*Originally posted 3/6/19 on the Weber Forums.
PLEASE NOTE: This post will contain a few vague references to parts of The Gordian Protocol‘s plot and characters. I’ll do my best to keep from spoiling anything, but those who wish to experience the novel without any spoilers of any kind should avoid this post in its entirety.
Though, honestly, if you’re reading this, are you really trying your best to avoid spoilers? 🙂
Now, onto the story.
It’s spring of 2017, I’m deep into writing my scenes for The Gordian Protocol, and I come across a…problem. Not a big problem, mind you, but more of a “Hmm, how best to handle this?” kind of situation. I was quickly approaching a scene where I needed to get a key character onto the protagonists’ time machine. And the character (let’s call him “Jimmy”) had to board the time machine willing. That’s the important part, and I need to be snappy about it, because the story was on a serious crescendo, and I wanted to maintain that forward momentum into the climax.
Problem is, there’s a lot tying Jimmy to his native place in history. A lot.
This is a man for whom duty runs thick through his veins, especially to his…goldfish. (Okay, you know it’s not his goldfish, but I’m rolling with this as part of my anti-spoiler tactics.) He needs a Very-Good-Reason to leave his goldfish behind. He and that goldfish have been through some tough times together! Granted, our protagonists have that Very-Good-Reason, but their story isn’t the easiest one to digest, and Jimmy is no fool, especially when the needs of his goldfish are concerned. There will be questions. There will be discussions. There will be…delays.
Hence, I had a problem.
I took a step back and reviewed David’s notes. This was often my first step when I wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. Between the alternate history notes and deep character background, I had over 40,000 words of material to pull from when writing my scenes, and those notes almost always provided the guidance I needed to support David’s vision for the novel.
So, I looked up David’s notes on Jimmy and… Aha! This particular goldfish wasn’t named here! It only listed that Jimmy…found a second goldfish, long after the untimely passing of his first goldfish. (Have you figured out what the goldfish is?)
Let me segue for a moment here and talk a bit about the collaboration process. As the junior partner on a project, I view it as my responsibility to support the senior partner’s overall vision for the novel while also contributing my own original ideas. Balancing the two can be tricky at times, so I was always keen to identify which parts of this story I needed to strictly follow David’s lead and which parts were my sandbox to explore.
The lack of a name for Jimmy’s second goldfish was like a bright green flag waving in my mind. We were in sandbox territory here! Yes! I could do whatever I wanted with the goldfish!
I pondered how to approach the problem with this newfound narrative freedom. And then it hit me. Jimmy’s goldfish couldn’t tie him down…if it wasn’t around anymore!
So I blew up the goldfish during one of the novel’s action set pieces. Little smoking pieces of fish strewn everywhere. Thus Jimmy was free to board the time machine without hesitation, and the plot could move forward efficiently. The engineer in me was quite pleased with how I’d dealt with the problem. KISS principle, you know? (Keep It Simple Stupid)
Sometimes it’s easiest just to dynamite the obstacle.
I went on to finish my portion of the novel and hand it over.
A little while later, David reviewed my work, and we had a conversation that went something like this (heavy paraphrasing to follow):
DW: So, you know Jimmy’s goldfish?
JH: The first or the second?
DW: The second. The one you blew up.
JH: Sure, I do. I’m the one who blew it up, after all.
DW: Right, about that. You do realize I had a story planned for that goldfish in the sequel.
JH: …You did? 😬
At this point, my internal dialogue looked something like this: Oh, &%#$! Oh, &%#$! Oh, &%#$!
DW: Yeah, you mind if I rework those scenes?
JH: What? Oh, uhh, no, not at all! Please, be my guest! Edit away! I wasn’t sure how best to approach that part anyway!
A little while later, I received David’s next set of revisions. And boy, was I in for a surprise!
You see, he didn’t take the goldfish death out. In fact, he ended up making the death scene even WORSE! He didn’t just blow it up! He mangled the goldfish’s body, had it flopping around on the floor, gasping for air, and then had it die in Jimmy’s arms!
I remember reading it, thinking to myself, “Wait a second. Isn’t the goldfish supposed to live?” And then a little bit later, “Huh. Guess not.”
