Archive for writing


Open Spaces

Watching that Dungeons and Dragons movie last weekend reminded me of something I’ve noticed in fantasy movies that amuses me: the obligatory scene of the heroes riding across a nearly deserted landscape. Fictional fantasy worlds seem to be just about entirely unpopulated. The characters very seldom run across any kind of civilization when they travel long distances.

But given that most of these fantasy worlds are at least somewhat based on medieval Europe, that’s pretty unlikely. The population was lower then, but that meant that each of the settlements was smaller. They weren’t very spread-out, though. When your only transportation is by foot or horse, things tend to be closer together. In a leisurely afternoon stroll in England, I once walked through three villages — and that was on the public footpath instead of on the direct road (which was built on an old Roman road, so it’s a road that would have existed in medieval times). If I’d been on the main road and had walked another half hour or so, I’d have hit two more villages. Apparently, there were even more villages that died off over the years, either literally (a number were depopulated after the Black Death) or just by becoming irrelevant once people no longer needed to live so close together or they relocated to be near railroads.

Germany is similar. You can avoid civilization on the public walking paths through the woods, sort of. You still may run across a farm or a hamlet (smaller than a village), though. Just a casual afternoon stroll can take you through several villages if you’re not on a path designed to be a nature walk.

In some of these fictional cases, they’re avoiding civilization. That’s why Frodo and his friends don’t seem to run into any towns before they reach Bree at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings. But if that world was populated like the England that world was based on, they’d have to work to bypass the villages along the way. I sometimes amuse myself by imagining that the thirty seconds we see of the characters in these movies riding in a vast overhead shot is the only thirty seconds they have to run free between villages.

I watched a Fantasy Cheese (low-budget fantasy full of cliches and tropes) movie a while back that was particularly amusing, in that it had the hero walk across the kingdom to the home of the lord who was supposed to give him a position in his court, and he never ran across another soul — no farmhouses, no villages, no towns, not even an inn at a crossroads. I imagine that was to do with the budget. They’d have had to hire more actors or do more set decorating to have something that looked appropriate. They shot the lord’s home at an actual castle, but there must not have been any good villages that weren’t too modern.

This came up for me in a book I’ve been working on that involves a journey, and I had to rework my map because I realized there needed to be more towns, especially as they got closer to the center of civilization. I’d been thinking in Texas scale when I needed to think Europe scale, or at the very least the northeast of the United States. Being used to Texas warps your thinking. You even look at maps differently. I remember a business trip to Connecticut when my coworkers made me navigate, and until I realized that the fold-out gas station map of Connecticut was on a different scale than the map of Texas, we kept missing exits. It would look like the exit we needed was at least fifteen minutes away on the Texas scale when it was actually right ahead. If you’re in a world moving at horse or foot speed, you’re probably going to have some kind of settlement within a day’s walk of any other settlement if the general area is settled.

So, what fantasy needs is more villages unless the characters are actively trying to avoid people. Come to think of it, I guess the D&D characters were avoiding people, since they’d escaped from prison. Still, that soaring overhead shot maybe should have included a village in the distance.

writing, publishing business

When the Machines Take Over

One of the biggest topics in the writing community right now is the growth of artificial intelligence — or, more accurately, language learning models that can simulate writing. These aren’t actually “intelligent.” They’re basically glorified autocomplete. They were “trained” by getting input from written work available on the Internet, and from there they figured out what was most likely to come next based on prompts.

One reason this is an issue is that the people whose works were used to train it weren’t asked if this was okay, so it’s unauthorized use of their work. Another reason is that this is essentially a machine that automates mosaic plagiarism. It’s not writing anything new. It’s just cobbling together bits and pieces of other written work to create what’s essentially a word mosaic. There have been authors who got caught doing this when readers recognized phrases from other books. They take existing books and copy and paste bits and pieces together. It’s not a direct copy, but it’s not original, either. This technology just automates that.

