One of the things I love about the Writing Excuses Retreat is that the stratification between guest and host is not severe. There is some separation, but the hosts do an excellent job making us feel like we are all writers on the same journey; some are just further along the path than others.
I have found that I get the most out of these retreats by volunteering. It makes me feel like a more active participant, and in some small way, I feel like I’m giving back to this community that has already given me so much.
This year and last, I volunteered to help with Office Hours, which is just a time in the morning when some of the hosts go to a designated area and give one-on-one advice to people in 15 minute chunks. For anyone taking advantage of these times, it is invaluable, and it can be a real highlight of the entire trip. Volunteers help set up the space and manage the sign-up sheet, basically just doing their best to make sure that chaos doesn’t overtake the space.
This morning, thanks to the time change and the earlier start time, we only had one host available to offer their advice. One host and a shorted time meant only 3 time slots available, and they filled up fast, leaving a small number of writers looking to talk to somebody. I wound up sitting with someone and talking with them for 15 minutes about my experiences working with a small publisher, and some of the things I’ve learned over the last decade in the querying trenches. I wasn’t trying to pretend to be something I’m not. Regardless, it felt really good to give something back, and my conversation partner told me that I really helped her find some direction with the book she’s trying to publish.
I’m somewhere on the path. I have a long ways to go, but I’m not at the beginning anymore. I’ve made some progress, and I can share that progress with others. I’m happy to do so! With humility, though I have to admit I am quite proud of what I’ve accomplished so far.
This time on the cruise, I’ve been motivated to look at where I am on the path. I’m surrounded by other writers. Many, if not most, want what I have, which is a published novel. I’m not asking questions about how to write the story as much as what to do with it once it’s done.
Speaking of my book, I’ve made a conscious effort to talk about my book on this trip, but not shill it. This is a wonderful, welcoming community, and they’re happy to celebrate my success with me. With that in mind, I feel like it would be wrong to push my book here. There is a subtle difference, and this isn’t the time or place for certain types of self-promotion, and I feel like I’ve done a decent job of it.
It is Saturday. The end of the cruise and the retreat is in sight, and I’m sad to see it go. Time becomes elastic in this kind of environment, and sometimes the only way a person knows what day it is is by reading it off the tile in the elevators, changed nightly. This time, I can feel the end approaching, and I wish I had more time to write and relax. I’ve done a bad job at both this trip.
If you ever get a chance to go on one of these retreats, I highly recommend it! Wherever you are on your writer’s journey, you will find something here that helps you see the way more clearly.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about being in a bit of a funk, and attributed it to the kind of work I’m doing with my Day Job. It’s all true, but there is more to it. I’ve been putting off talking about it, but since I’m just a couple of days from Writing Excuses Retreat 2023, I might as well get into it now.
Part of being a writer is selecting and striving towards bigger and bigger goals. Mine went something like:
I want to write a real story
I want to write a story I can enjoy
I want to write a story my friends can enjoy
I want to finish my first novel
I want to finish another novel
I want to finish another novel, this time in a different style
I want to publish one of my stories
I want to publish one of my novels
At first, I described these as dreams, but the difference between a dream and a goal is how much effort you put into achieving it. I still have untouched dreams, such as:
I want to write fulltime and survive
I want to win a prestigious award for my writing
I want to make the New York Time’s best seller list
There’s nothing wrong with wanting these things. I have no expectations on these dreams. I believe I’m talented, and I can work towards some of these dreams, but most of these are outside my control.
This ties back into that funk I was talking about before. As long as I’m alive, I’ll be writing. But I need a new goal. I need something to aim for, that is more than just write and pray. I don’t know what that is.
Publishing The Repossessed Ghost achieved one of my dreams, and it still brings me joy to look at this physical copy of a book that has my name on it. Nothing is going to take that away from me.
More people than I expected have read it and they seemed to genuinely like it. I’m surprised at how many people have talked about starting it, and then finishing it within a day or two.
I kept my expectations relatively low, and The Repossessed Ghost has done better than my expectations. It’s not going to win any awards. It’s not going to climb up any lists. It delighted a few friends and friends of friends, and it sets the stage for more books and stories.
I’m working on a short story in which Mel is selected to be on a jury. It’s fun, and it’s possible I’ll finish it this next week. I’m planning a direct sequel to The Repossessed Ghost. I still have more outlining to do for it. Perhaps that will be my NaNoWroMo project this year. I’m not sure.
