Category Archives: Authorial Trust

Promises, Promises, Promises


Sure, the Avengers has its faults, but the weaker aspects of the film are more than made up for by aspects that worked unbelievably well. Pacing, the juggling of an ensemble cast, great dialogue, the list goes on and on.

The Writing Excuses podcast recently covered what the Avengers did right, which everyone should give a listen to, if you haven’t already.

One of the things I think this movie handles very well is the making of promises. Of course, this post is far too short to cover the subject exhaustively, so we’ll stick to just a few scenes.

The film starts out with an obvious promise. The Other’s voice-over promises an impending invasion, sets up the stakes a bit and asks  “…and the humans, what can they do but burn?”

If that isn’t a loaded question, I don’t know what is.

That scene is followed by Loki’s arrival, which gives us all kinds of promises. It tells us what to expect from the film: lots of nifty effects (doorways to the other end of space are so pretty), quick pacing (things turn from bad [the Tesseract misbehaving] to worse [Loki running off with said Tesseract] in no time at all), snappy repartee (Whedon’s specialty that you have to hear to believe), and possible global annihilation (Agent Hill’s admonition that “there may not be a minimum safe distance”).

We also get all kinds of character promises. Fury’s willingness to be buried shows how far he’s willing to go. Hawkeye’s competence in this scene sets him up as a valid threat when he’s turned to the dark side and lets us easily accept him into the team when he gets his own personality back. Similarly, Dr. Selwig’s knowledge of the Teseract promises the capacity to create a stable door for Loki’s army to use, and his ability to sneak in a “kill switch” to turn it off again. Also, his mention of Thor, and Loki’s subsequent reaction, promises equal danger to Selwig himself somewhere down the line. And am I the only one who, upon seeing Loki’s first close up when he arrives, thought he was pulling a fantastic impersonation of the Joker’s signature grin? This immediately sets this Loki apart from the one we met in Thor, taking him in a darker direction while still promising some fun when he makes all hell break loose.

A little later, Fury states that he believes the Avengers just need the right push to do what they need them to do. That push turns out to be Agent Coulson’s death, and while we weep over the loss of such an entertaining and likable character, the death is not at all as meaningless as it would have otherwise been without the promise it helps fulfill.

But not all the promises are made at the beginning of the film. Almost halfway through the film, there’s a promise that, when fulfilled, is probably one of the most memorable moments in recent cinema. While at work in the lab, Stark says in an offhand way that Loki is “playing with Acme dynamite” and that he’s going to be there when it explodes in Loki’s face. Now, he says this to Bruce Banner, who we soon learn is the “Acme dynamite” in question. He’s the explosion Loki’s banking on using to get the Avengers out of the way. Anyone who’s seen the movie knows how that turns out, and while Stark isn’t there to see the Hulk toss Loki around like a rag doll, it’s still incredibly satisfying to watch. That unforgettable moment is also promised repeatedly with Whedon’s proclivity to knock Asgardians out of frame in the middle of saying something.

Now, I’ll admit that this film is cheating a bit. As part of a series of movies taking place within the Marvel universe, Whedon is able to lean on promises made in previous films to create a more fulfilling experience for the audience. He also has to make promises meant to be carried over to subsequent films.

Taking from this experience can be difficult depending on one’s style. People who heavily outline their books will have an easier time of planning these promises, as they know what’s going to happen. As a discovery writer, I have to go back to put these in after the fact, but I’m learning that my promises don’t have to be clustered in the first part of the story, nor do they call attention to themselves. Yet, if nothing else is learned from a close observation of Whedon’s use of making and fulfilling promises, it’s that taking the time to pay attention to the promises you make can allow easier handling of other aspects, like juggling a large cast of characters, and can make the story far more powerful and effective.

Got another favorite, or a movie you think does it better? Leave a comment and let us know.


Collaborative Projects: How to Write Well with Others

I have written and sold one collaborative novel, and I’m in the middle of writing another, so I have some experience in this sub-specialty of our craft.

Once you’ve gotten past the “Let’s write a novel together!  It’ll be fun/great/a ball!” stage, reality sets in. First of all, forget the idea that it will be less work.  It will take more time and energy total between the two of you to write something than it would if one of you wrote it solo.  You’ll be fortunate if it only takes 150% as much time and energy as a solo work.  Second, this will be different from writing a solo work.  Trust me. Here are some of the practical matters you will need to deal with.  Some of the points are my own observations, and some are gleaned from other authors who do frequent collaborations.