Another reason it’s an issue is that it may make it harder to make a living as a writer because of people who don’t understand what it does and think it offers a shortcut. This is one of the things screenwriters are fighting about in the current writers strike. They’re concerned that studios will use AI to “write” scripts and then hire writers to “edit” or rewrite them into something that can be used. There are different payment scales based on whether someone gets credit for the story, for the script, or just for a rewrite, and studios could try to save money by not crediting an actual writer for the story or the original draft of the script, just for doing a “polish” on an AI-created script, even though it might actually take more effort to turn it into something that could be filmed than it would to write a new script.

For non-fiction writing, like marketing communications (my field when I’m not writing fiction), technical writing, and journalism, there have already been writers fired and replaced with AI. Never mind that it’s extremely dangerous to use it for fact-based writing because it makes stuff up. It doesn’t find information. It just creates something that seems likely based on information that’s already out there. There’s an attorney currently in huge trouble because he turned his legal research over to one of the AI engines to have it write his legal briefs, and it cited entirely fictional cases. It created a legal brief based on other legal briefs, but the cases didn’t exist. I have author friends who’ve played with it, since it’s supposedly a good tool for writing marketing copy, author bios, and the like, but they found that it made up stuff. It didn’t accurately describe the book, made up facts for the bio, and added non-existent books to the list of books in the series.

For fiction writers, there’s already an impact in the short-fiction market as publications have had to close to submissions because they were getting deluged with AI-written drivel. Most publications don’t want to publish anything AI-written because it can’t be copyrighted. It’s an amalgam of other works, so there’s a potential plagiarism issue. Plus, it’s not very good. It can imitate styles of other writers, but it has no real authorial voice, no story logic, no real soul. Apparently, it got out on some “side hustle” advice channel that an easy way to make money is to let AI write short stories for you. Never mind that even at the big publications you’re making a couple of hundred bucks if you manage to sell something. But the swamp of these bogus stories that aren’t good enough for publication, whether or not they’re AI-written, is making more work for editors and making it harder for real writers to get past the noise, especially if they’re newcomers. Editors may start focusing on authors they’ve already worked with or know by reputation because that means it’s more likely that the story is worth publication. A new writer without a reputation may get lost in the shuffle.

Novelists are likely to see the impact in discoverability. The online bookstore algorithms tend to favor new releases, and an author may get an overall boost when they have a new release. If someone can churn out a book with AI in a day, they can flood the marketplace with constant new releases, which crowds out the authors who take weeks or months to write a book the hard way. Even if readers don’t end up buying those books, their listings will stay front-and-center. It will be harder for readers to discover new books and authors.

Publishers already look for new books that are like what’s currently successful, and it’s not hard to imagine some of them seeing this as a shortcut. Get the machine to produce something like the current hot thing, then have an editor clean it up. Then they don’t have to deal with authors and they can get to market faster, jumping on the trend before it passes.

One argument I’ve heard for using AI is that it “democratizes” writing, making it so everyone can do it. Writing is hard, they say, and not everyone wants to put in the time to do it. To which I say, if you don’t enjoy doing it and don’t want to do it, you don’t have to do it. You can do something else. If you do enjoy it but are frustrated because your skills don’t match your vision, this may seem to provide a convenient shortcut. Just plug your idea into the computer, and it writes the story for you. But it doesn’t really get you past that frustration gap because if you aren’t writing, you aren’t learning how to write. Plugging your idea into a computer isn’t going to help you grow to be a better writer. You’ll just get better at wording the way you put your ideas into the computer. If you aren’t willing to put in the work to write until you get good at it, then maybe you don’t enjoy the process of writing and should do something else with your time.

I suspect this is another outcome of that side hustle culture, the idea that everything you do should be monetized. If you enjoy writing, you’ve got to be able to make money at it somehow, and now. You’re not making money from it during the time you’re writing just to get better at writing, so you want that shortcut. I also suspect that there’s a lot of overlap between the “writing is hard and this democratizes it” people and the people who believe that everyone can write, so it’s not really a specialized skill people should get paid to do.

