Archive for August, 2010

This is what you need to do tomorrow

Monday, August 30th, 2010

I read a lot of stuff, in a lot of different genres. The last three books I finished were Patient Zero (a hyper-violent paramilitary zombie novel), The Graveyard Book (a sweet and wacky urban fantasy middle grade novel) and Kitchen Confidential (a ribald behind-the-scenes restaurant memoir). When people ask what I read I usually say “books,” and leave it at that, because I honestly don’t know from one day to the next what kind of book is going to interest me, and I’ll pick something up and think it’s awesome and then something else will jump out and blindside me and I’ll to read that first. This is why I usually read four books at once.

The book I want to recommend to you today is a fantasy, by which I mean ‘epic fantasy,’ by which I mean ‘the future of epic fantasy.’ Remember how Robert Jordan came out twenty years ago and revolutionized the fantasy genre? If The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson doesn’t do the same, I will eat my hat. And I love my hat, so that is saying a lot.

Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way first–Brandon is a friend of mine, we are in the same writing group, we are in the same roleplaying group, and we record a podcast together every week. I am, in fact, in the interest of full disclosure, writing this while in his house, in my office in his basement (this is where I do most of my writing, for the simple fact that my children aren’t here). We are, in short, very good friends. Do not assume that I am going soft on his book for this reason–if I don’t like a book of Brandon’s, I will tell him so. I did not, for example, like the Alcatraz series, and quite honestly I was very worried about The Way of Kings as he ran it through our writing group: it has a high learning curve, a huge cast of characters, and a non-standard timeline. It is not entry-level fantasy.

But for an audience well-versed in the genre, it is the book you’ve been waiting for all your life.

The thing I like most about Brandon’s writing is that nothing is accidental or capricious. If he’s going to subvert a stereotype he does it for a reason–not just an “I’m an author I can do what I want” reason, but an in-story reason, a reason that will actually affect the characters and their goals and the way they live their lives. In Way of Kings, for example, he changed not just the magic level but the entire ecology of his world; this is not medieval Earth, this is all-new world with all-new cultures and people and weather and rules and everything else. And he’s not just doing it just for hell of it–he has a reason, like I said, and as you start to watch those reasons click together the book takes on a scope and dimension more worthy of any ‘epic’ story I’ve ever read before. Even when he does things I don’t yet understand (I still think the concept of the safehand, for example, is silly), I trust Brandon enough to know that it will eventually be important, and I will eventually love it. This is the man who wrote Mistborn, after all, which had the biggest, most satisfying series climax I have ever read. He knows what he’s doing, he knows how to do it, and The Way of Kings completely won me over.

The book comes out tomorrow, if you’re like most people, or tonight at midnight if you’re in a location lucky enough to have a midnight release. Run, don’t walk to your local bookstore. Buy this book. Take a day off work, and stock up on cheetos and chopsticks. Want to know what your grandchildren will hail as their generation’s Lord of the Rings? Then start reading now, because the future of fantasy has arrived.

Writing a short story: part 7

Friday, August 27th, 2010

The past few days I’ve given a post-writing review of what I did and how. Today I thought it might be more helpful to talk about my pre-writing process and how I get started.

The first thing I do is look at my outline, which in this case is pretty simple: a single sentence describing pinch 2 as “the posse attacks the necromancer in his lair, things go horribly wrong, and they get killed/captured.” With that in mind, I take stock of where the story is so far: I know who’s on the posse, I know who was kidnapped, and I know the necromancer’s capabilities. I also know what my complication is going to be that ruins the attack: Jacob, the wounded, overzealous brother, is going to come back at the wrong time. I like this because it will allow me to make the posse look competent: they can have the best plan in the world, a plan that would actually work if nothing went wrong, and then Jacob will ride in without knowing what’s going on, get himself in trouble, and the characters will have the choice of either following the plan and dooming Jacob, or ruining the plan and trying to rescue him.

I also at this point take a look at any themes or character arcs I need to satisfy, and this scene doesn’t really have anything out of the ordinary. Silas will be heroic as he tries to rescue his brother (a big step forward, since I made his last combat fairly unheroic), but he hasn’t yet come to terms with his powers and thus will refuse to use them. That will probably end up being a reason that the posse fails, and Silas will realize in his emotional climax that he has a responsibility (Spider-man style) to step up and use his powers when he can.

