Monday, November 28, 2011

The Trope of the Week: Loads and Loads of Characters

The very first trope of the week. Walk around, breathe in that new blog feature smell. Like the floors? We spare no expense in providing for your comfort in this new blog feature. My team has thought of everything, so enjoy.

Trope of the Week #1: "Loads and Loads of Characters"

One of my all time favorite tropes. It is also the easiest to figure out because it is what it is. Peruse the page for as long as you like.

For the very small handful of folks out in the world that have read my work, be it from the old BWB Writer's Group reading The Falling Dark to my present slew of betas that took a crack at Winter's Discord, you KNOW how much I LOVE this trope.

Now being a fan of epic fantasy doesn't imply the importance of loving this trope, it necessitates it. I can recall a writing professor once saying that I came from the "Cecil B. DeMille school of storytelling" with a "cast of thousands" and I could not disagree. Martin, Jordan, Erikson, Sanderson, etc. all use this trope. But it's not the only place. Comic book fan? X-Men? Justice League? JSA? The Avengers? Name your poison and there you have it. Television? Battlestar Galactica, Lost, The Sopranos, Oz, your Star Trek of choice, Scrubs, The Muppets, The Simpsons, Family Guy...would you like me to make this Loads and Loads of Loads and Loads of Characters? It's a tried and true trope of modern fiction and done well all the time. So to quote one of my favorites from the above list: "All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again."

As I stated earlier, I've always thought in terms of big casts and epic stories (shocker). I try to think about where is comes from. Why do I think in big terms? Well, obviously my love of mythology and Star Wars has a lot to do with it (talk about loads and loads of characters, mythology is RIFE with them). But there are two things I think that clearly influenced my use of this trope (beside my love of epic fantasy): soap operas and GI Joe. No, really.

I would stay up and watch my mom's shows at night with her. Dallas and Dynasty spring to mind. Lots and lots of characters in those shows (and I defy you, besides setting, to tell me the difference between Dallas and Westeros). Plus, during the summer I would, more than often, I'd watch my mom's daytime soap operas with her. (Days of Our Lives for the curious.) Again, lots of characters. I always found it enjoyable and entertaining. And in terms of story, I think the same way.

Do you remember GI Joe? I'm talking the 3 3/4" Joes. Perhaps the greatest toy ever and where I expanded my story telling chops by miles. I came up with the stories and the special missions for our GI Joes and I assure you I probably came up with better stuff than the writers of the movie. Again, lots and lots of characters. (And I was good, I could come up with whole story arcs concerning the mine sweeper seriously.)

It only made sense that I was attracted to books with massive casts. And it's no wonder I write stories with big casts. I admire people that can write intimate stories. My friend Mike Winchell wrote a wonderful MG story that only has a small handful of characters. I can't do it. I think entirely too big. Even my short stories wind up with too many characters.

Looking at a very rudimentary character list I have for Winter's Discord there are about 150 named characters on that list and there's another list of participants in a significant tourney in the story that contains 96 characters. And I KNOW there are more. That's about 250 characters. It's a number I'm comfortable with and each of those characters have a role to play in the grand scheme of things. I intend to have a character list in my book (either a la George RR Martin-esque family lists or family trees or both) just to help folks follow along.

Sisters of Khoda doesn't have as many characters (I think, I haven't tried to count them), but it has a lot. I have no list for that book and not sure if I am going to have one. But then again the story is less epic and more adventure, so it makes some degree of sense.

I don't have a strong closer for this new feature. It's bound to get better, but here's what I have in mind:

So, I'll have my lists of characters in my book for my readers to fumble and fawn over, trying to make sense of it all in context of the story, what are you going to have?


Sunday, November 27, 2011


Publishing is a funny, strange and weird business that is a mystery to anyone outside of it. I always think of the time, when mentioning that I'd finished writing my book, my mother asked me why I was bothering rewriting it. I should have an editor do it. Poor, naive mom. Most people in my life have no understanding of the business of publishing. They think it's simple. Hell, I THOUGHT it was simple in the salad days of my youth.

I can remember being 21, slinging soda bottles and bags of chips on the shelves of the grocery store I worked at telling anyone who would listen that I was going to be on the NY Times Bestseller list by 26 with my brilliant literary fiction novels and write my epic fantasies on the side for fun. Naturally, my brilliant literary fiction novels were thinly veiled semi-biographical stories of my life while my epic fantasies were merely quest-based thinly veiled semi-biographical stories about my friends and I growing up in a fantasy world.

