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The Cheap Joke

In editing my latest manuscript, my agent, though overall very positive about the book, had this to say (I will paraphrase):

This book is fun, but perhaps too much fun. You are telling jokes at the expense of plot – cut some of it back. Don’t go for the cheap line.

Now, first off, if you’ve read any of the Saga of the Redeemed, you know that I enjoy banter. It works its way into a lot of my writing, honestly. I want the reader to have fun. I want them to laugh, I want them to be on the edge of their seat, I want them to cry sometimes – I want the entire emotional smorgasbord to be in there.

But mostly I want them to laugh.

This is one of the reasons I loved Guardians of the Galaxy and, indeed, why I think the MCU has been beating the pants off of the rather wretched DC Universe on the big screen of late. The Marvel movies are fun, even the deadly serious ones. There’s Cap, getting his face punched in, and he just rolls his shoulders, puts up his dukes, and say “I can do this all day.” There’s Loki, presiding over the destruction of New York, and in comes Hulk: “Puny god.”

Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 do this to a level far, far greater than their fellows, though. I loved it in Guardians 1, but in 2, seeing it as I did quick on the heels of my agent’s commentary, made me wonder: do we need all these quips? All this banter? Like (mild spoilers) when Yondu comes down saying “I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!” it was funny, yeah. But was it needed?

How much is too much?

Like most things in writing, I think there aren’t precisely hard and fast rules so much as a kind of spectrum we’re seeking to describe. On the one hand is a story where a bunch of adventurers sit in space-dock (or what have you) and spend the entire time playing practical jokes on each other. Long on fun, and maybe even on character, but nothing really happens – no plot. At the other end, we’ve got a joyless, tightly-paced thrill ride of nothing but stern looks and, perhaps, the occasional grimace or maniacal laugh (some of the Bourne movies come to mind). You read/watch those and you want to yell “loosen up, you clowns!”

Finding precisely where the line is requires a keen understanding, I think, of how your book is coming across to your target audience. This is famously difficult to determine, of course, since how an author views his or her own work and how the audience encounters it are often totally different things. What you find funny falls flat with them, and what they latch on to are things you never imagined being important. This is why writing is as much an art form as it is a craft – we are assembling something in a black box of sorts, and while we have a good idea of what’s going to come out the other end and present itself to readers, we can never been 100% sure.

In the end, I think my agent is right about that last book. Perhaps a bit too much banter, perhaps a bit too much going for the cheap joke. I took out a lot of the extraneous stuff and left in the things that built character or illuminated personal conflict. Looking back on it, as much as I enjoyed GotG 2, I think they probably could have done the same and wound up with a movie that was less of a mess. I mean, again, I liked it, but a little too much of that movie wasn’t so much plot, as it was this:

Tip: Don’t let your book be this guy.

 

 

Story Sale! (and brief writing update)

Hey, friends! I’m here to announce that my story “Lord of the Cul-de-sac” (which originally featured in Galaxy’s Edge last year) has just been sold to Digital Fiction’s Hic Sunt Dracones anthology. It’s been a little while since my last short fiction sale (back in the fall, I think it was) so this is especially welcome news. I’ll keep you all updated on when it publishes.

On that note, my short story “The Masochist’s Assistant” is set to be published in the July/August issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I’m especially excited about that one, as I think it is some of my finest work to date and is going to be in a major market like F&SF. For you Tyvian fans, it is a story also set in Alandar (Tyvian’s world) though, as usual with my short fiction, a different corner of it.

And on that note, some of you might be wondering a few things about this here blog:

Thing the First: Why haven’t you been posting as much, Habershaw?
Thing the Second: Is there ever going to be any more Saga of the Redeemed?

Well, the answer to those two things is related. I’ve been working feverishly on a few novel projects for the last 6-8 months or so which has cut into my blog-time. As of this writing, ink has fallen on contracts of various descriptions, but I have not, as yet, been given leave to openly discuss said contracts. When I do, you folks will be the first to know. Suffice to say I am very excited about them, very grateful to have the excellent agent that I do, and am almost certain when I say we haven’t seen the last of that scoundrel, Tyvian Reldamar.

Now then, back to outlining!