So: what is the posse’s plan? There are six of them: Silas, his father, an old man named Brother Creedy, Jacob’s friend Benjamin (the brother of Jacob’s girlfriend), and two other fathers with kidnapped daughters: Brother Sutton and Brother McKillop. Brother Sutton, I should point out, has been one Silas’s most vocal opponents. I want at least one to die, and I want it to be sad, but I’ve already killed Silas’s mother and I don’t really want to kill anyone else in his family. After them, the meanest one to kill would be Brother Sutton, because his daughter has already lost her beau to the necromancer, and losing her father as well will be pretty terrible. It sounds cruel, but I don’t like killing people unless it means something, and killing Brother Sutton will give me the biggest bang for my buck. I don’t think I want to kill anyone else, but I could be persuaded if I get into the thick of things and see a really good opportunity.

So anyway, back to the plan: I have six guys, and they need something brilliant. They are assaulting a necromancer’s “lair,” which in this case is essentially just a creepy farmhouse nestled into a forest; farther back in the forest is a half-cave, fire-circle kind of place where the necromancer does his rituals, but I don’t think we’ll need that place yet. The posse will attack in the dark, partly because that will make it easier to approach unseen and partly because that’s about when they’ll arrive at the necromancer’s place anyway. I’m going to put two men on covering fire, wielding long rifles and attacking from a distance; these will be Creedy and…Silas’s father, I think, because then when Jacob shows up he might leave his post to help his son, thus cutting their long-ranged support in half. That gives us four men to actually raid the farmhouse and rescue the girls: the two young men, Silas and Benjamin, and the two other fathers. This puts Brother Sutton in harm’s way so he can get killed (possibly right in front of his daughter), and of course Silas wouldn’t be in any other group because he needs to be in the thick of the action. They will approach under cover of darkness, not through the trees but out in the field, where the two long rifles can cover them. The two young men will be in charge of finding, untying, and/or carrying the captives, and the two older men will give them close support with shotguns and short rifles. They’ll get in, shoot any zombies who get in the way, find the girls, and get out. They’re not necessarily planning to kill Gideon, but Brother Sutton (my most fiery guy) is likely to put the mission at risk by seeking him out anyway.

This setting will give me plenty of great atmosphere–an old farmhouse in the middle of the night, maybe some very dim moonlight, some mist shrouding the forest to help make it even spookier when zombie loom up from between the trees. The insertion team (not a phrase I’ll actually use in a pioneer story, of course) will creep up slowly, their plan working smoothly, until suddenly they hear hoofbeats and see someone come riding into the kill zone–it’s Jacob, approaching directly from the road where it’s more dangerous, hoping to get there in time to help but instead destroying their element of surprise. The zombie will rise up around him, Silas will do his best to help, and the careful plan will fall into disarray as the team is quickly separated and reduced to running and hiding and trying to stay alive. The scene will end with at least one man dead, several of them wounded (possibly fled) and most of them captured.

So that’s the plan. Now I’ll write it and see if it actually works.

Writing a short story: part 6

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

I had intended for the “traveling” section of the story to be a series of small vignettes, possibly showing the group tracking the necromancer through the wilderness, and focusing on the idea that nobody trusts Silas. Instead I found myself going a completely different direction in which Silas is trying to redeem himself and his brother, Jacob, is the one nobody trusts. It was unexpected, but much better.

Part of the change comes from my friend Eric, who remarked on my last post that I could solve some of my “too heroic too soon” problem by having Silas hulk out not because he wants to save people, but because he’s terrified of getting shot and wants to save himself. I thought it was an excellent suggestion, so I went back and edited a little bit–not much, maybe two paragraphs–to fit it in. In writing the sequence about how scared he is, I realized that Silas is not just scared of dying, he’s scared of divine judgment–he thinks his power is a mark of evil, after all, and is pretty sure that if he dies he’ll get sent straight to hell. So having him hulk out in the middle of the town social was not just a cowardly act, it was a big boost to the ongoing theme of redemption.

The more interesting development came from the brother, Jacob, who I had always intended to be part of the posse that hunts down the bad guy. But then I decided, while describing the final posse, that three members of Silas’s family (their father came too) was too much, so I had to decide who to drop, and I remembered that I’d given Jacob a light wound in the attack scene. What if I made that wound a bigger deal, and used it to keep Jacob out? Jacob did not like that one bit, and as soon as the posse left town he went and found his horse and followed them–these are the kinds of things that characters do when you give them good background and then just write to see where it takes you. The necromancer kidnapped Jacob’s sister and his girlfriend, and there was no way he was staying behind, busted arm or not. So I let him come along.

