Tag Archives: Tension

Ramping up Try/Fail Cycles

In writing, a try/fail cycle is the main character’s attempt to resolve the story’s problem. There are at least three try/fail cycles in every well-written story (of this structure). Often the main character will fail the first two cycles, but not always. In Interstellar, the first try/fail is the first planet they visit, the second try/fail is the second planet they visit, and the third try/fail is the black hole.

A good writer wants each try/fail cycle to be bigger or better than the previous one. That’s one key to writing a successful story. Escalate. Escalate. Escalate. The writer has got to keep increasing the tension, the stakes, and the costs.

Like I said last time, Interstellar has huge stakes and costs, and the Nolans ramp them up to the max– all at the first planet they visit, the first try/fail cycle! Most writers wouldn’t be able to do that. Do you know why?

Because if a writer starts that big in the first try/fail cycle,  he or she has to jump over that bar to do something bigger or better, more suspenseful than that. If your story starts too big, with the costs and stakes all ramped up from the get-go, then there is nowhere else to take your story that can be bigger or better than what just happened. In other words, the story’s tension will all be downhill from there.

 

But the Nolans are exceptional writers, and they pulled off what most writers, even great writers, can’t. They managed to still heighten the stakes and tension, even after basically maxing it all out on the first try/fail cycle. These guys are freaking talented.

When I was watching Interstellar for the first time, after Miller’s planet, I was freaking out. That was only the first try/fail cycle. And there were still two other planets to visit! Where the crap were the writers going to take the tension next? How the heck do you escalate this story, from this point forward? I even wondered if it wouldn’t escalate, because I couldn’t conceive how it could, but I’d heard such good things about the movie, I knew the writers had to have figured something at least decent out.

The Nolans set the writing bar extremely high with the first try/fail cycle.

And then I proceeded to watch them jump over it.

Where the heck did Jonathon and Christopher Nolan come from?

And they were so clever in all of it. They were so clever in jumping over the bar. They didn’t try to jump over it by escalating the same things even more, which is what a lot of beginning writers do. They didn’t try to, say, go to a planet where one hour equals 10 years instead of seven. No. They were smart because they made each try/fail cycle so different (and yet just as satisfying). And by doing that, you are able to skyrocket all of them out.

In the first try/fail cycle, the main conflict is a person vs. nature conflict, as the crew has to deal with the enormous waves. It’s also a conflict that deals with resources, with time as a resource. Those get skyscraped.

 

The second try/fail cycle (Mann’s planet) centers on a person vs. person conflict: Dr. Mann vs. Cooper. Yes, nature plays a role (when Cooper is suffocating), but it’s not the main focus. The Nolans gave us something different, and then maxed that conflict out, by Dr. Mann not only trying to kill Cooper, but by him stealing the ranger and blowing up the Endurance (an extremely high cost). In this try/fail cycle, we are facing an antagonist who can think and scheme and act in a conscious attempt to stop the hero. It’s intense because we feel Dr. Mann’s desperation, and when he says, while fighting Cooper, that a 50-50% chance of living is the best he’s had in years, we know that Dr. Mann will try to survive, no matter the cost. There is nothing too big, or too drastic, that he won’t attempt, and just knowing that, hikes up the tension.

Then we get the third try/fail cycle with the black hole, and again, it feels so different from the others. Cooper is facing the unknown, and that brings its own kind of terror and wonder into it. This try/fail cycle is more scientific, but it still brings high emotional tension and high intellectual tension with it, as Cooper has to watch himself walk out on Murph again and then figure out what is going on.

So the Nolans made each try/fail cycle different, and then ramped them up. By doing this, they were able to take the tension way, way up, exceed the audience’s expectations, and keep the story from feeling long and monotonous.

