How to Write Heroes – on Stupefying Stories!

Hello, Haberfans!

What do all these people have in common? Read to find out!

I’ve got another op-ed piece up on Stupefying Stories’s blog this week! In it, I chat about how to write interesting, compelling, engaging heroes instead of villains (as I did last time). This is a slightly more complex issue, so it’s a slightly longer article (and leaves a LOT open to interpretation), but I think it’s a succinct list that I pretty much use in my own writing, as well.

See the article here.

Read it, comment, and, if so inclined, buy some of my books to see how I do it myself (and see if you agree!).

Talk to you all soon!

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My Writing Summer (Thus Far)

One of the truisms of being a writer is that you never, ever feel as though you are working hard enough. You could always be writing – you should always be writing – and everything else you do can quickly seem a mere distraction.

Like this, but with a laptop.

For me, my most important productive period is during the summer, when I am not teaching, not grading tons of student work, and not prepping for my four classes each semester. From May until late August, I write as much as I possibly can (while also doing some work for my day job, but that doesn’t involve teaching or grading).

I get a lot done in the summer. I just have to watch the altitude of my colleagues’ eyebrows steadily rise as I tell them how much I’ve done. But it never feels that way to me because there is so much I have left undone.

So, in the interest of enhancing my own sanity, I am going to list off the things I have completed, sold, or published this summer. This is not meant to make people feel bad about their own production – just remember that I produce just about nothing between the months of September and April, and hopefully you’ll feel better.

I’ve Written:

Like this, but while scribbling in a notebook.

1 Novel Rough Draft: The Day It All Went Sideways – A Novel (~85,000 words)

3 Short Stories: “Life in Death, Death in Life” (~6000 words), “Three Gowns for Clara” (~6000 words), “The Dragon’s 13th Virgin” (~6000 words)

3 Op-Ed Pieces: one for Analog’s blog, 2 for Stupefying Stories’ blog, a total of about 4000 words.

Blog Posts: I’m not sure how many, but about one a week – so perhaps ten of them? They average about 1000 words apiece, too.

I’ve Published:

1 Novelette: “A Crystal Dipped in Dreams” in the July/August issue of Analog

2 Op-Ed Pieces: the one mentioned above in Analog and one of the ones in Stupefying Stories. The second one for Stupefying should be out soon.

I’ve Sold:

1 Flash Story: “What the Plague Did To Us” to Galaxy’s Edge

1 Short Story: “Applied Linguistics” to Analog

So, in total, I’ve written between 115,000-117,000 words and published or sold a total of 5-6 other works. That is a respectable amount of work. I should be proud of it. I am proud of it.

Like this, but with me running dialogue in my head.

But the fall is returning. I’m getting e-mails talking about syllabi and meetings I have to attend. The real world is invading again. I may be able to tick these numbers up a bit more before the end, but not by much.

But that’s okay. I’m still working. I haven’t failed to do anything I set out to do this summer. And there’s always semester break and next summer. Anything I didn’t finish will keep. I press on.

Maybe your word count is lower than mine, and maybe it’s higher. But the whole point here is that it isn’t about word count. It’s about setting goals and achieving them and being satisfied with yourself. I struggle with it – all writers do – but you need to take the time and appreciate what you’ve done. Give yourself permission to congratulate yourself. You deserve it.

Now, back to writing.

 

Talking about Villains on Stupefying Stories!

Hey there, Haber-fans (which is what I’m calling you all now. Yes, all ten of you. No, there is no appeals process)!

I’ve got an op-ed up on Stupefying Stories’ “Talking Shop” that’s all on how to go about creating a great villain. Go there (click those links!) and check out my five rules for writing the best (worst?) baddies. Go now!

Also of note: I’ve got a story coming out in Stupefying Stories soon. How soon? I don’t know, exactly, but soon! I’m very pleased. Stupefying Stories published some of my first work about six years back and editor Bruce Bethke always puts together a quality anthology. If you’re looking for a market to submit to or, more importantly, a underappreciated short story market to read, I recommend them highly.

Anyway, I now return you to your regularly scheduled internet.

So Many Good Openings…

I’m good at starting short stories. Really good, I’d say. I have snappy first paragraphs, cool set-ups, neat ideas and then…

Then they tend to stall.

I mean, basically, right?

I never seem to know where these damned stories are going. So what if there’s a T-rex loose in the mall? Who gives a crap, anyway, and isn’t that just going to wind up being the same as the plot of the latest Jurrasic Park movie? After that occurs to me, I get disenchanted and then stop because, well, I don’t want to be derivative. I want to be original.

