Science fiction has always been a popular genre, but, like most other genres, it has peaks and valleys. These days, science fiction has exploded in popularity, making it a great genre to write.
We’re now living in a world humans never believed actually could (would exist).
We have 3-D printers, drones, and Alexa devices that we can ask to find us a marinara recipe while we’re elbow-deep washing dishes. In an age of texting, wifi, virtual reality, and self-driving cars, humans are now faced with all those sticky moral questions posited by the original science fiction authors over a century ago.
This is why story is so critical. Today, I have a special guest, Maria Grace, author of twenty-three books and contributor to Putting the Science in Fiction. She’s here to give us some simple tips to launch our science fiction into SPACE!
Take it away, MG!
A Brief, but Nerdy History
I grew up on science fiction. From some of the worst stuff imaginable (I’m looking at you Lost in Space), to what would become some of the most influential franchises in history.
Star Wars and Star Trek? I was there from the get-go.
I probably shouldn’t confess this, but I cut my nerdy ten-year-old chops on a manual Smith Corona typewriter…writing Star Trek fan fiction.
Wait … wait … don’t click away, I promise I’m normal now. No wait, what did I just say? Never mind. I’m a writer and we’re not normal, ever.
And we lie.
But I digress.
All these years later, I still drool over some of those gadgets. Who couldn’t use a Universal Translator when talking to their teen-aged children? It would work for that wouldn’t it?
And the replicator? Oh, I want a replicator.
After dinner, wouldn’t it be a dream to just toss everything into the bin and not worry about all that cleaning and scrubbing? Be still my heart. And a transporter …
*wipes drool off keyboard*
You know what’s even better?
I Now Get to INVENT Those Gadgets
*rubs hands together and cues maniacal laugh*
Oh, the things I can create. I want a 3-D printer to craft my bluejeans so they fit just right every single day. How about a flying car? The Jetson’s promised me a flying car, and I want one now yesterday.
Point is, there are so many possibilities that it’s easy to get carried away. And there, my friends, is a major pitfall that can trip us up when writing science fiction.
Too. Many. Gadgets.
Tell me it isn’t true. No such thing as too many whizzbang-humdingers, right?
Sorry to break it to you, but it’s dead Jim, dead…wait no wrong line—right idea, but you get the gist.
Tell Me It Isn’t True
When we venture into the brave new world of writing science fiction, its easy to get caught up like Augustus Gloop in Willy Wonka’s factory, crafting one shiny doohickey and an even shinier thingamabob.
Pretty soon we end up running right off the cliff and into the chocolate river to be sucked out by the extraction pipe to the dreaded boiler room—and on one wants that—right?
Just because we CAN, doesn’t mean we SHOULD. So, take a deep breath fellow writers and step away from the sonic screwdrivers.
Science Fiction Secret Sauce
Hold off tossing the digital tomatoes. I can already hear the protests.
Blasphemy! Science fiction needs tech and you’ll only get my light saber when you pry it out of my cold dead hands.
Of course science fiction needs science—it wouldn’t be science fiction without all those science-y fiction-y toys. But—and of course there had to be a ‘but’—there’s something more.
A secret sauce.
Come close my pretties and learn the extra special sauce recipe that will bring your science fiction to a whole new level.
Are you ready? Wait for it….
Tell an amazing story.
Good Science Fiction Contains FICTION
Um…it’s in the name for a quick and simple reference.
It’s so easy to get caught up chasing shiny bits and bobs that we forget science fiction includes fiction (which is a STORY). All the structure and techniques that apply to writing great fiction also apply to writing great science fiction.
A solid story problem is the core of every great science fiction work. When we strip away all the blinking lights and things that go ‘boop,’ what we’ll find are basic human problems that drive the story.
Dilithium crystals are totally your call.
Look at Tony Stark (Iron Man) from the Avengers. Sure his suit is super-cool, but it’s actually Stark’s flawed and complex character that piques our interest. Mix Tony’s more-than-carry-on emotional baggage with an intriguing story problem plus some end-of-the-world stakes? And that’s a formula that keep us going back.
Movie after movie after movie…after movie.
Just how many Star Trek incarnations are there now? Doesn’t matter. My point is simply that, sure, it wouldn’t be Star Trek without starships, transporters, replicators, emergency medical holographs, and, and, and…
But take a moment to reflect over each incarnation. Focus on the main characters driving the story ship line: Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Worf, Spock, etc.
Remember the problems they faced: being overrun with vermin (Tribbles), wrestling with what it means to be ‘human’ (Data), the struggles that go with being a ‘half-breed,’ the progeny of two diametrically opposite races (Spock).
In science fiction, all problems are human problems.
Science fiction is two words—science + fiction. Subtract the gripping story and memorable, dimensional characters (fiction), and that leaves only science. Science without a story is called a textbook, not a novel.
Granted, science can be fun. In fact, those of us who are drawn to the science fiction genre likely were the nerds eager students who couldn’t wait for lab day.
Please understand, I love my microwave, my tablet, and the T.V. remote my husband bought me that I can’t figure out how to work (but keep trying anyway). Alas, those are all ‘things’ I can put down, walk away from, even lose—and all are simple to replace.
And that’s the crux of the matter. Superlative fiction has no simple replacement. Science fiction crafted properly shouldn’t have a good place for a bookmark.
When we draw readers into our story, they should feel as if they’ve been snagged by a tractor beam, and no amount of thrust can free them (and frankly, they’re happy to be taken captive).
Two Tips for Riveting Science Fiction
If we want to make our science fiction totally binge-worthy, as in stay-up-all-night-even-though-there-is-a-big-presentation-tomorrow binge worthy, there are two big things we can do.
First, we need to craft a story that can stand up on its own, without all the glittery gizmos.
Take Killjoys—Hubby’s and my current guilty pleasure. Here’s my log-line for the show:
A bounty hunter with a mysterious past and her team discover the Company’s deadly intentions and now her dark secrets hold the key to saving the world from the Company.
Read that again. What do you notice? Take your time. I’ll just be here, waiting patiently.
*cues Jeopardy theme*
So, what do you notice about that log-line? I’ll give you a clue: it sounds like a fantastic story, but it also could be set just about any place, during any time.
Sure, Killjoys is set in a system of four planets, complete with space travel and all manner of cool doohickeys, but the log-line doesn’t depend on all that ‘stuff.’
The same story could be set in the Wild West, the Australian Outback, or today in any major city and it would still work.
Now, before anyone protests, I agree changing the setting also changes most of the story details. If we set it in the Wild West we’d have horses instead of spaceships and the Company’s secret would be salient to the time period. But, let’s just refit the log-line and you’ll see…
*sounds of sonic screwdriver*
A bounty hunter with a mysterious past and her team discover the Company’s deadly intentions and now her dark secrets hold the key to saving the unsettled western territories from the Company.
Granted, the Wild West version is no longer science fiction, but the core players and the goal are roughly the same.
In terms of the underlying story though, those aren’t the important details—the core of the story stands.
That’s why we can retell fairy tales in the modern day, or rewrite classic stories (I’m looking at you Jane Austen buffs) into the modern day and they work.
The core story doesn’t depend on the setting.
Sure, there are facets of the stories that might make them work easier in one time period or setting than another, but they can still work.
That’s the point: Good stories just work.
