Tag Archives: mind games

When is a sequel not a sequel?

"What's next" scrawled on a blackboard with white chalk

After people finish reading If Souls Can Sleep, they often wonder, “What happens next?”

While Book One of The Soul Sleep Cycle provides enough resolution to stand on its own, readers already know a second book in the series is forthcoming. There is plenty of dreamscape real estate left to explore, but where might the story go?

The good news is Book Two is scheduled for release this fall.

The bad news is readers will have to wait a little longer to find out what happens “next.”

Solving the riddle

If Sin Dwells Deep is technically a sequel to If Souls Can Sleep, since it was written—and will be published—after Book One. However, the events of ISDD do not follow those of ISCS chronologically.

The two novels span roughly the same timeframe: Book Two starts a couple of months before Book One and concludes a few days before the epilogue of ISCS, though that doesn’t make it a prequel.

If Sin Dwells Deep can best be described as a parallel novel.

Bisecting a book

I’m not sure how other parallel novels are born, but for me it happened by accident. You see, I didn’t realize I was composing a series when I started writing If Souls Can Sleep. I had many ideas and thought (naïvely) that I could fit them all in a single book.

Before long, however, I saw the error of my overambitious ways. Juggling so many focal characters and intertwining plots became untenable. Rather than one freakishly large baby, it turned out I had twins.

In the end, I decided If Souls Can Sleep would be Vincent’s story, with Milton’s storyline supplementing the main narrative.

And the ideas that didn’t make it in? Well, they were prime material for Book Two. In fact, Chapter 6 of an early draft of If Souls Can Sleep—a scene that introduced Project Valhalla dream drifter Allison Greene—became Chapter 1 of If Sin Dwells Deep.

Exploring new territory

Whereas Book One introduced the idea of dream drifting, Book Two reveals many more details about Project Valhalla’s mission and the men and women involved in that top-secret operation. The reader will also learn more about “the enemy”—those responsible for ambushing Milton prior to the start of the series—as well as a terrifying new villain.

A handful of scenes from Book One are shown from a different point of view in Book Two. But Book Two is more than just Vincent’s story told from another perspective. If Sin Dwells Deep focuses on Allison, aka Syn, and even though dream drifting is a big part of her life, she has her own personal demons to confront.

In short, the two stories are interconnected yet independent.

Creeping toward a conclusion

Although If Sin Dwells Deep won’t answer the question “What happens next?” the next novel will answer a more pertinent question: “What is the true threat to the dreamscape?”

By the time Book Three hits shelves in spring 2019, readers will have a clearer view of the big picture, setting up a confrontation that has been building for years. Not only will If Dreams Can Die answer “What happens next?” it will provide a satisfying conclusion for the series.

As for what happens after that, I always hold onto a few ideas just in case…

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing

How about a little nonfiction?

On the heels of publishing my new novel, If Souls Can Sleep, I penned a couple of guest posts for blogs devoted to the readers and writers of speculative fiction.

The first article describes in painful detail how unwary readers can be bitten by the writer’s bug. It published on Jan. 29 in Rising Shadow. The second guest post focuses on the dangers of genre fiction. That one published on Feb. 4 in Sci-Fi and Scary.

Here’s a peek at both of them:

Dragon logo of Rising Shadow

The best books make readers want to become writers

We all begin as oblivious victims.

Maybe it happened when you were a child, cracking open the cover of a surreal Seussian story. Or maybe the transformation transpired during adolescence when you first confronted the consciousness-expanding, mind-bending narratives of that pantheon of authors who enthrall the human psyche with the outlandish and otherworldly.

Whatever the circumstances, the books you’ve explored have changed you. You are a reader. Moreover, you are a reader of fantasy and science fiction.

Oh, the words on the page seem innocuous enough. It’s just fiction, after all. But make no mistake: you’ve been infected by imagination.

And I’m sorry to report that sometimes creativity is contagious.

Read on!