Part of my problem was that the internet was in it's infancy and I was a neophyte. I had no connection with the writing world beyond what I read in the writing books at Barnes and Noble (oh, what wasted money those were). I had no one else that aspired to write as I did. Most people tolerated my carrying on and on. Most people still do. (That's another blog entry for another time.) Even as I prodded and poked around the Internet and found friends and companions and kindred spirits, I was still entirely too full of myself. But I was starting to get a feel for where I came from as a writer and found others that were even more like me.

In this day and age of Twitter and Facebook and blogs, it's easy to find mates like that. Thanksgiving weekend, in the turkey-and-stuffing-and-pumpkin-pie induced malaise, I began to think about my contemporaries. The men and women that I share a common bond in experience when it comes to writing. Many are well-known, published and successful and yet I consider them contemporaries. What does that mean?

I am part of Generation X. I was born in 1973. My formative years straddled the ever-popular 80s and 90s, but I consider myself a "child" of the 90s. My love of fantasy came less from Tolkein and more from Dragonlance. There was no "young adult" category when I was younger as there is now. There as no "middle grade." The library was split into three parts: reference, nonfiction and fiction. That's the list.

There's lots of ways to organize varying groups of contemporaries and I'm sure that each of our lists would be very different if we were to push ourselves to decide which authors were contemporaries to another, but I wonder, who are my contemporaries? Who would I be most associated with when the day comes that my book is out in the public and I wither in the bright lights of my shining fame?

So, who do I count among my contemporaries?

Well, first and foremost, my rabid fandom around George RR Martin makes me hope that I am deemed a good enough writer to be called a pretender to his throne of greatness. (Yes, lofty and egotistical!) There are other legends I hope I am associated with: Tamora Pierce, Bruce Coville, Neil Gaiman and John Flanagan come to mind.

But realistically? First there is Mike Winchell. We're Warriors (our HS mascot) but only met via the internet. He writes primarily MG, I write fantasy with some YA. But he has been a friend, sounding board and adviser in the last year and change.

Who else? I'll make a list:

Peadar O Guilin
Blake "More Cowbell" Charlton
Myke Cole
Peter V. Brett
Jon Sprunk
Sam Sykes
Arthur Slade
Kristin Cashore
(I'm sure there are more. The lack of women on this list bothers me on some level.)

Who would you consider your contemporaries? Why?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Trope of the Week: A New Feature

Hello everybody, I hope you all had as wonderful a Thanksgiving week as I did (sort of, Tuesday sort of sucked at work, but this blog isn't about griping about work so I'll stop right there). I didn't get nearly as much writing as I'd hoped, mostly because I was lazy and didn't want to. I'm conceding NANO now, because in order to finish on time, I'd have to to write about 7200 words a day and, I assure you, I don't have that in me. I'm going to do some writing tonight and possibly do a "finish the book by Christmas Eve" challenge. It worked once for me, so maybe it'll work this time. Anyway, I was, as I often am, thinking of the process of writing and had a thought.

I've made decent progress on The Point Guard and the Space Princess. I'm over 20k total words and have a feeling that like Sisters of Khoda this book is going to get bigger than I thought it was going to get. Some things are already happening that are bulking up what I'd originally planned. Not that I'm worried if it does, I think the story is solid. But as I was writing, I realized I was writing something I'd seen in a different variation several times before. I was playing with the "training montage" trope.

Now, one of my favorite websites on the ENTIRE intraweb is Television Tropes and Idioms. If you are not familiar with this site, then shame on you but good for you too. It is perhaps the largest time sink in the history of the web, especially for nerds and geeks. I can, and have, spent literally hours perusing the pages, leaping from one trope to the next. I did this several times in the last few days as I was wallowing in my Thanksgiving break lethargy. (That and Madden when I could pry the TV away from my 3 year old and reading.) As I was thinking about it, I realized how valuable a tool this page is to me as a writer.

I know what you are thinking, how can a webpage that is admittedly a total time sink be a valuable tool? Simple, bouncing around that website, you can research the tropes you are playing with (and, folks, as original as we all think we are, all we've done is create a new version of a toy that was created a long time ago) and see if you are crossing the line from "trope" to "cliche," which is a fine line. Ask any genre writer with longevity how hard a task that is. Plus it might give you some new toys to play with.

