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Interview with Jason Dias, author of Life on Mars

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Welcome to fellow author Jason Dias, author of Sanguine Vengeance, The Worst of Us, Endpoint of Sentience, and more.  Previous interviews with Richard BambergRob ChanskyP.R. Adams, and Megan Rutter are also available.

1. Your book starts out with a character, Jaye, who feels she isn’t human because she was, among other things, born on Mars.  What made you head that direction for this book?  Did you related to her experiences personally, or do they reflect what you’re seeing out in the world?

I’m alienated in a lot of ways. We didn’t have autism when I was a kid; I found out about it quite recently. In the 70s I wasn’t autistic, I was just weird. That weirdness alienated me. It didn’t help to be bi-national – British and American. When we lived over there, I was too American for Brits; over here, I was always too British for Americans. So because of a) weird and b) nationality, I was always friends with the outcast groups and otherwise an outsider.

It wasn’t until graduate school that I was allowed to join the grown-up table of life. And, as a psychologist, there is finally value in the outsider perspective. I get to make the implicit explicit in ways that are socially valuable.

Jaye is an attempt to integrate the past life as outsider into the present life as a real boy. Writing her not only describes but creates some of my experience. I wouldn’t say doing this work was fun; I cried the whole time I wrote this book. Both times – I wrote it twice! But the experience was too valuable not to share.

2. I noticed that you did a lot of hard science fiction in this book–a fair amount of research and math.  What were a couple of the more interesting topics that you had to research?

The old adage for writers is to “write what you know.” I tend to ascribe to that philosophy, but also make it a point to know a lot of stuff. I remember being an unconsciously know-it-all ten-year-old boy aggravating my mother. She said, “You know something about everything, don’t you?” And it wasn’t until decades later I figured out that wasn’t a compliment.

I did very little specific research for this book. I read a few news articles to bring myself up to date on Mars; our planetary knowledge always grows. But I worked in Space Command in the 90s, so I already came equipped with some basic knowledge of orbital mechanics, rocketry, space travel and so on. I worked twenty years in developmental disabilities and have a doctorate in psychology as well as my personal experiences of difference. I’m personally concerned about climate change and interested in intelligence real and artificial. Someone else might have had to do significant reading and integration to write this story but it by and large came naturally to me because I write what I know, but I know a lot of stuff.

Remember Friday, the Robert Heinlein character? God, that story was hardly a feminist epic, but some of it resonated with me as a young man. At one point, the super-assassin and sometime space traveler, Friday, gets assigned a desk. It’s a research desk; her job is an early form of “ask me anything.” Customers ask questions, she dives data to find answers. Her boss wants her to naturally learn a big underlying principle of her fictional universe, arriving at her own conclusions by knowing a bunch of diverse topics. This has accidentally been my life, from being a librarian to a space systems operator to food service and retail, developmental disabilities, psychiatry and psychology.

3.  For what it’s worth, do you feel that it’s reasonable to put humans on Mars?  Do you think we “should,” whether it’s reasonable or not?  Where should we head with our space program, in your opinion?

The barriers to life on Mars are significant. Even the soil is toxic. No amount of terraforming can create an atmosphere because there isn’t enough gravity or a molten metal core to create a magnetic field to deflect solar particles. Not impossible, but a huge challenge with a lot of one-way tickets involved.

The question wouldn’t be so much could we or even should we as why would you want to?

Lately, I see interest in Martian colonies as the desire for an escape hatch. And stories about such colonies are very popular at this moment in history. The thing is, it isn’t a viable escape hatch by any realistic measure, and thinking of it in those terms distracts from very real Earthly problems: climate change, environmental degradation (especially affecting ocean life), geopolitics including the decline of democracy at home and abroad.

I’m generally a pessimist about space travel. Too costly, too slow, and ultimately not much point. My Martian colony was established not as an escape hatch at all but as the appearance of one: to give people small hope in the last days of of a viable Earth. As long as they thought they could win a ticket off-planet, there was some continuing reason to go on. This is why the colony is under-resourced at the time we drop in to visit. It was never really meant to succeed.

