Talking Heads Do Not a Climax Make

My kids came home and found me playing with my Star Wars figures.

I told them I was working. I’m not sure they bought it.

But it’s the truth! See, I’m writing the final act of Book 3. It’s complicated, with a ton of different characters showing up. I was worried I’d lose track of one or two (something I’ve done before) so I assigned a different Star Wars figure for each character and acted out the entire scene. The Bib Fortuna character enters, and Chewie engages him. Boba Fett drops in it takes Han and Leia together to keep him away from BB-8, who is trying to help Lando reach the Hoth Rebel Gunner Outpost Playset. Meanwhile, Luke and C-3PO are tangling with Jabba the Hutt (I needed something to designate a very large character).

See? Complicated.

But using the figures made me realize that I didn’t give Generic X-Wing Pilot anything to do. Without them, I probably would have totally ignored that character and left him out of the rest of the book. Which would be awkward. So I made sure he helped Han and Leia. Presto! He’s involved.

I tried explaining this to my kids, but their eyes glazed over. Then my daughter made me switch out Slave Leia for Endor Leia. You know, to preserve her dignity.

So with the climax all mapped out, I put my figures away (with only a slight sigh of regret) and got down to the business of writing it all out. Things started smoothly. The bit where Boba Fett drops in is funny, and I was able to give Generic X-Wing Pilot some love when that section began. Then Jabba the Hutt entered and this is exciting because it’s a big reveal and characters are thrown for a loop and so forth. Also, I love writing for my Jabba the Hutt character because I love his voice. So Jabba taunted. Luke rebutted. Lando and BB-8 argued (BB-8 is standing in for an actual person. I’m just using the BB-8 figure because I really like BB-8). Chewie and Bib Fortuna had to get involved. More from Jabba. More from Lando.

And now I’m bored.

I scrolled back up the screen and saw that I’d just written a page and a half where everyone stood there chatting. Oh sure, it was witty, plot-moving chatter. But this is the climax. And they’re all just standing there. Lame.

As a writer of anything other than text books, I have a duty to my audience not to bore them to tears right at the part where they ought to be on the edge of their seat, ignoring their over-extended bladder, hanging on every word. Reveals are nice and all, but I need to incorporate action into the reveal. Well not exactly action, since my book is a Middle Grade supernatural horror/comedy book not an action book, but I definitely owe readers some Middle Grade supernatural horror/comedy.

I have that problem with a lot of books I read, to be honest. Everything is zooming along and suddenly the action stops so the author can spit out everything he or she needs to spit out. Tie up all the loose ends. Explain what the heck they were thinking. The trick is to find the balance. I like to think of old Errol Flynn movies. Not because I’ve ever seen any–I haven’t–but I have a basic idea that they include a lot of theatrical fencing while the bad guy and Errol trade frightfully witty barbs and reveal the plot. It’s a formula:

***

“I will not let you harm the Princess!”

Errol slices at Bad Guy, who parries.

“You fool! The Princess has been working for me the whole time!”

Bad Guy slices at Errol, who ducks. Bad Guy’s sword cuts up some flowers that are in a sconce on the wall.

“What? That’s impossible! We are in love!”

Errol thrusts sword at Bad Guy, who parries it away.

“She doesn’t love you! She loves me!”

Bad Guy clonks Errol on the head with the pommel of his sword. Errol staggers back down a step (because they’ve been fighting on a stone staircase the entire time).

“No! It cannot be! She said she loved me!”

Errol clutches his hand to his chest in emotional agony.

“She lied to you! Also, she’s you mother!”

Bad Guy stabs Errol in the heart. Errol falls off the staircase to his death.

***

Or something like that. The point is, it’s exciting and informative at the same time. There are no talking heads. Talking heads are boring. Boring is lame. Case closed.

So even though I’m only at the beginning of the climax, I need to go back and start over. The last thing I want to write is My Dinner With Andre. That just not very kid-friendly.

 

Hunting for the Perfect Title

I’ve written before about titles. They are, like, way important. More important than I would have thought.

It makes sense, though. Whenever I rattle around a bookstore and browse, I’m not pulling each and every book off the shelf to read the back and see if it sounds interesting. I’m running my finger along the spine quickly dismissing titles that don’t sound interesting. If my finger reaches “Pretty Pansy and Her Pouty Puppies” then it’s going to slide on by. That title does not interest me. I don’t care of the series is highly acclaimed, everyone loves it, or anything else. Pretty Pansy is not my thing.

