited about my story that I had basically submitted my first draft.

I rewrote it, almost line by line, and not wanting to embarrass myself further, submitted it to the small (but growing rapidly) publisher Double Dragon, who accepted. It has since done quite well with them. But even now, I want to rewrite sections.

So today’s lesson is this: Slow down. Don’t be so enthusiastic. Take your work and set it aside for a while until you calm down, and then go over it line by line. Get that first draft out quickly to get the right feel and flow for the material, but never forget that it is a first draft.

Coming to a later post: Ideas aren’t everything. Everyone has them.

How not to develop characters

At one of the panels in which I was a guest at Lunacon this past weekend, we had a nice discussion about character development in books.  I used the example given by Dan Brown, writer of THE DAVINCI CODE.

“Dan Brown always lets you know if, for instance, a character is cynical with a good sense of humor,” I said.  “He writes: ‘Dr. Smith was cynical, with a good sense of humor.'”

If you can’t tell from the way my characters act and what they say whether they are cynical and have a good sense of humor, then I have failed as a writer.

To me, the most important aspect of any story is how it affects the characters.  Oh sure, the plot is important and keeps it exciting, but I really don’t like books (and movies) in which the hero is exactly the same before and after the adventure.

axesofevilARCH ENEMIES and its just completed sequel THE AXES OF EVIL are all about how Terin changes from the cowardly bard to a more confident “hero.” The things he goes through change him, slowly, but not unreasonably.

For instance, by the end of AXES he’s still a bit of a coward, but he considers it a reasonable reading of reality.  He doesn’t shy away from speaking his mind and showing bravery in other ways, but when a battle breaks out, he still runs to the back and tries to stay out of the way.

But I guess that goes toward another pet peeve of mine:  Main characters who within a sort span go from being a nobody to the best swordsman in the kingdom or most powerful wizard of what-have-you.  Character development to me means more than just emotional development — it means realistic development in other ways, too.

And the more real the character, the more believable all the other fantasy things I can throw into the mix!

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