Author Archives: Frog Jones

About Frog Jones

Frog Jones co-writes with his wife, Esther. Together, they've written the Gift of Grace series, as well as appeared in myriad anthologies together. When not writing, Frog spends his free time as a public defense attorney, the chairman of the board of a non-profit dedicated to housing homeless teens, and a Rotarian.

Subliminal Tension

Tension is an emotion.

Making a reader feel tension is, in part, a function of what is happening in the story, and other Fictorians are doing a fine job of covering that. I want to dig down, though. I want to get past plot structure, and characters, and all of the things we usually talk about. Today is not a lesson in simply writing fiction. Today, I want to talk about the words themselves.

Speed is key. Short words mean fast reading. Short sentences mean fast reading. Fast reading means fast thinking. Fast thinking means excitement.

Extended vocabulary, on the other hand, will tend to result in a slower, more ponderous pace of comprehension. In addition, one can expect that a more complex sentence structure will also result in increased temporal periods for absorption of material. In turn, this style of writing can lead to a more leisurely, intellectual feel for one’s reader.

See what I did there?

Tension is a function of two things: excitement and a lack of resolution. You want to keep your reader on a knife’s edge for a bit? Shorten everything. Boil your words down to the simplest form. Boil your sentences down to subject-verb-direct object structure. Lose as many phrases, clauses, or anything extraneous as you possibly can. Make it so a third-grader could read it. Put in a refrain (see above where its X means Y), because once the brain is on a roll it will simply speed up.

The goal here is not to cut back on the amount of information you’re throwing at the reader. The goal here is to get the reader to absorb the information as quickly as you possibly can. From a writer’s perspective, this can be tough. It’s actually faster for us to write one massive sentence than it is to break that baby up into little chunks. When we’re flowing, we don’t want silly little things like sentence structure to stop us. So when one is writing a tense scene, the knee-jerk reaction is to write longer stuff. Bigger words, longer sentences, and massive, hulking paragraphs.

But when you’re revising, you need to break that up. Read those two paragraphs up above again. You’ll burn through the fast paragraph in about half the time it takes to read the slow one.

Don’t think of it as “half the time,” though. Flip the equation. What really matters is the amount of information hitting a person’s brain in a set period of time. In other words, the boiled-down writing style means that your reader is getting twice as much information per second. She’s racing to keep up with you, and her conscious mind is running at a dead sprint to keep up with her subconscious one. You ever run down a hill only to find that you have to keep accelerating or you’re going to completely beef it? Reading a scene written in that boiled-down language feels like that.

Now, don’t write everything for speed. Sometimes, you want to slow it down. Let your reader breathe in parts by lengthening everything. Get a little purple from time to time. I’m not saying you should write for speed all the time; what I’m saying here is that, by controlling the speed at which your reader processes your story, you can create tension in certain scenes by having them accelerate the speed at which they are reading, and you can relieve tension by allowing them to slow down. By controlling the speed of their comprehension, you can make them feel tense and they will never know why.

So don’t use this trick alone. Use it in conjunction with all the other tricks being written about by my colleagues this month. Just remember, your goal is to control all of a reader’s brain, and word, sentence, and paragraph structure is the gateway to triggering that subliminal feeling of tension.

Cleansing With Fire

I hear from other authors or prospective authors that nothing is quite as intimidating as a blank page.

I won’t speak for everyone, but this simply isn’t the case for me. I love a blank page. A blank page represents the infinitely possible. A blank page represents freedom. When I have a blank page, I can fill the thing with whatever I want. It’s hope, it’s potential beauty, it’s raw creative space. I love a blank page.

For me, there’s nothing quite as intimidating as a page filled with a terrible story that I have written.

You see, sitting down and drafting is easy. It’s the thing we all love to do. It’s the funnest part of writing a thing. It’s what makes NaNoWriMo so popular (and so problematic for some) Throwing down raw, fat word counts is, without a doubt, simply a joy.

Fixing a broken story? That’s hard.

So, let me take you back to the fall of 2015. I’m writing this story for a little anthology called Horseshoes, Hand Grenades, and Magic. I’m not going to lie–the call for this thing was weird. My task was to write a story wherein “close is good enough.” That’s a really esoteric theme, and I know I’m not the only author that struggled with it.

See, I got this idea in my head. A thief breaks into a vault and then has to use the enchanted items therein to get back out, only he has no clue what those items do. Sounds like a fun little story, right?

Nope. Nightmare.

I ended up with about four thousand words of me repeating the same joke over and over again as told from the persepective of a main character that, by virtue of this joke, had almost no agency. It. Was. Terrible. I haven’t drafted a story this bad since high school. I gave it a day, read the thing, and cringed.