They were able to create huge conflicts, and were able to resolve them. This takes real talent. If a writer tries to create gigantic conflicts, then he or she is stuck trying to figure out how the characters are going to solve them. Sometimes the writer writes herself into a corner, and has to go back and shrink the conflict to something that’s easier to solve. But the Nolans had huge conflicts in their story and were able to pull it all together to actually come up with a solution for them. As an audience, I don’t think we fully appreciate the magnitude of this. But when you look at all the pieces (that at times seemed impossible to fit together, like ghosts and gravity) and conflicts, you’ll start to glean the talent it takes to pull it all together, and pull it all together so flawlessly.

Surely the Nolans are some of the most talented writers in Hollywood right now. That’s this person’s opinion anyway.

 

September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

Fawkes wrote her first story on a whim during a school break when she was seven. Crayon-drawn, poorly spelled, and edited so that it contained huge, fat, blacked-out lines, the story (about chickens seeking water) changed her life. Growing up, she had a very active imagination; one of her best friends accused her of playing Barbies wrong when she turned Ken into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mad scientist love interest. Her passion for stories led to her playing "pretend" longer than is socially acceptable. It was partially a symptom of never wanting to become an adult. Luckily she never did. She became a writer instead.

Fawkes has a soft spot for fantasy and science fiction, but she explores and reads anything well crafted. She has a passion for dissecting stories and likes to learn from a variety of genres, so you may find her discussing classics in one blog post animated shows in anotherTry not to be afraid of either. (And do be sensitive to the fact she never did reach adulthood.)


September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.
She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while (rarely now) critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side, and she even had the chance to meet J.K. Rowling in New York City, but mostly she hides out in her room, applies her butt to her chair, and writes. Other than that she reads fiction and books about writing fiction.

She has had poems, short fiction, and nonfiction published.  Her main writing project right now is a young adult fantasy novel she plans to publish traditionally.

Some of her favorite things include, but are not limited to, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables, The X-Files, The Office, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, rock concerts, Creed, ballet, pugs, cherry blossoms, Ethel M. Chocolates, and anything yellow.

A Thousand Stories

Why do I watch the Olympics? I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but USA’s medal count matters to me about as much as who wins the Super Bowl or World Series (other than knowing for watercooler convos the next day, not much). It’s as much for the stories as anything else. And the Olympics is full of stories.

Often the real story is what the athlete had to go through to get to the Olympics. Sometimes the story is the rivalries that arise during the games. It may be the moments of class, grace, and sportsmanship the occur during the games. It may be the personal struggles an athlete goes through on their way to the finals. Everywhere you look there are stories.

For every big story, like Lithuania knocking off the USA Dream Team, there are hundred little stories. An athlete struggles through Crone’s Disease to win a medal. A seasoned veteran mentors a rookie who becomes the partner that gets him on the medal stand. A coach pulls the goalie who put in a phenomenal first half to put in a less experienced goalie, who then gives up five goals to lose the game.

Every novel has its big stories we want our readers to care about. But one of the best ways to accomplish that is to build a foundation of a lot of smaller stories that make us care about the characters who make up the big story.  Yes, we might care about our interstellar naval captain who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a firefight with an unknown alien race, but we’ll like care even more if we know that this captain has been held back in his career after a brash decision went wrong, and now he second-guesses himself. Add to that a female first officer whose older brother’s shady dealings have put on pressure on her to be all that much more ‘by-the-book’, and a science officer whose father was aboard a ship destroyed by aliens two decades earlier, and you have just added a lot more tension to an already tense story.

So when writing your big story, don’t forget about all the little stories behind that story. It’s those littles stories that help us care about the big story.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Upping the stakes

We all know that as writers our job is to get our readers emotionally involved. We should be continually looking for ways to “ratchet up the tension” or “up the stakes” for our characters. But what does that mean? Does every story we tell have to involve the potential destruction of the Universe, or of everything good and decent in the world?

What constitutes “tension” differs from story to story, from genre to genre. In Romance, for example, the tension usually comes from answering”Will Julia find love?” In Mystery it comes from finding “Who killed Arthur Burberry IV?” In Literary Fiction it’s often “How will Gertrude be affected by these events?”

