Guest Post: K. MacCabe on John Scalzi’s HEAD ON

When my son (pen name K. MacCabe) was very young, Star Trek, Next Generation was in syndication and playing every night right at dinner prep time. That one-hour show became his thing, and I had the peace and quiet to get ready for the evening.

Little did I know that by doing so I was raising not only a Trekkie but a devoted fan of science fiction.

Today he is my writing buddy, with a serious talent for writing, among other genres, science fiction. He’s currently on track to carve out a career as a writer, and for my part, he is a fantastic second reader and a partner in my coaching business.

I’ve invited him to come on my blog from time to time, and today he wanted to share a book review, so here he is, writing about Head On, by John Scalzi.

A science fiction thriller set in a not-so-distant future, draped in a murder mystery and confronting social issues that add to the depth of the novel overall. The book itself is straightforward in its narrative construction, but that is by no means a weakness. In fact, it uses its simplicity beautifully to tackle social issues in a manner in which sci-fi truly excels.book cover

The by-proxy technique that sci-fi is famous for allows Scalzi to discuss subjects of disenfranchisement and prejudice through Hadens, a group of people whose bodies have been damaged beyond repair by an illness that leaves their brains mostly untouched. They connect to our world through Threeps – androids, which they pilot through an internet that we can only dream of having today.

The main character is one such Haden and an FBI agent named Chris Shane, who has a tight relationship with his partner Vann (it is also a source of comic relief many a time). The dynamic adds to the entertainment and pleasure of the read and is one of the strongest points of the novel.

Head On touches on light cyberpunk and science fiction themes, though the extremes of both genres are left by the wayside. The book very much feels like a near future cop procedural that uses its light themology to enhance the elements which Scalzi wishes to discuss within its pages. For those who enjoy procedurals, cyberpunk or science fiction, this book is for you, and it should be a treat to read, even if you did not pick up its predecessor Lock In.

It should be noted, however, the book deals with adult themes such as sex and drugs: though not graphicly and does so with tact. I would not qualify Head On as YA safe, so keep it on the grownup shelf.

 

Writing Craft: Saving That Darn Cat

The other night I watched a movie I would never have watched, generally speaking. It was the original Fast and Furious. I’m not into cars, or gangs, or racing, or…any of that stuff. But I am into story-telling, and I was curious as to why this movie has spawned a franchise that has lasted even beyond the tragic loss of its main actor. And it led me to saving the cat.*

I’ve done a deep dive into Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat books, both the original and Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.** I’d read the original a long time ago, but have a new appreciation for Snyder’s wisdom, however formulaic it may seem at first blush.

And F&F was the perfect vehicle (ha!) for me to test this. In fact, it was rather exciting to see how well Snyder’s beats work.

Save That Cat

If you haven’t read Save the Cat, Snyder was a screenwriter (also, tragically, no longer with us) who analyzed movies and determined that every good story can be defined by “beats”. He goes way beyond the traditional three-act structure, with 15 separate beats dividing the story line.

While watching F&F, I almost jumped out of my chair when I recognized several of these beats. The Theme was Stated (beat #2) when our young hero Brian claims that he only wants to win “respect”, not money or a car or even the girl. The B Story (beat #7) shows up right on time when Brian woos the girl by taking her to dinner. The All is Lost moment (beat #11) arrives when Brian reveals to the rest of the crew that he’s really an undercover cop, and the theme of respect shows up again in the Finale (beat #14) when Brian races Dominic in a heart-pounding near-death duel, with Brian letting Dominic off the hook for his illegal activities, while Dominic shows his respect for Brian’s integrity.

Now what does this have to do with novel-writing?

You may know that I’m a proponent of a new planning method called the Inside Outline, which I’ve used and taught and coached. While I’m normally a pantser*** when it comes to drafting my novels, the Inside Outline allows me to give a general structure to my nascent story, by developing my own “beats” that are linked by cause and effect.

