Category Archives: World-building

Learning to Piece Together the Story Puzzle

I have found that there a few divides amongst writers more contentious than the arguments between discovery writers (pantsers) and outliners. I used to be firmly a member of the pantser camp. While I recognized that outlining had its benefits, I felt that planning with such excruciating detail would “ruin the fun” of creation. Plus, outlining was difficult and boring. The outline would only change as I got into the trenches and discovered something new and shiny, so what was the point? I had tried to outline a few times, I argued, and it hadn’t worked for me. It never would.

Fortunately, I had a few friends patient enough to take the time to convince me otherwise. Outlining isn’t a single, specific, regimented process, they argued, but rather a way of approaching a story deliberately. I would still create, discover the characters, the world, and the plot in the brainstorming section of the process. Then, the outline itself would be like writing an extremely condensed first draft. I would be able to edit it for major structural problems without the emotional baggage that came with hours and hours spent working on prose.

Once I had a coherent skeleton, I could write the first draft without worrying about writing my way into corners. My structural edits would already be done, and so I could focus my creative energies on producing powerful prose, vivid descriptions, and touching emotional moments. Not only would my first draft be better than what I had done before, it would also take less time to complete.

As for the “inefficiency” of prewriting, any time that I spent up front would be repaid twice over in the back end of the first draft. My manuscript would be leaner and free from most, if not all, structural problems. Additionally, outlines were guides, not shackles. Of course the outline would change as I wrote, but I would “discover deliberately” rather than wandering off into the weeds. I would be able to compare new ideas against a well thought out plot and be able to decide what was truly better for the story. Though it took a few years of conversations and cajoling, they eventually won me over.

Convinced, I decided that 2016 would be the year that I learned to outline. I struggled for a few months and grew disheartened. Outlining was proving to be as difficult, boring, and ineffective as I had feared it would be. I took my problems back to my writing group and we talked through numerous blocks. The issue, I eventually came to realize, was that I hadn’t learned the skills I would need to outline effectively. I knew how to work with character, with plot, with theme, and with milieu. I had all the pieces, but didn’t know how to put the puzzle together.

Again, I was lucky in that I wasn’t alone in my struggles. Of the three members in my group, two of us were discovery writers who were trying to make the transition. After some discussion, we decided to act as a group to resolve the problem. We enrolled in one of David Farland’s online classes, The Story Puzzle. Over the course of 16 weeks, the Story Doctor walked us through his process and theories, answered our questions via email and the biweekly conference calls, and provided valuable feedback on the writing assignments we submitted to him.

It was hard and frustrating at first, but eventually I found the joy that has always driven me to write. I was still discovering and creating, but by doing so deliberately I was finding more than I had expected. My story improved with each passing week and I began feeling the itch, the need to dive in and write prose. I resisted and kept working Dave’s process. By the end of the class, I had all the pieces that I needed and some good guidance on how to put them together into a functional outline. I was in no way ready to begin writing the first draft, but I knew how to get there.

Time passed as I continued to work on my outline. I built my world, wrote down scraps of description and dialog, and found ways to heighten my story and characters on every level. On the first day of each month, I surveyed my progress and decided if I was ready to start prose. Month after month, I judged that I was close, but not quite there. It wasn’t that I was stalling, like I had in the past when my project seemed intimidating. Rather, I had a task list that I needed to finish.

Then came the first day of another month. November first. NaNoWriMo had just begun. I looked over all of my prewriting and decided that, yes, I was ready. I dove into the prose and emerged thirty days later with my first ever NaNo victory. The story wasn’t done, in fact I had quite a ways yet to go. Rather, I had proved to myself that with a good outline to guide me, I could out-write my old pace by a fairly significant margin. Most importantly, I knew that I could do it again. And again. It was the sort of skill that I could develop into a career.

Animation: The Underrated Adaptation

mc_animated03If you are a fan of long, epic fantasy, there are plenty of series that either you or others will describe as “un-adaptable.” They even said it about A Song of Ice and Fire at one point. In fact, George R.R. Martin, disgusted by Hollywood at the time, specifically wrote the series to be impossible to adapt. But as big-budget as Game of Thrones has wound up being, it has one major advantage over a lot of other fantasy epics: very little magic, and none of it used day-to-day. That lets the creators splurge on big moments where needed. Other series like The Wheel of Time, where magic is used almost constantly from early on, would be much costlier to adapt.

