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Category: Thoughts on Writing

You Will (Almost) Certainly Disappoint Everyone With Your Prequel

Recently, I reviewed Suzanne Collins’ The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. It was a Hunger Games novel, so I wasn’t going to miss it. I ended up quite enjoying it, because it was focusing on a character, rather than events. But back when I first heard about it, my reaction was an exasperated sigh.

I hate prequels. I hate them with a fiery passion. I respect the fact that not everyone feels as I do, and for some people returning to a beloved world is enough to be happy. But I am not wired this way. I enjoy that, to be sure, but my main drug is story. And here is the thing about prequels: I know what happens next.

There is a pretty solid argument to be made that the very concept of a prequel is messing with the dramatic rhythm of a work. The emotional punchline is by default muted. Sure, we are invested (smirk) in the trade disputes around the blockade of the planet Naboo in The Phantom Menace. Or the mystery of the clone army in Attack of the Clones. Or even Sidious’ machinations in Revenge of the Sith. But really, what we want to see, is the rise of the Empire and Anakin turning evil.

Except, we already know those things will happen. The Empire will rise. Anakin will become Darth Vader. And then Sidious will be killed by his apprentice, who will die saving his son. Thus apparently redeeming himself for being the galaxy’s shittiest parent.

This makes any potential emotional punch of the Star Wars prequels – even were they better written – immediately lessened. And what’s worse, we now have the bad taste of those not-awesome movies that mars our experience of the original trilogy. And this applies to any work of art. Often the prequel will create context that damages the original story in some way, and for what? I don’t want to sympathize with the villain. I don’t need to know how many adventures the protagonist’s now-dead parents had. It only makes me annoyed that they died so easily before the story even began.

I think it is likely easier to write a prequel than a sequel. You are working with a pre-existing world, and leaning on a completed story that demands a certain direction. Furthermore, publishers LOVE prequels. For established works they are certain cash cows, and even for less successful stories, they are, by definition, low-risk.

But here is the thing. Even when people like a story enough that they are willing to read anything related to it, they would still never truly love your prequel. And they will especially fail to love the diminishing returns of your prequel series. We know what comes after. Sooner or later we are just looking at our watches and waiting for it to just happen.

I did a little mental inventory to see if there have been any prequels I have genuinely loved. Weirdly enough, the most recent example I started this post with, is actually among the successful ones. The Star Wars sequel trilogy was far more exciting to me than the prequel one. It had never occurred to me to even try and read anything about James Potter, even before Joanne turned full TERF evil. But I did enjoy the flawed Cursed Child. The Dune prequels were… not awesome. The Wheel of Time’s New Spring left me gasping from boredom.

Our entertainment culture is driven more and more by profit, and seems to be increasingly terrified of taking risks. Literature, luckily, is low-stakes enough, and by its very nature can’t survive without new voices. But the moment something becomes successful, it is expected to keep proliferating. And hey, if they are offering you bags of money to write prequels, you should absolutely take their bags of money! The easiest way to do so is to look back. ‘How did we get here?’

But here is the thing. You already told us how. In the original story. If we needed to know more in order to understand it, you’d have told us then. And this is before considering that adding more (and rarely necessary) details only has the potential to mar the impression of the source material.

In most cases, prequels add nothing but disappointment and diminishing returns to my experience. I accept that this is not the case for everyone, but I dare you to show me a single work where a prequel was better or more exciting than the sequels. In the meantime, I will continue hoping that Collins takes us further into the future of Panem and the inevitable collapse of its inept people’s government.

Destiny Needs Some Conclusions

I love the world of Destiny. I have been part of it since the midnight release of the first game back in 2014. And I have stuck with the series through its highs and lows, even when so many others left. This post however will not be about the serious issues the franchise is dealing with in maintaining player interest. Rather, I want to talk about lore.

The grimdark, post-apocalyptic solar system of Destiny is one of the most complex and original universes I have ever encountered. And I don’t just mean video games here. Thanks to phenomenal talents like Seth Dickinson, Jon Goff, and many other writers, the stories of humanity and the numerous threats that arrived to claim the wreckage of its collapse, have grown alive in the 6 years since the game’s release.