None of those involved the destruction of all life as we know it, and yet the readers of those genres expect tension, even within that limited scope.

Let the throw an idea at you, and see what you think. Tension requires a minimum of two elements to exist: a character we care about, and a threat to that character.  That’s also the order or priority. We need to care about the character before we can care what happens to them. It’s not tension otherwise.

Now, that idea can be turned on its head, of course. We can create a character so horrible that the tension comes from the chance that they won’t get what’s coming to them. While there are elements to Scarlett O’Hara with which we can sympathize, clearly the emotional pay-off we’ve been waiting for is having Rhett Butler finally lay down some karma.

Last night I read the blurb on a book my wife is reading. It’s about a young woman who got married only to have her husband divorce her weeks later. Wow! Who doesn’t sympathize with that? We’ve got a character, and we care about her already just because she’s had something inconceivably bad happen to her. But that’s not the tension. That comes from the fact that she lives in a society where divorce is stigmatized and all the eligible singles are accustomed to looking for someone without that kind of baggage.

As you can likely guess, this is a Romance, and the tension is “Will she overcome her pain and find true love?” But let’s face it, as old and as cliché as that summary may be, it works. After reading that, even I wanted to read that book, even though I already know how it’s going to end. Of course she’s going to find love! Of course she’ll find someone so wonderful they’ll make her forget all about her pain! You can take it to the bank.

And that’s why the writer has to then “up the stakes.” Let’s face it, we expect the main character to succeed in their primary pursuit. We expect the main character in “The Martian” to get home safely. We expect Frodo to find a way to destroy the Ring of Sauron. We expect Hercule Poirot to solve the case. We’d be disappointed if they don’t! (There are exceptions of course, but we won’t talk about it here.)

We ratchet up the tension in three main ways:

  1. We change the nature of the problem (often, but not necessarily, increasing the scope).
  2. We increase the obstacles in the protagonist’s way.
  3. We increase the personal cost to the protagonist.

Take the example of Brandon Mull’s series “Five Kingdoms”. Our main character, Cole, is kidnapped along with his friends and taken to another world as slaves. That’s bad enough right there. Cole wants to get home. Will he?

But Mull builds in some increased tension immediately in the form of his friends. Cole could make it home by himself, but at great personal cost. He can’t abandon his friends. And so as he willingly chooses to stay to try and free his friends, we’re drawn in that much more. But as we follow Cole’s adventures we find all three methods employed against him to raise the stakes.

Before long he finds that the Five Kingdoms in which he finds himself are ruled over by an evil king who stole the powers of his four daughters in order to make himself more powerful. One of those daughters turns out to be Cole’s new friend, and she could overthrow her father and restore freedom and peace–and even find a way to get Cole home. Suddenly the objective is not just “get home”, but “help overthrow a kingdom so your friends can get you home.” (Increased nature of the problem)

However, helping his new friend means suspending his search for his old friends. It bugs Cole continually that he’s continually having to postpone finding some of his friends. (Increased personal cost)

Of course to help his new friend Mira he has to help her escape the waves of cronies her father is sending out to find her. And he has to help her fight a horrible creature that may be key to helping her regain her power (added obstacles). All of this decreases Cole’s chances of surviving long enough to get home, and it also puts his friends, old and new, in additional risk (increased personal cost).

That’s just the first book. Even though some of those layers of tension are removed each book (each must stand alone in building tension and releasing it), new ones are added on with each subsequent novel–usually faster than old ones are resolved–that the tension gets generally higher with each book as well.

Things work in a similar fashion for Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. We learn that he has a Ring of Power (increased problem). He needs to get it safely to Rivendell, though at risk to himself and to his friends (increased personal cost). There are black riders searching for him (added obstacles).

When he gets to Rivendell he finds that his troubles have just begun. Someone must take the Ring right into the heart of the enemy’s camp and attempt to destroy it (increased problem) (added obstacles), and it seems it has to be him (increased personal cost). Along the way the Ring starts twisting his friends (increased personal cost), and some are killed (increased personal cost, added obstacles). He decides he has to go it alone (increased personal cost, added obstacles).