Tentacle-centric masthead of Sci-Fi & Scary

Why genres must die

Imagine coming face to face with chaos incarnate.

Maybe it’s an ancient abomination awakened by a sorcerer’s incantation. Or a rogue AI, unburdened by conscience, bent on overwriting our reality. Or perhaps you’re confronting some failed science experiment, a monstrosity fixated on destroying the very order upon which our civilization thrives.

Now, whichever form you wish to give this anarchic force, imagine it has done the unthinkable by destroying all notions of genre.

That’s right. The man-made system for distinguishing offshoots of speculative fiction from one another as well as Westerns, romance and even more remote boughs of the fictional family tree has been uprooted. You’ve been cast into an overgrown wilderness where fiction is just fiction.

Your skin prickles as you consider the implications. Pushing back panic, you type the URL to your preferred bookstore. But you’re too late. The functionality to filter by category is gone; the shortcut to your favorite stories, snuffed out.

How will you ever sort through the thousands—no, millions—of books that have been published to find the science fiction, horror, and dark fantasy books you cherish?

Read on!


If Souls Can Sleep

I contributed the above articles to gain some exposure for Book One of The Soul Sleep Cycle, which is now available in paperback and for Kindle.

Order it here!

4 Comments

Filed under Writing

Dissecting the difficulties of writing a sequel

Writers tend to be their own worst enemies.

Sure, some amateurs might cast aspersions at agents and publishers who reject their works.  And maybe published authors occasionally gripe about critics and other ungrateful readers who fail to find the genius in their words.  Some scribes might even eye a fellow writer with envy, casting a commercially successful contemporary in the role of rival.

But at the end of the day, a writer is solely responsible for the success of a story.  Notice I didn’t write “the sale of a story” or “positive reaction to a story.”  I happen to believe that a story can be perfectly wonderful without having earned a single cent—or even a second pair of eyes.

1024px-Dissection_tools

What’s inside a successful, satisfying sequel? | Image by Retama, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether a bestselling novelist or an introverted dabbler, each writer decides which tales get told and which don’t, whether a concept is worthy of composition or destined to be forgotten.  The writer hones her craft, or she doesn’t.  He perseveres or surrenders.

Don’t get me wrong.  Obstacles abound, and the outside world conspires.  For instance, I can’t think of a single writer who doesn’t wish he had more time to devote to writing.  However, external forces can be overcome—or at least mitigated—if the will is strong enough.

But a writer’s mind can be a dangerous thing.

Perhaps the most notorious form of self-sabotage is writer’s block.  A related syndrome—which can traipse hand-in-hand with writer’s block—is a phenomenon that transcends writing (and the arts as a whole) to plague anyone who has tasted some measure of recognition in her field: the sophomore slump.

Or, in this case, the mind games that a writer’s brain engages in when he worries that what he produces next will pale in comparison to the premier effort.

A few years ago, I read a book by a first-time author and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it—not because he was newly published, but because I was burned out on the sword-and-sorcery fantasy genre and was pleased to find a tale that made it feel fresh again.  I eagerly awaited the sequel I knew was coming.

And waited.  And waited.  And…

I can’t, with all certainty, ascribe the tardiness of the sequel to a sophomore slump (though I’m withholding the author’s name and book’s title just in case!), I’ve heard enough stories of writers who miss deadlines on subsequent assignments to suspect that many writers do, in fact, psyche themselves out when it comes to book number two, regardless of whether it is a direct sequel or not.

Perhaps it’s inevitable.  Before a writer has a contract for a book, she operates on her own timeline.  She can take as much time as she can to prepare her first novel, moving words around on the page for months before she decides it’s ready to send to an agent or editor.  She can take a decade or more to make his first book as perfect as possible.  But a publishing house won’t wait that long for the next offering.