But I think Snyder was really onto something, even if he applied it only to screenplays, and I will suggest that adding Snyder’s beats to an Inside Outline may help novelists visualize their story. The “beats” of Save the Cat are shorthand for the way all stories are structured, from way back to Aristotle.

Plot Paradigms

Take a look at the novel plot paradigm here. (You can download this as a pdf.) Compare the beats of the plot paradigm to Snyder’s beats and you can see that, really, these are labels for the same crucial moments that must appear in any story. For example, “refusal of the call” = “argument opposed to transformation” = “debate”, right?

A plot paradigm compilation

Let me repeat that thought. The Save the Cat beats are, as are all plot points in all the old paradigms, crucial moments that must appear in any story.

I’ll be using Snyder’s beats as I develop my current work in progress. And I’ll let you know what I discover as I marry the cause and effect structure of the Inside Outline with the beat structure of Save the Cat.

Again, you can find Snyder’s two books here at my Bookshop affiliate link. Let me know if you, too, try using his beats to help structure your stories.

*”Saving the cat” is what Snyder believes a character must do at the beginning of a story in order to be “likable”. Not an actual cat, but a metaphoric cat.

**You can buy copies on Bookshop here; this is an affiliate link that benefits me, but also benefits indie booksellers.

***See more on “pantser” here.

The 1 Superpower All Writers Possess: Authenticity

I’ve been seeing the word “authenticity” everywhere lately. In webinars geared to writers, in blog posts geared to entrepreneurs, in ads for almost anything. (“Try our authentic Mexican food!”) We seem to be craving authenticity.

This isn’t surprising, really, after several years in which rumors, falsehoods, and crazy conspiracy theories dominated the airwaves, and we were all isolated from genuine social interactions.

Like almost everyone I know, except for the fact that it keeps me connected to people, I have strong negative feelings about social media. In particular, I hate thinking that I have to use social media platforms as a way to promote my work. And that every five minutes there’s a new platform that I need to join or must learn how to manipulate. Hey, let’s meet on Clubhouse! Have you made a TikTok video yet? Where’s your Instagram story? And the worst: You don’t have 10,000 followers on x. Sorry, but we’re not interested in you. The problem is, we now have a way to share, share, share, but what, exactly are we sharing?

"authentic" sign

I’ve been thinking about authenticity as it pertains to my work and life, and the writing of those I coach. What is my authentic view of the world and how does it inform the things I do every day – writing, and coaching writers? And how do we accept ourselves as we truly are, and others as they truly are, and can we be authentic without even that becoming a trite cliché?

What Is Success?

I’m a big fan of Dan Blank. He works with artists on promotion and writes often about how to market art with authenticity. In a recent blog post he discussed “that space that I think so many writers and creators get lost: that line between what we create and our identity.” Sometimes we writers feel that we have to write to the market to be successful. That romance is where to break in. That science fiction is too niche. That every YA novel must be dystopian, or feature a teen with hidden powers. Worst of all, that the writing world is some kind of competition, and that to break in means breaking someone else’s dream.

I don’t believe that success depends on following trends. True success comes from following your heart.

I’ve said this before. The best stories dig deep. Our strongest main characters are those who feel the full range of emotions, including those of failure and loss. The most compelling plots are not necessarily full of action but are most definitely full of emotional truth. The only formula for writing a successful book is writing a fully emotionally realized book, because true success in the marketplace can never be guaranteed, but true success for us as writers is when we feel the satisfaction of writing from the heart.

My Coaching Advice

Here’s my free advice to you writers, and to those of you who teach young writers: write what you feel compelled to write. Write what is in your heart. Speak your truth. Write in the genre you love, with characters who feel what you feel most strongly. Don’t worry about the latest fads, about what others are doing, about what might resonate on social media. This doesn’t mean spilling sordid details or revealing private tabloid-style trivia. It does mean giving your readers authentic characters who come alive through your honest representation of fundamental humanity. Oh, and kindness, in your characters and in your approach to your readers, is (as everywhere in life) always advised.

