Copyright, Ownership, and Heirs

Recently on Facebook, there have been a few threads going around about the current and questionable Buck Rogers legal dispute. Now let me say up front that I’m not really interested in that dispute. I’m not a Buck Rogers fan, and only vaguely remember even the 1980s campy TV show. What I’m going to talk about instead is a comment I saw in one of those threads.

The comment talked about how the individual is against corporations owning I.P. and copyright being extendable near indefinitely, and how things should go quicker into Public Domain to enrich community creativity.

Allow me to start by saying, as someone who makes his living creating I.P., characters, and stories, quite bluntly: blow me.

Yes. I said to blow me.

I create and write full-time. Along the way I’ve had some duds, and I’ve had some I.P. that have taken off within their respective niche circles. Doing this full-time and for over two decades now, I can assure you that it isn’t easy. It’d be much easier, and at some times more lucrative, to take a job greeting people at the local Wal-Mart. So when us writers have something that captures fans and becomes successful enough to pay the bills (if not more), you are damned right that I.P. belongs to us and our descendants. Sonny Bono was one of my favorite people on Earth for what he did for copyright law.

As a writer, a lot of energy, work, and time, not to mention sacrificed time from my kids and family, went into creating that I.P.  Us writers work just as hard in our chosen occupation as you folks running the traditional jobs do. The difference is that we are not guaranteed a paycheck for our work. Many times we’ll make absolutely nothing for all that work. Nothing. Nada. Not one red cent.

And if you self-publish, you can not only not make a penny for all that work, but you can actually be in the financial hole just for the expense of publishing it. Which means we lost money for working.

So why should a successful work go into public domain? It was my sweat. My work. My struggle. Go out and create your own. Otherwise, license my work for your own financial gain.

What? You think creating a commercially viable, never mind successful, I.P. is easy? Just sit down and tap the ol’ keyboard? Okay then, you do it. I’ll wait.

Oh, you didn’t take the time to learn characterization, story formula, story structure? You didn’t spend years and years working and honing your ability to put all the pieces together to make a professional and successful story (read: I.P.)?

Well, those of us who made it (50 Shades of Gray aside) did do that. Over and over again. For years.

So, when I die and leave this great video game of life— no, you can’t have my stuff.

As far as a corporation owning the I.P., tread very carefully on that one before you sound like an idiot. First of all, any writer worth his salt would advise you to eventually incorporate yourself. It provides a legal wall between you and your personal assets, and any Tom or Dick out there that manages to file a successful suit against you over one or more of your works. Even the late, great Roger Zelazny incorporated himself as The Amber Corporation at the height of his career, and he was one of the first writers to give me that business advice.

At which point, the corporation might legally own the I.P.

Now, in the coming years, as my kids get more and more into being legal adults, I have every intent of putting them on the corporation as owners. When I die, that assures that they, my children, control all my I.P. creations, and can (hopefully) benefit from what I left them as their parent.

And why shouldn’t I? Why shouldn’t I leave my I.P., my legacy of work, to my children? Why the hell should I allow it to just drop into public domain? My I.P. is no more a right to you, the strangers out there, than my money would be if I was a Millionaire, once I die.

And if my children decide to do the same for their children (my grandchildren), then so be it. I encourage it. And even give said advice in my Will.

And if you don’t think that’s fair— tough. Life isn’t fair. It’s my work, my sweat, my legacy. And it goes to my kids, who have every right to extend that copyright when the time comes. It doesn’t belong to you, and if I had my way, never would.

As with any writer, my characters and stories are a part of me. A literal, mental and emotional, part of me. They don’t just spring from some “Great Author Well” that we all share.

So to individuals like the one who made that comment on social media, go create your own stuff. Then work your ass off to make it financially viable. Then work your ass off to expand it into a commercial success. Then give it all away in public domain so anyone else can make their money off of it and potentially dilute your income from your hard work.

Me? Sorry, not going to happen. Not now, and not ever. If I wanted to do all the work so someone else (or a group of others) could make money off it, maybe even more money than I made, I’d be working a normal 40-hour a week job to make someone else and their family rich on my hard work. At least then I’d have a guaranteed paycheck for my work effort.

I worked for over twenty years, day in and day out, to hone my skills and get where I am today as a writer. And I’m still working hard to get even better, and be a better writer in years to come. My creations are not public domain. They are my creations, my work, and my legacy and inheritance to my children.

People like that aren’t looking to “enrich community creativity,” they’re looking to be lazy and potentially capitalize off of someone else. Why do I say that? Because anyone can create a retro-feel, man out of time, science fiction story with new characters, situations, themes, and elements. Something inspired by Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and the like. Writers, real writers, do that stuff all the time.

