The Longest Character Workshop Ever Part 2: Meet Marty!

I have an eerie feeling we’re going to get up into the triple digits with this thing. Like every time I sit down to write a blog post and I don’t have any kind of topic it’s going to be another number in our everlasting workshop.

Anyway, today we’re going to talk about Author Insertion! You’re excited, right?

Marty Meets Mary: Examples of what not to do.

My favorite example of author insertion is Clive Cussler. If you’ve ever tried to read a Dirk Pitt novel you’ve come across this. And I’ll be nice to Mr. Cussler here because utter freaking train wreck that I find his novels occasionally, I have actually finished a fair number of them.

So you’re cruising along, following Dirk and Al across the desert or the jungle or whatever super rugged, stereotypical expanse they’re crossing this time. And you’ve gotten used to some of the things a Dirk Pitt novel treats you to—strange plot asides, crazy coincidences, quasi-misogynistic behavior. You’re good. It’s an adventure, and sometimes you just remind yourself he started writing these in the sixties, and it was okay to hit your girlfriend when she was hysterical then.

(Yeah, as an aside here, I’ll tell you Matthew McConaughey made me like Dirk Pitt before I got around to reading him. It’s a complicated relationship, like all his relationships with women…)

You’re cruising along, and suddenly this dust-blown drifter comes onto the stage. He’s older, and rugged. He’s in possession of serious plot material he has utterly no reason to have. He’s strangely debonair (and crazy as a loon) and you’re confused. You’ve already aligned yourself to the idea Dirk Pitt is Clive Cussler as he imagines himself in the darkest nights. The man he wishes he was. The man he believes he could be (or is, I’ll give Cussler this, he does actually do all the NUMA stuff).

So who’s this guy? Another version of Cussler? How does that even work? And seriously, dude doesn’t have a name? And he winks all the time?

The list of authors who have been accused of serious author insertion over the years is pretty serious. Dumas, Christie, Hemmingway, Sayers. There are all sorts of theories about Shakespeare. And if there’s all this wonderful company, then why is this a thing to be worried about. The greats do it, right?


Look, a certain level of author insertion is unavoidable. There will be bits of yourself with wind up in things you write. Sometimes (often) without your express permission. Sometimes without your even realizing it. And that’s a situation that can make something wonderful out of your little story about a band of renegades on the edge of the galaxy, or the knight in dented armor who decides to be the good guy.

It’s when it goes off the rails that you get into trouble. The sad, depressing fact of life is that nobody cares as much about you as you do. Some things are universal, sure. A lot of things aren’t. You have to watch for the things that aren’t. It’s fine to give up a piece of yourself for a character, but watch how big a piece it is.

Nothing good comes from trying to write your own happy ending. It’s better to go off and live that one.

Write all the others.

As a complete side note, our fall is looking so insanely busy there’ll probably only be about one post a week on here, for the foreseeable future. If that doesn’t feel like enough for you, you can of course either send us a post (hint hint) or comment and beg us for more. We’re amenable to bribery of all sorts of forms…

Racism has physical effects

Racism is nasty, evil, and insidious. It’s something to watch for, not only in writing, but in life.

But as writers we need to go one step beyond and actually think about how racism affects our characters. Here’s a side-effect I’d never thought of before. It turns out that dealing with racism can increase risk-factors for illness.

Controlling for other factors that might cause stress, including socioeconomic status, health behaviors, and depression, researchers found that adults who had reported higher levels of discrimination when they were young had disrupted stress hormone levels 20 years later—and that African Americans experienced the effects at greater levels than their white counterparts.

“There’s sometimes a tendency to say, ‘Oh, they are just kids—they will get over it,'” says developmental psychologist and head researcher Emma Adam. “But it turns out there can be lasting impact.”

Using participants from the Maryland Adolescent Development Context Study—a large-scale, 20-year survey that included adolescents from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds—the researchers were able to compare levels of the stress hormone cortisol in adults to the responses they gave as 12-year-olds.

You can read the full Mother Jones article here.

What this generally means, is that the levels of stress hormones remain elevated in those who experience racism. High hormone levels can lead to heart disease, diabetes, chronic fatigue, and depression. So, let’s think about this in a regular fiction way and then in a science fiction way.