Problem is, so far the glorious wealth of Destiny lore does not include too many endings. And to an extent, this makes sense. For all its dwindling popularity, this is a regularly updated MMO game. Ending its story means cutting its life short. But this only applies on a macro level. Throughout its lifetime, this franchise has generated a ton of subplots, many of which incredibly compelling, but not necessarily vital to the main conflict. And yet, with each new season, these separate stories either get more complicated, or completely ignored.

What is Uldren’s part in all of this? Where is Savathun? Has Emperor Calus’ daughter usurped the Cabal? What about the Shadows of Yor? The Vex that aren’t slaves to the Darkness? The three major factions vying for control of the devastated Fallen Houses? What war is the Exo Stranger fighting? Is Queen Mara Sov ever coming back to the Dreaming City? What is even happening in the Dreaming City, now that the time-loop curse seems to be indefinitely part of it? Will we find out more about the Deepstone Crypt?

I can go on, and on, and on. And I am fully aware that most of these questions aren’t even something the player community of Destiny at large is aware of. But I want to explain why the amount of open storylines bothers me.

Long-running franchises cannot focus on everything at once. This not only requires unrealistically large technical capabilities, but it would also hurt the storytelling itself. A good story needs a throughline. Sure, in Destiny 2: Forsaken we dealt with Prince Uldren’s betrayal, and the Scorn, and the death of Cayde-6. We dealt with the Taken, and the Ahamkara, and the Awoken, and the Hive. BUT, we did it in a thematically coherent way. All of these storylines converged in one strong and unified narrative, giving us the most brilliant expansion since The Taken King.

But the story of Cayde-6 and our vengeance for his murder was completed. The reveal and hunt for the Taken Ahamkara Riven was finished. And yes, all of those have had lasting repercussions to the world’s lore, but the very completion of these strong arcs allowed us to have patience. The repercussions would be dealt with, in time. They were parked.

Similar argument can be made of many other threads of the Destiny tapestry, such as The Nine and the Black Armory, for example. We don’t know everything about these stories, they aren’t necessarily finished. But they have reached a plateau. A point where we feel enough satisfaction, that we can move on to another part of the universe.

But too many of the current storylines keep being teased, hinted at, mentioned in lore tabs. They have immediate questions attached, unresolved tensions. Except, they never get pulled to the forefront. In 2018 Uldren awoke as a Guardian with no memory of his previous life and crimes. That was two years ago, both in real world, and in-game. In that time, we have read some minor lore about how miserable and ostracized he is. But none of it answers the burning questions about his fate. By rule of the Vanguard Dare, Uldren (or however he calls himself now) should be the new Hunter Vanguard. Instead, he is nowhere, and unlikely to be a focus of any particular story coming in the near future.

And as the pyramid ships are now halfway into Sol, I wonder if Destiny’s future won’t be cut short. The Darkness is the ultimate enemy after all. They single-handedly destroyed humanity’s Golden Age. And an entire fleet of them is now within our system, ready to deliver a second Collapse.

So, I have to ask myself, how much of the beloved stories I have lived and breathed for over half a decade will even find conclusion? Or at least a plateau point where I can feel a measure of contentment over abandoning them in the short term? And will there be enough long term for Bungie to fully end at least some of them?

Destiny has what it takes to be a historic example of gaming (and overall) storytelling. But however long its planned life-span is, it needs to start concluding things. Because, if recent dragon- and lightsaber-based franchises have taught us anything, it is that a story, for all its brilliant moments, is only ever as good as its ending.

How to Be a Dick to People, And Make a Good Story Out of It

At this point, I have vomited several hundred thousand words of text unto the world. A “practice” insta-trunk novel, nearly two complete drafts of a second one. A novella and several short stories. One might say I am beginning to gain “some experience”.

But in that experience, nothing gives me more cold sweat, than creating conflicts for my characters.

(Disclaimer: I am bundling here interpersonal, emotional, and outside conflicts. Naturally, all of those are profoundly different, and require different solutions. But the core principle of resolving them is, I believe, similar.)