And, wow. I absolutely loved the changes he made. He took a scene I wrote out of a desire to move the story forward as cleanly as possible, reworked it here, massaged it there, and then cranked the emotional impact up to eleven! It was a fantastic scene, but it’s also one he wouldn’t have written if I hadn’t killed…the goldfish…when I shouldn’t have. A small misunderstanding ended up blossoming into something neither of us would have written on our own, and it’s moments like this that make collaborating with another author such an awesome experience.
That said, I told David afterwards we should probably establish a “Thou Shalt Not Kill These Characters” list for future projects. 🙂
Speaking of which, I think I’ve procrastinated enough today. Time for me to get back to work on the sequel to The Gordian Protocol. I’ve got a lot of [REDACTED] to blow up this week. 😄😄😄
Earlier tonight, David Weber and Jacob joined Josh and Steve over at Keystroke Medium to chat collaboration, publishing, and The Gordian Protocol. Check out the interview below! 😀
And of course, for more interviews and writing insight, visit Keystroke Medium’s website and YouTube channel!
Also, LESS THAN ONE DAY TO GO, Y’ALL! 😀😀😀
The #1 question readers ask authors is “What inspires you to write?” Many authors have deep answers like “intellectual curiosity” or “the ability to create my own reality,” but mine’s nothing of the sort.
My greatest inspiration is bad movies.
I enjoy good entertainment, too, of course, but looking back on my life as a writer, I realize that my emergent interest in writing coincided with my discovery of several not-so-classic bits of media, and once my interest in writing was established, similar media propelled my writing interests forward.
Good movies inspired me, too, but the thing about good movies is that they tend to be, for the most part, complete. They’ll always have some flaws, but generally their worlds will be refined, their plots will come together nicely, or you at least leave them satisfied with the adventure you just took while watching.
This isn’t the case with bad movies. Bad movies are defined by their flaws, whether it’s terrible acting, slapdash worldbuilding, lazy characterization, or plot holes galore – but some of these movies have just enough good in them to snag the viewer’s attention, and that is where my interests caught.
When I was starting out as a writer, I didn’t see “plot holes.” I saw “parts of the story that the movie didn’t have time to flesh out.” I made up my own explanations. These explanations became fanfiction. Soon after writing a few early fanfics I realized I could overlap ideas to create my own worlds, and the more bad movies I watched, the more plot holes I explored, and the more ideas I had.
The flaws in bad movies, then, became a playground for my imagination.
Because of that, even when sitting in a crowded theatre, I’m never watching the same movie as everyone else. Terrible movies continue to drive my writing to this day.
But without these initial gems (rocks? gravel?), I’d never have become a writer. To that effect, here are the terrible pieces of entertainment to which I owe the formation of my entire creative being.
Technically it’s not a movie, but it’s pivotal, so we have to start here.
Only the most awesome 0.001% of the Internet has even heard of this show, and it’s probably made up of people from the other percentages who love mediocre animation, the most eye-rolling of dad jokes, and who grew up watching this mess during its brief appearance on ‘90s TV.
Samurai Pizza Cats is a show set in Little Tokyo, where the population is anthropomorphic animals who are also sometimes robots and the main characters are pizza delivery cats by day, sentai by night or whenever the Big Cheese (He’s a big mouse) and his lackey ninja crows (The leader is named Bad Bird) get up to mischief.
It’s one of those anime where the translators saw the original Japanese script, went “PBBBT!” and decided to just write whatever came to mind, no matter how outdated or cringingly awful the humor was. It’s why we have the Big Cheese (who was a fox in the original Japanese), as well as an old crow named Jerry Atric and a dog named Al Dente (for no particular reason except that it was a pun). The very theme song sounds like the performer got himself drunk and just sang the first pizza-related puns to come to mind while inexplicably channeling the B-52s.
And O LORT did 4th Grade me devour it.
My first pieces of real writing were, no lie, Samurai Pizza Cats fanfic. I even attempted to write a musical at some point but stopped because, even in my ill-advised elementary school days, I knew the world did not deserve an atrocity of that scale. (Also I have no idea how to write music.)