1.  Check your egos at the door.  Really.  You are establishing a relationship here, and although you may or may not be equals in talent, knowledge, skill, and drive, you need to be on a personal basis of honesty, diligence, and compassion.  The old teaching of “Treat others the way you want them to treat you” comes into play.

2.  Determine your collaboration approach.  To steal from my May 28, 2012 Fictorians article “Anatomy of a Collaboration,” you need to settle on an approach like one of these:

  • If sections of the novel require certain knowledge or expertise, one author may write those parts while the other writes the remainder.  This approach seems to be most commonly used when both authors are of similar levels of skill.
  • More commonly, one author will write the first draft, while the other author will do the second pass.  If one author is newer to the craft, he will usually write the first draft while the more experienced/skilled writer will do the final polish/draft.
  • And sometimes one author will look at another and say, “You start,” and the story is built somewhat like a tennis match, with no prior planning to speak of and the authors volleying responses back and forth.  A lot of “letter” stories are actually written that way.

This step is where you agree on how the byline will be styled.  If it’s a senior/junior relationship, the senior author’s name almost always goes first.  This is also where you agree on how the revenue (and any expenses) will be shared.  And even if you’re friends, write it down.  It will save grief later, I promise.

3.  Decide who the tie-breaker will be.  If you arrive at a point where the two of you are in disagreement about something serious and you can’t continue until it is resolved, someone has to break the tie.  Determine who that person is at the beginning of the project.  It may be a senior author.  Or, if you’re writing in a universe created by one of you alone, then that person will probably be the tie-breaker.  But regardless of who it is and how you determined who it will be, if it ever has to be invoked, remember Rule 1 – check your egos at the door.

4.  Do any world-building that has to be done that will be foundational to the story.

5.  If both of you are outliners, you’ll need to write an outline.  If one of you is a pantser, you’ll need to write an outline.  If both of you are pantsers, you’ll really need to write an outline.  Seriously.  If for no other reason than to keep you both facing the same direction.  Especially if you’re doing the “you write this part and I’ll write that part at the same time” thing.

6.  Communicate, communicate, communicate.  Especially about the important stuff, but since it may be difficult to know what will be important twenty chapters down the line, it’s mostly going to be important stuff.

7.  Again, communicate, communicate, communicate.  If you’re the junior author or you’re working in someone else’s universe, don’t be afraid to ask questions.  And if you’re the senior author and/or the universe creator, don’t brush your partner off.

8.  Remember Rule 1.

9.  For the third time, communicate, communicate, communicate.  If there’s one area where collaborations can really be more difficult than solo work, it’s flexibility in dealing with change.  When you’re working on your own, if you get a brilliant idea when you’re 80% done with the work, backing up and rewriting twenty chapters is not so much of a much.  When you’re collaborating, however, especially if you’re using one of the parallel streams-of-creation methods, your idea may blow up your partner’s work in a big way.  So before you do anything with your Grand New Idea, talk about it-in-depth and in detail.  If the decision is Do It, you revise the outline.  You write it down so you can both be in agreement as to what the change is, what the effect is, and who’s doing what to implement it.  If the decision is No, you continue down the existing path with no looking back.

10.  Remember Rule 1.

11.  Set deadlines as to when milestones will be accomplished.  You may or may not attain them, but if you don’t set them, this thing could drag on for a seeming eternity.  As much as possible, hold each other accountable.

12.  Remember Rule 1.

13.  When the first draft is done, review it together.  Decide what needs fixing, and determine who will do it.  Execute the fixes.

14.  Determine early on who will do the final polish to smooth out the edges and establish a consistent voice.  This will usually be the senior author, the writer who owns the universe, the person who’s the better editor, or whoever won/lost the coin flip.

15.  And finally, remember Rule 1.

Okay, that’s probably not everything that needs to be thought about, but it covers the high points. Good luck!

Characters: A Writer’s Best Friends or Bêtes Noire?

“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right!”
–  Rudyard Kipling

Every writer does things a little bit differently, and that’s just as true of building/creating characters as it is of any other task in the writer’s list.  That being said, there are still some common elements that we as writers can talk about when it comes to the creatures of our minds that inhabit our stories.

So how do characters come to light?  To my mind, there are three basic paths you can take to create characters, none of which are mutually exclusive.

First, characters can grow out of world building.  If you’re a writer who spends much time creating a self-consistent story universe before you begin writing the story, you may well create the universe first, then ask yourself what kind of people would inhabit it.  I know of several authors for whom this would appear to be their favorite method, but probably the most well-known example of this would be J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.  Tolkien first invented the amazing languages in his stories, then tried to imagine what kind of people would speak them.  Out of that grew the stories that served as bedrock for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Second, characters can grow out of situations.  This tends to be very true of writers who tightly plot their stories, from what I can tell.  If you’ve got this great idea for a end of civilization as we know it story, what kind of character would tell it?