I’ve been thinking about sequels a lot lately.  Even as my diligent agent continues to shop around If Souls Can Sleep, the first book in my Soul Sleep Cycle, I’m rethinking and reworking Book 2 (tentatively titled Almost a Fantasy).  During a recent conversation with my agent, he mentioned that because the events in If Souls Can Sleep and Almost a Fantasy take place concurrently, I should consider the possibility that Book 2 could be a better entry point into the series—that Book 2 might make a more suitable Book 1 (and vice versa).

Granted, this is a somewhat unique situation.  Most series move forward in a linear and chronological manner.  The plot of Book 1 precedes Book 2, which precedes Book 3, and so forth.  However, in the case of the Soul Sleep Cycle, I envision the possibility that some events in Book 3 could even take place prior to those in Book 1 before eventually catching up—and passing—the timelines in Books 1 and 2.

I suppose “straightforward” just isn’t my style.

So I now find myself dealing with some of the inherent challenges of writing a sequel, only they are exacerbated by the fact that the sequel could be the prequel, so to speak.  One of the biggest questions that needs to be asked of any sequel is how much of the first book’s plot needs to be filtered into the pages of its successor.

Readers need reminders, but a writer can’t spend too much time rehashing what came before.  Prologues and introductions can help set the scene for readers who are new to the series as well as readers who didn’t immediately pick up Book 2 after closing the cover of Book 1, but such devices can do only so much.

It takes a deft hand to weave relevant details into the narrative at the right time, to provide readers with helpful sips of backstory rather than drowning them in oceans of exposition.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if there is to be a sequel to the sequel—that is, a Book 3—one must decide where to end Book 2.  How much should a writer save for the third entry of a series?  And how much should she know about what is to come in Book 3 so that she doesn’t paint herself into a corner, as it were?

When it comes to trilogies, whether books or films, the second installment tends to be the weakest.  (Yes, there are exceptions, you rabid Empire Strikes Back fans!)  Generally speaking, the first episode of an epic franchise is the strongest.  It’s the audience’s first thrilling glimpse at a new world and new characters.  The best first books do the same thing: leave the reader wanting more.

Book 2, on the other hand, can’t provide that magical first kiss of Book 1; neither can supply it the climax everyone expects at the end of Book 3.  So what do writers do with Book 2?  Build upon the problems of Book 1, set up the dominos for Book 3, maybe toss in a new character or two.  Those aren’t the only options, of course, but all too often the second installment serves as the less exciting but certainly necessary scenes sandwiched between the engaging beginning and the awesome ending.

If a series, such as the Soul Sleep Cycle, ends up being four or more books, the challenge to sustain a high level of interest only grows from novel to novel.  Every book must have its own story arc—a worthwhile and autonomous beginning, middle, and an end.  That is to say, even the middle of a bigger story needs its own satisfying ending.  (Yes, you can leave some plot points hanging to entice the reader to return, but sheer cliffhangers are cop-outs.)

One would think that building upon an existing work would be easier, but I contend that writing sequels becomes an increasingly complex process.  Maybe over a long enough timelines, the pros and cons of developing sequels vs. starting from scratch for each standalone even out.  Meanwhile, I’ll eagerly dig into the conundrums of rewriting a novel that could end being Book 1 or Book 2.

If nothing else, it will force me to make sure both books can stand firmly on their own.

As for why fantasy and science fiction stories so often become series—from the ubiquitous trilogy to those best-selling, never-ending saga—is a topic for another day.

Perhaps a sequel to this article about sequels…

What do you like to see in a sequel (as a reader or a writer)?

10 Comments

Filed under Writing

What else a writer needs to succeed (Part 3)

Painting of Saint Monica

While there isn’t a true patron saint of patience, St. Monica’s name gets bandied about. | Benozzo Gozzoli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Patience isn’t just a virtue; it’s vital.