Soon after that, Warner Brothers released Cats Don’t Dance – which is a fantastic movie and thus has no place on this list, but kicked my cat-based writing fling into a full-on hobby. For the next several years, I spent all of recess and free time exploring my fictional world of my Wild Cats – a bunch of anthropomorphic cats who…well, actually I can’t remember what they did because high school me burned all the old manuscripts out of embarrassment. But I bet it was incredible.
And that interest still sticks with me today, albeit in a different form. Although I’m far from a furry, I do enjoy writing talking animal characters and building complex cultures around them – something that surfaces quite prominently in the dogmen and Brunl (bear) cultures in The Wizard’s Way (and is explored in even more depth in the upcoming The Wizard’s Circus).
If Samurai Pizza Cats was my gateway drug to writing, Quest for Camelot was the bag of [insert drug of choice here] in which I planted my face, heart, and soul, and let’s face it, never really came up for air.
Quest for Camelot is a miracle of a movie in that it has an A-List cast (including Cary Elwes and Gary Oldman); top tier musicians of its time (Celine Dion and Andrea Frickin’ Bocelli); and came from Warner Animation in between two of the greatest modern animated films (The Iron Giant and Cats Don’t Dance)…and yet somehow ended up one of the worst big budget animated films ever made.
The Nostalgia Critic has already covered everything that makes it terrible, and Jacob could barely make it through that. It is literally so terrible that Jacob has promised to watch it with me only as a landmark anniversary present.
I came upon Quest for Camelot in a roundabout way, finding the movie novelization on my 5th Grade English teacher’s shelf and picking it up because I’d read anything that had to do with Arthurian legends. Though the book was a pretty standard medieval fantasy – Tomboyish girl who wants to become a knight goes on a quest to save Excalibur – it had many details that snagged my attention more so than other fantasies I was reading at the time. First, one of the main characters is blind and yet, despite this seeming flaw, an essential and active contributor to the protagonist’s quest. Second, he has a falcon companion, which is just badass. And third, its heroine was a female adventurer, and in a lot of the books I was reading at the time, this wasn’t the case. All this to say, I was a hardcore Quest for Camelot fan before my parents even took me to see the movie. After the movie, I was 3000% a fan and writing tons of fantasy inspired by its world.
Which is why I was bewildered when I watched it again as an adult and realized that it is, in fact, a dumpster fire of a movie. XD I vividly remember being excited to show it to my cool college friends…who not even halfway through went WHAT IS THIS HP I CAN’T EVEN. This in the days before it was fashionable for millennials to lack the ability to EVEN. This from a crowd that had regular Mystery Science Theatre 3000 movie nights. It’s that bad.
Warner Brothers tried SO HARD with this movie, but at some point, all their grand plans went to hell and gave us okay-hand-drawn-animation-to-atrocious-CG-animation, a sense of humor that doesn’t know if it wants to stay in its world or go full Looney Tunes (There are ACME references), and a plot that craps on every single bit of potential presented by its Arthurian world. King Arthur is only in the movie long enough to be voiced by a James Bond actor pretending to be Sean Connery (perhaps a First Knight reference, but let the complexity of that irony sink in), before his arm is broken when a griffin snaps Excalibur off the back of his seat – not even in a battle, not even out of his hands. He tells his peeps to find Merlin and go after Excalibur, at which point Merlin’s like “Hm, I’m just gonna send this falcon to protect the sword. He’s got this.” And so it’s up to Kayley, the aforementioned tomboy farm girl, and Garrett, the aforementioned blind dude, to save the sword. Because everyone more qualified – like, I don’t know, actual knights – is too indisposed by, I don’t know, listening to King Arthur’s terrible accent. Or maybe hypnotized by bad guy Ruber’s eyebrows.
(For real, I am pretty sure his eyebrows had their own animator.)
(And maybe he had his own choreographer for this jam.)
(Ok, for real, I’m done now.)
I could go on about the obvious villain, his nonsensically complicated plot to take over Camelot, the fact that he uses a magic (ACME!) potion to turn his underlings into half-weapon people as if maces for hands are somehow more practical than, I don’t know, hands for hands. Not to mention the one rooster he turns into a half-axe like really, dude, what’s a rooster going to do with an axe face?