A new weekly feature (starting Sunday) I'm going to do on my blog is going to be my "Trope of the Week." I will discuss the trope, examples of the trope from beloved sources in my experiences and, most importantly," how and why I used that trope OR why I LOVE that trope.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Read My Book For Only 99 Cents And Is A Retailer of Choice #1 Best Seller for YA Epic Science Fantasy About Samurai Elves That Wet Their Beds

If you haven't figured it out, I love Twitter. It fits my snarky, smart ass personality. And I've done some great networking, got to know some great people, my tweets published on my local paper's website on multiple occasions, had great conversations with fellow writers about genre and the process and even made some professional connections with people. That being said, I've noticed something lately that's driving me nuts: the number of writers (especially self-pubbed/vanity press types) inundating my feed with the Twitter equivalent of the cell phone/body cream/hair extension kiosks at the mall.

We're writers. Can we do a better job of marketing our work on Twitter than "Buy my book for $.99." You want me to buy your book and that's the best you can do? Even the high school drop out cell phone salesman at the mall kiosk trying to convince me to buy his smartphone by yelling at me, "Excuse me sir, do you have a cell phone?" is better. (I respond usually by saying "No" and when they go into their schpiel, I show my iPhone and say, "I have an iPhone.") And you're clogging up my feed.

If that's your Twitter "marketing strategy" then guess what, I have no faith in your ability to write a coherent story. I don't care about price. I don't care about it being best selling in whatever little niche category you've painted yourself into on Amazon or Smashwords or whatever path you've decided to take. I don't care if you're giving it away. I'm not interested. Not in the least. If all you tweet is: "128,000 words of space fantasy goodness for only $.99 on Kindle" (An actual tweet), that tells me you are a lazy writer and why would I want to read a lazy writer?

Now, if they only reason you use social networks is to get me to buy stuff, then you are using it wrong. I use social networks to do exactly what it says, network socially. I like connecting with readers, other writers, editors, agents and other writerly types. I don't want to harass someone with endless, uncreative messages shilling my work. But hey, that's just me.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What's In A Title?

If you haven't picked up on it yet, I am a high school English teacher. This year, I find myself teaching Freshman after six years of teaching primarily upper classmen. It has been a big change. But the purpose of my blog isn't to whine and carry on about the day job, it's to talk mostly about writing. Being an English teacher, I have to be a writer as well and impart that on to my students. Well, I just began "Of Mice and Men" with my Advanced students and we had a discussion about titles. So, I thought it might be a good idea to blog about titles.

Titles are important to me when I'm writing. To me a project isn't "real" until I've given it a title. Many projects begin simply as a concept listed in my writer's notebook with maybe an incomplete puke sheet completed for it. If I can't come up with a title for something I am writing, it means I don't have any idea what I'm writing about and that never ends well.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. I KNOW titles change and I am prepared for that but without them, I cannot focus on a project.

Titles are the hardest "synopsis" you can create. You need to essentially boil down what the book is about into 3 to 6 words. That's crazy, right? Yet we all do it. We have to. Untitled rarely sells. Think about the great titles of the books we love:

  • A Game of Thrones: Perfect title, tells you exactly what the entire story is about in a few words.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • Harry Potter and the....well, you know.
  • The Hunger Games
  • The Empire Strikes Back
Winter's Discord began life as Winter's End. It was a bad title, based only on a festival mentioned in the first draft of the outline. It changed at someone's suggestion. I forgot who suggested it and changed it. I literally typed "conflict" into an online Thesaurus and it came up with Discord. It fit and stuck. The series title, Seasons of Destiny, is admittedly a little cheesy but it works for the title motif I'm going for.

Title motifs are important to me. They have to fit. I think of the Dragonlance series of my youth and those books were immediately identified by the title motif. So I decided each of the books would include a season in the title. Plus, it's an allusion to the books I loved in my youth. (Look at Mr. English Teacher throwing around all kinds of literary terms and elements around like I know what I'm doing.)

Sisters of Khoda was harder, by far. It began life as the "Young Jaiman Zaracheck novel." I took the MC from a trunked novel and decided to tell a story from his teen years. I struggled for a long time to nail down a title and it took almost a year and a half to finally nail down Jaiman Zarachek and the Sisters of Khoda. I cut out the first part for now and just kept it simple.

Point Guard and the Space Princess is a simple title. I'm not completely happy with it and I wonder if that is the reason it has been so easy for me to get stalled on the project.

