To Create a World

I am reading the second book in Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Company series, The Whispering Skull. As you may remember from a previous blog post, I enjoyed the first book, The Screaming Staircase, but was incredibly disappointed when I figured out the twist ending 3/5 of the way through the book.

Still, it was a good world and well-written, so I grabbed the next book. I must assume that Mr. Stroud read my blog post, because thus far he has not made the same mistake in Skull that he made in Staircase. (The fact that my post was written a year and a half after Skull was published does not, in any way, diminish the possibility that he read my post. He may very well have read it, then gone back in time and fixed the sequel. These things happen all the time in the literary world.)

I’m very pleased that nothing has happened to make me displeased because I really, really, really like the world he’s created with this series. It is cool. It is slightly silly. It is chilling. It is exciting. It feels realistic. I want more (I’ve already ordered book 3 on Amazon). It got me thinking about the importance of the world we create in our writing. For me, the world of the story has always been the most interesting aspect of a book.

Give me a world fully-thought out and I’m yours. It’s what I try to do in my own writing. In many ways, the very distinct world of Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom (pre-order your copy today!) is what sold it to the publisher in the first place, and I take great pride in that fact. While writing it, I felt the world take shape, becoming a character all its own. I tell anyone who asks that the book really wrote itself. This is true, because I just woke up one day and my laptop was open and words were appearing on the screen while the cats floated upside down above the keyboard vomiting blood.

Not really.

But the strength of the world brought me back to the keyboard. I wanted to exist in the world I’d created. It made coming back to pound out the pages an easy, enjoyable task. The hard part was accepting when I’d finished it. I almost felt like my access to this wonderful world had been cut off, now I could do nothing but wait until the rest of you got to visit.

Or write a sequel. Which I’m itching to do. I’ve got the plot, the characters, the story all set up. Even written a few initial chapters. I just need the book to do well so the publisher wants a second. So it’s up to you. Buy it. Buy many copies of it. My fate rests in your hands. No pressure.

What are the elements of a good world? Well, I think it involves integration, for one thing. When I create a random character, I try to place them in the context of the main characters. When can I bring these random folk back onto the page? I want the reader to say:

“Hey! There’s Gilly Burbage again! She was on the playground talking about really liking fish, and now they see her at the fish restaurant! I know her! That’s so cool!”

Every character needs to come alive. Every character needs to exist on their own, as opposed to just “Here’s a guy they meet on the street who tells them their boots are cursed. He’s served his purpose, we’ll never see him again.”

I take great pride in my secondary characters and locations, making sure each one has a personality and point of view. Often times they are as interesting as my main characters (I was going to say they are sometimes more interesting than my main characters, but I don’t think that’s a good thing for me to say).

But a world is more than the characters within it. It is also the set-up. In Stroud’s Lockwood & Company series, the set-up is that 50 years ago ghosts started coming up and bothering people. To combat this, child agents (children are the only ones who can sense the ghosts before it is too late) combat these ‘Visitors’ whenever they appear. It’s cool. Fun. Also relatively simple, which is a good thing. Stroud gives himself a narrow window through which to craft his world, and he takes advantage of the focus. Every minute detail has been thought out. Nothing is by chance. The man did his homework.

I am writing Book 3 with this in mind. It is a distinctive world, and I need to make sure every detail is important. That nothing is left to chance. I try to keep the geography of the book in mind as well. If I do my job well (fingers crossed), then the result should be a world readers will want to revisit again and again.

Becuase I’m pretty sure authors get more money for sequels. 🙂

So I Just Got Scammed

Some days I can be a trusting idiot. Today was one of those days.

I was busy scooping the kitty-litter when the phone rang (Honestly, I was in the bathroom scooping my cats’ poop when the phone rang, I’m not making that up). Now I generally don’t bother to answer the home phone because most people use my cell number, so I let it go to voice mail. Also, as I said, I was busy scooping kitty poop.

Once the nastiness of the litter was dealt with, I listened to the message on the machine. A VERY, VERY thick Indian accent said they were from the IRS and asked me to call a phone number. The message said other things, but the accent made it impossible to understand what they were saying apart from the phone number.

Curious (and incredibly foolish), I called the number. I got another man who I will henceforth call Scum-Sucking Scammer Guy, with another thick Indian accent, saying I’d reached the IRS. I told Scum-Sucking Scammer Guy that I’d just gotten a call but didn’t know what it was about. Scum-Sucking Scammer Guy took my name (thankfully the only information I ever gave these, and they already had it per the initial message) and ‘pulled up’ my file.