Conflicts are tough for anxious people with obsessive-compulsive tendencies. One, I try to avoid them at all cost in real life. Two, my mind goes into overdrive, scrambling to figure out the optimal course of resolution. Add it all together, and my writing really resists lending itself to making life hard for my characters.

Don’t get me wrong. I do it. But creating the conflict is actually the easy part. Ultimately, we can all imagine bad shit happening to us or people around us. We can all come up with hurtful or otherwise problematic interpersonal interaction. The real problem is the resolution. As a discovery writer, I constantly catch myself failing to use tools such as “try/fail” cycles. My instinct is always to just have the characters come up with what I see as the perfect solution, and then have it work.

But a working solution is not a working solution. It makes for a boring linear story. So, in my present writing, I am doing my damnedest to stick to at least the spirit, if not the letter of the following pattern. (I take no credit, of course. This has been invented by much smarter and far more experienced people than myself.)

1. What is the worst/most problematic thing that could happen in the current situation the character is in? DO THAT!

2. What is the smartest possible solution that the character could use? Have them try it, and make it fail spectacularly. Maybe even create further problems.

3. What is a new thing that could solve the problem? Have them try that too, and maybe resolve only part of the problem.

4. Keep going until your character is an emotional or physical wreck. Then repeat.

Of course, this is fiction. There are numerable permutations. But the most important storytelling tool I have found so far, is to challenge myself to fail at the “best course”. If I can have my own best laid plans collapse in flames, I am pushed to come up with a less obvious solution. And sure enough, one could overdo this and get into Convolution Town. But ultimately, it is the right course to create a conflict that won’t bore the reader.

I just wish it came to me easier. Maybe that’s my own try/fail cycle…

Magic as a Storytelling Tool

As someone who deeply loves magic, be it in fantasy, or Science Fiction, I have always been excited by different systems and the ways in which they are integrated within the story. Brandon Sanderson — a huge inspiration on various axes — has an entire theory about how magic should be used. I greatly recommend reading his First Law article, which sets down a strong correlation between magic systems and plotting. The entire thing is worth the time, but the law itself reads:

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

On the surface of it, this makes a ton of sense — the less explicable your supernatural forces are, the more unsatisfying it is when they resolve a problem. Gandalf can wave his hands and divert storms. He can win willpower battles against gods and ancient spirits. But do we understand what the parameters and limitations of his magic are? We do not. Would we like it if, after three books of toil and strife, he shows up and just solves all problems? We would not. We are barely ok with the Gandalf Ex Machina already present in the trilogy!

But magic is not binary. Sure, prophecies, totemic and symbolic powers, and destiny are lazy ways to solve a problem. But they are certainly awesome at creating one. A world can be governed by laws far different from the reality we inhabit, and its heroes can still fight against those different laws. Magic doesn’t need to be systematically defined, in order to be part of a satisfying story. It just can’t solve that story’s main problems.

However, I think those two ways of approaching supernatural powers aren’t mutually exclusive. “Soft” magic can be your inciting incident. It can fully govern the world of your story and create all its problems. “Hard” magic can save the day. Because it is bound by rules and limitations which the reader understands, it is perceived as just another skill in the characters’ toolbox, and as such, it does not break the ability of the story to put them through the grinder.

Of course, this is all relative. Rules exist to be broken. Your story can be about the inevitability of failure in the face of overwhelming powers. Or it can be about a godlike being and their awesome abilities that we understand fully, but which no one can stand against. Or your “soft” magic can be a higher form of a hard system that you have just not revealed to the reader yet.

Still, to break a rule, you have to understand it. And I believe that Sanderson’s First Law is a unique attempt at discovering how the tropes of speculative fiction actually apply to literary structures. Magic is a great tool we have. But unless you are writing a role-playing system, or do not care about structure in your story, you have to use that tool in a way that enhances your work, rather than breaks it.