I just don’t understand the idea of automating the things that are fun and that are part of human expression, like art and writing. They talk about how even though jobs and opportunities will be lost for writing, there will be new careers in editing AI-written output. But that’s automating the fun part and keeping just the tedious part. You’re not actually doing the thing when you use these tools. You’re getting output as though you’ve done it. I’ve found that I’m sanest when I’m in the creation phase of writing, when I’m coming up with ideas and writing early drafts. When I come close to burnout, it’s when I’m in the proofreading phase. I’d hate to get to where that’s the only part I get to do.

Where I’d love some kind of automation and artificial intelligence is to get a truly good spellchecker, one that looks at context, so if your typo accidentally creates a real word that’s spelled correctly, the spellchecker can tell it’s the wrong word for the context and flags it. Or it would catch when you use the wrong version of a word (like “their” vs. “there”). And it would be able to tell whether or not you need that comma. It would be trained on fiction, so it would work better than the existing grammar checkers. Automate the tedious, boring stuff, not the fun, creative parts.

writing, Books

Jane Austen’s Mary Sue?

I’ve been thinking about that “Mary Sue” concept some more, and to further explore it, I’m turning not to action/adventure, but to Jane Austen.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen identified pretty closely with most of her main characters. She had a lot in common with them and they were in similar circumstances to what she experienced, but with different outcomes (since they all got married and she never did). If you look at Austen’s letters and life story, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that Lizzie from Pride and Prejudice was to a large extent Austen’s self-insert character.

Is Lizzie a Mary Sue, though? She’s sparkling and witty, and everyone loves her. Even Darcy, although he initially claims she’s not as attractive as everyone else seems to think, falls in love with her. She ends up marrying the extremely wealthy man, who goes to great lengths to help her and her family. She gets to give a stinging comeuppance to a snobby older woman. It kind of sounds like Austen was writing out her greatest fantasies.

But I don’t think she’s a Mary Sue. Austen gives Lizzie plenty of flaws. She’s a terrible judge of character, believing everything Wickham tells her and seeing him as trustworthy while she doesn’t see Darcy for what he really is, even after he starts softening somewhat. She’s part of both the “pride” and “prejudice” in the title. She goes through a major growth arc.

Cathy in Northanger Abbey is to some extent another self-insert — a clergyman’s daughter with an active imagination who’s obsessed with gothic novels — but the book is, to a large extent, poking fun at this character and the way her overly active imagination gets her in trouble. She may get the happy ending, but after she learns a lesson from making a huge mistake. (This one does have a Star Wars connection, in that Felicity Jones of Rogue One played Cathy in the most recent TV adaptation, which is now really fun to watch after seeing Rogue One if you imagine Jyn Erso showing up instead of Cathy.)

Anne in Persuasion may also have had some element of autobiography to her. Austen clearly relates to her. She’s practically a saint, the longsuffering only sensible person in her flighty family, tending to her sickly sister and her kids as essentially an unpaid servant and suffering in silence as she has to watch other women make a play for the man she loves. There’s a lot of “Victim Sue” going on here. But Austen is also very clear that Anne has screwed up seriously. She’s in the situation she’s in because she made a bad choice.

Austen may have written self-inserts who get to live out her fantasies, but she remains objective about these characters. She’s well aware of their flaws. She makes them learn and grow in ways that Mary Sues seldom do (if you start out perfect, you don’t have to grow or learn).

The reason I was thinking about Jane Austen in terms of Mary Sues was the recent finale of the series Sanditon, which was very loosely based on a fragment of an unfinished novel by Austen. Really, the only part Austen wrote was the setup, a genteel but naive young woman gets invited to stay in a beach resort town with some people her family recently helped. There’s a hint that there’s a dashing (and possibly scandalous) younger brother of the man she’s visiting, and there’s a wealthy lady in town with impoverished young relations hanging around her, hoping to get into her will, as well as a young heiress from the Indes. And there it leaves off.