He said they had evidence that I had defrauded the government on my taxes between the years 2006-2012. They he said they’d tried to reach me for the past two months, and since I hadn’t responded the matter had moved up the chain to the Investigations Department. A lawsuit was going to be taken out against me. I explained this is the first I’d heard of the matter, but Scum-Sucking Scammer Guy said they had evidence that they’d left a note on our door and they’d sent mail to us asking me to deal with the matter.

So at this point, most people should realize that this is a scam. Actually, most people probably don’t bother calling the number back in the first place. But I am a trusting soul. Also, whether they knew it or not, their range of years fit perfectly into my life. In 2006 we moved from one coast to the other. Yet we continued to use our accountant on the other side of the country. He was a good tax accountant and very legit, but I will admit I have entertained worries from time to time that he was too good. Anyway, we eventually switched to an accountant here on this coast (in the same city, even!). I think that was maybe 2013 or so, but it could have been 2012 and I just forgot.

So the thought that my too-good-to-be-true accountant 3,000 miles away between 2006 and 2012 had stepped over a line or two had, in my paranoid mind, enough plausibility about it that it added legitimacy to the scam.

Anyway, I continued to argue that this was the first I’d heard of the matter. I said I was happy to meet with them and work it out. Scum-Sucking Scammer Guy–doing his best impersonation of the creepy German dude in Raiders of the Lost Ark who gets the carvings of the headpiece burned onto his hand in Marion’s bar–said “That time is past.” I then said I hadn’t even seen any evidence that I owed the IRS anything. He said I’d missed my chance to see any documentation, and that I’d now see it when it was presented in court to be used against me.

Yeah, I know. Looking back, the scam-ish nature of the whole thing is pretty obvious.

SCUM-SUCKING SCAMMER GUY: “We’re arresting you without giving you a chance to know what you’ve done wrong.”

ME: “Oh no! You’re the IRS! You can do that!”

At this point I begged to talk to a supervisor. I was transferred to another person with yet another thick, thick Indian accent. I will call him Other Scum-Sucking Scammer Guy. At this point, a part of me wondered if the entire IRS was populated by former Bombay call center employees. Other Scum-Sucking Scammer Guy toed the party line. I was bad. I owed money. I was going to be taken to court.

UNLESS-

If I paid the back taxes within the next one or two hours, then I could avoid court.

How convenient.

And yet I STILL didn’t realize it was a scam. Luckily, I didn’t give them any information or money or anything. Other Scum-Sucking Scammer Guy asked if I could come up with the money within two hours. I half-laughed/half-screamed back that it was impossible. Other Scum-Sucking Scammer Guy said that it would be Court for me. He advised me to call my lawyer.

I went back to the basic truth with Other Scum-Sucking Scammer Guy: this is the first I’ve heard of this, I’ll happily work with the IRS on this, please be reasonable. He held firm. I again asked to see the evidence that I’d committed fraud. He again said no way.

Then I went ahead and said that I had no way of even knowing that this wasn’t a scam. That sent him off, and he said I’d just committed a Federal offense by calling him a liar or some such. Looking back, it seems pretty silly, but in the heat of the moment, I was in full “Oh My God I’m Going to Jail!” mode. He eventually said the call was over, I was going to jail, and I should wait for an officer to come to my house to arrest me within the next hour.

I FREAKED out and did what any self-respecting, level-headed man should do under the circumstances. I called my wife. She told me to call the police. Said it sounded like a scam. After a serious, body-shaking, headache-blaring, vocal chords-straining scream of pure Freakingoutism, I called the police. He said it was a scam. Then my wife sent me links that said it was a scam. Including this one:

https://www.irs.gov/uac/Newsroom/IRS-Warns-of-Pervasive-Telephone-Scam

Which is exactly what happened to me.

It was a scam. I wasn’t going to jail. I didn’t owe back taxes. My too-good-to-be-true accountant from years before was simply good. Not too good.

What have I learned from all this? Well first off, ignore voice messages that come when I’m scooping the litter box. Second, the IRS does not call you and tell you to pay fines then and there over the phone. Third, I can be ridiculously gullible. But then, I already knew that last one.

The page on IRS.gov says that in rare cases, the scammers will actually send out someone to the house after the call pretending to be law enforcement, along with someone pretending to be an agent. These two will claim that you are going to jail unless you can pay the fine right there on your doorstep.

Boy do I hope they come…

Off Topic: The Baseball Hall of Fame

Although I generally use this blog to discuss writing and performing and other elements of my most amazing and astounding career, from time to time other elements of life interrupt. Today is one of those days.