Outlining: A Pantser’s Lament

When I teach my college freshmen to write academic essays, I always tell them to start with a loose outline of what they’re going to do. Break it down paragraph by paragraph, I say, and make sure it will make sense before you start. This is, I believe, good advice. Too bad I rarely take it myself. Well, to be fair, I also don’t tend to write academic prose; I have an easier time outlining those kinds of things, as it happens, than I do outlining say, a story or a novel. But still, I’d rather eat tacks than outline sometimes. I’m winging this blog post as we speak, for instance.

It isn’t that I don’t see the utility of outlining – I very much do. I just don’t like doing it. When I started out writing novels (and, like many novelists, I have written way more novels than I’ve actually published), I started out by trying to outline the book first. Weirdly, I found it really difficult to make any headway if I did this. Something about making the outline robbed me of the motivation to actually write the book. I may have spouted some nonsense about outlining “robbing the book of its magic” or something, but what it comes down to is this: it is more fun to write a book without an outline. You get to preserve your sense of wonder at your own book. Like the readers, you are along for a ride which has an ending you can only guess at. This is called “pantsing.” As in, “by the seat of your pants.” Just sitting down at a computer with the barest sense of an idea and then writing it. Just going. You become the Lewis and Clarke of your own work; you are pathfinding the Oregon Trail to the promised land of “perfect novel.”

The problem is there are significant drawbacks.

Your plot has failed. Please try again.

For one thing, much like the Oregon Trail, there is very little guarantee that you will actually make it to the end. Your book might crash and burn halfway through and then you look back and realize “oh, crap – I’ve got to rewrite that whole thing!” So you go back and rewrite it, this time resolved to take lefts where you took rights. Except that doesn’t work, either. Next thing you know, you’ve rewritten the entire book a thousand times and have had a miserable time of it. There is no magic, there. It’s nothing but thick forests, craggy mountains, and snake bites.

Now, with an outline, you can (theoretically) circumvent many of those hazards before they crop up. You can look into the future and ask yourself “will this actually sustain a whole novel, or am I writing a novella?” You plan and you re-plan and you re-plan again. Granted, you are rewriting things just as often as the pants method, but outlines take a lot less time to rewrite.

But what about the magic? What about those glorious little surprises that can creep into your plot? Don’t outlines kill those things? How are you going to get your butt in that chair if you already know how everything is going to go? I can’t understate the obstacle that creates. As much as I know making a detailed outline is a wise activity, so much of me just wants to dive right in, you know? I want to be inspired by my own work!

These, though, strike me sometimes as the wishes and complaints of a child. I hate magical discussions of the artistic process. I don’t believe in the “muse” and I don’t accept writer’s block as anything other than fear of making mistakes. By that metric, I know that the so-called “magic” of pantsing a novel is just me being lazy. Outlines are work, whereas drafts are fun. But these days I have deadlines and very limited writing time. I can’t spend 2-3 years entirely rewriting the same novel five times. You know what kills the magic? Draft seven. That kills it dead, believe me.

Pictured: Me, pantsing yet another book.

So, for this next novel, I’m rolling my sleeves up, biting the bullet, and outlining the damned thing before I start. You know what should keep my butt in my chair? The idea that I’m a goddamned professional, that’s what. The fact that I’ve got 9 months to write a polished novel and four of those months will be taken up by my day job, and so I need to write this thing in one. It’s time to grow up, be responsible, and make a plan before I wander off in the wilderness and crash and burn yet another 100,000 word draft.

Or so I tell myself now.

As I write a blog post to procrastinate from outlining.

(sigh)

 

The “What the Fuss is About” Read

My reading list is about a million miles long and never seems to be getting any shorter. When I finish a book, I often find myself at a loss for what to read next – there’s just so many things I could pick. Obviously, I should stay up to date in my chosen genre of fantasy and scifi, but have you seen how many fantasy and scifi books are released on a monthly basis? Good god. Then, of course, there’s the reading I do to research the classes I’m going to teach – studies in American Modernism, for instance, and other literary movements. I’ve got to do that reading, or I can’t reasonably teach the things I claim to know about (and honestly this reading takes up most of my reading time). Then there’s research for my writing, which often takes the form of history or philosophy (and I just simply don’t read enough of that). Then there’s the simple caveat that one should always seek to read broadly – outside the regular genres one is usually accustomed to – and so I find myself putting books of essays, poetry, plays, and other stuff on my reading list, just as a lark.