Going to Mars is probably a thing we need to do – to study it, to gain our space-legs (as Heinlein would say), to prove to ourselves that we have courage and fortitude. But thinking of our human future has to focus on our one and only home, the place where we keep all our stuff.

 4. Your book has a very philosophical bent, but in what struck me as a very rebellious sort of way, which reminded me of books like The Master and Margarita and Roadside Picnic, as well as Stanislaw Lem.  Can you tell me where you were coming from on a philosophical level, and whether you feel you achieved your aims in that respect?

I remember again being a child, a young man this time. It was a humanities class and I must have been 15. The subject was future careers, and I asked if there were any money in philosophy. Everybody laughed and I didn’t understand why. Luckily, they thought I was kidding. But I’ve always wanted to make my living thinking through complex human problems. At first, as a writer – I idolized Asimov and King and Clarke. Later, as a psychologist. When I discovered existential psychology, this little corner of psychology was balm for wounds I didn’t know I had.

In academia, we spend too much time writing for journals with narrow scope. I’m have a few publications aimed at humanistic and existential practitioners. That’s fine, but it’s a lot of work to swap stories with people who already agree with me. I’m a lazy man at heart, and if I have a choice between writing in APA style and being punched in the face, I have to ask “how hard?”

My fiction is definitely a way of getting out the intellectual and emotional treasures I’ve discovered in existential psychology and sharing them with people in an accessible, hands-on way. More like a discovery center where you can touch everything, play with it, see how it works, and definitely less like an old museum with everything dimly lit and under UV protective glass.

In a way this is intentional, a goal. In another way, “existential psychologist” isn’t just a job you can do; it’s an identity. I had to remake myself as a human to do this. So the philosophy isn’t only something a know but who I am as a person, and the best way to share it isn’t to talk about it but to embody it. I am grateful to a whole host of kindly teachers and mentors, some of whom are now dear friends, for being with me through this work.

It’s for sure an act of rebellion to write stories in this mode. Putting “literary” on the cover is the kiss of death for a modern novel. I ended up doing everything myself because this work is not at all commercial. It’s for a particular kind of reader: one willing to think, grasp for meanings, and to share in my sadness.

It still makes me cry to read it, so I would say it is a success in that limited fashion: it’s authentic. It isn’t modified to fit a market. It’s me. Beyond that, I couldn’t say.

5.  Where do you plan to go in the next book in this series?  Without giving away too many spoilers, por favor… I struggled to imagine that the first book could get resolved, so it’s been boggling my mind.  “Where do you even GO from here?”

Not planning a series here. I’m flattered that people keep asking: it means that someone has really identified with the characters and immersed in the world such that they aren’t ready to leave it. That is gratifying and I’m extremely pleased. For me, too, Jaye’s little world holds enough attraction that I do have the tickles of ideas for more stories.

There is a prequel already: What Hope Wrought visits the last days of the Earth Jaye’s father conspires to leave. Some of the characters in Finding Life on Mars also inhabit this dying world in at least minor ways. That story, too, focuses on a character struggling with the notion of being human.

The last page of FLOM does offer a direction for future inquiry. I’d invite folks to read that last page again. If another book emerges in this universe, it will explore that final event, and be related to the problems of the dying Earth in WHW: synthetic life, artificial intelligence.

Finally, there is a crossover story linking What Hope Wrought to Finding Life on Mars. “The Endpoint of Sentience,” the titular story in a collection of shorts, visits some of the logic and tragedy of the final intelligent decisions of Merlin’s inhuman offspring left behind on Earth.

and last but not least, the bonus question:

6.  Is there any note that you’d like to leave your readers on?  (Hint:  the additional promo question.)

If you like this meditative, broody style of writing, Finding Life on Mars is far from my only work. I write across genres, always reflecting though on basic existential truths. For Love of Their Children does this work in a high fantasy setting, additionally throwing diversity into a genre that lately is much too Euro-centric and hyper-masculine. The Worst of Us is a supernatural thriller that, underneath the horror-story pacing and terse thriller structure is a meditation on guilt.

But before rushing off to fill the empty space we all find inside us when we finish reading a novel, I’d love if readers took some time to consult themselves about this story. Did you cry? Did you identify with a character? Was there any emotional content beyond entertainment? Discomfort? It would be lovely to sit with whatever came up in the course of reading this thing, and I’d love to hear about it.