Be authentically you, and your readers will follow.

5 More Favorite Writing Craft Books – The Classics

Last post I featured 5 favorite writing craft books, some old and some quite new. Today I have a pile of classics. Once again, you can order from my Bookshop store through my affiliate link (I do benefit from orders through this link).

Here are five of the best:

  1. Story, by Robert McKee.

Why I love it: Comprehensive, often out-of-the-box, this book is probably on every writer’s bookshelf for the best of reasons. It contains so much information and analyzes so many aspects of storytelling that you could study it for a year.

Caveats: Story began life through the aspects of screenwriting, so sometimes McKee’s advice doesn’t seem quite pertinent to novelists. Nevertheless, highly recommended.

  1. The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler

Why I love it: If you’ve read Campbell’s classic The Hero’s Journey you already know the archetypes and mythic structures. But Vogler applies Campbell’s sometimes erudite musings to practical applications with great examples.

Caveats: Some authors get so caught up in the archetypes and mythos that they lose sight of their story. Apply this, but not too firmly.

  1. On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

Why I love it: This is an English teacher talking. Plus, my copy belonged to my mom before I inherited it, and her margin notes run through the book. That’s a classic, and nostalgic.

Caveats: Who doesn’t want to write well? Seriously, this book is for nonfiction writers, yet it contains such basic good writing principles that you should check it out.

cover of Stephen King book
  1. On Writing, by Stephen King

Why I love it: It’s Stephen King. He’s as wise about writing as he is about the creepier aspects of life.

Caveats: None.

  1. From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler

Why I love it: Butler takes dreaming to another level, encouraging writers to tap the subconscious. That’s important.

Caveats: Not a lot of meaty advice, but just read King’s book for that.

Bonus Book: Save The Cat, by Blake Snyder. I’ve recently rediscovered this gem – yes, it’s written from a screenwriter’s perspective, but it’s so darn fun to read. And I love his follow-up and the templates he provides (as with Vogler, don’t get too carried away making your stories fit a model.)

There are tons of others out there, and I’ll cover them from time to time. I always like to hear your favs!!

5 of My Favorite Writing Craft Books

I have an addiction…to writing craft books. In my bookcase two entire shelves are devoted to them, easily 15% of my entire fiction/nonfiction library. I find a new one or two every year, and believe me I learn something from each. Some of my old favorites have gone out of print, sadly, but most are still available, which just goes to show that craft books age very well.

Every so often I like to share my favorites with you. So here we go with five that I love. (You can order any of these, and others I love, through my Bookshop affiliate link.)

  1. Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, by Lisa Cron

Why I love it: First, I’m a nut for anything that has to do with brain science, and Cron makes a compelling case for the way that our brains process story. Second, she provides a template for thinking of character development and story arc in terms of how we process story – and can’t we all use a template?

Caveats: I’ve read the first half of this book over and over, and applied her techniques to my writing, and love them. But in the second half she makes a case for planning a novel that goes against my pantsing grain. I just don’t read past part 1.

  1. Steering The Craft: The Twenty-first Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, by Ursula Le Guin

Why I love it: Who doesn’t love Le Guin?? In this simple, short book she tackles very specific issues, one per chapter, with clear explanations of what they are and how to deal with them, and includes useful exercises at the end of each chapter.

A pile of writing craft books

Just a few of my other favorites – stay tuned for the next list.

Caveats: It’s not comprehensive, but sometimes you need something this short and sweet.

  1. The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist: A Book for Writers, Teachers, Publishers, and Anyone Else Devoted to Fiction, by Thomas McCormack

Why I love it: This little book gave me an insight into one of the core principles of story-telling, which McCormack defines as “the master-effect”, or that feeling that you can’t let go of when you’ve finished reading a great book. It’s singularly responsible for any success of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle.

Caveats: This is a somewhat erudite book, not for reading when you’re tired.