But then what’s the point of writing science fiction when
you can just plunk a story down anywhere, wind it up and let it go?
Here’s where the magic—oh wait, here’s where fantasy…I mean science happens.
Once the bones of our story are all fit together and standing on their own, now we flesh it out with all those awesome gizmos we love. Notice I didn’t say ‘dress it up’—that implies something that isn’t really important to the story—and that’s far from true.
Tech is vitally important and a large part of the science fiction ‘magic.’
But, the deus ex machina—the sonic screwdriver than can perform any task to save the day can make it too easy on our characters.
Add in those mindless MacGuffins that only serve as convenient plot devices, those are just too easy on us as writers (we can be more creative than that).
Great science fiction tends to treat techy-shiny things in one of two ways…
Foreground vs. Background
On the one hand, we have Dune where the spice Melange (used by the navigators for intergalactic space travel) is foundational to the story problem.
Everything in the story revolves around who will control the spice. Getting rid of the spice would fundamentally change everything about the story world. That is what makes Melange solidly part of the foreground.
I, Robot is another good example where the technology is in the backbone of the fiction. Pull it out (um, ouch), and we’ve got a lot of dry bones lying on the floor in desperate need of being wired together with something else.
This is the go-big-or-go-home version of tech.
Another method is what we’ll call the Star Trek approach to technology. In most of the Star Trek episodes and franchises, the replicators and transporters are simply part of the everyday world like our cellphones and automatic doors today.
***Remember those were largely science fiction not so very long ago.
In this case, the gizmos define how day to day lives work, but don’t attract any more attention than our cellphones would today—unless they suddenly quit working in a way that’s essential to the plot. Essentially, the gizmos reside in the background and remain there.
Hold on. Don’t shout me down, yet.
Star Trek had characters—Data and the emergency medical hologram—who WERE technology. What can be more whizz-bang than that?
That’s absolutely true. But, when we take a closer look at
these mechanical marvels, we can see those technologies that created the
characters always resided solidly in either the foreground or the background.
In certain episodes, the core plot problem revolved around the technology—usually asking the question of what it meant to be a sentient being who is ‘alive.’
More often though, their nature was just part of their core traits and these characters played the same kind of role that the other characters did. The marvelous technology that created them then returned to its place as part of the background.
Gatekeepers have always served a crucial function, albeit a function we (readers) might not have paid much attention to until recently.
I liken gatekeepers to dams. Manmade dams serve multiple functions. They keep the good contained (e.g. robust populations of fish), and they also give us a way to control water flow and prevent disaster.
In Texas, we get a LOT of flash floods.
Rainstorms almost always hit hard and fast—too fast for the ground to have time to absorb all the water. Flash-flooding can do tremendous damage…which is why we build dams.
When a storm hits and dumps six inches of rain in a half hour, the lakes and rivers rise at terrifying speeds.
The dam is what keeps that water contained until it hits a dangerous level. At that critical point, the dam starts slowly releasing so many millions of gallons of water into special canals and floodplains to prevent the lakes and rivers from breaking their banks (or the dam).
Without a dam, the lakes and rivers could rage out of control and wipe out everything nearby—homes, businesses, animal habitats, etc.
Gatekeepers Contain the Good
I spent most of my youth—and my babysitting money—in a B.Dalton or a Waldenbooks. Back then, I had no idea how much I took for granted.
Sure, I ran into my fair share of bad books, but bad books back then meant something entirely different.
A ‘bad book’ in 1987 was one that didn’t resonate, or, for some reason, failed to hook my interest. Maybe the characters were too shallow or the plot was too predictable. I might have put a book down because I didn’t care for the voice or style.
All that time, a book being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ was almost always wholly a subjective construct, a matter of opinion.
Thanks to gatekeepers, I never had to quit reading because a book had so many typos I couldn’t concentrate. I never once gave up on a book because the horrendous grammar made my brain bleed.
If I read a mystery, I could expect the story to possess an actual mystery plot (structure).
Bad thing happens–> MC gets involved–> clues here–>red herrings here–> ends with mystery solved.
I couldn’t have imagined I’d one day pick up a mystery written by an author who didn’t even know mystery possessed its own unique structure (yes, that has happened).
Authors understood genres and knew where their stories would fit and why and the standard expectations from readers. Today?
The Modern ‘Bad Book‘
Down is up and up is down.
The digital age changed everything. And before anyone shouts me down, I believe self-publishing has done a lot of good.
The problem, however, is we may have hit a point that self-publishing could start doing irreparable harm to our industry. A bad book from 1999 is not the same creature as the bad book of 2019.
Gatekeepers caged the bad book in 1999 and put it down before it could bite anyone, unlike the bad book of 2019.
Nope, that sucker’s laying eggs.
It’s a series.
To put it bluntly, it’s always been an uphill battle to get people excited about reading.
In an age with texting, social media, video games, YouTube, Candy Crush, and Netflix, it’s possibly harder than ever.
But, here’s some food for thought.
Twenty years ago, teachers, librarians, publishers, authors and readers bemoaned how people didn’t read. Yet, when I was a kid almost ALL the books in stores and libraries had passed the gauntlets of the gatekeepers.
Think about it. Publishing had to hustle and pray for readers even when the pool of books to choose from had all been thoroughly edited, proofed and vetted.
Now, people still aren’t reading, but the pool of books is a) exponentially larger and b) the general quality is embarrassingly low.
These days, I’m not putting a book down because of a stylistic preference. I’m throwing books across the room because the author didn’t bother doing basic research—research that didn’t even require a trip to a library.
Just GOOGLE it!
Many of these ‘authors’ skip learning the most rudimentary basics about how to write fiction (or even non-fiction).
Then, to give me a paper cut and pour lemon juice in it? They flood my email with marketing and newsletters. What’s worse? They don’t write or edit their newsletters any better than the tripe they package as books.
Seriously. I wish I were exagerating.
Here are two screen shots (below) from an actual author newsletter. I received this in my business email last week (a newsletter I didn’t sign up for, for the record).
Why was your dad’s @$$ hissing? He should really get that looked at.
This author’s newsletter promises to show me how to make the most of my time, but the author doesn’t even value my time enough to run a simple spell check.
The industry push for authors to churn out this massive, unrelenting barrage of content has piled up into a tidal wave that’s now careering across the publishing landscape faster than the speed of wifi.
LOCK THE GATE!
Y’all know what tsunamis are full of?
Trash, junk, dead things, garbage, fecal matter, disease, and pretty much anything dangerous, deadly or disgusting.
Literary tsunamis aren’t much different…except they keep coming bigger and bigger with no sign of stopping (short of unplugging the Internet).
Before the digital age, publishers only released a certain number of books per year per genre, and for good reasons.
Limiting titles gave them time to perform proper editing and proofing. It also prevented over-saturating any one genre, or flooding the market with too many choices.
Perhaps the author querying actually had a fabulous vampire book. Problem was, the agents knew they wouldn’t be able to sell it to an editor, because the publishers had already bought five other vampire books.
Agents don’t make money unless an author makes money. For an author to make money, her books have to SELL.
It was already a challenge to sell a vampire book with three, five or even ten other competitors that same year.
What about now? With three hundred other vampire books released in the same year? Or three thousand?
One of the most glaring weaknesses in the modern publishing business model is the lack of stopgaps to control the flow.
