Saturday 23 December 2017

I'm excited for the stories of the future: An interview with T. Eric Bakutis

I first picked up T. Eric Bakutis' work with his fantasy debut Glyphbinder, and was delighted and intrigued when I saw he was doing cyberpunk police procedural too. That meant there was only one thing to do, so I hauled him in for some interrogation...

PL: Fantasy trilogy to cyberpunk police procedural - that's a big shift. What led to you writing Loose Circuit?

TEB: I’ve always been fascinated by and written both scifi and fantasy, so hopping back over to cyberpunk wasn’t so much a shift as just moving onto my next project. I’d written many stories (and even older novels!) in both genres, and it just so happened that my fantasy book was the first one to be published. When I knew I wanted to do a trilogy, that set up two more fantasy books, which led to three fantasy books in a row. Had I gotten a scifi book published first, I may very well have been doing scifi for the last few years.

Ultimately I enjoy both genres, but I think I actually have more fun doing scifi, as it allows me to spend less time worrying about anachronisms and just writing fun prose, whether it be dialogue or author’s voice. Since scifi allows me to use modern language, I feel like my voice comes through more clearly in scifi than in fantasy, where I’m more reserved and formal. I just have a great time writing it.

My writing of Loose Circuit (the aforementioned cyberpunk police procedural!) was actually inspired once I finished watching one of my favorite anime series, Psycho-Pass. Psycho-Pass is incredibly dark, twisty, addicting, and thought provoking, especially in how it deals with one of my favorite concepts, which could be summarized as “Should we allow everyone to have free will?” I wanted to explore that in a story of my own.

It sounds like an easy answer at first, doesn’t it? Of course we should allow people to have free will. It allows us to do good things ... and also, allows us to do some of the most horrific things imaginable to one another. Things that are evil in the purest sense of the word. Think of the worst, most horrific, most terrifying story you’ve heard about what one person has done to another (or many). Someone chose to do that. Free will allowed that to occur.

So given free will allows as much bad as it does good (if not more so) would it be acceptable to limit free will? What if we could take away free will, or at least ... the free will to *harm* other people? Would it work? And even if we did do it, how would society change?

Ultimately, that led to the idea of PBAs (Personal Brain Assistants, which forbid us from harming or killing other human beings), which are central to Loose Circuit –  my protagonists (cops with the CID, or Cybercrimes Investigation Division) are responsible for dealing with cases where PBAs don’t do what they’re supposed to, which is stop violent crime. I had a ton of fun coming up with ways people could still commit crimes despite PBAs, and then exploring how each crime occurred (and how my protagonists “solved” each case) in detail. Fun!

At its core, Loose Circuit was me wanting to write my own anime, essentially, about a world where mind control exists ... and whether that’s okay. The episodic format was a natural fit for that. Multiple self-contained stories that build a larger narrative.

PL: So you're an anime fan - where else do you draw your inspirations from, both fantasy and sci-fi?

TEB: My interest in anime started young (though it wasn’t necessarily marketed as anime at the time) with the serialized stories of Robotech (Macross in Japan) and Starblazers (Space Battleship Yamato in Japan), which I watched in 30 minute blocks every afternoon. Despite being watered down and edited for American audiences, they were still groundbreaking as far as “children’s television” was concerned, particularly in how they featured a large cast of interesting characters (instead of just one “main” character with sidekicks) and characterization and plot that developed over seasons, rather than resetting at the end of each episode. As a child, having a story that played out over such a long period of time unlocked an interest in extended narratives.

I enjoyed many of the 80s cartoons so many other kids did (G.I. Joe, Transformers, He-Man, etc) but while I found them interesting, I think it was Robotech and Starblazers that truly inspired me to write both short fiction and long. Looking back, I think this is because of the depth of the character roster and the introduction of characters who weren’t clearly cut “good” or “bad”, but just people fighting for what they believed in.

Other than Psycho-Pass, which I’ve mentioned previously, Ghost in the Shell (the episodic series, Stand Alone Complex and 2nd Gig) was what really got my mind fired up in regards to cyberpunk and how many cool stories you could tell in the genre. Standard science fiction (particularly space opera) was cool, but cyberpunk added a dimension of grittiness and interest that grabbed me more than anything I’d seen before, likely due to my fascination with computer programming and videogames.

Of all the anime I’ve enjoyed, Ghost in the Shell and Psycho-Pass are the two most direct inspirations that inspired Loose Circuit, and much of their DNA is ingrained in the story. Loose Circuit is also the first time I’ve tried to tell a long story in an episodic fashion (with 12,000~ word episodes that stand alone while also building a larger narrative) and it’s been really fun in that regard.

PL: The best part about doing these interviews sometimes is all the recommendations I get. So let’s fish some more! What about the Tales of the Five Provinces, your fantasy trilogy that starts with Glyphbinder? What inspirations lay behind that?

TEB: Glyphbinder actually started with a single idea for a scene that isn’t even in the book! It involved a mage and a warrior who had been fighting some sort of difficult campaign against a devious enemy (very, very basic – just an inkling of an idea). I had the idea that the warrior had lost his memory and been told his wife was dead.

During the book, the warrior and the mage had started to develop feelings for each other over the course of their adventures. Just when they are close to giving into those feelings, they would camp at a town with the rest of their party and discover the warrior’s wife was living there, still alive, having survived the burning of his village. She would remember him (he wouldn’t remember her) and turn everyone’s world view upside down. It was literally just imagining that scene and thinking how dramatic it would be, without the context of any larger book or even much about the characters.