 

Jason Dias is a doctor of clinical psychology with fifteen years of experience working with developmentally disabled adults, four with people in severe states at the psychiatric hospital, and nine doing international psychology. He is co-founder of the Zhi Mian Institute for International Existential Psychology, an organization helping Chinese psychotherapists to acquire counseling skills and develop professional infrastructure.

Additionally, Jason writes. His credits include web journals and articles for The New Existentialists and A New Domain, two book chapters about existential psychology, a book of poetry and several novels and anthologies. He worries that academic writers spend too much time writing for journals only read by people who already agree with them and tries to get big ideas out in other formats.

Jason lives in Colorado Springs with his wife and son and keeps mostly to himself.

I Survived Denver Comic-Con, and All I Got Was This…

I survived Denver Comic-Con, and all I got was a stupid Nakitomi Plaza Parking Permit!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Actually, I got a few other things, but none of them cost more than a dollar.  Or were eaten before I left for home.

Friday:

I was on a panel for Indie Book Publishing with Marla Bell, Lisa Manifold, and Michaela Mills.  We could have talked about marketing for hours.  One of the things Lisa said stuck with me:  “Find your tribe.”

Yeah,  yeah, right right, says me, I’ve found it.  Then she said, “For your genre.”

D’oh!  I’m in several indie publishing groups, but nothing for indie sf/f, horror, or mystery.

Hmmm…sounds like it’s time to do some research.

Then came Letters Written From Hell, a pleasant sort of panel about what makes horror writers tick.  I moderated that one, and was sure to establish that horror writers weren’t nuts…or at least handled their issues better than the average bear.  That panel starred Shannon Lawrence, Jason Dias, Emily Godhand, and Patrick Hester.

We established that horror writers may be slightly weighted toward people raised Catholic (3 of 5 panelists), and that in a hypothetical novel written by all five of us, the audience greatly preferred to have Shannon as the psychotic antihero, and darling Emily Godhand writing the bad guy.  Apparently, readers like plot twists.  Who knew?  And also Patrick’s space spiders…

Friday’s panels were wrapped up with Favorite Horror Tropes, moderated by Melissa Sauer Locy, and also starring Veronica R. Calisto, Emily Godhand, Stace Johnson, and Shannon Lawrence.

Okay.  I’m gonna admit that I mostly blanked this one out.  There were soooo many people and my brain was kind of on static by that point.  I remember talking about child abuse and The Babadook.  That’s about it.

Friday photos:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rincewind and Twoflower from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.  I first spotted Rincewind from behind, circled around to check that it was a “wizzard” hat, slyly pulled out my phone, and said, “May I take a picture?”

“If you wait a moment, you can get Twoflower, too.”

!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not sure if these are particular furries or just furries in general.  But the girl was 100% delighted to get a selfie with them.  I couldn’t help but smile.

Saturday:

The first panel of the day was Creating Believable MonstersMatt Bille moderated.  He has a love of scientifically valid monsters that I just can’t equal.  The important thing to me is that the characters believe the monsters they face, not that the monsters could really exist.  But we discussed that ahead of time, and Matt handled the disagreements gracefully.  Also on the panel were Fleur Bradley, Veronica R. Calisto, Stace Johnson, and Shannon Lawrence.

Looking at my notes (I always bring paper to these things, because someone always makes a book recommendation that I regret not writing down), Xenomorphs are underlined twice and the word aliens has an exclamation point and a box around it, which cracks me up.

My favorite monsters were:

  • Hannibal
  • The Tunnbaq from The Terror
  • Zombies

Shannon Lawrence pointed out that all my monsters were either cannibals or were known to have eaten people, and that I should probably figure out why that was.  (I had mentioned earlier that my short story collection A Murder of Crows: Seventeen Tales of Monsters & the Macabre is full of cannibalism.)  But I already know the answer.  I’m a foodie; everything wonderful is delicious and everything terrible is rotten.  My stories always have someone vomiting in them, because that is the worst.