DUMBLEDORE IS GAY!!! 2: Fanfic Boogaloo

After last Friday’s post, a friend reached out to tell me that she understood my point, but loved fanfics too much to agree with me. It made me realize that I had never actually talked about fan fiction in that post, and that made me question why.

The first and obvious reason is that I don’t really read fanfics. I know a lot of people who do, I am aware that there exists some great literature in that community, and I am familiar with the tales of great commercial success that originated as fan fiction (though, sadly, when the first example that comes to mind is 50 Shades of Gray, I struggle to feel very appreciative about it).

However, it has just never interested me. To me, the “canon” is always what the creator of the work says, and nothing else. Even in superhero comic books, where there are so many authors and artists working on the same characters, I will still almost never read “what if” or alternative reality stories, because they just detract from the “real” thing (please, don’t take this as snobbishness, it’s far more obsessive-compulsive than it is pretentious, I promise).

With that said, fan fiction has also never bothered me, and I do see a firm distinction between that and author tweets or fan theories. See, fan fiction is actual fiction. Good, bad, brilliant, or atrocious, it is a dramatized experience of the characters of a given work. A story. It treats them the same way the original author does – as creations to be put through their paces in an isolated frame.

Fanfics don’t treat people or events as any more “real” than the work that inspired them. And this is why, while not for me, I have great appreciation for the form. In the end, fans want more or different adventures (or, yunno, crazy naked sex) for the characters they love, so they create them, or go read the works of others who have created them. It is ultimately a positive and constructive act on both the creative and reading end.

Tweets about the characters, providing “information” about them that does not exist in any kind of work, be it original or fan-made, are not the same thing. Neither are theories that presume material that does not yet/will never exist. And, as I said last week, I am not in any position of authority – legal, moral, or otherwise – to tell you how to enjoy the things you enjoy.

But if I am going to learn about pooping wizards, I want to learn it from a work of fiction, not social media. You are not your characters’ town crier. You are their creator. And as far as I am concerned, you should always act like it.

DUMBLEDORE IS GAY!!!: Canon VS Head-canon

Disclaimer: This is going to get opinionated. I want to preface it with saying that I am a massive fan of Harry Potter, and I utterly adore Bonds of Brass. What I am about to say should be taken as a broad commentary about the nature of fiction, rather than dissing either work, or its author.

There is something that has been chewing on the sides of my brain ever since I wrote my review of Bonds of Brass.


No, just kidding (kind of). It was Emily Skrutskie’s tweet (and comments in other places), stating that the two main characters of the book were bisexual, when they were not coded as such in the book itself. I have been trying to examine why this statement bugged me so much, and I realized it has nothing to do with identity.

Instead, it’s about what is on the page, and what isn’t.

Now, if the title hasn’t forced your mind in that direction, let me just remind the world that, at present, J.K. Rowling is the undisputed champion in extra-literary revisions. With every new tweet about the Wizarding World, she erodes our love for her books a tiny bit more, but it goes further than that — she adds information that was never part of the narrative of those books. That is not a problem for some people, but it is a massive issue for others.

I think there are two fundamental approaches to perceiving fiction (just kidding, there are a million. But stay with me on this one). You can treat it as an alternate reality that you are viewing form the window of the book/screen/whatever; or you can treat it as a work of art, with its internal rules and limitations — a sort of fourth-wall approach, in which you are aware of your role as a spectator. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course. In fact, I think they always intertwine to an extent. But in their extremes, they lead to different perceptions of the reality of the work.

If you see the fictional story as something real and independent of your perception, you can easily incorporate any piece of external information into the work. Such as — you guessed it! — Dumbledore being gay. It’s not in the Harry Potter books. It’s not hinted at, it’s not implied. There is literally nothing you can even retrospectively point at, and say “This codes Dumbledore’s sexuality”. If anything, he is the quintessential ace character — a wise old mentor archetype with no sexuality whatsoever.

But if you think of him as a real person, existing independently of the books that tell his story, he could easily be gay. The narrative isn’t about his personal life, after all, right? It’s plausible that it wouldn’t come up.