Maybe I’m expecting too much out of myself in the first draft. I want the story to be brilliant. I want it to sell to the best markets and get all the praise from (whoever) and win all the awards and make me the guy who is known for writing brilliant, well-selling, praiseworthy, award winning stories. And, of course, that’s a huuge amount of pressure.

But that can’t be it, because I try to do the same thing with novels and I have no problem diving into writing a novel. I just sit my ass in my chair and start churning out words, day by day, bit by bit, until a draft is done. Even revision in novels seems easier – there are so many moving parts, so many modular pieces, that altering it seems almost intuitive. Well, at least compared to short stories.

The source of all this whining is that I just finished a novel draft and now it’s an opportunity to write some more short fiction and get it out the door before the semester begins and all my writing time pretty much vanishes. I mean, how long can it take to write a 4000-6000 word story, right? I cover that in about two days while writing novels – no sweat!

I sit down, crack the knuckles (not really – just a metaphor) and start typing and I get about 500-1000 words in and…

I feel like I should be able to write a draft of 2 short stories per week. The reality is that a single one takes me weeks, sometimes months, sometimes goddamned years to see through.

Right now I have seven or eight stories with openings and no middle or end. I’m stalled on all of them. I’d call it writer’s block, but I don’t really believe in writer’s block. It’s not that I don’t have ideas, it’s that I just don’t think any of my ideas are any good. I find them boring. I don’t want to write boring stories.

I guess that’s what people mean when they say “writer’s block.” I should just put my head down and power through. That’s what I do in novels. Why is it any different for short work?

Well, it’s short – there’s no time to waste, no room to spare. I can’t dick around for twenty pages and then go back and cut it out. Well, no wait – I can dick around for twenty pages and then cut it out, but I don’t want to. I want short fiction to be a faster process than the longer stuff. I want to churn out stories every week. But writing short fiction is work every bit as much as writing long fiction is – more, if you ask me. People ask how long it took to build Notre Dame Cathedral, but do they ever ask how long it took to perfect the wheel? Sure, it’s smaller. But smaller doesn’t mean easier.

So, I’m going to go back and read the start of a bunch of stories now, see if any new ideas have developed. See if I can get these things through to the end.

Don’t hold your breath.

 


Writing News

The release date of Book 4 of The Saga of the Redeemed, The Far Far Better Thing, has been pushed back to November 20th. Though a copy of the text has been on my editor’s desk since March, he’s swamped with work, it seems, and I’m pushed back in the queue. We thank you for your patience.

Not A Joiner: A Writer’s Curse

Every once in a while, somebody I know (a fellow writer, usually), points out that I should belong to Codex. Codex is a professional writer’s forum and, to be a member, you need to have sold some amount of pro work (don’t ask me how much). It is a networking site, a place to find critique groups, and often has postings by editors and such advertising various themed anthologies and so on. In other words, it would be a really great idea to belong to Codex.

I do not belong to Codex.

I honestly can’t adequately explain why not. I don’t really consider myself shy and I’m not any more socially awkward than anyone else. And yet I’m reluctant to join a community. Indeed, I am regularly reluctant to join communities of any kind. I had to have my arm twisted to join social media. My wife signed me up for Facebook without my knowledge and then just handed me my profile and said “here, your friends miss you.” If there was a club or an organization in school I was a member of, I never really felt like I was part of it. At the jobs I have held, I’ve done my best to remain a competent employee who is, nevertheless, not really central to the office culture or society. It’s a weird and probably destructive habit. I feel as though it alienates people, and why shouldn’t it? I am deliberately alienating myself from them.

When I was 8 years old, my elementary school had a chamber orchestra for little kids. They trotted out the violin, the viola, and the cello. Everybody chose either the violin or the cello; I chose the viola. Why? Because everybody else didn’t pick it. When they could make my glasses prescription into contact lenses and everybody I knew was getting them, I didn’t – I stuck with glasses and stubbornly so. I don’t like shirts with sports team logos on them. I don’t own a single piece of clothing or paraphernalia with the logo of my college or graduate school on it. Just about my entire work history has been a story of how I could earn money without having to wear a uniform or work in a team or have to deal with coworkers.

Now, as an adult, I see this whole loner thing be nonsensical and immature. I like people, and I like making friends. I care about my job and I do my best to be helpful whenever tasked to work as part of a group. Indeed, the idea that I can somehow exist apart and away from everybody else is arrant nonsense. Where would I be without my beta readers? Without the feedback from my editors and my agent? Without the support of my family? Nowhere. Nobody does this alone. Hell, nobody does much of anything alone. It’s a myth.