Then the posse came across a burned farm, not because they needed to but because I was brainstorming little events that could happen during the travel and that one stuck in my head. I started writing it out, exploring the options, and realized that I needed a reason for this to be bad: all of the people in the area were in town for the social, so there wouldn’t have been anybody at the farm, so where’s the tension? Well, what if someone stayed behind? I didn’t want to do a mother, since we’ve already had a mother in peril, and I didn’t want to do a daughter for the same reason, so I ended up with a little boy. What would be the most interesting way to use a little boy who got left behind? I could just kill him, and have the posse find him and swear vengeance, but we’ve already had that in this story, and I wanted something new. What if the necromancer brought the boy back to life? But no, that would instantly make the readers think about Silas’s mom coming back to life, and I really don’t want to deal with that–it’s a cool idea, but it’s not what this story is about. I eventually decided to make it more subtle: the boy isn’t physically harmed, just terrified to the point of incoherence, and that is in many ways much more frightening than just finding him there dead. We don’t know exactly what happened, but we know that the boy saw trouble and ran into the woods and spent the whole night seeing and imagining truly horrifying things. When the posse shows up in the morning, he’s so scared all he can do is shoot at them, without even knowing or caring who they are, just a pure, desperate bid for safety. Once the posse figured out what was going on, I found myself in a dilemma I hadn’t expected: what do we do with the boy?

Obviously we can’t leave him here, and obviously we can’t just send him back to town. Somebody has to take him, but who? I looked at my posse, and once again the answer was clear: it had to be Jacob. He was injured and he could barely ride, much less ride and shoot at the same time. It didn’t make sense to send anybody else…and Jacob, as you can imagine, was extremely upset about that. All of a sudden I found myself with a wonderful story I hadn’t ever expected. Jacob had already disobeyed orders once before, following the posse when he was told to stay home, so of course he was going to do it again. But next time he’d show up at exactly the wrong time, in exactly the wrong place, and his ineffectiveness would be a much bigger problem. This helped solve another problem I knew was coming, which was that the attack on the necromancer needed to have a really good reason for going horribly wrong; a lovesick cowboy, injured and unaccounted for and far too brave to cover his own stupidity, is exactly what I need to make sure the posse’s plan goes horribly awry. And the best part is, it will be something that goes wrong that isn’t Silas’s fault, setting him up for a better decision at the end when he decides that he’s a better person than he thinks he is and finally redeems himself.

I know I keep saying this, but the very best part of writing is when you think you know what’s going to happen next, and then you get surprised by something unexpected and awesome. I always plan my stories in advance, so I know what’s coming and how to get there, but then the writing process itself is full of little bits and pieces like this that help flesh it out and make it interesting and help make the story and the characters better than you could ever do on your own.

The Mr. Monster Tour

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

As you may or may not be aware, I’ve got a book coming out in about five weeks, and we’re already gearing up for the attack. My tour for this book will be both longer and more fractured than the last one, with more locations in more cities spread across a much longer period, giving me time to go home and be a father for a few days in between events. We’re also hitting a much wider variety of places, including a spearhead into the midwest, but at the expense of losing a few West Coast locations we hit before.

3-6: DragonCon
This isn’t technically a Mr. Monster event, but I’m including it for the sake of completeness (and because it will be my only foray to the Eastern states for the next several months). My only actual scheduled event is the Decatur Book Festival, unaffiliated with DragonCon, on Saturday the 4th.

18: Authorpalooza at the Orem Barnes & Noble
This will be a huge gathering of authors all gathered together in one place, and it’s going to be awesome. Mr. Monster won’t quite be out yet, but we’ll be taking orders and I’ll have an ARC to give away in a drawing.

23: MPIBA Trade Show
Kind of a mini-BEA in Denver, if you don’t know what this is you probably couldn’t get in anyway, since it’s exclusively for booksellers and librarians from a certain region. If this includes you, please come see me; if not, but you’re in Denver, I’ll be driving around trying to hit as many bookstores as I can to say hi and sign their stock. If you live in Denver and know any awesome places to eat, please let me know.

28: Mr. Monster Launches!
This book is awesome, guys, I’m totally serious. Much darker than the first, more emotional, and way more messed up. The launch party will be at Sam Weller in Salt Lake City, where we will have a reading, a signing, one or more giveaways, and goodness knows what else. I have a magician friend who says he can cut his own arm off on stage, and that sounds kind of eerily appropriate. More info (such as time and parking and whatnot) coming soon, but mark your calendars now. This is going to rock.

30: University Bookstore in Seattle
This was a great signing last time, and this time I hear it’s going to be even better. Reading, signing, Q&A; more info when I have it.

