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Tag: 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.

Working on the Craft: Goodness

A little bit of cheating today, because I ran out of life for the day, and I didn’t want to have gaps in my regular posting schedule. In my defense, it kinda works. The exercise calls for describing a kind person doing something good out of sheer empathy, rather than requiring something in return. As it happens, I already have a situation like that in my current manuscript, so I picked it up, edited it a bit, and the result isbelow. With that said, it IS quite weird describing altruism without making it sappy, and I am not at all certain that I succeeded, even with the allowance that the text comes from a work of epic fantasy.

The narrow warrens with their protective awnings formed a shadowy labyrinth. Signs of the Convergence were everywhere. There were too many beggars in the corners, and people wearing clothes that had not been changed in days, huddled in groups around fountains and public buildings with an air of discontented desperation. Children fought with skax for scraps of food, the small rodents’ faceted eyes and angry hissing enough to scare many away.

Valen’s heart broke a little, as he saw a grimy infant in rags – a little girl, barely able to walk – stumbling around a woman who huddled by the dirty wall of a nearby building, too weak to move. The passersby ignored both, and he could not bear thinking what would happen to this child when her mother was gone.

Pity was replaced by anger. The nobility lived in wonders of walking architecture and threw lavish parties turning the Convergence into entertainment. Meanwhile, the unknown continent’s arrival had spelled utter despair for thousands of poor souls living along the edge. Valen was honest with himself – he didn’t steal from nobles out of a sense of justice. The poor were no less poor for his exploits. But it always brought him a little bit of satisfaction knowing that some of those void damned nobles truly deserved to be visited by him.

He also noticed the increased presence of city guards. Mean expressions, hands dancing over scimitar hilts. What the farinate of Kash lacked in hospitality toward the refugees, it made up for in escalating tension. The Sovereign no doubt thought the Convergence crisis a minor trouble from his high throne in Tallisar. Enjoy the civil war when it arrives, salar…

However, Valen also saw Gem Singers, the glass jewels in their colorful robes glinting with the light of the setting sun as the cultists distributed food among those in need. They were members of various cults – the remnants of the Chantry after the Dissolution, focusing on good deeds and charity, rather than oppressive dogma and moralizing. The selfless work of the Singers was something Abradel sorely needed. And something its rulers should be providing.

There were also a few followers of Amrodin, offering healing to the most desperate looking beggars. The leviathan Gods cared little for the fate of humans, but to worship Amrodin, The Last Pathway, was to worship both life and death. His cult attracted the most skilled healers, even though Valen doubted many among those walking Kash’s warrens had his gift. It is still more than you will do for them, though, is it not?

Valen went to a food merchant and bought some fresh fruit at an exuberant price. He spent a few extra seconds staring at the man, after giving him an entire ruby flame for what no doubt had cost no more than a sapphire chip to acquire. He knew he could create trouble for the merchant, if he wanted to, but then told himself that times were tough, and he wasn’t exactly above exploiting others for his gain. The interaction still left a sour taste in his mouth that fruit could not wash.

He made sure to pass first through a temple of the cult of Amrodin, and then turned back, hoping that he remembered the place right. To his great relief, the lone sick woman and her infant child were still there.

“Take this,” the thief said, kneeling next to her and handing her a succulent simtar.

She looked at him with bleary eyes under a nest of unwashed blonde hair, then reached a tentative hand and took the soft red fruit. While her child watched with curiosity, she put the simtar to her lips and bit from it. An expression of profound happiness came to her face, and she offered the fruit to her daughter, who took it with excitement.

Valen rose from the dirty ground and offered her a hand.

“There is an Amrodin temple nearby, where you and your child will be taken care of. I have arranged it with the cultists.”

He did not mention the large sum of gemshards the healers had demanded of him. It was no matter. For one like him, there were always other sources of money, and walking through the streets of Kash, he’d seen too much suffering. It was a tiny drop in a lake of pollution, but he needed to do something.

The woman stared at him in suspicious uncertainty, while the little girl played with her filthy hair. Then she nodded and took his hand. Valen knew that he could not save everyone. But sometimes, he told himself, even two lives were enough.