So, when the time comes to read another book…I’m sometimes at a loss. Accordingly, I’ve created a new rule: one new book, and one old one. I will read a current novel, published in the last few years. Then I’ll go back and read a book I missed – a classic, often. But sometimes it’s a book that I keep hearing about, over and over again. I keep getting the question “have you read (insert title)? No? You have to!”

They always say it that way, too: I have to. I must. It is a requirement of my existence. I cannot define myself as a reader, let alone a writer or professor, if I do not read this book. Frequently these are books I would not pick up on my own. Sometimes they are books in which I have absolutely no interest. It doesn’t seem to matter. I must read them.

As a rule, any book suggested to me this way I will take me, on average, 10 years to get around to reading. While not a conscious act of spite, it is the result of a kind of subconscious revulsion at doing what everybody else is doing at any given time. I hate being part of the crowd. In the end, though, frequently my curiosity gets the better of me and, if I have no better ideas of what to read next, I dig up that dusty old list of “must-reads,” immediately skip over Infinite Jest (screw you all – not reading that. Not ever.) and pick up some blockbuster from ages gone. I call this the “What the Fuss is About” Read. At this exact moment, I have finally gotten around to reading Gaiman’s American Gods.

Okay, okay – it’s got a TV show, so I suppose I should catch up.

I am, of course, well aware of Neil Gaiman’s work. I read the Sandman comics (or some of them, anyway) in the mid-late 90s and thought them very clever and off-beat. I liked them. But then I moved on from Gaiman onto other authors and, next thing I knew, people were scolding me for not having read his magnum opus. Of course, they all had different opinions of which book his magnum opus was, but more often than not it was American Gods.

I’m enjoying the book. It is within the wheelhouse of my favorite genres anyway and Gaiman is an excellent author. I don’t quite understand how this book (or Gaiman’s work in general) is quite as celebrated as it is. I suppose that is essentially the problem with reading a book that has this much hype associated with it: the odds of it failing to live up to whatever magical expectations have come to surround it are large. When I read them, then, and they don’t live up  to whatever it was I was expecting, I spend half of my time reading the book trying to figure out what other people saw in it. This is almost impossible to do and can be very distracting.

Such considerations are sort of inevitable for an author though, right? I picked up American Gods for the same reason I picked up The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Night Circus and Scalzi’s Old Man’s War: word of mouth. All authors know that is the most powerful sales force in the world, and all authors want to know how to cultivate it. As far as I’m aware, no author actually knows. So, there we all are, reading Dan Brown and going “really? This?” We start dissecting it in our brains, like an alien on an autopsy table. What makes it tick? Where was the magic sauce? Why don’t I get it? Sure, it’s good, but…that good?

Then, of course, there are those moments where the book lives up to the hype. Neuromancer did that for me. You know what else? The Grapes of Wrath. Tim Powers. Neal Stephenson. Those books – those books are magic. And, of course, they make you feel a little terrible about yourself as an author because you know you’ll never write anything quite that amazing and isn’t that disappointing.

I guess it all makes me wonder why I do it. Why do I read books that don’t strictly interest me just because they were (or are) popular? Because I need to learn. I need to look around at the reading world and try to understand it. If I don’t, what kind of writer am I? In the end, I read these books because, well…I kinda have to.

Unsolicited Writer Advice Here, Bought and Sold!

Writing advice from successful authors can be a unique form of psychic torture. Let me share with you my own personal hell demon:

I’M TRYING, DAMMIT!

Oh, God, this one drives me crazy. The reason it drives me crazy is because I think he’s right but, by the same token, I live a life that prevents me from reading even a quarter as much as I’d like to. I would estimate I read about 10-15 books a year for my own pleasure. All of this happens during the summer. The rest of my life is spent re-reading texts I’m going to be teaching for the fall and spring semesters (approximately 20 books) and then reading all the student papers I need to grade (which works out to about 4800 pages a year, give or take a few hundred–call that another 10-15 books). So, you know, I do actually read the equivalent of 40-50 books a year, but only 25% of those are ones I actually get to pick. Therefore, I go around feeling as though I’m not able to do the thing I evidently need to do in order to be a writer.