1: Powell’s in Beaverton, Oregon
This is one of my favorite bookstores, and they always pull in a big crowd. Reading, signing, Q&A; more info when I have it.

5: Orem Barnes & Noble
This is still tentative, but I’m really hoping we can work it out. Reading, signing, Q&A; more info when I have it.

7: Alpine School District Book Club
The Alpine School district in Utah Valley is holding a year-long book club for teachers, and their book for September is I Am Not a Serial Killer. I’ll be on hand on the 7th for the book discussion, a full Q&A, and anything else they want to throw at me–we’ll even have a bookseller on hand so you can pick up Mr. Monster (I’ll also be giving one copy away as a prize). If you teach in Alpine, please come!

8: GLIBA Trade Show
Just like the one in Denver, though this one’s in Detroit. If you can make it to the show, please come see me!

9: Mission Valley Borders in San Diego
This store really loved IANASK and asked me to come back for Mr. Monster, and they didn’t have to ask me twice. This will be an afternoon event at 2pm. Reading, signing, Q&A; more info when I have it.

10: Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego
Another one of my favorite bookstores, these guys do everything, and I’m really excited to be going back. Reading, signing, Q&A; more info when I have it.

13-17: Los Angeles
I don’t have confirmed dates or times from any LA bookstores yet, but sometime this week I’ll be signing at two or three stores in the area, possibly stretching as far south as Orange. Reading, signing, Q&A; more info when I have it.

20-23: Utah Humanities Book Festival
This is a week-long event in Salt Lake City, and I have at least one panel. I’ll give you more info when I have it.

23-27: Driving to Columbus, Ohio
World Fantasy is in Columbus, Ohio this year, and I’m going to drive there and hit as many bookstores as I can along the way. If you live in a major city somewhere along I-70, the odds are good we’ll have a signing near you. I’ll share all the info as soon as it’s final.

28-31: World Fantasy Convention
Nothing’s confirmed yet, but I hope to be on some panels and hit some local bookstores and, of course, we’ll have the big group signing at the convention itself.

1-6: Driving home to Utah
Just like the drive TO Columbus, I’m trying to line up signings on the way FROM Columbus. This should include, if all goes well, Chicago and other cities in the area. I’ll share all the info as soon as it’s final.

BC Woods, you’re as good as dead

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Saturday was the Writing for Charity event, and it went really well–attendance was up from last year, there were a ton of authors, and everyone had a good time. The silent auction was an especially big success, but what gratified me more than anything was the extensive work done behind the scenes to make the charity money stretch as far as it possibly could. The organizers, all of them 100% volunteer, did some pretty amazing stuff.

Here’s the deal: our goal was to give books to each and every student in at least five (ideally more) underprivileged Utah schools. We accomplished this by seeking out huge discounts, remaindered books, and other cheap sources, giving us an average book price of $2. That means that each attendee, all by him or herself, was able to provide books to an entire classroom of kids with their registration fee alone. Add in the silent auction and it gets awesome: lunch with Brandon Mull went for about $70–that’s another full classroom. Letting Shannon Hale brag about you went for $200, which is about three classrooms all by itself. Then factor in the huge amount of corporate and private donations and you really start to see what a community can do when it puts it mind to something. Smashburger donated several gift baskets, each with a $25 value, that typically went for around $16, which provides books for eight kids AND gives you an awesome lunch at a huge discount. It’s like we’re creating money and books out of thin air.

I’m pleased to report that the “Let Dan Wells kill you” auction was the big ticket item of the whole event, going for a final bid of $500 to a handsome young corpse named BC Woods. That’s pretty awesome in itself, but I happen to know that Woods emailed the auction organizers the night before the event and promised, in secret, that even if he got outbid he’d still pay $500 to the charity. That, in my estimation, is the height of class, and I feel truly awed to have people of such high caliber reading my books. BC Woods has earned himself an extra-special death, but the truth is, a man that awesome I would gladly kill for free.

The event itself was a huge success as well. We started with a massive author panel (MC’ed by me) in which we got wide-spectrum writing advice from somewhere between 20 and 30 incredible authors and illustrators. Then we broke into smaller groups based on genre, where aspiring writers could ask for specific advice on whatever questions they needed; I was in the “fantasy and science fiction” group, though I hope there were some fellow horror writers lumped in there, and it went really well. After lunch we broke down even further, which each author from the genre panel taking a few of the attendees into a back corner and draining their blood critiquing the first page of their novel. The fantasy/SF group was by far the biggest, so my group had, for example, nine people, and we didn’t have much time for everyone, but we still gave good advice and encouragement and I thought it went really well.

