Category Archives: Other Writing

On Fan Fiction


Is this a sandbox that you really want to play in?

Okay, I’m going to do it. I’m going to discuss fan fiction. I’ve been avoiding the subject for many years because I don’t think much of it. To me it’s like cheating, playing in somebody else’s sandbox. I suppose it has its uses – supposedly some successful writers started out writing FF, and it let them cut their writing eye teeth. From my point of view though, writing FF, even if you’re going to go into “regular” fiction later, deprives you of the experience of developing characters and world building because you’re writing about Kirk and Spock or The Doctor or Harry Potter, ad nauseam.

Okay, so you can learn some of the basics of prose with FanFic. But what if you wrote something to that order, and you decided that it turned out pretty darn good, and instead of letting it languish in the fan community, which is the fate of most, you do a little Microsoft Word trickery and change “James T. Kirk” to “Dirk Manly” and “Yeoman Janice Rand” to “Honeysuckle Heartthrob” and “The Enterprise” to… okay, you get the idea. Then you take the resulting mess and pass it off as something original.

That couldn’t happen… could it?

Oh, yes, indeedy it could. And did. And not just with Fan Fic… but apparently with a particularly specialized kind of FF called Slash, in which the “Slash” indicates a certain form of congress between two characters who consent or otherwise during the plot. So you could have “Doctor/Sarah Jane” fanfic (pronounced “Doctor Slash Sarah Jane”) in which those two characters do the horizontal tango, or Neo/Trinity fan fic, or one particularly disturbing subset called “Kirk/Spock”, but we won’t go there. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

It seems a sharp-eyed reader on Goodreads discovered a very disturbing parallel between a piece of Edward/Bella fanfic called “Master of the Universe” and a certain bestselling piece of erotica.

That’s right, you’re already ahead of me. In “Master”, the Twilight characters get their freak on and it turns out that Edward is more of a freak than the original books hinted, but that’s okay because Bella seems to like it… and what do you know, after some Search and Replace and a little tweaking, Cullen becomes Grey, as in Fifty Shades of.

If you don’t believe me, here’s a link comparing the two. Just keep something in mind – I have not read the entire selection – I just looked at enough to convince me. I have no idea if this is from a particularly graphic part of the novel or not, and take no responsibility for content. This is the courtroom of the blog, and I’m presenting Exhibit A.

I’m not sure where to come down on this. I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey and have no plans to. If I’d been a fan of the series, I’m not sure what I would think. Probably that it was cool that somebody made it out of the bush league and was now swatting for the majors. But as a writer, I can’t help think that this is a huge swindle. When most of us pick up a novel, we expect it to be an original work, and while FSoG is self-plagiarism, it is plagiarism nonetheless, as devoid of originality as most movies coming out of Hollywood nowadays. Oh, wait a minute…

Anyway, there’s one other point that remains as Goodreads reviewer Alicia implies in her review/expose of the book: bad writing is always bad writing.

But on the other hand… the readers of Fifty Shades of Grey aren’t looking for Ernest Hemingway when they pick their copy up to read. And I to be honest, I don’t know what I’m worried about. I suspect it’s too much to ask for Erotica/Slash to have some kind of integrity.

Exclamation Point Points

After thirty years of my wife insisting, I am now reading Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel. And it’s a wondrous thing. For a first novel, Auel created a rich world based on sound (at the time) scientific speculation, bent the rules within acceptable parameters, expertly manipulated plot twists and turns for maximum effect, and created a modern classic that can be read as a great adventure or as something much deeper (I could make a great argument for its being the ultimate feminist novel). It’s a Great American Novel.

I only have a few minor quibbles with what she’s done with the book. I’m wondering if the dialogue is a little too rich for being sign language. She ends one chapter too many with antagonist Broud plotting to get even with heroine Ayla (as my wife puts it, it’s almost like he’s twirling a mustache while he thinks these things). And Auel uses exclamation points in action scenes on occasion.

Not a lot. I’ve noted two or three instances. Not enough to drag her down into L. Ron Hubbard pulpdom, but enough to make me think about the subject.

My policy on exclamation points is that I never use them in narrative:

The cars collided.
– not –
The cars collided!

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, when you put an exclamation point at the end of the sentence, it adds an enormous amount of emphasis on what is being said. It had better be darn important if you’re going to do it!

Second, when you put an exclamation point at the end of narrative, it feels final. Like there’s nothing else that needs to be said beyond that point. You’ve made the ultimate statement on the subject!