This scene, of course, never takes place in Glyphbinder or the other two books – it didn’t even make it into the first draft. But the idea of a warrior who’d had his memory erased by magic (Trell) and a scrappy young female mage who is determined to help him (Kara) remained, which planted the seeds for the rest of the book. The first actual scene I wrote with Kara and Trell (still in the book, but in a much different form) had Kara reminiscing about her time learning glyphs in Solyr’s library while enjoying a hike through the woods, at the end of which she finds Trell’s bloody body and protects him from attack. That scene survived all the way to the final draft, though in a dramatically different form.

The biggest improvement in Glyphbinder’s final draft came from adding Kara’s quest to find a cure for her mother’s terminal disease. My editor at McBryde Publishing, which released the first version of the book, was unsatisfied with Kara’s motivations and insisted I answer the age old question “What does your character want?”  Saving her mother was the answer. It was a far more personal quest than “saving the world” and informed so much of the final draft. It allowed all Kara’s choices to make much more sense, and as I see it, allowed me to make her an even more compelling character.

Coincidentally, incorporating Kara’s quest to save her mother was the last of many changes that fully flipped the narrative relationship between Trell and Kara. In very early drafts, I’d envisioned Trell as the main character with Kara supporting him, but by the middle drafts (and certainly by the end) those roles had flipped entirely, with Kara taking the lead.

As far as inspiration, it’s safe to say that JRPG plots (and, of course, the plots of literally hundreds of fantasy books I’d read growing up) all mixed together to form the plot of Glyphbinder. The inspirations are likely too many (and too mushed up in my head) to pick out clearly, but JRPGs are definitely in the mix.

As far as revisions go, Glyphbinder is probably my most revised book (not uncommon with an early novel) having gone through no less than 6 complete revisions, several of which were total rewrites. Though elements remain that came all the way from the first draft (and the main characters stayed the same throughout) the final draft is dramatically different from the original draft that started it all.

PL: You mention the JRPGs and I know your day job is in the gaming industry. How much of a gaming influence in the Spec Fic worlds we see being created today?

TEB: Most of the influence on my written work actually comes from playing other people’s games, rather than the work I do in my day job. I’d easily admit that videogame plots and storylines all the way back to Crystalis and The Legend of Zelda (NES) have had a heavy influence on my writing, because those were the stories that had the most impact on me when I was young. I played games before that, of course (my first console was an Atari 2600) but the limitations of those early games meant actual plots were non-existent. It was more about mechanics, bleeps, and boops.

It’s fair to say that the plots of a number of RPGs (which, themselves, were often derived from fantasy and science fiction books of the era) have influenced (and still influence) my work, and continue to do so. So books and movies inspire videogames, which I play, which inspire me to write more books. It’s the circle of inspiration! (or theft, depending on how you look at it).

As far as Tales of the Five Provinces (my completed fantasy series) the biggest influences would be the early Final Fantasy games on the SNES, particularly Final Fantasy II (IV in Japan). I can point to three specific ideas that I stole (*cough* I mean, was inspired by!) in that particular game.

First, the idea of a magic academy where magic is taught like anything else. The city of Mysidia (the mage city where you meet magic students Palom and Porom) gave me the idea for Solyr (Kara’s magic academy) *long* before Hogwarts was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. The Magic Academy of Vane, from Lunar: Silver Star Story, was also an inspiration.

The second thing I borrowed (er, was inspired by!) was the magic/elemental system of the Final Fantasy games, using Lit/Ice/Fire/Quake as my base. These changed to Fire, Water, Earth, and Air up until the very last draft of Glyphbinder, at which point I saw Avatar: The Last Airbender for the first time (I was introduced to the series by a friend) and just about had a conniption.

Avatar had the exact same idea as my book (characters wielding fire, ice, air, and earth in cool ways) except Avatar’s characters wielded elements while doing martial arts, which was ten times cooler than blood glyph magic. Dammit. It was a bit of a kick in the gut, honestly.

Eventually, I got over it (there are no original ideas out there, after all), but I did end up doing a find/replace on my elements, turning Fire, Water, Earth, and Air into Life, Heat, Breath, and Land, in the hopes of not being seen as *completely* derivative of Avatar: The Last Airbender. But, for the record, I officially stole my ideas from Final Fantasy, not Avatar! (Wait, that doesn’t sound much better)

The final element that’s stuck with me through decades is Kain’s arc in Final Fantasy II, where he is turned against his allies (through mind control) not once, but several times, and then feels incredibly guilty as a result. He was a tragic (but awesome) character, and the game ends with him on a “journey of redemption” to try to make up for the wrongs he did while under Golbez’s influence.

That plotline was a *huge* inspiration for Jyllith (the lead in Demonkin) and pretty much the entire origin of her arc. I wanted to present a character tricked into going against her better impulses who, upon being shown the error of her ways, set out not to redeem herself (which she sees as impossible) but to do as much good as she can before she willingly goes to her inevitable punishment. Jyllith (like Kain) has no hope of being forgiven for her crimes, but wants to do all she can to atone anyway.

The idea of a regretful character atoning with no hope of forgiveness was a noble, melancholy, and interesting idea I wanted to explore, and comes directly from seeing Kain’s journey in Final Fantasy II.

PL: Since before Hogwarts was even a twinkle! That's a long time to nurture a story. How much about your technique and approach to writing has changed in that time?