We also had an evening event focused more on entertainment and “personality” panels, instead of specifically writing advice, so that people who wanted to support the charity but weren’t themselves writers could still have an opportunity to participate.

It was a lot of fun, and I look forward to making the event even bigger and more amazing next year.

Writing a short story: part 5

Friday, August 20th, 2010

I’m on page 30, and about halfway through, so I think my estimate of 60 pages is going to be pretty accurate. My initial breakdown of those pages, however, was off. I thought that 30 would be the end of the necromancer attack, but some edits to the early pages (cutting out needless explanation, streamlining narrative, etc.) gave me some extra room, and fit the whole scene where they plan their posse into the vacated pages. Note that this was not my intention–I wasn’t trying to reach page 30 as a magical benchmark of some kind, it just happened to be where the scene ended. In writing that scene, however, I started to realize that I’m going to need more room than I expected to wrap this up–I need a final showdown, of course, and a scene where the posse is beaten and captured, and somewhere in the middle of those two I’m going to need the character climax where Silas comes to term with his superpower. What I wasn’t planning on, but I’m definitely going to need, as at least one small scene of travel, probably several micro-scenes showing different places and conversations and clues. I don’t want to just jump straight into the next fight scene–but I don’t want to drag this out any more than I have to, either. It’s a very hard balance to find.

My first instinct, of course, was to just lengthen the story and make it a novel or novella. Why not? Well, because I’m writing for a specific market and if I make this any longer it essentially won’t have a market at all. Maybe I’m overestimating the un-sell-ability of this story, but you’ve got to remember that horror and westerns are both at the bottom of their popularity sine waves right now. This story would make an awesome movie, but I simply don’t see a useful home for it as a novel: sure, you want to read it, but as a reader of my website you’re kind of a self-selecting niche market. My best bet is to write the story as planned, keep it short, hope the anthology wants it, and retain every conceivable right to republish it elsewhere in the same or other incarnations. If for some reason horror westerns about mutant pioneers become really popular, then boy, have I got a doozy all lined up and ready to go. Until then I’ll stay on target for 60 pages.

(Also: my natural tendency to complicate things, and my secret urge to turn this into a novel, almost got me to turn two other kids in the story into mutants, and form a team, and really turn this into an X-Men Mormons on the High Plains kind of thing, but I resisted. You should all be proud.)

So I know I need a section, maybe just five or six pages, of travel and reflection and interaction with the other men in the posse. I didn’t think I’d need it, but now that I’m here I can tell that I totally do. The scene I just finished was primarily social–it’s partly about Silas trying to reconcile his mother’s death, but it’s also about the townspeople trying to accept him as anything other than a monster. Neither group is fully convinced of his redeemability (because I need to save that for the end), which left us in a kind of grudging, temporary alliance in the face of a greater danger–they’ll work with him, and he’ll help, because the necromancer has their daughters and sisters kidnapped, but they’re not going to like it. A crucible like that (ie, put multiple characters in one place and turn up the heat) serves as a promise to the reader: I can’t set up all those conflicts without paying them off. I need to show that some of the people hate him, some of the people slowly come to trust him, and that Silas himself is too damaged by his earlier failure to effectively face the final battle. Travel scenes, even small ones, will develop those themes and allow me to pay them off in the big dramatic scenes that come later.

One thing I’ve really been concerned about, since the very first stages of outlining this story, is the exact moment when Silas learns what is ostensibly the crux of the story: the key realization that his powers are not a curse but a blessing from God. As you can see from my earlier blogs, I’ve never really been sure if that would work best in Plot Turn 2 or the Midpoint–both of which should be major decisions. As I was writing the midpoint just now, it turned into less of a “Silas” moment and more of a “townspeople” moment; the characters trying to convince him he wasn’t evil were also, and perhaps mostly, trying to convince the townspeople not to kill him outright. This gave their arguments a different focus that I hadn’t expected, but which worked very well, as it served mainly to flip the scales from “evil” to “not evil.” That leaves us the perfect opportunity in the final climax to tip him over from “not evil” to “good.” I should also point out that, despite my intentions, Silas’s potential love interest was not kidnapped, which means that she can’t deliver the inspiring speech in the climax. The good news is that the mean old biddy who hates Silas, Mollie Hammond, WAS kidnapped, and I can have her give the speech. It will be a very cool redemption of her character, and overall it will make the story stronger. I love it when little accidents like that crop up and turn out to be awesome.