After that, I don’t know. I’m greedy. I want more. I want The Writer’s Life, whatever that means.
This week, I hope to find some kind of answer to the question, “Okay, what do I do now?” It’s probably something along the lines of “keep writing” and “find an agent.” I’m going to get a chance to talk to Dongwon Song, and I expect he’s going to tell me to define what kind of writing career I want to have.
That’s all I have for this topic at the moment. I may post a follow-up later this week, based on the conversations I have while on the ship. Also, I’m planning on writing something about agency and fridging, as coined by Gail Simone. I have some thoughts, but I have to do some more reading first.
I’ve been in a bit of a funk for the last week or so. I’m really good at giving myself misery. The funk mostly comes from the kind of work I’m having to do with my Day Job. It really has me down, which leads to me thinking all sorts of dark thoughts.
At the moment I’m dealing with the funk by sitting in a Starbucks with Michael Gallowglas. We’re both working on different writing projects. He’s writing in a notebook with different colored pens. I’m typing on a keyboard I made myself, filling in a post for a blog that I’ve been maintaining for over 10 years. From a certain perspective, our writing is a never-ending pile of work.
Unlike the Day Job tasks, when I look at all the writing I want to do, I don’t feel dread. I don’t feel overwhelmed. It’s the opposite, actually. I look forward to the writing. I’m glad I have so many writing projects in front of me, and I look forward to those times when I have the energy and time to invest.
Yesterday, I spent most of the day moving things around in my garage. It’s labor that I’ve needed to do for some time, but I kept putting it off. I still have more to do, and sneaking off to Starbucks is a way for me to put it off further. There is a lot of work to do, but at some point yesterday, I stopped dreading it so much. I started to see the benefits of having a clean space in the garage, with things put in their right place. There is value in getting everything in order out there, because it also means I’ll get to work on keyboards again.
Looking back at my Day Job, things there have changed in such a way that there is always a mountain of work in front of me. It is overwhelming and discouraging, and I’m starting to hate my job. I’m not sure how much longer I can keep going like this, and I’ve been there long enough that I’m afraid that anywhere else I go will be just as bad or worse. Furthermore, I don’t think I’m as good a programmer as I was five or ten years ago. I’m still extremely valuable to my current employer, even though the work has changed to something I cannot stand.
It would be really nice if I could make writing my day job.
I’m not afraid to work hard. I look forward to it. I just want it to be work that I believe in, and that fulfills me. We should all be striving for that. In a perfect world, all of our basic needs are taken care of, leaving us to pursue our passions so that we can make the world an even better place through our art and the things we love. Maybe that isn’t a perfect world as much as a fantastical one, but it’s still worth pursuing.
There is a difference between work that is put on our shoulders versus the work that we pick up ourselves. I’m looking forward to getting home and getting the rest of my workspace in order so that I can work on a keyboard that I intend on giving away at the Writing Excuses Retreat at the beginning of September. There is a lot of effort between here and a finished product, but that effort will satisfy me and leave me feeling fulfilled.
And even some unexpected work can be a treat if it’s the right kind of work. To bring this full circle, the keyboard that I’m using right now needs work. I accidentally left it in the car for the last week, and the Sacramento sun did some very unfortunate reshaping of the thing. It’s still full functional, but the case is cracked and warped. It looks like ass. I discovered it in this state a few minutes ago, and what I see is an opportunity to reprint it, rebuild it, and make it shiny and new again. It’s a lot of work that I didn’t expect, but I kind of love it, all the same.
If you’ve spent any time at all on the Internet, you’ve probably seen someone state information that is completely incorrect. They may or may not be stating this information with a degree of confidence. Perhaps it’s a comment on a YouTube video. Perhaps it is a blog post, like this one. How do you respond? What is your emotional journey when presented with something you know to be false?
Have you ever been wrong on the Internet? What was that experience like for you?
From what I have observed, the greatest sin on the Internet is to be wrong about something, or hold to an unpopular opinion. This is what I want to address today, sort of as an exercise in empathy.
If you read much XKCD, you’ll find a genuine enthusiasm for learning things. The first step in learning is admitting that you don’t know a thing, that there is a void in your knowledge, and then the process of learning is what we do to fill that void.
I find that basic ignorance is relatively easy to forgive.