Working on the Craft: Friendship

Today’s exercise seemed a bit too close to journaling for my tastes, so I went fictional with it. The point was to describe friendship in a response to an amazingly convoluted Samuel Becket quote. Insert, as Kiteley puts it, “a little poison into the sunny world the word usually describes”. In the end, I created a made-up person — a composite of my actual close friends — and put him through a situation many of them have found themselves in with me.

Sorry! But in my defense, y’all knew what you were signing up for…

I stop talking – whether because I have finished venting, or to take a breath, I am not sure – and he does the literal worst possible thing he could have done in this situation: he offers advice.

It’s not the first time either. The temerity!

I love him like a brother. Or rather, I love him the way I imagine I would love a brother, if I had one. It seems to involve a consistently low-boiling desire for manslaughter. Still though. We connect on a quantum level, you might say. I express a thought, however awkwardly, and I don’t have to worry about clarifying. He gets it. Instinctively. He understands not just the words, but the convoluted meanderings of my brain, lurking behind them. When he doesn’t, he asks the right questions.

I get him just as well, or at least it flatters me to think that I do. He is sticking around, so if it’s not that, it must be my sharp wit or something.

He is hot too, but that’s beside the point. That ship has had its run, and has now sailed safely beyond the horizon. Brother, as previously stated. But hey, in this life everything is a status symbol!

Where he fails – where he utterly, bombastically, dramatically betrays me – is in dealing with my drama.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a whole lot of drama in my life. I am too self-analytical for genuine MTV/VH1, ‘Teen Moms of Jacksonville, Florida’ drama. Usually. But when I do, I go full Shakespeare with it. World on fire, woe-is-me kinda deal. Naturally, the massive performative aspect of this experience demands that I share it. It’s therapeutic too, in a way. Better out than in, and it frees up space for actually addressing problems. Being a mature adult, or the placebo effect version of one.

But when I vent, I want commiseration. Absolute, obedient agreement, and more than that – simple acknowledgement. I am a smart guy,  and it’s my problem. I’ll figure it out. Hands off! Your role in this is to tell me how right I am or cushion the blow of how right I’m not. Not to solve shit for me.

But he does try. Invariably, he wants not just to listen, but to help. It is a little dance we dance. I come to him, whining or ranting as the occasion demands. He listens. Understands. Sympathizes. Then, in an utter disregard of karmic justice, he starts telling me what I did wrong, and how to fix it. And naturally I want to murder him.

But here is the cheat code for all this. He knows what I need. In an infuriatingly masturbatory way – one both sub- and super-liminal – I have made something obvious. While I definitely don’t want to be offered solutions, the complete disregard of my wishes is actually the perfect distraction from my woes. I don’t know if he is conscious of his role in this little farce, but he plays it enthusiastically. In making me annoyed at him, he takes my mind off my actual problem. Helps me reconnect the synapses. Figure out solutions that are – duh – way better than his suggestions.

In the least convenient, most obnoxious way possible, he ends up helping me solve my problem. Completely unprompted, butting in where he is not invited.

This is love. This is friendship. I can’t say with any degree of certainty that I deserve it. Him. But it is my fervent hope that I am able to do something this meaningful for him as well.

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.

Working on the Craft: Absent

Today’s exceptionally dorky text aims to describe a person who isn’t there. As Kiteley himself says, there are plenty of ways to do this — through physical observation, recounting actions, etc. For some reason, I immediately decided that my character would have just left a place and the POV would be that of people who are hiding from him. Then it got a little weird…

“Is he gone?” I asked, peering through the slits of the supply locker.

“He has to be, right?” Shari mumbled, doing the same to my right.

The locker was pretty intimate, what with the amount of mummified heads stacked neatly on every available surface – and imagine, if you will, my need to be trapped in a place devoid of dried-up body parts – but right now neither Shari, nor I were in any rush to get out.

“I haven’t heard an air cycle signal so far,” I pointed out. The only response was a groan.

I was groaning too, on the inside. Why either of us had thought it was a good plan to sneak aboard this particular ship, just as it was about to jump into Gatespace, was beyond me. No, wait. It wasn’t. We needed to make ourselves scarce, and fast. The station Lyctor had decided we were just the right shape and size to be scapegoated for the string of murders. It made sense to run away before she closed in on us.