But, of course, I am a writer – a published author with book deals and short story pubs and one award under my belt – so clearly I’m doing okay on some level.

There are literally hundreds of pieces of advice like this floating through the ether. Join a writer’s group and you’ll hear all of them. “You must write every day!” and “Write what you know!” and “Finish everything you start!” and so on and so forth. Listen to them long enough, and you’ll get it into your head that the only way to be a successful writer is to already be a successful author who can do nothing but author things all day long and, on top of that, have no real life outside of the written word (oh, wait, but that violates that rule about “lived experience is the only way to write with authenticity.”).

There is a lot of truth to a lot of these things – they can and do work for a lot of authors. None of them, though, is set in stone. To quote Hemingway:

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.

That, right there, is probably the best bit of writing advice anybody can give you beyond “put your butt in the chair and write.” All of us – every damned one of us – is kinda making this up as we go along. Nobody has it figured out. One of the weirdest things I’m learning as I go is that every single novel is difficult and easy in completely unique ways compared to all my previous novels. Now, does that mean it’s true for you? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Who the hell knows?

The point here is that listening to too much good-intentioned advice is a good way to scare the hell out of yourself before you’ve even gotten started. Take the recent Twitter discussion among many authors I follow regarding how old you can or should be to begin writing. The consensus is that, ultimately, you can become a writer at any age – there is no aging-out in storytelling. And then we’ve got Chuck Wendig pointing out that he published his first novel at 36 (Hey! Me too!) and now has published 20 novels.

In only 4 years.

Pictured: Me

Wait…wait…20 books in 4 years? I’ve only published two in two years! Holy shit, how much of my time have I been wasting? What is wrong with me? WHY CAN’T I ALSO DO THAT?

Okay, okay…cool it down. It’s all right. It’s not a race. It’s not even a competition. Keep your eyes on your own paper, Habershaw. Work your own problem. Wendig’s pace is not your pace. That’s not how this works.

And, ultimately, that’s my main point here. There are no rules on how to do this thing. There is no time limit, no required pace, no set reading list. You have to sit down and write, yeah, but how and when and where and how often are something you need to negotiate with yourself. That also doesn’t mean you should be so arrogant as to assume you know it all already and will discount any advice that comes your way – listen, take notes, absorb. But then, in the end, it is you doing the writing, and only you can solve that problem. And, given the drive, you will solve it.

Rhythm: The Enemy of Story

Zzzzz…

This is going to be partly a writing post, partly a gaming post, and partly a literary post. I don’t outline these things, so who the hell knows what’s going to happen next. Let’ start with… (throws dart) literature. Okay, so the past few years I’ve themed my Lit Survey class around the Hero’s Journey (mostly Campbell’s Monomyth, etc.). Inevitably, we start talking about superhero movies in the class, as superhero tales are the ones most recognizably Campbellian in form. While I do like these movies (overall), after reading hundreds and hundreds of pages of student work on Calls to Adventure, Crossing the Threshold, the Normal World Vs the Special World and so on and so forth, I tend to get bored with the whole thing.

Now, as it happens, it’s rather difficult to escape the basic rhythms of this story form, particularly if you intend to tell a story involving a protagonist intended to be even vaguely heroic – this stuff is deeply ingrained in our collective unconscious and our ideas of story. Inevitably we wind up following some variation of this path – both in our reading, our own writing, and even at the RPG table.

The challenge, though, is to resist the urge to paint by the numbers – follow the journey, step by step, like a kind of roadmap. While you can tell some very competent tales that way, you also fall into being predictable. Spend enough time with this structure, and things cease to amaze you, which is, frankly, a terrible loss.