Back to our car accident description above. If I dared to write The cars collided! I would not follow it up with anything else. The emphasis would all be right there in one sentence, which, like haiku, had better say exactly what you wanted to say on the subject since you punctuated it thusly.

However, without the exclamation point, I would go on, perhaps turning the accident into a ballet of broken glass and bending metal:

The cars collided. The grille of her car went first, shattering, blowing back against the wall of the radiator, which bent and burst, hemorrhaging sticky green fluid across the asphalt road. The hood crumpled up, bending into a tent as it was pushed up over the engine. Then the windshield webbed and gave way into thousands of jagged pieces, spraying in on her as momentum carried the car forward. By this point the airbag on the steering wheel was just a memory, having caught her head as it whipped forward, collapsing as the seat belt caught her and threw her back.

Now go back and imagine that with an exclamation point after the first sentence. It breaks breaks up the rhythm of the words, too much of a full stop to allow anything else to proceed.

I should note here that if you’re writing a novel for young readers, all bets are off. Exclamation points in narrative bring a different tone and add a sense of excitement to the proceedings. That’s probably why, when I see exclamation points in narrative, it comes across as having a juvenile feel.

On the other hand, I have no problem using them in dialogue – just not all the time. Again, it has to do with the rhythm of the words. There are times when I might want to write:

“Get out of my house,” screamed Kate.

and there might be times when I want to express it this way:

“Get out of my house!”

To me, either is acceptable. It just depends on how you want the dialogue to flow.

So my advice is don’t use exclamation points too often!

Ghostwriters in Disguise, Part I

So in a stray moment today, Tom Clancy came to mind. It has been years since his last novel, and in the light of Jean Auel emerging with the lastest in her Earth’s Children series, I wondered if Clancy might be up to something.

Turns out, he is. A couple minutes of Googling came up with a title, Dead or Alive, coming to us on (oh, the irony) December 7th of this year.

Next stop was the Amazon page for the book. And in casually scrolling down the page, my eye caught this interesting line, just below Clancy’s author bio:

Grant Blackwood is the author of the Briggs Tanner books and the co-author along with Clive Cussler of Spartan Gold. Blackwood is a U.S. Navy veteran who lives in Colorado.

Grant Blackwood? Who is Grant Blackwood?

I scrolled to the top of the page to look at the cover of the book again. Then I clicked into the bigger version. And sure enough, there below the title, in a microscopic grey font, all but invisible against the white billboard of Clancy’s name were the words

with GRANT BLACKWOOD

More Googling led me to this Wikipedia page. From there it was a short hop to this interesting article on NPR, all about the lives of ghostwriters.

So what’s the deal? Why is Clancy using a ghostwriter? This may actually posit the question Has Tom Clancy ever NOT used a ghostwriter?. After all, his friend and fellow wargamer (yeah, apparently at one time Clancy was a wargame geek like me) Larry Bond collaborated with him on Red Storm Rising, and he seems to have some connection to The Hunt For Red October.

Then there are those franchise novels (i.e., Clancy does the outline, ghost does the rest): Op-Center, NetForce, EndWar – but what’s this? Both the EndWar and H.A.W.K. franchises were written by David Michaels, which is a pen name for… Grant Blackwood. The last time I peeled away something with this many layers, I had tears in my eyes.

At this point, the question is no longer Has Tom Clancy ever NOT used a ghostwriter?, but rather Why aren’t more authors using ghostwriters – or for that matter, how many are?

First we have Clancy here, obvious busy with his part-ownership of the Baltimore Orioles. He had an early history of having a writing partner, and as the military-techo thriller (a genre he pretty much invented) exploded, there was a need for product on the shelves, and it might as well have his name on them. So the franchises were born. And hey, if it turned out that that Grant guy was a great person to work with, and well, the last novel came out in 2003… why not get a little help?

In recent years this has been happening more and more, especially with late-career authors: Arthur C. Clarke, Anne McCafferey, and Clive Cussler all brought in ghosts to do the workhorse writing, and even gave them credit on the cover (although, like the Clancy, that credit size was diminuative in appearance). Dick Francis has recruited his son to help write his mysteries, although since they’re blood that may be considered “co-author” status (but to me that’s only when both author names are the same size on the cover). William Shatner even put his ego aside and gave credit to some of his literary “helpers.”