Kristen Lamb (quoting herself)
We cannot keep dumping the slush pile on readers and task them with hooking the book we all want to read.
Why not put them in a boat and ask them to reel in a nice swordfish to hang on the wall while riding on a tidal wave of cars, homes, and overturned septic tanks?
Readers as Gatekeepers
Let’s suspend reality for a moment and pretend that the million books self-published in 2018 were all the same quality as books in 1987. Cool.
But it’s still over A MILLION NEW BOOKS.
In the comments on the last blog, there was a lot of discussion about readers as gatekeepers. I totally agree that the old way of gatekeeping was far from perfect. A lot of excellent books (authors) fell through the cracks.
Self-publishing has breathed new life into old genres and resurrected the short and long forms from the dead (e.g. poetry, essays, short stories as well as epic high fantasy, epic historical, epic any story that requires 120,000+ words to tell).
Alas, despite all the good, we must face the bad.
There’s a reason the last runaway breakout novel was in 2012. I firmly believe the success of Fifty Shades of Grey spurned an explosion in self-publishing (the bad kind).
This Literary Power Ball Winner not only encouraged green writers to skip even learning the craft, it also attracted scammers, counterfeiters, and algorithm con artists.
All this aside, though, I find it more than a little appalling that we (writers) should expect our consumers to be in charge of quality control.
It’s like opening a restaurant, and instead of the owner checking inventory, he makes it the customer’s responsibility to ensure the chicken they ordered isn’t rotten.
Author Gatekeepers & First Line of Defense
WE are the first gatekeepers. It’s OUR duty to learn our craft and create a product worthy of a spot in the marketplace. Authors hold a moral obligation to make certain we’ve done all we can to ensure our product is fit for reader consumption.
Anyone who’s a new (pre-published) author? Take classes, read craft books and study writing blogs. Get professional feedback. Trust me. You’ll save time and money by learning how to write well.
For those who self-publish? Self-publishing means you’re the publisher and you make all the profit, but also incur all the expenses.
***Just so you know, editing and proofreading are two completely different things.
There are various types of editing we might need—substantive editing, developmental editing, line-editing, etc. This is NOT cheap (though it is a business expense).
Y’all can look here for the industry standard rates. Make sure to check websites and organizations who keep track of scammers and seek recommendations from people you trust,
Normally, I’d recommend Preditors and Editors, but they’re rebuilding their site. In the meantime, y’all can refer to The Science Fiction Writers Association’s Writer Beware page.
An excellent editor can make all the difference in the world and keep us from publishing too soon.
Editing will be expensive if your MS requires a lot of substantive or developmental editing simply because it takes incredible skill, patience and TIME to repair flawed plots or faulty character arcs.
Keep in mind that it takes an average of 12-15 hours to read a book. This is the time it takes to read a fully polished work.
With a draft, we (editors) have to slow down…a lot. And, when I edit, I will read that book at least three times. This is why I rarely do long edits. Most writers aren’t prepared for the expense…and I’d also rather play in rush hour traffic.
Granted, there are ways to mitigate this cost.
Sure an editor can fix typos, punctuation, subject-verb disagreements, remove echoes, repair punctuation, and evict passive voice, but that only makes the bill that much bigger.
Kristen Lamb (quoting herself again #NotWeirdAtAll)
Knowledge is power, and skill is a GIANT EDITING DISCOUNT.
Publisher/Mega Author Gatekeepers: The Next Line of Defense
They’ve been around a LONG time for good reasons.
I made this suggestion years ago, but it seems the only one to somewhat listen to this suggestion has been Audible (which is Amazon-owned).
Our author brand is our lifeline. A brand is any time a name alone drives sales. Traditional publishing is in big trouble, but they do have a way to recover. They still own almost all the current household brands.
Ditch the ghostwriters/’coauthors’ approach and start authentically investing in the next generation of authors.
Thus far, in my POV, publishers have just been been devaluing their mega-brands and mega-franchises.
In an effort to keep pace with Amazon, the remaining publishers have been using ‘coauthors’ to pump out a gazillion titles all bearing a household name.
Sometimes, this ‘coauthor’ gig means the mega-author oversees the book and the process (e.g. James Patterson). Other times, the ‘coauthor’ is pretty close to a ghostwriter (unless Robert Ludlum has been sending messages from the other side since he passed away in 2001).
The problem isn’t necessarily with using a known brand to help sales. Rather, my criticism has to do with presentation.
If you look at the covers, these books are continuing to build brands that are already household names, while the writer (who probably did most of the work) earns only a small spot at the bottom.
Robert Ludlum passed away eighteen years ago. He doesn’t need anymore help building his name. But Joshua Hood? Joshua sure could use a break.
Same with this book (below). The cover ALREADY states James Patterson is The World’s #1 Bestselling Writer. Great! So why not throw Brendan Dubois a bone? Too much to ask?
Granted, they’re doing a little better. This is the latest James Patterson and we can actually see the coauthor’s name.
The breakout novel. All authors want to write one, and all agents want to discover one. Why? Because the breakout novel is the story that tips the scales.
This is the novel that not only ignites avid readers to read MORE, but it also propels ordinary people to do the unthinkable.
It makes them want to read, too!
These stories turn those who normally wouldn’t read a book—unless it was required or there was a test at the end—into book evangelists.
****These people may claim they ‘hate to read,’ but they told everyone who’d listen about Twilight .
It’s True, Most People Aren’t ‘Readers’
This really isn’t anything new. I know it’s super popular to whine that people just don’t read books anymore.
They’ve been singing that same sappy BS song since I was a kid…during an age when there was no Internet—let alone social media—and cable was for rich people.
Daytime T.V. sucked, all television turned OFF at midnight, movies played at a movie theater (no VCRs), and you had to beg your parents to take you to a video arcade if you wanted to play games.
Yet, even back then, when one would think this would have been the Golden Age for everyone and their mother to be reading books?
I was a weirdo because I loved to read.
But just because someone doesn’t identify as a reader doesn’t mean he/she won’t read. It simply takes the right book to hook them and then reel ’em in.
‘Readers’ Have ALWAYS Been Outliers
Before the 20th century, most people weren’t even literate. Reading was a hobby reserved for wealthy people who had the funds, education and free time to indulge in fantasy.
Sure, once humans got into the late 19th century then careened into the 20th, the number of readers increased because of higher literacy rates. That and industrialization increased household incomes and offered the average person more free time.
Pulp fiction got its start with the much-esteemed Charles Dickens and this form of storytelling really picked up traction in the early part of the 20th century.
This type of fiction gave the general public access the larger-than-life stories with exotic and sexy characters.
Ah, but it wasn’t ALL roses and unicorns.
Books still competed with work, chores, radio shows, television, bowling, newspapers, discos, roller rinks, and sports.
Ultimately, the insatiable ‘avid reader’ has pretty much always loitered on the fringes of the bell curve.
The guy with the football never got wedgies. Just sayin’.
Initially, no one wanted to publish the manuscript. Rice faced countless rejections. No one cared about stories FROM the vampire’s POV.
Finally, ONE agent loved the idea and took a chance, and pretty much all modern vampire stories from The Lost Boys, to True Blood to Twilight can thank Ann Rice.
And this genre upheaval wasn’t only limited to vampires.