Just now, I described ignorance as a void in our knowledge. Sometimes, we can ignore that void. Other times, we bridge over it with assumptions. Let me give you an embarrassing example.
How the seasons work
I was deep into my 20’s before I learned that the seasons were opposite between the northern and southern hemispheres. I knew that the Earth was tilted on its axis, but I didn’t attribute the changing of the seasons to that tilt. Maybe I wasn’t taught that part in school, or maybe I wasn’t paying attention that day. I don’t know that I have an excuse.
I knew we had seasons, and I knew the Earth rotated around the sun, and that our orbit is somewhat elliptical. In my mind, it made sense that in the summer, that’s when the Earth is closest to the sun, so I assumed that the seasons were entirely driven by Earth’s proximity to our nearest star.
How was I corrected? I was talking with someone about writing a weather system for a game, and it grew into a very technical discussion on how to implement the system according to the tilt along a planet’s axis. My conversation partner was a genuine rocket scientist, and she was alarmed to discover how wrong I was on this subject.
She was alarmed, but she wasn’t cruel. She tried to correct me, and I provided some resistance at first, because my assumptions were deeply embedded. I wasn’t rude, and then I learned something, and I felt embarrassed.
Knowledge is knowledge, ignorance is ignorance
The example I just gave is a fairly harmless subject. We were literally just talking about the weather. I want to suggest the idea that the subject doesn’t matter when it comes to knowledge or ignorance. We have either learned something, or we haven’t, and that regardless of the subject, it is not a moral shortcoming.
A more harmful subject would be around homophobia. Some simple facts that homophobes do not know: homosexuality isn’t a choice, gay people have the same feelings as straight folk, exposure to literature that features homosexuality does not make a person gay. There are lots of facts a homophobe may not be aware of, actually, but that seems like a good list to start with.
Why am I choosing this particular topic? Because it is another one in which I was the ignorant asshole. Correcting that ignorance has had a profound impact on my life.
I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, and my parents were conservative. In my teens, I had a girlfriend that went to church, and then I started going and became a bit of a Bible thumper myself. The environment I grew up in wasn’t particularly cruel to gay people, but it was not kind or empathetic, either. No one sat down and had a conversation with me about homosexuality. The subject wasn’t brought up until I went to church, at which point, I was taught it was a sin.
During that time, using “gay” as a derogatory descriptor was not out of the question. It was in my vocabulary. And I didn’t really think about it.
Fast forward to early 1994. I had not met Melissa yet, and I was stationed at Holloman AFB, where “there is a beautiful woman behind every tree.” I was still feeling trauma after a painful breakup, and I was single and lonely. That’s when I found out my high school friend Nancy was going to school in Phoenix, which was just an easy 6 hour drive away. There had never been any kind of romantic attraction between Nancy and me, but you can bet I contemplated the possibilities during that long drive to go visit her.
We met and had a good time. We talked about High School, and cars, and what it was like for each of us escaping Oregon. Then, back at her apartment, she opened up to me. She trusted me enough to tell me about her girlfriend.
I didn’t blow up or yell at her, but I didn’t respond very well. I was not understanding or supportive. Honestly, I don’t remember what I told her. I probably regurgitated some garbage I’d picked up from church. I didn’t raise my voice, but I did make her cry.
That gave me another 6 hour drive to think about things, and I knew I’d somehow made a mistake. I hurt my friend. I didn’t mean to. But I hurt her, and to this day, I haven’t spoken to her since. I wish I could. I truly hope that she’s happy and free to be herself, the true self she was born to be.
Ignorance is forgivable, but actions have consequences
The consequences of my actions were that I lost a dear friend and have a weight of regret to carry in my heart for the rest of my days. What I did or said in ignorance was light by comparison to what we’ve seen bigots do in recent years.
I want to make it clear that it is okay to be wrong about something. The ignorance is forgivable. But you are still responsible for what you do in your ignorance. The ignorance itself is not an excuse to be cruel or do evil.
We are always responsible for our actions, no matter how ignorant we are while we’re doing them.
What to do when we find an ignorant person
For starters, try not to attack them.
I’ve given two examples of my own points of ignorance, and in neither case was I personally insulted or attacked for what I did not know. When you start with personal attacks, the other person’s mind closes. They stop listening. They are no longer capable of learning. All they can and will do is defend their position, regardless of how little standing they have.