I’m a big baseball fan. Although it may give you a hint as to the direction of the remainder of this blog, I grew up and have always been a massive fan of the San Francisco Giants. Growing up in Santa Cruz, California, the Giants were my home team. I went to my first baseball game at Candlestick Park in 1980 and saw WIllie McCovey hit a pinch-hit sacrifice fly in what would be his final season. I was at the famous 1982 end-of-year Joe Morgan Home Run game. I survived the mid-1980s when the Giants were absolutely horrible. I went to the Dave Dravecky comeback-from-cancer game. I had playoff tickets in 1987.

I was also a fan during the Barry Bonds era. As a Giants fan, it was always fun to know how much everybody hated Barry. We didn’t care. He was our Barry. He rocked. We cheered him no matter how surly he was.

This year marks Barry’s fourth year on the Hall of Fame ballot. Once again, he was not elected, but got enough votes to remain eligible next year. Specifically, he received 44.3% of the vote (a player need 75% to get elected). There is one and only one reason Barry Bonds is not in the Hall of Fame. Steroids. There is ample evidence that he used them. Even most Giants’ fans will admit that. Some Hall of Fame voters cannot get past that.

I understand this line of reasoning. I do not agree with it, but I understand it.

There’s another player in his fourth year of eligibility who did not get in this year. Roger Clemens. He received 45.2% of the vote. He suffers from the same demon which torments Bonds. Steroids.

Here’s the thing. Barry Bonds was the greatest hitter of his generation. Roger Clemens was the greatest pitcher of his generation.

Case closed.

So if you are not voting for them, then you are not voting for them because of steroids. Again, I get it. Again, I disagree.

So how does Clemens gets 45.2% and Barry only 44.3%? It’s not a big difference, probably fewer than 10 votes, but that’s 10 people who chose to vote for Clemens and not Bonds. And there is no world or reality where that is defensible. If you vote for Clemens, then you are saying his PED issues are not a problem. If that’s true, then you have to vote for Bonds, too. It’s really very simple.

PED use is Bad = keep Clemens and Bonds out of the Hall. PED use is forgivable = vote for the GREATEST HITTER AND PITCHER OF THEIR GENERATION, HANDS DOWN.

Barry Bonds’ at bats were Events no matter where the Giants played. Home or away, the lines for beer and hotdogs dwindled when Bonds came to the plate. Managers changed the way they managed the game because of him. One guy actually Intentionally walked Boinds with the bases loaded. That means he purposefully gave the Giants a run because he was afraid Bonds would do something worse. And you know what? It worked. The next batter (catcher Brent Mayne) lined out to center and the Giants lost 9-8. And that was in 1997, which is two years before Bonds supposedly began using steroids. He was already The Man.

If that’s not a Hall of Famer, I don’t know what is.

The same can be said of Clemens. His starts were simply ridiculous. The things he did with a baseball should be outlawed. Like Bonds, he was a Hall of Famer long before he supposedly began using PED.

The funny thing is, I visited Cooperstown a couple years ago. Binds and Clemens are all over it. The only place they aren’t is in the Hall of Plaques. So voters are right now choosing to keep these guys out of that one room.

But they’re already in the Hall of Fame.

 

When Characters Do Stupid Things

I’m reading Nightmares! by Jason Segel and Kristen Miller. It’s a fun MG romp about the world of nightmares intruding on our world and one 12-year-old boy caught in the middle. Spooky. Funny. Has my sensibilities. Good world building and a lot of fun to read, so I’m going to finish it.

But I have a beef.

In order to keep the plot moving, the main character–otherwise a smart kid–has to be clueless regarding an important element of the story. He must ignore the obvious that is right in front of him. We all know the truth, and the fact that he doesn’t is frustrating. I don’t want to give anything away (in case either one of you two who are bothering to follow my blog want to read it at some point), but it is almost ruining the book for me.

I’ve read many books and seen many movies where this occurs (The Screaming Staircase I just finished does something similar). Character A knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that X. Character A goes through the book being led by his belief. Yet the even-slightly-astute reader can easily see that it is Y. Time and again, we see that if Character A would only open his or her eyes and see Y, the book could end 200 pages early and we could all go home. But Character A has blinders on, so we have adventure and danger and exciting scenes and it all is pretty pointless because when we get to the end and Character A suddenly realizes it has been Y all along we just want to smack her.

Here’s a tip to any writers out there. If you need your otherwise intelligent character to miss something obvious in order to keep the plot moving, stop writing. Take a step back. Find another way to advance the story. The only time that sort of thing can be excused is when the ignorance is itself central to the character.

“John hated all orangutans ever since they killed his mother. He needs someone to climb into the tree and get him a banana. If only he didn’t hate orangutans, he could ask one of the very nice orangutans standing around to go up there and get one for him. Alas.”