My wife, who usually takes the second pass on our stories, tried to calm me down. She’s a lovely woman, and her initial reaction was “Frog, you say everything is terrible when you write it.” And she’s right, but I tried to impress on her how much I really meant it, this time. Still, she insisted that she should read it and take the second pass, as is our normal wont.

I don’t actually think she finished that first read. Very, very quickly she returned, and this time with a different attitude.

“Okay, this time you’re right,” she said. “It sucks.”

Now, we’re all going to have off days. We’re all going to muff it a time or two. Nobody hits a home run every time they step up the the plate. Insert failure platitude of choice here.

But I want you to learn from my mistake. Screwing up the initial draft was bad, but not unforgivable. It’s what I did next that really sets this baby apart in the annals of Frog’s terrible mistakes. It’s my response to writing this malformed chunk of text that marks this experience as being just slightly worse than trying to shave my beard with a cheese grater.

I tried to fix it.

I spent a month. An entire month’s worth of writing time. An entire month during which I could have been working on a novel, or churning out four other short stories. No, I threw good time after bad, and I tried to polish this turd until it shone. I tweaked the language, I moved paragraphs about, I tried everything I could think of to make the story readable, but nothing I tried worked. You know why? Because it was a bad story. It wasn’t bad writing, it wasn’t bad grammar or bad structure. It was a bad story. No matter how I told it, it was going to suck. But I latched onto the thing like a weight and let it drag all of my writing goals down with me for a month.

It was my wife that saved me. After a month went by, you know what she did? She handed me a blank page. She sat me down and told me to stop thinking about the way I had written the story, and to start completely over from my original concept.

Two days later, the story was written, revised, and sent to the editor. It’s still got the same core concept as the original version, but this time it also has a story. You know, a whole plot arc, with dialogue and motivations and all that jazz that we put into stories that make them not suck. This second version is good; I’m actually pretty proud of it.

But mostly, when I did a reading of it at the last convention I appeared at, it made me think of that full month of pain in the fall of 2015 where I refused to cleanse a bad story with fire. Learn from my mistake, oh ye reader of writing blogs. Learn that sometimes, when you just can’t find a way to fix what you’ve done, the best thing to do is burn it to the ground and get yourself one of those blank pages everyone keeps talking about.

Frog Jones Year-in-Review

OK, they tell me I have a single blog post to recap one of the biggest years in my writing career. So, here we go.

1. January

January was actually relatively calm. We will think of this as the quiet before the storm.

FFG Cover2. February

February kicked off with my first time attending the Superstars Writing Seminar. Despite spending a third of the conference in bed due to altitude sickness, thereby becoming the black sheep of the seminar, I made a lot of great connections and met a lot of good people. Also, I was introduced to this group of authors who call themselves the Fictorians–you may have heard of them.

But wait, there’s more.

February also saw the release of Book 3 of the urban fantasy series I co-author with my wife. We launched the book live at RadCon in Pasco, Washington; the good folks at that con and the Central Washington Authors Guild helped to insure our best launch ever, putting us briefly in the top 40 list on Amazon’s Urban Fantasy category.

3. March

March saw the release of Horseshoes, Hand Grenades, and Magic. This is an anthology we were really happy to be a part of. The entire anthology is filled with stories in which close is good enough. Our story, “Some Kind of Way Out Of Here,” involves a thief who steals a number of magic wands–only to need to use their random effects in his botched escape attempt.

12998266_10154046171413080_5286021561999122271_oMarch saw us attending Norwescon, the largest of the regional conventions at which I’m a regular. The picture’s a little fuzzy, but the bowler stands out). In addition to being a big, awesome con that gives its authors free booze in the evenings (no joke there, just awesomeness), Norwescon is the home of the Fairwood Writers Workshop, which is a really amazing chance for me to give back to new authors in exactly the way I got my own start.

4. April

I’m going to cheat a little bit, here; while at Norwescon we recorded the first episode of 3 Unwise Men, the comedy genre fiction podcast I record alongside two other nimrods. Season 2 released in April, though; it was a six-episode season, beginning with the Livecast from Norwescon.

5. May

In May, I attended Miscon as a professional. Miscon was an amazing experience; I did dinner with Jim Butcher, drank beer with Kevin J. Anderson, and ended up in a sweet game of Fiasco with Christopher Paolini. In addition, with the help of the Fairwood Press table, we had our greatest single day of physical book sales ever. Possibly the most heady con experience I’ve ever had. There was a moment at Miscon where a fan walked up to the WordFire Press table, where my wife Esther volunteered, and asked Kevin J Anderson where he could find our book. That’s something that makes you really feel like you’ve arrived.