Even so, 5th graders don’t think about those kinds of things when they watch movies, so Quest for Camelot snatched my interest away from talking cats and poured it all into medieval adventures. Most of my stories through junior high were medieval fantasies featuring kick-butt girl protagonists, falcons and hot blind hermits, and again, some of those elements surface in The Wizard’s Way. Chaucey’s pal Ellid totally has a sassy griffin companion because of Ruber’s griffin minion, and the medieval aesthetic that pops up in certain areas of Aurica (the Queen’s Guard wearing ceremonial armor, for example) is a definite holdover from my medieval fantasy days.
[Insert sound of all steampunkers clutching their pearls]
Admittedly, it pains me to consider Atlantis a bad movie, given the place it holds in the hearts of dual Disney and steampunk fans (myself included), and given that we rarely get animated steampunk movies at all, much less ones that are that pretty.
When it comes down to it, however, Atlantis is a film fraught with flaws. Much of this seems due to the fact that it changed identities halfway through production, which never seems to end well for movies. (Apparently it was going to be a monster movie in an early stage, before it became more focused on the city of Atlantis itself.) Even so, a change in focus is no excuse for the undeveloped characters, predictable plot twists, and convenient-for-the-moment plot details that don’t make any sense in a larger context. (Like, how can the Atlanteans speak modern languages without having been exposed to the development of those languages, and why do they know all those languages BUT NOT REMEMBER HOW TO READ THEIR OWN NATIVE LANGUAGE. 😐 Why entrust the health of an entire expedition to a cook who doesn’t understand the four basic food groups? How on earth could a 16-year-old be the most experienced mechanic Whitmore could find?)
The logic of the movie’s world-building is terrible.
However – and it’s a big HOWEVER – its individual pieces had the makings of something great, and this is why Atlantis still holds onto its place in my heart with giant crabby Leviathan claws.
Much as with Quest for Camelot, the details that grabbed me with Atlantis were the ones I wasn’t seeing in other stories at the time. The hero of the movie is not a conventional adventurer, but a weedy little linguist of all things.
Its princess was not a porcelain doll trapped in a castle, but a warrior (uncommon in animated films at the time) who was more concerned with helping her people than being the hero’s girl (though the end of the movie suggests they ended up together). Really, all of its women were quite capable on their own.
Most notable for me was its effortlessly diverse cast, all characterized with little nuggets of backstory that made them just interesting enough…but then, disappointingly, didn’t develop any of that. Atlantis could have approached being a masterpiece if it had dedicated just a little more meaningful screen time to Audrey, Sweet, Moliere, and Vinny (and solved its world-building problems).
But I guess that’s what fanfiction’s for. Likewise, because of those flaws, my imagination ran wild to fill in the gaps, or at the very least play with the movie’s ideas. One of my heroes in an as-yet-unfinished novel was a linguist (albeit a buff linguist who goes on an intergalactic adventure), and again, echoes of Atlantis permeate The Wizard’s Way. Atlantis was the movie that made me want to write a steampunk novel; Chaucey’s last name is Thatcher as a reference to Milo Thatch (Thatcher being an early-production name); the magic mineral clarien is blue because of Atlantis’ magic crystals (though the magic works quite differently); and the central characters are diverse, well, mainly because the real world is diverse, but also because Atlantis planted in my head a notably diverse cast with whom I wanted to spend more time.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of other awful entertainments that drove my writing. Perhaps one day I’ll write about my Digimon/Titan A.E.-inspired world from junior high, or my Monster Rancher/Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog saga. (Hey, there were a lot of monster shows back then.)
Until then, readers, what are your guilty pleasure movies/TV shows? 😀
Note: Holo Writing is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and, as such, may earn a small commission from any product purchased through an affiliate link on this blog.
Today, I would like to discuss one of my favorite writing tools: the character sheet.
Characters form the heart and soul of a story. They can breathe life and energy into an otherwise dry tale. So, naturally, their creation is a very important skill for a writer to learn. I suspect there are as many methods for generating new characters as there are writers. Who’s to say one method is better than the other?
Not me, that’s for sure. But I have developed a method that works for me. Here’s what I do.
When an idea for a story begins to take form, I determine what roles I will need. How many characters are required to tell the story? Where are their places within the story? What functions need to be filled?
