Saving Atlan

Hi everyone,

I know I’m cutting it close again on posts this year, but I promise that at least this time, it’s going to be a little more in depth post.

So, I recently had a fairly big breakthrough on writing, which was, more or less, fixing a problem I had caused for myself over a year ago.

What happened was this:

In the book I’m working on now, there’s a character named Atlan. I’ve talked about him here before, and the main problem I was having is that, well, I was pretty scared about what people would think of him. He’s basically the heir to an empire that has enslaved another species, and while he doesn’t know that at the start of the book, he’s also not tremendously caring about it when it’s first brought to his attention. Albeit, there are reasons he starts off in denial, but still, he’s not the easiest sell as a character, and he’s the second major lead behind Mira, one of the people enslaved by his species. Needless to say, I was a little nervous about it.

Then, it happened. I got feedback about him that was pretty harsh. And because I was already worried about it, and the feedback came from someone I would consider a pretty reliable sounding board for this kind of thing, well, I basically panicked. Going back, I made him a lot more sympathetic and easily influenced from the start, took out a lot of his denial, and basically made him side with Mira right away.

Except, the problem with that is that once I started making changes, he just didn’t work anymore. All of the actions that he took that drove the plot no longer made sense, the times when he would challenge Mira and fight with her seemed wrong, and well, ultimately he didn’t have anywhere to go as a character. As soon as he was confronted, he realized he was wrong, and that was that.

That, my friends, is not a story.

Now, after more than a year of putzing around trying to make it work, I think I’ve finally managed to undo the damage, returning him, mostly, to his initial state.

Which brings me to the point of this post, which is to share the two lessons I’ve learned as a writer from this experience.

Trust your instincts

I’ve done a lot of editing on this book in the last year or so, both in having committed to using it for my first book to get published and in using it as a test/case study for my deep dive into story structure that I did this year. And the funny thing is, the more I’ve worked on it, the more that I’ve realized that what I had to start isn’t as bad as I thought. Sure, I’ve had to tweak the structure, yes, I’ve made improvements and cut a lot, but the bones of the story, the spine of the characters and the changes they go through, isn’t bad.

Author Terry Pratchett said, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

And that’s true. As a writer, I’m always surprised by first drafts, especially as a pantser. For me, though I always need a beginning and to know where I’m ending, the middle is always a surprise. You’d think that would end with a hot mess. But it doesn’t, and when I edit, even if the line by line writing isn’t the smoothest or there are big loops of story that need to be trimmed or added or better woven in, I’m almost always surprised by the intuition I seem to have put into the story, specifically for the characters and where they need to go. This isn’t to brag by any means. Any writer is capable of this, and many will tell you stories of readers enforcing the same. I think it’s just to say that when you’re a writer and you tell that first draft story to yourself, I think there’s something inside you that really does know what the story is. Like Stephen King’s analogy of unearthing a dinosaur or Michaelangelo’s story about chiseling out some already pre-formed David hidden in a hunk of stone, a lot of writing or editing is, in a way, just unearthing what you already know is there, the story you’re already going to tell.

So, when you start questioning that story, whether or not it’s the right one to tell or why you wrote something that you just can’t seem to get away from, just be wary and remember that while some characters or plots may need to change, while you should be mindful of structure and story rules, and you should be open to critique, those first seeds you planted should not be ignored. Sometimes you just need to dig deeper and trust your gut.

Be sympathetic to your characters

Of the two lessons, I think this one is more important.

In sum, it’s that characters can and sometimes should be unlikable, even heroes can be unheroic, and that’s okay.

Now, I’m not talking about just your average chain-smoking, foul-mouthed anti-hero (not that I don’t love me a good anti-hero, because I do). Because, usually, anti-heroes are at least likable.

What I mean is that if you’re going to have a story about humans (or humanoids or sentient beings or whatever you have), they’re not going to be perfect. That means, like Atlan, they’re going to start off with flaws that aren’t pleasant. And, depending on the story you’re telling, that might not even change.

But that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that they’re bad.

Because that, my friends, is life.

Every person you meet is only partway through their story. And since art and story attempts to capture, in some way, life, your characters should be too.

For me, well, that means that Atlan is prejudiced. Honestly, Mira is too.