The concept of casting monsters and creatures as the hero (or even anti-hero) EXPLODED in novels, television, film, and pop culture after Interview with the Vampire skyrocketed in success.
Boys Just Wanna Have Fun
J.K. Rowling reimagined Young Adult Fantasy when she decided to cast a young boy as her protagonist. Agents told her this was a terrible idea, because ‘boys didn’t read.’ And tween and teen boys definitely didn’t read.
***Maybe because all the YA books were girl books? Whatever. *rolling eyes*
Rowling, despite pressure to change Harry into a female protagonist, simply stuck to her guns and kept pressing then—BAMMO—the legend that is The Harry Potter franchise was born.
This success opened the YA door wide, and the genre took off.
Harry Potter was a breakout novel that not only redefined the genre, but it inspired everyday people and got them excited about reading.
They’re the folks who’d rather be stuck in the DMV with no air conditioning than be forced to read a book…BUT they own every single Harry Potter (in hardcover).
50 Shades of WHAT?
As much as this pains me, Fifty Shades of Grey is traditional publishing’s last big breakout novel. The trilogy wasn’t discovered by a literary agent, rather it was picked up then rereleased by Vintage Books in April, 2012.
As I mentioned earlier, breakout novels will often defy convention and reimagine older, existing genres for a modern audience.
But let me remind you, Fifty Shades of Grey was the last massive breakout book for legacy publishing (and they picked it up only after it was successful as fan fiction then self-pub).
This means the market has gone over SEVEN years with no new breakout author.
That isn’t good.
Things Have GOT to Change
I recently blogged about the dismal fate of Barnes & Noble. Borders is long dead and B&N is no longer a baller. The independent bookstores haven’t had long enough to return to full strength.
This is scary.
The Big Six got in bed with the big bad wolf box bookstore and gutted their author middle class. NY publishing also never changed how they did business, and thus linked their survival to these mega-stores.
With their MASSIVE overhead and grossly inefficient methods, they had to have those multi-million-dollar preorders to keep the lights on.
But Elliot Management Corps. will be closing those giant B&N stores and they will be replacing them with smaller stores more reminiscent of the old days of B. Dalton.
Those guaranteed orders to fill ginormous twenty or thirty-thousand square foot stores are going away, and the mom-and-pop and indies aren’t yet healthy enough to make up that differential.
This spells serious financial trouble for what remains of legacy publishing. If they ever needed a breakout novel (author)?
NOW is that time.
Amazon’s Got a Bad Moon Rising, Too
Sure it was all fun and games when they weaponized writers against our former masters. They allowed everyone and anyone to publish (and I’m, personally, very grateful for that). But, this created a very different problem.
Of that number, how many do you think paid for professional and rigorous content editing and proofing?
This ‘Dump the Slush Pile in the Reader’s Lap Plan’ isn’t going to work. It’s already failing. If the major publishers who actually vet books collapse, then Amazon will take a massive hit unless they can figure a way to sift through those millions for books that are even readable (let alone any good).
I am glad Amazon is opening brick-and mortar stores, but they are smart-stoking these stores using algorithms. Part of that is a really good idea (one NY maybe should have thought of using).
Certain books/authors are more popular in certain areas (e.g. Tom Clancy is super popular in Florida, likely because of the dense population of retired vets).
It makes sense to see what is selling best in what state, city, etc. then use that data to decide what earns a spot on shelves.
But this method of stocking is rife with pitfalls.
Algorithms can be juked, and are gamed all the time. In fact, Amazon spends a ridiculous amount of time and resources combatting those cheating the system (largely China).
It’s one thing when Amazon is contending with ebooks and no physical copies are involved. But what about when those books are printed?
Amazon takes a hands-off approach to what goes on in its bookstore, never checking the authenticity, much less the quality, of what it sells. It does not oversee the sellers who have flocked to its site in any organized way.
This has resulted in a kind of lawlessness. Publishers, writers and groups such as The Authors Guild assert that counterfeiting of books on Amazon has surged.
David Streitfeld, via ‘The New York Times’, 6/23/19
It’s also being speculated that China Lit is hiring workers who are able to speak English, then using them to convert older successful books into ‘new’ ebooks.
The workers take those mothballed titles I mentioned in the B&N post—the ones that hit the New York Times and USA Today best-seller lists a couple decades ago—and they’re copying the story but changing the titles, then names of places and characters and enough wording that the plagiarism software doesn’t detect the forgeries.
Then, the books are loaded on KU as NEW titles…and this is how they’ll bankrupt the whole shebang.
Careful What You Wish For
Amazon got what it wanted and brought The Big Six to its knees, but now? They’re going to have to get serious about policing what they publish.
Amazon, much like what remains of legacy publishing, NEEDS a breakout novel. The reading world is desperate for a new book (or series) that is evocative, innovative and exciting to come along and revive those of us who’ve all but given up.
…and maybe inspire the next generation to read something other than text messages.
That Breakout Novel Could be YOURS
The problem with the past ten years is that learning better ways to market and advertise a book has taken over learning how to even WRITE one.
As a result, the overall quality of books has suffered.
When big publishing (rather the multi-media conglomerates in charge) kicked the author middle class to the curb, many authors quit writing. Others gravitated to self-publishing and indie.
Those authors who made it out with their backlists did well (REALLY well) self-publishing…until readers ate through their entire catalogue.
Now, many are struggling to write novellas, to be included in anthologies and put out short works to keep the fan fires burning. They’re overloaded trying to do it ALL on their own.
Like the rest of us, they just want to write great books.
These older authors came of age in a paradigm that gave them TIME to create. They had TIME to research, time for revisions and time for thorough edits without the pressure of churning out stories like a Play-Doh Un-Fun Factory so they ‘wouldn’t be forgotten.’
***FYI, no one forgot James Michener between books.
Alas, there is something to be said for books that take TIME to write, and the way things are?
Quality will only go down even more…if that’s even possible.
Hot Pocket Novels & Microwave Fiction
The indie, self-pub Amazon model has made it to where authors can’t take their time. They can’t write a book a year, or every eighteen months and make a living.
Many of those who are still traditionally publishing have chosen to also become hybrid authors (publishing other works via self-pub or indie). They have to in order to make a living.
But I think the novelty is wearing off (or hope it is)
Readers are growing weary of microwaveable fast-food fiction. Authors who initially could write to demand are burning out.
NY isn’t fooling anyone with ‘James Patterson’ releasing zillions of books every year. There are only so many good ghost writers, and those folks are wearing out, too.
That and the fans (okay maybe just me) are getting tired of stories that lack consistency in voice and quality. I enjoy James Patterson’s books, but I gave up because I never really knew what to expect.
Not to mention the generation of fans is aging out. Sure NY can keep hiring ghostwriters for the mega name brands, but those readers are aging out as well.
I’ve actually started reading classics because it’s increasingly harder to find books with a pre-digital age level of quality.
Granted, breakout novels can be fast-drafted (Fahrenheit 451), but a Harry Potter or Dune or an American Gods takes TIME.
Unless a new breakout novel comes along, the industry as a whole will suffer.
***Which is code for ‘opportunity.’
I do believe the pendulum will soon swing back to a semblance of sanity (and I have ways we could accomplish that but leaving for another post).
