Author Archives: David Heyman

Fire up the engine

Happy February everyone! We’ve seen a lot of great articles this month about tension. What it is, what it means and how to bring it to life. For my post, I’d like to highlight one of my favorite mechanisms for creating this delicious extended period where the reader is squirming in his or her seat. Let me introduce you to a little concept I call the Tension Engine.

The tension engine is basically a ticking clock, an escalating background situation that the heroes must deal with in addition to whatever conflict might be directly opposing them on a scene-to-scene basis. It is not the immediate problem, it is that secondary oncoming problem running underneath it all. Not as immediate as a direct conflict like a man with a gun blocking the heroes way, or a trap door suddenly opening under their feet. No, this is the problem they remember after they solve that one- -they moment where they (and the reader) say “Oh right, there is still that to deal with.” The smile drains from their faces, their recent triumph quickly forgotten. There is still much work to do.

The tension engine is often an external obstacle not created by the antagonist at all, but rather a force of nature. In the worst (or best) cases, it is not even resolvable. It is a train coming down the tracks at our heroes and it doesn’t care whether they move or not. 

A good friend of mine created one of these in one of her stories, bringing me to notice the concept for the first time. The main heroes had taken on an automaton of sorts as they struggled to escape the villains through a moving train. The automaton was loyal to them at first, but quickly it became apparent something was wrong. It was growing more violent with each encounter they had with their foes, and it was obvious at some point it would become uncontrollable. Without this ally, they had no hope of defeating their enemies, but staying with it seemed to be risking death.

I found this brilliant, and began to look for other examples of this concept in popular fiction.Not surprisingly I found it everywhere. The tension engine is the bomb that cannot be defused, forcing our hero(es) to recklessly try to escape to a safe distance. It is the fast acting virus that cannot be cured, its victim perhaps privy to key information that the heroes must extract before he expires. It thrums along in the coming storm, an onrushing cloud of nature’s violence that cares not for the conflicts of the humans below it.

The tension engine is a great tool to fire off in your story early, keeping things from ever feeling too calm, too safe. No matter what problems your characters might solve or victories they might achieve, the engine still runs like an unstoppable machine- -keeping your heroes nervous and your reader interested.

First steps

Beginnings are a mix of excitement and fear for me. The beginning of something is the point where all the options are open and all the possibilities still on the table. New book, new house, new job. Whatever the ‘new’ thing is, that first moment is filled with options. Then you start making choices, and with each choice you set yourself down a path. Doors open, doors close. The wide open space becomes more linear.

As they say, watch that first step- -it’s a doozy.

I find myself at several of those first steps as we enter 2017, each of them filled with that same mixture I described above. For starters, I am having my work professionally edited for the first time. I am about three years into writing and have submitted a few short stories to magazines but this is the first time I have let a professional see my novel length work. We’re two weeks into the manuscript being in his hands and he hasn’t sent me that email I always imagine at 3am – you know the one that says “Dave, you really shouldn’t be doing this.” When the sun’s up I know that email is not coming, but 3am is a different story.

Never having been through this before, it will be opening a world of new possibilities when I double click that attachment and open up his edits. I’m sure my ego will take a few hits during the process, but I’m also sure there’s opportunity there for me to become a much better writer. Within a few weeks I’ll have his edits back and I will be starting another new beginning: my first real novel revision.

In the interim, I’m standing at another first step: the start of a new story. I need to keep working as there is no value in me twiddling my thumbs while waiting for those edits to come back. Thus I’m starting my prep work on a new novel in a new world, thinking about all those blank spaces and faces that will take shape in the weeks to come. That’s always a very fun part of the process for me.

The most important threshold I’m crossing though is one of intent. Prior to this year, the focus of my work was primarily about building my skills as a writer. I chose projects more for the growth opportunities they afforded than any publishing potential they might have. I was looking for exercises and challenges, ways that I could find my voice and build my writer’s muscles. In short, I’ve been working out.

This year is about putting those muscles to work. My primary goal for the next twelve months is to be working on stories that I intend to publish in some way. I also now will be choosing my projects based on how likely they are to achieve that goal for me. For example, the more traditional fantasy novel might get the nod over that more experimental novella I’ve been tinkering with. I still won’t work on anything that doesn’t excite me but as I have an embarrassment of riches where story ideas are concerned, it’s now important I choose the ones that are the best use of my time.

What have I learned from this reflection of beginnings? I suppose that they are the thresholds we cross that unlock the opportunities for us in the future. You have to start with that blank page or first day of the new project if you are ever to reach the end, when all the choices have been made and questions have been answered.

Then you begin again.

See you next time!

 

The power of motion

Hello all! I’m excited to be back for my second post of the month. As I’ve already presented my year in review <link> for this post I’m allowed to write about any subject I want. I’ve decided to cover what I feel is a very moving subject in writing fiction: motion!

Now, I don’t specifically mean the physical motion of characters (walking, running, etc) as much I as am referring to the motion of your characters through your setting and your story. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to call that concept ‘story motion’ and I feel it is a really great way to keep your reader engaged.

I recall one of the first writing workshops I attended was David Farland’s Writing Mastery n beautiful St. George, Utah. (Aside: I can’t recommend Dave’s workshops enough! Here’s a <Link>. Check them out!) One of the first things I remember Dave discussing was the setting you used for your scenes. Dave recommended never returning to the same setting twice, as this will lend a sense of motion to your story and keep your reader from getting bored seeing the same places over and over again.