And that, to a certain non-moral degree, is okay. We’re all shaped by the histories, cultures, experiences, and God-given talents and personalities we have/have had, and this world isn’t perfect. That means the people in it aren’t going to be perfect. So if I need to face criticism or flack to give these characters the time and space they need to grow and change and get better, well, that’s fine by me. That’s a risk all writers have to take.

To be honest, I think this is a flaw in Western writing (I’m not as experienced with other culture’s writing, so don’t want to speak to that one way or another), that we always have to have the hero, that their way is always the right way, their moral the right way to live.

But life is more complicated than that, and I want to make space for that in my writing.

To quote Into the Woods, “Witches can be right, giants can be good.”

Life is more complicated than we can imagine. And learning to love people, to give them grace, in the midst of it, is one of life’s greatest journeys, goals, and callings (Mark 12:29-31).

The irony in this whole situation is that this story, as I’ve been discovering, is ultimately about grace. And I nearly destroyed the whole novel because I was afraid of writing characters who need it.

So yeah, maybe Atlan won’t hit the mark with everyone. Maybe it will even spark uncomfortable conversations, for my readers or myself.

But I’m only a human, puzzling this out like everyone else, and if that means I get it wrong or it takes time or patience or grace for me as well as the characters, well, that’s why I’m writing the book.

Thanks for reading.

So, what about you? Have you ever had times when you’ve struggled with people or characters being both bad and a little good? Read any good books that handle this well? What about struggling to forgive? Let me know in the comments below, and if you want more content like this, about my writing, faith, or nerdy recommendations, please feel free to follow me here or on social (please note I’m currently on a break from these) using the links below or in the sidebar.

Giving Kraven a voice

Hi All,

Welcome to February! I’ve been working hard on my goals for the year all January, and I am pleased to report there has been much progress! I feel more settled in myself as a person than I ever have, I’ve been tackling some deep-seated heart problems that need to go, and, most importantly for the sake of this post, I have been pushing hard on writing.

To be more specific, working from some of the writing resources I’ve been binging on lately (most specifically The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, both the book and podcast), I’ve been taking a closer look at the novel I’ve been working on the most lately, whose terrible, sure-to-change working title is Sovereign. I’ve mentioned this book before on here, as well as the character we’ll be focusing on today, Kraven.

If you’ll remember from my last post about him, Kraven has always been one of the hardest characters to place in this book. Originally a frail, weak-willed pushover, for a while I considered cutting him completely. Then, after writing several failed openings for the book, I realized I still needed him there. And, to my surprise, he pushed me. The more I wrote him, in fact, the more I realized that, though peaceful by nature, he is far from a pushover. It was like I didn’t really know him at all.

That was three years ago.

Now, working on what might be some major changes to the book, he’s pushing back again.

The main reason? He wants to have a voice.

Allow me to explain. See, Kraven has always spoken French (Fransec in the novel). I wanted him to speak a different language, I already spoke decent French, and so, there you go.

And, for a while, it’s worked pretty well. Having him speak a different language than the main protagonist Mira caused strain on their relationship (and allowed for the convenient keeping of a secret I needed to stay hush hush for a while); having him need everything translated through Atlan, who Mira hates, put strain and mistrust on them all; and in general, it was just a cool quirk/world-building thing for me to add.

Which is all still true.

The problem is, as I’ve been working through filling out my Story Grid Spreadsheet, which in simple terms is a spreadsheet designed to help me capture details about the story/individual chapters at large (to learn more about this whole Story Grid thing, I’d suggest watching the five training videos on YouTube as a primer, as well as listening to their podcast from episode one), I’ve been realizing just how much time and effort–and how many words–are wasted just on Kraven being understood.

Worse, since Kraven can’t really join the conversation unless Atlan is actively translating, as the story goes on, he stops doing anything. Sure, he interrupts the other two when they get into squabbles, takes care of the two mounts, and plays pack mule, but other than that, he doesn’t really have any agency. He doesn’t understand what’s happening around him, so, as a narrator or a side character, he becomes useless.

Obviously, something needs to change.

More obviously, he needs to speak English.