Then came Not Just Novels: Writing Different Lengths, where we talked a lot about short stories and the mysterious Novella and Novellette lengths, where nobody’s quite sure what they’re trying to accomplish (even writers).  The panel was moderated by Shannon Lawrence, and included Fleur Bradley, Jason Dias, Stace Johnson, and Carolyn Kemp, who was wearing a wonderful gothy steampunk costume that made me realize I wouldn’t recognize her to see her again.*  I become easily confused when people change their hairstyles, and I can rarely recognize people from their Facebook photos if they’ve done their hair differently.  At all.

Which is kind of ironic because I don’t keep my hair the same.  I have a bob, but it needs help; right now it looks like generic Mom Hair, so I have it pulled back in a ponytail.

*I looked her up online in her civvies.  I think I got it.

Saturday photos:

 

 

 

 

 

 

This gentleman seemed to be completely unaware of the possibility of this young and very hungry dino baby turning around and eating his face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mad Moxxi and Handsome Jack from the Borderlands series.  I reeeeaaaallly wanted them to do the voices, but they couldn’t do them.

“Hey, sugar…”

Other Saturday Stuff:

I met Paul Roman Martinez, who is doing a cover for an anthology that Jamie Ferguson and I are putting together–more news on that soon 🙂

I helped distract a baby on a changing table.  MOM powers took over.  He was like “Imma roll off this table,” and his mom was like “Oh no you won’t.”  So I stood there and distracted him while costumed characters walked behind us.  Which makes me more interesting then Harley Quinn, at least according to one six-month-old kid.

I stopped for lunch at a retro diner called Sam’s No. 3, where I sat at the bar with two people who spotted my badge and wanted to know if I was from that comic-book thing.  I told them that it was a farm & home show for nerds.  “What about all those costumes?” “It’s really just like supporting your favorite sports team.  Just for fun.”  I feel like I fought the good fight for nerdery, but did not win any wars.

Sunday:

I only had one panel on Sunday, the Black Mirror and the Evils of Technology Panel, which I moderated.  I assumed it was at 5:30 in room 405, because of course I did.  It was at 4:30 in room 605, which I checked at about 2:30, because I’ve lived with myself long enough to have learned to double-check things.

Now, I like the show, even though it also makes me miserable, but I only started watching it recently; my husband Lee told me that I’d hate it (based on the first episode).  But I had volunteered to moderate panels, damn it, and there I was, moderating a panel that was now no longer on the 400 (writer) track, but on the 600 (general fandom) track.

Which meant that almost everything I had prepared was no good.

Fortunately, my panelists were excellent.  They were Shannon Lawrence, Veronica R. Calisto, Stace Johnson, and David R. Slayton.  They adjusted on the fly in front of what looked like several hundred people.

Erk…but it was the best of the panels I was on, in my opinion, because everyone there was so filled with energy and delight–over a rather horrific show.

Sunday Photos:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Local signage.  This might be my new motto.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Delirium, from Sandman.  It was too crowded to catch her shoes, which didn’t match.

Other Stuff:

You may have noticed that a lot of the panelists were the same–that’s because Shannon Lawrence did all the organizing to set this up, which turned out to be a lot more organization than she expected. Kudos to her.

Going into Denver Comic-Con this time, I carried the attitude that the con was just going to make me miserable, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it again.  I had a great time, though, and feel like I learned quite a bit by observing people and what they loved, from their costumes to what they carried around with them.  I may write something up about that later.  But now I feel like I’d like to do this again, if I have the opportunity.  And I recommend going if you have the chance.

The Tale of a Book that Failed…


…or that at least didn’t succeed as hoped.

Once upon a time, I wrote a book for a ghostwriting client.  It was one of those dream projects that paid pretty well and that I had a lot of freedom on.  The only requirement was that it have some kind of sci-fi element to it.

The client and I went back and forth on what the book would be like.  I told him I wanted to write something cyberpunk-ish about an element of technology that had gone horribly wrong.  But not so much a gadget or a gizmo that had gone wrong…how about a drug? He loved the idea, and we went forward with designing the tale of a detective investigating an empathy drug gone wrong.  The drug ends up causing permanent and debilitating brain damage to the users–it makes them so empathic that they have trouble defending themselves from bad people–which a serial killer with a strangely apt sense of empathy (but no mercy) takes advantage of.