Forget the Money
For anyone reading this who wants to be the author of that next breakout novel, here’s some advice. Money is WONDERFUL, but too many people are fixated on profit at the expense of product.
The secret to success? Look at any market and see what’s missing and fill the need. And the world NEEDS more fantastic books.
What Are Your Thoughts? I LOVE Hearing From You!
I miss the days authors had TIME to write incredible stories. Do you think the digital age’s relentless pace is harming the industry?
Do you think there is a way Amazon (and others) can reestablish some form of sifting process? Establish gatekeepers again?
I love hearing your thoughts!
Just FYI, I’m extending the CLEARANCE sale a little longer, until new classes begin. We need to test the new Event Espresso license and this site’s functionality (we’ve updated everything). If you need a good plotting or character class, NOW is the time to get it.I have to free up space on our servers. All my classes are detailed and average 2-3 hours. These are On Demand classes you can watch at your leisure and have fun while you learn (for classes, scroll down).
****For NEW classes, look in the footer.
This not only is to help you guys get the training you need (affordable summer school), but it will open up room for the new recordings of new classes.
Please take advantage of the sale! I rarely drop prices this low.
After July 17th, these classes will no longer be for sale (and will be slated for deletion).
Some, I will offer again later in the year. Others? I won’t be offering again the same way (will be likely splitting them into two classes because they ran long).
Thanks so much for your support!
ON DEMAND CLEARANCE ON BRANDING & CRAFT CLASSES!Available until July 17th,..
Legacy publishing (namely the multi-national media conglomerates calling the shots) forgot that publishers were in the STORY and INFORMATION business.
As mentioned in my previous blog, legacy publishers were NOT in the ‘protect the paper industry’ or the ‘prop up incompetent book retailer’ business. This mission drift was a fatal one that steered them straight into the metaphorical rocks.
Publishers forgot they existed as edification and entertainment dealers. They had a simple three-part mission:
I. Explore, unearth and expand any and all forms of potentially valuable content.
II. Connect that content to any media distribution channels with potential for profit.
III. Nurture profitable avenues and locate any stagnant business tributaries. If these sluggish channels couldn’t be revived expeditiously, eliminate them before they festered.
PRIME DIRECTIVE: Publishers existed solely as gatekeepers, winnowers, distributors, and cultivators. They were there to PROTECT their RESOURCE (the authors), so as to best SERVE the CONSUMERS (audiences).
That was IT. Yet, they forgot their purpose and it cost them dearly.
Storytellers, Educators & Entertainers, Lend Me Your Ears….
Now, talking to my fellow creatives and content creators. I’ll simply use the term AUTHORS from this point on for the sake of simplicity.
Authors do love bookstores, but we are not in the bookstore business.
Yes, this is actually vastly important to remember.
Bookstores exist because of us and not the other way around. Authors existed long before bookstores and we’ll be here long after bookstores.
To reiterate. Authors are in the content creation business. Distribution is a whole other matter.
I know a lot of commenters expressed feelings of depression, dismay, discouragement after reading my last post. Today, I want to remind you who you are.
Authors, this is not our first rodeo…personal extinction.
My POV? Storytellers are actually the oldest profession. Or how else could the other alleged ‘oldest profession’ get enough business to brag about being the OLDEST profession?
But I digress….
Authors didn’t start out with large publishing houses that possessed a global distribution network to disseminate our work printed in fancy paper books to stores.
We evolved from bards, crones and sages who passed on stories and knowledge orally, namely through song (e.g. Psalms) then later via theatrical performance (e.g. the Greek tragedies).
In other parts of the world, some clever folks invented pictograms and ‘authors’ adapted. We either learned how to draw or made fast friends with someone talented enough to tell our stories using pictures of CATS.
Pyramids? Talk about EXPOSURE.
Later, Western civilization adopted this thing called ‘an alphabet’ from the Phoenicians.
***This alphabet gave authors the unique ability to point out how dismally ironic it is that the word ‘phonetic’ is in NO WAY spelled phonetically.
With symbols, authors crafted the epic poems like Beowulf:
Beowulf Reading in Old English.wmv - YouTube
Authors have evolved from stories held only in memory to capturing them in pictures, to finally adopting abstract symbols that represent words and concepts.
Yes, it’s witchcraft. Can’t have spelling without a SPELL.
Think of it. To this day, authors create people, places, events, universes, empires, and religions that have never existed before we thought them up.
We do ALL this using various combinations of twenty-six letters.
More like twenty-three letters because Z, X, and Q are next to useless. Q always needing to borrow U to get anything done.
The plain fact is that authors have ALWAYS had to find new ways to sing for their supper. In the beginning? We LITERALLY did this.
As time went on, we learned to attract patrons then publishers and producers who would financially support our art.
Suffice to say, we’ve had our world shift plenty of times and we’re still here and always will be (for those strong enough to survive the transition).
Bookstores & the Death of a Dream
A major reason Barnes & Noble’s fall has hit many so hard it is represents another dead dream. We’re grieving. It’s hard enough to do what we do without also fretting over the business side of the business (especially when they can’t seem to get their act together).
I think it’s fair to claim most authors have been in a perpetual state of terror (peppered with brief windows of hope) for far too long.
If you’re like me, maybe your sparkle’s been dimming and it’s taken everything not to give up.
Was writing even worth it anymore?
The big-box bookstores that were supposed to be so wonderful, only managed to crush our childhood dreams.
We mourned as we bade farewell to the bookstores that kindled our earliest desires to write. After the long good-byes, we moved on to a new normal.
I know I spent hours wandering the aisles of Barnes & Noble reconceptualizing what ‘making it’ looked like. Okay, so I’d never see my books in B. Dalton’s or Taylor’s or any of the small mom-and-pop bookstores from my youth, but that was life.
Fair was a weather condition.
I don’t know about y’all, but I imagined book signings, launch parties, my novels on pretty displays in actual bookstores. Yes, even Borders or Barnes & Noble.
Then Web 2.0 and the digital revolution arrived. NY and the big-box stores had every opportunity to maintain dominance. Instead, they rearranged deck chairs on the Titanic and pretended everything was jolly.
The Band Played On…
Like most pre-published authors, I fantasized about real author events, the ones where I’d read aloud to devoted fans from my latest book. I’d hug, shake hands and answer questions as I signed beautiful copies of my work fresh out of the box.
Those were the dreams that kept me going in my darkest hours when it made no sense to keep on writing. When everyone called me foolish and told me to get ‘a real job.’
I don’t think a single one of us daydreamed about favorable algorithms, a massive email newsletter list with a solid open rate, or a depressing spot for ten copies of our book on a Costco bargain table.
And I sure as hell never dreamed of working like an organ-grinding spider monkey for fractions of KU pennies.
None of us did.
This was why I wanted to point out how LONG ‘authors’ been around. We’ve been through major changes.
We took our lumps, hunkered down and waited it out as we learned how to thrive in a world with new rules. Every time our world has been turned on its ear, we survived and thrived…because we ADAPTED.
Publishers have faced similar apocalypses as well. Just think of all those monks who had to start hipster microbreweries once Gutenberg came on the scene.
Thanks a lot, Johannes. Now EVERYONE can be published.
***throws up quill and inkwell***
That, or they had to go to Vatican night school and learn how to type set.