In this third installment of a series exploring the anatomy of a well-adjusted writer, the focus falls on another overlooked—and arguably undervalued—trait: Along with thick skin and a strong spine, a writer needs the serenity of a saint.We live in a do-whatever-it-takes, fight-for-your-dream, grab-life-by-the-jugular kind of world.  Any writer who wants to achieve even a modicum of success has to work hard.  The obstacles are plentiful, but many of them can be overcome by a combination of creativity, intelligence and diligence.  When faced with adversity, the determined writer simply fights harder.

And that usually works.

Usually.

Here’s a tough lesson for those who have devoted countless hours and made sacrifices for their passion: Sometimes there’s nothing to do but wait.

While a writer can set her own pace when it comes to the craft of writing—from outlining and typing the first draft to editing and soliciting—a manuscript eventually must go out into the world.  When that happens, all illusion of control soars out the window.

News flash: The publishing industry is slow.

Whether you’re waiting to hear from a prospective agent or an editor (or, more likely, the assistant to the assistant to the editor whose charged with shoveling through the slush pile), you’re going to have some time on your hands.

Find your happy place.  Get all Zen.  Give yourself a break.

Or don’t.

I suspect the majority of us writers juggle multiple projects.  If there isn’t something waiting on the back burner, you could always start tinkering with a new story.  Write something fun, crazy, outside of your comfort zone, or just plain bad.  Cleanse your palate.

Whatever you do, keep occupied…because a watched plot never boils.

Lest you accuse me of singling out traditional publishing, I found plenty of opportunities to indulge in impatience throughout the self-publishing process.  Those proof copies of The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers couldn’t come fast enough, and the day we gave CreateSpace the thumbs up to sell our book on Amazon.com, I must have refreshed my search page a hundred times waiting for it to appear.

And now that it’s there, I can list off a dozen follow-up tasks I want to tackle.  (It’s realistic to create and implement a marketing plan in twenty-four hours, right?)

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit I have a history of allowing forward momentum to sometimes steamroll common sense.  Take this impossibly aggressive writing schedule, for instance.  I suppose we writers have to cut ourselves some slack too.

Perhaps a measure of impatience is inevitable.  Real life can get in the way.  At the end of the day, no one cares about your book as much as you do.  If you don’t serve as champion of your story, who will?

So, yes, fight for your dream when it’s appropriate.  But when it’s not, take a deep breath (or two), fold your hands, and demonstrate faith in your work through patience.

6 Comments

Filed under Writing

What else a writer needs to succeed (Part 1)

Let’s forget about the craft of writing for a moment.

It should go without saying that a serious writer must have some measure of creativity and a solid grasp of language to avoid the proverbial pitfalls of syntax and semantics (such as these).

Anyway, there are countless resources dedicated to helping dabblers step up their game and plenty of places where professional writers can learn to improve in such areas as concept development, composition, publishing, and so forth.

Elephants have thick skins. Writers should too. | Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikimedia Commons

Elephants have thick skin. Writers should too. | Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikimedia Commons

We live in a DIY era, where a million (or more) websites will happily walk you down the path of getting an idea out of your head, into a computer, and, ultimately, in front of the eyes of other people.  And while I know I’m not the first to tackle this topic, there seems to be a dearth of articles pertaining to some of the more intangible qualities that, in my experience, benefit someone who wants to succeed—or simply survive—the sometimes schizophrenic lifestyle of an artist.

So without further ado, here is the first character trait of a well-adjusted writer:

Thick skin

Blame it on the prevailing mentality that we are all beautiful and unique snowflakes worthy our own reality TV series.  Social media gives us the ability to broadcast every inane detail of our lives.  We must be important, right?  I mean, these days even the losing team gets trophies just for trying.

Our collective self-worth has never been higher.  Or more precarious.

I suspect writers have always carried a certain measure of sensitivity when it comes to their work.  While we often hear the analogy of a book being an author’s “baby,” the relationship between the creator and the created becomes even more intimate than that when we see our work not as an extension of ourselves, but as the prevailing piece of our identity.

Not good.

