Category: writing

The Appeal of Suspense

I’m not really a horror fan of any real sort. I mean, there are plenty of scary movies that I’ve enjoyed, if you can use the word. Getting purposefully scared isn’t really the way I like to pass my time on a typical day, and I’m certainly no fan of gore fests. I typically relate too much to the people on the screen or in the novel for me to take any real pleasure in seeing them put through inventive ways to inflict pain.

But suspense, on the other hand . . .

Suspense is one of the things that keeps me reading or watching, regardless of the medium or the subject. If I get invested in the outcome of something, then I can blaze through just about anything in my quest to Find Out What Happens.

As I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to think that’s really what I get out of watching sports. You pick a team. You root for that team. And then you see if your team wins or not. In a boring game, the outcome is never really in question. One team runs away with the game, and there’s no real pleasure to be derived from watching, unless you’re a big fan of the team that’s doing the stomping. But in a really close game, suddenly the outcome is very much up for debate. And there’s no way of knowing what that outcome will be. Watching a close game, live, at the home team’s stadium, is one of the most suspenseful experiences I can think of. And when the home team pulls it off? That’s a sense of euphoria that’s hard to capture.

In many ways, I think live sports aces out books and movies in terms of the raw power of suspense, and I’ve thought some about why this is. In the end, I’ve concluded that it’s typically because books and movies follow established norms, more or less. Yes, sometimes there’ll be an example that deviates from it, but for the most part, we know the main character isn’t going to die. We know it’s likely to have a happy ending of one sort or another. And so the suspense we feel in reading or watching isn’t from “will they lose or won’t they” but rather from “how in the world can they still win?” In many ways, a book or a movie is like a roller coaster. They give the semblance of action and suspense, but they’re ultimately on rails, and they’re not going to deviate from the track. (At least, they’d better not . . .)

Which is one of the reasons I’ve liked Game of Thrones over the years, both in print and on TV. Because Martin kills off his characters–big, important characters–you can never really be sure what the outcome of the “game” in question would be. And because he writes complex characters, with no 100% “good” or “bad” sides, you get to see both sides at work. One of my favorite experiences watching television was seeing the episode where the Lannister wagon train is attacked. I had favorite characters on both sides, and I genuinely worried that any of them might die. It was intense, and I’ve never forgotten it.

I think it would be possible to do more of what Martin attempted, if it was done correctly. For Game of Thrones, it works because, Martin had plotted things out extensively ahead of time, so the story he’s telling is masked by the tropes of the story we think we’re going to get. We think it’s going to be about Ned overcoming insurmountable odds, but Ned doesn’t turn out to be a major character. (Surprise!)

The risk, of course, is alienating your readers and making them hate you. I read books to be enthralled and ultimately satisfied. When the characters I’m rooting for end up dying, it’s like going to a close football game and having your team lose at the last second. Nobody likes that. (I don’t think.) But the reward is a much more intense, explosive experience with the characters who do end up actually mattering.

One of these days, I’d like to try that, as an author. Anyone know of any good examples of books or movies that have pulled it off besides Game of Thrones?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Writing Update: May 2019

It’s been a while since I updated you all on where I am with my writing these days. Maybe I should do that more often, judging by how often I’m asked in person if I’m still writing. (The answer is always the same: I am always writing.)

Right now I’m 68,000 words into my eighteenth novel (codenamed SILVERADO for now, as I continue to search for a good title). Ultimately I’d guess it’ll be around 85,000 words for this draft, so that means I have a month or so worth of writing to go before it’s finished, but I’m well past the tricky parts now, so there’s no question of whether or not I’ll finish it. (I have started and not finished 7 novels for a variety of reasons. Typically it’s that I run out of enthusiasm for the book before I’m a third of the way into it. If I can’t maintain excitement for a project through the early stages, it’s pretty much doomed.) SILVERADO is a steampunk western with a splash of horror. There’s some cool world building I’ve done in it, but I know I’m going to have to go back and revise it to bring all that world building to the surface. That’s okay. I’m getting the structure in place now, and I’ll enhance it in later drafts.