But instead of the TV writers letting the Austen heroine be an Austen heroine, they created a Mary Sue. This heroine was practically perfect from the start and doesn’t really grow or change. She’s good at everything — she can set a broken bone, give advice about architecture, plan an event, win at cricket, and just decide to be a governess. She wins the heart of the scandalous brother and the bright young architect (only for both to vanish when the series got cancelled and then renewed and the actors were no longer available), then catches the attention of a military officer and a wealthy widower. Her main problem is resolved not by her growing or learning anything but by others intervening. There’s none of the realization of where she went wrong that we get from the real Austen works. An Austen heroine generally has to eat some crow and admit to her failures, and it’s because she’s able to do this that she gets her happy ending. This chick gets her happy ending without learning anything.

And that, I think, is the difference between putting a lot of yourself into your characters and writing a “Mary Sue.” Really, I think we need a better term for this because the whole point of the Mary Sue is that she’s an author’s self-insert, and many of the examples I can find in original fiction don’t seem to be the writers’ self-inserts. In some cases, it’s a character the writer is enamored with and therefore loses perspective. I think in the Sanditon case it’s just bad writing. This is perhaps the least interesting character in the whole series, so they didn’t bother developing her. They just stuck traits to her as though that would make viewers like her better, then gave her a last-second happy ending without her learning anything.


Dressing the Characters

Reading my manuscript as an e-book is an interesting experience. At times I get caught up in it, but then I find myself reading critically and spotting things I want to fix. I’m getting more into it as I progress, probably because I’m past the spot where I rewrote it over and over again so the words are less familiar.

I got sidetracked yesterday, though, by designing “costumes” for my characters. I realized I have almost no description of what anyone’s wearing. I have a mental image, but I haven’t conveyed that very well. I don’t necessarily feel the need to describe everything everyone wears, but I do think I need to convey the overall sense of what people are wearing in this world.

This is “secondary world” fantasy, so I don’t have to be accurate to any particular time period, but that in a way makes things more difficult because it’s harder to find reference images to help me have a more solid mental image for me to describe. So far, I’d describe the overall look in this place to be medieval meets Old West. Of course, I can’t use those terms in the book because these people wouldn’t know what either of those things are.

When I first started writing down the stories in my head when I was 12, I tended to get sidetracked designing costumes for my characters. My notebooks of story notes have as many (very rough) drawings of dresses as they do real story notes. That meant I didn’t get very far in the writing part. Now, though I seem to have swung the other way and my characters seem to be walking around in generic, bland clothing that doesn’t get described. They’re wearing pants and shirts and dresses, but there’s no hint at what they look like.

And that meant some searching online to find examples of things to help me create an overall look. It was kind of fun, I have to admit. I’m not trying to draw things now, just finding images so I can think “these pants plus this kind of shirt and this kind of jacket, but without that trim.”

I’ve also found a few dresses and blouses I’d love to have, but I wouldn’t have anywhere to wear them. Maybe when I make a profit on this book, I’ll celebrate by buying something.


The Next Round Begins

I must like that last book I was working on because I found myself eager to get back to work on it. I like to let a manuscript rest at least two weeks after I finish a first draft so that I can look at it with fresh eyes and be less tied to the process of writing it. I didn’t quite make it two full weeks before I wanted to jump back in. I figure it’s been months since I wrote the beginning, so it’s been far more than two weeks on that part.

Right now, I’m trying to read it like a reader would and see how it works for me in the big picture. That’s hard to do because my impulse is to start editing. On the last book I wrote before this one, I got the idea to read the manuscript on my tablet, which makes it a lot harder to edit as I go (so I just don’t). But it still looks like a manuscript, so I read it that way. With this book, I got the bright idea to format the manuscript as an e-book so it’s just like reading any other book on my tablet. I still find things I want to fix, which is okay, since that’s the purpose of this exercise. When I find something that doesn’t work for me or that needs to be changed, I write it down in my notebook, but otherwise, I keep reading. I literally can’t make changes in the document I’m reading. It also helps to get away from my desk. I’m mostly reading this while sitting on the patio, exactly the way I’d read for pleasure. It’s interesting how reading this way changes my mindset about how I’m looking at the story.