I can’t help but marvel when I hear writers whine about negative reviews or, worse, when they go on the warpath to defend their precious child/ego.  Oh, I’m not immune to the impulse.  But having weathered college workshops populated by (fellow) know-it-alls, attended countless critique sessions with the brilliant Allied Authors of Wisconsin, and dissected many a manuscript alongside my biggest fan and harshest critic (my wife), I’ve learned how to keep my mouth shut—and my ears open.

Let’s get one thing straight: The reader owes you nothing beyond the price of your book—not their time and certainly not a positive review on Goodreads.  Your ideas and delivery thereof might earn you those things, but they are not to be taken for granted.  It’s a huge mistake to assume that the reader will share your emotional bond with a story, especially before they even crack the cover.

No, it’s your job to make them feel a fraction of what you feel about your characters, setting, and plot.  If they stop reading after a page or even the first paragraph, it could be for a variety of reasons, but it all boils down to a lack of connection between story and reader.  Hence, your book is always partially to blame.

Let’s get another thing straight: Even if your novel is better than anything written by Shakespeare or Suzanne Collins, you won’t please everyone.  The playwright has never been universally adored, and despite record-breaking sales, some folks simply can’t stomach The Hunger Games.

If you can’t please everyone, the logical conclusion is that some people will have some not-so-nice things to say about your work.

That’s OK.

Even if you end up writing something terrible, that doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person.  It might mean you need more practice with the nuts and bolts of the craft.  Or it could be you didn’t do a very good job translating what’s in your head to the page.  Or maybe you just haven’t reached the right audience.

Every writer needs an audience.  And because technology is a two-edged sword—giving a writer not only multiple channels through which to distribute his or her work, but also instant access to readers’ reactions—we writers have to get better at separating ourselves from our work and letting the story speak for itself.

How writers engage their readers is a topic (or an entire series) for another day.  Meanwhile, here is my recommendation for contending with criticism:

  • Step 1 — Solicit feedback from those whose opinions you trust, particularly those who are well-read in your genre.  Wherever the criticism comes from, keep it in context.  It’s just one opinion among billions.
  • Step 2 — Tell yourself, “Even if they don’t like the story, it doesn’t mean they don’t like me.”  (And if necessary, add, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”)
  • Step 3 — Listen carefully and take notes.
  • Step 4 — Defy the urge to defend.
  • Step 5 — Seriously, keep your mouth shut!
  • Step 6 — Once the critique is over, you can speak, but only to seek clarification.
  • Step 7 — Show appreciation for the feedback, even if your ego has withered to the size of a prune.
  • Step 8 — Give yourself the distance of a day or two, and then go back to your notes and decide which points have merit.
  • Step 9 — Edit the manuscript, keeping what works and fixing what doesn’t.
  • Step 10 — When your baby goes out into the world, wish it well and resist the urge to hover and embarrass it by coming to its defense every time someone says something unkind.

Bottom line: Constructive criticism is a gift, not a curse.  But before a writer can benefit from it, he or she might need to grow a few more layers of skin.

10 Comments

Filed under Writing

What’s in a (brand) name?

When one first decides to become a novelist, many important questions come to mind:

Even though the first question is the only example that impacts the act of writing, all three are related.  However, I suspect most writers don’t spend too much time pondering genre.  One typically decides to be a writer after coming up with an idea (or twelve).  Choosing a genre to write tends to follow the same thought process as choosing which genre to read.

Cover of Stephen King's "Under the Dome"

Note the size and placement of the author’s name.  Would I have purchased this book if Stephen King’s name weren’t on it?

A lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy, I always saw myself as a conjurer of tales that contain magic, mad science and/or other manipulations of the laws of reality.  I didn’t overthink it.

And while I did grow a full beard and pretentiously smoke a tobacco pipe for a few months in college, I’ve dedicated more time to addressing the second question above: real name or pen name?