The funny thing is, as I’ve been considering this, I’ve been surprised at how little having him speak English actually changes things, or rather, how much it’s going to change things for the better. The worries I had about screwing up the beginning or him not being able to keep his secret? All phantom concerns.

My worries about bogging down the reader with page-consuming translations between French and English, confusing them with untranslated text, or having them lose interest in Kraven’s chapters because nothing happens in them? Much more real.

The big takeaway I think I’ve learned from all of this, borrowed in part from lessons I’ve been learning in Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, is don’t have quirks just for quirks’ sake.

To put it another way, make quirks serve the story, not the other way around.

This, as some highly absurd Neopets fanart of mine from middle school can attest, has been a lesson I’ve been long in learning. The reason it’s important is that adding extra junk into your book just for funsies distracts, bogs down, and confuses your reader.

Here’s an easy way to think of it: If you’re painting a landscape, adding a few birds here and there is tasteful. Adding in fourteen different kinds, each in exquisite detail–while it might be realistic to the number of bird species that actually live in that habitat–is going to be distracting.

Writing is the same way. Are there multiple languages spoken in the world in which my characters live? Of course. Does that mean I need to have someone speak in all of them? If it’s not important to the overall composition of the story, what I’m trying to get the reader to see or explore, no.

Now, of course there’s a balance to all of this. There are plenty of shows and books I can think of that have diverse and quirky casts and that do it exceptionally well (since I’m currently re-watching the series, Cowboy Bebop comes instantly to mind if you’re looking for an example). Or, if the point of the story is to explore things like differing cultures, language, or communication, keeping that element in would actually be really useful.

The main difference is that the stories on those shows aren’t having to fight around their character quirks like mine is having to work around Kraven’s French. Rather, their quirks are used to highlight what the show wants to tell, to feed into the story, message, or world, rather than obstructing it. For example, in one episode of Cowboy Bebop, it is revealed that Spike can swallow and regurgitate small items at will. This shows us something about Spike as a person, but also becomes valuable to the plot later in the episode. In this way, the quirk is both interesting and valuable, not just distracting.

Anime character Spike Spiegel swallows a cigarette on an episode of Cowboy Bebop in this gif. Later in the episode he spits it back out.
Swallowing nasty crap. It comes in handy. Also, my favorite anime character of all time.

Now of course this is still a skill I’m learning. Atlan, for example, still has a rather large trait/quirk himself that I’m still sorting out, though my hopes are high that I’ll be able to use that one to more effect/purpose than Kraven’s French.

In any case, it’s going to be a journey. I’ll try to keep you all posted on it along the way.

So, how about you? Have you ever had experience with stories that had too many or too few quirks? What about other forms of art? What about them did or didn’t you like? Do you have any examples of art that handled things like quirks, language differences, or miscommunication well? Let me know all about them in the comments below, and if you want more content like this, feel free to follow me here or on social media using the links below.

My unpopular novel

On November 4th, 2015, I finished my fifth novel. I’ve talked about it briefly in a couple of my previous posts, and now that it’s finished, I find myself in that increasingly familiar post-book place. The place where I am both satisfied and restless, pleasantly tired and full of creative energy which no longer has that immediate outlet.

I am also in the place where I can look at my work for the first time as a finished whole, even if it is unpolished, and find answers to the questions I have had since its initial conception, a particularly significant fact given the immense strain I have felt several times throughout the writing of this book in specific regards to its themes and purpose.

You see, at first I thought it was about community, the importance and need for others. Then race, a topic which I have never felt particularly qualified to speak of in the first place, and even more so within the context of this book, which features a slaver and slave as two of the main characters. This was the first pressure point I felt in writing this novel, but surprisingly not the hardest.

The hardest was the realization that, at the end of the day, this book is about sovereignty, positional authority, and with equal importance, grace, and while the last of these themes is wildly popular in our society (a topic I wanted to approach for just such a reason), the first two are not only unpopular topics, but also often wildly rejected. In a society where we are told constantly that our own authority and truths are the most valid, true or authoritative, where if we disagree with something on almost any ground, we can fight or ignore it, the idea that others might simply have authority over us, that they might by the authority of their position be in a place to ordain or command our decisions, is at the very least uncomfortable if not extremely unpleasant for many today, especially within my target market of young and new adult readers.

