A New Methodology

Writing used to be a feel good, hobby-ish thing for me. I would sit down and stare at my computer and brainstorm about what would happen next. And more often than not, an answer would not come. But that was always okay–cause it would come in time! As long as I was getting something done at all–as long as I was at least sitting at the computer with the intent–I was doing alright for myself. And to an extent, that’s true; just sitting down and clocking in is the first test of all writers.

 

But, that approach wound up leading to some major issues. First and foremost, I was way too laid back about what was happening in my story; things would feel right and I would throw them on the page, always going with my gut, never wondering how often my instinct matched what was happening or the tone I’d already set. More crucial than that though, plot lines got completely out of control; my first edit took months because I was just trying to close loopholes. I remember thinking, say, in the middle of my first draft, “Hey! This should happen! I’m going to write it in even though it hasn’t been mentioned anywhere else in the book yet! I’ll just catch it later and smooth it all out!” When I reached one of those moments during my first edit, I remember stopping, sighing, and (probably) saying aloud, “You bastard.” Tack on the countless switch-ups of characters’ moods and logic and the zig zagging plot (products of my returning to the computer completely clueless after weeks of not reading a word of my book), and the first draft of my manuscript was kind of a nightmare. And yeah, maybe it was a nightmare that would’ve sold–cause, sadly, I’ve seen worse in published Fantasy–but not something I’d want to produce.

So, really, the only option was to rewrite the whole thing, but the question became, “What can I do to keep everything from falling apart again?” The answer is probably too bureaucratic and neurotic  for everyone’s taste, but, hey, I’m just explaining how I do things.

 

An Outline, for lack of a better word. A single master file that compiles all of the post-it notes, standalone files, and thoughts I ever had about any snippet of my book, including the full outline of the plot. I’m not going to post a sample of the Outline here, but I will give a vague example of its set-up.

Chapter Number / Chapter Title

Main Characters: A list of all of the characters who are present in the chapter. But not just Name, Age, and Place of Origin; we’re talking everything about them, from what they’re wearing and thinking in this chapter, to whether or not the wound they took two chapters ago is still sore.

Side Characters: The same, only I add side characters’ back stories (I have a Foreword detailing all of my main characters’ stories).

Locations: A full description of all the major areas featured in the chapter.

Plot Lines: A list of plot lines, keeping close track of what I’m revealing, what I’m hinting at, and what I’m saving for later.

Bullets: The full outline for the chapter in bullet portions that are as simple or complex as I want.

 

This is a very streamlined, boring summary, but I have to add, before you bail on me, that it has a lot of great advantages if you use it correctly:

  • First off, approach the Outline chapter by chapter in solid, helpful steps. This is your chance to experiment and work out all the details of your story. To make sure I’ve worked out the initial kinks, I start with the Bullets written by hand in a notebook. Writing by hand keeps me from correcting or even caring about corrections because I can’t free-hand half as quickly as I can correct in my mind; I give up and just get the plot down, bullet by bullet. Here I take my time, deciding what happens on a ton of different criteria (“Is this too boring?” “Does this make sense?” “Would my character actually do this, or is it just from that one movie?” “Is this to simple / predictable / cliche?”) After I finish the Bullets by hand, I look them over and find every character, location, or thing I’m going to talk about in the chapter. With these points of interest, I return to the Outline and that’s where my supplemental info (Main Characters, Side Characters, etc.) comes from. After I have all of the supplemental info down, I copy my handwritten bullets onto the Outline, using the info to improve what I already have and, thus, making sure what remains is as solid of a first draft as it can be.
  • Actually write the supplemental info. All of it. When I was rewriting the first chapter, I decided I’d use a town called Mycelston. But it wasn’t until writing supplemental info that I realized Mycelston had a mine. And, hey, wait, if it has a mine, I could use that at the end of the first chapter… and it’d be awesome. Since doing this, I’ve found a healthy terror in the amount of things I know about my world that I’ve never, ever realized. But also, right there with it was some frustration; that first draft would’ve been a lot better if I’d known Mycelston had a mine. Or that Dawnspear has outlying farms up and down the Dawn Coast. But, hey, how was I supposed to know these things about my fantasy world if I didn’t write or even think about them? More importantly for you, what do you know about your fantasy world that you haven’t realized? You’d be surprised, I bet. Take the info dumps as opportunities to explore your world; don’t sell your it short by rushing through this step.
  • Treat the Outline as a very rough first draft. The bullets are there for you to explore and express your story without you getting bogged down by things like writing style and narration. You’ll have all the time in the world to work with those–give your plot its own attention and see where it takes you.
  • And stay on point with your plot. I know tracking all of your plot points for each chapter sounds tedious, and, yeah, it totally is. But the only thing that’s worse is losing hold of something or forgetting a very important but very minor detail 230 pages into a 461 page book.