That sort of works. We see that John is fatally flawed and we are invested in finding out if he will ever get over his loathing of orangutans in time to get a banana. If you’re writing that story, then you should be OK, although you will need to come up with some good reason why John needs to eat a banana.

Unfortunately, many writers are more prone to crafting something like this:

“Barbie’s house is on fire. She asks Randy, who works at a fire extinguisher store, if he has a spare bucket of water she can use to put out the fire. He says no, and is about to say something else but before he has a chance she rushes out to find somebody who can give her a bucket of water to put out the fire.”

That’s lazy. That’s obnoxious. Everyone reading the book is screaming at Barbie. “Randy was going to give you a freakin’ fire extinguisher, you idiot! Gaarrrgg!”

It is a bad sign when the reader knows the answer when the character still needs 50 pages to see what’s in front of his or her face.

As I’m writing Book 3 (and I’m on a sweet tear after plotting it all out on my living room floor), I am well aware of this issue. There are a couple of spots where it would be easy to fall into this trap. I have forced my main character, a girl named Lillian (who is 12 because all MG books star children who are 12), to be smart. This has caused a few inconveniences, because I’ll come up with a cool idea but then think ‘Why wouldn’t she just X and be done with it?’ and go back to the drawing board. There should never be an easy out that is overlooked.

“You mean I could have pulled the drain at the start and then the room wouldn’t have flooded and all the weasels wouldn’t have died? Boy, do I have egg on my face or what?”

I view it as a challenge. Let’s put Lillian in a horrible situation–she’s in a sewer being eaten by a zombie crocodile. OK, now how can she get out of it? She could shoot it with the massive ray gun she had in the last scene. OK, she needs to lose the massive ray gun. Now how could she get out of it? She could light it on fire with one of her flares. OK, we need the flares to get wet in the sewer so they won’t work. Now what can she do?

And so on and so on until Lillian is forced to come up with a clever way to avoid being eaten by the zombie crocodile. Or she doesn’t come up with a way and she gets eaten. It’s up to her.

Ripped Pages Strewn Across My Floor

I’ve been working on Book 3 (which isn’t really the third book of any series, nor is it the third book I will have written, but Book 3 works fine for a title for now) for a little over a month now. Like all projects that hook me, the beginning of the work rushed by and flowed out of my fingers like the creamy center of a Cadbury Egg (they have creamy centers, right? It’s been a while since I had one).

Then, like all projects that hook me, things slowed down. I had a conversation with myself that went something like this.

“Oh, so now that you’ve created a world, you expect to have a fully-conceived story to put in it? Complete with three-dimensional characters, plot twists, some sort of theme, and lots of your usual silliness?”

“Uhm… yes?”

“Right. I’ll get back to you.”

I sat back, looked at my fledgling baby, poked it, prodded it, and came up with a complete story idea. I wrote some notes on a Google Doc and dove back in.

Then I had a cool idea, so I had to go back and add it and that changed some things so I needed to go back again and fix them and then I changed some other things and had to go back to the start to make sure I set them up and then… well then the notes on my Google Doc didn’t make any sense.

I forged ahead, as writers with an inflated sense of ability are wont to do. Things bogged down. Like, trying to walk through a vat of kindergarten paste while wearing Uggs. I went from 1,500 or 2,000 words a day to 300 or 400. The next day I’d go back and rewrite 200 of those 400 and call it a day.

The project stalled.

I cried. I wailed. I berated fate. I watched some TV. And inspiration came to me–though not from watching TV, that was a total waste of time.

I got out on old, blank notebook. A nice one with slightly-thick paper. I opened up to a blank page and wrote the concept for one scene I knew I wanted in the book. Then I ripped the page out of the notebook and placed it on the floor. I wrote another scene concept on another blank page. Ripped it out. Set it down.

Rinse, repeat.

Soon enough, I had about eight pieces of paper on my floor. I arranged them in chronological order. I saw where there were holes and forced myself to write something on a new page, rip it out, and use it to fill the hole. I got interested in the very end of the book, and wrote a number of pages and ripped them all out, placing them in order. Saw another hole, wrote a new page. Got an idea, wrote a new page, set it down to replace an earlier page I’d ripped out. Crumbled up the earlier page–I wouldn’t be using it.

When my family finally came home (what, you think I’d be able to litter the living room floor with scraps of paper if they were around?) they found me sitting criss-cross applesauce on the living room rug surrounded by a large semi-circle of torn pages.

It is a testament to their ability to excuse and overlook (as well as a testament to my habits in general) that they did not strap me into a straight jacket then and there and have me hauled away.