  1. Writing Fiction, Tenth Edition: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway and Ned Stuckey-French

Why I love it: This is probably the most comprehensive craft book, ever. It’s like an MFA in paperback form. Superbly detailed explanations of craft issues, accompanied by excellent examples, and a bunch of exercises. It’s been re-issued over and over, so look for the most recent edition. You could spend a year just working through this one.

Caveats: You could spend a year just working through this one.

  1. Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different, by Chuck Palahniuk

Why I love it: Alternately funny, irreverent, and incisive, this book is like taking a writing workshop with someone who really knows what he’s talking about, and makes you laugh while you learn. Lots of unusual ways of looking at craft.

Caveats: Palahniuk wrote Fight Club, and sometimes you feel like that’s the book you’re reading.

Again, you can find any of these books, and others I love, here, or at your favorite indie bookseller.

Do you have a favorite you don’t see on my lists? Please share! (I’ll probably order it…) Next time, I’ll review some of my more “classic” favorites.

Final Hot Tip: The Bad Guy (Antagonist) Thinks He’s Good

We’ve reached the end of my short hot writing tips for cold nights (even though those cold nights are still with us, here in Montana at any rate). Today I want to present a final hot writing tip – about the antagonist.

Opposites Attract

Protagonists in stories need counterbalancing. They need opposing forces, obstacles, difficulties. Why? Because we all contend with difficulties in life, and the primary purpose of story is to give readers examples of forces in opposition.

Kids need to learn how to deal with the many issues they will face in life, and story is one way kids find examples to “live by”. How does Harry Potter assume an identity as a wizard, and what mistakes does he make that he needs to learn from? (Hint: he’s constantly questioning authority, which gets him into trouble; he may be right, but often goes about defending himself in an abrasive fashion; he has to live up to huge expectations, which makes him want to ignore advice, etc.)

An antagonist is a force of opposition. An antagonist can be a person (Voldemort), or nature (in Gary Paulson’s Hatchet), or society (The Hunger Games). The antagonist throws obstacles against the protagonist and we all read to see how the protagonist will handle them.

Katniss and guards

Katniss in opposition to the Capitol

How the Antagonist Thinks

By reading the above, it would be natural to assume that the antagonist is just plain bad. Evil. Snidely Whiplash, twisting his mustache. But that’s incorrect.

In the best stories, the antagonist thinks he or she is the hero. Voldemort is ridding the wizarding world of the pestilence of Muggles and oh, by the way, he was bullied as a boy. The Capitol is reminding its people that rebellion leads to punishment, and oh, by the way, rebellion leads to social disruption. (I don’t know what nature is thinking about in Hatchet, but let’s assume nature, as it does in Jurassic Park,  “will find a way”.) As such, the antagonist is not a flat cut-out, but a three-dimensional nuanced character with flaws, pitiable losses, and, yes, strengths – even if we and the protagonist come to see those strengths as demonic.

In The Artifact Hunters the antagonist feels misunderstood and wants his lost high position back, and to achieve that, he must defeat Isaac and steal Isaac’s key. In The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, the antagonist has been wounded in love, and believes she must find immortality and personal power by exploiting the children. Neither believes they are bad, just getting what they are entitled to receive after suffering.

So, Your Final Hot Tip

Make your antagonist nuanced. Give him or her flaws, desires, losses, even relatable strengths. Your story will be more powerful for it.

Even More Hot Writing Tips: Plot Devices

Plot. It can drive you crazy, especially if you’re a new writer. How many different ways are there to represent plot? Are there plot devices you can lean on every time?

Do you Save The Cat? Or do you take The Hero’s Journey? Do you Write From the Middle? Or do you listen to The Plot Whisperer?

I love all of the books above – seriously – and would recommend them to anyone wanting more on crafting plot. But this series is for short, quick tips so here are two hot tips I recommend incorporating into your toolbox.

