Author Archives: Greg R. Fishbone

The Four Secrets Authors Don’t Share

I originally planned to blog about an unusual plotting technique I’ve been tinkering with, but I’m not going to. Right now you’re either relieved to not have to slog through a tech manual of plot, or you still have something to look forward to at a later date.

As I was putting my original post together, and as it was becoming more wonky and arcane, I developed some misgivings. It made me wonder where authors draw the line on what we reveal to our readers, what we choose to keep back, and why.

So I’m writing about that instead.

Trade Secrets

It’s not that I thought a post on plot theory would be too boring. Especially not for a readership focused on books. And it’s not that I’m still too early into the manuscript to talk about it. An introduction and interim report would make an excellent blog post.

Mainly, I’m just being selfish. 

I’ve always shared whatever writing tips and techniques I’ve picked up, but in this book I’ll be venturing into an area I haven’t seen many people go before. If it works well, I want others to have trouble trying to reverse engineer it.

In the world of intellectual property, this is called a trade secret. My first. It may turn out to be a good one, or not, but whatever value it has would go away if it were shared too widely.

Magicians don’t share their best tricks and are celebrated for all that happens up their sleeves or behind the cover of a curtain, so why should authors be expected to so readily reveal our magic?

Easter Eggs

Amie Borst, author of Cinderskella, Little Dead Riding Hood, and Snow Fright, told me:

I leave Easter Eggs in my stories. I can always guess the kids who’ve read my books dozens of times because they find those eggs. There’s one egg I planted in Little Dead Riding Hood that no one has picked up on but I have revealed it during school visits. The look on their faces says it all, “OMG! Of Course! How did I miss something so obvious?”

Some authors pepper their works with in-jokes and references that only a handful of people on the planet are able to see. But Easter Eggs are intended by an author to be findable by any reader attentive enough to notice a detail and clever enough to make a connection.

As a warning, a reader may stumble over quite a few egg-shaped “fan theory” rocks before finding a genuine author-planted Easter Egg, but the hunt is what counts and it would be spoiled by an author who gives out detailed maps, confirms too quickly when an Easter Egg has been found, or installs too many big neon signs pointing out the eggs.

If you’re interested in an egg-hunt in my work, I’ll sprinkle a few breadcrumbs for you. There is a transgender character in The Challengers and The Amorphous Assassin, the first two books of my Galaxy Games series. Finding this Easter Egg requires reading both books closely. The answer will be confirmed in the upcoming third book, The Mad Messenger.

Backstory

Rosanne Parry, author of  Written in Stone, Second Fiddle, Written in Stone, and The Turn of the Tide told me:

Often there is a darker element to the history of my works of historical fiction than I present to my readers. I need the historical context to inform my writing but I’d rather my readers discover the more violent parts of world history when they are older than 9 or 10.

For example, in my book Second Fiddle, I know that the Soviet Army treated soldiers from the Soviet republics, like my character Arvo, with particular brutality. Soldiers from the republics were separated from their countrymen while in the army and often gang raped by Russian Soviets and then threatened with the exposure of their homosexuality-a serious and sometimes capital crime in the Soviet Union.

My readers don’t need to know that piece of Russian history yet but it really helped me understand the depth of my character Arvo’s fears when he and the girls are being followed by the KGB.

As authors, we need more detailed knowledge of our characters then will ever make it into a book, and more detailed knowledge of the setting, whether we invent a fantasy world or uncover historical research like Rosanne has.

Rosanne’s example would be inappropriate to include explicitly in her book and for her readers. Her solution is to allow these disturbing details to affect the tone of her book and the reactions of her characters. The hidden details aren’t ever visible to the reader, but Rosanne keeps them close enough to the surface to make them real.

SPOILERS!

Author Laurie J. Edwards told me:

On Facebook, my author pages, and my blog (Rachel J. Good & Laurie J. Edwards), I often post pictures and share my research for forthcoming books, but several times I’ve discovered really unusual facts or a fascinating group or location. I decided not to post about those. Instead, I want my readers to enjoy those as surprises when they read the books.

What I’m calling spoilers come in two categories. First are the little surprises, like Laurie describes. In my experience, many of these start as surprises for the authors as well.