The Giver was born.

The client loved the book.

And then, somewhere in the middle of writing book 2 in the series, his business died.

Normally, I take this kind of thing in stride.  However, I had put a lot of myself into this book.  I’m the kind of person that gets targeted by life’s little sociopaths–or at least I was.  (I decided, not coincidentally, near the end of 2016 that it was time to stop suffering fools gladly.)  So when I heard this book would never see the light of day, well, I was disappointed, to put it mildly.

And broke, because suddenly I’d just lost my job working on book 2.

The client gave me a choice:

Take back the rights on book 1, etc., and write off all the money he owed me, or…get paid.

I took back the rights and decided to make something of what I’d written.

Here was my thought:

  • The book was designed to be published under a male pen name.
  • The POV character is male.
  • There were some sexist things I left in the text because I believed that the character would see the world that way, and I didn’t want my (female) name to be a distraction because of that.
  • And I’ve always wondered:  would it be easier to make sales under a male pen name?  I’ve heard that trying to publish romances under a male pen name is excessively hard*; maybe trying to publish cyberpunk under a female name would be similarly so.

Dean Kenyon was born.

The book came together, and I still liked it, so I published it May 7th and set it up for five free days on Amazon to start with, hoping to generate a review or two.  I sent it out to this list, crossing my fingers.

The giveaway went great.  I had previously run two similar giveaways for books under my me-name (DeAnna Knippling) and a middle-grade pen name (De Kenyon).  Neither one made half of the numbers of the Dean Kenyon giveaway.

And then…crickets.

I’ve advertised this book as much as I do my bestseller, but…I can barely get any views.  There are no reviews on this book!  I can’t get anywhere with it.

So, a month later, I’m just going to conclude that I can’t get the answers I want about the male vs. female pen names without reviews to help assure readers that the book isn’t complete crap.

I have to swallow my pride.

I wrote this book I really love.  It’s quite the adventure, a lot of fun in my opinion.  But I need help getting reviews out.
I’m going to hit up everyone I know and ask them if they’d like a copy.  And I’m going to try to wrassle up some reviews.

You are, of course, under no obligation to read the book.  You are even under less obligation to like it.  And, seriously, no hard feelings if you don’t review it.  (Although I will note that if you review it and hate it, it still helps me out, as strange as that might seem.)

But if you know someone who might be interested, I’ve got a free copy for them.  Just send them my way, at

publisher [at] wonderlandpress [dot] com

And I’ll send them a review copy.  Or send them to the Instastafreebie link.

Thank you, and wish me luck 🙂

*Except for the redoubtable M.L. Buchman, who uses his initials.

The link to the free Instafreebie copy (multiple formats) is here.  You can buy a copy here, but it’s only Amazon so far.

Mindsight:  Company Justice #1

No idea is so good it can’t go bad.

Frank Mallory is a private detective working for a new type of detective agency: a well-organized one. Private Eyes, Inc., has the latest in data analysis, training techniques, cross-discipline integration, illicit back-door deals, and cynical programmers who don’t care what they have to do as long as they don’t lose their benefits.  PEI has it all covered.

The right mix of idealism and plausible deniability can work wonders.

But that doesn’t mean that Frank’s in the clear when he starts work on a case involving the new designer drug Mindsight.  Mindsight is a miracle drug.  It won’t give you telepathy, but it comes close, triggering a wave of pure empathy that helps treat everything from domestic violence to schizophrenia.

The problem is, if you take too much of it, you’ll understand someone else’s point of view…all the way to death.

Of course a serial killer starts butchering Mindsight addicts.  As if nobody could see that coming.  All he has to do is ask nicely.  And maybe offer a little something the victim can’t refuse.

The real twist is when one of his victims fights back…and takes down a cop, saying that he admitted to being the serial killer before he died.

Frank’s hired to find solid, incontestable proof that the man, someone he used to work with, is actually the murderer, so a rich man’s daughter, the purported victim, can walk free.

Seems straightforward, right?

Right.

Book 1 in the Company Justice series, starring Frank Mallory.

(Some violence, not much gore or strong language.  Some unpleasant empathy moments.)