In regular fiction, you have a character who is from an historically minority background who has grown up with racism (overt or insidious). They are now an adult. This adult is now put into a stressful situation. His heart is weaker, having had high stress levels on a continual basis for most of his life. How does he react? More quickly? More slowly? Does he suddenly have a tingling in his hand and shortness of breath that he writes off as the normal background of his life, rather than the mild heart attack it is?

In a science fiction way, we have a minority character — an alien. How does this alien’s physiology react to long-grade stress? Does it change the color of the alien’s skin (<– playing with race to fit in with the dominant culture. Adaptive physiology?) Does it make the alien sick? Aggressive? Passive?

Or, if we put humans under the dominant alien culture. Humans have to work twice as hard to been seen as good as the dominant species. How does this affect the rates of exhaustion? Do they age more rapidly? Die more easily?

What are your thoughts/reactions?



The Year that Time Forgot

A couple of years ago I had this crazy idea–I know, I say that a lot.

We’ve been contemplating trying some serials, the sort of story that releases bit by bit over a period of time, and then if you want to when it’s all over you can by the whole thing as one copy. Those used to be a thing. If you want to see what it looks like, when it’s gone slightly wrong, check out The Count of Monte Cristo. Slightly less wrong, I’m pretty sure the original Edgar Rice Burrows Children of Mars series was released as a serial as well.

And before we got around to that I’d already had this really great idea for a series of mysteries centered around this one amateur detective. The kind where we follow our detective and his life for an entire calendar year. At the time I thought it I figured there was no way I was ever going to get a publisher to sign up for that (there’s always something positive about having a certain measure of creative control, amirite?).

That sounds cool, right? If you’re one of those in the know people you’re also thinking “Jules, that sounds like a ridiculous, inordinate amount of work,” and you wouldn’t be wrong. I’m basically putting out a 300,000 word book with ten different sub plots, in tiny bits, over the course of the next year.

But forget about the editorial schedule for a minute. Think like a reader. Wouldn’t it be cool to spend an entire year with a character? Spend Christmas reading about their Christmas, and then Valentines, and early spring, and their summer holidays. Sit down to read a book that talks about the state fair when it’s still state fair season, and share the characters hankering for good, old-fashioned cotton candy.

I’m signing up for this insane, giant thing, but mostly it’s under the guise of trying to provide what I’d like to read. Most of the books I write are about what I’d like to read that there doesn’t seem to be enough of out there in the world. I don’t know what kind of business sense that makes, but I figure it’s as good a place to start as any.

And hey, on the up shot, starting this December you can keep an eye out for The Ohio Mysteries, Book 1: Death of a Salesman.

Also, the next part in our free online collection, Romancing the Rainbow should be out now, so you should totally go check that out.

Alternative Viewpoints: Is Writing Advice for the Birds?

This week’s first post is lifted in its entirety (with permission, obviously) from a lovely authoress I hope will eventually become one of our flock (eheh, sheep jokes just write themselves) of writers for By Passion Shorn, Rhozwyn Darius.

NOTE: This blog will sometimes have adult language. Readers can count on my being blunt. The writing here is casual in the sense that I will write much the way I speak. It may or may not be perfectly grammatical. I make no apologies. Also, I use the ban-hammer. I might warn you before I drop the hammer; I might not.
Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to my face in my living room. Don’t be shitty. Be kind instead. It uses less energy and is better for everyone.

Writing is obviously a pretty solitary pursuit. As an introvert, by and large, this makes me happy. But it means that I have spent a ton of time in the past looking for advice on writing. I’m not alone. Most writers I know spend at least a little time searching out there in the wide Universe, looking for the one true path to productive creativity.

For sure, there’s plenty of writing advice on the ‘net. The National Novel Writing Month people have built and continues to build a wonderful and supportive online community. Chuck Wendig is a no-nonsense, no bullshit source for common sense writing advice. I like Kris Rusch and her husband Dean Smith for a different and contextual take both on fiction writing and on the business of writing fiction. People throw up memes on Pinterest and Facebook all the time with advice for writers from other writers both contemporary and historical. It’s actually hard to escape other people’s writing advice now that I’ve gone looking for it.

My experience, however, is that about half (or more) of it is non-applicable to me.