I need to rework the beginning — I may not need most of the first chapter — and there are some decisions I made late in the book that mean I need to adjust some things early in the book, but I’m enjoying the story and like the characters. This is a good sign. I like being in this world. I don’t think I’m going to have to do major surgery on the next draft, just the beginning. It’ll be mostly about consistency and fine-tuning

After I have all my notes on what needs to be fixed I can get to work on fixing it. After that draft, I think I’m going to brainstorm and draft the second book in the series. I want to have two ready to go before I launch, and it makes sense to draft the second book before finalizing the first book. There may be things I need to change and set up, and there’s no point in finessing the words until the story is locked down.


The Book That Won’t Die

I had grand plans to take today off, since I surely would have finished the book. It’s a cool, gray day, perfect for curling up with a book. But I seem to be writing The Book That Won’t Die, so the book I’m curling up with is the one I’m writing.

I’m at nearly 120,000 words on this draft, which is the longest I’ve written. I think I hit about 110,000 words on the first drafts of a few of the early Enchanted, Inc. books. And I probably have at least 5,000 words to go. I suppose that’s not out of the norm for a fantasy novel. It’s even short by some fantasy standards. But it’s throwing off my mental pacing, both of where the various story elements should fall and of how long it should take me to write. I’d worried because the event that should have been the midpoint was falling at around 60,000 words, and it turns out that’s just about right.

So, I’m not getting my holiday today. I don’t know if I’ll finish today or if I’ll need to do the wrap-up scenes later. If I have stuff to wrap up, I don’t know whether to knock off early today, take the weekend, and then take a fresh look at the last chapter or so before writing the wrap-up scenes. I guess it’ll depend on where I get today and whether I feel like I have momentum or feel like I need a break.

It’s not as gray and rainy as the initial forecast said it would be, so I suppose I might as well be working instead of having a “rain” day. This may be my last day that’s this cool until October, so I do want to take advantage of it. I’m trying to think of a good movie for tonight, something of the sort to watch while snuggled under a blanket with a mug of hot cocoa. I’m not sure what that looks like, though. I kind of want to watch something like Stardust, but I’ve memorized that one and don’t want to wear it out, and there’s not a lot like that, other than The Princess Bride, which I’ve also just about memorized. Any ideas for what movies say “cozy” to you? What do you watch on a cool, possibly rainy, evening when you want to snuggle under a blanket and drink cocoa?


Not There Yet

It seems I was perhaps a bit overly optimistic when I thought I’d finish this book this week. It’s easy to forget that more detailed, action-oriented scenes are a lot slower to write. I also had the issue that while I know what will happen, I’m not entirely clear on how it will happen, so there’s a lot of brainstorming before I can write each scene as I try to picture it and think of what, exactly will happen to bring about the plot points I already know about.

It’s funny how my mental images of these scenes have changed along the way. The scene I wrote yesterday ended up happening in an entirely different way than I originally planned, in a different place, with different people involved.

I’m also in the phase of “headlight writing,” where I can only see the scene immediately ahead of me, and I need to write it before I get a clear mental image of the next scene.

As a result, it may take me all week next week to write the rest of the book I thought I’d finish this week. It’s already longer than any other first draft I think I’ve ever written. It’s epic-style fantasy, so it can be a bit longer, but there may also be some cutting.

I like the way it’s shaping up, though. The things I’m coming up with now are definite improvements on my initial ideas, so it’s worth taking the time to think through it. This is normally when I get impatient and rush ahead, then have to drastically rewrite, so it’s good that I’m taking my time to try to get it right.

I do feel bad because I’m doing mean things to my hero now. He’ll end up better for it, in the long run, but he has to go through some stuff first.

I definitely have “book brain.” I was mentally planning the scene I needed to write this morning as I was falling asleep last night. Then in the middle of the night I woke in a panic because I’d forgotten to take into consideration the hero’s nephew Jonathan in my plans for the scene, and that was going to throw off all my plans. When I woke for real in the morning and thought about it, I remembered that there is no nephew Jonathan. The hero doesn’t have a nephew. The name “Jonathan” wouldn’t fit into this world. It’s important to the story that the hero is alone in this scene, facing the bad guys by himself. I suspect my brain was playing with something I did forget. I’d realized earlier in the evening that I had forgotten to take a certain element of how the magic works into consideration in my initial plans for the scene, and that’s why I was thinking about it as I fell asleep. I was figuring out how to work around it. I’d already had the “I forgot to consider this!” panic, and I guess it got incorporated into a dream. I have no idea where the nephew Jonathan came from, but now I think I absolutely have to have a character in some book have a nephew named Jonathan who’s present in a scene but not noticed by anyone.