Roger Zelazny did it. Neil Gaiman does it. George R.R. Martin does it. Jonathan Maberry does it. And the list goes on.

But they create, develop, write, and market, something new, inspired by that something (or multiple somethings) that they loved. Which means that Buck Rogers has already enriched community creativity, and public domain is not required.

So, do your own work, and stop complaining because you won’t or can’t. No creator is required to put their stuff in public domain for you.

Rant over. I’m outta here.

Happily Scared

I originally wrote a version of this piece for the Savage Insider eMagazine back in 2011, and it was published in the January 2012 issue. Given some of my upcoming horror fiction in 2017, I thought I would share this article again (with a few update-changes). It discusses why we horror fans like to be scared.

 

My childhood was twisted.

Really, there’s no other way to put it.

I grew-up in a house where horror movies were part of the normal entertainment routine. My parents had a vast collection, and we kids watched it all with them. Movies like Evil Dead, Friday the 13th, The Exorcist, The Manitou, A Nightmare on Elm Street, It’s Alive, Dawn of the Dead, Phantasm, and many others. Not to say that was all they owned, as they were also science fiction and special effects buffs (with my father trained in special effects), but horror films played a huge role.

The fright fest, however, did not end when the credits rolled. Nope, not in my family.

My father loved to scare us kids, and we never knew when it was coming. There was a night when I was about 10 years old or so, and it was time to go to bed. I walked into my room and was about to climb into bed, when suddenly my door slammed and a figure standing behind it yelled: “Booooyyyyyy!” just like the Tall Man.

A few seconds later, there came a resounding CRACK! as my near super-human leap of fear sent me crashing onto the bed, splintering one of the wooden beams in the box-spring mattress.

Looking back, well— at least that little stunt cost the old man money for a new mattress in the end. Served him right.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, however, as the saying goes. When my eldest son was roughly 11 years old, I got him just as good as my father had gotten me.

It was late at night on a weekend, and we had let him and his best friend (who was staying the night) watch The Ring on DVD. One of the special features on the disc is that you could view the video that the characters all saw within the movie, which then started the downward spiral where you’d have a dead girl hunting you down— a dead girl who can step out of the freaking television to get you!

Anyway, we had two separate phone lines in the house at the time. I had an idea. I was about to become my father.

While they were watching the special feature with Anna Lunsford (who was in on it) I feigned going to bed. I went to another floor of the house and picked up the other phone line. Using that star-whatever code you can put in to block the number of the incoming call on the ID, I called the line in the living room. When the machine picked up, mere seconds after they’d finished watching the bonus video, I disguised my voice and told them that they had seven days.

As predicted, they freaked out. By the time the gag was done, they were panicked that she was coming. I got them good, and my son looks back on the event with fond humor (and mild cursing in my direction). As do I with my father.

But why is that? Why is it so many of us flock to horror films? Whether it is the gore of something like Friday the 13th, or the current generation Hostel or Saw franchises— what is it that appeals to us, which drives us to voluntarily go out and get scared?

Keep in mind that I am not a psychologist. My own take on it is colored both by my personal experiences and the writings of professionals in the field. While horror films are not for everyone (my ex-wife will never watch them), for the movie-goer that helps make the things into block-busters, one point is for sure: people like us love to be scared!

The pulse quickens.

The heart rate increases.

The adrenaline pumps.

Humans by their very nature are adrenaline junkies in one form or another. For some, the thrill is in jumping out of airplanes (and hoping the parachute opens–no thank you), or bungee jumping (you can keep that one, too), or car racing, or any of a wide variety of activities. For others, though they might not realize it, it’s horror films. The brain is still unable to actually differentiate between what is on the screen and what is real. Sure, we are telling ourselves it’s just a movie and, consciously and intellectually, we know this as a fact. In the deeper recesses of our brain, it’s a different story. As far as that part of us is concerned, there is absolutely no difference between watching a machete-wielding murderer chase a hapless victim through the woods, and actually being chased by one. So, the brain reacts, and the body reacts. And it’s that accelerated biological function, brought about by a deep and internal sense of danger, that mixes with our conscious mind and brings us the enjoyment of the film.

That’s what the experts claim, anyway. So, I’m going to take a look at it from some personal and family experiences and see if it holds up.

My eldest son and his best friend had recently watched Buried (Ryan Reynolds) on DVD. Both of them are claustrophobic. They watched the film in a darkened, spacious room and knew going into it that not only was it not real, but that it contained one of their favorite actors.

During the film, both of them began to react. Even though they knew the fiction of it, and that Ryan Reynolds would be appearing in the next film on his plate, their heart rates increased, they started sweating at certain points, and their anxiety levels rose. Several times, they had to pause the movie, leave the room, and step outside of the house entirely.