Everyone has their pride. If you allow someone to hold onto their pride, they are more likely to retain the information they are given.
All too often, I see people get absolutely dog-piled for saying something stupid on the Internet. They get called names. They get insulted. They are torn down. They are given no room to retain any sort of composure. It’s like people want to make an example of them, and keep other ignorant people from speaking up.
My words here are not going to change the way people behave on the Internet. However, if you’re reading what I’m saying, and sometime in the future you find yourself presented with a person that is espousing something wildly inaccurate, please take a moment to consider why they might be so wrong, and what will happen if you attack them for their wrongness.
That’s probably all I have to say on this subject for now. Please be patient when you can. While I implore everyone to treat each other with a greater amount of kindness and empathy, I know that this is a big ask sometimes, and it’s okay to just ignore someone’s mistakes and ignorance, too. There are a lot of ignorant people on the Internet, and it is not your responsibility to correct everyone.
A couple of days ago, I wrote down a bunch of thoughts on A.I. I didn’t really get into how it works. I talked about what it produces, and how it is best to use it to assist artists rather than replace them. By not talking about how these large language models work, I skipped right over the biggest issue with this software, so that’s why I’m revisiting this topic so soon.
Current A.I.’s are trained on tremendous datasets. ChatGPT would not be able to create a story in the style of Mark Twain if it wasn’t fed a bunch of Mark Twain stories. Art A.I.’s are trained on art in much the same way. We feed a huge amount of data into the machine, and then based on what we’ve given it, we ask for extrapolations from its datasets in order to generate a “new” product.
It’s the training data where things get spicy. Were the writers and artists that produced the work that is fed into the machine asked if their work could be used in such a way? If not, how is that not theft?
As I said just after my birthday, you cannot copyright style. But let’s not be cowards and hide behind the law. Is it moral and right for Grammarly to feed its A.I. using customer data? Is it okay for Google to scan emails and Google Drive documents in order to feed its A.I.?
The cost to acquire this technological marvel is the dataset that is fed into the machine. These large companies are taking a socialist approach to handling that cost, but then preparing to turn around and sell the product in the most capitalist way. That’s one way to look at it, a way to unemotionally determine that what is happening with A.I. is wrong.
But fuck unemotional. No one wants their voice stolen and then reused without their consent. A writer or artist brings their voice to the material of their stories and their art. When we talk about an artist’s voice, are we not talking about style? Isn’t that what we’re training these machines to duplicate?
In my previous post, I truthfully state that I think the technology has the potential to be amazing. It does. Now I’m saying that the technology comes with a price tag, which is that your art, stories, and voice will get used, poured into a digital stew and served up to a machine god that will always be hungry for more.
Would it make any difference if the A.I. created from all of our combined voices could not be used to create profit for someone else?
I think that would help, but it wouldn’t solve the whole problem. I put this blog up for free, and I’m always hoping that my words will enter other people’s eyeballs or ears and provide pleasure or sustenance to someone else’s brain. If someone (foolishly) trained an A.I. using all of this publicly accessible version of my voice, even if they didn’t make a dime off of it (which they wouldn’t), they still stole my voice. Maybe I’d be okay with it if they used my voice to create some kind of public good. I think I would still want to be credited, or have some say in how my voice is used.
In summary, once again, I’m a fan of the technology in principle, but I am not a fan of how the technology is built. I think there are still questions of morality around building A.I. using the work of other people. And I still believe that artists, writers, and programmers are going to be hurt by this technology as companies learn to really misuse it.
One of the key points of the current strikes has to do with the use of A.I. in the arts. Writers don’t want to be replaced. Actors don’t want their voice and appearance copied and duplicated forever, used over and over by the studios without compensating the original actors. There are other factors involved, but today I’m focusing on A.I. and its use in the arts.
There are some talking points with regards to A.I. that are passed around. One is about semantics, in which people are saying, “It’s not really artificial intelligence.” There is another argument regarding the creativity of A.I., which says, “It’s not producing anything new, it’s just stealing from what’s come before.” I think there are a few others points, but these are the main two I see in social media.
Personally, I don’t think it matters if you call it A.I. or not. It performs. It’s generating stories, and artwork, and it’s writing code. The quality of what is being generated is up for debate, but what it’s creating is passable, and getting better all the time.