Overall, is an outline like mine insanely time consuming? Yes. Will it require you to create a ton of content that (and this is necessary) isn’t even mentioned in your book? Yes. But will your world feel that much more complete? Will you have (as Ron Carlson calls it) more fuel for your story when you create that content? Of course. And when you’re done, will you have enough fuel left over for a collection of short stories set in the same world? Ohhhh, you betcha. Try it out is all I’m saying. I haven’t gotten anything published yet so I’m no guru and there’s a great chance this approach is just a crazy, Louis thing, but if you’re struggling, I hope this helps.

At any rate, I’m going to keep working it. Right now, I’m almost on chapter three. It is, in fact, taking forever. But really, all I ever have to do is compare the old draft to what I already have now and the time and effort are immediately so, so worth it.

Sigh

After chatting with friends I decided to take down the Character Art page. I’ll have it back up when my book is actually out, but for now it’s just me getting ahead of myself. Also, I’d rather have fully colored pieces on show, and not sketches. The Ink Abstracts will remain up and I will post more of those and some of my photography, but I’ll save characters for when everyone will have a book to identify them with.

I was going to write a far, far longer post about all of this, but the internet was out for two days in my building because of the snow storm here in New York.

The good thing about the storm: there’s a car parked on my sidewalk. Well, “parked” is a generous way to put it; it’s on my sidewalk. From the looks of it, someone was trying to turn at my corner but failed and nearly drove straight into my building. And–of course–I’m really glad they didn’t crash, but leaving my place earlier at 4:30 AM and finding a car on my corner, mere feet from the edge of my building, was pretty interesting. A better way to wake up than coffee, I think.

2nd Draft Prologue Down

Today I cleaned up a few more things on the website. Primarily, I added links at the bottom of the page. Aside from that, I took back the War of Exiles Prologue I’d been so proud to show off a few months ago. I know–no backsies–but I had to; the new draft is so different in tone that leaving the old intro there felt like me posting my high school yearbook photo for everyone to see. And no, I’m not that brave.

At any rate, I’ll make up for the pull with a bunch more posts on the Photography, Inkwork, and Character Art pages. Stay tuned.

“Hey! Look at you!”

Finally a new look for the site and a few pieces up for your viewing pleasure. Nothing too major–mostly old, old inkwork. But there are two character sketches up as well–one of mine and one by Peter John. Check them out and expect more soon.

Also coming up in the near future–a look at my new writing methodology–lovingly called THE OUTLINE: for friends and family, a solid excuse for why the new draft is taking so, so long.

A Split in the Road

I remember finishing the second draft of my book. I made the last corrections and was content. My friends and I had a barbeque over it and I was pretty certain I was about to achieve total victory; there was just one edit left–the one where I would spruce up all of the writing and tie up any holes.

Only, the agent I had an eye on wanted books that were about one hundred pages shorter than mine, so major cuts had to happen. But facing that challenge, I didn’t shrink away; I knew immediately what would go. At the time, it just felt like I was being prudent. I looked at parts I’d earmarked for deletion and thought, “These chapters aren’t really important to the story.” “This scene kind of annoyed me.” “I didn’t really think this should have happened anyway.”

And then a friend linked me to a post on Patrick Rothfuss’ blog where he explained his editing process. And from there, things kind of snowballed. I found myself wondering why I was ready to send out something that had multiple nonessential chapters. I realized, really, that a few parts of my own book made me cringe because they were so campy. Most important though, I realized why these things happened: I started writing the book in 2005. Such a long, long time ago. I was 22, I was conceited, and I was a completely different writer with a whole different set of priorities. I remembered wanting things to look good and be fun, never giving enough thought to how original and different everything was. I had the ground work set for something interesting, but then dropped in old cliches because I didn’t know better back then. The result was something I enjoyed, sure-probably something that a lot of people would enjoy-but not something I wanted to submit.

So I told a coworker of mine one morning that I’d completely rewrite War of Exiles only if I could imagine a better, more original version of it’s prologue. I began plotting it out at 6:30 AM. By about 7:20, I knew there was nothing to be done. It was too much better. And there were too many other possibilities-chances to make changes that were too complicated for simple edits.

So, here I am-back to square one. My goal: to finish my “first draft” before 2012.

Lizardmen: They’re Out There, Losing, Right Now

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re experiencing slight delays because a Lizardman is on the tracks directly in front of us. The MTA would like to apologize for the delay. As soon as the Lizardman is shooed along, we will proceed.”