And now back to not writing about Jonathan.

writing, TV, movies

Redemption Arcs

In the book I’m currently working on, for the first time in my career I have scenes written from the perspective of one of the villains. He’s a henchman, not the big bad, and he’s the one sent out as the errand boy for the offstage villain. I haven’t decided yet if this guy is going to get a redemption arc, if maybe he’ll end up turning against the villain and joining the good guys, but pondering that has had me thinking about redemption arcs. I like them in theory. I belong to a religious tradition that’s all about redemption and believes that no one is beyond salvation, but I’m also picky about fictional redemption. I love the moment when a villain flips and joins the good guys, but I want to really feel the redemption, and I don’t want someone who’s done true evil to get off lightly.

A few years ago in a TV discussion forum, I jokingly came up with the redemption equation:

bad deeds=good deeds+remorse+suffering

The idea is that both sides of the equation have to balance for the redemption arc to be satisfying. If the good deeds, the remorse the character feels for the bad deeds, and the suffering don’t seem equal to the bad deeds the character has done, it doesn’t work. By suffering, I mean the consequences for the bad deeds, like prison time or other people not liking them; karmic payback; or mitigating circumstances (like a street kid taken in by the leader of a criminal gang). It doesn’t count if it’s suffering the characters bring on themselves. If you murder your parents, you don’t get suffering points for being an orphan, for instance. The worse the bad deeds are, the more the other things have to make up for it. It does get to the point where the bad deeds are so bad that you can’t imagine making up for it in a way that would allow an audience to accept a redemption. That doesn’t mean the character can’t ever be redeemed, but it may require the character to die for redemption to work. You can’t imagine that character just going on and hanging out with the other good guys.

Not that people haven’t written that. One of my biggest gripes with the TV series Once Upon a Time was the fact that the big bad from season one, someone who was shown to have casually murdered innocents because she was having a bad day and who cursed an entire civilization, was crowned Queen of the Universe by her former victims in the series finale, after she’d spent most of the series being friends with her former victims — and in spite of her never apologizing or acknowledging the harm she’d done. She just stopped being evil, with no explanation for why she stopped, and she never actually changed her attitude.

And I think that’s key to the redemption arc. There has to be a reason the villain stops villaining, and usually it’s the “are we the baddies?” moment, when the villain realizes that they’ve been wrong. If they don’t realize that killing and torturing people is bad or that they were on the wrong side and their reasons for doing evil weren’t valid, why would they change?

This is my problem with the “redemption” of Darth Vader (you knew this would get around to Star Wars, didn’t you?). I don’t know that we ever really got the moment of him realizing he was in the wrong. His redemption involved him choosing his son over the guy he was already planning to betray. That’s still a somewhat selfish move. He couldn’t stir himself to save entire planets, but when it was his son in danger, then he acted. Now, maybe I could be generous and say that hearing Luke refuse to kill him because he’s a Jedi like his father gave him his, “Whoa, I’ve been doing it wrong,” moment, but it’s still not super satisfying to me. It only really works because he immediately dies. It wouldn’t have worked if he’d lived and had become a good guy, hanging out with his kids. I’m not even that keen on the fact that he got to be a Force ghost. I don’t know if that’s the equivalent of Force heaven, but a last-minute change of heart doesn’t seem like it should allow him to hang around as a Force ghost, and I was especially irked when they re-edited it to be his younger self, when they didn’t also change Obi-Wan (and would Luke even have known who that random young guy who looked nothing like the man under the mask was?).

Image of dying, maskless Darth Vader.
Text: I chose you over the guy I was planning to betray. You were right, there is good in me!