As advice, this really stuck with me as an excellent idea. To illustrate this idea, let’s use that pop culture touchstone / yardstick: Star Wars.

If you follow Luke Skywalker’s scene-by-scene progress through the movie, you’ll see that he never goes back to the same place twice. Below is just an example of his actions on Tatooine:

  • Tatooine: Market outside Sandcrawler*
  • Tatooine: Owen / Beru’s Farm*
  • Tatooine: Jundland Wastes
  • Tatooine: Ben’s Cave
  • Tatooine: Sandcrawler after Empire attack*
  • Tatooine: Owen / Beru’s Farm*
  • Tatooine: Mos Eisley
  • Tatooine: Cantina
  • Tatooine: Docking Bay 94

Note: In a few cases (marked with a *) it is technically the same location, but the setting has fundamentally changed, these cases due to violence. A writer would need to describe the changes to the settings, thus making them ‘new’ for the reader.

This is just Luke, just in one part of one movie. Across all three movies, he really only leaves and returns to exactly the same place once, without the setting having fundamentally changed in the interim: Yoda’s hut.If you look at all of the original Star Wars movies, there is this constant feeling of progress and movement. Presenting the viewer with new and interesting settings has a lot to do with this.

This process is by no means uncommon, in fact I can see this pattern in many popular movies. Oddly enough though, I’ve read many books that followed a more television-style model where characters have a home base setting that they keep returning to. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but it raises the need for other elements to hold the reader’s interest. The Hall of Justice is only interesting the first time you’ve had it described to you, after that it’s just a place with some computers, tables and a big screen.

I’ve come to realize that I subconsciously plugged Mr. Farland’s advice into most of the writing I’ve done since. In that time I’ve written two novels, a novella and about eight short stories. Almost all of them have this motion pattern to them. Often the characters are traveling from one place to another in my stories, but even when they are not they are visiting new scene settings inside that same location.

I think the lesson is this: Never ask the reader to look at something they’ve seen before when you can show them something new. New places and settings keep the interest fresh and allow a sense of movement and progression that keeps the reader engaged.

See you next time!

View from the summit of 2016

It really is hard for me to accept that 2016 is almost over. In many ways, it still feels like the year just started a few weeks ago. This year has been one with a lot of changes for me: personal changes, professional changes and changes to my writing life. Change can be scary, but it can be positive too.

WRITING MY WAY UP THE MOUNTAIN

On the writing side, 2016 is dominated by Under Everest, a mountain (ha ha) of work that has been the primary focus of most of my creative energies this year. Merely a concept back in January, it is now only a few weeks from first draft completion. Working on this novel has been an education in itself, a series of fits and starts as I hammered out an outlining and writing process that works for me. The first novel I’ve ever written with the intent from Day 1 of publishing it, I’m very proud of what it has grown to from the small hill of ideas it started as. I’m approaching the summit, with a descent into revisions come early 2017.

Ok, enough mountain puns. I know there’s been an avalanche of them already. 

In other writing progress, I’ve joined the Fictorians as you can see! I’ve been happy to guest post here in the past and was extremely flattered when I was asked to join full time. It’s been a fun experience so far, and I’m very fortunate to be writing alongside such talented folks. (They’re nice folks too!)

I did write one short story this year, an attempt at landing a slot in the Dragon Writers (Makes a great gift!) anthology, which benefits the Don Hodge Memorial scholarship fund. While I did not get accepted, I received very nice comments from the editor and was proud to have been in the running for a while, considering the whole story was written in about a two day period. I wish I could have had my idea earlier before the deadline, but that wasn’t the way things work. It was still a great experience, and I have a story I can polish up and send out some day.

All year long, I had the pleasure of an amazing writing group running alongside me. All of us alumni from a 2015 Mary Robinette Kowal workshop, we have been meeting bi-weekly ever since. As talented and kind a group of people as I have ever known, I continue to benefit from their feedback and friendship. Coming up in January of 2017 – our second anniversary!

Back in February of 2016 I attended my second Superstars workshop, this one being just as fantastic as the first one. Even better, since I got to attend the entire session this time, and even braved my unusual diet to attend the VIP dinner. Everyone was (as always) super-nice and I’m excited to come back for my third in 2017!

PROFESSIONAL CHANGES

On the professional side, in March I said goodbye to a job I had held for eight years. It was an amicable and emotional departure. It was hard to leave a group I personally had started in 2008 as the first engineer on the team, only to build that group to a 50+ strong global organization over the next eight years. I couldn’t be prouder of all those awesome folks, and I’m still their number one fan. The time had come for me to take a break though, and I am very fortunate that hard work, sacrifice and a little bit of luck gave me the ability to do so.

THE PATH AHEAD

Looking forward to 2017, I have a lot of plans. Under Everest needs revisions and then a publishing home, finding it one will be a fun, new process. My whiteboards runneth over with more ideas: novel-sized, novella-sized and short story sized as well. I’d love to polish off that fantasy novella I was almost done with before Everest took over, I do have a whole series idea I’d love to start on, and more Everest ideas as well. One problem I never have is what to write!

Whatever comes, I’m lucky to have so many wonderful writers in my life cheering me on, offering me feedback and advice, and just being great friends. I am also tremendously fortunate to have the love and support of my family, who want to see me get these ideas and stories out into the world just as much as I do.

I hope everyone has a great holiday season and here’s to a fantastic 2017 for us all!