13415482_10208446988645564_8879850187004161903_o6. June

June is a time for getting things done. CampCon happens in June, a small gathering of professionals in the woods surrounding Mt. Hood in Oregon. We bring our laptops. We place them on picnic tables. And we throw down word count. Esther and I finished the draft of the first novel in our new series, Black Powder Goddess. When is it coming out? Well, that’s up to whoever buys it. But CampCon is an amazing experience, where the creative juices are flowing and nobody has an internet connection to distract them. That’s the group pic we took; there’s several new authors that come, but we also have Phyllis Irene Radford, Bob Brown, Sanan Kolva, Joyce Reynolds-Ward, and Blaze and Leah from Knotted Road Press.

13516369_10206756434249727_4232598126185580488_n7. July

In July, we did Westercon! Westercon was the first con at which Esther and I appeared at a table featuring our own books. We shared that table space with the great David Boop and Peter Wacks, and broke all of our sales records. Also, the Unwise Men made an appearance at Westercon. It was the last panel of the day for me, and you can tell that all three of the UWM were shocked to see us not only invited back to a convention, but actively advertised by that convention.

But wait there’s more.

During July, we also appeared at Capital Indie Book Con in Olympia. We had a table here, as well, and had decent sales as well as a couple of unexpected guests.

13699999_10206858004628923_3882587901125880649_n

8. August

During August, we took deep breaths and dove headfirst into revising Black Powder Goddess. In addition, we began drafting Graceless, book 4 in the Gift of Grace series. Normally in August we attend Spocon, the convention which gave us our start back in 2011. This year, Spocon took a year off after putting on Sasquan in 2015.

9. September

Easily the best-selling anthology to date for us is the great How Beer Saved the World.  Keeping a copy of this book on the table at any given con is difficult at best, and the online sales for it have been fabulous.

In September, Esther and I were proud to be a part of the launch of the second volume of How Beer Saved the World. Having two of these books on our table from here on our is really going to be quite something, because we cannot stop people from buying the first one. Here’s a quick marketing tip: if you want to sell an anthology, make it about booze. Half the people at a convention are already thinking about it.

10. October

October…sucked.

The editor of our first three novels, Sue Bolich, lost her fight with cancer in early October. Sue has been with Esther and I from the beginning of our careers, and losing her was a serious blow. I would not be the author I am today if it were not for Sue flaying me alive at every step. Sue, we loved you, and we are far better writers with far better books for having known you. Nothing we do in the industry would have been possible had you not ever-so-politely laid the skin from our flesh every time we looked at you. She was a great author and an amazing editor, and I still feel directionless in this industry without her.

11. November

November began with the release of Dragon Writers. a charity anthology put out by WordFire Press. If you’re reading the Fictorians regularly, there’s fair odds you’re going to see this mentioned a lot this month. Frank, Jace, and Kristin (and maybe some others I missed, sorry guys) appear alongside Brandon Sanderson, Jodi Lynn Nye, David Farland, and Todd McCaffery in this anthology of stories featuring (1) dragons, and (2) creativity.

In addition, Esther and I made yet another con appearance, this time at OryCon in Portland.

12. December

It is December 2nd as of this post. Who knows what the next 24 days will bring?

That’s me for the year. It was a huge year with our biggest releases, our most effective con appearances, and some of our best networking. For Esther and I, 2016 is going to be looked back on as the year we started going full-bore as professional authors.

 

 

Adapting the Past

I grew up on the Shannara books. I loved them. Oh, looking back I see them for what they were; Tolkien- ripoff hackery. They are not good books. But as a twelve-year-old just taking his first steps down this path, I loved them. And when I pick up those cliche tomes these days, I am still overcome with a sense of nostalgia.

So, last year, when I saw that MTV (of all channels) had decided to do a Shannara adaptation, I had two reactions, in sequence:

1. Sqquuuueeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

2. How in the heck are they going to do that?

Now, I am not alone in my Shannara geekery. For books that would never see the light of day if they were written now, they have a strong following. A lot of us, young in the eighties and seeking some form of fantasy, devoured and loved them despite their flaws. And a lot of us are very, very committed to the books; even the parts that suck.

But not enough of us to make an MTV audience. Let’s face it; most Shannara fans are my age. You had to be young enough to dig fantasy and old enough to live in a time where there weren’t other options. And most of them are male, because the Shannara books aren’t particularly great about depicting women. MTV, of course, does not even come close to targetting my demographic. So who in the world thought it’d be a good idea to put this niche show there?