But there is a way.

The Wheel of Time is reportedly heading toward a television adaptation. I would like to humbly suggest that any attempt to adapt such a vast and sprawling series do so via animation.

Animation doesn’t get used as an adaptation technique all that often. Despite The Simpsons being almost 30 years old (ugh), it still often carries a stigma of being “for kids.” Star Wars has bucked the trend, with the animated Clone Wars and Rebels scoring well with both kids and adults. And no wonder, for animation has several advantages over live-action, two of which factor heavily into adapting a sprawling, multi-volume epic.

  1. Budget Leveling:Let’s say you’re making Star Trek: The Animated Series, and you are lamenting the fact that the aliens in Star Trek almost always look like humans with various ridges on their faces and heads. There were very real budgetary constraints on the low-budget live show when it aired in the 1960s, and humanoid life was the easiest alien life to achieve, because actors in makeup were easier to manage than puppets or nascent visual effects. But in an animated series, Captain Kirk costs as much to draw as an alien that bears no resemblance to a human. Thus do you get Lieutenant Arex, the three-armed, three-legged, long-necked Edosian who would have been impossible to realize in live action at the time. Thus also do you get scenes with the characters wearing “life support belts” that enable them to explore areas of open space and hard vacuum, because one setting costs as much to animate as another, giving the writers far more options to play with.So imagine an adaptation of The Wheel of Time as an animated series. The budget for visual effects is the budget for the entire show. Animating Rand al’Thor battling Ba’alzamon in the sky above Falme costs the same as having them fight in a forest. Having characters channel (use magic), something that a live action series would have to depict sparingly, could be treated as the everyday occurrences they were in the books.
  2. Actor Aging:Above I discussed the first big problem in adapting sprawling epics, the “epic” part. Now I’ll tackle the second: sprawl. Specifically, I’m referring to temporal sprawl, or rather, the amount of time it takes to translate multi-volume epics to the screen. For reference, let’s look at Harry Potter. The series spans seven years in the lives of the characters over seven volumes. The movies (there are eight of them in the main sequence) were released over ten years. Now believably saying that child actors aged only seven years when in fact they aged ten isn’t difficult. Audiences have long been conditioned to accept older actors as younger characters.But consider this: the events of The Wheel of Time take place over the course of approximately three years. The series is fourteen books long. Even with the inevitable paring down of the number of seasons, it’s a much taller order to convincingly look as though only three years have passed when a decade has.

    Or, you could not even bother, because animated characters can stay the same age forever, and when the only element of the actor required is their voice, you needn’t limit your casting decisions by adding a “must look young for their age” requirement. To once again reference The Simpsons, perpetually ten-year-old Bart Simpson is voiced by 59-year-old Nancy Cartwright.

I would love to see more “un-adaptable” series I love find new lives in animation. It’s the best way of bringing a complex, effects-heavy story to life without cutting it to the bone or rendering it a pale shadow of its true self. Here’s hoping that more creators will follow the lead of Star Wars and Star Trek and explore this sadly underutilized adaptation option.

Always Be Film Friendly: Blue Beetles vs Vietnam Jeeps

After four years spent studying for an engineering degree, I was left with one final semester to fill with a handful of electives. Wanting a change of pace, I signed up for a class in cinematography. It fulfilled the requirements for my degree while also allowing me to stretch my creative muscles in a new way. Looking back, I’m very glad that I did. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy the class, but getting a glimpse into how our colleagues in film live and think has helped me with my own writing.

book-to-movieLeveraging your IP into a film or miniseries adaptation is one of the best ways to make money as a writer. Not only can you get the income from licensing your rights, but having a major motion picture or miniseries made will give your works access to a much larger audience. The phrase “based on a bestselling series” is good for both sides of the business. It attracts attention to the movie, but it will also give a healthy boost to your book sales leading up to the release.

Therefore, it is in your best interest as a writer to be “film friendly.” But what does that mean in practical terms? While there are many aspects to consider, I want to focus on what I see as the four key points I took away from the class.

First, while there are many elements of story that an author needs to balance when writing, there are a few that top the list when it comes to translating a work from page to film. Chief amongst these are strong characters, vivid setting descriptions, compelling plots, and powerful dialog. Focusing on these skills will not only make your writing better, they will also make your property more attractive as an adaptation.