I don’t think in those terms. And I won’t claim that my approach is “the right one”, because hey — who am I, really, to tell you how to enjoy fiction? But I have always been on the opposite end of the spectrum. I hate fan theories with a fiery passion. I avoid forums that discuss ongoing fantasy series like the plague. No, Tyler, Daenerys is NOT secretly Tyrion’s niece. Jaime didn’t kill his mother. Arya doesn’t have a secret Braavosi lover.

You know why? Because they don’t exist.

These people are made up. Their experiences only ever occur in the fiction that features them. They don’t have independent life outside of it. I will not speculate as to the secret thoughts and actions of non-existent people, because the writer can, at any point, choose to take them in any direction they please. Sometimes — sadly — they do it specifically to subvert the expectations of fan speculation.

This is why the bisexuality of the Bonds of Brass boys bugged me so much. Because that is a story based around romance, and that romance is same-sex. That’s what is presented inside the book, and that’s all that exists of these two entities. Claiming otherwise, even as the writer, implies that they have a life outside of the work, that there are further dimensions to them that I am not privy to. And for all I know, maybe future books in the trilogy will blast their bisexuality in my face. I won’t love those two disasters any less for it.

But in the mean time, I believe that the work is the work, and only the work is canon. It doesn’t matter whether my story is about any particular kind of identity or circumstance. If it matters to me that my readers perceive my characters in any specific way, it is the simplest thing in the world to code them that way, without ever making it a focus of the narrative. A stray thought. A random line of dialogue. Someone casually noticing the attractiveness of someone else.

We are writers. The world of our own work is our butt-monkey. There is nothing we can’t make known to the reader, if we so choose.

In the actual real world that we live in, labels are still important, and identity is the nexus of social and political fights that have defined generations. Hetero is still the norm. Same-sex relationships still read “gay” or “lesbian”. Therefore, if we want to paint our characters in more complex colors (even when we are placing them in a post-identity world), we have to code them as such within the work.

I shouldn’t have to read J.K.’s tweets in order to know something so profound about one of her series’ most important characters. But BOOOOY would I love some hot and steamy prequel story about young Albus getting it on with another dude!

The Dumping of Info in Secondary World Fiction

This one is narrowly focused on writing a specific type of science fiction and fantasy, but it’s a fairly prevalent issue, so I figured I would drop my two cents in that particular slot.

Something I had to deal with from pretty much the first paragraph of my current book, was how to naturally insert the necessary information, so that readers would have any chance of understanding what the F is going on. I believe I have overcome this issue with some level of competence (courtesy of obsessing over it for literal years), but it did make me evaluate the role of infodumps in secondary world fantasy and science fiction.

First of all, the terms, for that one person who potentially doesn’t know what I am talking about:

Infodumps are compressed chunks of information about the story, world, or characters in fiction. It is, by definition, something to avoid, as it stops the narrative in its tracks. Rather than the reader submerging themselves into your work, they are taken out of the story in order to read a glossary.

Secondary worlds, on the other hand, are locales that exist outside of our present day world or its known past. Your Middle Earths, Narnias, Westeroses, and Roshars, for sure. But just as much your Cultures, Dunes, Urths, and Foundations, because whether an alternate reality, or a distant future, the further away you get from the reader’s point of origin, the more terminology and circumstance they will have to learn, in order to become part of your worlds.

So, with that said, it is staggering how many ways there are to present information poorly. Talking heads (which I’ve heard described as “Maid and Butler dialogue” and “As you know, Bob…” as well) that spout exposition when they have no reason to be having such conversations. Farm boys or fresh-out-of-the-portal/cryochamber earthers who need everything explained to them. Students in magical/SF military schools who supposedly know a lot, but get to still give the reader tutorials through their daily experiences.

And of course, the old faithful – the omniscient point of view in which the author’s voice itself stops everything to explain to us what we are reading and how it works.

The types of infodumping are infinite, but what struck me, as I was thinking of how best to reveal my own worldbuilding to the reader, was that when it comes to secondary worlds, not all in-depth explanations are infodumps. And the delivery of information is not a binary, but a spectrum.