In some areas, ghosting has gone a little out of control. Robert Ludlum must have left lots of outlines laying around when he died, because he continues to publish – only these novels appear as “Robert Ludlum’s The (proper name as adjective) (noun)“.

While ghostwriting has probably been around since quills were dipped in dye, the recenty ghosty madness may have started with gothic horrorist V.C. Andrews, who published eight titles before joining the choir invisible in 1986. Death seemed to be a great career move for Ms. Andrews, because in the years since her death, 71 more novels have come out under her name, not counting omnibus editions and e-book only releases. All these were done by the skilled hands of ghost Andrew Neiderman (whose Wikipedia Page claims he’s penned 91 novels, so my count (and way of counting) may have been off.

But why would a writer put themselves through something like that – taking someone else’s outline and doing the work of turning it into a novel, probably without the prospect of getting mentioned on the cover while setting aside your own work at the same time?

Well, if you read the NPR article above, you’ll get a good idea. But if you don’t want to do that, stay tuned. In our next exciting episode, you’ll get the inside story from someone who ghosted 1 1/2 novels… namely me.

UPDATE 5/10/2011: It looks like after 7 years of inactivity, Tom Clancy is turning back into a lean, mean book writing machine. Or at least his ghostwriter is. I just saw news of Clancy’s new novel, Against All Enemies, scheduled for release on June 14th of this year. And featured in a thin, microscopic font on the cover is an almost familiar legend: With Peter Telep.

UPDATE 10/28/2011: Okay, now it’s getting crazy. Amazon announces preorders for another new Clancy book this year, Locked On, this one written with a gent named Mark Greaney. With a release date of December 13th of this year, it means that Clancy will have released three new novels in 12 months, each by a different ghostwriter. He is either trying to save the economy by putting writers to work or else his alimony payments have gone up.

UPDATE 4/20/2012: Okay, the pattern is set. Clancy is now releasing a new novel every six months. The forthcoming Search and Destroy will be his fourth new novel in two years. They’re dropping every June and December. Peter Telep returns to do the co-writing, ghostwriting, or whatever you want to call it writing honors on this one. Those alimony payments must be incredible.

The Chapter Chapter

Yesterday an e-mail came from a friend who is making her way through writing her first novel. She told me that while checking up on her chapter lengths, she found the following numbers:

Chapter 1 – 5200
Chapter 2 – 3600
Chapter 3 – 3600
Chapter 4 – 1870
Chapter 5 – 2200

She said she was torn between splitting chapter one in half or combining chapters 4 and 5. The former is what she chose to do, putting in the change at a natural scene break in the first chapter, giving her chapters of 2600, 2600, 3600, 3600, 1870, and 2200 words.

Then she asked me how I determine where to break chapters.

Since I work primarily in plot-driven works, I use what I guess could be called the dramatic arc method of determining the chapter break. That is, the break comes at a high point in the story, perhaps right before a climax of some kind. This has the happy effect of making readers want to continue reading, to start the next chapter even though in purely physical terms they have come to a good place to stop.

And it works. I have had people tell me that they stayed up all night finishing one of my books, or that they were late to work because they wanted to read just one more chapter, and that led to another chapter, then another, and another…

(Hint: if you want to stop reading one of my books, you’d better slide the bookmark in at the middle of a chapter. If you wait for the break, odds are long that I’m not going to give you the chance to put it down.)

Now my friend is writing a mystery, more of a procedural novel, so the idea of trying to end each chapter on some kind of a cliffhanger obviously isn’t going to work (it also wouldn’t settle well for, say, a romance, where the body count is substantially lower than a typical JCF novel). That still doesn’t mean she can’t stop her chapters at some kind of dramatic turning point in the story, whether it’s somebody getting off of a bus in a strange town or the end of a day that has been wearying and brutal. Not every chapter has to end on something momentous, but it should serve in some way as the lead-in to what is to come next.

This brings up a couple of other questions about chapters. Like, How long is a proper chapter? Should they all be the same length? What kind of order should you impose on a chapter?

The answer to the first is, a chapter is long enough to accomplish what you need to accomplish in that chapter. The way I write, which is longwinded, I frequently end up with more chapters than I originally planned.

Since I write so much by the seat of my pants, if I have a note like Ch. 9 – Walter goes to the convenience store to buy some beer and cheese, I may decide, while describing Walter’s walk, that something interesting happens to him on the walk. This stretches the chapter out to the point where he gets to the convenience store at what turns out to be the end of Chapter 9, meaning that 10 deals with his purchase.