Luckily for me, I had pretty much finished my task. Around me were 26 pages torn from a notebook (remember, a nice one) that told the story of Book 3 from where I was currently stuck all the way to the end. I’d gone and outlined my novel. And I liked it. Some of it made me giggle. Some of those giggles weren’t the deranged giggles of a mad man.

So today I impart upon The Next Bit of the the journey of Book 3, this time armed with 26 ripped pieces of nice-ish paper to guide my way.

And you thought writing was boring.

Bright Red Herrings in Flashing Neon

Happy New Year!

I hope the coming year brings you wonderful things and multiple viewings of The Force Awakens.

I finished reading a book yesterday. This in and of itself is news because it means the book was good enough to keep my attention the entire way through, which is not always easy. The book is The Screaming Staircase, the first book in Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series. I really enjoyed the world he set up, and his prose was smooth and kept me turning pages, so I recommend it to anyone looking for a fun, supernatural middle grade yarn.

And now I’m going to go all negative on it.

Not that it’s bad, because it isn’t (see my recommendation above). But it commits a fatal flaw that would have had me toss the book aside if Stroud wasn’t as good a writer as he is.

SPOILER ALERT

Bruce Willis was dead the whole time.

I always wanted to say that. 🙂

OK, in all seriousness, here’s my beef.

Stroud gives us a mystery. A whodunnit. It is not the central plot of the book, but it is a large element. He then gives us a suspect–a horrible man who was the last known to see the victim alive. There is no direct evidence implicating this man, but our characters very quickly decide it has to be him. He’s just so evil, it must be him. So he’s arrested.

The fact that he’s a red herring is so ridiculously obvious, my four-year-old cat could have picked it up. In fact, she did. She was on my lap while I read the book, and when the new guy showed up, she jumped off my lap and threw up a hairball.  He’s not a Red Herring, he’s a (title of post alert) Bright Red Herring in Flashing Neon. With big yellow arrows pointing to him and a dancing penguin tap-dancing ‘red herring’ in Morse code on the page.

Then another character shows up out of the blue with a too-good-to-be-true offer for the characters. While there is no mention of any connection to the murder, anyone with a pulse (and many without one, this is a supernatural story about ghosts after all) notices that the new guy has all the necessary factors that would connect him with the murder. He’s the right age. He’s a guy.

That’s pretty much all you need.

So here I am, three-fifths of the way through the book, and I suddenly know the big twist awaiting me at the end. I try to tell myself that maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Stroud, who is a good writer, is throwing me a left hook after a fake right-handed slam to the gut. Maybe I’ll get to the end and be all ‘Wow! I didn’t see that coming! Brilliant! Woo hoo!’

Nope.

I get to the end (enjoy the the read the entire time) and the reveal lays out for me like a kitty hoping for a back rub. And it’s exactly what I thought. And I’m bummed.

Did knowing the twist dim my enjoyment of the book? Yes, though only a bit. I’m still planning on reading the second book of the series, because the world is really cool and the characters are fun to follow. But Stroud’s a good author. Why, then, did he telegraph his twist?

One of his problems is a lack of suspects. In the immortal film, Throw Mama From the Train, Billy Crystal explains to Danny DeVito that DeVito’s book doesn’t work because it’s called “Murder at My Friend Larry’s” and there are only two characters, one of whom dies half-way through.

By creating such an obvious red herring, Stroud leaves us wondering who the real killer might be. Since the murder happened 50 years ago, we know it has to be someone old enough to have been alive 50 years ago. At the time of the red herring, there is literally no other character old enough to have committed the murder. And then we suddenly, out-of-the-blue, meet an older character.

It’s not hard to connect the dots.

My upcoming novel Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom (have you pre-ordered your copy yet?) doesn’t really have a ‘gotcha!’ twist in it, but my second book, the untitled (for now) book being published in 2017, does. I spent a lot of time with my reveal, working backwards, making sure it wasn’t obvious. Leaving tantalizing hints that are not too obvious, but also making sure there are other plausible suspects. I had my advanced readers let me know if they thought it was either too obvious or too ‘swooped in at the last minute with something new so there is no way anyone cold have possibly guessed.’ In the end, I feel fairly confident that my twist will be truly twisty.

Why didn’t Stroud take the same precautions?

Writing twists is a time-honored task for a writer, an opportunity placed in our hands that we must care for and nurture. It is not to be attempted by hacks (not that Stroud is a hack, I just think he got lazy).

So if you’re out there writing a story and you’re considering using a red herring, know that you do at your own peril. Red herrings can be tasty, but if you don’t de-bone them properly, you’ll end up choking, rupturing your esophagus, and frothing up a spout of blood.

That’s never pretty.