Writing a short story: part 4

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

I had great progress on the story yesterday, adding around 2500 words (and shaving two pages off what I had previously written). The story is now at the halfway mark, which actually comes right before the midpoint—since the second plot turn is essentially a moment of decision, rather than a scene unto itself, it just going to be folded into the finale. That means:

First Half: meet the characters, set the scene, introduce the conflict and villain.
Second Half: craft plan to defeat villain, plan fails, hero overcomes his personal problems and saves the day.

Writing the villain was great fun: he’s an old cowboy necromancer named Gideon Price, known to the town as just a criminal refugee who lives in the wilderness and comes into town every now and then to buys supplies and leer at women and creep people out. He arrives at the town social in our story because he’s preparing for an especially dark ritual that requires some sacrificial virgins. (“That’s what I love about Mormons: you have plenty of virgins, and you love getting them all together on one place.”) His character ended up being very verbal and irreverent, probably as a natural reaction to writing about a reverent, taciturn hero. He arrived at the social with a group of reanimated dead, though the people couldn’t tell that right off the bat; the hero just referred to them as “pale men,” and described how creepily they looked and moved.

I wanted to escalate the tension even further, so the first time a girl gets taken the bad guy pulls out a pistol and shoots one of the rescuers in the back. This ramped up the consequences very quickly and helped portray the townsfolk as innocent and helpless—they have guns of their own, but they left them outside in their wagons. They have nothing to fight back with…except the hero’s superpower.

The bad guy’s guns worked especially with the superpower. First of all, once he finally realizes the only way to survive is to turn into stone, the bad guy’s weapons are now suddenly useless—he fires at the hero, but the bullets bounce right off. It’s a fun hero moment, and we get to watch the hero smash some zombies and rescue one of the girls, and it looks like things are turning around. Then the villain gets an idea: instead of shooting at the hero he shoots at his mom, distracting the hero long enough for him and his zombie thugs to get away with the rest of the prisoners. It was a great way to follow our outline (ie, kill the mother) while showing that the hero is still vulnerable AND giving him a plausible excuse to blame himself for his mom’s death. I didn’t plan the pistols, but I had planned everything else and I knew what needed to happen, so when the pistols showed up I could fit them in easily.

You may ask why, if this guy’s a necromancer, he uses guns instead of magic. Three reasons: first, this is a western, and I need a gunslinger; when combining genres you have to balance each side’s needs carefully, and in this case I choose western over horror. Second, I don’t see necromancer’s as having a lot of combat powers—they can, but in this story they don’t. Magic necrosis-missiles or whatever would make his magic seem too easy, and I want the big ritual he’s planning to have the proper weight. Third, I wanted to keep the fight scene simple: I’m already introducing, in one scene, zombies and stone transformation, and if I get too much wilder than that it could be too much, especially in a short story. I toyed with giving the bullets magic effects, like having anyone he shoots rise from the dead, but that would mean his Mom would rise from the dead, which I think is too much—we already have the “I blame myself for killing her” trope, and using the “family member rises from the dead” trope wouldn’t be adding anything to the story, just repeating that same trope again when he has to kill his zombie Mom. In a short story, where space is at a premium, we definitely don’t need both, though honestly I’d hesitate to do it in a novel, too.

My one worry is that the hero’s transformation in this scene might be too heroic, which will make it hard to follow in his second, more climactic transformation later on. However, I never want to tone something down because it’s too awesome—I’d rather come up with something incredible for the second scene than de-cool-ify the first one.

Last night, after writing, I did something horrible to my back, and today I have medically instructed not to bend at the waist if at all possible. That means no chairs, which means no writing. I should be back into it tomorrow, and I’ll be sure to tell you how it goes.

Writing a Short Story: Part 3

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

Let’s start with a quick link to an interview I did with Fantasy Book Critic. It has some interesting background stuff, like my favorite authors and writing influences, but the thing you’ll really want to read are the hints for I Don’t Want to Kill You, the third John Cleaver book which comes out next Spring.

And now let’s talk about short story writing. Yesterday I finally had a chance to start work on The Mountain of the Lord, the “Mormons and Monsters” short story I talked about here and here. With a solid outline and some good brainstorming in place, I sat down to write with some specific things in mind:

1) No narrative exposition. I have a tendency to write myself into a story, letting the characters and the narrator explain everything about the background and setting, and I really wanted to avoid that as much as possible this time, so I forced myself to explain everything in dialogue, and even then to explain it as little as possible. If the characters don’t have a good reason to say it out loud, the reader doesn’t need to know it, and if the reader really, really does need to know it, the characters had better come up with a good reason to say it out loud. This, in practice, led to a more mysterious tone than I usually use, which I think is a good fit. It also resulted in a focus on atmosphere over setting, if that makes sense: the setting never gets described, but you can kind of pick it up because the characters, when not allowed to talk about the plot, end up talking about the kinds of things that are actually important to them: farming, religion, neighbors, etc.