“Will the owner of the red Volvo please report to Lot A; a Lizardman appears to be sleeping on your vehicle. Again, will the owner of the red Volvo please report to Lot A? Thank you.”

“Sir, we’re sorry to inform you that your parcel was lost. It appears it was handled at one point by a Lizardman who failed to deliver the package to the processing center.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to talk to you about Lizardmen.

Let’s begin with a story.

A friend of a friend once started a D&D campaign. The setting was a city in famine. Very dog-eat-dog or cat-eat… Well, you’ll see.

One of the players decided he’d play a lizardman. When he entered the city, he saw a cat in an alley. Roleplaying the stupid lizardman, and perhaps drunk on his ability to eat furry things like cats, the player decided to chase the cat. In the alley a battle was initiated, which, in D&D, breaks time into 6 second intervals where you act based on chance (embodied by dice rolls for different actions). The lizardman rolled for initiative, but the cat won because it was small and quick. So it struck first, and because it had a large target and it was tiny, it easily succeeded in scratching the lizardman for a laughable 1 HP (Health Point). But no sweat off the lizardman’s back; he only needed to hit the cat once to take all its HP. Only, it was tiny. And fast. And, as a lizardman, he’d forgotten his one fundamental weakness–that he was a lizardman. He attempted an attack but missed. And then, more likely than not, he failed the dice roll that would’ve allowed him to see the group of 20 cats that came out of the rubbish piles around him. 20 feral, hungry cats.

A starting character in D&D has a max HP of 12 at best, with no exception for lizardmen that I remember. So do the math. On the second turn, 20 tiny, fast cats all get an opportunity to hit the lizardman, and all of them will definitely hit. All for a laughable 1 HP each.

The 6 seconds weren’t even up when the Lizardman died.

Ladies and gentlemen…

T H E  L I Z A R D M A N

Since time immemorial, Lizardmen have been the failures of the fantasy genre. Servants, useless foot soldiers, cannon fodder. I’m aware there may be a place where Lizardmen are winning, but that place is not here, nor is it anywhere that I’ve seen.

But They Look Cool

Yeah, I’ll give you that. If there’s one thing Lizardmen do right, it’s look cool.

But that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? They’re like very shiny used cars; they look like a great idea, but they’ll probably get eaten by cats.

My D&D story aside, I’ve only ever found Lizardmen in the low threat tier of enemies in RPG’s, just above (or sometimes below) those sentient balls of jelly that find their way into EVERY RPG. My brother tells me that the Lizardmen in Demon’s Souls pose a threat, but he hasn’t been playing the game for long at all. And besides, from what I understand, everything is a threat in Demon’s Souls. Especially the jelly.

In visual media, they’ve never faired any better. Just recently I saw an episode of Conan: The Adventurer where the cruel wizard Rathamon killed a Lizardman who was standing next to his throne. Why? Because he was angry. But also, I’m betting because he knew he could. I imagine Rathamon goes through a full bushel of Lizardmen on his bad days.

Otherwise, we have Reptile’s performance in the Mortal Kombat movie, who, aside from being an absolute mess of CGI, completely dropped the ball in his battle with Liu Kang.

Social _________

Outside of appearances as enemies, Lizardmen seem to enjoy the most absent of social classes. For the Final Fantasy series, it began with Tactics Advance for the Nintendo DS, where Lizardfolk (?) found their way into society under the social tag “Bangaa.”

This is a Bangaa.

I believe I’ve said enough about Bangaa.

No. Wait. I should try. They… … they’re stronger than humans. And also, unlike Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, the subsequent Final Fantasy XII did not feature a Bangaa playable character. Oh, and they’re astutely never called “lizardmen”.

You may remember a similar situation in the Elder Scrolls series. If you do, then you already know of “Argonians” and the two things that they add to the Lizardman mythos.

1) Lizardpeople are latently good at hiding. And also, stealing things.

And 2) Lizardpeople don’t always look cool.

“Popular” Lizardmen

But surely, there are Lizardmen out there who do count for… something, right? And the answer is, “Of course… Kinda.” Always only kinda.

Reptile, for example, would totally count if at the height of his popularity he wasn’t just a dude called Reptile who showed his lizard face ONLY when you did one of his fatalities.

Where does that leave us then? By my count, with two. First…

… with Lizard.

A Spider-Man villain who the larger part of society doesn’t know. When scientist Curt Connors tries to grow back his arm with reptile DNA, he transforms himself into the monster known as (sigh) LIZARD!