Of course, totally diverging from this format has its own problems – the story becomes unsatisfying or strange to the point where you no longer connect with it. Kafka, for all his brilliance, isn’t telling stories that delight and engage so much as confuse and confound. This has its place and its own appeal, naturally, and I’m not suggesting the avant garde, post-modern, or abstract tale is a worthless endeavor. It’s that if you want to tell a heroic story but you also want to make it new, you need to find variations of the monomyth that are poorly traveled. There are many ways to do this, of course – shake up who your hero is, shake up the setting, shake up the stakes, and resist hitting the steps of the story “cleanly.” If you want a master class in how this is done, watch any given Cohen Brothers film – they are regularly, consistently unusual and amazing, even though, in broad terms, they are (usually) telling the story of a central character who is yanked from their normal world, sent through an ordeal, who then returns to the normal world somehow changed and enlightened. They just do it in the messiest, most bizarre way possible.

Oh great, more piles of gold…

In tabletop RPGs, there are dangers in rhythm, as well. The standard form is this: Players receive a call to adventure, they delve into the dungeon and slay monsters, and they are rewarded with treasure. In D&D in particular, this is what we sign up for, right? But there is only so long this can happen before the game gets old. Too many gaming sessions can be described as “role-play, role-play, kill little thing, argue, big battle, treasure.” I fall into this routine myself. There are plenty of games out there that don’t lend themselves to this, sure, but plenty more that do, I’d argue. Even in those games that don’t do this, the danger of routine still looms large, it’s just that the routine changes.

I say routine and rhythm is “dangerous” because it risks, to my mind, what is ultimately fatal to a book or game alike: becoming boring and predictable. Nobody wants that. Nobody wants things to go smoothly and perfectly all the time (even when they say they do) because it kills the excitement of the unknown. For gaming, as with storytelling, this requires you to consciously seek variations on a theme. Break the mold. Have the dungeon be empty, but have it lead players on some different, deeper quest. Have the monster be absent – it’s back at the village, killing and eating all those people your players are sworn to protect. Never forget the narrative fun that can be had with a cursed item (note: not for making players look stupid, but for giving them benefits that have extreme costs. Yes, that’s a +5 sword. No, you can’t ever sheathe it or wipe off the blood. Enjoy visiting the orphanage.). Have the players be wildly overmatched to the point where they need to flee the dungeon (and make it back through all the deathtraps backwards). Have the adventure involve no dungeon AT ALL. Have the players save the town from a flash flood. Drop them in a desert with no food or water and watch them scrabble to survive. Make one of them king for  a day.

The point here is that, as important as the forms and rituals of our storytelling world are to making our stories satisfy, we also need to remember that variety is the spice of life. Break the mold. Change the dance. Improvise.

Good luck!

The Writer’s Cycle

ACT 1: THE IDEA

Writer: Wait…wait a minute. What’s this here? Why…why it’s a little idea!

Idea: (tiny voice) Water me, and I shall grow!

Writer: LET IT BE DONE!

(weeks of obsessive scribbling in notebooks pass)

Writer: THIS WILL BE THE GREATEST OF BOOKS!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ACT 2: THE DRAFT

Writer: There…outline finished.

Idea: That doesn’t really look like me.

Writer: It does if you tilt your head a little and squint.

Idea: Ummmm…

Writer: Let’s just start writing this thing and bring it to life. Then you’ll see.

(months later)

Draft: HELLO! I AM DRAFT!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Idea: That looks nothing like me.

Writer: NO SHIT.

Idea: This is a violation of your promise to make me beautiful.

Writer: IT’S A PROCESS, DICK!

ACT 3: REVISION

Writer: Maybe if we hacked off its arms….

Idea: My arms are my best feature.

Writer: Okay, well, then I guess you’ll have to be purple.

Idea: Gross.

Writer: WORK WITH ME, IDEA!

Idea: I will not compromise my integrity.

Writer (brings out chainsaw): Get on the table.

Idea: But…I…

Writer: DO IT!

A BRIEF INTERLUDE

New Idea: Hi there! I’m a new Idea!

Writer (stooping over bloody corpse of old idea) GO. AWAY.

New Idea: Uhhhh…this seems like a bad time.

Writer: (points) GET IN THAT NOTEBOOK, SCUM!

ACT 3: SECOND DRAFT

Writer: (throws switch) There! LIVE LIIIIVE!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Idea/Draft Hybrid: WE. OBEY.

Writer: (frowning) Nope. Back on the table.

Idea/Draft Hybrid: WE. OBEY.