In my early days of being a writer—when I spent nearly as much time fantasizing about how wonderful being an author would be as I did writing actual fantasy—I came across the same bit of advice for up-and-comers time and time again: Start with a pen name.  That way, if at first you flop, you can always try, try again without carrying any baggage with you.

When at last you’ve taken the publishing industry by storm and the masses finally appreciate your literary, then you can start slapping your real name on the cover.  (You can also let your new readers know about the various non de plumes you collected over the years to boost sales of those older books.)

Call it confidence or just plain cockiness, but I quickly decided such pessimism wasn’t for me.  Why bravely venture down the road of achieving my dreams while preparing for—no, planning for—the possibility of failure?

So then the big question became how to write my real name.

David Williams?  Far too common.

David M. Williams?  Better, though not by much.

D. Michael Williams?  Hmm…

D.M. Williams?  We fantasy writers do seem to like initials…

But in the end, I settled on spelling it all out.  And while future journalistic and PR writing would bear a byline of first and last name only (mostly because throwing in a middle name just seemed pretentious in those situations), I vowed all fiction would unabashedly boast my full name.  No guts, no glory, right?

Having made that important decision, I was able to move onto arguably more important endeavors, such as writing novels, editing novels, finding an agent, creating this website, etc.

So imagine my surprise when the big question recently made a reprise.

Oh, David Michael Williams will be the name that appears on the proverbial spine of my speculative fiction—from sword-and-sorcery short stories to sci-fi series.  But what about other types of fiction?

No, I’m not talking about erotica or the steamier subgenres of romance.  Or gruesome horror thrillers whose macabre details might inspire my neighbors to install extra security.  Or even essays that take a politically controversial stance.

I’m talking about a chapter book for children.

Here’s the thing: An author’s name is more than a mere label.  It’s his or her brand.  And if you don’t think brands are important, take a look at the covers of books penned by New York Times bestsellers.  While a newbie’s name likely will be printed at a much smaller size than the title of a book, a name like Dan Brown or David Baldacci takes up more space than the title.

Nora Roberts could slap her name in big letters on a half-finished crossword puzzle, and people would buy it.

If you need further evidence that brand names do matter, consider this: When Stephen King wrote the book Thinner under the pen name Richard Bachman, he sold 28,000 copies during the first run.  But after the public learned Bachman was really King, ten times as many copies sold.  Same product, different results…simply because of the brand.

Now if any of these heavy hitters decided to genre jump (and if the experts are to be believed), he or she should create a pen name so as not to confuse fans.  After all, if Dan Brown put out a collection of poetry, readers expecting another Robert Langdon adventure would be more than a little disappointed after the first stanza or so.

Even writers who aren’t household names are advised to adopt aliases when dabbling in multiple genres.  Because writers aren’t just people who write anymore.  We’re also supposed to be business experts in our own right; masters of our one, chosen genre; and personas with an online presence in order to engage prospective customers.  Therefore, each specific audience requires a separate identity.

I’m told that in order to be successful, writers must also be marketers, self-promoters, and subtle salesmen who don’t wait for their target audience to find them, but rather relentlessly seek them out.  Just about every how-to article on the internet instructs authors to develop websites, engage in social media, and build their brand online and offline.

That’s a lot of work for one person (especially when that person already has a full-time job, wants to spend time with his family, and, oh yeah, actually write new stuff now and then).  Juggling multiple brand names means either investing more resources into self-promotion/marketing or splitting up what time has already been allocated for such things among the various personas.

Today I’m David Michael Williams and tomorrow…someone else?

Once again, I find myself tempted to flout conventional wisdom and do it my own way.  If I’ve learned anything on this long and winding road toward publication, it’s that the entire process—from conception to sale—is as much art as science…with a little of the arcane tossed in for good measure.

And while I understand the danger of confusing and perhaps disappointing readers, I’m pretty sure most folks are smart enough to realize that If Souls Can Sleep and The Pajamazon vs. The Goofers Twofers are intended for two distinct audiences, even without seeing their covers.  Besides, most stores are pretty good about clarifying categories.