In the Star Wars world, they did a bit better with the redemption of Kylo Ren. It happened before the very end. He had a chance to really think about what he’d done, and he made an active choice to go help Rey — that wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. And, again, he died, giving up his life for someone else’s. He didn’t get to hang around with the good guys and live happily ever after.

As bad as Once Upon a Time was with that one character, they also managed to do it right. Their version of Captain Hook had some good reasons for being the way he was (explanations, not excuses). He had been wronged. He just went over the top in doing something about it. He had a big realization that he’d wasted his life in revenge and that people didn’t like him because he’d done horrible things. He even later counseled other villains about this and helped turn people away from becoming villains by sharing his advice. When he ran into former victims, he tried to atone and set things right with them. He got hit by a lot of karma on his way to redemption. It seemed like every time he did something bad, he’d get hit by a car, kidnapped, etc. And his suffering didn’t end when he turned good. He did some pretty big heroic acts as a good guy, so he had the good deeds to balance the bad. They did another good redemption arc on the Wonderland spinoff, with a character who was a villain for the first half of the series having a huge turnaround, realizing how badly she’d screwed up. She had to face some of her victims and learn how she affected them, and she had to work to earn the trust of the people she’d hurt, even after she turned good.

I do think it works better for the henchmen to be redeemed, the ones who were following orders or who’d been taught evil. It’s less believable when the big bad, the one who came up with and led the evil schemes, changes sides. Though it might make for a fun story if the big bad did change sides but all the henchmen were still on board with the previous goals and ended up fighting against the former big bad.

I think there’s room for my guy to be redeemed. He hasn’t done any large-scale evil. He’s the kind of weasel who stirs other people up to do his dirty work rather than doing it for himself. He’s suffered some, and he comes from a background that somewhat explains why he’s the way he is. He just made some poor choices in response to those circumstances. He’s enough of a jerk that I can’t imagine him joining the found family of team good guys, but he might realize the big bad has been using him and switch sides in the final showdown. We’ll see.


The Final Push

I’m so close to the end of this book. I could reach my target word count in a day’s work, but I won’t be at the end of the story then. This may be a somewhat longer book, but since it’s fantasy I figure that’s to be expected.

Normally when I’m at this point, I find myself impatiently rushing to the end because I’m so eager to get the book done, but I’m strangely reluctant to finish this one. I don’t really want it to be over with. I’m enjoying spending time with these characters. It’s like when you’re reading a book you don’t want to end, and you slow down to savor each page.

I suspect some of my current slowdown has to do with where I am in the book. I’m in the slight lull where they regroup before the final push, and I’m enjoying the characters having a moment to catch their breath and interact. The next thing I have to do involves shoving them out of a safe place and making them do difficult things, and I’m a little reluctant to do that, even as I’m also eager to see this part of the story play out.

No matter how much I drag my feet, I should finish this book next week. That means I’ll be in what I call Book Brain mode, when I don’t really want to think about anything else while I immerse myself in the book. I picked up some convenience food at the grocery store so I’ll have meals I can just reheat, and I might cook a few things this weekend so I’ll have leftovers. I took care of the serious errands this week, so I shouldn’t have to go anywhere until late in the week.

And then when I finish this draft I have some admin tasks to take care of, but then I’m going to give myself a little time off to relax and think. I need to start figuring out the next thing to write. I got a new idea I want to play with. It’s a long way from being ready to write, but I can start thinking about it.

writing, movies

Ending With a Bang

I’m getting close to the ending of the first draft of the book I’m working on, and that has me thinking about endings. There’s a frequently repeated bit of writing advice about how the first few pages sell this book and the last few pages sell the next book. You want readers to get to the end of the book and want to immediately read the next one. But what, aside from a huge cliffhanger, has that effect? As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve come to the conclusion that it has to do with leaving a reader feeling something.