Compounding this trouble is the fact that the one in my novel who has this control is the slaver, the one who is forced to obey the slave. And while in the context of the novel, one finds the slaver (who is at least somewhat unaware of his complicity, besides his repentance and attempts to fix the inherent problems at their root) to be of a much greater character than the blood thirsty portraits one immediately jumps to given the term, to say nothing of the real parallels I want to strike, given the current racial tensions in our society today, I question how readers might interpret my work.

Now, this is the most overtly Christian book I think I’ve ever written. The themes, correctly interpreted, will hopefully call to attention the importance of God as sovereign, especially in the context of its position in His plan of redemption and grace. Outside of the context of Christianity, outside of this framework for understanding the novel, you wind up with something that is much more easy to misinterpret. Further, though the characters involved do fulfill a somewhat representative role of our relationship with God, none of them actually are God. Atlan, though he shares certain characteristics of God–sovereignty as a King, positional authority, a desire for grace–he certainly doesn’t carry any of them to the same degree. Nor does he have other aspects of God–his perfection, omniscience, omnipotence. Atlan is flawed–seriously flawed–and of course, even if I tried to write him to be perfect, I couldn’t do it. He is at best a flawed picture, a picture as in a dull mirror, as it were.

Which gets us to our summary: I have written a novel for young adults (originally middle grade and I’m still on the fence) which through portraits of a benevolent slaver and his feisty slave seeks to show in part, the importance of positional authority and sovereignty in God’ s plan for redemption.

Essentially, I have written what might be one of my most unsaleable novels.

Except, when I think of what I could do instead, could change, nothing comes to mind. Atlan does want to rescue Mira, is willing to do whatever it takes to free her. Mira will equally resist his friendship until…well…you’ll have to read the book for that. Point is, there’s nothing I can change about the story’s heart. It is what it is, and though smaller things might change, there are others that I’m not sure can, whether it’s popular or not.

Besides that, as an artist–and furthermore and more importantly as a Christian–I believe I am called to ask questions of others, to explore topics and ideas that point to truth whether or not they are seen as worthy in the public’s eye, whether or not people wish to discuss them, or agree with what I think. I am called to ask questions, to start dialogue, to tell stories. There is a great call to tell diverse stories in today’s publishing world. And while I’m not sure how this story will fare in the long run, I feel at the very least that this answers that call. I guess in the end, only God will be able to tell if I’ve answered the others.

Anyway, these are the things I’ve been musing over in this initial post-novel phase.

So, how about you? Have you ever written or created something you felt would be unpopular? Have you ever struggled with the great tension between worldly popularity and the call of God? What do you even think of this novel? Would you read it? Would you ban it? How could you interpret it? How do you think people would?

Fighting instinctual stories

Hi everybody!

Sorry it’s been a while, but I’ve been busy the last couple of weeks with work, some important life decisions that had to be made, and the new book I’ve been working on. I won’t talk much of the last two now (I’ve mentioned one of the characters, Kraven, recently), but I will say that I’ve been learning oodles and oodles about writing as a result of the last one. Specifically, I’d like to call to attention a phenomenon I’ve been coming to know as story instinct, not in the positive sense of the instinct storytellers develop over time of what elements and plot points will and will not work with their characters, story, etc., but rather the insidious sense we develop over time of how stories simply and sometimes unquestionably are or should be written. In particular, I’d like to discuss what that instinct looks like, how we experience it, and for the sake of potentially better and more diverse stories, how to fight it. For clarity now, I will say that the specific instinct I am referring to here applies to the genres I most frequently write in or experience, which is to say modern YA, science fiction, fantasy, action and adventure, that other genres certainly can have other instincts or tropes, and that despite as much as I may hammer it home here, there are definitely stories out there in these genres that do not follow these arcs.

So, that being said, what is this instinct? What, in general, do we expect a story in these genres to look like?