It didn’t make sense to find ourselves into the ship of the actual killer. If that’s what the tall man with the strange globular helmet was.

“These were sounds of docking,” Shuri said after some more silence, punctuated only by the creaks and beeps of Gateship interior. “He was putting on an exposure tunic, you saw him.”

“Could mean he is going somewhere,” I agreed. “Could mean he is about to collect some more heads.”

I didn’t look her way, but I could smell her disapproval. “Even if that’s the case, Lim, let’s take it to the logical conclusion. Where does he keep his heads.”

“One is poking my butt,” I had to admit.


“Yes, therefore.”

I had no more arguments. The Gateship was small enough, that coming out of the supply locker was a risk. But the supply locker was small enough, that we would certainly be extremely discovered if he were to open it.

She began pressing her hands against the door, searching for the opening mechanism. “Did you see his eyes? He looks so–“

“Sexy, I know.”

“–psychotic,” Shari finished, her effort to open the door paused.

“Yep.” I was too diligent in trying to find the mechanism myself to meet her eyes. “Psychotic. Took the words right out of my mouth.”

“He kills people and decapitates them, Lim. Not even you are that desperate.” But she returned to her work.

Soon, there was a soft beeping sound – my memoirs will claim I’d found the lock first – and the door opened. We came out, both of us trying to look in every direction at once. There was no sound of footsteps, but then again, there hadn’t been any when he’d appeared in the hallway an hour ago either. He seemed to almost glide above the metal floor, his lean frame like some kind of attractive, decapitating kite.

“How long have we been out of Gatespace, do you think?” I asked Shari, trying to distract myself.

“About half an hour.” She was fairly distracted herself, leading the way down the corridor, peering behind corners before motioning me to follow.

“Do you think he docked with another station, or a ship?”

“No stations that close to ours.”


Another station would have meant a chance to slip out of the ship and escape. A ship? Well, where there was one sexy murderer, there could be more.

“Why do you think he kept the heads?” I asked.

Shari paused, turned around. “Lim.”



“Stop that. I am just curious.”

She rolled her eyes. “You have to stop this. Your taste in men is what got us into this?”

This was too much. It was exaggerated enough that I could ignore the kernel of truth and opt for being indignant. “Come on! In what universe is this my fault?”

Shari crossed her arms, raised her chin. I cringed.

“They have to be excessively damaged for you to like them. They have to be emotionally unavailable.”

“I don’t see how–“

AND…” She raised a finger to shush me. “They have to be borderline criminals.”

“I am not sure that’s fair.”

“That boy in the hyposlam ring?”

“He was duped.”

“The psycho that was skimming feed from engineering?”

“It was never proven…”

The actual literal burglar you tried to date after he robbed us?!

I had nothing for that one, so I kept silent. Shari’s crossed arms were judging me. “So, I am telling you, right now. I am drawing the line at “guy who cuts heads and mummifies them,” she continued. “I have been with you through a lot, but this is my hard no. And before you say anything more, know that–“

I never found out what I was supposed to know before I said anything more. She found it suddenly hard to express herself, due to the extremely prejudiced decapitation. An impressive length of flat, sharp metal hovered around where her head had just been, attached to a long, muscular arm. I suddenly found myself unable to look past that hand, so instead, I stared at the floor.

“Hi. I’m Lim,” I said. I was sure I was blushing.

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…

When Your Writing is Just Absolute Shit

I have been semi-hard at work on the second draft of my fantasy novel for the past many moons. It’s a chonker, clocking at about 200,000 words (which is definitely where you want to be with a debut novel, but that’s a different stress point). This draft has yielded a lot of new material, rearrangements, as well as the realization that a side character is completely unnecessary, and should be excised in the next round of edits.

However, I want to talk about sucking. More specifically about me sucking. I do that, sometimes.

Somewhere around the beginning of the last quarter of the story, I realized that events needed to take a detour, for the purposes of tension building, try/fail cycling, and the like. Whether that detour has been successful, or even necessary, I won’t know until I get to the point where the book feels tight enough to do a speed-read. But the point is — I wrote a whole lot of new material.

Then I came back to the point where the story merged with the already existing chapters, and realized that said point also needed a complete rewrite. Characters were now in different places, their relationships changed, new information had come to light, and so forth. So I rewrote the chapter. I had some cool character beats. I felt great about it, and let it marinate for a day, before coming back to quick-edit it, and add it to the whole.