On his own (with Sam) he finds the former possessor of the Ring who seems willing to help, but can’t entirely be trusted (added obstacle). He also realizes the Ring is exerting increasing power over him as well (increased personal cost). Also, the Dark Lord is sending out his armies to begin his conquest of the world, and his friends are out there in it (increased problem, increased personal cost).

You get the idea. This model might be a little simplistic, but it seems to apply fairly well. A good writer learns to layer added tension into the novel, resolving some, adding some others, but always building toward the grand climax in which the problem is resolved, the costs are paid, and the obstacles overcome. The more of these layers that get removed, the more exciting and satisfying the pay-off.

Any or all three of these methods can be useful in adding tension to your story and pulling your reader deeper in. But as useful as these techniques may be, we should not forget the foundation that must be laid first: character and threat. If that foundation is solid, it can support any amount of added tension on top of that, and the readers will love you for it–or at least your character.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Episode #61 – Drama and Humor with Larry Correia

Larry Correia

Utah, USAlarry

Description:  Male, 38. Very large. Very bald.

Occupation:  Writer. Merchant of Death (retired). Firearms Instructor.  Accountant.

 

I’ve had this blog (Authors Think Tank Note: This was taken from his blog, http://monsterhunternation.com/) for three years now, so I figured I should actually put some information on this page.

I was raised in El Nido, California.  I grew up on a dairy farm, where I received my black belt in the ancient art of Portuguese Shovel Fighting,
because nothing motivates a Holstein to move its fat ass into the milk barn like a good shovel on the snout.  El Nido was a tiny little town, where the cows far outnumbered the people.  There’s not a whole lot of interest in El Nido, so I read a lot of books and I shot a lot of guns. (as you will see, these two things will be a theme in my life).

Looking back, I suppose I would describe myself as a geeky, fat kid. Ironically, I was also strong as an ox because I had to hoist bales of hay every day, but when you drink a gallon of extra-whole-super-plus-fat milk direct from the tank daily, (all you can drink, and it’s sorta free!) you do tend to chub up.  So rather than play a lot of sports, I preferred to read books. I was that one kid that always had a book in my hands and was usually reading at recess instead of actually doing stuff.

It was my mom that installed a love of reading in me. My dad considered reading fiction a complete waste of time, since reading time should be devoted to information related to important things, like cows or tractors. But I was a voracious reader. I read everything I could find.  El Nido had a tiny library, and by the time I was about twelve I had read everything there.  Two hours on the school bus everyday gives you plenty of extra reading time.

The first author I loved was Louis L’Amour.  I kept one of his index pages and checked off every book as I read it. Eventually I got them all. There was just something heroic about those that caught my imagination. The first real fantasy novel I ever read was Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. Somebody my mom knew had picked it up at a yard sale. It was amazing. After that I discovered Raymond E. Feist and David Eddings, whole new worlds opened, and I knew that I wanted to write fantasy.  I started writing little stories in my school notebooks. I even illustrated them with dragons and swords and lots of explosions, because why the hell not?  The other kids loved them, and suddenly I discovered that I was good at making crap up to entertain people. It would be another twenty-five years before I discovered that I could actually make money at it.

The first sci-fi I was introduced to was John Dalmas, and from there I went on a crazed spiral of reading everything possible. I polished off Dune when I was about ten. Mom didn’t believe me. She had to read it herself and then give me a quiz. I passed. She was impressed.

Besides cow hoisting and hay tossing, I was also our farm’s pest eradicator. Squirrels and rabbits would burrow into our irrigation ditches, and then when you ran water down them, they would break and flood the roads.  Nothing prevents this quite like shooting the little buggers. Basically, I shot a lot of animals growing up. As farmers, you had your good years and your bad years. I remember one Christmas where all my presents were a new pair of work gloves and a brick of .22 shells. No matter how poor we got, there was always an ammo budget.