As an example, look at how Jim Butcher structured the early part of his series, The Dresden Files. Though each book built upon the events of the previous volumes, they were also fairly episodic and self-contained. They showcased strong characters that would catch and hold the reader’s attention. These characters and the world they lived in were described in concise, yet catchy ways. The books had all the hooks needed for a reader to jump in at any point in the first five or six volumes without getting lost.

These stylistic choices were also very good for the SciFi Channel when they adapted the series to television. One book became one episode without too much lost in translation. The strength of the characters inspired the actors and the descriptions were able to guide and influence the visuals of the series.

Second, an author needs to consider what details will be lost in the translation to film. In prose, we have the advantage of being able to use all five senses and deep penetration to convey the character’s experiences to the reader. However, films generally rely on sight and hearing with limited character depth. That’s precisely why the book is almost always “better” than the movie. The reader experiences more than the viewer.

harrydresden-profileHowever, film has significant advantages in its ability to employ complex visual elements. As authors, we rely on the power of our language to inspire our audience’s imaginations. Film, on the other hand, relies on the skill of the special effects, costuming, and set design teams as well as the training of the actors. When you write a book, be sure to feed those teams with strong, iconic visuals. Furthermore, a five second panning shot can show the thousands of tiny details that would take an author five pages to describe. You get the same effect without having to worry about slowing down pacing.

Harry Dresden was designed to be very visually striking. Nearly seven-foot-tall, big billowy duster coat, glowing staff, and both the ability and inclination to throw fire at all his problems? That man will stand out in a crowd! Consider also the fantastic scenery of the Never-Never, the ominous cloaks of the Wardens, and the horrifying creatures Harry faces.All these elements provide fodder for the creative teams of the TV series to work with.

Additionally, we authors need to balance the “wow” factor of our stories with the movie’s potential budget and physical limitations. As writers, we don’t need to think twice about scenes set in busy cities (a gigantic logistical pain in the ass), on the high seas (you’d be surprised at how expensive it is to shoot on water), or having massive armies clash for the fate of the world (where are you going to find all those extras anyways?). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to avoid anything that would be expensive or challenging to film. Each of those examples have been done, after all. Just be aware that production price will be considered when making an offer on your IP. If you can pack the same “wow” factor into a smaller budget, your work will be that much more appealing.

illinois-chicago-dresden-files-harryThough many of Dresden’s spells were fantastic, they were also remarkably low budget. Making the pentacle necklace glow? Not hard. Blasts of fire would take more skill, but can be done in a number of film editing softwares. As can Bob’s glowing campfire sparks.

The very best example comes from a sequence in Fool Moon. At one point, Dresden takes a don’t-notice-me potion and the world goes all sepia. Only people who notice him appear in full color. There are many ways that Butcher could have written that scene, but the one he chose was excellent for film. Super easy to execute while also being very visually appealing.

Finally, authors need to be willing to compromise with their artistic vision. The book may be ours, but the film adaptation is a collaborative work. After all screen writers, directors, and actors are all artists too and deserve to have the freedom to ply their craft. Secondly, there are certain practicalities to filming that cannot be ignored, but that the author might not even be aware exist. A good adapter will account for these changes will still honoring the original work.

blue-beetleFor example, the directors of the Dresden Files TV series chose to eliminate the beloved Blue Beetle in favor of a Vietnam era jeep. While the Blue Beetle provided good comic relief in the books, it would have been an extremely difficult set piece to shoot. The director’s camera angles would have been severely limited by how small and enclosed the vehicle was. The only way to get around this problem would be to have multiple Beetles – the first for exterior shots, and a second that was partially disassembled accommodate to the cameras for the interior shots.

Instead, they chose to use a Vietnam era jeep as Harry’s vehicle of choice. Jeeps are wide open and extremely camera friendly. Need an interior shot? Remove the fabric roof. Exterior shot? Put it back on. Even better, the jeep honored the spirit of the original piece. In the books, Harry drove the Beetle because it was cheap, easy to maintain and repair, and a low enough tech level that his magic wouldn’t do too much damage. All the same things can be said for the jeep. Personally, I think the screen writers made an excellent choice with the swap.