Boy, was it awful! The beats still felt cool, the story still went the way I felt it needed to. But the writing. Oh my god, the word choices, the sentence structure! It was tres tres garbage. I patched what I could, left the rest for a future re-read.

Stay with me. There is a point to this, I promise.

See, even as I was establishing my incompetence, lack of talent, and utter unworthiness to exist as anything but a cautionary tale of the hubris of thinking you can be creative when you obviously can’t… I knew that I couldn’t trust that feeling. Quarantine is tough. Anxiety. Depression. Getting on your loved ones’ nerves, and them trampling all over yours. For every moment of manic productivity, there has to be one of hopeless self-flagellation. Or rather, there doesn’t have to be one. But in my personal experience there usually is.

The point (as promised) of my sad exhibitionist ramblings is — it doesn’t matter.

I might actually, objectively, suck. I might be brilliant, but depressed. Likely, I’m somewhere in the middle, with most of humanity. But I know what I want, and what I want, is to keep writing. I believe that the only way for me to do this, is to accept that there will be moments where insecurity (or, hey — objectivity!) will get the better of me. Where even my best effort will seem like a vomit sundae. And that those moments don’t truly define what I can accomplish, how far I can go.

Accepting the feeling of suck, and moving past it. Writing even when it really seems like all you write is despicable trash. It’s the only way forward I can conceive of, if I want to come out on the other side of it.

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.

Clarion West Online Classes – A Personal Retrospective

In the past month, the Clarion West Writers Workshop offered a number of online classes through their website. I only managed to sign up for one class from the first round, but I was lucky (read – manic) enough to attend more from the second. The experience was absolutely fantastic on several levels, and the ability to directly interact with professional writers was like being plugged into an outlet, and having my battery charged.

The subject matter of the classes varied wildly, from the use of psychological responses and types of interactions in character building, to the relationship between worldbuilding, character, and story. The structure itself was very different from class to class. Some were webinars, with Powerpoint presentations and room for questions. Others were more lecture-based, with participation, exercises, and the like.

Some takeaways:

1. I need interaction with other writers, be it published, or aspiring ones. It is becoming more and more apparent to me that on a sheer motivation level, I require contact with others who are doing or trying to do what I do. This is making me evaluate the potential to find a writing group, even though I am instinctively suspicious of such things. But it really seems like something that will boost both my motivation, and output.

2. I seem to – and this one is hard to phrase tastefully – actually, uhm, know a lot. Not in the sense of “these classes were useless”, in fact the absolute opposite. I took something unique and helpful from each and every one. But more than a few of these things were rephrasing or offering a unique perspective on information I already had.

Which, to be fair, makes sense. I have listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts, and read a massive number of books on the business and craft of writing. With each passing class, I realized that invariably the most helpful aspect was the direct exchange of ideas, and the practical exercises.

There is always more to learn, and I am likely not even done with the beginning of the process. But it does seem that at this point I actually have a surprising amount of raw information inside my head. Which means that further “learning” for me will have a lot more to do with practice and personal exploration, than simply absorbing information.

Fuck… Oh well.

3. Most importantly, I am realizing that this is truly what I want to be doing with my life. Every class, every sit down with a bunch of other faces, all of us staring awkwardly at each other and the person speaking, has been another crystal clear resonance with the awareness that THIS is who I am. Who I need to be, and what I need to become.

I don’t think any practical benefit I could list (and there were specific ones, to be sure, from each class) will measure up to this simple realization, or rather its reinforcement. Quarantine has been hard on all of us, and I have had my unproductive moments, just like everyone else has. However, after these past two weeks, I feel energized and motivated. And not simply to overcome anxiety, depression, and the uncertainty everyone is dealing with, but to know that even when I fail to do it, my path remains unaltered.

I am no less a writer just because I haven’t been published yet, or because I might have unproductive, uninspired, or flat out blocked streaks. I am more of a writer, knowing that after each of those streaks, I will be back at it, writing. Because I can’t imagine not doing it.

P.S. As for the picture of Jaime protecting my work area as the majestic panther god that he is – you are welcome.