In the outline of my current work-in-progress, the main character was supposed to go to the marketplace for a spool of thread and come away with a goat. That scene, as I’m actually writing it in another window, is different than I could have imagined. Meant as a simple mercantile transaction to drive the plot forward, it has plumbed the depths of character and revealed important truths about how the story universe works. And I haven’t even gotten to the goat yet!

In researching this same scene, I came across a reference in Greek mythology to the Bee Maidens of Mount Parnassos. There were three of them, half-human and half-bee in appearance, and it was said that they could predict the future when they were sufficiently full of honey and in a good enough mood.  If these characters ever pop up in my book, I’ll be as surprised as anyone, and I’ll want the reader to experience the same level of surprise.

And by telling you about the Bee Maidens just now, I’ve just spoiled the surprise. Oops!

The more commonly referenced kind of spoiler is a more intense subset, where the spoiler contains information that changes the reader’s perspective on what has come before. Revealing the spoiler prematurely doesn’t just dampen the effect of the spoiler itself, but lessens the experience of the entire work.

This is why spoiler warnings are so important.

Four Secrets Recap

So I’ve counted four things that many of your favorite authors might be keeping from you, usually for good reason:

  1. Trade Secrets – Personal and private techniques and strategies that authors use to make their works unique, distinctive, and special.
  2. Easter Eggs – Details planted by the author as a reward to be uncovered by only the most attentive readers.
  3. Backstory – Details that may never be seen but can still affect the tone of a story, add depth to the characters, and make the story world feel more complex and realistic.
  4. Spoilers – Details intended to be secret until a big reveal that is designed to be an integral part of the story experience.

Do you have good examples  of these secrets that you’d like to share?

Are there more secrets that you think I’ve missed?

Leave comments for further discussion, and let me know if you want me to blog about any of them in more detail in a future post!

Where do you get your ideas: a case study

“Where do you get your ideas?”

This is a great question that gets asked during every Q&A session with an author. It’s simple. It’s complex. The answer is different for everyone, but the short version is always some variant of, “Anywhere, everywhere, and nowhere.”

While wrapping up the third book of my Galaxy Games series, I found myself thinking about what comes next for me and my writing. It made me really stop to think about where my ideas come from. Because wherever that was, I desperately needed to go back for something new!

But the harder I hunted for a fresh idea, the more elusive they seemed to become.

Step #1: The Idea File

My computer is full of old projects, one-page treatments, and sample first chapters. A while back, when my daughter was developing her sense of humor, I had the idea to write about muses.

In classical Greek mythology, the muses were nine women who inspired all kinds of creativity in human beings. One is a muse of comedy, another is a muse of tragedy, another is a muse of music, another is a muse of dance… It seemed natural to have these supernatural beings still kicking around in the modern world, and competing for controlling interest over a budding young artist, author, or stand-up comedian.

So I wrote some chapters, and they were awful. They went nowhere, but I kept them in my idea file anyway.

And I made a note for the future: “There are some really fun characters in Greek mythology.”

Step #2: Stay Alert for Ideas

Probably a couple times a day I’ll find myself saying, “That would make a great story.” It may be in response to a news article, a conversation, a picture, or a song. Most of these great stories aren’t the ones I’d want to write, but I can imagine them as a book I’d want to read or a movie I’d want to watch.

I could put them all into my idea file, but mostly I don’t bother. 

Then one day, earlier this year, a tweet popped up in my feed from a local newspaper’s Twitter account. It linked to a story about a high school from a couple towns away from me whose track and field team having a particularly good season. Especially in the javelin event.

“That would make a great story,” I thought, and this time it was one I wanted to write as well!

Step #3: Apply Personal Experience

When I read about the javelin competition, it brought back a flood of memories. I was a member of my high school track team. I learned to throw the shotput and javelin, jump for distance, run for speed, and pass a baton. I had a lot of fun and have many great memories, and the one regret that I wasn’t quite fast enough to earn a letter.

Personal experience is the key to finding the story that only you can tell, which will hold your interest through the writing process, and which will resonate as truthful for your readers. I know how to throw a javelin, what muscles are used, what it feels like to launch it down the field, the smell of the grass, the roar of the crowd. And I know well what it was like to not come in first. Or second. Or third.

It wasn’t a story yet, but a feeling that could become the kernel of a story that would resonate with my personal experience.

Step #4: Take Something Ordinary and Make It Extraordinary.