I’ve long suspected the Jim Butcher was heavily inspired by television techniques when he wrote the Dresden Files. I can’t say if that comes from him being a fan or if he has had formal training somewhere along the line. Either way, his strong characters, episodic early volumes, and striking visual descriptions made it easy for the SciFi Channel to adapt his books into a series. Additionally, his talent for “wow” inspiring magic that could be made real through relatively low budget special effects helped breathe life and wonder into the series. Finally, his willingness to step back and allow others to make creative decisions on the show allowed them to bring their expertise and experience to the project. All in all, I found both the books and series to be very enjoyable, if for very different reasons.

The Truth About Dark Fiction

The truth about dark fiction is very simple. It’s all about us.

I’ve always thought of myself, as a science fiction writer, clearly on the side of optimism versus doom and dystopia. As a kid, I was certainly a fan of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica and their themes of human conflict, but I remember watching Star Trek with a different set of eyes. I only really appreciated Star Wars after traveling halfway around the world during high school. Star Trek pulled me in because it portrayed our current terribly flawed and imperfect society at its absolute theoretical pinnacle in the very near future. Even with the latest movies, in the alternate “Kelvin” timeline, that future world is a darker place than before, but that relentless optimism is there. If you look across the plethora of recent popular books and movies, there is a very strong lean towards darkness and dystopia. Why is that?

It’s very simple. We see the worst of the world every night when we turn on the news. Even the newscasts that end with that thirty-second “water skiing squirrel-type” video are full of dark, depressing themes. It’s no wonder that it calls to us as writers. Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic dystopias are easy to imagine because all we have to do is turn the creative knobs to eleven or twelve and our worst fears are easy to explore. The truth of dark fiction is very simple. It’s a reflection of our society, and in some cases, how we view our future selves in the worst way possible. And as writers, it’s pretty damned easy to wrap it around us like a blanket.

Let’s be clear, I’m not disrespecting dystopian, apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic fiction. Nor am I saying it’s easy to write and build these worlds. I’m discussing something that writers sometimes fail to notice – our own attitudes seep into our writings. When we’re convinced the world is a terrible place, it’s a little easier to write dark fiction. When we’re happy, writing happy subjects is a little easier as well. Our own personal attitudes and emotions often come with us to the keyboard and until we understand it, there’s nothing we can do to mitigate their effects.

How do I mitigate those effects? Music. There are quite a few folks I know who couldn’t imagine listening to music while writing, but it really helps me leave things behind when I sit down to the keyboard. What music? Whatever fits the mood. For my novels, I usually create a playlist while I’m developing the early outline. Sometimes a song really captures the emotional vibe of a scene. Sometimes, I need a song (or three!) to get me into the mood to even look at the book again. Watching the blinking cursor of doom for a little while without music is almost certainly going to send me on a miserable writing time adventure. On those nights (when I do most of my writing), having that go-to playlist helps me put the day behind me and focus on the next 2,000 words I want to write. That focus, and understanding that the way negativity can crawl inside our heads, is critical.

But what about when I want to look into the darkness? Well, because of my own experiences, it’s even easier for me to capture that emotion than listening to music. I’ve blogged on Fictorians before about a life-threatening illness I faced in 2014. As I recovered, my own attitudes were dark and depressed and I wanted desperately to get back to polishing the draft of SLEEPER PROTOCOL, but I couldn’t. Writing just wasn’t a positive experience. Ironically, the two stories I wrote during my recovery were much darker pieces than I’d ever written before. When I need to get dark, remembering that experience and bringing that attitude to my writing is fairly easy. Experience, especially those that are dark and uncomfortable, helps us tap into dark fiction. I’d wager that our happy dreams and goals are equally powerful, but darkness tends to have a greater connection to us because we’ve lived through it or we are living through it at a given time.

But, we have to come up for air. Not everything is wine and roses in the real world, but we can’t let our miserable world drag us down on a daily basis. We have a choice to respond to every emotion, stimulus, and action we face daily. There are times it’s okay to delve into the darkness and craft the story that needs to be written. It’s human nature to explore the abyss, after all. Just don’t sit there staring for too long. The world needs you and your voice up here. Your characters need you. Dark fiction is all about us, but so is optimistic fiction. There’s no balance to it – it’s a continuum. We’re all out there somewhere. If you’re too far down the dark side and feel like you can’t slide back the other direction, please reach out. I’ll be happy to help.