See, if the experts are right, the deeper portions of their brain were unable to tell the difference between Ryan Reynolds being trapped in the coffin/box, and the two of them being trapped themselves. As a result, they reacted to the predicament of the main character on a very personal level. This actually crossed a line between enjoying the sensation of being scared, and not being able to withstand the feeling. Although they finished the film after several breaks, they refused to ever watch it again.

The same is true on a more limited level. Ever watch someone in a horror film get sliced a certain way and cringe, not from the gore that is about to happen, but from the simulated pain you can almost feel?

For me, drowning is a huge thing. I don’t like water coming down over my head and face, and have to be careful in the shower in how I do it. I’ve freaked out at water parks when riding down the tunnels on a round tube, getting spun around or going down backward, and having water poured on me from one of the falls without knowing it was coming. There was a scene in a Saw film where the character’s head was encased in a water-filled glass box. He had to use a pen to give himself a tracheotomy to survive. I had a lot of trouble with that scene, as a part of me felt like it was about to drown. My pulse quickened, my anxiety levels rose.

Looks like the theory holds.

Studies have shown that horror films, by the very attributes mentioned above, can also play a part in the whole dating ritual we all dance through. According to those studies, women find men that can handle a horror film more attractive, while men find women that cringe and jump (the Damsel in Distress syndrome) more attractive. I don’t know how true that particular theory is, so I’ll leave that to you to individually decide. Horror films rarely scare Anna, and I find her attractive just fine.

Horror films are also more popular in the younger audience than the older one, according to studies. The idea behind those studies is the old “Rite of Passage” that humans used to implement in tribal times, although that has pretty much disappeared in modern society. Accordingly, we still have a programmed need to go through the ritual from childhood to adulthood, at least in the male population. While back in other times, such rites typically involved danger, fortitude, and bravery, the study says that in the modern day the horror film has taken that burden.

Young men flock to them to be scared, to go through the emotional responses, and to be able to walk away and brag that they saw horror movie X and weren’t all that frightened. Deep down, experiencing the responses as described earlier takes the place of the time-honored rites, and provides a sense of moving forward overall. The “Rite of Passage” study further claims that as the reason older men don’t view as much horror as they used to because they have moved past that Rite of Passage time in life, and just don’t receive the same satisfaction.

Again, does that theory hold water? I don’t know. I’m 43 years old, though, and while I watch horror movies with Anna, or view them when in need of research or inspiration, I honestly don’t flock to them the way I used to. There are a lot of horror films in the past couple of years I have yet to see.

Stephen King once said that the key to good horror is to take the fears of the present day and exaggerate them. Make the reader/audience feel an increased level of anxiety due to the everyday connection they emotionally and mentally create to the material. He claimed that when preying on present fears, the connection was automatic and beyond the scope of the audience to control.

I’d say that theory holds a degree of truth, even if I went no further than some of the elements King uses in his works of a particular era. But let’s look at some other popular themes and when they popped up in horror in recent decades. Keep in mind, this is going to be a brief look, and I encourage any horror fan out there to take a deeper look on your own, colored by your own perceptions and opinions of the world and horror.

A caution parents have even today on checking their child’s Halloween candy was an even more prominent concern in the 1970s, when cases of people tampering with the candy they were giving out was in the headlines. Halloween took on a new visage— one of fear and predatory practices over the fun of dressing up and getting free sugar. John Carpenter preyed on that extremely well in his film Halloween, which not only contained a scene of a child at the hospital thanks to a razor blade in his candy, but also Michael Myers being the psychotic predator dressed in a mask, mixing in almost flawlessly with the rituals of the night. It hit the viewers on a deeper level, and provided that emotional and mental connection with what was already happening to transform the very nature of the holiday. And it was a commercial success.

In the 1980s, the fear of serial killers was still a very prominent thing, especially with media coverage spilling over from the 1970s. It was the perfect time for not only Thomas Harris to pen both Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, but for Hollywood to begin production on the film version of Silence of the Lambs that would be released in 1991. People flocked to the film, not only for the cast and the superb acting, but also for the fact that it preyed upon very real fears of the times. The person that moved in next door could be a serial killer, and your family the next victim. The person you met at the bar for a night of fun could be your last experience. Silence of the Lambs was another commercial success.

How many films preyed on the fears of a nuclear holocaust in the 1980s?