2) Thematic names. Before writing I found a couple of good websites with lists of common pioneer names, and grabbed some iconic ones and wrote them all down on a list; whenever I needed to name a character, I just grabbed a first name and a surname off the list. Having these close at hand helped keep the writing fast, and also helped solidify the pioneer atmosphere.

3) While writing, I realized I wanted him to feel like he was constantly being judged, and yet I also wanted his powers to be a secret from most of the people in the town. This meant I had to solidify who knew about the powers (a small group), and how they knew, and what they thought. This changed a bit as time went on, so I’ll need to go back and fix the first scene or two to match what I eventually decided on.

4) Dialect. I really don’t want to start spelling words wrong, but the more I write the more I fall into a pioneer dialect and accent. I want to keep it all in word choice, though in this case that includes “ain’t,” and that opens the door for dropping the “g” from the end of gerunds, and if I decide to go down that road I need to be very careful not to go too far. It could get out of hand quickly, but if I keep it under control the dialogue will be far stronger than if I ignore dialect altogether.

5) Apparently I have a thing about mothers? I love my mom, she’s the best in the world, but for some reason I keep doing horrible things to the mothers of my protagonists–I’m going to assume the best of myself, which is that whenever I search for a way to really screw up a character my subconscious says “Hey! Mess with his mom! That’ll totally ruin him.” Anyway, this mom started as kind of a religious hardliner, to help establish some of his own religious zeal, but then when they got to the big town social and someone started telling the main character he didn’t belong, I realized how awesome it would be for this mom to step in and defend him: she’s a zealot, certainly, but she also loves her son and won’t stand for anyone attacking him. And then I thought how even more awesome it would be if the mentor character who dies were actually the mom. Sweet, that would totally break the protagonist in half! Especially if it were his fault. It’s looking like it’s going to happen in pinch 1 instead pinch 2, but it’s going to work really well; I just need to make sure pinch 2 is even worse. (Even worse than your mom dying because of something you did? That’s going to be an awesome pinch.)

I’m 13 pages into it, and the bad guy just showed up; I predict about 10 pages for the fight (because it needs to include the main character hulking out, which will involve a lot of internal stuff), and then we’ll need three more scenes: the town meeting to plan a rescue, the search through the wilderness that results in their capture, and the final showdown in the villain’s lair. Somewhere in there I need two solid scenes of soul-searching: one where the mentor teaches him that his power might be a gift from God, and one where he decides to risk everything and use his power (which will be even harder for him, now that he blames his power for his mother’s death). That puts the story at around 50-60 pages unless something changes, but I’m pretty sure something will change. That’s long for a short story, but not horrible. We’ll see how it goes.

Writing for Charity

Monday, August 16th, 2010

The Writing for Charity event I’ve talked about before is coming up this weekend, so if you’re in Utah and want some hands-on writing advice from a group of internationally published writers and illustrators, with 100% of the proceeds going to buy books for underprivileged kids, sign up now!

Our goal is to give a book to every child in at least ten Utah schools, which will probably come out to around 6000 books. These will be signed and, where possible, hand-delivered. The books to be given out will be purchased at cost, so no one is making money here–it all goes to the kids.

In return for your financial support (ie, your registration fee), you’ll get a day of writing assistance including a massive author panel, a smaller panel with genre-specific authors, and an even smaller workshop group with hands-on advice and critique. We’ll have a break in the afternoon followed by a big evening event with some huge authors like Brandon Sanderson and Brandon Mull. It’s going to be awesome, and you totally want to come.

If you can’t make it in person but still want to help (or even if you can make it, but just want to help more and get some sweet stuff), we’re also holding a silent auction with some very cool items. I, for example, have offered the following:

Auction item: Get Fictionally Murdered by Dan Wells
Dan Wells, Utah’s premiere horror author, has dark needs that must be filled–the voices say that someone must die, and that lucky someone could be you! The winner of this auction will appear, by name, in one of Dan’s upcoming thrillers or horror novels, where he or she will be gruesomely, shockingly, and/or spectacularly murdered. (If you would prefer to offer up your neighbor/lawyer/mother-in-law, that can be arranged as well; the voices don’t care who, they just want blood!)