With regards to what the A.I.’s are producing, I don’t know that it matters if the machine is actually creating or not. To the artists that are getting duplicated, it matters. Do not misunderstand what I’m saying here. What I’m saying is that, a machine is taking a bunch of different sources and combining them to produce things that can appear novel. I don’t think it matters if the muse whispered into the A.I.’s figurative ear or not.
As an example, I asked the 3rd generation of ChatGPT to write a short Cyberpunk story in the style of Mark Twain. It generated what I asked for. Was it good? Not really. But it was interesting, and it was novel. It took styles that existed in the world before and blended them together to make something new. Arguing that the machine was not creative does not matter in the face of the evidence, which was a Cyberpunk story in the style of a writer that was dead a hundred years before the genre was even born.
Am I saying that any of this is good? Am I arguing for the machines, advocating for the A.I. right now?
The machines should be used to do the labor we don’t want to do, freeing up humans to make art and beauty. It should not be the other way around, which is what the studio execs seem to want.
I have a coworker that routinely uses ChatGPT to generate code for him. It is not making him a better programmer, but I can see the logic. My coworker is using the machine to do the menial tasks he doesn’t want to do himself. He’s trying to get A.I. to save him time, which seems like the correct use of the application.
I can see a future where gaming is made even more awesome with the addition of A.I. Imagine being a GM and while you’re running a game, the players decide to take a path you’re completely unprepared for. Imagine being able to turn to the A.I. and have it generate bits of the world you hadn’t considered, with some spontaneous NPCs, and maybe a dungeon or encounter to unveil? I don’t know. I think it could be a pretty cool asset in those cases.
Imagine a computer game where NPCs behave in interesting, semi-realistic ways, because an A.I. is powering their dialog and their reactions. Sandbox games could be immediately elevated with that kind of technology behind them.
Just because I think there are applications for A.I. does not mean I’m in favor of them taking jobs or joy away from people. The GM should still be in charge of the world and the story their running, even if they have an A.I. assistant. The game developers should still be able to inject their own story and fun into the game, even if it has A.I. elements to assist with making the world they created feel more alive.
In all of the examples I can think of where A.I. would be cool, it is acting as an assistant and not replacing real writers, programmers, or artists.
While I’m taking a stance that I think is pragmatic and open to the new technology, I’ve seen people advertising books and products on how to use A.I. to write stories or make art, which I think goes too far. There are people putting out guides for how to use A.I. tools to replace the creative components with the A.I., and I can’t help but think that these people are not serious writers or artists themselves. They are opportunists trying to cash in on the new technology while it’s still relevant.
I don’t know any writers or artists that are looking at what they do and thinking, “If only I could get rid of the part of this process where I get to actually be creative.”
Patrick H. Willems recently put out a video talking about the dangers of A.I. in filmmaking, and he highlighted a studio that uses A.I. exclusively, including the generation of the ideas. I don’t know what the point would be. Writers and artists may be hoping to get paid for their work, but most aren’t making a lot, and it’s the satisfaction of creating art that sustains us.
Let’s rap this up. I said a lot, but I might not have been perfectly clear or focused. To summarize, I think the current, common arguments against A.I. are shallow and not as important as the real problem with A.I., which is that we live in a capitalist society which values money over humanity, which further means that as the A.I. gets better and better, humanity — specifically artists, programmers, and writers — will be made to suffer in the name of profits. The technology itself has the potential to be amazing, but it’s how we use it that will determine whether the technology is good or bad.
We did it. Thirty-one posts in the thirty-one days of July. Which means I should write a novel in August, right?
Well… I’ll focus on finishing my Mel Walker short story first, then see what comes after that. Work has me stretched thinner than usual. I’m constantly tired, constantly behind, and I’m not sure that August is going to be free enough for me to write anything particularly long or serious. What I need to do is find ways to relax and destress when I’m not working, which often means computer games.
So what am I playing these days?
Mostly Project Zomboid. I’m still not tired of that game. Before that, I was completely hooked on Valheim. Now it’s Project Zomboid, which looks like The Sims 2 if The Goths became patient zero and turned the entire city. Actually, I find the game to be deeper than it appears on the surface, and very satisfying, especially when playing with other people.
There are other games I’ll fire up. Cyberpunk 2077 is still rad as hell, in my eyes. I’m really looking forward to the expansion, which looks like it’ll rework the entire game from the bottom to the top.