Now I could just make chapter 9 one long chapter and take Walter all the way through the trip to the store, but if the chapter turns out to be really long, it might throw a monkey wrench into the pacing of the book. And if the mission to buy cheese is not the climax of the book, it probably shouldn’t be dragged out in an extraordinarily long chapter.

Being creatures of order, we tend to want to parcel our lives up into uniform pieces. This comes in handy when you’re writing chapters because making them a consistent length (mine tend to run 3-5000 words each) keeps control of the pacing of the book and puts a dramatic order on things, such as not over emphasizing the whole beer and cheese thing.

So that’s an argument for keeping chapters the same length. Only I didn’t follow that when I wrote the Angel’s Luck trilogy. I had mostly medium-sized and short chapters in those three books, and I can still quote a chapter from Precious Cargo from memory: In stasis, Peter Chiba slept without dreams.

So what’s the deal with having a one sentence long chapter?

It’s a trick I learned from Kurt Busiek when writing for the ill-fated Open Space project from Marvel Comics. KB taught me that the bigger the comics panel, the more it slowed time down, with time speeding up proportionately as the panels became smaller and smaller (Frank Miller’s The Dark Night Returns takes this to a masterful extreme by using what seems like dozens of panels on a page to represent TV screens, rocketing the reader at an awful pace toward an act of terrorism).

So… wouldn’t it stand to reason that a shorter chapter might move the pace of the book faster as well? It certainly worked for the trilogy, where I was jump cutting between groups of people doing their thing inside of extended action sequences. Now, I suppose I could have made the chapters long and just used scene breaks to pace the action – Tom Clancy is a master at doing just that – but it seemed to work better for me to break them as chapters while slamming the reader back and forth between teams of hard-boiled mercenaries. Which method was right? Either one.

Are there other ways of imposing order on chapters? Certainly. And these imposers might just help you in timing your dramatic arcs if you’re having a problem fitting them where they need to be.

For example, as I got deeper into writing A Death of Honor, an interesting order imposed itself on the chapters. I didn’t realize it at first, but after 5 or 6 chapters, it occurred to me that the book would work incredibly well if each one was half a day in the protagonist’s life. So I gave you chapters titled “Friday Night,” “Saturday Morning,” “Saturday Night,” and so on.

A benefit of this kind of imposed order is that it can help you build suspense (if you’re writing a suspense kind of novel) by reminding your readers of an impending deadline.

For example, let’s say your book opens with a woman getting a phone call from kidnappers saying that she has 36 hours to fork over ransom money or her beloved poodle will be horribly killed. Instead of paying money she can’t raise, she draws on her experience as a telephone solicitor to track the scum down and get her dog back. Why not structure it so each chapter takes place in the space of one hour as the woman frantically works her way closer to the villains? Further, if each of your chapters comes in at 3,000 words and you throw in a chapter-length 37th hour for winding down, that gives you a manuscript that will run 111,000 words – not a bad length for a thriller of that sort.

So that’s the bird’s eye lowdown on chapters. Like everything else in writing, the rules are steadfastly XYZ unless those rules don’t serve your book. While each novel we write is essentially a first novel since we haven’t written it yet (H/T: Lawrence Block), what makes a first first novel so grueling is that these are the things you need to work out for the first time. Chances are, if you act in the best interests of moving the story ahead, you’ll be fine.

It’s a scary thought. But the rewards can be so worth it.

Listening:
Just a simple storyteller
Troubadour on call whenever
The gods moved his heart to speech
He was something of a hero
To the conscience of the people
To the children on the beach

(via iTunes shuffle play)

Harry Left Behind

From a link at the excellent Faith*In*Fiction is this story from Slate about the parallels between Harry Potter and the Left Behind series.

The article is well done, but seeing as how I’ve relied on two movies for my dose of Harry, and a radio series and standing in the bookstore thumbing through copies for Left Behind, I can’t add any other comment – other than the fact that the LaHaye/Jenkins series strikes me as being atrociously written, and that each book seems padded out to length like a hungover student writing a term paper the morning before it is due (generous margins, almost double-spaced and a HUGE FONT SIZE).