Look at the Saw films. When stripped down, they show us how much any of us fail to truly live and care about those around us. We encounter people all the time, but how many of us actually see them or care to? How many of us treat others only as background material, walk-on extras in the movie of our lives— there and gone, and discarded for those on the next set piece? When was the last time we stopped to help someone broken down on the side of the highway? How often did we just look, think poor sucker, and press the gas to get to whatever unimportant event we were on our way toward? The last time we heard of someone suffering and gave the mechanical I’m sorry, how many actually meant those words? More than likely, a vast majority felt nothing and simply gave it as an automatic motion, a bit of expected behavior and nothing more.

Sounds cynical concerning my fellow humans, but when you stop to think about it— really turn it over and examine it— it’s truer than we would care to admit.

That is exactly what Jigsaw battles against in the last days of his life, as the cancer eats away at his brain. Those of us that simply go through the motions of being alive, of being human, but take that fantastic gift for granted. If we were to truly and deeply examine ourselves, we’d no doubt find that we are all worthy of being his victims for a variety of reasons. It’s an unpleasant thought, really, to realize that we are no better than the victims in the film that we shake our heads at and tell ourselves they deserve what they are getting from him.

Good horror should make us examine ourselves, whether we realize it or not. It should, not only through all of the factors already mentioned, strip us down and bring us screaming naked before the mirror. It should challenge our preconceived notions of being decent people— remove the masks we’ve come to wear and show us our true visage.

Let’s also take The Mist as an example. In that story, we have a catastrophe beyond our control invade the lives of the main characters. A strange mist rolls into a New England town and brings within it horrors generally unseen— the thing that rips you apart deep within the fog, the tentacle that reaches through the door to drag you to your death, creatures of unknown origin and ability. What’s worse, the story examines the very basic notions of human behavior. Trapped within the supermarket, it takes no time at all for personalities and religious beliefs to clash, causing a localized rift between the survivors that mirrors one of the greater problems we all face. People grow intolerant of each other fairly quickly, and form their own sub-groups to simply escape and survive, rule the masses, or bring into existence some other agenda. Naturally, too, the cause of the entire series of events was the federal government and its desire to harness dangerous technology without the proper wisdom or precautions.

In quick succession, Stephen King hits home on many prevalent fears concerning our government and us. As predicted, we form an immediate connection to it and are drawn in.

The list goes on, and can fill another article entirely. But it does seem to reinforce the notion of preying upon present-day fears increases the connection to horror stories. Something that, according to a host of television specials, articles, and interviews, holds true for the resurgence of the zombie apocalypse genre.

Like the generations that lived under the new fears of atomic and nuclear catastrophes that launched their own brand of horror films and literature, we live under our own fears of both biological weapons and terrorism. The events of September 11, 2001 changed the American psyche on a deep level, as no longer was the enemy— which could remain unseen and mingle with society until the moment came to strike— simply a member of a foreign nation’s culture. They were now the bogeymen living next door, working at local businesses, or whose children attended school with our own. Suddenly, far too many Americans began seeing danger wherever members of a certain nationality existed. They were everywhere and nowhere. Even worse, they could, in many cases, through carefully constructed international networks, access many of the same weapons our own government could use— including biological weapons.

Add to this the popular opinion that the federal government is bloated, lazy, inept, and no longer able to properly serve or protect its citizens, and you have the mixture for a time of fear unlike any that has come along in almost 70 years.

Whether the above is true to any degree that could harm us is irrelevant to this piece. What matters is that the fear is there. According to many sources, and many authors of zombie fiction, that fear has been the driving catalyst in a resurgence. I tend to agree.

More so than Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, or even Jigsaw, the zombies represent the sum total of society’s present fears and concerns, all wrapped in a neat, decomposing package.

The outbreak of a zombie apocalypse (taking Romero’s return probe from Venus aside) is typically some sort of biological weapon gone wrong, or an unknown biological source. It strikes with impunity either in a certain geographical area (as in City of the Dead, by Brian Keene) or worldwide as is more typical.

Next, the first stages of the outbreak typically involve an unknown quantity of what is going on, or how it is spread. That lack of knowledge in how the infection leads to a rapid spread of the problem as hospitals become overburdened, and then walking graveyards. Meanwhile, the military and government are pretty much toppled in short form as the infection strikes within their very walls and ranks, all but eliminating the citizen’s main form of protection and salvation.

From there, the common elements and technological crutches that we have become so reliant upon fall, leaving the pockets of survivors scrounging for a living not only against millions of infected zombies, but also with a realization that many of them do not even possess the basic survival skills for a world without ready-made meals and store-bought goods.

The survivors now come to the realization that they lack even the most basic ability to feed and provide for themselves, never mind their loved ones and children. Starvation and illness become serious threats of death, not to mention the other survivors in a similar position that will kill another person for their supplies. Economic and social classes break down, and the law of the land is what you can do whatever is necessary to stay alive.