While it’s impossible to wholly ignore the recent thanatoid shroud that’s settled over our industry, keep in mind that endings aren’t always a bad thing. Authors, of all people, should appreciate this.
Without endings, there can be no beginnings.
Any system that grows unchecked is wide open for disease, decline, and death. This is true in nature, in business, and even with bookstores.
Personally, I am GLAD Barnes & Noble finally bit it. They’ve been ‘dying’ for a like a friggin’ decade…so fair to say I’m way past over it.
Yes, it’s the end of an era—blah, blah, blah—but now we can finally move on!
The System is SICK
I’ve already relayed the long list of chronic ‘illnesses’ that plagued NY and spelled the decline if not death of The Big Six.
***Which originally was comprised of Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, HarperCollins and Hachette and other large traditional publishers, for those who don’t know.
I think the only issue I didn’t explore in any depth was in regards to the negative impact of so much talent pool inbreeding. Sure, being a blue blood has plenty of perks, but plenty more perils to go with them.
By publishers and elite lists propping up The Author Aristocracy decade after decade, there weren’t any new authors being folded in for younger generations to fall in love with.
I believe this is why we saw such an explosion in the Chick Lit and YA (Young Adult) categories that neatly paralleled the overall decline in numbers of readers.
Younger people didn’t want to read the same authors their parents loved. They couldn’t relate to the worlds, characters, and story problems in a Danielle Steele romance or a Clive Cussler techno-thriller the same way previous generations had.
Take a look at The New York Times top authors by decade from the 1980s to present day. You’ll see the same names over and over, the list shrinking and almost no new talent and NO young talent making it to the top.
Obviously, this puzzled me, so I asked my super smart friend Cindy Dees who’s a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of fifty suspense and thriller novels (and a hybrid author) about J.K. Rowling and why she didn’t appear in these metrics.
‘J.K. Rowling blew up the NYTBS list so hard in 2001, they created an entirely new category for her to pry her out of the #1 spot.‘
A Tale of Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores & Bias
We already know that the big-box chains pre-negotiated which authors and what books would be allowed in the stores.
Yet, even as they were dying, Barnes & Noble continued to largely discriminate against indie authors and their books…even those that were selling better than their traditionally published counterparts.
My early social media books We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer were top performers.
Yet, I can’t tell you how many times I received frustrated emails from fans who’d gone into their local B&N to order a paper copy and were sent away (even though my books were listed with Ingram and had the appropriate ISBNs).
I’ve actually keynoted at large events where the on-site B&N bookstores refused to order my books.
…which is kinda weird when you’re the one people have paid to see.
I know I’m not the only successful indie author who’s faced this challenge with brick-and-mortar stores (even ones that weren’t Borders/Barnes & Noble).
Brick-and-mortar stores are going to have to be open to selling good books, and stocking authors readers love and want regardless of pedigree.
First, we need fresh blood in the literary gene pool if people are going to ever get excited about reading again. That and our profession is about to marry a cousin and start playing banjo.
Secondly, consumers are searching for something fresh. What are the really getting? This meme says it best….
Great! They have all of James Patterson’s twenty-seven new releases here, too!
Traditional publishing isn’t the only entity that’s created a mess. Sure, legacy publishers bred a certain kind of author to the point that, while they’re super pretty, they’re also prone to hip-dysplasia, neuroses,..
Goliath has fallen. The leviathan Barnes & Noble, the big-box chain that reinvented retail and defined a generation…is no more.
Reuters announced early last Friday that the hedge fund Elliot Management Corp. would be purchasing the former book giant for roughly the equivalent of Kim Kardashian’s jewelry allowance ($683 million including debt).
This bold move marks an end to the once-dominant book retailer’s status as a publicly traded company.
After almost a decade of abysmally stupid business decisions and plummeting sales—and me blogging and b#@!$ing about it the entire time—this buyout feels like a mercy killing to me.
Someone might finally save Barnes & Noble from itself.
***I secretly suspect this buyout was the only option left after Mary Kay declined to sell cosmetics alongside records, movies, toys, stationary, gifts, knick knacks, coffee, candles, essential oils and everything else NOT BOOKS.
Now that the former mega-retailer’s fate is in the hands of the Elliot Group, perhaps Barnes & Noble can go back to being a…wait for it…wait for it… *whispers*…a bookstore.
Failure in Leadership
Yes, today I feel ranty. I’m angry. No, I’m past angry and onto livid. I’m not the sort of person who enjoys saying ‘I told you so.’
Yet, before we focus on that bugbear, I’d like to take an opportunity to call out those in publishing leadership. Why?
Because when Barnes & Noble sneezes, we all catch cold.
And that fact just ticks me off.
In order to understand exactly how delicate of a time we’re all in (writers), it’s imperative I paint a full/accurate picture of the colossal mess we’ve been handed.
First, publishing is a business.
Might have been a good start for the powers that be to have remembered that.
To offer any reasonable projections, it’s critical for us (writers) to properly appreciate the sheer scope of the incompetence that’s led us all to this place.
Here is how leadership should work. Yes, even in publishing.
PLEASE NOTE: Most of the major houses we once referred to as ‘The Big Six’ operated under the directives of multi-national conglomerates and giant media companies. The agents and editors and everyday people in the publishing trenches are NOT the ‘leadership’ folks I’m calling to the carpet.
***Looking at you, CBS***
Back to leadership. First and foremost…
Protect the Resource
The top echelon/leaders in charge of the publishing business had ONE job. Protect the writers. Simple. If there are no writers, then there is no content (no stories or information). No stories or information (books), then publishers and bookstores are irrelevant.
This is NOT rocket science.
Take care of writers (resource) and readers (consumers of said resource).
Publishers were NOT charged with preserving the paper industry or protecting/rescuing incompetent retail outlets….especially at the expense of their most valuable resource (writers).
About Those Authors
From all indications, the powers that be forgot that writers play a fairly important role in the whole publishing process.
Authors who’d previously been making a living wage under the B. Dalton (smaller chain and independent bookstore) model suddenly had to polish up the resume.
The Raw Deal
Under the big-box model, selection and variety ruled. Shelf space was precious and finite, meaning these mega-stores didn’t carry those extensive backlists like the old independents.
Problem was, those backlists had once been the bread-and-butter for the working author.
Under the new big-box model, the stores would only stock the backlists of the top earning authors (because those were guaranteed to sell).
NY used this business reality to justify mothballing the backlists of virtually all authors who weren’t household names.
It’s Just Business
This meant instead of an author earning royalties off, say, fifteen books, they could only earn royalties off their most recent title.
Many authors witnessed decades of work vanish along with the small bookstores that supported them.
Not only did this change mean a DRASTIC pay cut, but it also meant these authors had no viable backlist to cultivate existing fans into future fans. There was no longer a way to truly earn their way into household name status.
It was a formula to fail.
If fans wanted the mid-list or multi-published author’s earlier books, they had to go find them in secondary markets (used bookstores, garage sales and all places where the author wasn’t paid).
That was bad enough, but, when e-books became a viable option, NY had a second chance. An opportunity to do right by their authors.
They could have resurrected those titles at least in e-book form.
When Amazon first came on the scene, Borders was still alive and Barnes & Noble dominated the bookselling industry.
Yet, when Amazon launched the first affordable & user-friendly e-reader (the Kindle), early adopting readers found themselves in a conundrum.