ACT 4: COMPLETION

Writer: There! All done!

Idea: …

Writer: What? What’s wrong?

Idea: Why am I purple?

Writer: (looks at chainsaw) Hmmmmm…

Idea: No! Purple! Purple’s fine!

 

FIN

 

The Politics in Writing

Trouble in the Galactic Senate...

Trouble in the Galactic Senate…

Okay, okay – everybody is talking about politics lately. Kinda hard not to, right? The world is freaking out, opinions are being expressed, people are upset, and so on and so forth. So what’s a writer (or any artist in general) supposed to do, here?

On the one hand, I have the advice of Kevin J Anderson, who told me and the other guests at the Writers of the Future workshop a few years back that political discussions by an author were unwise. “There is no sense,” he said, “to alienate half your audience.” He suggested we stay out of it. Do our talking through our writing, essentially.

On the other hand, we have a cadre of very politically vocal authors such as John Scalzi, Chuck Wendig, Kameron Hurley, and others besides. Notably, I recall a tweet from Ann Leckie who said, essentially, that politics is present in our lives and in our writing, no matter what we think of it. To ask that an author alienate politics from their public discourse is to ask that the author alienate a significant part of themselves. What are the odds that if you don’t like my politics, you are going to like my writing, anyway?

In balancing these points of view, one has to admit that Anderson has a point: why alienate potential readers if you don’t have to? Of course, it is notable that Scalzi, Wendig, and the like are hardly suffering as a result of their political opinions. One might argue that for every person who puts a book down thanks to politics, another picks it up for the same reason.

Because this was *just* about robots and humans fighting in space, right?

Because this was *just* about robots and humans fighting in space, right?

It’s Leckie’s view that sticks with me, though. How do you even avoid politics in writing or in social media? The avoidance thereof is, itself, a political statement. Your writing is going to espouse political viewpoints, no matter how apolitical you seek to be. Politics is important. You ought to have opinions about it. Lack of opinions about it signifies privilege, which is a side-effect (or even a goal) of particular political views. So, okay, sure – you can tiptoe around this stuff for years on end and act like you have no opinions, but you do. We know you do, you know you do, and we can even find your opinions in your writing no matter what you think. So why not just be honest? Speak your mind. Will it piss people off? Sure. But they probably weren’t going to like you anyway.

Now, for my own part, I have tried to keep overt political statements off this blog. I haven’t always been successful (I’ve had one or two people ragequit over some idle quip here or there), but I think I’ve made this a fairly “safe” environment for fans of my work to read what I have to say on the subject of scifi, fantasy, writing, and other geeky endeavors. But on Twitter, I just speak my mind. Because if you’re following me on Twitter, that implies you want to know me, not just read my feed for book ads. Now, back before the political world went batshit insane, my Twitter feed was a pretty dull, sedate place. These days not so much. You don’t want to know my political opinions? Don’t follow me.

Of course, if you wind up reading my books or stories, you’re going to get my political opinions anyway. You just might not realize it, I guess. In thinking about this post, I debated whether or not to discuss or reveal what I feel the true, underlying meaning of some of my work is in a political context, but I eventually decided against it – Foucault’s author function and all that. I will point out, though, that everything in scifi and fantasy has contemporary political meaning, whether you like it or not. There’s the obvious ones, sure – Star TrekStar Wars, and the like. But then there’s others, too. Game of Thrones is about us and our political systems, not the middle ages. The Walking Dead, likewise, is a story about our own political terrors. The Martian? Political, though indirectly so – a love letter to government workers and federal systems, to international cooperation and technological advance through capitalist means. The Expanse? Obviously. Colony? Hell yes. Even American Horror Story is rooted in political discourse. You can disagree, but it’s all there. Even the MCU can’t escape. Books, comics, movies, video games – they are caught up in it.

This is because politics is the stuff of life, like it or not. We authors (and artists) are engaged in the study and exploration of life and, therefore, we are inevitably drawn to discuss politics. So, yeah, I guess I could be all coy about it and resolve never to speak a political word in public, but then I’d be wearing a mask over my true self. I’ve never been much good at that; neither have a lot of good authors. Will it hurt my career to be so open on Twitter? That remains to be seen, I suppose. I just can’t fully imagine being any other way, though.