I loved shooting. It wasn’t really the hunting aspect. I didn’t enjoy killing animals, but it was part of my job and I was really good at it.  You see, killing animals was where food came from, and for me that was work, not fun.  For farm kids, raising a calf, giving it a name, and taking care of it like a sort of giant bovine pet was perfectly normal. And then one day you shot your pet in the brain, hung it up, and cut it into steaks. It really helps keep that whole circle of life thing in perspective. I don’t think city kids or suburbanites really grasp it.

Rather, shooting was about the interaction between me and the weapon. If I did what I was supposed to do, then this mechanical marvel would do what it was supposed to do. It was remarkable. It was fun. I loved guns.  I still do. I’m a gun-geek.

Life was tough. Like I said, there were good years and bad years. A string of bad years were a real challenge for everyone.

We lost the farm. My dad wanted to try and start over somewhere where land and hay was cheaper. My family moved to Utah. I was the oldest and my dad and I were at that stage that many young men reach with their fathers where they really want to murder each other. I stayed in California. I was a junior in high school. At the time my plan was to go to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Moving to Utah was stupid. Why would anyone want to move to Utah?

I moved to Delta, Utah, and back in with my family, half way through my senior year in high school.  I had a good excuse though. I was from El Nido, but I went to high school in Merced. Merced, California is a decent enough place, but at the time they had a bit of a gang problem.  I don’t know if they still do, because I avoid going back to California like the plague.  But either way, one of our local “youth groups” had an initiation that required them to jump and beat the crap out of some random schlub who didn’t even know what was going on.  Guess who the random schlub was?  Yep. Wrong place. Wrong time.

So I got my jaw dislocated and a concussion. Their plan of walking up to an unsuspecting doofus and clubbing him over the head and then mudstomping him was brilliantly executed. Except for one little thing. Remember that part about hoisting cows daily? (farm kids arestrong) Well, it didn’t work out too well for the Youth Group, and three of the four of them that attacked me ended up injured, and one of them rather severely.  (head wounds bleed alot!) All of a sudden, I had a whole bunch of really pissed off gang bangers who decided that it was rather embarrassing to have four of their little homies beat up by a fat country kid, and I needed to be taught a lesson. Said lesson would probably involve putting bullets into my vital organs.

Plus, my personal stash of college-money steers contracted tetanus and most of them died.  It was gross and sad. Kids, get those tetanus shots! Trust me on this one…  It ain’t pretty. I even looked to the military as a career path and way to pay for my education. However, Bill Clinton was our new president and was in the process of gutting everything. The recruiters were kind of ho-hum, and then they shot me right the heck down when we got to the part where I had severe allergies, asthma, and extremely flat feet. (no really, I’ve got the worst you’ve ever seen. I’ve had podiatrists ask to take pictures of them).

So… Utah was sounding better and better.

The thing was, I actually really liked Utah.  I was kind of surprised. Sure, I’d visited, and the people always seemed friendly enough, but I found that I was actually really comfortable there.  Sure, it was populated by a bunch of weird Mormons, (I was raised Catholic) but it was just my kind of place. Everyone was literate and liked guns. Plus, California was becoming increasingly odd, with wacky socialists in charge of everything… (remember the part about being a reader? Yeah, I read Das Kapital for fun when I was a teenager. Even as a kid I could see how ridiculous that philosophy was)  I checked out Utah State University on a whim, and ended up getting an excellent scholarship offer.  It was kind of a no brainer.

At USU I lived in a tiny room ( I think it was originally a pantry) in a hundred and fifteen year old house with a bunch of goofy yet great roommates. It would have made a good sitcom. I got a job at the campus bookstore, but sadly, didn’t get to work with the fun books in the fiction section. Oh no… I worked with textbooks… Gah. What a racket. (and college students, yes, you’re getting ripped off, but don’t blame the bookstore employees. They’re making peanuts!) It was also during this period of working with professors that I lost every last bit of respect I’d ever had for academics.  Most of them were dumber than a sack of hammers, but extremely proud of the fact that they had a bunch of degrees and had never held a real job.