I know some great writers who can take an ordinary experience, like my not quite lettering in track, and make it into a compelling story. I can’t do that. I don’t even try. For my first Galaxy Games book, I essentially told a story about how I used to shoot baskets at my friend’s driveway hoop when I was ten. Except that I added some space aliens and the President of the United States, and put the fate of the world in the balance.

Start with an ordinary story. Add something new. Take something away. Push something to the extreme.

So for my new project-in-development, I turned my personal story about track into one about a prodigious track star with precognitive abilities. Because what’s more fun than a psychic in running shoes?

Step #5: Create a Contrast Character.

Every main character needs a counterpart, foil, antagonist, partner, or all of the above.

When I took track and didn’t earn a letter, that wasn’t much of a story. If I’d been a prodigious track star with precognitive abilities, things would have been a little different, but still not much of a story.

So for contrast, I added a budding journalist who is suffering from retrograde amnesia after a near-death experience.

It sounded good in my head, but when I threw these characters into my computer, I ended up with a Chapter of Awful.

Step #6: Write a Chapter of Awful

This is important. Let yourself write something awful. I mean, don’t plan for it to be awful—just don’t get upset if it is.

Maybe my “precognitive track star meets amnesiac journalist” chapter wasn’t all bad, but it certainly was angsty. After spending so much time spent on light-hearted middle grade, angsty was a refreshing change, but it wasn’t the world I wanted to inhabit for the full length of a novel.

And if I didn’t want to live there, I certainly couldn’t expect a reader to want to live there.

Step #7: If your story isn’t working, try a riff on it

I kept with my Chapter of Awful but also started on something light and fun as an antidote to all the heaviness, planning to put it as an interlude between the first angsty chapter and the second.

Track and field and precognition in modern times made me think of the Olympic Games and oracular prophesy of Ancient Greece. It even fit a prime item in my idea file: “There are some really fun characters in Greek mythology!”

So my interlude featured Hercules getting his butt kicked in a javelin-throwing contest.

I had fun with it, and started to think more about the character of Hercules. I’d read about his twelve legendary labors back in grade school and hadn’t thought of them much since. But when I was a kid, I’d always seen Hercules as something of a villain. Sure, he does some good deeds—ridding the land of monsters, cleaning out some guy’s stables, picking fruit, and all that—but only because he’s being made to do it. He murders his entire family, successfully pleads an insanity defense, and gets off with community service. Because the “driven mad by Hera” excuse was the Twinkie Defense of the ancient world.

Making Hercules into a villain is like making Superman into a villain, except that Hercules has no kryptonite. How can a mere mortal ever hope to take down a god? This was the story I want to tell!

So I tossed the Chapter of Awful and went to work on the riff instead.

Step #8: Explore the Backstory

My story is about an ordinary character in the world of Greek mythology who must take down the villainous Hercules. I feel really good about this except for one thing; I don’t know who this main character is, where she came from, or what motivates her.

So before I could write the story I originally planned to write, I needed to find the real beginning. That’s where I am now: the formative years of an ordinary character who aspires to do extraordinary things. Someone who can’t throw a javelin all that well and probably wouldn’t letter in track, but is destined to take one of the most powerful beings in all of mythology.

Where did this story come from? The short answer still applies: “Anywhere, everywhere, and nowhere.” But the long answer is still a work in progress.

“Don’t Squelch My Drive!” (And Other Thoughts of Mentoring a Young Writer)

My favorite new author has some upcoming projects I’m especially excited about. One is a book that details the imagined culture and holiday traditions of anthropomorphic leopards, with backmatter that includes games and recipes. The other book is a portal fantasy based on a popular fairy tale and which, the author confides, has series potential. And she is allowing me to break a scoop, exclusive to the Mixed Up Files blog, that she will soon be tackling the picture book format in a new and innovative way.

She’s my daughter, she’s nine years old, and she’s very enthusiastic. You may remember her from my blog post about President Julie. And she’s not just an aspiring author and part-time commander in chief. She also does her own illustration, layout, cover art, book design, and author bios.

I am enjoying her work very much, but my quandary as a writer-parent of a writer-child is how to provide age-appropriate guidance without squelching her drive and creativity.

(“Don’t squelch my drive!” is what she said just now, as she was reading over my shoulder, so I probably should go into another room.)