They had a new gizmo where they could read all the books they wanted…but there weren’t all that many books. In fact, far too many of the available e-books were unvetted garbage that wouldn’t pass high school English, let alone a NY gatekeeper.
This didn’t have to be so.
NYpossessed a ready arsenal of thousands of mothballed titles, novels that had already been thoroughly edited and market tested.
If The Big Six didn’t want to discount their new titles on Amazon? Fine. But they could have field-tested the efficacy of the digital model using backlists that weren’t doing anything but taking up space.
***Many of these books even had earned the coveted titles of USA Today and/or NY Times Best -Selling Book.
Amazon would have had good books for their customers to load on their new Kindle device and they’d make money.
Winner, winner, chicken dinner.
The mothballed authors would have been happy because they’d be back earning money off books liberated from cold storage.
NY could have not only made money (and happy writers) but they could have also used the backlists to appease Amazon and gather critical data to guide future business decisions.
Did they want to keep offering ebooks on Amazon or maybe create their own publisher sites for e-book distribution?
Was this e-book thing really just a fad?
The E-Book Gold Rush
…or zombie hoard.
Alas, instead of creating a Big Six controlled e-book division staffed with eager college grads to format books and flood Amazon with gatekeeper-approved books, NY decided…
E-books were evil.
And that readers would always want paper and a ‘browsing experience’ in an oversized store with ridiculous overhead.
Publishers initially handed backlists back to the authors because they believed these books were worthless. They truly believed e-books were a fool’s pipe dream and a fad (though did nothing to test this opinion).
Ah, but when those spurned authors started converting their cast-off backlists INTO E-BOOKS…and making a boatload of money?
With readers desperate for good e-books, these authors started making far more income than they ever had being traditionally published.
This e-book gold rush ignited a mass exodus of multi-published and mid-list authors…right into Amazon’s welcoming arms.
I get it. I get it. Game of Thrones is not for everyone. Yet, even if you refuse to sample a single episode, it doesn’t mean you (writers) can’t get some benefit from understanding what the series did right…and then how the story went so horribly wrong.
On my end, I confess I waited four seasons to even start watching—okay binge-watching. There’s something about me liking a show that seems to spell out its inevitable doom.
To be blunt. If GoT wasn’t going to stick around for the long haul, I didn’t want to get too attached.
***Sorry about ‘Firefly,’ btw…
Also, some spoilers ahead for those who keep reading. For everyone else? Feel free to continue day-drinking…
What Game of Thrones Did RIGHT
Go Big, or Go HOME
The single largest problem I see in new novels is the author thinks too small. Superlative fiction is regular life amplified. The more terrible the odds, the higher the stakes, the more hopeless it all feels, the deeper a story hooks the audience.
All the best stories go BIG (literally or metaphorically). There is so much on the line, we cannot help but keep turning pages/watching episodes because we HAVE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS.
Humans long for catharsis. The slower and more intense the build up, the better the payoff.
***At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.
Once hooked, we become so immersed that an intense story experience is the closest we’ll get to astral projection (without years of training or psychotropic drugs).
When it came to going BIG? Game of Thrones set the ‘vastness’ bar so high it made Lord of the Rings seem like a Prius parked next to a Monster Truck.
Suffice to say that, over the past seven seasons, Game of Thrones set our expectations somewhere in the upper stratosphere.
Everything was over the top from the story to set design and film locations, and on and on. The story was boundless, complex, and sometimes infuriatingly detailed.
Also, this last season took over two years to release. Suffice to say we were primed and ready for the promised payoff (more on this later).
Bad Decisions Birth Great StoriesGame of Thrones, Paging Dr. Phil…
Next on the list? Bad decisions. Game of Thrones contained so many bad decisions, it was like seeing what would happen if every supermax prison documentary made babies with all twenty-seven seasons of Jerry Springer.
I think this is what intrigued me so much.
I know many people hated GoT (or refused to watch it) because there’s every sort of debauchery, violence, perversion, and more perversion. Did I mention debauchery?
Trust me, I get it. I finished the series far faster, namely because I used a LOT of the three-arrow feature in my controller.
Okay, yes loads of sex and more sex and weird and weirder sex. Got it. Can we get back to the intrigue and back-stabbing?
Yet, to me, this is what made Game of Thrones biblical in proportions and dimension. I can only speak from my own faith perspective but, seriously.
Game of Thrones was like watching the Old Testament…only with dragons.
Granted there’s honor, family, loyalty, justice and a profound longing for order in a chaotic and cruel world. Humans aren’t all bad all the time.
We mean well.
Alas, Game of Thrones then served these noble intentions alongside heaping portions of power-grabbing, corruption, misogyny, misandry, subversion, false prophets (or not), zealots, revenge, insanity, racism, eunuchs, classism, incest—takes breath—resurrection, false gods, evil generals, prodigal sons, bastards, executions, rebellions, ambushes, demonic creatures, necromancy and….
Meh. Y’all get the point.
Art Revealed in EfficiencyGame of Thrones & Chekov’s Prophesies
Game of Thrones did this incredible job of using…pretty much everything. Before you shout me down, I know they could have done this better but that is for later in the post.
Yet, by and large we (the audience) HAD to pay attention.
Snippets of dialogue, a camera lingering on a book, a glance, the casually mentioned name of a sword, etc. all played a part in the story.
I learned early on to a) take nothing for granted and b) if you think you figured it out? Guess again and c) don’t get too attached to anyone…not even pets.
Perhaps this was the wheel that Dany insisted be broken?
There was a tremendous amount of misdirection—which is great—but misdirection can be a double-edged sword.
As a fan, we’ve all tried to figure out how everything would play out.
Some fans wanted this…
The rest of us knew George R.R. Martin and his reputation for dangling a glimmer of hope that our favorite character(s) would live…then tossing them into a literary tree mulcher.
All of this to say that Game of Thrones did an amazing job of keeping us guessing. Short of a tinfoil hat and a wall covered in pictures and red string? I had plenty of guesses myself.
Great stories should use everything. Setting, dialogue, speculation, props all have a job. Nothing should live in our stories rent-free. The trick, however, is to misdirect the audience about how much weight each of these carry.
The greatest compliment an author can ever receive is, “I never saw that coming” followed by “How did I never see that coming?”
What Game of Thrones Did WRONG
Expectations and Reality
Anger is the emotion we experience when our reality fails to meet our expectations. The greater the distance, the hotter the rage.
Ironically, what GoT did right in the beginning is directly responsible for why so many fans are now seeing red.
Early on, GoT held as true to George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire as was possible in the visual medium. I’d only read the first two books, but even I was seriously impressed.
Unfortunately, this grew problematic when the HBO series caught up to the book series far more quickly than George R.R. Martin anticipated. Because Martin hadn’t finished the final books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, HBO had a problem.
There was no way to convey the same level of complexity from the previous seasons that had been based off the published books.
This is why we start seeing deviations around Season 6.
Martin could only offer broad strokes of the various ways he’d intended for every through-line to play out and for the series to end…but that was all.
HBO had to then use the pieces on the board and refashion a satisfactory ending from what they had. #SuckedToBeThem
Which is more important? Plot or character? To write great fiction, we need both. Plot and characters work together. One arc drives the other much like one cog serves to turn another, thus generating momentum in the overall engine we call “STORY.” Writers have a unique challenge. On one hand we need a rock solid plot and (ironically) the best people to execute this solid plot? Flawed characters.