All in all, under the mask of cool zombies and interesting characters, we have our fears of an unknown enemy (whatever agent caused the outbreak), danger being the person next to you (infection), an ineffective government (militaries and governments fall quickly), and having to fend for ourselves in a world turned completely against us, with danger possibly lurking in the survivor camp just over the hill. A common cold becomes a major threat, and even the smallest cut or animal bite could become a very dangerous medical infection.

In a world of economic and governmental fears, of terrorism in your own backyard, and in an uncertain future that could undergo a paradigm shift, the zombie apocalypse genre does a fantastic job of bringing all of that together to both appeal and frighten us on deeper levels.

And we cling to it, hungry for that sensation, starving for the need to experience the emotional and mental connection through the relative safety of our television screen or eReader. Desiring the increased pulse and heightened anxiety brought about by the recesses of our mind as we attempt to face our fear and come to grips with it.

It’s the appeal of horror, and why fans of the genre are drawn to being happily scared— and why my son and I look back on our respective in-family horror gags with a particular fondness.

My Story Outlining Process

There are a wide variety of ways to go about the outlining process for a story, and each writer handles it in their own way. Some prefer to just sit down and write with no pre-development except the ideas in their head, while others like to outline scene by scene in great detail. Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle.

One thing to keep in mind is that everyone outlines their stories. I know . . . I know . . . the pansters out there are about to grab the pitchforks and start rattling the palace gates. But trust me, even those writers who don’t do any real pre-writing work on their stories are still outlining. How is that? Simple. Even as characters and scenes pop into their minds and begin stringing together on that great mental movie screen, they’re outlining, they just might not realize it. Despite what a lot of writing books claim, I’m not of the school of thought that all outlining must take place by putting words to paper (or a screen) in order to record and track it all.

Some of the most beloved writers out there don’t outline in the traditional fashion, one notable such fellow to science fiction and fantasy fans being Roger Zelazny. From what Roger always told me, he jotted a few notes down about the characters, jotted notes here and there about his three major Plot Points, but generally wrote the story as he went along, and discovered things as the characters did. He once talked in interviews, as well, about discovering the world of Amber at the same times as the story’s main character, the amnesiac Corwin, did.

One thing that Roger did that was kind of unique, however, was that he would write a short story for each of his major characters. The story would be about a situation or event that had nothing to do with the novel he was going to write, but would function to solidify the characters in his mind and show him how they would react to completely unrelated situations. Such stories never saw publication, except in one instance where he was tight on time and a story commission had come in from a publisher.

I was lucky enough, thanks to my association at the time with the Baltimore Science Fiction Society (of which Roger was a member when he lived here in the 1960s and 1970s) to get to know Roger via letters and the occasional phone call. I bring him up because his advice and guidance helped shape my writing habits, so I wanted to give a nod back to the man responsible.

When I outline a novel, I tend to do so in a slightly freeform method. It was a method I’ve used since I first started writing and understood the underlying formula, even before I discovered that Roger did things in a similar fashion. What I do first is consider my characters. As I said in the last post, that usually involves developing my Story Premise and going through a series of What If? questions that further flesh things out for me. When it comes time for the story, I usually create the opening scene first. I’ll write this scene, which usually starts the hook and the right questions being asked (for more on the Hook and those questions, see a previous post on the topic HERE).

Once I have that, I tend to put the thing aside and consider what my three, core plot points will be. Those things I jot down, including at about what page/word count they should be dropped in for the expected length of the story. If you don’t know about the three Plot Points and why they’re so absolutely vital to any successful story, check out my post on it HERE.

Once I have that, I’ll start writing. Since I know my characters, my premise, what the story is to be about, and my main plot points, I have a lot of my required structure already accomplished. Now I let the story flow. As subplots and further ideas come to me, I’ll jot down notes about them so I understand where I’ll want to place them in the story.

Now, I write about three to four hours a day, and for fiction I’ll hit about 3k to 4k words for that on average. Some days more, some days less. I could probably pen even more words, but I have a certain writing style where I’ll edited that day’s work as I go, or at the very least at the end of my writing time. I like to have what I consider Next to Final Draft done with each section as I go. I polish sentence structure, look at verbiage, watch my descriptions, and look at pacing and characterization. Once I’m satisfied, I put it away and repeat the process the next day.

I say Next to Final Draft because I always go over a manuscript again after the entire thing is completed and I let it sit for a week or two. That gives me a fresh perspective on it, and I can find any flaws that still remain. After that, it goes to Beta Readers, then the editor.