To give examples, on one end you have a Brandon Sanderson. He likes everything neatly explained and structured, from the magic to the workings of the world, to cosmology and theology. And if something is a mystery, the reader knows it is a matter of time for it to be revealed. However, he rarely falls into the trap of artificial explanations. He worldbuilds with the reader, but he does it organically, and this approach to writing is at the core of his work.

On the other end, you have someone like Steven Erikson, who — in Gardens of the Moon — parachutes the reader into the middle of a war in an unknown land, right as some kind of dark elf on a flying mountain has a chaotic magic battle with a group of humans. Names, titles, factions, and plot points fly around and bounce off of each other, and none of it is explained. You are left to slowly build your own picture of the Malazan world, if you have the patience for it.

I tend to prefer understanding a world by myself, absorbing it through the eyes of characters who are part of it. As I empathize with them, I can empathize with their reality and circumstances, and it is my favorite type of “learning curve”. However, I still need some core principles and terminology to be if not explained, then immediately obvious (and there are many naming conventions that help with that). Otherwise, curiosity turns to confused frustration.

Meanwhile, the opposite approach has great merit as well. A gem like Mistborn does not work if Kelsier is not around to explain allomancy to Vin. The glorious battle scenes of that book only impress because we understand the “science” of what the characters are doing. Some stories need the reader to have a firm grasp on their setting in order to tell the story they want to tell.

Both extremes, and anything in-between can be done well, or poorly. But I have come to realize that whether you want drop the reader in the middle of your world, or introduce them slowly to it, some measure of infodumping is unavoidable, at least for larger works of secondary world speculative fiction. In this aspect, SFF is fairly unique in comparison to any other genre, which can lean on the real world for support in its narrative. We don’t have that luxury, and so we must use tricks and shortcuts to give the reader enough to work with.

Ultimately, I don’t mind some direct infodumps in the books I read. If the world, magic, space-faring tech, or the complicated relationships between characters and factions, are key to understanding the plot, but not the point of the plot, I’d rather know enough about them from the get go, rather than trying to piece them together, while figuring out where the story is going. Some of my all-time favorite authors are able to do that seamlessly enough that I don’t even notice information has been dumped on me.

And so, this is what I aspire to as well. Because, really, you try telling a space fantasy story comped as “Final Fantasy meets Mistborn on a terraformed gas giant” without some infodumps!

C2E2 Panel Report

Last year was the first time I actually went to a panel on writing. Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo is a comic-con, rather than a professional one, but they had acquired some impressive names, such as Mary Robinette Kowal and Cory Doctorow, among others (both of whom are absolute rock stars by the way). This time around the stable was even larger, with people such as John Scalzi, Terry Brooks, and Sam Sykes, as well as a number of first-time authors like K.M. Szpara and Chris Kluwe, and a serious presence of the Horror and Young Adult variety, spearheaded by Joe Hill and Rainbow Rowell respectively.

I focused on the SFF panels, which took the biggest chunk of my convention weekend, and it was an energizing (and a tiny bit frustrating) experience. Despite the well thought out panel topics, the actual result seemed to always amount to “writers talking about writering”, which I totally loved. And listening to people you admire share their experiences in the field you ascribe to, helps tremendously to humanize and demystify said field.

On the other hand, having people talk about living your life’s dream when you sometimes feel so far away from achieving it, can be a bit depressing (beer helps with that, by the way). More than anything though, it paints in stark colors the simple fact that the steps to traditional publishing are very simple, very accessible, and each one requires tremendous amounts of work, patience, and determination. There are no short cuts. But in its own way, this is motivating as well.

Some highlights:

K.M. Szpara and the importance of being earnest. Even among a group as diverse as the panels at C2E2 offered, Szpara stood out to me, and not only because I had practically just finished his book (or because, I was somehow the fanboy who got to be his first signee). He approached both of his appearances (“Tor Presents: Chaos and Cosmos” and “The Devil You Know”) with a mixture of thoughtfulness and passion that really resonated with me. An awareness of the current field, mixed with an impish attitude that I, in my rigid glory, can only admire from a distance. Plus, raising awareness of the important issue of whether Dolores Umbridge would make a good dom.