Where To Put Those Pesky Flashbacks

Inevitably, you will need to recall something in your character’s past in order to help the reader understand where that character is coming from. You’ll want to put something in flashback form: a memory, a short scene, an ah-ha moment of recognition. Stephen King maintains that there should be no flashbacks before chapter 3. I think he’s (mainly) right. (Note: I have broken this rule, but not before I’d written four published novels.)

Leave the backstory flashbacks for later in the story. Try to weave them into the story as seamlessly as you can. Something relevant should trigger the flashback – an image, a feeling – because the emotional content of the flashback must be the reason to include it.

In THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS, Isaac escaped from Nazi-occupied Prague to end up in Scotland. The reader knows he feels guilty about leaving his parents behind, and that he wants to be a hero but doesn’t know if he can be one. Not until well into the book is the real reason for his fears revealed. And it’s revealed as a moment of great guilt and pain – a memory he wishes he could erase, an action he wishes he could reverse. This technique adds to the story’s mystery and allowed me to develop the emotional aspects of Isaac’s character.

The Rounding of the Story Arc

Don’t forget that a character’s internal desire – what he or she needs to “learn” or understand – must be clarified and resolved before the story’s end. The climactic scene is the place for this satisfying resolve.

Let your main character reveal what she’s learned in the climactic scene. Your main character must evolve from ignorance to understanding. The place to reveal just how far they’ve come is in the climax, that scene of highest tension, right at the precipice near the end of the story.

Kat, in THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE, reveals her growth when she defeats the antagonist by understanding her weakness (and how it relates to Kat’s own faults), and Isaac in THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS defeats his antagonist with his recognition of the strength of friendship.

To Sum Up

  1. Layer flashbacks in late in the story – and make them relevant to your character’s emotional state.
  2. Complete the character’s internal emotional journey by creating an ah-ha moment in the story’s climax.

I hope you’re enjoying this series, as the days grow longer!

 

More Hot Tips For Writers

Welcome back to my writing craft “mini-series”, with more hot tips for cold winter nights! This week I want to look at some macro issues.

Why This Book?

When you sit down to write, you should always ask yourself “why you are writing this book”. Why not something else? What is important enough that it must be said, by you, right now, in this way?

You have something to say, about the world, or your experience of it, or how you perceive others’ experiences. This is not to say you have to write a sermon – and definitely not for us writers to be didactic – but your reason for writing, your “why” speaks directly to your story’s theme.

CARRY ME HOME is a book about homelessness, but that’s not completely why I wrote it. I wrote it to let the child reader know that it is all right to ask for help. That if something is going wrong, it’s okay to turn to someone you trust. My theme, then, is “never be ashamed or afraid to reach out to a trusted adult.”

The Wizard of Oz

“There’s no place like home.”

 

I often have to write an entire first draft before I understand my theme. And I’ll add that my themes can often be expressed by a cliché and that’s just fine. For example, “there’s no place like home” and “love is blind” could be the themes for The Wizard of Oz and Pride and Prejudice.

Plot Is Not Just “Stuff That Happens”

Plot is enhanced by “cause and effect.”

Everything that happens in a story leads to the next thing happening. If you are writing a first draft it’s very tempting to write something that has little relationship to what came before. But that’s just a sequence of events, not a story.

In THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE, when Kat makes a mistake and loses track of her chatelaine, that sets up a near-tragic chain of events and series of conflicts. One thing leads directly to the next.

To write a great story is to find that linking chain of cause and effect. You can plan your entire novel with a cause-and-effect technique called “The Inside-Outline” (developed by Jennie Nash at Author Accelerator), which you can find out more about here and which I also offer as part of my coaching business here.

The Hot Tips This Week

  1. Discover, through brainstorming/freewriting why you are writing this book.
  2. Your theme comes from your “why”, and can often be expressed as a cliché.
  3. Plot is a linking chain of “cause and effect” not just “stuff that happens”.

Thoughts?