The myth of the loner is, I think, probably tied up in the ridiculous notions of masculinity that get imbued into us as kids. Men are strong. Men don’t need anybody. Men can solve their own problems. I read stories of the lone knight slaying the dragon or the lone hero challenging the gods and took all that to heart. If you work hard enough, I thought, you won’t need anybody. You’ll be free. 

So there I was, at Readercon this past weekend. It was a good con, by all accounts – my panels were all great and I met a lot of interesting people – but I still felt this discomfort. I was sitting there, talking with Ellen Datlow on a Saturday night about our respective allergies, and I thought to myself “I don’t belong here. This is their community. I don’t have a community, remember?”

Of all the arrogant, idiotic thoughts to have. I am – and should be – a part of the science fiction and fantasy writing community. Why the hell am I going to all these cons if I don’t want that to be the case? I am not different. I am not some kind of weird loner, living on the outskirts. These people have thrown open their doors and I ought to walk right in and start shaking hands, not lurk in the shadows and listen to the music from a distance.

So I’m writing this now as an entreaty to those out there who are like me: those who have long felt that they have no people and that there is no group large enough to hold them or shaped to fit them. That’s bullshit. That’s self-aggrandizing hornswaggle. Your people are out there. Hell, they are inviting you in right now. Being a writer doesn’t mean you have to be alone all the time. Get out of your basement, meet people, make friends.

Dare to fit in.

My Readercon Schedule!

Hello, lovely people!

This weekend I’ll be attending Readercon – a local scifi/fantasy convention in the city directly adjacent to my lovely hometown, Boston. That city is Quincy, Massachusetts – the City of Presidents! Ah, yes – I spent many a childhood year in Quincy Center, lurking through the aisles of New England Comics, Hobbytown, and the two local bookstores. It remains the first place I ever saw a pigeon with no feet, and also was the place you were most likely to see someone smoking directly underneath a No Smoking sign. And that person would probably be a cop.

But I digress.

The convention is to be held in the lovely Quincy Marriott, high atop a rocky granite knoll, a little like Castle Ravenloft, but with significantly brighter decor and better guest amenities. I will be there along with many other writer friends from the Boston area and beyond, and I entreat you to join us!

If you have a hankering to see me this weekend, here’s where and when I’ll be about:

Friday, 11am: Gamification of Story Development (Panel)

Story-focused games can be useful tools for authors. What happens when a writer draws up a character sheet for their protagonist and lets someone else play it out? Which gaming systems are best suited to developing stories? How can games support writing without creating chaos?

Friday, Noon: Book Signing!

I’ll be signing any and all copies of anything I’ve ever written at the autograph table! Please come visit! I’ll even have a few books stuffed in my pockets for sale if they aren’t on the Dealer’s Floor.

Friday, 3pm: On Dislike: Between Meh and Rage (Panel)

Writers know that reading widely is vitally important for a multitude of reasons, including learning from great books and learning what not to do from poor ones. But what can writers get out of books they feel indifferent to? Or should they just DNF and move on?

Saturday, 1pm: Finding Fairy Tales (Panel)

Did Charles Dickens write a Little Red Riding Hood novel? Is Jurassic Park a take on “Sleeping Beauty”? Our panelists will embark on a fairy tale hunt, finding them in unexpected (and perhaps unjustified) places.

Saturday, 8:30pm: Reading

I’m doing a reading! Not 100% sure what I’m reading yet, but probably one of my previously published short stories. Please come! I promise to be entertaining!

So there you have it! I’ll also be puttering around the Dealer’s Room, going to panels myself, and am always happy to meet fellow writers, fans, non-fans, or even just people who seem nice. Hopefully I’ll see you there!

“Are We Gonna Make It” – an article on the Astounding Analog Companion

Hey, folks! I mentioned a few weeks back that I had a story in this month’s Analog (on newsstands now!), but I’m back to tell you that I have an article up on their blog right now which is probably the closest thing to an academic paper I’ve written in a long while (and it is very, very far from an actual academic paper). Check it out here! It’s all about optimism and pessimism in post-apocalyptica!

Click to see what I think of this picture!

Vrokthar Spits Upon Your Borders

It is I, Vrokthar the Skull-Feaster, Scourge of the Northern Wastes, come once again to display my scorn and revulsion at your foolish wetlander ways. And yet this time is different – this time your pathetic nation of lick-spittle cowards has seen fit to offend Vrokthar’s sense of justice. And for this you shall pay.

Vrokthar crosses what borders he wishes.