How to Study Fiction, Part 10: Scenes, Part 1

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

Scenes are the building blocks of your fiction.  If you can turn out a nicely crafted scene, readers will forgive almost any mistakes you make (except when it comes to characters–like killing them off or making them act out of character).

Scene issues at this level:

  • Second-guessing whether a scene is “finished” or “good enough.”
  • A feeling that something is missing but not knowing what.
  • Information delivered at the wrong place, at the wrong time.
  • Author intrusion and rants.
  • Disorganization.
  • Dragging chapters.
  • Characters spending a lot of time talking to each other about stuff they already know.

One of the major issues with a lot of writers’ scenes is that they are poorly organized.  The writer knows that a certain amount of information has to be delivered to the reader, but sticks it in willy-nilly.  Or the writer might not put in all the information the reader needs at all, thinking that hiding information will increase the drama and tension of the scene.

(We won’t get to tension in writing until later, by the way.)

Here’s something that most beginning writer books won’t tell you:

Structuring a scene properly will take care of a lot of problems that sound like minor problems…but that you can never seem to fix.

If you’re getting feedback on your scenes being:

  • Boring
  • Talky
  • Full of too much description
  • Ranty
  • Confusing

Then it may be that you’re just not telling the reader what they need to know, when they need to know it.

And the way to fix that is through the structure of your scenes.

Basic scene structure, coming right up…

Look.  You just want one perfect pun per month in your inbox.  I understand.  Sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter and I’ll send you one, along with book news and reviews.  Mystery, horror, history, and just plain weird.  It’s cool.

Think Like a Librarian: The Stanley Parable, by Davey Wreden and William Pugh

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, Link

The Stanley Parable is a video game, not a book.  I had planned to stick to reviewing books and graphic novels for this series, but The Stanley Parable was such a storyteller’s story that I couldn’t resist.

Dear gamers:  I know you know about this game already.  This review isn’t for you 🙂

Some stories don’t tell “a story” in and of itself so much as they are about stories, in general.  The Stanley Parable is a game about stories and how we use them to view our lives, and how stories are used to control our lives.  It questions the nature of storytelling itself, as a kind of funhouse mirror that both distorts and reveals.

The setup is this:  A man named Stanley is working in his office when he realizes that something mysterious has happened.  He’s perfectly happy at his job, and yet…now that this mysterious thing has happened, he has a few questions.  It is your job, as the player, to help him ask them, even though he literally doesn’t have a voice.  Meanwhile, a narrator narrates Stanley’s every move, more or less (often less) accurately, in a “Stephen Fry as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” voice.

The Stanley Parable, to me, hits the same buttons as a Douglas Adams book.  By turns funny and darkly satirical, this is the kind of story that one might expect the Guide to have under an expanded entry for “Earth.”

I recommend it for mature middle-school students and up, and for adults who enjoyed Douglas Adams.  Gamers have probably already played this simple, not-terribly-difficult game, but if you find one who hasn’t, it’s almost a sure winner.

Thoughtful book recommendations – prose off the beaten path – one terrible pun per month – no questions asked.  Wonderland Press Newsletter.

Reminder re: Failure

I don’t have much time this week to blog (a deadline is a week earlier than I thought it was!!!), but I’ll get back to the study series as soon as I can.

 

Failure is life’s way of telling you that you need to change.  Not necessarily that you need to completely dump all of your life’s plans and start all over again.  Maybe something small.

Maybe it’s just “stop being so damned impatient, keep getting better at what you’re doing, and just wait.”

We all have to scrape ourselves out of despair sometimes.  This week was mine 🙂

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How to Study Fiction, Part 9: Reading, Part 3

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Techniques to help handle reading issues (post-reading!):

You’ve read the book.  Now what?

I’ll go into more depth about specific techniques as we go through the other elements of what you’re studying.  For example, when we talk about pacing, I’ll explain how to drill down into how to study pacing in what you read.

But for now, the long and the short of it is:

Type it in.

If you want to know why something works or doesn’t work, the first step to analyzing it is to pop yourself out of the dreamland that is reading, and move behind the scenes.  This is incredibly hard to do.  Good writers are brainwashers, creating an almost inescapable spell over your attention span.  If you try to read something in order to study it, you may pick up some things subconsciously, but you’ll probably fight against it.  “No!  I’m breaking the rules!”