One thing that stuck with me was his advice on approaching fiction writing with the abandon of a fanfic writer. No fear of censorship, no need to worry about market or reception. It is a constant struggle and a subject of endless second-guessing for me, trying to determine whether I write a certain way because I want to, or because I think that’s how it’s “supposed” to be written. It was refreshing to hear someone who has achieved success vouch for the former. And though of course one can’t just ignore all external factors when pursuing traditional publishing, it is a nice reminder all the same that ultimately you write better when your primary drive isn’t worry about what the market might expect.

Zack Jordan and the value of showmanship. Zack appeared on only one panel – “Authors on ‘The Best Advice I Ever Got’” – which makes sense, considering his first book, The Last Human, is not even out yet (it is scheduled for late March). That particular panel quickly became a conversation about editing and author reaction thereof, and Jordan made the very important point that if you are trying to get published and sell your work for moneys, then you are no longer writing just “for yourself”. And the editor is the person whose job is to champion the book, not stifle the author, provided of course that the two are a good fit.

What was interesting to me about him though, was not the panel, but rather his booth on the main floor, glued to the Del Rey stand. Jordan, who has background in tech (one assumes) startups had set up a whole performance installation where he and a couple of other dudes in jumpsuits were “scanning” the crowd for potential humans, and issuing honest-to-Cthulhu, printed on the spot ID cards of your actual race, with picture and everything. Beyond the fourth wall, he was also handing out advance reading copies of The Last Human, and when I questioned him about the whole thing, he told me that Del Rey had provided the booth space, and he had set up everything else, from his helpers, to the card printers, the scanning app, all of it.

Moral of the story? For obvious market reasons, first time SFF writers are nobody’s budget priority. But if you are good at selling yourself, you can make a big impression with limited resources. Now if only I could in any way leverage classical violin training for PR…

John Scalzi and the JOHN FUCKING SCALZI!!! Perhaps a little context is necessary. I am sure I will end up writing about this in a bit more detail in the future, but suffice to say that The Collapsing Empire was the book that made me decide I was going to get off (on?) my ass and actually write a damn novel. Later that same year, You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop To A Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing was the collection of blog posts that made me decide I was going to pursue a writing career like a real boy.

So, while I wouldn’t credit Scalzi’s work with the inspiration for my own writing, his personality has definitely been directly responsible for my believing I can do this. And meeting him in person was such an amazing experience. He is a smug dork in the best possible way, and despite having the second largest autograph line after Terry Brooks, he spent a lot of time chatting with everyone and being friendly as hell. In the end, he told me to “keep writing, and don’t dare stopping”, and in my head canon, he is greatly invested in my success.

This is by no means the extent of my impressions of the convention or the writers I met there, but most of my other experiences boil down to small anecdotes, reinforcements of personal feelings, and some truly encouraging advice and raw emotion from Sam Sykes, who I shamefully had not read a word by until the very morning of C2E2 — a mistake I am currently fixing with enthusiasm. Also worth mentioning is Chris Kluwe , who was insanely charming and showed me that just because I am a bigot who thinks sportsball is dumb, doesn’t mean sportsball people can’t be thoughtful or have meaningful contributions outside of hoops, or whatever it is you do in the NFL.

Overall, after nearly a decade of walking around booths of comic books, artwork, and toys, standing in lines for autographs and photo ops with cast members of Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I am discovering that my inner diligent student likes sitting in panels discussing the craft and business of writing more than pretty much anything else a con might offer. So I am definitely ready to test this theory at a professional lit-con. Hopefully, I get a chance later in the year.

The Unbearable Lightness of Drafts

Back when I started this journey of “You know what, Imma do this for realz!”, I began reading and listening to people who knew more than I did about the craft of writing. Everyone had their quirks of process, different things they were better or worse at, varying ways of approaching it. I am happy to have seemingly reached a point, where it doesn’t all feel abstract and I can start figuring out how those experiences apply to me, rather than stumbling completely in the dark.