I’ve dabbled in Shadows of Doubt, which is a procedurally generated voxel city where you play as a private eye, solving different mysteries. It’s cool, in that it’s basically a mystery-solving sandbox. There’s some cyberpunk qualities to it, mixed with 80’s era technology. The aesthetic and overall vibe of the game appeals to me greatly, though I found it frustrating to play at first.
Wednesday evenings, Mike, Nick, John, and I often still play Gunfire Reborn. We were playing some Diablo IV, but strangely enough, I haven’t found Diablo to be very satisfying lately. It definitely wasn’t fun for me to play it in the group setting. It might have been more fun once I finished the story, and I still haven’t done that. I understand that the recent patches nerfed the hell out of the high level game play, which sounds very frustrating. John is still playing it, but he doesn’t seem super happy with the game right now. The next patch is supposed to help.
We’ve all been kind of tired and stressed, so we’ve been playing a bit of Golf with Friends. The physics in that game can be wonky, and it’s not a game to be taken seriously. We fill our Wednesday evenings with quite a bit of swearing when we play that game, but it’s been fun.
I imagine I’ll get hooked on Valheim again when the next expansion comes out. And, I recently fired up City of Heroes and made sure it’s still functional in my garage. That game still makes me smile.
I have a wealth of video games to play, but I’d rather be playing a good tabletop roleplaying game with friends. The pirate game I’ve been playing with Richard is okay, but it’s very infrequent, and it hasn’t really satisfied my deep need to play an immersive, cooperative storytelling game. I should probably try to put one together and run one myself, but again, where is the time? Also, I’m not sure I have enough friends that would show up.
That’s the update on the games. I still have more Day Job work to do, and there’s stories I could be working on, but after I push “Publish” on this post, I’ll probably fire up a game and see if I can find some fun tonight.
In no particular order, here is a list of the story ideas I want to pursue this year. Some of these stories are more developed than others. Some I have tentatively named, but most of the time I don’t know what to call it until I’ve written at least half of the story.
The Pyschic on the Jury
This is a direct follow-up to The Repossessed Ghost. I’m writing it in such a way that it will not contain any spoilers for the first book. The basic idea is that Mel gets selected for jury duty. One does not have to worry about “reasonable doubt” when you can simply go to the scene of the crime and rewind time, or pick up the murder weapon and look through the eyes of the killer. So what will it be like when Mel is the only one that seems to know the truth? I have a very interesting twist lined up for this story. It might wind up being a little bit darker than The Repossessed Ghost, but I think it will be very enjoyable, just the same. I’m about 4500 words into this. I expect it to be under 12,000 words when finished, but it might go a little bit longer.
Unnamed Sequel Novel to The Repossessed Ghost
This is one I’ve been thinking about ever since I finished The Repossessed Ghost. I have some ideas for very interesting characters that will show up in this story. We might meet Mel’s father. There will definitely be other psychics with different gifts than Mel. There will be more ghosts, as that seems to be Mel’s specialty. But The Society has bigger scale issues to focus on, and they’re going to need more people. A big part of this story will be Mel going out into the world to find and recruit more people like him, so that when the end times are upon us, there will be people ready to defend us from the things that go bump in the night.
A Heist at the Center of the Galaxy
I have more research to do, but I want to start working on my Truckstop at the Center of the Galaxy story sooner than later. My initial idea is a heist. The Truckstop, as I understand it, rests at a nexus between different galaxies. What better way to get away with ill-gotten goods than to pass it through such a nexus, and hide it in completely different space? Of course, when you open a door, things can pass the other way, too, so things won’t go exactly as planned. I have a lot of work to do on this one. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun, though, and I’m looking forward to tackling it.
The Plant Necromancer Story
I’ve talked about this story before, and I still want to do it. At the edge of a village lives a kindly old woman that makes certain that the crops survive, even when the weather is rough, or when the rats and vermin get into the fields. She is beloved by the village, even if she sometimes asks for strange things, like a bucket of pig’s blood. She keeps to herself for the most part. That is, until a grieving mother discovers her secret: she’s a necromancer. The grieving mother will approach the old woman with a proposition: bring her child back to life, and the secret stays safe.
I’ve done a little bit of work on this story already. I have an outline. I know who the POV character is, now. I thought it was going to be the necromancer herself, but now I think it’s going to be the grieving mother. I need her to by sympathetic, and she’s the most active person in the story, so she’ll make a good protagonist. At this point, I just need to take the time to sit down and write it.