On the other hand, if I see “Descent into the Tomb of Ancient Evil” I’m probably going to pause and at least slide it out to look at the cover. Because I’m a big fan of tombs of ancient evil.

My debut novel, coming out this August (can you tell I’m a bit excited?) is, of course Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom. That is an awesome title. You read that title and you have a very good idea of what the book is about, the tone of the book, what ages it was written for, and that my favorite color is green. Confession time: it wasn’t my original title. The entire time I was writing the book, the entire time I was polishing the book, and the entire time Awesome Agent was selling the book it was known as, simple, “Dr. Fell.”

Excellent Editor decided that wasn’t enough and slapped “…and the Playground of Doom” to the end of the title. And even though I originally hated the addition, I now thank the Heavens for the change. Because nobody knows who Dr. Fell is. Nobody can get any idea of what the book is about from the title. Fingers would have slid by the spine of my book, blissfully ignorant of how totally awesome it is. Now many of those fingers will stop, pull out my book, and–God willing–purchase a copy.

Book 2 (due out August, 2017! Remind yourself now to pre-order it next year!) has long needed a title. I didn’t have one while writing it. I didn’t have one while polishing it. I didn’t have one last month when I was dealing with all 95 of Excellent Editor’s notes. We had always been referring to it by a single word, which for the purposes of this post I shall pretend was Avocados. I have always known that Avocados is too vague a title, and that it needs more. When I submitted Avocados to Excellent Editor, I assumed Excellent Editor would come up with a much better title. After all, Excellent Editor came up with Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom! Of course Excellent Editor will have a title!

Excellent Editor did not have a title.

And so I did rewrites on what we were still temporarily calling Avocados.

Time pressed on, Excellent Editor warned that we needed a title soon because they are already discussing cover art (for a book coming out in 18 months). I held a brainstorming session with my daughter, who has read Avocados. I wrote them all down and sent them on. The list contained elements like:

  • The Avocados of Doom
  • The Tastiest Avocados
  • When Avocados Attack
  • To Be an Avocado or Not To Be an Avocado
  • The Killer Avocados From Atlantis

You get the idea.

I didn’t love any of them, but hoped one of them would spark a flame of title genius from Excellent Editor.

No such luck.

I did some more thinking. Went for a run. Had some ideas. Sent another list.

  • The Avocados That Ate Manhattan
  • Death, Taxes, and Avocados
  • The People Who Eat Avocados
  • The Pits (get it? avocados have pits)
  • The One Strange Girl Who Didn’t Like Avocados

Didn’t really like any of them either. Then I got an inspiration. Maybe we’re spending too much time focusing on avocados. Maybe the title should reference something else. New list.

  • The Winged Lemur
  • Lemurs of Doom
  • The Winged
  • The Lemurs of Philadelphia
  • Bedtime For Lemurs

While none of them jumped out at me, I liked the concept of untying the title from avocados. Finally, I thought, we were on the right path.

Then I get an email from Excellent Editor.

“David. Got your new list of title suggestions. Also got your new new list of title suggestions. I’ve shared everything with everybody, and it looks like we’re going to go with Avocados. With a fun subtitle, like ‘Eat them!’ or ‘Great for Guacamole!’ More to come.”

So Avocados it (probably) is. Though not Avocados, because that’s a fake name I made up for this blog post. But it is the one-word title we’ve been using all along as a temporary title. I actually think it’s a good title, and I’m very relieved that the ‘finding a title’ task is complete.

As soon as I get the official word that the title is locked, I’ll share. Heck, I might share all of the suggestions, as well. So you can see the entire process play out on screen.

Won’t that be fun?

 

They Loved It! I Got 95 Notes!

After much pacing around in circles and chewing my fingernails, last week I received word from Excellent Editor regarding Book 2 (still working on a title). The pacing and chewing is because I am incredibly impatient and had been hoping to hear from Excellent Editor since the day after I turned in the first draft. Because I am her only client and she would of course drop everything to read my book, right? Right?

What do you mean, no?

Anyway. The email was full of conditional praise. The book was a hit! The characters were good–except for where they need to be worked on. The plot was fun and smooth–except for a couple areas that were a bit confusing. The silliness was at just the right level–except for some places where it didn’t seem to fit and others where it didn’t really work. And so on, and so on.