So what about titles? What works for you? Are they as important to you as they are to me?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Keep Up The Pace

As many of you know, November is National Novel Writing Month, or NANOWRIMO. To some, it's a pretty big deal. To others, not so much. I get hot and cold when it comes to NANO and have thrown my hat into the ring several times, never "winning." But from NANO came both Winter's Discord and Sisters of Khoda, so I guess that's a good thing. There is also a pile of bones that were poorly thought out novel ideas in the scrap heap that never even close to the required 50k to "win" NANO. I don't even think I signed up last November. I decided that this year I would participate again. The reason? Well, partially the fact that September and October were so busy at school, I didn't make nearly as much progress on the latest writing project as I would've liked, so I decided that November would be a good sprint to get a good chunk of what I'm calling The Point Guard and the Space Princess done. (YA scifi alien invasion) I wanted to blog a bit about NANO, but I know there are people that look at NANO as a silly endeavor. Then I was over at my good buddy Mike Winchell's blog reading about some of his writing habits and I thought why don't I talk about my writing pace. First, go read his blog...I'll wait.

I'm blown away that Mike can write 45k in 3 weeks! No, really I am. I wish that I had that drive, focus and fortitude to commit to that. I don't. I am the poster boy for adult ADD. No really, oooh look, I'll be right back.

Anyway, the most I've ever written in one month is 46k. This past summer I wrote about 41k this last August. The most I've ever written in one year is 200k. I don't think any of those numbers are bad, but I think of all the time I've wasted.

Now, I will confess that I am a complete Twitter whore. I love Twitter mostly because it's one of the few places I can socialize with other writers (and sports fans and pop culture junkies). In addition, I teach high school at an inner city school and I have taught three "preps" every year that I've taught, sometimes four, meaning I have to prepare for four completely different classes. It can be exhausting. This year has been worse because I am teaching all Freshman in 3 different courses, including a literacy program that I am still wrapping my brain around. It has taken so much energy to even be adequate in teaching the class. Combine that with the five years of football coaching I did and an active, precocious three and a half year old, it's a miracle I still can write at all. But I've still found time and energy to write. Not as much as like, but still write. I sacrifice things like sleep, but I figure I'll have time to sleep later. So, now that I've whined about why I don't write, let me talk about actual writing.

I'm a streaky writer. I go through long stretches where I write a lot. I also go through long stretches where I DON'T write. Not anything coherent anyway. Those times are getting to be less and less because that time has become so valuable to me with all that is going on. But when I write, I WRITE! I think my 90k summer was pretty good. I'm still convinced one of these summers I will meet my goal of writing 250k from June to the end of August.

Anyway, how do I write. Well, it all starts in an old fashioned composition notebook. No really, I'm not joking. Two summer ago, I participated in a writing institute for rising freshman through Syracuse University and we kept writer's notebooks. I adopted it into my writing. So here's the way I write.

I do a "writing plan" every few weeks based on what I've been doing and what I want to do, this is what my most recent writing plan looks like:

This gives me a general gauge of where I want to be as far as my writing goes, including suggested word counts and tentative titles. Things obviously change as time goes on.

When I focus on a particular project I do something called a "puke sheet." It's a technique that I am so enamored with that I modified my novel puke sheet into an essay puke sheet for my students. Essentially, a puke sheet is 1-2 pages of ideas, characters, random scenes, themes, symbols, world building, etc that I need to know for a book. Named so because it's like puking all those things on a sheet of paper to be cleaned up later. Here's the puke sheet for "Down the Line" project #5: "Epic Christmas." I wanted to actually use that book for NANO this year but Point Guard has taken precedent for now. That project can wait. Essentially, "Epic Christmas" is a Christmas story similar to the movie "The Santa Clause" but applying the tropes of epic fantasy to the story. (Lost heirs, fighting over a throne, etc.) (Ignore the purple daughter got to that page, it was in a different notebook and she decided to color!)

From the puke sheet, I outline the story. Outlines are usually the chapter, the POV of the chapter and anything from one sentence to a short paragraph. I hold the right to deviate from my outline any time that happens, as did with Sisters of Khoda this summer, where I plotted the novel out to be about 80k, yet it turned into a 94k novel! Anyway, here's the most recent outline I did for the sequel to Winter's Discord, Spring's Tempest.

Then, I write. Now, I'm not going to insert a picture of what that looks like, you know that already.

Now, editing and rewriting are another blog post altogether. So, now, I have a NANO project to work on. Do you have any writing routines you follow?