What this does make me do is once again remind readers that there are only 37 Dramatic Situations in the entire world (I carry a copy of them in my Palm, and I’m adding this link to the Resources bar over there on the right). So things like this are going to happen. A lot. What’s interesting about the comparison in the Slate article is that while it presents similarities between the two, it also shows the two popular book series as mirror images of each other.

But I did say this happens a lot, and indeed that is the situation. Look at the similarities between The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars (the first one… I mean episode four… I mean the one that George Lucas released in 1977 or so…):

• The main characters are dreamers that have grown up on a farm.

•They live with their Uncle and/or Aunt, and their parents are unaccounted for.

•They dream of an exciting, adventire-filled life beyond the farm.

• They are both caught up in events over which they have no control.

• They have a number of odd traveling companions

• They ultimately triumph over adversity and/or evil

• They all line up at the end to receive their due reward

Now if you add The Matrix and Lord of the Rings to the mix, you can use most of the above, and add in these spiffy plot elements, too:

• They are specially chosen for the journey they undertake

• They have a mentor that they lose

• They scream “NOOOOOOOOO!” when they lose their mentor (also: Star Wars)

• At first they doubt their power (a form of the archetypal refusal of the journey)

• They ultimately accept their power and wield it against adversity

There are also some interesting similarities between the characters. Their functions, you will note, all roughly equivalent to each other:

Order:
The Wizard of Oz – Star Wars – The Matrix – The Lord of the Rings

Dorothy = Luke Skywalker = Neo = Frodo Baggins

Scarecrow = Han Solo = Trinity = Sam Gamgee

Tin Man = C3PO = Tank = Aragorn

Cowardly Lion = Chewbacca = Cypher = Gimli

Toto = R2D2 = Mouse = Gollum

The Wizard = Obi Wan Kenobi = Morpheus = Gandalf

The Wicked Witch = Darth Vader = Agent Smith = Sauron

The Munchkins = Those Fuzzy Desert Scavengers = The Coppertops = Hobbits

This list might need a little tweaking – or a lot of argument – but you get the idea.

What it all boils down to is this: for a writer, it isn’t the idea. It’s what you do with the idea once you have it.

Pre-Editing

Two writing sessions today, both interrupted by assorted family business. Richard and K are about to break camp now, and are listening to a popular evangelist’s sermon on the radio. It’s going to serve as a springboard for character development, as it starts a conversation between them about their beliefs.

So the pre-break half of the session was spent in the lead-up to their finding the sermon on the radio, and the post-break half was spent working on what they hear, with their running commentary as they listen. I thought the sermon would be a fast write since I had a lot notes on it in the reconciled outline, but the Elder in me kept wanting to go in and refine it. I also wrote it an overly dramatic televangelist style, and had to reel myself back in at a couple of points, because my instinct was to throw in dramatic flourishes that would have made the sermon better, but weren’t really needed for purposes of acting as a trigger in the plot of the book.

I suppose that’s one thing that King and Clancy and Rowling have either not learned or forgotten in their struggle with King’s Bloat. It’s something that I learned when rewriting The Company Man; that a book doesn’t need everything you want to put into it.

When I was editing TCM, I found that I had pages of material describing the internal workings of the corporate vehicles. When I told my editor that I was taking that entire section out, she wrote me a note saying “I applaud your decision to cut the vehicle scene.” That made such an impression on me that after all these years that I still remember her words.

As a result I learned something important about writing: there are things that I need to know about the book in order to write it that the readers don’t have to know. From that point on, starting with the novel Precious Cargo I taught myself to edit on the fly, cutting things out before I even wrote them. It’s made for both faster writing time and tighter manuscripts.

I never did thank Shelly Shapiro, my Del Rey editor at the time, for teaching me that. Thanks, Shel! It’s only 16 years late.

Just for fun, Part II: Here’s the top five songs from iTunes for the past week:

1) “Ant Farm” – Eels (3)
2) “Missing” – Everything But The Girl (4)
3) “Take A Picture” – Filter (New)
4) “White Ladder” – David Gray (2)
5) “Fa Fa” – Guster (1)

Today’s Scorecard
Chapter Twelve
367 Pages (+7)
82402 Words (+1648)

(This makes me think, now I have to get chapter twelve finished before I hear back from Palm Digital Media about the PH books…)

NP – Stan Ridgway – The Big Heat

from the album:
The curtains go up and both lights go on
And Betsy’s in her birthday suit
Spinning her baton,
But I think she did it better last year
Before her boyfriend broke her arm…

– “You Can’t Stop The Show”