The funny thing here is Dr. Connors appeared in all three Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies. Why didn’t they ever use him, you ask? They knew better. At his best, Lizard was a throw away villain who’s easily forgotten if not easily beaten.

Aside from him, it’s…

… Lizardman… Damn these names are great.

Riding the tails of Soul Calibur fame is possibly our generation’s most “popular” Lizardperson (?). “Popular” because no one cares about his virtually nonexistent character; in the Soul Calibur series, it is canon that Lizardman is one of a race just like him. The simple implication is this: Lizardman has probably been killed by a character you prefer (any other one, really) and replaced hundreds of times. Combine that with the way he (she/it?) doesn’t speak and this…

… and you’ve get a lame character who’s damn lucky to be in a very popular series.

Poor Bastards

I know. Where does that leave Lizardbeings (whatever)? Are they forever damned to fall to the wooden swords of Level 1 characters and feral cats? Will there ever be a day when a race of awesome Lizardbeings appear in a video game or work of fiction? Will a writer somewhere, someday, deliver them some majesty? I, for one, hope so.

Or… maybe I don’t.

Bannerman’s Castle: History on the Hudson

Whenever I say that I love New York, whenever I tell someone where I’m from, I never think of what I’ve grown up calling “upstate”. To me, the city has always been all there was. It’s not my fault–I grew up in the city; I used to spend my free Wednesdays at the Bronx Zoo, the Saturdays of my summer youth down in the village and drinking at St. Mark’s. Beyond that, I’d say I’ve spent a cumulative 5 days upstate over the course of my entire life, so there’s never been anything endearing for me to remember about it.

That was until I heard about Bannerman’s Island. Allow me to explain with a list:

  • Originally Pollepel Island, it has its own history before it became Bannerman’s Island. Including a legend of the wind goblin that lived on the island and attacked whoever set foot on it. I am not kidding.
  • It was purchased by an arms dealer named Frank Bannerman in 1900. An arms dealer. Allow me to provide another list right here explaining why Frank Bannerman was awesome:

-While he was still in school, he made his own business by collecting scraps from a navy yard and recycling them. And no, we’re not talking college. Or high school. Yeah.

-He designed  all of the residences on his island. Including the castle. Bannerman’s Castle. The one that has cannons and cannonballs sticking out everywhere.

This one.

-He loved castles.

-Also, he was a religious man, so he didn’t drink.

-Oh, and he was considered an American hero by his countrymen.

  • Arms and gunpowder were stored on the island by Frank Bannerman. At least until an accident involving said gunpowder nearly killed his wife with a large piece of storage shed.
  • Also Bannerman’s Castle, the Bannerman’s residence, and the island itself are really pretty:

I was intentionally vague about the island and its history because I wouldn’t tell it half as well as any of the Bannerman Castle Trust tour guides. What I will say however is that last winter, a large part of Bannerman’s Castle collapsed. As sad as it is, there’s a chance this incredible piece of New York history may not see next year. Tours are only running until October, so don’t miss your opportunity to see the Castle before it’s gone, and don’t pass up the chance to learn more about Frank Bannerman himself.

Click here for more information.

Games for Writers: Metal Gear Solid 3 – Snake Eater

For the third entry in the “Games for Writers” series, I thought it would be best to go the same route I went with Metroid Prime; I wanted to show writers a game that did something specific. A game that writers could learn from as much as enjoy. With that in mind, it wasn’t hard to choose…

First Thing’s FirstG4W-MetalGearSolid3-SnakeEater

As far as the Metal Gear Solid series goes, I feel Snake Eater was honestly the best. At least when it came out. Outside of delivering the most exciting sneaking gameplay (what with the loss of an extremely convenient radar), Snake Eater also had very versatile gameplay; you could sneak or run-and-gun, starve your enemies or put them to sleep, even face a boss or take a sniper shot at him after a cut scene and avoid the confrontation altogether.

To boot, Snake Eater had a surprisingly moving story and gripping characters who developed naturally – a feat of which both Sons of Liberty and Guns of the Patriots fell short.

But What Makes It a Game for Writers?

It’s simple; I can sum it up in two words: Time Paradox.

Part of the reason why the gameplay is so awesome is you don’t have the advanced tech from previous installments. That’s because Snake Eater is a prequel that takes place in the 60’s; you play the villian of the first two games, Big Boss, back when he was Jack. And that’s the point really; I knew that Jack had to survive because he had to be in Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2. Regardless of knowing that though, I was still not only engaged by the plot, but genuinely worried for Jack’s safety.