MURDER CASTLE (my YA historical mystery) is out with editors right now. It would be lovely if I had great news to share about it, but I don’t. Yet.

DIE HARD ON THE POLAR EXPRESS (my fluke picture book) came oh-so-close to getting published, but fell just short of the finish line. I’m a little hopeful we give it another shot in October or November before I totally close the door on it, but it’s still long odds.

MAGIC AT 30,000 FEET (my YA action fantasy) is almost going out to editors for a long-awaited second round. The first time we sent it out, we had a lot of near misses, many of them noting a conflict in it where it felt Middle Grade at times and Young Adult at others. It took me way too long to figure out a fix for this, but with some steady nudging from my agent, I finally got there. He’s given the revision the green light, and we’ll see if the switches do the trick.

MEMORY THIEF PART 2 is still with my publisher. Still waiting for movement on the film adaptation of MEMORY THIEF. It’s pretty much finished and ready whenever that happens, but it’s out of my hands for now, as frustrating as that is to admit. I continue to hope, but it was supposed to be published in August 2018, which clearly didn’t happen. I have no new news to share, other than to say it’s all still in development.

UTOPIA is mostly finished. Still waiting to hear back from my agent on final edits before we send it out, but I’m not in a huge rush, since I’ve got other things that are going out already. I’m hoping this one goes out over the summer sometime. YA dystopian with one of the strangest, strongest voices I’ve written.

Other than that, the only other books I’ve finished are ones that are in hibernation mode for now. TARNHELM would likely need a serious revision to ever see the light of day, as it’s got some problematic #metoo elements in it that read very differently eight years after I wrote it. OUR LADY OF QUESTIONABLE MORALS I still feel bad about. I love this book. Maybe I can bring it back at some point for another shot? I’m just not sure what I’d do to it.

Of course, you can read the completed books I already have published: VODNIK, THE MEMORY THIEF, and CAVERN OF BABEL. (You can read CAVERN right now by joining my Patreon for a grand total of $1. You can also check out the full text of my unpublished novel, ICHABOD, and I’m now putting up the entirety of PAWN OF THE DEAD there as well.)

What will I work on next? After UTOPIA is out the door and I’m letting SILVERADO simmer, I’m kicking around the idea for something much more complex. It’s still in the very early stages, but I’d like to try something a bit grander in scale than what I’ve done so far. I’m always trying to keep things fresh, and the idea is really appealing. We’ll see where it leads.

Anyway, thanks for reading and for your support. Here’s hoping there’s some more great news to share at some point later on in 2019.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Voice Makes All the Difference

I just finished reading two very different books, back to back. The first one (which shall remain nameless), received multiple starred reviews and ended up on a number of “best books” for the year it was published. Middle grade/YA fantasy. The author has won multiple big name awards. The book has great reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

I had to fight to get through it, honestly. In the end, I gave it a 3/10. It wasn’t the plot. I liked the plot and found it intriguing. I also liked the magic system and the characters just fine. Better than fine, in many cases. But I had to force myself to keep reading, and that’s never the recipe for success.

After I slogged through it, I wondered to myself what made the book such a chore for me to read. In the end, I decided it was the voice. I kept getting kicked out of the story because the voice was too stilted for me. The focus in many places was on style and word choice over actually telling a story.

That feels odd to write, coming from a person who’s studied literature and once wanted to be an English professor. But it’s true, and I realized it when I read the next book: The Lost Boys, by Orson Scott Card.

It’s the tale of a Latter-day Saint couple who are dealing with many very ordinary problems: difficulties at home, at work, in a new area, and with their family. It’s got fantastical elements, but they’re very much in the background. It takes place in the 80s, and much of what was written about Latter-day Saint culture in the book was disappointing to me, not because it was wrong, but because it was right. It was a very unflattering view of the religion, in the same way the mirror and the lighting in a Macy’s changing room doesn’t do much for my self esteem.

And yet I blazed through the book, even though I didn’t care for the characters all the time, and even though often the plot seemed far more focused on nosing around through the religion than into what was actually happening in the story. I gave it a 7/10. Not stunning, but a good, solid read. (And an interesting look into how some people approach my religion, both the good and the bad side of it. There were parts I wanted to applaud, and other times I wanted to cringe. And interestingly, they weren’t always caused the different people.)