Whenever I take the advice of some other more experienced writer too much to heart, I almost always fail–sometimes epically. Writer’s write. If I don’t write then I’m not a writer. The bottom line is that I write more when I ‘meta’ my own process.

Writing is an internal process. Spinning something viable out of your guts pretty naturally means your insides and your baggage will be all over your art whatever it is, in subtle and not so subtle ways. There is no external advice that is going to be universally applicable to such a messy business. When I pay attention to what works for me and drop the “how I should write according to X” off the proverbial cliff, the whole thing goes better and I’m more productive. Figuring that out made my life much easier.

Note that I’m not applying this to the business of writing fiction. That’s a whole other topic. However, for me, these individual internal rules apply to literally everything that involves the methodology of the craft and art of writing–plot, character development, sentence and paragraph and scene and chapter construction, even writing software. Pick your poison! Some advice is helpful but much is not. Sorting it all out takes some time and attention.

This includes getting my butt into the chair to write at all.

In fact, that’s my best example. Most advice I find on the net involves the regular application of the butt to the chair and the fingers to the keyboard. I’m not arguing against that truth. Writers gotta’ write. But such advice usually includes a heavily weighted rider something along the lines of “And Write Every Day Forever And Ever, Amen”.

The year I tried to write every day was the least productive year I’ve had since I got serious about this joy ride. Instead, I learned that I hyper-focus. If I want to write a book in a timely fashion I need to set it up first (and the way I do that is very much my way!). Then I need to write the original draft all at once over the course of four to six weeks. If I don’t, I stumble and start to over-think everything on the page. Those projects take me years to finish. I believe that I lose my train of thought and it takes me much longer to get it back than it would have just to finish the damned draft in one fell swoop. Because I’m stubborn, I do manage to finish those projects. It’s just much more difficult to get even that one draft done.
If you write, don’t write my way. If you write, figure out the way that works for you–even if it’s “write every day”. 🙂
“Know Thyself” is an old but still relevant aphorism. But the only way it works for me is to also “Pay Attention”. External advice has value. I just find that my value for it is limited.

Cool, eh?
Check back later in the week so you can watch me natter on about writing a giant serial and whatever else I manage to come up with…

Kickstarter Math

Okay, since we’re thinking of starting some crowd-funding projects in the future (box sets of Abby the Labby and Thomas the Watch-cat as well as our Fandom Universe series), I’ve been doing some research.

This article by Marian Call is excellent! She not only breaks down how to set a budget, but several tricky bits about how to manage stretch goals and public face. It’s a lot of good information and I think everyone should go read it, especially *backers*. This is information that anyone involved in crowd funding should think about. That way we don’t get nasty backlashes like the ones that hit Amanda Palmer.

This is just one section:

How much you can raise and how much you need to raise are totally unrelated numbers, sorry to say — you might need $100,000 but if you can only raise $5000, ask for $5000, and deliver what you’re promising to those backers. Or change what you plan to make.

Crowdfunding is not a magical wishing well, it’s a community. The “crowd” that you petition is a family you build over a very long time with very hard work. If you don’t have a crowd yet, fund your work some other way. You have to know who will be supporting you (their names and faces and kids) and you have to know what they want. You have to be able to estimate how much they will pay, individually and as a group.

I have done a lot of fundraising in the past, and I know my audience pretty well. But I still need to run a few different scenarios. I mean, think through all the things that can go wrong and right during your campaign:

  • What if my fans have crowdfunding exhaustion? They absolutely do.
  • What if a couple of reliable big donors don’t turn up like I expect? Do not assume they’re in; they don’t owe you, and they don’t always show up.
  • What if they’re not as interested in this project as they were in my last one? That is absolutely possible, there are newer shinier projects out there.
  • What if I somehow go viral and have thousands more backers than I expect — can I cope with the workload? Many Kickstarters tank even in spectacular success. A surprise $2,000,000 can bankrupt a project that would have been solvent at $2000.
  • What if the news is really awful when my campaign ends/when my record launches and I can’t promote? This happened to me during Hurricane Sandy; media outlets that promised coverage were literally underwater and of course did not run stories. Some factors are totally out of your control.

You never know exactly how much you will fundraise, even if you’ve done it before. So be prepared for every scenario.