As a reaver – a despoiler of weak and pathetic lands – Vrokthar crosses borders on a regular basis. Borders are mere lines drawn by fat men on pieces of paper. They mean nothing. Who are these puffy ink-toads to say where and how Vrokthar might travel? If they wish to challenge me, come then – send your armies, send your soldiers. These I shall slay, as I have done before and shall do again. Or, in the case of my scouts, they shall outwit your dull and languid sentries – this is the way of things. This is battle. This is the justice of nature.

When Vrokthar learned that your pathetic and indolent ruler planned to build a wall, I at first assumed it was to prevent me from carrying off your wealth and razing your cities. Imagine my amusement when I learned it was to be built on the wrong side of your country. Ha! Much merriment and laughter was had in the longhouse that night.

But then we learned the truth. And my rage has remained unabated since.

You live in a country of such wealth that the poor and the desperate are willing to cross deserts and mountains and oceans to come and labor for you – to increase your wealth – and you treat them as swine? What manner of incompetent fools are you, that you do not see the strength in this? As Vrokthar is mighty, so do many thanes of other tribes come begging at his door. Does Vrokthar cast them out? No! Who am I to cast off one so bold as to leave their native lands and swear their lives to me? Such people are a great boon to my strength, and I wield them as one wields a sharpened sword to cleave my enemies and leave those who would oppose me bleeding on the field of battle.

But you – you nation of cowards, of base, craven weaklings – you treat these supplicants like dogs. You fear they will steal thy jobs? HA! If they can steal what you cannot retain, you should not keep it. Do you think this makes you strong, this show of empty bravado? Brandishing your weapons at starving wretches? Terrorizing those begging for succor? Were they your enemies, perhaps Vrokthar could understand – I have always enjoyed a good gloat – but they are your allies! Your would-be friends and companions at-arms! Ye feckless gods!

And then there is the matter of the children. Vrokthar must pause, for he cannot speak and glower at the same time.

You are imprisoning children. In cages. Like animals.

You wretched, urine-soaked cowards. You desiccated husks of men. You hollow-souled, craven lizards.

How dare you call me “barbarian?” You rip mothers from their children for no other reason than your own fear! Even I – who even now sits upon a throne of the skulls of his enemies – do not do such things. You call yourself civilized? If this is the culmination of your so-called civilization, then you deserve your own destruction. I have long been disgusted with your decadent, lazy, puss-filled society, but now that disgust has changed to revulsion.

No more shall I spare your nation my wrath and oh, yes, I have shown restraint. I shall mount my war-sledge and come for you all. I shall burn your wretched cities and loot your pathetic stores and raze your ground. And those you have imprisoned and abused I shall give sword and shield and mead and make them my own. And together we shall pull your absurd leaders from their castles and drive them fleeing before us as I whip their puffy backsides until their lifeblood runs down their diseased thighs.

And then – oh yes, then – I and my new legions shall feast upon whatever is left of your miserable nation. So has Vrokthar spoken. So it shall be.

Mighty Fists of Ham

Look, I enjoyed Solo. I did. But, well, I didn’t enjoy Solo enough. That movie was a slam-dunk waiting to

I mean, *look* at this scene? How could this not be awesome? How?

happen. It was a gimmie, a freebie – a “no way you can screw this up” sandwich. And yet, somehow…

This phenomenon is not constrained to Solo, either. For long ages it was the province of just about every single superhero movie. It plagued enormous swathes of scifi and fantasy cinema. It even happens in books, in video games – in everything. Somebody brings up a high-concept idea featuring characters we already love, slaps a huge budget on it, and releases it. And then you go to the theater, all excited, and…

Meh. It was okay.

That’s a weird feeling, right? Like, I really wanted to love Solo in the same way I wanted to love the original Hulk movie (Eric Bana! ANG LEE!) and was really excited to see Will Smith in The Wild Wild West and Sean Connery in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and then I saw these things and it just didn’t happen. The more I thought about the movies, the more I got pissed off. They had everything going for them! Why don’t I love them?

Now, of course, there’s no magic bullet here – each of these films wasn’t that great on its own merits. Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was actively terrible. Some other movies fall into this category that I actually liked quite a bit – JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot comes to mind – but, despite my enjoyment, I recognize as deeply flawed works that fall short of their potential. In any event, I do think there’s a common thread to a lot of them that’s worth teasing out and discussing: most of them are ham-fisted.

Ham-fisted is a slightly more intense version of “ham-handed” and it basically means the films lack subtlety, grace, or wit. They are dull, meat-headed slogs that fail to understand what it is they’re doing. They are, in a word, stupid movies made about a smart premise. See, stupid movies made about a stupid idea are a whole other category of thing – they are B-movie thrillers and brainless entertainment. Smart movies made about stupid ideas are your cult classics and secret masterpieces. But stupid movies made about smart ideas are ham-fisted. And there’s a hell of a lot of them out there, with Solo as the most recent example.