Easy, the typical Hollywood story. Boy meets girl (or the rising trend, *insert love interest* meets *insert love interest*), boy loses girl, boy gets girl. It’s the sense we have that regardless of how implausible their relationship is, no matter how unlikely it is for their relationship to last, no matter how shoe-horned in the relationship seems (because there must be a romance, right?), barring the tragic and/or self-sacrificial death of one of them at the hands of disease, the *insert evil entity* controlling everything, or the villain, if they don’t wind up together, we wind up feeling cheated. Now I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad formula in of itself, just as the roguish anti-hero, cold business woman or *insert character trope* aren’t necessarily bad characters. I certainly think it’s an important story to tell, that there are many reasons that it’s so popular, and have most definitely used it myself, but I also think it’s not the only story we can (or should) tell, and that by recognizing it for what it is–not necessarily the best or only way to tell stories, but merely the most popular–we can begin to open our eyes to the other stories that are open to us, both as creators and observers.

First, a few modern examples to show the prevalence: Ant-Man, Jurassic World, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, It’s Kind of Funny Story, Divergent, Van Helsing, The Iron KingAll movies or books from different popular genres that I’ve seen or read that feature a romance that generally follows that arc. I’m not saying any of these examples are  necessarily bad stories (many of them are quite good in fact) for following that arc, or that romance is the only element in any of them, but I am mentioning them so we can begin to see how common the story is. To take the point farther, how surprised or even cheated would you feel if say, at the end of the movie Ant-Man (spoiler alerts in the next few paragraphs, fyi), Scott Lang and Hope Pym weren’t kissing? If Owen and Claire didn’t wind up together in Jurassic World, despite how logical that would be? How clear it is their relationship doesn’t have legs?

And it’s not even that it would necessarily be a bad surprise in some cases. I would have been perfectly happy if Owen and Claire didn’t get together, if they had been able to maintain their opposing tensions and save the kids. I think the story would have even been better for it, but that’s just not what’s expected, which is exactly my point.

Look, I get it, he’s Chris Pratt, but come on, you’re a terrible match.

As both observers and storytellers, at what point does what we expect start to become what we create (and a further question I won’t go into today, at what point does what we expect begin to be what we allow)? I think of a personal example, in the story I’m writing now. Two main characters Mira and Atlan are blood enemies, or at the very least should be, and yet so  many times I’ve had to stop myself from adding in reconciling moments between them (at least before their time), scenes which, as soon as I start to write them, seem to scream falsity. Mira has to remind me again and again that no, she does not like Atlan. She is not the altruistic heroine, she does not forgive, she is willing to be deceitful, and she does want him dead. More surprising still (despite the fact I know her character and should not be surprised by any of this), is the fact that on several occasions she has had to remind me that Atlan is not a love interest. Atlan is in essence a giant humanoid dog and by nature of his family, a slaver. Mira is a dwarf, and by nature of her family, a slave. She wants to kill him, is determined to kill him. Given all else that I know of their characters to say nothing of anatomical differences, I should not have to be reminded that they are not compatible love interests, and yet when I write about them, the instinct to produce emotionally heavy scenes and images instead of true and real stories, to produce harmonious or attractive relationships and romances instead of realistic ones, is so strong that I find myself in sometimes desperate need of just such warnings.

As a storyteller, this is concerning. To simply fall back on those instinctive plot points, moments, and characterizations (to say nothing of the implications having some kind of weird, sexy good-hearted slaver/slave thing going on would have) is not good storytelling. Not only that, it is also lazy and unproductive. Art should challenge us, invite us to think and feel, to consider our own opinions. Too many times I have read stories that cast off good character development for the sake of form-fitting, seen real, relationship-ending issues swept under the carpet for dopey love and the brush of lips, and to fall into these ruts without even realizing it is a danger not only to our art form (how many different, might I even say diverse stories and questions have we lost or missed because of this?) but to our society on the whole. Yes, romance is important and it is indeed an important part of the human experience, but what of friendship? Familial love? Community? Culture? Faith? What of the relation of an artist to art? A stamp collector to his stamps? Are these not equally valid stories? What of morality? Murder? Politics?

I know that there are a lot of gatekeepers. I know getting your story out there at all is hard, but please, writers, actors, directors, storytellers at large, be aware that the pull is out there. The undertow is hungry and the current strong, ready to rip you away. Pay attention to your characters. Talk to them, explore their whole world, challenge yourself and the others around you. Ask their opinions, share yours, and let us all grow together.