For a novella series, the process alters slightly. After I decide how many novellas the series is to be, I create the three Plot Points that will span the entire series, and where in a particular novella it has to appear. Then, for each individual novella, I break them down into their individual triple Plot Points. I also make notes on all the interpersonal relationships between the characters, as well as all the necessary subplots and where they overlap (if they do). In that sense, I do a lot of the same prep work one would associate with a television season.

So that’s basically how I handle the outlining process: characters and story premise, the three core plot points, and jotted notes on scene and subplots.

Remember, there’s no right or wrong method to handle writing a story. Find a process that works best for you, and let the story flow.

Premise and My “What If” Questions

Last week I talked briefly about the Premise of a story, or what is called the Elevator Pitch. It’s the concise one or two of sentences (preferably one) that summarize your story, or something you could toss out in an elevator if pitching the story to someone, as the old cliché goes. The purpose is to quickly and succinctly give the core idea of your story, whether you’re pitching it to an agent or publisher for traditional publishing, or to potential readers for self-publishing.

The Premise is not the same as the back cover blurb. A back cover blurb typically goes into more detail, and is much more of a marketing flare tool to get folks to buy the story. The Premise is something different.

An amnesiac prince of another realm must struggle to regain his memories while trying to stay alive in a war for the throne against his own siblings. (Nine Princes in Amber)

A mother and father must choose between letting their children die or committing murder, when a strange disease forces the children to consume increasing quantities of blood to stay alive. (Suffer the Children)

Unlike the back cover blurb, a Premise should state the protagonist, goal, and conflict. That’s it. It’s the central point of your story.

Before I can write my Premise, though, I wind up going through a series of What If questions to hammer out the story. The reason I do this is because while I’ll have a story idea at first, the idea is not a Premise. To get to the Premise, in other words the solid foundation of protagonist/goal/conflict, I have to first drill down to see who the character is, why he has that particular goal, and what the conflict is to resolve it.

Let’s take my upcoming novella series: Prize Not the Mask.

The idea was that a street level vigilante would be framed for a murder as part of a greater conspiracy (which I won’t explain, as it’ll give away the overall series plot). He’s convicted at trial, and sent to Solitaire Island Federal Penitentiary— the primary prison for anyone with powers, or who used super-advanced technology to commit crimes. The initial idea was that I would explore both character and setting through the prison. We’d see how our hero both changed and held on to who he was while in the prison, while exploring the interpersonal relationships, conflicts, group dynamics, and corruption within its walls. Naturally, the hero means to facilitate an escape from a prison that has only ever had one successful escape (and it resulted in the original structure suffering a lot of damage), but that goes into the overall conspiracy plot and some supposed allies he makes while inside, and I won’t spoil them here.

Just picture the story as something like: super-heroes meets 24 meets Prison Break.

The next step I took was to find out the “who” of my protagonist.

I knew the hero would be Nathaniel Westfield, aka Night Sentinel. He wasn’t rich nor super-trained like a Batman type. He lived in a typically low income area of the city, and had a low to low middle class income, himself. What he had was two gravity-controlling gauntlets that he gained from the alien race that resides on the moon known as the Lunarians (their human-given moniker), and an, unknown to him, ability to see roughly 5-seconds into the future. It isn’t something he can control at the start of the story, isn’t even something he knows he can do. It comes to him on an instinctive level, and happens a lot when he’s in personal combat, which is where he gets his edge.

Pretty basic. More of a character sketch.

So then I started asking my What if questions. Not every answer I came up with made it into the final story, but here’s a little of how the process went for me.

One of my first questions was: What if Nate was framed for this murder, but had actually committed murders in the past?

My first inclination was that maybe he was also some type of Punisher template, but I quickly squashed that idea. For the type of story I wanted to tell, that took things in a different direction. It now begged the questions of how he should be wanted by pretty much all levels of law enforcement, of how his being framed for murder would be a footnote, or even be seen as poetic justice, given the fact that he brazenly killed anyway. It also didn’t add any depth to the character.

Instead, I decided that he was once a criminal, though not a publicly known one. Even most law enforcement never knew “who” he was, just the results of his handiwork. I decided he was once a professional assassin. Someone who could get in, get the target, and get out. Someone trained at infiltration and not leaving evidence behind. And it was something that also played into his current role as a vigilante/hero. It’s how he was able to do what he did.

What if Nate had a son or daughter to worry about?

That question brought with it a lot of possibilities. What if Nate changed his ways from criminal to hero because of his child? Naturally came from that second question, and had me delve deeper into his past.

I decided that Nate stopped being an assassin about six years ago, when his son was 12 years old. I wanted to make his son 18 years old in the story simply because it stopped me from having to deal with endangering an actual child in this story, but at the same time the son was a legal adult while not yet knowledgeable enough to not be at risk. I could still make the readers care.