Shall I Compare Thee to Game of Thrones?: A Treatise on Comp Titles

I stumbled onto a tweet by an indie writer recently. They were advertising their novel, and it went something like this:

If you like Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, Outlander, The Hobbit, or Harry Potter, [BOOK TITLE] is for you!

Now, I don’t usually try to write professional advice on here, because I don’t have the credentials to be telling anyone what to do. With that said, the problems with this tweet were so glaring, and hit me on such a visceral level, that I realized something: this is a subject where one’s credentials as a reader are actually more relevant than those as a published writer. So, here are my thoughts on comp titles.

First, what is a comp title? “Comparison titles” are works similar to yours. They are usually used when you are trying to sell said work to agents or editors, and occasionally — directly to readers. There are several formats traditionally used for the purpose:

(Disclaimer: I came up with the examples on the spot, I accept that people might not agree with them. Which would kind of make my point later.)

[TITLE] in/on/with [TYPE OF CHARACTER]/[PLACE]/[GENRE]. These are trying to tell whoever you are pitching, that your work is very similar to another work, but with one particular difference, be it the character(s), location, genre, or some twist in the story. Example comp: Mistborn is “Ocean’s Eleven, set in an epic fantasy world”. Or The Lion King is “Hamlet, but with lions.”

[TITLE] meets [SECOND TITLE]. Now you are telling whoever is in the elevator, that your work is a mixture of two other works. This doesn’t imply equal parts – your project might take the plot of one title, and place it into the world of the other, or have characters similar to one, but placed in a story, similar to the other. Example Comp: The Hunger Games is “Battle Royale meets 1984.”

[TITLE] meets [TITLE] in/on/with [TYPE OF CHARACTER]/[PLACE]/[GENRE]. An obvious amalgamation of the previous two.

Of course, there are plenty of other ways to do comp titles, because a smart writer/agent will think of the best way to sell their particular work, rather than be slave to templates. But overall, the goal of a comp title is to make people think of more famous works in relation to yours. If this already seems like a risky proposition, I would like to direct your attention back to the tweet that started this.

First and, well, blatantly obvious rule of comp titles is that they should actually fit with your work. If you are writing fantasy and your comp title uses 2001: A Space Odyssey, you are obviously misleading people, and it will take them one confused page into your work to find that out. On this level, the comp from the tweet is ridiculous, because let’s be real here. The only thing Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, Outlander, The Hobbit, or Harry Potter have in common, is that they are all speculative fiction. They aren’t even for the same target groups — half of those books have been written for adults, and half fall in the Young Adult or Middle Grade fields.

But there is another major risk, when picking your perfect comp title: using massive bestsellers. Here, the issue is one of finding the middle ground. There is no point in using a comparison that nobody has ever heard of. You want to use a famous title that will resonate with whoever you are pitching. But you NEVER want to use the absolute outliers. Because once you start comparing your work to Game of Thrones or Harry Potter, you aren’t telling me that you’ve written an epic fantasy full of political intrigue, or a fantastical adventure in a magic school. Instead, what you are now telling me, is that your thing has the same potential for success.

For obvious reasons, everyone is going to be skeptical of such a claim. Not only agents and editors, but also readers, most of whom have a highly tuned bullshit detector, not to mention have usually read a lot of works in the genre you are writing in. They already know your work is not the next Harry Potter, because NO WORK is the next Harry Potter. If you end up becoming an outlying success (and statistically speaking, chances are you won’t), your creation will be just as unique and incomparable to others, as Harry Potter is.

In the end, to get back to that indie writer and his tweet, I get it. I really do. Self-publishing is brutally difficult, platform and outreach are critically important. All of those titles were written as hashtags, so as to draw people that might be browsing them. But your book is not Donald Trump. When it comes to fiction — and especially in such a small and tight-knit community as the SFF genres — there most certainly IS such a thing as bad advertising. You never want to be the author with the overblown claims of his own work, because, well, nobody believes that author.

Comp titles are amazingly useful shortcuts in trying to get someone interested in what you’ve created. But they are a first step, and the second inevitably involves your actual creation. Which has to fit the way you advertised it, because there are several more steps before you reach your intended audience. So if you start with unrealistic claims or outright lies, you won’t get far.