If we goof up plot? Readers/Audiences get confused or call FOUL. Watch the movie Ouija for what I am talking about *shakes head*.
Goof up characters? No one cares about the plot.
New writers are particularly vulnerable to messing up characters. We drift too far to one end of the spectrum or the other—Super-Duper-Perfect versus Too Dumb to Live—and this can make a story fizzle because there is no way to create true dramatic tension.
This leaves us (the frustrated author) to manufacture conflict and what we end up with is drama’s inbred cousin melodrama.
If characters are too perfect, too goody-goody and too well-adjusted? If they always make noble, good and professional decisions? Snooze fest.
Again. Bad decisions make great fiction.
Of course, the other side of that is what I call The Gilligan Effect. Yes, I am dating myself here and I apologize if I upset any DIE-HARD Gilligan’s Island fans, but I remember being a kid and this show nearly giving me an aneurism (being the highly logical child I was).
After the third time Gilligan botched up the escape off the island? Kristen would have gone Lord of the Flies and Piggy Gilligan would have mysteriously gone “missing.”
I also recall how the stranded party could make everything out of coconuts except a freaking BOAT, and the only reason I kept watching was because it was better than being locked outside to play in heat that shifted asphalt to a plasma state.
Yay, Texas summers!
Yet, I’ve read books with characters that make Gilligan look like a rocket scientist…then been compelled to hurl the book across the room.
This is me after reading certain books *stabbing self*
Flawed vs. Too Dumb to Live
Today we are going to talk about how we can make characters flawed without crossing over into TDTL (Too Dumb To Live) Territory. This commercial never gets old *giggles*
Let's Hide Behind the Chainsaws - Geico - YouTube
Let’s hide behind the CHAINSAWS!!!! *clutches sides*. Or this one about gals tripping too many times in horror movies. BWA HA HA HA HA HA!
Stop tripping in horror movies - YouTube
Okay, I’m back *giggles*.
Great stories are filled with characters making bad decisions, and when this is done well, we often don’t really notice it beyond the winding tension in our stomach, the clenching that can only be remedied by pressing forward and seeing if it works out okay.
When characters are properly flawed, the audience remains captured in the fictive dream.
When we (the writer) goof up? The fictive dream is shattered. The audience is no longer part of the world because they’re too busy fuming that anyone could be that stupid. They also now cease to care about the character because, like Gilligan? They kind of want said TDTL character to die.
If this is our protagonist? Extra bad. Our protagonist should make mistakes, just not ones so egregious the reader stops rooting for him/her.
Bad Decisions Birthed from The Flaw
When we create a protagonist, we should remember that all strengths have a complimentary weakness. If a character has never been tested by fire, the protagonist is blind to the weakness.
For instance, great leaders can be control freaks. Loyal people can be overly naive. Compassionate people can be unrealistic. Y’all get the idea.
This dual nature of human strength paired with fallibility is why plot is just as critical.
Plot as Crucible
The plot is the crucible that tests the mettle and reveals and fires out the flaw. The strength ultimately will have to be stronger than the weakness because this is how the protagonist will grow to become a hero by story’s end.
A great example of this is one of my favorite movies, The Edge. Anthony Hopkins plays billionaire Charles Morse. Charles is extremely successful and very much in his own head. Though he’s a genius, he lives the sheltered existence of the uber-wealthy.
What happens when all that “head-knowledge” is what he needs to survive a plane crash in the unforgiving wilderness?
When the plane crashes and he and the other two survivors make it to shore, Morse does the right thing. He knows they need to get dry before they all die from hypothermia. He also realizes Stephen, the photographer, is in full panic.
What is the intelligent thing to do? Put the photographer to work doing something fruitful to take his mind off his fear.
Bright (Bad) Idea Fairy
The problem, however, is Morse assumes the photographer has the same knowledge-base and doesn’t take time to show Stephen how to use a knife properly and the man is badly injured as a result. Now we’ve already had a problem (plane crash) and now we have a complication (bad injury) and then it gets worse.
Morse, again, being an in-his-own-head-guy and unaccustomed to having to communicate WHY he wants certain things done, tells Robert Green to bury the blood-soaked fabric.
Green is jealous of Morse and rebellious and instead of following instructions and burying the material? He hangs the blood-soaked rags from a tree where an incoming storm whips up the scent of a newly opened All You Can Eat City People Buffet.
Soon, the men are being hunted by an apex predator with the munchies for humans.
***Side note here. Look at the genius in the choice of character names. Morse, a cryptic person who must unravel the “code” of his situation and realize the bear is actually the (MUCH) lesser threat. Green, the man who envies to such a degree it drives him to plot a murder. Stephen is the first to die. “Stephen” was also the first Christian martyr, the first innocent to die for the greater cause—salvation.
Back to FLAWS
But all of this was birthed from a myriad of flaws. Morse failing to communicate and assuming his comrades are operating with the same head knowledge (because he’s never had to use this type of information in a real-world way).
As a billionaire, Morse has never been required to explain himself before. He doesn’t understand that this might be a good time to START.
Additionally, the two photographers are city people who don’t have the training/understanding to know 1) NOT to drag a knife toward the body and 2) that the smallest scent of blood will draw predators. BIG ONES.
These men are used to the “civilized world.” When thrust into the wild, they make a critical error. They fail to properly appreciate that their position at the top of the food chain has drastically shifted.
Only ONE member of our stranded coterie gets that they’ve suddenly gone from ordering OFF menus to being ON the menu #DailySpecial #MarketPrice #JokesInPoorTaste…
Where was I? Oh, yes…
Bad Decisions Depend on Circumstances
Sometimes characters will make bad decisions simply because this is a completely new world or a set of circumstances they’ve never faced, thus have no way to fully appreciate. The “bad” decision was not a “bad decision” before the adventure.
A good example? Merry and Pippin in The Lord of the Rings. In the Shire, people talk and are sociable. These naive characters haven’t yet felt the consequences of this new and dangerous world.
To them? Chatting away and freely sharing information at The Prancing Pony is NOT a bad decision in their minds. Neither is frying bacon on top of a mountain.
They’ve always lived a life that if they were in a pub? They drank and made friends. If they wanted bacon? They just made bacon. They’ve never had to think beyond their mood or stomachs. The Hobbits don’t have the experiential base to grasp that fire is a “Come and Kill Me” beacon.
Bad Decisions & The Wound
We’ve talked about The Wound in other posts. In Thelma & Louise what is the wound? A lifetime of male oppression. In Thelma’s case, her husband controls every aspect of her life.
Thus, when she finally does get on her own, she has poor judgement and is naive and that’s how she nearly ends up raped in a honky-tonk parking lot.
Louise has been a victim (shamed and alone) and doesn’t trust men or the law. Thus, her baggage is what leads her to shoot Thelma’s attacker, but then also dovetails into the really, really bad decision to run.
But if we look at all these examples from an analytical distance, these characters are just DUMB. But why aren’t they TDTL? Context. Because of plot we (the audience) are not staring down at them like specimens through a microscope. We empathize with “bad” decisions. Why? Because there’s context (their world).