TEB: I’d like to say I’ve improved as a writer since I finished the first draft of Glyphbinder (in 1998). I’ve been writing pretty consistently since middle school, but I didn’t actually start selling work until 2013, when I finally sold my first story, a horror short called “The Mumber”, to a small horror market. I do feel that my writing today is tighter and more entertaining than my writing from 20 years ago, so there’s that!

As far as my approach to writing, it’s remained basically the same – I get a scene or pivotal plot point in my head, then write a story that gets to that point, does it, and shows the aftermath. For novels, I do outline in bullet point style from start to end, which allows me to avoid writing myself into a corner and also, if I’m stuck, even write scenes out of order. For short stories, however, I still mostly improvise.

As far as writing technique, I’d say my “author’s voice” (and a snarky one, at that) has more prominent in the past five years or so, and that my writing has become less dry as a result. I can’t take sole credit for this, as I’ve been submitting my stuff to (and having it improved by) one critique group or another for decades now.

So, in all those years since 1998, I don’t think my approach or technique has changed drastically ... I’ve just gotten generally better at writing clean and interesting prose.

PL: Nothing beats a good critique group - how did you find yours?

TEB: Conventions, actually! I met my first critique group when I was still in Texas at a local writer’s convention. We started chatting about our shared interest in writing, and all three of them were local to my area. This was my first exposure to editorial style critique, and while it was initially depressing (what? How can you not believe my story is the best in the world?) I soon found that their critiques were making my stories *better*.

Once I realized my stories were improving every time I took advantage of author insights given to me for free, a switch flipped. I suddenly became hungry for feedback (does this work? How about this? How can I make it better?) instead of being “hurt” that my story wasn’t perfect.

The challenge many young writers face is separating their craft (their ability to tell a story) from their identity as a “good” writer. You can write a terrible story and still be a talented writer and an awesome person. When people in a critique group say your story isn’t working, it’s not an attack on *you* ... it’s them providing feedback as to what might work better, for them, as a prospective reader.

Feedback is how we learn, and writers new and experienced should remain hungry to learn. Even today, having been writing for 30 years, I still get stuff critiqued and consistently find ways to improve it.

I currently have two active critique groups (one that meets every two weeks, and one that meets every few months) and both have combinations of other writers at various levels of experience and success, ranging from fledgling authors to folks who’ve published multiple books through traditional press. Often, the feedback from the new writers (things that bother them, or that they point out) is as valuable as that from the seasoned pros.

As of now, I would never send out *anything* that hadn’t been critiqued at least once, not even as a rough draft. I just get too much valuable feedback.

PL: Also, what's the best piece of writing advice you've received, and the worst?

TEB: I would say the best piece of writing advice I’ve received is to use a “scratch” file when editing a short story or novel. I keep an open file when editing, and ruthlessly snip and cut stuff that doesn’t work out of the current draft. The feeling of safety a scratch file provides (the words are simply moved, not gone) helps me be a much better editor of my own work, trimming and cutting as needed.

As writers, we have a tendency to cling to our hard fought words, and fear deleting anything because we can never come up with something “so brilliant” again (or maybe that’s just me). That’s why a scratch file is so useful ... it lets you feel safe removing anything from your story. If you decide later in the editing process that you want to bring that idea/scene/dialogue back, you can paste it right back in.

As far as the worst advice I’ve ever heard? That would be tough, as I’ve never actually heard anyone say to do this ... but I’d warn against it anyway.

The flipside of critique groups (for those who don’t know how to best use them) is to treat outlying opinion as gospels, and treat *all* feedback as valid. Writing is incredibly subjective, and what one person likes, another person may loathe with every fiber of their being. When listening to feedback, writers must look for the reasons *why* things don’t work, rather than simply taking feedback verbatim. It could be that it’s not your idea that’s the problem, for example, but how you’re presenting it in the story. Always analyze feedback carefully before making any huge story change.

This is why critique groups are so valuable (to me). I get feedback from multiple advance readers whose reactions I can compare and contrast. If one person hates something, and one person likes it, I use my best judgment. If eight people hate something, and only one person likes it, that’s incredibly useful, as I can be very confident something doesn’t work, even if I personally don’t have a problem with it.

So, some really bad writing advice would be “do everything your critique group tells you.”

Your critique group provides insight, feedback, and data on what is working and not working for them, but it up to you as a writer to interpret that feedback and filter out the noise. Critique is data, not a mandate. Ultimately, you need to write the story you want to write, so while you should always seriously consider feedback from critiques, you should never feel compelled to act on *everything*, especially if the suggested change comes from one person rather than multiple people.

Sketch art of Kara from Tales of the Five Provinces

PL: Okay - final question - well, questions - what future plans have you got for your books? And what do you see in the future for the various Spec Fic genres?

TEB: As far as future plans, I’m really excited about doing more writing in the worlds I created for Supremacy’s Shadow and Loose Circuit (my two most recent novels).

Right now, my plans are to continue to write books in the world of Supremacy’s Shadow (with its dueling planets, spies vs spies, bounty hunters, overbearing space government, and ruthless resistance). These books were *heavily* inspired by the Star Wars Expanded Universe, except without the clear cut lines of good and evil, so it’s really like having my own EU to play around with. It’s a huge amount of fun.