So I quickly downloaded the attached draft with Excellent Editor’s notes and edits and comments. Then I went through the entire book simply “accepting” any typo correction or grammar fix or capitalization change. I mean she’s an Excellent Editor, so if she says I spelled the word wrong or put a comma in the wrong place, who am I to argue?

That left me with the comments. Places in the body of the text where she’d made a note such as “this isn’t working” or “I don’t understand how this could happen” or “I don’t think the character would really say this” or “this is too wordy for middle grade” or just “dear God this is awful!” You know, places where I’d have to actually think and work.

Before starting off on draft 2, I went and counted up the comments. You’ll never guess how many there were (unless you looked at the title of this post).

95.

95 things for me to fix on a document that–according to Mircosoft Word–is 210 pages. That’s, like, almost one every other page. As I scrolled through the document counting the notes, and my count rose higher and higher, my ego deflated more and more. She hated it. She hated everything about it. Every single thing. Well OK, not every single thing. But 95 of them.

I went and sulked, spent time with the cats so I’d feel loved, told myself I was still a good writer, told myself to shut up because no I wasn’t, and scolded myself for being such a goober. I had to look at the bigger picture, and the bigger picture is, she likes Book 2 enough to care. Enough to pay attention to detail and nit pick every little flaw.

So I took a deep breath and dove in, starting with Note #1. I need to see the forest for the trees. If I worry about all the comments one at a time instead of all 95 at once, it makes it more manageable while also stretching out the agony.

A Win-Win!

This is a Bad Title

Titles are hard.

Sometimes. Sometimes they’re easy. I have written books and short stories based on a title that popped into my head., bringing with it an entire story. Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom (pre-order it on Amazon today!) was easy. Although my original title was simply Dr. Fell. The publisher added ‘and the Playground of Doom’ and I at first hated it but now I love it.

But sometimes they are hard. Book 2 is hard, and it doesn’t have a title yet. This is even though I’ve turned it in to the publisher and just today got their notes and am excited to dive into a second draft–all without a title.

Book 3 is easy. The title came first, and it took me a bit to wrap the story around everything the title promised. And I’ve been streaking through the writing process ever since (I wrote over 33,000 words in January!).

What do you want a title to say? What is its purpose? As a writer who spends a lot of time locked up in his little room with his keyboard, a cat, and some old Star Wars toys, I thought a title should be what the book is about. That’s why my first book was called Dr. Fell. It is about a small town where Dr. Fell arrives and then all Hell breaks loose. My publisher had other ideas. They thought the title should grab the potential book-buyer’s attention. They thought ‘Dr. Fell’ didn’t do that, because nobody knew who he was, so who cares. So they added ‘…and the Playground of Doom’ and presto chango! Now it nabs your attention.

“Ooo! A playground of doom? I must read about that at once!”

It also helps that the Playground of Doom shows up quite early in the book and is a focal point of the story. It works.

I’m currently reading Omega City by Diana Peterfreund. It is good so far. A fun read with fun characters, fun puzzles and conspiracies, and some other fun stuff. I like the book, despite what I’m going to be writing in a moment. I plan in finishing the book, which is a big thing for me.

The problem is, Omega City doesn’t work as a title. At least not for me.

I am currently only 70 pages into the story (the book is 318). The back of the book reads, in part “…Gillian sets off into the ruins of a vast doomsday bunker deep within the Earth.” Later on the back cover it reads “Now Gillian and her friends must race to explore Omega City and find the answers…”

So OK, it looks like much of the story revolves around an adventure inside this totally awesome Omega City.

I’m on page 70 and we’re not there yet. We don’t even know it exists. The characters are finding clues and not sure what’s going on. One of the clues mentions the word ‘Omega’ and they don’t know if that is important. Omega means last, so maybe it refers to the last of something?

No, it refers to the friggin’ lost city. Duh. Get on with it.

See, I read the back of the book. I know they’re going to find Omega City and go adventuring in it. So I’m twiddling my thumbs waiting for them to get there. Why create a puzzle for your audience of the title of the book gives the puzzle away? I hate being smarter than the characters, and right now anyone actually reading the book is automatically smarter than the characters by virtue of knowing the title of the book.

Cheating and skimming ahead, it looks like the characters find Omega City (but don’t yet know that’s what it is called) around page 100. Between now (page 70) and then (page 100) they are following a series of clues, not sure exactly what they’re looking for.