What if Nate’s wife was murdered? That question came up because in the back of my mind, I wanted him to be a single father. I also wanted it to play a role in why he eventually became a hero. But with his past as an assassin, I didn’t want it to be a random mugging or whatnot.

What if her murder was a result of a hit that Nate did in the past? This naturally played into a what if question about someone out there having discovered who he really was.

What if her murder was retaliation for a failed hit?

There were a lot of other questions that arose as I drilled down into that one, but I’ll summarize it all.

As I drilled down, I learned that Nate had been hired to do a hit on a Lunarian diplomat. The hit failed, and Nate was captured by the Lunarian security forces. Although they kept his presence and the attempt secret from human law enforcement, and had even let him go, the Lunarian Diplomat (since they’re also priests of the aliens’ strange religion) saw a path for redemption in Nate. Naturally, Nate refused the offer and was sent on his way. The aliens were now on to him, so he knew the hit was a bust.

Although he did his best to protect his family, retaliation from those who hired him came swift and hard. His wife was killed and his 12 year old son badly injured. Nate knew he was outmanned and outgunned against those seeking to kill him, and had nowhere else to go. One event led to another, and he and his son were eventually taken in by the Lunarian. When everything was said and done, he was Night Sentinel. He was fulfilling a vow to protect the innocent and shutdown the very criminal types he once worked for.

Along the way, I also discovered that Nate had a history with a current superhero or two. One young hero was the target of an assassination back in Nate’s past, when he was hired to kill the man’s girlfriend as a lesson. Another current hero worked with Nate during his criminal past, and has her own secrets from her current team.

The same heroes (and their teammates in the Sentinels of Society) that will have to find a way to find and protect Nate’s missing son while he’s in prison.

Then there’s the whole What If question series that led to the reasons for Nate’s framing, and why he was specifically wanted inside the Solitaire prison. Him getting framed and put inside the prison is a key element of the conspiracy.

In the end, I had this Premise: A hero’s dark past as an assassin catches up with him when he’s framed for murder, and must escape from an inescapable prison to both protect his son and stop the return of an immortal criminal mastermind.

And I had my nine-part novella series’ central premise. Thanks to all the drilling down of the What If questions, I also had characters, main plot, goal and conflict, and many subplots to explore.

Well, it’s slated for nine-parts, anyway. Sometimes a story will end up being a little shorter, though right now I’m fairly confident in it being nine novellas. That puts it at three novellas per section of the overall story, with three novellas also being the length of an average 100k to 120k word novel. So in essence, the nine novellas equate to a novel trilogy in length.

Next week, I’ll discuss how I outline something of that length, when there are individual novellas involved as opposed to a straight-up novel.

 

Handling the First Story Ideas

Every author has their own way of going about getting ready to write a story. Some outline in a bit of freehand, noting only vital plot points, character notes, and perhaps a few scenes that popped into their head; while others meticulously outline every scene and character point; and some don’t outline at all— they get an idea, a character, and start writing immediately, watching everything unfold as they go. There’s no right or wrong way to go about the storytelling process. It’s always a matter of what works best for each writer.

This week, I’m going to talk about how I handle the beginning of a story idea. Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to expand on how I prep for a story, including which outlining process I use, and when. Some facets will depend on the type of story I’m telling (such as short story, novella, novella serial, or novel), and some parts are universal across the board for me. Not everyone out there is going to give a damn about my writing habits, but for those of you who are interested, or have contacted me over the past year asking about them, this week starts a return of those blog entry themes.

For those folks more interested in my RPG related writing habits, don’t worry: I’ll be jumping back and forth over time between fiction related posts, RPG related posts, and posts that could be applied to both styles of writing. Hit the RSS feed button if you don’t want to miss anything.

When a story idea first comes to me, it can come in pretty much any order. Sometimes it’ll be a random scene, like watching a teaser trailer for a movie. Sometimes it’ll be the introduction of a character, which is probably akin to meeting a person for the first time for me: the character piques my interest, but at this stage all I’m seeing is the external profile. I know there’s a lot more under the surface, in their minds and hearts, and maybe some dark secrets or tragedies in their past. It’s just a matter of time before I discover it all. Other times, a story will come to me as an idea, which can best be described as a What if? type of thing. Most commonly such an idea might see the original seeds planted from a book, movie, news report, snippet of a conversation I overhear in public— all kinds of points of origin.