My Supremacy is similar to the Galactic Empire, but with actual good folks mixed in with the bad (instead of everyone down to the janitors being pure evil, like in the movies). Opposing them are the Patriots of Ceto, who are like the Rebellion, except many have accepted collateral damage as an acceptable price of freeing their planet from occupation.

Neither side is exactly evil, and neither side is exactly good. The world and situations that result from their conflict (and forcing my characters to navigate those situations) are a joy to write. I have a lot of fun poking fun at classic sci-fi tropes, including my own, which allows for comedy in both prose and dialogue. There’s a reason I’ve dubbed the books “grimsnark”.

Between writing more Supremacy books, I’ll also take breaks to diverge into short fiction set in the universe of Loose Circuit (which is basically Ghost in the Shell meets every police procedural ever). While I have no plans for a “Season 2” of Loose Circuit right now, I’m sure I will at some point. At the moment, however, my plan is to publish new Supremacy books the same way Marvel does movies – each book will stand alone with a different central character, but those characters all exist in the same universe and occasionally cross over. I’m looking forward to writing my version of The Avengers one day.

As far as the future of speculative fiction, I think it’s here to stay. New nerds are created every day, and with all the great IPs now flourishing (more Star Wars, the Marvel universe, a dozen great videogame worlds, and hundreds of fascinating fantasy and sci-fi worlds in print) I think we’re lucky to live in a time where there’s so much cool stuff to view/read/play. I feel like twenty years from now, the current generation will look back on all the cool stuff we have now as fondly as many of us older folks look back on the 80s/90s.

If there was one thing I’d change about today’s speculative fiction audience, it would be excising the toxicity that has emerged as our fandom has expanded. Excluding people sucks, and my hope is that the folks who currently expend all their effort trying to chase off those they consider “other” with either cut that shit out (no, seriously, cut it out, guys) or that it will grow so culturally unacceptable to harass your fellow fans that the repercussions will force our current crop of trolls to either accept newcomers, or at least stop trying to chase them off.

Also, I would love to see the “stop liking what I don’t like!” crowd chill out a bit. Entertainment is subjective, and everyone likes different stuff. There’s too many fans these days who see it as their mission to tell others what is “good” or “bad” spec fic. It’s unhealthy, and seems increasingly common now that social media has us all closely connected. As fans who are all in this together, we should let each other enjoy what we enjoy and spend time boosting the stuff *we* like, instead of expending so much effort tearing down the stuff we don’t like (and, quite often, the people who enjoy it).

Ultimately, however, I think speculative fiction of all sorts will continue to grow and thrive, and future stories will be even more diverse and interesting as new fans turned creators contribute work based on a wider pool of experiences, viewpoints, and interests. I’m excited for the stories of the future, and I can’t wait to find the next one I really enjoy.

PL: Am I a complete doofus or is this the first you've mentioned Supremacy's Shadow to me? Okay, actual final question, just tell me a little about it!

TEB: My elevator pitch? “Half Han Solo, half Deadpool, Hayden Cross tries to stop an interplanetary war while relentlessly mocking everyone involved.”

Supremacy’s Shadow is book one of my new Dueling Planets series, a “grimsnark” sci-fi espionage thriller set on two habitable planets, the larger, temperate, and water-rich Phorcys (where all the rich people live) and its smaller sister planet, Ceto, where the working class and poor make do.

These two planets are locked in a barycentric orbit (meaning they rotate like a bolo as they orbit their star together) and human settlers have colonized both planets in the far, far future. This setup let me do an interplanetary story without the scientific headaches of calculating planetary orbits and month long journeys, and without resorting to impossible tech like endless fuel or faster-than-light travel.

At the time my book starts, tension is high between the natural-born (the first human colonists to arrive in the system and stake their claim) and the Advanced, a second wave of colonists who arrived fifty years later and soon took over the government of both worlds. This tension gives me an excuse to blow things up.

The worlds of Phorcys and Ceto have clunky spaceships (tech closer to Firefly than Star Wars), hover bikes, smart rifles that fire smart bullets (basically, bullets that can aim themselves), powered armor with jetpacks and stuff, brain-mounted computers known as Personal Brain Assistants (stolen from my other sci-fi work, Loose Circuit) and one character that wears black powered armor and a creepy mask, who uses his giant heatsword to slice people in half when he’s not mimetically cloaked.

So basically, every cool sci-fi trope I ever loved, mashed together in what I hope is an interesting story with compelling gray characters and a decent number of unexpected twists.

The book’s protagonist, Hayden Cross, gets caught up in the cold war between these factions while trying to find out if his wife faked her death, and as a result basically everyone tries to kill him. Subsequent books will focus on other characters in the same universe, including a talented bounty hunter, a ruthless assassin, and the aforementioned black armored heatsword-wielding cloaked guy. All of this is delivered with a healthy sprinkling of snark and genuine love for the many sci-fi shows that inspired it, including Star Wars, Babylon 5, Firefly, Cowboy Bebop, and about a dozen others.

I have a great deal of positive feedback on the book so far from fellow authors and advance readers, and I hope people will enjoy it! The book will be released at Farpoint Convention’s Book Launch Festival in February 9, 2018, and then (hopefully) going on tour after that.

Also, it’s got a cover. Which we’re revealing for the first time here, on this blog. How about that?

Its a pretty sweet cover alright. Thanks to Eric for revealing here! And kudos to Shen Fei for making it.

Thanks to Eric for taking part. If you want to know more about his books, visit his website or buy them on Amazon US and UK, where the Tales of the Five Provinces are on sale for the rest of the year.

Art credits:

Loose Circuit cover - Mat Yan

Glyphbinder cover - Greg Taylor

Kara sketch - Jin Kim

Supremacy’s Shadow cover - Shen Fei

Wednesday 20 December 2017

The Last Jedi & Storytelling

Herein maybe lies mild spoilers.

I saw The Last Jedi on Sunday and found it something of a curate’s egg. I enjoyed it overall but found the parts I care most about in a movie - the storytelling and characters - not so great. 

Recently I’ve finished a number of books where at the end, I felt the author took on too much. That space constraints had prevented certain characters and situations gaining the necessary depth to be truly satisfying. The Last Jedi gave me that same feeling. There were four major arcs - and they rarely interacted on the screen - and gods knows how many little side arcs.

One of the better pieces of advice I ever got was from MD Presley (he of the most recent interview), who urged me to keep things simple. Juggling that many arcs will never be simple. Something will lose out. Judging from the reactions I’ve read so far, it was Finn. People reckon his arc was a bit pointless and only there so he had something to do. That’s not the desired effect.

Personally, my problem with Finn’s arc wasn’t that it was pointless (although I’d agree it’s the most easily chopped piece of the plot). My problem would be that it came with the most drama for the sake of drama. 

Its common storytelling advice to keep making things worse. Pile on the trouble and let the characters dig themselves big holes to get out of. Like many storytelling maxims, there’s something to it, but its possible to make the story worse with it too. Too many stupid decisions and the audience lose sympathy. Too much tragedy and drama and they grow numb, or get uncomfortable, or worst of all, start guessing the plot twists too early because tragedy demands a response. 

Once that happens, devastating battles become formulaic preludes to individual heroics. Do or die moments become prolonged athletics montages prior to the bit where they do. We don’t share characters’ anguish because it’s like dealing with your most embarrassing uncle when drunk. You just want them to stop making a scene. And when you’re in that cynical frame of mind, all the cool stunts and moments of heroism stop being cool.

There’s many criticisms an action-adventure can shrug off as being something the audience doesn’t care about. Being uncool isn’t one of them. Personally, The Last Jedi frequently missed the mark there because cool ideas were buried behind layer after layer of tension-sapping drama. I can only presume the boy who fell asleep on me would mostly agree with that.

Of course, one of the better safeguards against this is the use of characters the audience are rooting for; emotional investment is the best cosmetic any story can have. Here be spoilers - go to the fourth picture if you wish to avoid them.

This is a character who people root for

And this is how to do drama

The Last Jedi doesn’t use this. None of the characters we have met and loved before this installment bite the farm as a result of direct enemy action. The closest we get is Leia’s brief coma - for a moment I thought she was dead and it really hit, then we learned otherwise and I felt cheated. Some will count Luke’s death, but I don’t know whether that’s a result of expending energy to distract Ren, or simply feeling it was his time to go. Or a mix of both. In any case, it happens a long time after I decided whether the action was cool or not. Oh, and Akbar goes off-screen. Sorry dude.

So what do we get? Two of the bigger good guys introduced in this film die. One dies after twenty or so minutes of being a grossly incompetent and needlessly provocative leader, and then five minutes of twiddling her thumbs while people die instead of making the sacrifice that saved further losses. If I wasn’t completely meh on her due to the former, I mightn’t have noticed the latter quite so much.

The other has a cooler arc - from lowly fangirl tech to courageous survivor refusing to lose her principles for vengeance is cool. Just not cool enough to distract me from the fact that her death felt completely superfluous to the plot. It wasn’t the logical conclusion of events, it was the act of a director looking for a tearjerker moment. He didn’t get it from me, which is kinda sad, as the character deserved better. Maybe if she’d been more established, I’d have felt differently.

As it is, I can’t remember either’s name.

So those are my problems with the film.

What are my lessons?

The first would be to be very cautious about having too many major point of view characters. I’m thinking three is the number at which a storyteller should stop and ask themselves “Do I really gain anything from having more and am I really good enough to pull it off?”. Sometimes the answer to that is Yes. Some of the most beloved stories out there answered Yes to that question. But too many characters, too many arcs, and the writer is no longer juggling balls but chainsaws.

The second would be to, after each turn of the screw, ask myself “Can the MC still win?” as well as “Did I make it sufficiently worse”. If you keep putting the character in situations where only a Deus Ex Machina will save them, the tension will snap and all that is left is a minefield of jaded expectations. The Indiana Jones movies are, if memory serves, fantastic examples of a character failing often without requiring plot armour.

And the third is that every character sacrifice - or lack of sacrifice - needs to be audited for meaning and build up. Character death is frequently a make or break moment for a story, particularly when used as an emotional climax. GRR Martin showed us all how to do it. This movie doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed it and not just for the visual spectacle. I’ll probably be back to watch it in 3D, which I wouldn’t if the story was just plain flat. But it was uneven and distracting. Hopefully I can make use of what I saw to make my own stories less so.

p.s. If you want to read another blog on Star Wars and storytelling, TE Bakutis has a pretty sweet article on Rogue One right here. He also has an interview coming up here later this week with a cool announcement in it. So watch this space.

Tuesday 5 December 2017

"Of course I have a penchant for the unpleasant" - An interview with Matt Presley

I'm a big fan of MD Presley's writing and mention his blog here on a fairly frequent basis. After being given a chance to beta read The Imbued Lockblade, the recently released sequel to The Woven Ring, I decided to interview him and get a better glimpse into his mindset...

PL: What was the inspiration behind The Woven Ring?

MP: Well, that's easy enough to answer: Avatar, The Last Airbender; Ken Burn's Civil War documentary; and the first season of True Detective. Last Airbender was sort of a mental exercise to see if I could create a world half as awesome, which I hope I succeeded in (being half as awesome that is). I wanted to do a steampunk/ weird west version of the Breath conceit, but it never worked out. But then I watched the series on the Civil War and I now had a context to go with my setting. And though I borrow quite a bit from the non-linear aspect of True Detective, what I really wanted at the onset was the relentlessly nihilistic sense of tone. I hadn't heard the term "grimdark" when I started writing, but that what I was aiming for.

So basically, I wanted to make a world as bright and vibrant as a kid's TV show and then gloom it all up with a terrible civil war to chip away at the reader's soul. 

PL: *Quickly googles True Detective* I'd never really considered the book in that sense before but now you say it, it makes total sense. How long had you been working with the Breath conceit before seeing the documentary? And how long did you spend mapping out the setting after coming up with it?

MP: I can honestly say I'm glad you asked that since it forced me to go back through all my notes (ie ctrl-F for "Ayr" and "Marta"). Turns out she showed up with the idea and name of Ayr (which, in hindsight, I think sounds stupid now) in 2010. I did a bad treatment for it around then that was less magic and more steampunk for a potential comic (my screenwriting manager at the time had some connections). I also found this note to myself from 2011 that amuses me to no end now: 

"Fantasy itself has a stigma attached to it unless it’s LOTR itself, which is probably why urban fantasy is seeing such an uptick as of late:  If you marry [fantasy] with something to make it more palatable then you’ve got a winning lottery ticket. 

Which is kind of funny that I would want to work with Ayr since it does masquerade as high fantasy.  I’m probably the only person who’s going to see it as historical/ civil waresque (is that a genre?), so it’s probably a losing combination.  But I’m enthused about it, which is more than I can say about anything else."

Looking through my notes some more, Ayr doesn't reappear until 2014 when my producers went radio silent for a while and I decided to dust off Ayr after watching the Civil War documentary. Not kidding, but that day was my first mention of Breath, which developed into the Blessed within a few paragraphs (I called them mutants at the time). I went to work on my bible for the series, and completed the world/ magic in about a week. The characters took another week, it looks like. At that point my producers got back in touch and I didn't work on Ayr again for another month, at which point I out hashed out the plot for two more weeks in the bible before getting to work on the rough draft.

And I know that answer was probably terribly boring for anyone reading it, but was a great walk down memory lane for me. Thank God for keeping notes. 

PL: Hey, I like reading about process, and so too presumably does anyone tuning into these interviews. Process is how writers keep making great stories after all. And speaking of process, you mentioned your bible - what goes in and what's the best thing about having it?

MP: Being as that all authors consider their works to be on par with religious institutions (or at least should inspire a religious experience in the audience), the bible indeed needs to be the word of god in that it's canonical and complete so there won't be any misunderstandings among the adherents further down the line. That's what leads to sectarian violence among fans after all. And plot holes. 

Honestly, I don't know which one is worse. 

And now that all that pretension and delusions of grandeur are out of the way, I try and put any and everything in there, starting with theme and pitch, then world rules, main characters + backstories, then finally the plot. And since I'm a strong proponent of structure and a plot road map, I made it a point to hit all the major beats for all four books ahead of time. That's not to say I don't take some unexpected detours and pit stops along the way, but I know my basic route and exactly where I'm going to end up.

When the series is all said and done, I'm considering posting my original bible, then the final one (which is about 50 pages longer) for all three of the people who would be interested in it. 

Which gets back to the religious connotations to the bible: I firmly believe it to be a living document that gets added to along the journey. Plot points have definitely morphed and spontaneously generated, as well as new aspects to the world as they organically appear in the writing process. And, by way of advice to anyone writing their own bible, make sure to list out all your minor characters with a note as to how they pertain to the main characters/ plot. And WHAT THEY LOOK LIKE. Because nothing is more teeth-grindingly aggravating than trying to remember if you mentioned a minor character's hair/eye color and then having to go back and scour every appearance in your first book for that exceedingly trivial detail. 

I speak, of course, hypothetically here.

PL: All three, huh? Sounds like you need more readers. Lets fix that. What's the scene in The Imbued Lockblade that you're proudest of, the one that you think is going to hook the most new fans?

MP: Man, that's a tough one. The story's so interconnected over the four books, it's hard to pick one scene to exist in a vacuum for new readers. People really seemed to prefer Luca to Marta, and I do have a seminal/ defining moment from his life right off the bat that hopefully will please team Luca. But no, the series is my concept album in that there are no real singles meant for radio play. Because only sellout bands get played on the radio. Me, I'm so intentionally obtuse only the hardcore snobs even know who I am, and they only liked the Aphex Twin remixes of my first EP.  

All joking aside, I come from the opposite opinion in that I'm afraid people are going to read my prologue and put the book down for good. It's not a pleasant scene to read any more than it was to write.   
The Imbued Lockblade: It starts as it means to go on

PL: You kidding? That scene is awesome. Maybe not pleasant, but powerful. Well, I guess some will put it down though. That happens to everyone.

Anyway, you mentioned that people tend to prefer Luca. Do you have a favourite character in this? Or one you're particularly proud of the idea for?

MP: I forget that, at the moment of this interview, you're the only other person who's ever read book two. Well thank you, that gave me a bit more confidence in my choice.

As to favo(u)rite characters, I like them all well enough. Each one has their strengths which it's easy to like them for, and their weaknesses that it's easy to be disappointed in them for. And, I hope this isn't spoiler territory, but they're going to be at cross purposes over the course of their journey because that's where conflict/ drama comes from. And, to me at least, the best stories are the ones where you want every character to succeed, even when they're all aiming for diametrically opposed goals. 

With that in mind, I've always had a soft spot for villains, so Carmichael, Graff and Bernice really speak to me as a person. Yes, they're terrible human beings, but there's still something inherently human to them that I like. 

PL: Bwahaha. Today, I am unique!

Soft spot for villains, relentlessly nihilistic sense of tone... do you think you have an inclination for telling stories that spend a lot of time visiting the Dark Side? If so, why? Or why this series if you don't naturally have that inclination? 

MP: Of course I have a penchant for the unpleasant. The Dark Side's what adds drama to the story. Otherwise you'd just have magical elves riding unicorns around saying how ecstatic they are that the rainbow up ahead is extra bright today. And there'd probably be loads of exclamation points at the end of each sentence to prove how sincere they are!!!

That said, one should use The Dark Side (TDS) when TDS is appropriate for the specific story one wants to tell. Since its inception, this story was a very bleak one, so I employ bleak themes/ situations/ characters. But once Sol's Harvest is over, I really want to tackle something light(er) and episodic just so I don't have to worry about canon, continuity, and crying for a few months. I know authors are supposed to write to their brand and everything, but that's rather pigeon-holling (totally a word!!!) when it comes to being constrained by what you've created in the past. Ian Fleming did write James Bond and all, but he also gave us Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang.

So yeah, I'm thinking a fun samurais in space, YA version of The Invisibles mixed with The Books of Magic, or a pop deconstruction of vampires stand-alone novel to cleanse the ol' writerly palette once I get all this grimdark out of my system.  

Because, man, being grim all the time is almost as tough as being so damned dark. 

PL: I, erm... want a co-writer for YA Invisibles? :P

Since you mentioned brand, I'd like to ask you about your experiences as a self-published author. Do you ever find the commercial side of things impinging on the creative process? And what's been your biggest take-away from trying to get you and your brand noticed as a SP author so far?

MP: Ugh, the commercial side. I have a strong distaste for social media, as in I've avoided it for 10+ years. Unfortunately, that's not something you can do as a SP author, and suddenly you (meaning me) find yourself doing an hour of audience outreach on social media channels everyday, which is in addition to the several hours worth of blogs you need to do per week. Which is in addition to the actual writing of books and basic stuff like the day job, eating and sleeping (let alone reading other books). So yeah, the commercial side does get in the way on occasion. 

That said, by reluctantly making an online presence, I've met some really amazing fellow authors (not just SP authors either) who have done me more good with an offhand comment pointing me in the right direction than months of trial an error alone on my part. The wonderful thing about SP authors is that we're not zero sum, as in just because someone buys your book doesn't mean they won't buy mine. We're generally inexpensive enough that you can buy both (opposed to many trad publishers that artificially price their e-books at paperback prices and probably preclude additional sales), so we're quite happy to recommend and help each other when we discover something of quality. 

Because, like it or not, all self published books already have a brand, and it's "substandard." Due to the ease of access to self publishing, there's now a lot of crap out there audiences need to sift through to find the gems, which is a reason a lot of readers have just given up on self published books in general. So when a SP author does manage to gain some legitimacy in terms of quality, their endorsement means the world since their audience will generally treat that endorsed SP book with the same open mindedness they approached the original author's with. 

Anyways, I'm digressing, so I'll say my biggest takeaway is to learn the culture of whatever social media hangout you've found before saying anything. We all hate when door-to-door salesmen show up at our homes unbidden, so don't be the online equivalent by joining a group and then immediately promoting your work. Self publishing promotion is based on endorsements, which is to say personal relationships, rather than blaring your work loud as you can on multiple channels in an "accuracy by volume" approach. So when you find an appropriate group, watch it a while and figure out the mavens/ influencers and build a relationship with them. Then, once they know you, it's a lot easier to get them to check out your book and hopefully earn their endorsement. Because endorsements need to be earned. 

PL: Well said, and a shame that advice probably won't be seen by the people who need to hear it most. I'm not surprised to hear you spend a lot of time on the blogs either, you do great work there. Do you have a particular favourite type among the blogs that you do? My personal favourites are the Screenplay Techniques, but I feel like those might be the hard ones to do :P

MP: I was just thinking about the different blog types since I sort of have been blowing them off of late, and honestly, the screenplay techniques are the easiest since those are the ones I feel the most comfortable with. The Bugbear BBQ are probably the next easiest because charring meat has become second nature to me, and Odes pretty close behind because it's just something I think is cool that needs more attention. 

Worldbuilding is probably the most difficult in two senses. All the Payday Stories I'm doing within the world of Ayr are fun little asides, but writing in that myth/ fairy tale style is sort of difficult, even if they're only 6-800 words apiece. And, though it's not apparent yet, there's actually an overarching story behind all those myths that will come into play in book four. They're not required reading or anything, but they'll add a sort of macro subplot to the series that I sort of think of as grace-notes. In fact, this week I'm working on putting together a collection of all the Payday Stories that are referenced in books one and two to give away on the site. Another option I'm playing with is hiding hyperlinks to the stories within the text of the books themselves (e-books, obviously), so if you know what you're looking for, you'll be taken to the appropriate story. But, since no one actually reads these things but me, I may not go through with all that effort quite yet.

In the second sense worldbuilding takes some time is in the new series I'm starting up on my site. After receiving a few compliments on my world of Ayr, I've been studying it as a concept and have outlined a theory of my own that I want to start applying to the assessment of worldbuilding within the fantasy genre. Which is the other thing I should probably be working on right now. 

The Woven Ring - where it all began

PL: Well yeah, I should be working on something too, and instead I'm watching Canadiens vs the Sharks. I don't even really like either team, although the Sharks have some wicked good facial hair.

Going back to what you were saying about authors doing you good with an off-hand comment - what's the best piece of writing advice you've received? And since I have a morbid interest in this sort of thing, what's the worst?

MP: Best advice is actually hard. I am deeply indebted to Jo Zebedee for pointing me towards a few forums as well as being so gentle on my first guest blog. And also just flatly telling me something won't work when I put forth a bad idea. My blog arguing (blarguing?) partner Daniel Olesen seems to always find every new avenue first and then kindly shepherds me along after opening the door though I'm quite content to keep banging my head against the wall. 

You know, it's not writing advice per say, but I remember the producer to Sling Blade speaking one time about what it takes to make it. He basically said it's an endurance game as you wait for your opportunity. But once you recognize that opportunity, that window opening just a crack, you can't hesitate and HAVE to go for it without looking back. He actually financed Sling Blade with his credit cards, which he had a high limit on because he used them for work producing some forgettable TV show. Soon as he saw the short film that would become Sling Blade, he just went for it and maxed them all out, only to finally sell it for the highest amount an indie film ever sold for at the time.

Mind you, that story's only good in hindsight because it worked out. It would be a terrible tragedy if he put himself into crippling credit card debt for a movie that fell through.

Worst advice goes back to my very first screenplay ever, which was a vampire revenge flick taking place in a mall over Christmas. I was pitching it to some producers and one of them stopped me mid-plot point and said "that's not how vampires are." And just like that, the pitch was all over.  

I guess that last one wasn't really advice. But it still boils my blood to this day. 

PL: Dumb quotes are perfectly acceptable forms of bad writing advice for these interviews.

Do you ever think authors do themselves down by collaborating less than screenplay writers do? Also, has your writing process changed any from book 1 to book 2?

MP: Authors are an odd bunch to begin with, in that we rarely bunch up. Writing is often a solitary act, but in screenwriting you at least have a producer, agent, director, etc. giving you notes along the way. And as much as we complain about their notes, it's good to have constant feedback and know you're on the right track. The constraints the others put on us also make us think around problems a lot more, which keeps us honest. 

That said, I did flee screenwriting for self publishing because I was tired of writing what others want. 

My writing process has changed quite a bit from book one to book two in that I don't have 6-10 hours a day I can set aside and write anymore as I did with book one. Now if I get four hours of good writing in it's a red letter day (whatever that idiom means). So (if you go by the old physics FIT equation) my Time has dropped significantly, which means I have to up both my Frequency and Intensity. So, inspired or not, I sit down at the computer for a set number of hours per day and write like its my job. So instead of knocking out two chapters in a day, I'm now slowly chipping away at the books. But I do it everyday. 

PL: Final question - I don't know if you've come across the idea of writing a fan letter to yourself to establish what you really want your book to look like, or if you've done it - but what would you want that fan letter for The Imbued Switchblade to say?

MP: Man, that's hard. As in I don't think I'd write a fan letter to myself (or anyone, really). I cut my teeth in screenwriting years ago (more than I'd care to remember) by being a reader/ coverage writer for screenplays for a production company. And let me tell you, if you think that the movies that come out of Hollywood are terrible, you haven't seen the thousands upon thousands of submitted screenplays that never get made. They're terrible squared (which I guess means the system does sort of work when it comes to filtering out at least some of the crap). 

So, because all these scripts were so awful, yet I was reading several a week, I learned quite quickly what doesn't work in stories by seeing the same mistakes over and over again. I really think this helped me become a better writer (as in I'm tolerable), but since assessing unproduced screenplays sort of became my day job, it's also made me hyper critical. So much so, I can't really read or watch anything for enjoyment anymore. 

Which is the long way of me saying, I'd probably hate The Imbued Lockblade if I read it now. Because, like most authors, I'm my own worst critic: Each line I read is cliche in the extreme, every idea hackneyed and trite. In fact, that's my rule of thumb when it comes to editing: Read it through again and again, cleaning everything up until you swear the next time you see it your stomach might explode with hatred. When you're sure it's the worse thing that's ever been written and no one will every love you, then that means you're too close to it and it's time to get some perspective that only distance can provide. That's when I send it on to beta readers and don't look at it again for a long while. Usually several months in fact (though I've gone over a year on occasion), at which point I can read it with a bit more perspective and think to myself "hey, that's not too bad."

So really, I guess my fan letter would say something like, "good job, its not as bad as I expected." 

And yeah, that pretty much as positive as I can get about it right now, just days before its release.

This interview finished a fair while ago; the Imbued Lockblade is out now and available on Amazon US, Amazon UK and so on. To read his blog and find out more about his writing, visit