But one thing that none of the books and podcasts prepared me for, was drafts.

As I have said before, my current writing is a mutated form of obsessive-compulsive discovery. I completed the initial draft of a novel some time ago, after a fairly pants-y process of figuring out what the story was, and how to get it to go where it seemed to want to go. I went back constantly to rewrite, adding or removing passages, lines, or entire chapters. Then I gave it some time to ferment, while jotting down thoughts as they came to me, about what the second draft should be like.

Now, over halfway through said second draft, I feel incredibly overwhelmed. Happily, this is not preventing me from working on it, but it is so much more difficult than I expected it to be. The book is… not small, and I have introduced some significant changes after I had time to think about it. But my brain helpfully dredges up a constant stream of loose ends, things that have suddenly become inconsistent or nonsensical after the new alterations, or simply “better” ideas of how events and characters are to evolve.

This is not my first novel, but it is the first I mean to push through a querying stage. As such, it is the first time I am faced with such a level of complexity in editing, and I was surprised at how difficult it was. (This is not to be taken as me claiming that I am doing a good job of it…)

The conversations by professional writers regarding drafts, that I have encountered so far, are mostly about the spectrum of outlining and discovery. Whether people favor one, the other, or a mixture of the two, the focus tends to go into the different approaches, with multiple drafts taken as a given when the process is closer to the discovery end. I had expected that, of course, since my fledgling attempts at outlining started way after I was finished with my the first pass on this work.

But the sheer chaos of it, and the daunting awareness that for every change I make, I might be creating three new problems? Or that I might be losing the structure of the novel? Or realizing that for all the time this draft is taking, the novel will require at least a couple more? I mean, seriously, can you have an impostor syndrome before you’re published, or is this just over-the-counter anxiety?

Either way, the challenge is still about 5% more inspiring than it is depressing, so I am muscling through and learning from it. But It goes to show just how surprising certain obstacles can be, despite thinking you have anticipated them. Apparently – just like in literally every other field known to the human species – no amount of preparation can make up for the real experience. Who knew?

The Intersectionality of Personality Types and Writing Habits: Playing Against Type

Two things are true about me. First, I have some mild obsessive-compulsive tendencies, mostly manifesting as a need to optimize and organize things (but not extending to making my bed in the morning, because I’m not a monster). And second, I am, as of this stage in my development as a writer, deathly afraid of outlining.

All indications point to someone like me being in his natural habitat when it comes to planning out stories. And yet, everything I have written so far has been the very essence of pantsing, discovery writing through and through. I tried to figure out why that was, and what I came up with was both surprising, and at the same time quite obvious.

Planning out your work, as I understand it, is a way to create a structure for how it is going to go, in terms of story, theme, worldbuilding, or characters. When I listen to outliners describe the things they put down before they start writing, it feels paralyzing. I just don’t know any of this in advance! How am I supposed to begin an outline?

And I realized that I do this in my head. It is chaotic, and subject to constant revisions – as I guess all discovery writing is – but precisely because I am so prone to organizing and structuring things in my life, it is actually easier for me to hold an abstract structure in my head, rather than try to put a concrete one on digital paper.

Because the flip side of having this kind of personality means that I don’t know where to draw the line. When I try to outline, what happens is that every bullet point has a subset of bullet points, each of which needs to have further clarifying bullet points, and then I have to color them differently, based on purpose, character, or theme… and then I am absolutely lost, and feel defeated and unable to continue.

However, one does not write The Next Great Epic Space Fantasy Series through pure discovery writing. Or maybe one does, but not this one. So I have been forcing myself to learn to outline simpler stories, without adding more than the absolute bare minimum to each bullet point. And it is manageable, of course, and something I will get better at. But it was still a strange feeling, not being able to do something it seemed I should be a natural fit for.

Maybe this realization is only a surprise to me, and every other writer in the world already knows that personality types and writing habits don’t always overlap. But I thought it interesting, and hopefully others will too. It showed me that even as I am learning how to better put my thought process into a word medium, there is no particular “right” way to do so, even if it seems like there should be.