Once any number of those things enter my mind, I make sure to record them. These early recordings are always put into Evernote. The reason being, it could be later the same day, the next day, or even a couple of weeks later, but more ideas and questions about that story are going to come up. And whether I’m at the computer in my home office when it happens, or reading on my tablet, or on the go with my smartphone, Evernote is my choice for being able to update and expand those idea files no matter where I’m at, while keeping them consistent across all my stationary and mobile devices.

During the early days, weeks, and sometimes even months, I don’t force the story seeds into expanding. I let it happen. I’ve been an author for over 25 years, and I know how my mind works by this time. While I might have any number of different story or character ideas brewing at any one time, I know that as things get real (as they say) and a story is forming at full tilt in the back of my mind, those seeds will expand themselves with more frequency. A character will reveal new facets of itself. A story idea will bring some twists with it. Or a scene will lead into another, either one that came before or that comes after.

And of course, brief notes go into Evernote.

Now, as a story starts taking on that type of early development speed, it also requires more note taking. While Evernote is great for my quick jots and such, when it comes time to really hit the development, I prefer to use Scrivener (but I still use WORD for my manuscript writing, old habits die hard).

For this example, I’m going to pretend the development is for a novella serial.

The first thing I do is open my Novella Serial template that I created in Scrivener, which looks something like this (you can click the image to enlarge):

Scrivener Blog Pic 1_zpsf0tpfneu

Where I go first will depend on what I’m developing at the time. It might be one of the major or minor character templates that are there if I expand the Characters or Places folders, or it might be notes that I place into the Story Arc Overview at the top of the listing, which would cover story points for the entire novella serial. Don’t worry, I’ll go more into the actual character and places templates that I use in an upcoming blog entry, which will also include some of the questions I answer during the character and location development process.

A story is not ready to write, though, until I have the Premise section completed.

The Premise is usually only a couple of sentences that tell what the story is about. This is also sometimes referred to as the “elevator pitch,” because it’s the type of story summary you would give in an elevator if asked what the story is about. It’s vitally important that writers get a Premise developed, because it brings a story into focus for both you and any publisher or agent you might pitch it to. Even if you’re self-publishing, a Premise is vital to getting the idea of the story out there during your marketing. Just as it should do for a publisher or agent, it has to hook the readers’ interest so they’ll buy it.

Before you get your Premise ready for prime-time, though (which I’ll discuss more about next week), you’re going to go through a series of “What if?” questions, with each subsequent question drilling further down from the last.

For example, in the novella series I’ll be launching later this summer called Prize Not the Mask, I tell the tale of a super-hero street vigilante named Night Sentinel. At first, I didn’t know a lot about him or the story, and actually the early version of the character that I thought was being developed in the back of my mind turned out not to be the character I ended up with in the end. The final character is actually a lot more interesting, and allows me to explore more facets of the super-hero setting throughout the serial.

Originally, I knew he was a street vigilante, but was not rich or powerful or highly trained like any sort of Batman archetype. He lived in a low to moderate income area of Sentinel City, and had an 18 year old son. The son gave him the same stress and trouble that most kids that age do— he wasn’t keeping a steady job, was out running around with friends until all hours (the typical stretching of the wings), was having girl drama, and all that jazz.

I knew that Night Sentinel would be framed for a high profile murder, and that he would end-up in Solitaire Island Federal Prison for super-criminals, where the story would show readers what life was like inside such a prison, with its own set of characters, interpersonal relationships, and rivalries.

As I was developing the Premise, and asking my “what if” questions (again, I’ll go into them step-by-step in the next entry), I also discovered a lot more about the character. I found out that he used to be a very successful hitman that worked for various criminal organizations on a freelance basis. I learned that he had once been hired to assassinate a Lunarian diplomat (a common alien race in the setting), and that not only did he fail, but his escape what thwarted by the diplomat’s entourage. Who he was, and what he had tried to do, was kept secret from human law enforcement, and the Lunarian diplomat (also a sort of priest/monk as many of his species are), got into the character’s emotions and convinced him to change— to become a hero and defender, to not only atone for his past but to also help build a better world for his son. This resulted in some training, and the gift of gravity-controlling gauntlets.

Okay, I know that’s a bit hard to follow, but I wanted to show how developing the Premise led to new character/story points being discovered, without giving away any spoilers for the upcoming story just yet. But you should get the idea. By developing that premise and asking “What If” questions, new facets of the tale came to light.

Naturally, not all the answers one gets from asking such questions will be used. Some will simply be too silly or too off the mark for the story.

Anyway, we’re out of space this week. Next week, I’ll go through, step-by-step, some of the questions I asked myself about those characters and that story, and show how some of the background and actual story points came to be. Note that it’ll contain a couple of spoilers, but I’ll keep them to a minimum and not reveal things that will ruin the story before you read it later this summer.