Sometimes I fear the business side of books distracts writers from our chief concern: the craft of writing.  We spend a lot of time these days plotting how to get more manuscripts into readers’ hands, and maybe that’s unavoidable.  But I, for one, am ready for another reprieve from thinking about my own appellation and, instead, selecting the perfect name for my next villain.

At the end of the day, I’m an ordinary guy with a very common name who likes to write books for various age groups.  I’m happy to share my thoughts on different aspects of the craft, but I can’t claim to be an expert.  I’ve put away my pipe and shaved off (most of) my beard because I’m not a celebrity and don’t care to be one.

Granted, that’s not a very compelling brand, but I’m just naïve enough to believe that the words in my novels should matter more than those on the About the Author page.

What is your thought on pen names and managing multiple author names?  Comment below and/or weigh in at Writers Poll: real name vs. pen name

5 Comments

Filed under Writing

Writing presents an endless series of gambles

Brace yourself because I’m about to lay a brilliant analogy on you.

(Or am I?)

I’m not a master poker player by any means, but while reading through the first draft of my latest novel, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Friday night card games from my high school days.  Let me explain.

When a writer first tries his hand at fiction, he’s like the eager newcomer to the poker table.  He has his pile of chips, a dopey smile, and the unwavering belief that he is going to score big time.  He’s playing mostly for fun, but he knows the rules (or, at least, the basics) and thinks that given enough time, he’ll become the master of the table, impressing his opponents and the audience as well.  (Did I mention this was the World Series of Poker?)

But, really, he is quite clueless.  Just like a dabbler in the literary arts.  When a beginner writer takes his first stab at setting a scene, developing characters, or composing convincing dialogue, he has that same misplaced self-confidence that every sentence is the equivalent to a full house; every paragraph, a royal flush.

However, the amateur author has no finesse.  He has—or believes he has—a winning hand, and oh, he wants to flaunt it.  He doesn’t hold anything back.  Everyone knows what’s in his hand, not only because of body language, but because he’s so darn eager to show off those pocket aces.

There’s a reason why beginners are repeatedly told to show, not tell.

Over time, a writer learns a some lessons, usually the hard way.  Exposition has its place, but many details can be conveyed through characterization, conversation and choice verbs.  Subtlety, effective surprises, and deeper strategies become part of the game.

At the end of the day, it comes down to managing the flow of information, manipulating readers into knowing what you want them to know when you want them to think they know they know it.  Poker and writing—the two biggest mind games in town.

But what happens when the easy mark becomes the card sharp?

While reading through my novel, I realize that I’ve become the proverbial poker master.  I keep my cards so close to the vest that nobody knows what I’m gonna lay down next.  I play to win, bluffing when you least expect it and triumphantly revealing the winning hand in the final moments.  No one ever sees it coming.

Which is a problem.

Because unlike poker, writing isn’t about proving yourself superior to everybody else.  Think of it this way: If you played cards with your buddies every week and took the pot every single hand, how long before you wouldn’t be invited back?  The reader wants to be teased, not tricked; astounded, not dumbfounded.

Sadly, I’ve been in this position before.  The first draft of my last novel was something of a train wreck, with too many revelations hoarded for the last chapters.  Rather than be too obvious (or even straightforward) at any point, I err on the side of enigmatic every time.  I suppose that any round of editing requires an honest appraisal of what information belongs where.  For some reason, I insist on making my manuscript challenging for the reader, which in turn makes it very challenging for me to edit.

In poker, there’s generally only one winner.  In fiction, every reader wants to win.  And if the reader appreciates all of the agonizing decisions the writer must make to produce a compelling, suspenseful, and ultimately rewarding piece of fiction, then the writer also wins.

As to whether all the hard work will be worth the effort in the end, well, that’s the greatest gamble of all.

5 Comments

Filed under Writing