This isn’t a small achievement for writers. George Lucas did an awesome job of making sure we couldn’t possibly care less about Darth Vader’s life before he became Darth Vader (in actuality, he made most of us start pretending Vader was just born with that suit on). Snake Eater never disappoints in this respect though and manages to never, ever drop the tension. Even when Jack is put in complete jeopardy, you don’t just shrug – you wind up being worried that he’s going to die. And perhaps even more of a success, you remain engaged in Jack’s struggles with other characters even when you know they won’t die either.

How’s It Done and What’s to Learn?

The key here is also simple: good writing. A staple of any good story is the author’s ability to put his characters into believable jeopardy. Honestly, unless a story is aiming to be different, there’s just about a 100% chance a protagonist is going to survive whatever is thrown at him or her. Trying to write around extremely solid (heh… sorry) evidence that your protagonist’s going to be fine can be even tougher.

So pick up a copy of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and see how it’s done. Learn just how far character interactions, depth, and diversity of plot can go to intrigue an audience and keep them guessing no matter how certain they are that everything’s going to be just fine.

Louis Santiago @ RAA

My mother said, “Look at that lamppost! I gotta get a picture!”

I thought it was adorable because my mother is probably the most adorable person in the world. But also because I’d thought the same thing the last time I’d taken that bike path to Fort Tilden from Riis Park.

I stopped thinking it was adorable when she said, “Okay! Now you get in there!” I think I just managed not to sigh.

I juuuust managed.

I felt like a kid again, told something like “Just lean on the lamppost!” largely because that’s exactly what she told me to do.

But I’m sure you may think this picture is cute or funny and I don’t blame you; that would be because you’re seeing my mother in it and you’re seeing a bit of our dynamic.

At the reception to the A Salute to Rockaway show, I thought that ability to put a viewer into a photographer’s shoes made me stand out. Not because I had the most amazing shots ever of all time, but because no one else there had shots of the ruins of Fort Tilden; I was the only one who placed a viewer somewhere that wasn’t sand, sky, water, and beauty. Or public. Sure, I had a majestic shot of Rockaway Beach, but it was juxtaposed by a similar shot with a rusted pole sticking out of the sand and crossing half the picture. The dunes shown in one piece were beside another showing a rusted gate, shot from the inside of a disused Army bunker. It was something to be proud of.

That and the Power Cosmic, my delicious mixture of chicken and black beans (and a secret ingredient), that barely any of the attendees touched (their loss – more Power Cosmic for me).

Well… that and just having some of my photos on exhibit; I can’t miss being proud of that. When an attendee complimented Far Shore, it was incredibly easy to chat with her about it and explain how I got it, what I was doing in Rockaway that day, and eventually, when my cover was blown, that no, I lived in the Bronx and had no idea what was near the pole in Lagan. And it was incredibly easy to smile the entire time.

A Salute to Rockaway will be up until August 1st. Drop in on the weekend and have a look (click here for more info). And don’t worry–even if you do miss the exhibit, there’s a chance there will still be enough leftover Power Cosmic for everybody!

A Salute to Rockaway

Hey, everyone. By way of a quick update, I’ve been busy hauling artwork to Far Rockaway for the Rockaway Artists Alliance’s A Salute to Rockaway exhibit. I’ve submitted six photos I was pretty proud of from my trips to Rockaway Beach and Fort Tilden. Pieces like Far Shore, Lagan, and POOPDICK. Again, that’s POOPDICK.

The reception will be on the 18th, from 12PM – 4PM. For anyone who would like to attend, here’s more information.

For anyone who would like to drop in for a more casual time while I’m there, I’ll be gallery sitting on the 25th from 2PM – 4PM.

Click here for directions, but keep the following details in mind if you’re using public transportation:

  • The Q35 doesn’t stop at Fort Tilden until it goes back to Brooklyn College / Flatbush Ave. So you’ll either have to take the Rockaway Park bound Q35, get out at the second stop after riding over the Gil Hodges Bridge, and walk West through Riis Park until you find the group of fenced in houses and fields that is Fort Tilden, or ride the 35 until the end of the line, wait for a 35 going back to Brooklyn College, and get off when it stops at Fort Tilden.
  • The last stop on the westbound Q22 is Fort Tilden. You can connect pretty easily to the Q22 from the Shuttle at Broad Channel (via the A train).
  • If you have no idea what I’m talking about, check out the MTA’s Queens Bus Map.
  • Once in Fort Tilden, there will be a directory pointing to “RAA Galleries” or something similar enough.
The Rockaway Artists Alliance (RAA) is a non-profit arts organization "comprised of individuals who view the arts as vital to the health of our community."