In a vacuum, if you described both books to me, I would have guessed I’d like the MG fantasy much more. But the reality was much, much different, which led to this blog post.

For me, my ideal book is one where I forget I’m reading. Where the pages turn themselves and I’m lost in the middle of a story. Every time something bumps up to jostle me out of that zone, it’s a missed opportunity. This doesn’t mean that I’ll only read books that make me lose myself, but what I get back for that price had better be worth it.

This isn’t to say that books that focus more on language or the way things are said are bad, or that what I like is better than what other people like. But it doesn’t explain a fair bit why people can have such widely disparate opinions about books. We’re all looking for something different.

Scott Card’s voice is (for me) extremely readable. He could probably write about the dictionary and I’d still be turning the pages, just because I like the way he communicates that information into my brain. In the end, I think of it this way: which would I prefer? The world’s most boring man telling me the world’s most interesting story, or the world’s best storyteller telling me the world’s most boring story?

You’d think they’d amount to the same thing, but I think you’d be wrong . . .

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

New Book Release!

Hello, lovely peoples. Some of you might recall a certain blog post I made almost four years ago, in which I wondered aloud what it would have been like if Latter-Day Saints had developed an attachment to Kung Fu instead of Boy Scouts. Still others of you will recall I came across a request for short stories centered around a “Mormon Steampunk” theme. And when I saw that, I immediately thought of that alternate history I’d mused about years ago.

Even though I don’t typically write short stories, I decided to give it a shot, and AN INCIDENT AT OAK CREEK was born. It’s technically a novelette, since it’s 11,000 words or so. (I told you I don’t write short stories . . .) It was accepted to the anthology, which turned into a 3 part series. The first book in the series came out a few months ago, and today the second book has been released: the one that includes INCIDENT.

So if you’re hankering for a big portion of Mormon steam punk action, and you’d like to read what I’m fairly confident is the only Mormon kung fu western action alternate history steampunk novelette in existence, you can now have that experience for the low low price of $2.99.

And if you buy it from this link, I get even better royalties. Just sayin’ . . .

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

How Consistent Should Characters Be?

I finished the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel last night, and I enjoyed it just as much as the first season, or perhaps a little more. It’s a very solid show with great characters, interesting plots, and wonderful writing. (But it also has some very bad language throughout the show, so be warned.) I gave the season a 9/10. It took less than a week to watch the whole thing, which is always a sign that I’m really liking a show.

But one of the things that has me thinking about the show still is the characterization. They’re all very distinct, and they do things you would expect them to do.

Until they don’t.

There are multiple times throughout the season where a character who’s been nothing but consistent to that point suddenly decides to do something that seems very out of character. (I won’t say what, because spoilers.) On the one hand, this is typically frustrating for me. I think most of the time it’s an indication of poor characterization: of the characters being slaves to the plot, rather than the reverse, where characters drive the plot.

And yet in Mrs. Maisel, I found myself questioning my read of the character in the first place. Was it really out of character for them to do that, or had I just thought they’d never do something that they actually would?

People change, after all. The things we do and see each day influence what we do the next day and the day after that. No one is consistent on a broad arc, and when you have big, life changing experiences happen to people, it’s to be expected that they will respond in unexpected ways. Since the show introduces some big, life changing experiences to these characters in season one, it makes sense not all the repercussions would be foreseeable.

In other words, I began to think the characters were so well done, that they could even pull off surprise plot twists.

I’m still not completely sold on the idea, but as I think about the events of the season, I do think the writers put in enough groundwork to pull almost all of the zags instead of zigs off. It’s not like someone suddenly did something wildly out of character. Just enough out of character that you really didn’t expect it.

Anyway. Usually that’s a big turn off for me in a show, and I was surprised it wasn’t as big of a problem this time around, and I wondered why. Have any of you thought about this more, whether about this show or a different show or book? Can you think of times characters have behaved wildly out of character, and you were okay with it?

Do share.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

%d bloggers like this: