To 2017: Write Less to Write More

If you’re a writer, nobody cares about how many stories you’ve written. Only about the stories you’ve published.

Ideas and stories are meaningless if they are locked away in a hard drive or scrapbook. They only hold value when they are shared with the world. You’re not an author if you don’t publish your works.

In 2016, I wrote the most number of stories I ever had. In 2016, I also published the fewest number of stories since I became a published writer.

How did that happen?

Half of the answer is that a couple of stories I submitted this year would, with any luck, be published next year. WE BURY FOR OWN, for instance, will be published when Lyonesse goes online in 2017. The other half is that I wrote too much stuff that had to be thrown out. On the order of 500,000 words.

Five. Hundred. Thousand. More than enough for a trilogy and then some.

Those words comprise of a novel, its sequel, and assorted deleted scenes. The deleted parts overwhelmed both stories combined. Worse, I cannot in good conscience publish either story at this time. Despite the months I’ve thrown into them, the hundreds of thousands of words committed to the page, they’re not good enough.

The reason for this is simple: my old writing style just isn’t good enough.

I used to write like a classic pantser: little if any pre-planning, just open the story and pound away at the keys. It worked, mostly, allowing me to create scenes that organically built upon events in previous chapters.

The problem with that approach is at the meta level: there was little time and space dedicated to worldbuilding, setting and character planning. Exactly the wrong thing to do for the stories I was working on.

The stories are hard science fiction. Diamond hard science fiction. Every piece of technology inside the story would be entirely within the realm of modern understanding science. Everything would be an extension of what is known and possible today. That kind of undertaking required copious amounts of research — and ensuring that everything remained consistent.

More than that, the story was a space opera driven by a romance. A completely new genre of writing. One that demanded in-depth knowledge of the human heart, and how every human and faction within the story would believe, feel, think and act.

Pantsing, I’ve discovered, isn’t adequate to the task. I found myself revising scenes over and over and over again, and at the end of it all, feedback from my writers’ group indicated that it still wasn’t good enough.

In 2016, I found that my old style of writing wouldn’t work anymore. Not for the standard I aspire to.

For 2017, I have to do things differently. Writing less to write more.

I went into pantsing because I wanted to write as much and as quickly as I could. That approach won’t work. I intend to spend less time writing and more time planning. More time on worldbuilding, researching concepts and technologies, understanding characters, planning events.

In other words: I plan to spend more time building the foundations and getting things right before I commit to paper.

That should lead to less time spent on revisions and edits down the road. Which means more time working on the next story, and the next, and the next. In the end, what matters isn’t so much the act of writing as writing excellent work, publishing it, and maintaining the drive.

The same approach applies to blogging. For the past month, I’ve been planning my posts, researching them, focusing them on a single topic. My new posts are between 50 to 75 percent shorter than my old ones. The time and energy savings allow me to post more often, leading to more pageviews.

I’ve already experimented with the new approach for a certain story I wrote this month. Initial feedback has been positive, and next year I hope I can share it with you. I also have other writing plans for 2017. More will be revealed as I execute them.

2016 was a year for learning the hard way.

2017 will be the year the writing bears fruit.

5 Writing Lessons from Manga

As a child, I couldn’t understand the appeal of manga. To me, they were simply a different kind of comic book, and comics held little appeal to me. Then, in my teens, English-translated anime took off in Singapore. Almost all of them were adaptations of Japanese manga. I pursued the source material, and found Ghost in the Shell.

That experience led to an explosion of stories: Rurouni Kenshin, Rave Master, Appleseed, Full Metal Alchemist, Ao no Exorcist, Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio, Twin Star Exorcists, Claymore and more. These days I read at least as much manga as I do prose works. Part of that is enjoyment — another part is to study them and apply the lessons learned to my own writing.

On first glance there seems to be little transferability between prose and manga. The former is a written medium, the latter is visual. The former is carried entirely on the strength of its words; the latter combines images, dialogue and exposition into a coherent whole. But both are storytelling media, and in my explorations of manga I have found five lessons that are universal to both.

Concise and Engaging Narration

Dialogue in manga is limited. Being a visual medium, there is only enough room for a handful of lines in every page. Narration must be concise, advance the story and engage the reader.Dialogue has the additional burden of reflecting the speaker’s character. Not everyone can pull a Masamune Shirow and get away with filling entire pages with philosophical exposition without boring the reader.

Similarly, in fiction, narration must also keep readers invested. There is no room for rambling that does not serve the story, and large chunks of exposition without context will just turn readers off. Excellent manga demonstrate economy of words–the same concision writers should aspire to.

Showing, not Telling

Manga is primarily a visual medium. Stories are literally shown to the reader. Mangaka will draw as much as possible–people, settings, actions–using as few words as possible. In excellent manga, exposition is limited to the barest minimum for world-building. Some mangaka will disguise such exposition as dialogue, or simply portray events and have the reader figure out how the world works. In Rave Master, as in many shounen manga, characters tell each other what their weapons or skills can do in the place of creator exposition. BLAME! takes the other approach: almost nobody says anything about the world, forcing the reader to figure things out.

Likewise, instead of simply telling the reader how grand a place is or what someone did, writers should strive to draw a picture with their words. Create an image of a magnificent estate and enormous riches by talking about the marble floor, solid gold sculptures, rare artworks and army of maids, cooks and gardeners. Go in-depth into an action scene, delving into emotions, everybody’s actions and reactions, injuries, and more.

Aesthetics and Worldbuilding

In manga, the setting is a silent character. It sets the tone of the story and gives context to everybody’s actions. Manga achieve this through aesthetics, the accurate and/or authentic portrayals of the story’s setting.

Ghost in the Shell emphasised its cyberpunk nature through juxtaposing gritty streets and sleek skyscrapers, and the use of high technology everywhere. In Twin Star Exorcist, the mundane story occurs in modern-day Japan, but the desperate, magic-fuelled action-packed battles are set in Magano, a parallel world filled with ruins and evil spirits. This dichotomy, especially in the early issues, reinforces the mood of the scene, be it peaceful or adrenaline-packed. Shoukoku no Altair has Mahmut running all over alternate-world Europe and the Middle East, and each country he visits has its own unique architecture and visual design, reinforcing the sense of place.

Aesthetics is the visual manifestation of the world the mangaka is building. It is how the reader grasps the nature of the story world. Similarly, in written fiction, extensive background and setting descriptions gives the reader a sense of place, placing the characters’ actions in context while differentiating the story from other stories.

Character Differentiation

Mangaka need readers to quickly and reliably tell characters apart, especially in busy scenes where many people are acting or talking all at once. Mangaka employ many tricks to do this: unique hairstyles and colour schemes, archetypical behaviours (think the infamous tsundere), signature clothes and weapons, and accents and dialogue quirks. All of these tricks have become tropes and character stereotypes — but that’s because these tricks work.

In prose, writers do not (usually) get the benefit of visually illustrating their characters to give the reader a reference point. Writers must therefore find ways and means to keep each character unique in the reader’s minds. They can use many of the same tricks mangaka employ. Jim Butcher, for instance, inserts physical descriptions into the text of his stories every so often, such as Harry Dresden’s famous coat, to remind readers of what his characters look like.

Discipline

On average, a weekly manga runs between 15 to 25 pages per issue. Monthly manga usually has 30 to 60. There are exceptions (usually shorter), but bestsellers tend to run between these lengths. To put things in perspective, Western comics are issued monthly, but have similar page counts to weekly manga.

Mangaka must produce an average of 2 to 5 complete pages every day. More if they are working onĀ  multiple series at once. This does not even include storyboarding, editorial input and other corrections.

Unlike Western comics, most manga are in black and white, with the exception of the occasional special full-colour issue. This saves time on inking and colouration. Also, many mangaka have assistants to help with background art and research. Nevertheless, mangaka must consistently produce high-quality work over dozens, even hundreds, of issues–or they will be dropped, and may need to find a new line of work.

Maintaining such a pace requires discipline. Discipline to uphold standards, discipline to do the work, discipline to keep learning and getting better. This is the same discipline writers require: without the discipline to produce regular content, you’re not going to produce good stories.

Manga is as legitimate a storytelling medium as prose, and despite the differences between them, there are many lessons to be learned. The key is to read not as a consumer, but as a creator. Pick apart the stories and characters, discern the thought processes that go into design and worldbuilding and dialogue, understand the creation process, and see what lessons you can apply to your own work.

The Two Kinds of Story Conflict

Conflicts drive drama, and drama drives stories. The heart of every story worth reading is a clash between the protagonist and the antagonist, each seeking opposed goals. Protagonist-antagonist conflicts can be described in two ways: symmetrical and asymmetrical. The type of conflict defines each party’s strategies and the overall direction of the plot.

A symmetrical conflict pits the protagonist’s strength against the antagonist’s, matching two (nearly) evenly-matched parties against each other. This is a contest to see who is the better swordsman, the greater general, the more powerful magician. Both parties are defined by a singular trait, and with this trait they make war on each other.

Fiction has plenty of examples of symmetrical conflicts. Think of the genius detective Sherlock Holmes chasing down James Moriarty, the Napoleon of crime. Sun Wukong the Monkey King versus the Hundred Eyed Demon Lord. Octavian leading the grand coalition of Marat, Alerans and Canim against the hordes of the Vord.

Being similar to each other, both protagonist and antagonist use similar means, be it intelligence, prowess in martial arts, or military might. Holmes detects while Moriarty schemes; Sun pits his magic and his rod against the demon’s own magic and weapons; the united races of the Aleran coalition pitting their furies, beasts and raw power against the Vord’s shapeshifting and relentless consumption. The differences between the protagonist and the antagonist here lie in their goals and how they choose to wield their strengths. Symmetrical conflicts tend to be marked by slugging matches, with both sides battling each other back and forth across time and space.

Asymmetrical conflicts involves one party utilising their strengths against the other’s weakness, and vice versa. Both sides aim to outwit and outmaneuver the other, bringing their powers to bear while minimising their exposure to the enemy’s own. This is the preferred tactic of a much weaker party, since a direct confrontation will destroy them.

This is the CTU seeking out an agile terrorist cell; the seven samurai against the bandit gang, Frodo and his companions against the Ringwraiths and the combined armies of Sauron. The weaker party snipes and runs, or conceals themselves while travelling to their objective; the stronger one attempts to force the weaker party into a decisive confrontation in which they hold all the advantage.

Symmetrical conflicts match strength for strength; asymmetrical conflicts pit the weak against the strong. Yet strength in one field doesn’t necessarily translate into strength in all areas. These terms only provide a high-level view, not necessarily what happens in the story or how the conflict evolves.

Frodo and his companions are woefully outnumbered by hordes of ravening orcs and other evil creatures. However, they each have individual strengths: Frodo’s endurance, Sam’s loyalty, Legolas’ archery, Gandalf’s magic, Gimli’s brute strength and so on. By combining their strengths, they win through their encounters with the forces of evil, evade the all-seeing eye and destroy the One Ring.

Similarly, a symmetrical conflict can be suddenly upset should one party discover the other’s fatal flaw. In the real world, the American military is highly dependent on technology and popular opinion. The Chinese Assassin’s Mace concept aims to neutralise American dominance by knocking out vulnerable satellites, information and economic warfare, and anti-access/area denial weapons to prevent the Americans from deploying their Air Force and Navy assets. Successful deployment of the Assassin’s Mace would give Chinese conventional forces an overwhelming advantage on the battlefield.

This is not to say both types of conflict cannot coexist in the same story. The Lord of the Rings is primarily driven by asymmetrical conflict, but near the end, when the armies of Middle Earth rise against the armies of Sauron, there is room for symmetrical conflict between massive armies. Likewise, in a tale following a superpower conflict, you can have a story about a team of special forces operatives using asymmetrical tactics to undermine the enemy.

The kind of conflict you have is determined by the balance of power between the protagonist and the antagonist. If they are evenly matched, you have a symmetrical conflict. If one is much stronger than the other, the conflict is asymmetrical. If, during the story, the plot significantly empowers or weakens one power, the type of conflict changes, which in turn change how both sides will act and react.

How the conflict plays out drives your characters tactics, actions, behaviours and thought patterns. Think about how they will seek to uncover and exploit their opponent’s weakness, how they will conceal their own weaknesses and plans from their opponent, how they will employ the resources and forces at their command to achieve their goals.

Study your favourite stories. Identify the kind of conflict running through them. Pinpoint the protagonist’s and antagonist’s motives, tactics and resources. See how they try to turn the situation to their advantage, and whether these ideas are unique to their particular flavour of conflict or if they are universal. Study also real-world conflicts. See what strategies and tactics work and what do not. Reflect your new knowledge in your work.

Stories are about truth, and knowing the truth about conflict brings better stories.

Plan Your Antagonist First

People read fiction to escape reality in pseudo-reality. They want to immerse themselves in the protagonist’s adventures, marvel at his derring-do, and cheer as he overcomes the obstacles in his way and attains his goal.

But where would the protagonist be without the antagonist?

The antagonist is the yin to the protagonist’s yang. Without the antagonist, there is no drama, there is no conflict, and there is no plot. The antagonist catalyses the plot, and the protagonist drives the story forward. There can be no murder mystery without a murderer, no space opera without a powerful overlord. The events of the Bible could not have unfurled without the Snake tempting Eve, nor would Star Wars have became a galaxy-spanning epic without the institution of a Galactic Empire.

The antagonist is as important as the protagonist. Like the protagonist, he must be fully-fleshed. To the reader, he exists only in the shadow of the hero, but a poorly-crafted villain creates an unbelievable hero and a ludicrous plot. A hero receives no glory for beating up a wimp, nor would readers believe that a mere basement-dwelling computer geek would summon the dread forces of Hell to achieve his darkest desires of kissing a girl.

When planning a story, start with the antagonist. All stories must start from the beginning, and as the catalyst, his deeds start the ball rolling.

To create your antagonist, you must answer the following questions:

Who is he? What is his name, nationality and job? Who are his superiors, peers, and subordinates? How do they think of him, and does he care?

What drives him? What is his ideology? His motivation? Does he inspire others, and if so, how? What is he comfortable doing, what will he never do, and what falls in between? What does he want?

Why is he doing this? Why does he do the thing that starts the whole story going? What’s in it for him and his allies? How does it affect his enemies? How will it help him achieve his goals?

How does he do what he does? What special talents, traits or resources does he have? What skills does he posses? What are his strengths and weakness? How does he maximise his strengths while minimising exposure while dioing what he does?

Answer these questions and you will build up a complete dossier of the antagonist, making him a believable and powerful threat to the protagonist.

Sauron is the Lord of the Rings. Prizing order above all else, he is the equivalent of a fallen angel, intent on conquering all of Middle-Earth and bending it to his will. He has armies at his command, with a squad of Ringwraiths for special missions, and compared to mortals has overwhelming power. However, he has invested most of his strength in the One Ring, currently missing. He has dispatched his forces to find the Ring…but a lowly hobbit in the middle of nowhere has found it first. And without the Ring, Sauron will be crippled forever.

Walter Peck, by contrast, is a lowly inspector in the Environmental Protection Agency. He upholds the letter of the law and is utterly rigid. After learning of the Ghostbusters’ activities, he realises that they violated multiple environmental regulations–including improper disposal of toxic waste and possession of unauthorised and unregulated particle accelerators–and does everything in his power to stop them.

One antagonist is a supreme evil being, the other is merely an obstructive bureaucrat with a point. Antagonists don’t have to be evil; they just have to oppose the protagonist in some way. They do, however, have to be believable.

Sauron is a supernatural creature; one can ascribe supernatural motives to him, including a desire to dominate the planet. Such a being could believably possess supernatural powers and resources, including the ability to craft mind-control rings and raise armies of barbarian orcs. He also has a supernatural weakness: by investing his power in the One Ring, he has created his Achilles heel, allowing a sufficiently brave and resourceful team of heroes to defeat him.

Peck is a human with human motivations; he is simply out to do his job and prevent an environmental catastrophe in New York City. Being a human, and a minor bureaucrat at that, he only plausibly has access to the kind of power an inspector can possess. Magical powers and grand armies are out of the question. But he is an agent of the law, and since the Ghostbusters are clearly in violation of environmental regulations, he can shut them down.

Once you know who your antagonist is, you know what he can do and what resources he has available. You know what he wants, how he can get what he wants, and what he will do to get what he wants. This action of getting what he wants is the spark that sets the story into motion.

Know your enemy, know yourself, and you will a hundred battles. In this case, know your antagonist, know your protagonist, and you will craft a masterpiece.

 

 

 

Lyonesse: Make Short Fiction Great Again!

Lyonesse, a short story subscription service, promises to revolutionise the industry. Its Kickstarter is now online, within a single day, the campaign has already reached almost half of its funding goal.

Silver Empire has put in a great deal of effort making Lyonesse possible, and as I have described in a prior post, I believe that Lyonesse will provide a much-needed shot in the arm in the field of SFF. Unlike many mainstream ‘SFF’ magazines, Lyonesse does not elevate politics above story to the point of unreadability. Through a clever subscription model and regular delivery of stories, Lyonesse offers a much-needed alternative to print magazines that refuses to compromise the quality of storytelling.

Lyonesse’s authors include the inestimable J. Lagi Lamplighter, Dragon Award nominee Declan Finn, and of course, yours truly. The subscription fee is a mere USD $6.99. In exchange, you receive 52 stories, plus bonus stories during the holidays. It’s an incredibly generous offer.

If you have spare change, send some to Silver Empire, and together we can make short fiction great again.