Typing something in lets you stay conscious and awake, but doesn’t break the connection to your subconscious.  Your subconscious learns whatever it’s going to learn (and learns it better, too, because of the extra time you spend with the text), and your conscious brain gets to make observations.  It’s the difference between taking a bullet train over the landscape and walking on foot.

You cover a lot less ground, but it’s ground that you know in the soles of your feet.

Do you have to type in the entire book?

No!

I recommend that you type in:

  • Whatever element you’re currently studying, from several books that you enjoy.
  • Openings.

As you’re moving into intermediate writing, the biggest priority most writers have is that their openings are terrible, start in the wrong place, are boring, or have a lot of action and no reason to give a crap.

Type in the first section, or maybe the first 1000 words, of anything you enjoyed reading after you finish it.

Even if you do nothing else from this series, this is the thing that’ll put you ahead of most of your compatriots after a few books.  If you’re looking for “the big secret of writing success,” this is it.  Type in openings for a while.

Looking for more writing advice?  Why not sign up for my newsletter?

Think Like A Librarian: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m just going to say it.  Sometimes works of pure genius don’t get noticed by white people, because they’re written by and about people of color, and white people are trained to go, “Fiction by people of color isn’t meant for me.”

It’s a subconscious thing.  Which means you can go, “I don’t take a writer’s race into consideration,” and still end up reading no or very little fiction written by people of color.

Which is a shame.

 

Invisible Man is a book set in the 1940s, about a young black man who learns to embrace the Catch-22 setup of his existence.  It’s a funny book, with the main character being thrown from one ridiculous Kafkaesque situation to another, until finally he comes to realize that his trials have given him a unique superpower:  to be unseen by the people around him in an almost literal fashion.

The book isn’t just darkly funny, but is written with the ear of a jazz musician:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.

I recommend it for people who are fans of Beat writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg, or Ferlinghetti.  Poetry fans looking for fiction may enjoy the layers of subtle language.  And for those who love the dark humor of Kafka, Catch-22, or The Manchurian Candidate may find this book just as biting and cynical.  Older, more mature teens may enjoy this as well.

But to let the book speak for itself:

Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.

A wonderful book.

Thoughtful book recommendations – prose off the beaten path – one terrible pun per month – no questions asked.  Wonderland Press Newsletter.

The Art of Surprise

How do you surprise your readers?

I use two methods:  Wilhelm’s Law and the Agatha Christie Technique.

Wilhelm’s Law:  throw away your first three ideas.  

What this means:

  • Your first idea is generally the most obvious one.  It’s been done.
  • Your second idea is generally a response to the first.  Because most stories have been done before, this is the first plot “twist” that comes up…for almost everyone.
  • The third idea is a stretch, but it’s still pretty logical.  The audience will go, “Yeah, I see that.”
  • The fourth idea (sometimes this state takes more than four ideas) is the place where you surprise yourself as a writer.  Yes!  Aha!  Oh, that’s terrible and I must do it!

The fourth idea is the perfect place to be.  Let’s say you want to write a story about zombies.

  • Zombies take over the world and try to kill everyone.  Ehhhh.
  • Zombies take over the world and it’s a metaphor for social ills of some sort.  Okay, if it’s done well, or if it’s done first, or if it has really engaging characters in it.
  • Zombies take over the world but stop if you love them truly.  Warm Bodies.
  • Zombies take over the world but there’s a cure, only it makes you the slave of a half-zombie fascist.  Z Nation.

Guess which one of these concepts involves a giant wheel of cheese rolling down the street.  The fourth idea is where the audience goes, “Where do you get your ideas?!?”

The Agatha Christie Technique: identify a reader assumption and undermine it.

Kris Rusch jokes that Agatha Christie just picks the least likely person to have done it.  But I had to wonder–how do you pick the least likely person?