And, as I processed all of these factors, my third reaction began to dawn, ever so slowly.

3. This is going to suck.

Why did I think this? Well, let’s start with this. This picture, just to the left here. You know what that is? That’s the original group of adventurers from the first Shannara novel. It’s a pretty racially diverse cast; you have a dwarf, a couple of Valemen, some humans, a druid, and two elves. Of course, they’re all white males, but still…diversity, right?

Now, I knew MTV wasn’t about to put that cast up on the screen. I figured we’d see some gender-swapping, and some characters would end up being not-white. Which I was OK with, really. I am not someone who believes you can’t gender-swap a character. Obviously, there are series that have done this, and done it well.

So, the first thing that relieved me on this was where MTV decided to start. Oh, the great community of nerds had some things to say when we discovered that Sword of Shannara was merely backstory. That, instead, we would be dealing with Elfstones of Shannara, the second book in the series. Upon seeing this, it occurred to me that MTV had actually sat down, read the books, and figured out what the heck it was doing.

The Shannara Chronicles are not point-by-point true to the original book. There’s no King of the Silver River, Grimpen Ward is never mentioned, the Witch Sisters barely make an appearance, and the great mid-air confrontation between Allanon and the Dagda Mor is more of a couple of seconds on the ground. Special effects budgets, storyline, and the need to get some kind of episode-based rhythm account for much of it, but honestly, there’s something else.

The Shannara Chronicles is simply written better than the original books.

Remember what I said at the beginning of this article. The Shannara books are not well-written. They’re basically hackery of the lowest sort. I know, I know; if you’re an old-school geek like me, you remember them fondly. But you know what else I remember fondly? The Thundercats cartoon. I tried to re-watch it, once. bad idea.

The Shannara Chronicles cut down on the cast. Now, obviously there’s a budgetary reason for this; when you’re making a TV show, each new character is a new person you have to pay. But that also had the effect of streamlining the story, which the book very badly needed.

The series made the story one of the personal relationships. They did that for their demographic, of course, but doing it made us far more focused on the characters. Cephelo isn’t just a lovable rogue in the series; he is very, very dangerous. Eretria isn’t just “the other girl,” or “Wil’s second choice.” She’s a kick-ass survivor with her own set of priorities. And Amberle isn’t single-minded in her devotion to the cause; she has to examine what’s being asked of her again, and again, and again.

Wil, on the other hand, is all too aware of what happens after the heroism. He’s constantly worried about the price he’s going to pay long-term for his exploits, and he has the shadow of his father, Shea Ohmsford. Shea’s exploits from Sword are referenced, often in praising terms, but Wil’s problem is that he knew his dad as a worthless, drunken waste of humanity. And he fears, deeply, that he’s on the same path. Save the world, but lose yourself in the process.

All the characters are wrestling with their internal demons instead of just the external ones trying to kill them. And that kind of internal conflict makes the series simply better than the books.

***SPOILER ALERT – I’M GOING TO TALK ABOUT THE END OFSEASON ONE. STOP READING IF YOU DON’T WANT IT SPOILED***

The thing that most scared me when I saw that Elfstones was the adaptation was simple: Elfstones’ best story point is its ending. The heroes win, but there is a huge sacrifice to be made. Amberle must become the Ellcrys. She doesn’t die, no, but we’re talking about killing off one leg of your love triangle in the end of the first season. I was terrified that MTV wouldn’t have the guts to do it–and I’m really happy I was wrong.

***END SPOILERS***

The point, here, is that stories were a certain way in the 1980s. And they’re just better now. Our profession has gotten a lot more involved in the internal dramas, and beating the great evil thing using the Macguffin simply doesn’t cut it anymore. MTV took a story from the past, a beat-the-evil-with-the-thing work of hackery, and made it three-dimensional. It’s an exceptionally well-done adaptation, and it stands as an example of how to update an old, tired, tropey work.

Now that the season is done, we have a new question for MTV. Season 2 is in the works, and we know that it deals with the same characters. That’s really interesting, because…Wil doesn’t do anything else in the books. Wil Ohmsford, in the books, goes back to Storlock, finishes his studies to become a healer, and settles down with Eretria. They have a pair of kids, and those kids go on to have their own adventures. The next book in the series is Wishsong, and it’s not about Wil at all.

It doesn’t sound as though MTV wanted to rotate their entire non-Allanon cast to deal with Season 2. And I get it; you want your fans to become attached to a main character, not someone entirely new. But there’s another adaptation challenge ahead. Do they simply make up new storylines? Do they try to adapt the Wishsong storyline into Season 2?

I’m honestly not sure, but I’m interested to see where it goes.