And third, sometimes the characters steps onto center stage in your mind, full-blown, full-grown, out of seemingly nowhere.  This tends to happen a lot with writers who are pantsers.  (Raises hand.  Happens to me a lot.)  The problem then is trying to figure out what story needs to be told for that character.

There’s going to be more posts later this month about specifics of characters and characterizations.  I’d like to spend the rest of this one dealing with one thing we as writers sometimes don’t think about very much.

I’ve often heard it said that one of the keys to successful story telling is having believable characters.  That’s true, as far as it goes.  But in today’s reading environment, it’s just as important-if not more so-that characters be ‘connectable’.  In other words, do the readers connect with them-do they feel what the characters feel?  If your readers don’t feel some kind of empathy for at least one of the characters in your story-preferably the hero-it’s not going to succeed.  But for your readers to connect with your characters, you have to connect with them first.

Case in point:  Marion Zimmer Bradley told an anecdote on herself in a story introduction she wrote for a story in The Best of Randall Garrett (edited by Robert Silverberg, Timescape Books, 1982).  She was talking about the friendship she had with Randall, and how many times and ways he had helped her.  At one point she tells of being five chapters into writing a new novel.  It wasn’t going well, and she could tell that it wasn’t going well, but she couldn’t figure out what the problem was.  It was driving her nuts.  So she drove over to Randall’s house, handed him the manuscript, and asked him to tell her what was wrong.  She waited while he read the five chapters.  His response after doing so was as follows:

“Honey, you know what’s wrong with this book?  It’s written very well and it’s a nice idea.  But your hero is a klutz.  Nobody wants to read about a klutz.”  (The Best of Randall Garrett, page 44.)

Marion concluded the anecdote by saying that she immediately recognized that his critique was valid, that she rewrote all five chapters to make the hero into a different person, and the rest of the writing went smoothly.

I told you that story to make the point that no reader is going to connect with a character that we as writers don’t connect with, that we don’t understand, that we don’t have some form of empathy for.  It doesn’t matter if they’re bad guys or good guys.  It doesn’t matter if we built the characters like Legos in the world building process, if we discovered them dealing with disaster, or if they sprang full-grown from our foreheads in search of a story like Athena from the brow of Zeus.  If we don’t feel them, if we don’t understand them, if we don’t connect with them, our readers won’t either, and the story will fail.

If you want your stories to work, you don’t necessarily have to like your characters, but you do need to understand them and feel something for them.  This will come through in your writing.

Revision Show and Tell: What Tricks Do You Live By?

I confess. I don’t like first drafts. Working out the story, initially, is always the hardest part, for me. When it works out, it’s great, but most the time, it’s a slog that requires hard work and persistence that’s sometimes really hard to stomach.

To me, the best part is the rewriting–taking what was meandering and barely readable and turning it into something entertaining that other people might actually want to read.

Of course, when that’s done, the story is down, all the plot and character issues are worked out, and the book is revised, and re-revised, it’s time for some polish. As Kylie mentioned in her post on Editing, just re-reading the manuscript isn’t enough. To really polish our works of art, we often need help. Everyone’s got their little tricks for everything from pacing problems and varying sentence structure to catching typos. Clancy told us about using “The Writing Code,” and that got me to thinking. What other tricks are helpful for catching those little things that keep our stories from really shining?

I’ve collected some over the years. Here are a few of my favorites.

  • Reading the story aloud
  • Probably the best way to catch problems with rhythm and flow. If you stumble over anything, it probably needs to be revised.
  • Using Word’s Find/Replace feature
    • This is helpful to locate those words I use too often, fixing spacing problems, finding to-be verbs so I can change them to active voice, or any other problem I know normally crops into my stories without my noticing.
  • Reading the manuscript in different mediums
    • It’s amazing the things you find when you turn a Word document into a PDF or print it out.
  • Reading the manuscript backwards
    • This is a handy trick to find typos because you can’t get lost in the story.
  • Creating a scene cheat sheet
    • You can use a simple note card, an Excel list, the keyword feature in Scrivener, or whatever works for you. This is basically just a list of what plots are being serviced in each scene, so you can tell which scenes are pulling their weight are which aren’t.

    So, it’s Show and Tell time. What tricks work best for you?