This is it. This is all we wanted.

To discuss Solo specifically, here’s what I feel like happened (outside of the directorial hell the movie went through, which is very likely why it wound up doing this). In order for this movie to be a glorious romp all you needed to do was have Han meet Chewie, put them in the Falcon, and have them run their first smuggling run. That’s. It. It isn’t complicated, it isn’t flashy – we want to see Han, we want to see Chewie, and we also want the Falcon and Lando. Then we want a heist story.

And…we kinda got that? Sort of. But the movie overreacted. Not only did we meet Chewie and Lando and get the Falcon, we had to have Han get his last name and his blaster and the Falcon to get its nav-computer and have another asteroid chase scene (with the same damned music!) and see the Kessel Run and have a robot uprising and talk about the Rebellion and have Han Shoot First and see stupid Darth Maul. And it was all graceless and blunt and so obviously forced. And all of this was done because the filmmakers really wanted to give us the entire “Solo” experience which they interpreted as meaning “giving the fans what they want.” They seem to have had a storyboard somewhere that had a checklist of winks/nods to the audience and you literally couldn’t go five minutes in that movie without somebody cramming another reference down your throat.

Darth Maul’s cameo is a great example of this. “Hey,” says the filmmakers, “you know what these nerds like? Darth Maul!” “But he’s dead,” says a guy and then some other, nerdier guy in a sarcastic T-shirt explains a subplot from Star Wars Rebels and everybody’s like “Oh, so it’s canon!” and bam – Facetime with Darth Maul. And then, while we’re all looking at Darth Maul thinking to ourselves “is that really him or some other guy of the same species” he ignites his lightsaber (so we know he’s serious) and we all kind of blink and wonder “did he just ignite his lightsaber while on a phone call?” That, friends, is the epitome of ham-fisted storytelling. Just cramming shit in there that they think we’d like, but lacking any grace or rationale.

And there’s one thing that the ham-fisted story forgets every single time. They always assume that characters are a summation of their clothes and their stuff and their fight scenes and forgets entirely that what really makes a story work is the deep character foundations you lay down that you can build conflict on top of. To that end, the Solo and Kira relationship worked. The Chewie and Han worked, too, if somewhat less well (they don’t really have a good moment together). But you know what was squandered? The Han/Lando relationship doesn’t go anywhere. Nor does the Han/Beckett relationship. Nor does really any other relationship. We are too busy with the heist and picking out the signposts that tell us it’s a Solo movie to notice that we’re actually watching a Solo movie. We have missed the forest for the trees.

All of that doesn’t mean Solo was a bad time. But it does mean Solo could have been a much better time. And I wouldn’t even say this is a result of people not caring what they produced – I think they gave it an honest shot. But they didn’t do it with grace or subtlety. I know, I know – a bunch of you out there just yelled “but Han lacks grace and subtlety!” I don’t mean that – I’m not talking about the exact plot, just about how that plot was conveyed. Look we all know Inigo Montoya is going to fight the six-fingered man. We know it. But what does the Princess Bride do the moment they face on another? He runs away! Why? Because it is totally in keeping with his character and, no matter how much the audience wants a duel, the filmmakers knew that the audience is not always right. If you give the people what they want, when they want it, all the time, the people become bored. Very very bored.

We all know Han is going to get the Falcon. We all know he’s going to win at cards. We all know they need the Falcon to complete their mission. So when Han loses at cards, we are surprised, yeah, but we also know that nothing has been settled because that’s not how it happens anyway and because the movie is mismanaging the Han/Lando relationship, nothing comes of it, and Han winds up flying the ship everywhere anyway and so, in the end, that whole card scene was a waste of time. No build. No dramatic tension. All we get is why Lando pronounces Han’s name wrong. Ham-fisted.

And it could have been so much better.

 

COVER REVEAL: The Far Far Better Thing – Book 4 of the Saga of the Redeemed

Things are moving quickly in Reldamar-land! My publisher has already put together the cover for the fourth and final book in the Saga of the Redeemed. Behold!

Sinister, yes? Yes.

This also means pre-orders are up on Amazon and elsewhere, so order your copy today for the last hurrah for Tyvian and Company! I have a draft of the back cover copy, but I’m not going to post it yet, as I know many fans are still in the middle of DEAD BUT ONCE and I don’t want to spoil anything, but this is exciting, yes? The series should be all released and complete by September 4th, 2018!

Want to know what it was like to write all these books? Well, I’ve got an article up on Harper Voyager’s Blog describing just that! Check it out here!

And thanks for reading, everybody!