If you’ve always wanted to go out with a big, public bang, this is your chance. I just submitted the item this morning, so it might take a bit before it shows up on the website; be patient, and keep trying.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Friday, August 13th, 2010

A few years ago Edgar Wright created one of the most brilliant movies I’ve ever seen, combining horror, humor, social commentary, and surprising character depth in Shaun of the Dead. It’s one of my very favorite movies, and I sat through most of it with my jaw on the floor, waiting for him to step wrong and being joyfully surprised over and over when every step was not only right, but better than I expected. Shaun’s morning walk to the local store; Shaun fighting off zombies with his record collection; the absolutely wrenching scene with Shaun and his mother. Here was a movie that was not afraid to do it all, to be horrifying one moment and hilarious the next, or–why not?–do both at the same time, while simultaneously saying something profound about the way people rely on each other, for better and for worse. It’s a great movie, and you should go out and rent it…tomorrow. Tonight, you need to go see Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

I was expecting Scott Pilgrim to be wacky and fun, and it was, but I wasn’t expecting much else: it stars Michael Cera, who’s been playing the same character since Arrested Development, and the trailers made it seem far more concerned with flashy weirdness than any kind of coherent story. It’s about a guy who meets a girl and has to defeat her seven evil exes, complete with rampant video game imagery, so I figured it would be an over-the-top adventure movie with some bright colors and cool effects and an excuse to look at Mary Elizabeth Winstead for a couple of hours. What more does a movie need? What I didn’t realize going in is that this movie was also made by Edgar Wright, and he’s still not content to do one, two, or even just three things at once. When an underground rock concert turned into a fight scene, and then the fight scene turned into a Bollywood musical, I was hooked; when the rock and the fights and the craziness started actually affecting people in real, personal ways, I was in love. This is not a just a movie about a guy fighting ridiculous bad guys to win the love of a girl, though there’s plenty of that; this is a movie about a guy who has to change himself, and grow up, and become the kind of person who deserves the girl’s love. It’s a movie about flawed people becoming better, told with manic energy through the lens of rock as a lifestyle and video games as a metaphor. It’s the most audacious, crazy, wonderful movie I’ve seen in ages, and twenty years ago–even ten years ago–the creators would have been burned as witches. Today, for an audience raised on rock and Nintendo and laugh tracks and a devastating social disconnect, it’s a revolution.

In my church I teach a class of young adult men–most of them between the ages of 21 and 30, most of them still in school, many of them blindsided by adulthood and drifting a little more aimlessly than they’d like to be. They’ve grown up being told what to do and when to do it, with parents and teachers and school counselors always at their backs, pointing them in the right direction and pushing them forward. It’s easy to do things in high school because what you’re supposed to do is always obvious: go to school, study this book, take this test, get this job, flip this burger. When you’re 16 you can drive; when you’re 18 you graduate. Then you move out on your own and suddenly you’re out of benchmarks–you don’t know what comes next because the next goal is up to you. Trying to teach some of these guys how to make their own decisions and stand on their own two feet is a lot harder than you’d think. So one day I was teaching the class, talking about why we have trials–the age-old question of why a loving god would make life so dang hard all the time–and I couldn’t find a simple way to explain it until suddenly I remembered World of Warcraft. I looked at the group.

“You guys play play video games, right?”

They nodded and mumbled and sat up straighter; now I was talking their language.

“So if you’re playing a game like Warcraft or Diablo or Final Fantasy or something, how do you get stronger? How do you get better and learn new things?”

“Experience points,” said one.

“Exactly,” I said, “and how do you earn experience points?”

“By fighting monsters.”

And then everything clicked. This group that wasn’t interested, and didn’t get it, suddenly understood exactly what I was talking about, in a way that made perfect sense to all of them: you don’t get experience points by sitting on your butt, you get experience points by going out in the world and doing things and fighting monsters and overcoming obstacles and challenging yourself. You become bigger and better and stronger and smarter by making choices and stretching your limits and putting yourself at risk. Scott Pilgrim is a great movie not just because it understands this, but because it presents it in precisely the terms that speak to its audience. The real challenges in life, and the real victories, are not the flying punches and the whirlwind kicks but the choices that get you there in the first place, and the friends you make along the way, and the things you learn about them and about yourself. Scott Pilgrim doesn’t level up when he beats that final bad guy, he levels up when he chooses to face that bad guy, and thus becomes the kind of man he needs to be in order to “win.” The thrill of the movie is in the kung fu, but the heart of the movie is in the characters who do it, and the reasons they do it, and ways they grow.

Just like Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a movie that isn’t afraid to do it all–to show you superpowered ninjas and bollywood hipster demon chicks and surprisingly frail, human characters, all at the same time.

I loved it.