There are a handful of novels I still want to finish. I started a cyberpunk novel for NaNoWriMo, but I did not finish it. The dystopia was too real, and I got depressed the deeper I got into it. I think it can still be a good story, though, so I want to try it again at some point.
I still want to write the Bourne Identity meets Game of Thrones idea I had in A Clean Slate. It’s a novel I started in 2011 that I did not have the skill to write at the time. There are some really good ideas there, and I think I can pull it off now. It’s lower on my priority list, though. It’s a straight-up fantasy story, and I’m not sure that’s where my interests lie right now.
Speaking of fantasy, there is a trilogy of novels I want to write that follow some of my favorite character voices I’ve roleplayed or written over the years. I started the first one for NaNoWriMo many years ago, and I made it about 15,000 words into it before time constraints got the best of me and I failed that year.
I have some other ideas, but none of them are exciting me enough to talk about right now. That’s how it is, sometimes. I’ll get the seed of an idea and it’ll stick in my mind. It won’t be enough to develop into anything, but as long as I’m thinking about it from time to time, watering it with interest and new life experiences, the seed takes root, and before long, it becomes the next story that I have to write. That’s how it was with Synthetic Dreams. I suppose that’s how it was with The Repossessed Ghost, if you consider Mel Walker himself to be the story seed. I carried him for over a decade before I finally gave him a shot, and it was a decade later when he became my first published novel.
The future looks bright. I can’t wait to fill it with more stories.
Last week was the virtual launch of The Repossessed Ghost. During the virtual launch, I did 3 readings. The first two were from the book, and the third was the beginning of the follow-up short story, where Mel gets jury duty.
The last reading isn’t online, but the first two are! And here they are!
I have to say, I’m not super thrilled with how I sound in these. I should have grabbed a glass of water before or during the reading. Also, I tried to do the accent, but I’m not sure I pulled it off, and it sounds fake and reductive, to me.
But still! The readings are out there, and you can listen to them, if you’d like!
It’s my 28th anniversary! Melissa and I went to breakfast this morning at Mel’s, and then we went to the Barnes & Noble that’s supposed to have my book. It was not there. It looks like the order was canceled, and I was given an email address to write to and ask what’s up. After buying Melissa a couple of books, we drove around a little bit, then picked up my laptop and her books and headed to an unfamiliar Starbucks that isn’t too far from the house. She’s sitting across from me, rereading The Repossessed Ghost while I bang out this post, then move on to some other writing.
The “other writing” counts as a sequel, which is a perfect segue into today’s topic. Let’s talk about sequels, not only writing them, but reading them, and what our expectations are.
When reading or watching sequels, it can be a mixed bag. It’s hard to know what to expect. The follow-ups to Jim Butcher’s Stormfront were better than the original, as the author really started to figure out what he was doing. Stormfront, Fool Moon, and Grave Peril were all fine and entertaining, but I think when we hit Summer Knight, The Dresden Files started to shine. This is a case where sequels got better over time.
I think the same can be said for the sequel to Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Maybe not all of the sequels; I haven’t read Endymion or The Rise of Endymion, but Fall of Hyperion was really excellent. Some of that could be because Fall of Hyperion was written as a novel, while Hyperion was written as several short stories that Dan glued together to form a novel. Regardless of how it came about, I loved the Hyperion books and it’s another example where the sequel did not disappoint.
When I was reading The Wheel of Time series, The Great Hunt was my favorite for the longest time, and that’s the direct sequel to The Eye of the World. As the series went on, the books hit with varying levels of success, some of which I found difficult to get through. This is also true of The Dresden Files, but I think even the worst offenders in Dresden were still better than Stormfront. I don’t think the same can be said of The Wheel of Time.
Getting into Star Wars, I think The Empire Strikes Back is one of the best examples of a sequel surpassing the original. It’s a cultural touchstone. Return of the Jedi is also great. The prequel trilogy was a bit of a mixed bag, but is held in higher regard than it was shortly after it came out. The sequel trilogy, on the other hand, has some good parts, some good characters, but is generally bad and does a disservice to the franchise as a whole. Some people hate The Last Jedi while other people hate The Rise of Skywalker. These different camps might argue over the details, but for the most part, they will agree that the sequel trilogy did not deliver on either the promise or potential.