Technology

I can’t teach her to write using the same methods I learned. When I was nine, back in the day, cut-and-paste meant using a scissors and scotch tape to shuffle handwritten paragraphs into a different order. When I got a computer in the 8th grade, I brought this practice with me. I used to save individual letters and words, dragging them around the document instead of deleting them, because it seemed wasteful not to reuse them.

My spell-check was a twenty-pound monster of a dictionary, supplemented by a thematic thesaurus. Today, there’s an app for that.

I don’t have personal experience with being nine and learning to write using 21st century technology.

I don’t have personal experience with being nine and learning to write while simultaneously picking up keyboarding skills.

I don’t have experience being nine and learning to write while simultaneously mastering all the functions of a modern word processor.

As much as technology makes our lives easier in the long run, it first requires a juggling act of multiple overlapping learning curves.

So how can I be sure that the juggling of writing and technology isn’t what ends up squelching her drive? I don’t know but I’m trying to keep in mind at all times that today’s young writers are learning in a different world than the one I grew up in.

Although I may still attempt to introduce her to my old thesaurus.

Revision

Putting technology aside, I want to teach her is that writing and revision are two separate but equally important skills. She knows this from school, but her first draft still tends to look a lot like her second draft, which tends to look a whole lot like her final draft.

Writing is more fun for her than revision. Writing comes more easily than revision. When given the choice, she spends the bulk of her time drafting new material while her nascent revision skills suffer from a vicious cycle of neglect.

This is where I’m torn. I want her to have fun with what she’s doing, so my instinct is to let her explore her writing process in her own way and in her own time. But is it better for her to write a flood of first drafts and introduce editing and revision into the process down the road, or should I encourage her from the start to slow down and develop the habit of polishing the gems that she is creating?

The habits she is developing today, good or bad, will be with her for a long time. Bad habits can be especially hard to change. A young author who hates to revise can become an adult author who hates to revise, and who presents rough drafts as finished product.

Publishing is different today, again due to technology. As self-publishing tools have become easier to use, and as self-published books have proliferated and become destigmatized, we are seeing some great books that might not otherwise find their way into print. But we have also created a pathway for authors who never feel the need to develop revision skills, much to their own detriment.

The self-publishing pathway did not exist when I was learning to write and revise. But guiding young authors to view self-publishing as a potential outlet for polished work, and to ignore the siren song of publishing unrevised drafts, raises yet another specter for potentially squelching their drive.

Criticism

Another thing I want her to learn, because it took me so long to realize, is that constructive criticism can be helpful, but only if you develop the ability to accept it, process it, and apply it. Again, my young writer knows this from school already, but accepting criticism is not fun for her, so she’s opting out of it wherever possible.

Writers need to develop a thick skin in order to accept criticism of our work without reframing it as criticism of ourselves, but we all start with a tender skin over our most vulnerable spots of insecurity and self-doubt. It takes time and practice before we can develop the callouses we need to protect ourselves.

While learning how to let brutally honest or mean-spirited criticism roll off our backs, writers also need to cultivate the ability to sort through a batch of well-intentioned criticism for the advice that is most helpful.

Inviting another person to share their advice and viewpoints can open a story up to exciting new ideas, approaches, and directions. A good thing, in general, but potentially overwhelming for a new writer who is struggling to hold onto the ownership of her own ideas, approaches, and directions. The vital skill that can take many years to develop is an ability to pick out just those bits of advice that push the story in a direction the author wants it to go.

My daughter can’t yet do this without feeling like she’s compromising her vision of what her story should be. So how soon and how quickly do I introduce these ideas without, again, squelching her drive?

Writing

For now we are focusing mainly on the mechanics of writing itself, where she’s more open to accepting my help. We had a great discussion the other day about the difference between hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes. I can’t believe they don’t teach basic punctuation like this in third grade anymore!

This will be my focus for now as I gradually raise her awareness that writers need a lot of tools in their toolbox and that there’s more to writing than just putting words on the page.

While I’ve created classroom programs on writing for school visits, I have no curriculum yet for mentoring a single young author through the challenges specific to writing in the modern world. I’m working on it though, and I’ll continue to share whatever insights I come up with for others facing similar challenges with the young writers in their lives.  

Let me know what you are doing to keep from squelching your young writer’s drive, and maybe we can be a support group for each other.