This, ironically, would probably make me a poor politician.

But What’s In the Box?

I’m in the middle of reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. It’s beautifully written and has a really interesting and unique premise and, as I haven’t finished the book yet, this isn’t going to be a review, exactly. Mostly, reading the book has reminded me of an interesting complication when trying to deal with the mysterious in your writing.

Throughout The Night Circus, there is some kind of mysterious “competition” going on, the details and purpose of which is unknown to the reader and even unknown to the participants. It is, apparently, the driving conflict of the book and the central mystery of the plot, but here I am, halfway through, without any real idea what it is. That worries me.

Mysteries are double-edged swords. They draw the reader in and are also key to creating suspense. The longer the mystery draws out, the more intriguing the solution seems to be. However mysteries, once revealed, lose their magic. There is a danger, therefore, that the longer you draw out the mystery without revealing it, the more disappointing the reveal will be (or the more difficult it becomes to create a satisfying reveal).

There is a clip from Weird Al’s UHF that always comes to mind when I think about this problem:

Weaver, the contestant, is drawn in by the mystery of the box. Indeed, we all are – that’s why the mystery box is a thing in game shows – but the box, in this case, contains nothing at all. The reveal is a let-down and what makes it funny is that it is a deliberate one. UHF is mocking television conceits – it’s the crux of the whole film’s humor – but I also think the warning here is weirdly instructive: just because it’s mysterious, doesn’t mean it’s worth discovering.

So, back to The Night Circus and, by extension, writing in general. The thing that worries me about the central mystery of The Night Circus is that, once I get the reveal, it won’t end up being very interesting at all. It will break the magic that the rest of the book has worked so hard to construct. Now, part of me thinks that maybe this is intentional  – the book is all about a magical circus that creates an artificial environment through mystery and subtlety – and that maybe Morgenstern is setting the reader up to have their illusions crushed (and no spoilers, please). However, even if so, that means Morgenstern is deliberately mining the precise pitfall I’m trying to elaborate, here.

Sure, yeah - I get that. But how long do you expect us to care?

Sure, yeah – I get that. But how long do you expect us to care?

Perhaps some more instructive examples will help explain what I mean. The two most obvious ones are the two mega-hit shows The X-Files and LOST. In The X-Files, we are introduced to the idea that there is some global secret conspiracy to conceal the existence of aliens to the public. This is central to the show, and drives it through most of the run. However, every time Mulder gets close to the truth, it gets stolen away again. This works to create great drama through the early part of the run. However, at some point it lost steam. We kept wondering what was in the box so long that, once the box was opened and we looked inside, we just saw a bunch of old, nebulously rich dudes and, well…it was a let down.

The trouble was, ultimately, that Chris Carter (show creator) let the mystery drag out for too long. So long, in fact, that there was no possible reveal that could justify the delay. Instead of having a revelation that rocked our world, we instead just shrugged. That was it?

 

How mind-blowing was it when you first saw this? I mean, seriously, right?

How mind-blowing was it when you first saw this? I mean, seriously, right?

LOST sought to sidestep this problem by solving mysteries only to lead to larger mysteries. So, yes, they opened the box (literally, in the case of the Hatch) only to reveal another box. This was pretty brilliant, by the way. However, this was ultimately just an act of grand misdirection: the show got most of us to stop asking “what’s with all these boxes” and instead trust that newer and more interesting mysteries would keep revealing themselves until it all made sense.

Of course, the creators of LOST never actually planned to or cared to connect or make sense of all their mysteries. They just kept showing us more and more boxes until the whole thing refused to make any sense and then expected us to just shrug and accept that “life is a mystery.” Yeah, no – if The X-Files disappointed its audience, LOST deliberately cheated it. I still enjoyed that last season, mind you (the character arcs were perfect), but the mystery aspect of the show was a grand betrayal of everything much of the audience had invested.

So, okay – mystery is hard to balance. How, then, do you do it well? I can’t claim to be an expert, myself (though I do try), but generally think the key is that you have to reveal your mysteries before the payoff is eclipsed by the build-up. You can either do this by having a very subtle build-up (The Usual Suspects) or by revealing the great mystery about halfway through (the original Star Wars trilogy). You could even, perhaps, do what LOST was doing, except instead of throwing up your hands and not solving anything, you could roll up your sleeves and try to come up with the most God-awmighty big reveal in the history of storytelling.