That’s going to be a frustrating 30 pages.

I wonder if the author had this title from the start, or if it was given to her by her editor/publisher? If anyone knows Diana Peterfreund, ask her for me, will you?

Meanwhile, if the back cover copy and title didn’t give it away enough, here’s the cover art.

omegacity

To recap. I’m on page 70 and there is nothing even resembling that image yet. Sure looks exciting. Somebody wake me when they reach the underground bunker.

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. 🙂

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.

It’s Starting to Sing

I’m giddy. Smiling a lot. Fingers twitching.  Desperate to type.

I got me a story.

I’ve been playing with a few different ideas ever since I turned in Book 2 on December 1–500 words on this one, 1000 words on that one, 750 on this one over here–waiting for one or the other or the other to grab me, shake me down like a rough gangster demanding his 100% interest, and possess my soul.

A few moments ago I realized I’d been working on one and only one of these ideas for a few days now. So I sat back and asked myself:

“Self? Do you want to go and work on one of the others for a bit?”

And Myself answered, “Are you freaking kidding me? Shut up and get back to typing!”

I can be cruel when it suits me.

So yeah, it has occurred to me that I may have found Book 3. And I’m totally jazzed. The winning concept is–like most of my projects–based on older, less-formed ideas. Characters from here and there, situations from there and here. A keen eye for brand and marketing. Lots of opportunities for sequels.

To this point I have not pitched this to anyone. For all I know, Awesome Agent may hear the idea, roll his eyes, and drop-kick me into the new year. But I’ll cross that bridge when I arrive at the toll booth. Right now, I’m writing, and it feels good. I’ve already fleshed out the plotline, the stakes, and the main characters. And as I write, they all come alive.

So, yeah. Giddy. Smiling. Twitchy fingers. All good.

Of course, there’s every chance that I’ll write a post in a couple of days about how I’ve torn everything up and started over, this time on a new idea centering around a horde of man-eating walleye who develop the ability to breath air and so come out of the world’s waters to get their revenge on mankind.

You just never know.

We Need More Silly!

So I maybe, possibly, perhaps have my next book in mind.

Like many projects that eventually find their way out of the logjam that is my imagination, it is a mash-up of a bunch of other concepts and ideas I’ve tinkered with over time. The other day, a few of those crashed up against one another the way random electrons do when circling an atom and this time the resulting brand new element caught my attention.

So I wrote a first chapter. Then I wrote a second chapter. Then I went in and outlined the entire story. Then I went back and erased the first two chapters and started over. Then I wrote the first chapter. Again. Then I sat back and smiled.

This just might work.

The thing about my particular writing process is that it tends to be plot-based. I will generally start with the concept. Something like “What if there was this big, natural disaster that turned all the walleye against humanity?” Then I carve out a series of events. First, we show the disaster that turns the walleye against us. Then they start their war. Some people die. Mankind finally understands the nature of the threat and fights back. More people die. Then… cool stuff happens and we get to the end. Or something like that.

Then I need to go back into it and find out who the characters are. Maybe the hero is a waste disposal expert who takes an interest in the walleye. Maybe one of the walleye is actually the hero. It could go either way. When you think about it, a concept like this pretty much writes itself, right?

So back to my possible third book. I like it. It feels right. The story is there. And more importantly, the options for multiple stories is there so that when it becomes a huge hit I can keep churning them out. The problem for me was that it wasn’t writing itself. It was slow going. I knew what I wanted to happen. I knew who I wanted the events to happen to. I knew where I wanted them to go. But the execution–putting the words down on the screen that will take us on the journey–was excruciatingly slow, like I was churning molasses or something.

I didn’t know what the problem was, and I wasn’t about to give up. So I’d braced myself for a fight and was ready to hunker down when it struck me.

It wasn’t silly enough.

Sometimes I get so caught up in the plot or the characters, I forget to bring my special brand of silliness to the table. Without it, the book may as well have been written by somebody else. That was why it wasn’t flying out of my fingers at light speed, it was just another cool story. So I went back to that first chapter and upped the silly.

And the story started singing.

No guarantee that this will ultimately catch fire and I’ve found that elusive third book, but suddenly it reads like it was written by me. And that’s a good thing.

Because I wrote it. Am writing it. Will be writing it.

Whatever.