Teacher & Librarian ARC Give Away: Carry Me Home

Teachers and librarians! I have a bunch of ARCs (advance reader copies) of Carry Me Home, so I’m hosting an initial ARC give away on Twitter this week! Here’s the link to the Twitter post. (This give away is being hosted solely on Twitter, but watch this space for more give aways throughout the spring.)

Carry Me Home follows a pair of young sisters who are living with their daddy in the back of a car, when Daddy goes missing. Lulu, the older sister, has to try and manage life for herself and her younger sister Serena. Lulu is afraid that someone will discover their situation, and that the sisters will be separated, never mind that she is just starting to find her place in her new school. But how can a twelve-year-old from Texas take care of food and school and all of life when she has no money and her only home is a Suburban parked in a wintery Montana RV Park?Three ARC copies of Carry Me Home

 

Here is an interview I did on Mr. Schu Reads that will tell you a little bit more.

I think (I fear) that this story is all too timely. I’ve personally known families who have lived in cars because they couldn’t afford adequate housing. I truly hope that none of your students are in this situation, but if they are, I hope that this book helps all your students to discuss and empathize. I’d like to have them think about and discuss what they might do if they discovered that a classmate was living in a car. Or what they might feel if they needed help and were afraid to ask for it.

I have more copies to give away throughout the spring so please watch for those. If you’ve entered this first giveaway and didn’t win – I’ll keep a record and re-enter you for the next!

Edited to add…………I’m blown away by the response to this giveaway, so I’m increasing the number of copies I’ll give away this time to 6!!

And thank you for the good work you are doing with the kids who need you.

Hot Writing Craft Tips for Cold Winter Nights, Number Three

For this week’s hot writing craft tips, let’s look even more closely and with a sculptor’s eye at words and sentences and paragraphs.

Diction and Syntax

Diction (word choice) and syntax (sentence structure) are more than just grammar terms – they are the materials writers use to shape thought. By understanding and using how the brain processes written information, you can connect more effectively with your readers.

image of Burroway's Writing Fiction craft book

Janet Burroway taught me a number of things about using the right diction and syntax.

The most important word in a sentence is the first (noun). The second most important word in a sentence is the last. These two words should be strong and solid. Here’s an example from THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS: “Isaac’s childhood stood on the far side like a long-ago tale.” By beginning and ending the sentence the nouns “childhood” and “tale” immediately connect the reader to the fairy tales of their own childhood.

Verbs are best when active, not passive. Here’s another example from THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS: “In the dusky light the castle hulked against the sky.” I could have said “was silhouetted” but “hulked” gives the castle more menace, and it feels more alive, in a creepy way.

Avoid distancing the reader by avoiding the use of words like “saw”, “heard”, and “felt”. Again, in ARTIFACT HUNTERS, I said, “Nausea roiled through Isaac.” I could have said, “Isaac felt nauseous” but you can see right away how that distances the reader from Isaac’s immediate sensations.

When Every Word Matters

It took me several years to write VOLCANO DREAMS. I removed many more words than I added. Every single sentence, every single word has to be just right – especially in the case of a non-fiction, scientifically-accurate book like this. For example, “The elk tucks his bulk into feathered grass” implies the size of the animal (with a little internal rhyme) and the age of the grass (feathered being a mature, late-summer grass).

Picture books must be particularly tight in all the ways I’ve described above. And more – in a picture book, assuming you aren’t the illustrator, you must leave room for the illustrator to interpret and enlarge upon your vision. Rather than writing “A cloud of balloons in red, green, and blue”, write “A cloud of balloons in riotous colors” allowing the illustrator to choose odd and interesting combinations.

My three hot writing craft tips for this week:

  1. Make sure you use strong nouns to frame your sentences.
  2. Use active verbs that carry deeper meaning. Avoid passive verbs and the verb “to be” in any form.
  3. Avoid distancing words like “saw”, “felt”.

Do you have any tips to share?