But yeah, good luck with that one. No, “they’re all in heaven” isn’t an acceptable plot twist. Nor is a glowing Jacuzzi.

The Coattail Hypothesis

When you are a small-time published author (such as myself) or an aspiring published author (such as myself as of a couple years back), you are constantly thinking about how  little old you could, somehow, make the big-time. Now, obviously, the immediate answer would seem to be “write a kick-ass book.” Thing is, though, you’ve done that. You know you have. You know you’ve written books better than (insert name of best-selling author of choice here) and nobody noticed or cared. How is that possible, you wonder? How can there be books out in the world no better than my own that sell millions while mine languishes in obscurity?

So, that’s when you set upon an insidious idea: There must be some trick. Some eldritch formula. A secret handshake at a dark doorway.

All that remains, then, is for you to use the secret catchphrase in a query letter or, perhaps, make allies with somebody powerful and influential, and then the money will rain from above!

I may not be cool, but I am now cool-adjacent.

I may not be cool, but I am now cool-adjacent.

Case in point: Just at the end of last week, my publishing imprint signed Wesley Snipes to a book deal. Not only my publisher, mind you, but my specific editor at said publisher is going to be working with Mr. Snipes. Cool, right? And of course, my initial thought was this:

Boy, I hope they plug my book inside the back cover!

Because Snipes is going to sell a lot of books. A lot more than me, at any rate, and this is regardless of how good his book actually is (which, mind you, it may be quite good – I know nothing of Mr. Snipes’s talent as an author). Snipes has fans everywhere. They will buy. If it’s a good book in its own right, and one assumes it is (my editor has good taste), it will sell mountains of copies.

I and my friends over at Harper Voyager had our own private little freak-out over the opportunity having a big-name Person Of Note in our imprint might represent. Would there be group signing events? Could we get Snipes to blurb our books? Might there be Harper Voyager panels? We were literally falling over one another with ideas, partially in jest, but also partially because we, as low-end to mid-list authors, savor any possible way to make ourselves known. We are hoping for some magic escalator to the bestseller list.

You run into the same thing, sometimes, at cons. People see a successful author, they want to talk to them, and as much as they know they’re a person with thoughts and feelings and likes and so on, the primary motivator for wanting to talk to them is the desperate, slim hope that they might hit it off and become friends and then your good buddy (insert name of best-selling author here) will introduce them to their mega-agent and then super-stardom is not far behind.

But it doesn’t work that way. Well, not exactly. Yeah, networking is important – it’s always good to be a familiar face – but having a five minute chat with somebody from Locus on an escalator once does not get you some kind of magic ticket. Even supposing, by some miracle, I happen to run into Wesley Snipes at a convention and we are sitting next to each other at a signing table and we realize we like the same movies for the same reason and we hit it off and hang out all night and become best buddies, that does not equate to my books riding that magic escalator. That’s just not how the business works. Your book sells or does not sell thanks to often unpredictable market forces over which you have very limited control. Granted, there are ways you can improve the odds in the margins (to paraphrase Chuck Wendig: you can, through great personal effort, move hundreds of books, but only the big publishers can move thousands, and only the public at large can move millions), and networking is one of those ways. Riding coattails, though, is not a guarantee of success.

And this is even without considering the fact that trying to befriend people just because of how they might assist your career is a shitty thing to do. Those are called “false friends” and they suck. Don’t be that person. Don’t aspire to be that person. You should befriend other authors (successful or otherwise) because they are nice people that you like and admire, not because you hope by clinging to them you might scrabble to the top of some heap. Besides, even if that is your goal, being genuine friends is vastly more likely to achieve it. That, of course, means you can’t fake it – which means it can’t be a stratagem or a ploy, and therefore is not something you can consciously employ for your own gain.

So, yeah, it’s really cool that Wesley Snipes and I share an editor. I hope I get to meet him someday. But I’m not planning on riding his coattails. I’ve got too many of my own books to write.