Some assumptions about a mystery that Christie undermined (spoiler alert):

  • One or two characters are the murderer(s)–>The Murder on the Orient Express, in which all the suspects helped murder the dude.
  • The narrator is a good guy, a kind of sidekick for the detective–>The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which the narrator did indeed do it, cleverly concealing this as he goes.
  • The people who get framed didn’t do it–>The Murder at the Vicarage, in which the murderers frame themselves, then “reveal” that they were framed.
  • A pattern of clues is meaningful–>The ABC Murders, in which a murderer kills several other people in order to make it look like a deranged alphabetical serial killer is on the loose.

Readers tend to focus on the method of solving a crime (“the little grey cells”) rather than the method of choosing what crime that what characters commit–as a writer must do.

Mystery isn’t the only genre you can do this with.

So let’s say we have a romance, which is sometimes seen as the most locked-in, predictable of genres.  You can’t mess with the falling in love bit, OR the Happily Ever After/Happy For Now ending.  Those aren’t just assumptions but expectations; if you don’t deliver those things, readers are going to be pissed.  My examples are going to be a bit dated here, because I really, really love old romantic adventure stories and I’ve been trying to figure out how they work.

  • The hero is tall, dark, and handsome–>The hero is a phenomenally ugly man with a big nose but a talent for poetry.  Cryano de Bergerac.
  • The hero is an honorable man–>The hero is an airhead.  The Scarlet Pimpernel.
  • The hero falls in love at first sight–>The hero sneers at the heroine and ignores her for the first quarter of the book, then insults the holy crap out of her.  Pride and Prejudice.
  • There are some books that even sneak an end-run around violating the HEA/HFN rule:  The hero falls in love and they live happily ever after–>Both lovers, who never even had sex, die, but their kid falls in love and lives on.  Les Miserables.

You can’t just overturn the assumption and do the exact opposite of what it proposes.  That’s when you end up with “the butler did it wait what that was random” kinds of stories, which overturn assumptions but don’t meet expectations.  The story still has to feel meaningful.  If you set up a dilemma between two lovers, for example, making your heroine instead choose a third can seem completely random–readers have invested in the two lovers, not the third.  And having one of them die so the heroine can conveniently choose the other, well, whatever.

But if you combine both methods and have two men who look identical in a love triangle, then have one of them sacrifice himself to save the other, because he’ll be able to give the heroine a better life, well, that’s A Tale of Two Cities, and if Dickens were still alive, he’d still be making bank off of that.

Click here for an example of a killer plot twist in action.

How to Study Fiction, Part 7: Reading, Part 1

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

What to read, how to read, and how to start studying it.  Every professional writer seems to have the same kind of advice:  Read more.

But you could read the back of the cereal box all day and not get better as a writer.

So…what?

Reading issues at this level:

  • Being unsure of what one’s reading goals should be versus what you’re trying to achieve as a writer overall.
  • Being unsure of how to understand why you felt about a book the way you did (either to love it or hate it).
  • Feeling like reading someone else’s book choices is a waste of time.
  • Feeling like you’re missing something and you don’t know what.

When you’re reading as a reader, you basically only have one goal:  to please yourself.  One’s pleasure as a reader isn’t something you should ditch as a writer, either.  Sometimes I wonder if learning what you love and don’t love about a book isn’t 80% of the work of improving as a writer anyway.

However, when you’re a writer, you have some additional tasks as a reader that need to be met:

  • Understanding the genre(s) you’re writing in.
  • Understanding how stories work on a primal level.
  • Identifying what elements of storytelling you enjoy in a practical (“So that’s what is missing from my stories!”) kind of way.
  • Getting at the roots of what makes stories valuable for readers.

Being a professional reader (which is kind of an aspect of being a professional writer!) means both understanding what best fits your own tastes and why other readers read what they do.

When you hit that point, you no longer roll your eyes at bestsellers you don’t like.  Instead, you start going, “So people like book X because it gives them Y.  I like Y, just not how it’s done here…why not write Y in my own way?”

Getting better as a reader is about half the raw data that you need in order to decrypt what makes a book good or not.

Where does the other half come from?  More on that in a bit.

Look.  You just want like one stupid pun per month in your inbox.  I understand.  Sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter and I’ll send you one, along with (my) book news and reviews.  Mystery, horror, history, and just plain weird.  It’s cool.

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