I discovered one trick for this a number of years ago when I was reading books to judge for a romance contest. I ended up with a book by a top-selling author, and I’ve got to admit that I wasn’t impressed. The book was doing nothing for me, but then I got to the end and read the resolution with a tear in my eye, and I realized she got me, in spite of my misgivings. The next year, I got another book by that author in my selection of books to judge. I read that book on a plane. Near the end of the book, something bad happened to a kid, and it was a real tearjerker moment. I just had the final scene or two of the book to read when the plane got to the gate and I had to put the book down to get off the plane. Then I had to get out of the airport, take the train downtown, get to the office of the friend I was visiting, get shown around her office, then go to a nearby bookstore cafe to hang out until she got off work before I was able to pick up the book again and read the ending. And that ending left me cold. That’s when I realized what she did. She’d have some really emotional thing that didn’t even have anything to do with the plot happen just before the ending so that you read the resolution of the romance and ended the book with a tear in your eye, and that gave you the impression that the book had really touched you. It was so quick from the tearjerking moment to the end that I may be the only reader who put the book down at exactly that point, since I had to. If you separated the ending from the previous scene, there was nothing special about it. She’d done a similar thing in the previous book, only it was an old person with a health crisis.

In my recent Star Wars viewing project, I was also looking at the endings because I recall always leaving the theater after one of those movies excited and wanting to see it again, even when the movie itself wasn’t actually that great. I remember feeling that way about The Phantom Menace, and I can barely sit through that movie. I’ve noticed that there’s a sequence in the last part of almost all of those films that I think has a lot to do with the way people react to them (the rest is due to John Williams because the music really helps). The last quarter or so of these movies builds to a climax with intense tension and high stakes, resulting in a cathartic moment that releases the tension (usually, it involves reaching safety in some way). After that, there’s celebration and connection, usually with hugging. And then there’s something to create a lingering emotional impression that has the audience feeling something as they leave the theater (again, with some help from John Williams).

The throne room scene at the ending of Star Wars, with the characters lined up on the temple steps and Han and Luke wearing medals
Yay! We won! And we’re heroes, with the medals to prove it.

Take the first movie: We have the space battle with the ticking clock — will they destroy the Death Star before it destroys the rebel base? — with the space station blowing up being about as spectacular a catharsis as you get. Then they return to the base, and there’s lots of hugging. Our final emotional impression is one of triumph with the medal ceremony. You get a similar sequence in Return of the Jedi and the sequel trilogy. Battle, something blows up, hugging, then a big emotional hit. The Empire Strikes Back works a little differently, since there’s no clear victory. Our cathartic moment is the ship going to lightspeed, which means they’ve escaped and will be safe, but we get the bonding and hugging before that, when the Falcon rescues Luke. The prequels are all a downward slide. We get the regular sequence in The Phantom Menace, with that final celebration mirroring the first movie, right down to ending with everyone lined up on the stairs. The lingering emotional impressions are mostly nostalgic, since we’re seeing things happen that we’ve heard about or known must have happened, like Obi-Wan taking on Anakin to train or the start of the Clone Wars. Revenge of the Sith goes for full nostalgia, with a repeat of the twin sunset moment from the first movie, but with baby Luke and his aunt and uncle.

I’ve been looking at how this works in other movies and books. It’s less obvious in books, since they don’t have visuals or John Williams, but I have spotted it in some books. In The Mummy, we had the frantic escape, the “whew, we’re safe” moment, and the bonding, since that’s where the romance was resolved, though I don’t think the lingering emotional impression was as strong.

Oddly, the one of the Indiana Jones movies that does this the best was the most horrible. I rewatched Temple of Doom last weekend, and I kept pondering turning it off because it was so unpleasant, but then I found myself weirdly happy at the end and realized they’d done this sequence. We had the big action sequence, ending with the defeat of the villain (one of the few times Indy has something to do with that) and the cavalry showing up. Then they return to the village with the captured children and there’s lots of hugging as all the families are reunited. Our final impression is of Indy and Willie kissing, with Short Round on the baby elephant in the background, and everyone is happy. Doing a satisfying ending can salvage even an unpleasant movie.

I need to look back at my favorite books, the ones that have me wanting to either re-read them or read the next one right away, and see what the lingering emotional impression is. And then see if I can figure out how to use this. What do I want readers to feel when they close each book?