Sequels can be hit or miss, and not every story needs a sequel. For example, one of my favorite movies of all time, The Shawshank Redemption, will never need a sequel. One of the highest grossing films of all time, Titanic, does not need a sequel, and furthermore, makes me laugh thinking about what the sequel would even be. Coming to the theaters near you, witness the spectacle that is Titanic: Jack and the Mermaids of Atlantis. I don’t know. If they get DiCaprio on board, it’ll probably do well.
Where was I? Oh yeah. It’s time to talk about writing sequels, and the challenges involved.
In the original story, the writer takes a character or a group of characters, puts them through experiences that are meant to change them, and then the reader or audience experiences either the joy, terror, relief, or whatever emotion they’re supposed to feel when the protagonists change. The change itself doesn’t have to be huge, but there should be some sort of evolution. If there is no change, then there is no point in the story.
Maybe I should back that up with examples. In The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits return to The Shire, and their simple life surrounds them. All the things they loved about their home are still there (eventually), but the heroes of the adventure are changed. The world is no longer as small, and neither are they.
In Die Hard, John McClane enters the story as a tough, no-nonsense cop, and he’s even tougher and just as no-nonsense on the other side, but his relationship with his wife is changed. They have a greater appreciation for each other. Even Powell has gone through a change, finding the courage to draw his gun at the end.
In Star Wars, Luke loses some of his naivety in exchange for realizing his dream of leaving the farm and becoming a hero. Han realizes he values his new friends more than money. And Threepio realizes he is truly, deeply in love with Artoo, and that their bickering has always just been a cover for the deeper emotions running beneath the surface.
Every story is about change. It’s fundamental and core to storytelling. So what does that mean for sequels?
A sequel is just another story, so it, too, must be about change. The danger of a sequel is that it is following another story about change, and if it does not honor that original change in some way, the sequel will be unsatisfying.
Let’s look at Luke’s journey through the original Star Wars trilogy. He starts on the farm, eager to get away and join the academy, meaning he initially wanted to be a pilot for The Empire. By the end, he is a pilot for The Rebellion, and he’s blown up The Death Star. At the beginning of the next movie, all of the previous change is still in place, and he is continuing to help The Rebellion. He’s told by a Force ghost to seek out a teacher, and by the end, he has lost a hand and gained knowledge that changes everything: he is the son of Darth Vader. At the beginning of the next movie, he has returned to the planet where he grew up, but he’s in his emo phase, wearing black and choking out pig men with The Force. At the end, he is by himself, mourning the loss of his father that he alone was able to redeem.
Now let’s look at Rey’s journey through the sequel trilogy. She starts off scraping by as a junker on a desert world, eager to get away and have adventures of her own. By the end, she has become a hero in her own right, facing down and defeating the Darth Vader equivalent. Then we get a little bit of extra, where she finds Luke Skywalker and extends his old lightsaber to him. The next movie starts right where the first left off, and we get our expectations subverted when Luke pitches the lightsaber over his shoulder. Rey’s journey begins with convincing Luke to train her. At the end of movie, she is using what she’s been taught to save her friends, but there is uncertainty; the lightsaber is destroyed and the rebellion is in shambles, but there is hope because anyone can be the hero, even the nameless little boy that is sweeping barns on the casino planet. At the beginning of the next movie, the lightsaber has already been repaired and Rey is training in the forest, and somehow Palpatine is returned from the dead, and at the end, Rey goes to Tatooine, a planet she’s never been to and one that Luke and Leia left a long time ago, so that Rey can bury both of their lightsabers on the planet where Luke’s foster parents were burned to death and Leia was forced to wear a brass bikini and service a space slug. Also, that whole business about anyone potentially being a hero is bunk, because we’re super into eugenics, now.
I went on a little bit of a rant there, but the point is that a sequel that ignores what came before is unsatisfying. Honoring what came before doesn’t mean preserving it, completely unchanged into the next story. Things can regress. That is a kind of change, and stories are about change. But the change has to be in the story.
There is more I can say with regards to story structure and sequels. You want the shape of the overarching story to resemble a story on its own. But, I think if you make each story in your series satisfying while still honoring what came before, you’re going to be okay.
It’s time for me to finish some sequels of my own. I need to do some actual drafting now, and I never really know how to end these types of entries. Thank you for attending my TED talk? Please like and subscribe? And now you know… the REST of the story.