I divide the roles into two categories: Technical and Personal. For example, if I’m writing a story about an elite military squad, a Technical list might look like this:
- Squad Leader
- Demolition Specialist
- Tech Expert
And a Personal list might resemble this:
- Main Character
- Love Interest
- Dependable Cohort
- New Guy/Gal
I can then combine the two lists, mixing and matching, looking for holes as I go. The result might look something like this:
- Squad Leader – Main Character
- Sniper – Love Interest
- Demolition Specialist – Dependable Cohort
- Tech Expert – New Guy/Gal
This list will go through many revisions as the story evolves from a crude sketch to a more robust outline. For me, it’s easy to mix and match the Personal and Technical roles. Some characters may have multiples of one type or even both. This can be especially true for major characters. Roles can, of course, change as a story progresses, but that is something I save for the plot outline itself.
These roles form the basic building blocks for the characters. Once I’m happy with the roles I’ve listed, I begin to add details and depth to each character. In order to do this, I use a character sheet.
My character sheets vary a little from novel to novel, but they’re mostly the same. Basically, it’s one big list of characteristics that I fill in order to gain a better feel for the character. Character sheets also serve as excellent references when I’ve forgotten the cool details I had planned.
This is one of the reasons I outline so heavily. I forget stuff.
So, what do these character sheets look like? Well, they look like this, actually:
- Character Description
- Poignant Memories
- Past Traumas
- Sense of Humor
- Speech Pattern
And yes, I fill in each line for almost every character I write about. Does all of that make it into the novel? Is all of that even relevant? Do I need to do this? No, of course not. But filling in all of that stuff helps me develop each character into an individual, unique voice. It’s a tool I use, nothing more. If it helps me write the character, then the tool has done its job.
It may not be the best way to craft characters, and it certainly won’t work for everyone, but it’s a method that has served me well for many years.
Subscribe to the Holo Writing Newsletter to receive updates on our current and future books.
Artwork by Robert Chew, a.k.a CrazyAsian1. Used with permission.
Today, I would like to share one of my absolute favorite writing techniques for getting a novel off the ground: the Prototype Story. Before I sit down to write a novel, I almost always write a Prototype Story, and sometimes write several.
So what is a Prototype Story? For starters, it’s a short story with a specific goal in mind. It’s a test of sorts, an exercise to see if certain elements from the to-be-written novel actually work on paper. The Prototype Story could focus on a specific character I’m having trouble with, a part of the world that’s challenging to realize, a location that’s just not clear yet, or really anything about the novel. Anything at all.
The trick is to take the element giving me problems and put it under a magnifying glass. The Prototype Story is the magnifying glass. These stories help me identify problems and fix them in a contained environment. So when I transition to the novel, I already know that aspect will work. Or, at least, has the capacity to work.
Let’s take a look at an example. Humanity Machine is the novel I’m currently working on, and it is by far the most ambitious novel I have ever written. It has some really crazy stuff in it that’s testing my skills as a writer. I’ve gone through seven outlines before settling on a final draft outline.
In short, this novel is a beast. So, instead of diving straight into the novel itself, I tested parts of it in a short story. Enter “Humanity Machine – Athens Assault,” a short story set in the fiction of Humanity Machine. By writing this story, I was able to test out some of the more bizarre elements of the world. This really helped me get a feel for them. For someone who primarily writes science fiction, this is a great way to test out the dynamics of a new “rule set” if you will.
And while “Humanity Machine – Athens Assault” is a fun action short (at least I think so), it didn’t have to be any good at all. My only goal was to get comfortable with the world I would portray in the novel. Humanity Machine has so many unusual tech elements that I wanted to see how they meshed together. If the story completed sucked, but I got a feel for this strange high tech world, then mission accomplished!
There are plenty of other applications. For example, I may focus on a secondary character that’s giving me problems. In order to get a feel for the character, I’ll often pick an event from their past and write a short story about that event from their perspective. The story doesn’t have to be good, but I guarantee it will help me realize the character’s voice when it comes to writing the novel.
In summary, the Prototype Story is my go-to tool when I’m having problems with a novel. There’s almost no literary problem it can’t solve.
Subscribe to the Holo Writing Newsletter to receive updates on our current and future books.