I know when most authors look back at their college years, it is to remember with fondness of all the awesome debauchery and beer pong, but I kind of went the other direction.  For fun I played role playing games and started taking karate classes. I worked hard, held down multiple jobs, and strangely enough, got religious for the first time in my life. I went through a period where I started examining my personal beliefs and philosophies, because I was a strange young man. I had made some good Latter Day Saint friends, and I had enough respect for them that I decided to listen to their spiel.

It clicked. For the first time in my life, I found something that made sense for me, and that I believed in. I converted to Mormonism, and only later found out that I’d only get one wife. (only joking, we haven’t done that since the 1890s, plus who am I kidding, at the time I couldn’t even keep a steady girlfriend).  Because I’m the kind of guy that can’t do anything half way, I volunteered to go on an LDS mission.    Apparently God has a great sense of humor, so I was sent to Alabama.

You know the dudes on bikes, with the white shirts and ties? Yep. That was me. I did that. I like to think I was pretty good at it too. Well, as good as somebody that looked like a young, hulking, terrifying James Gandolfini could be expected to do in a field where you randomly go up and talk to complete strangers.  I know that the vast majority of folks who read my books and my blog aren’t the same religion as me, and that’s totally cool, but all that I’d ask is please be at least courteous to those kids. It is a tough job. And they’re unpaid volunteers who’re trying to do what they think is the right thing.  Don’t point guns at them. Don’t run them off the road. Don’t fling beer bottles at them as you pass by (you have no idea how much that hurts!).  If you’re not interested, just give them a polite no.

I did fall in love with the South though. I had one assignment where I spent four months living out of a car and driving from small town to small town across Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi, so I saw a lot of country.  The South is a wonderful place, and I decided that southerners get a bad rap. People ask me why MHI is set in the South, and that’s why. Southerners get screwed in fiction. They’re portrayed as hicks, racists, and illiterates. In real life they’re proud, heroic, smart, hard working, good people.  So I made MHI a Southerncentric organization.

So after two years of soul-crushing humidity, (how do you guys do it?) it was back to Utah, where I buckled down and started working toward my accounting degree. Why accounting?  Because I got to know a couple of FBI agents really well when I was in Alabama, and I decided that sounded like an interesting job. It was like being a nerdy version of Batman. At the time, you either needed to be an accountant or lawyer, (both of which sounded boring as hell, but getting a CPA was cheaper than going to law school), so I decided that was what I would do.  Besides, I couldn’t make a living with writing or guns, right?

Speaking of guns, the incident that would turn me from a casual recreational shooter into a hard-core tactical riot-nerd occurred around this same time. Without going into a lot of details, I was a witness to a very bad person doing something crazy, and the resulting aftermath where he then decided to try and kill an innocent person. I retrieved a gun and intervened. I didn’t shoot anyone, but I was about half a second from pulling the trigger on another human being. Everything worked out, but when I took stock afterward, I realized that I’d blundered my way through a violent encounter, made a ton of stupid mistakes, and there were a hundred other ways that the situation could have played out where I would have gotten killed.  I had been lucky.

It was a sobering event, and I decided that if I was going to have guns, I was going to learn how to use the damn things.  I started seeking out every knowledgeable person I could, and every time I could scrape together the money, I took another class. This was also how I stumbled into the dawn of the internet gun culture, which would go on to play an important part of my life. I found out many years later that the bad guy I was prepared to shoot that day had gone on to be deported three times before eventually murdering a cop.  There are bad people in the world, and they’ll hurt you, just because they can.

So after working a summer at a horrible cheese factory, and getting fired for reporting them to the health inspectors for knowingly shipping shredded cheese with broken glass in it (long story), I returned to Logan, Utah.  The very first day back I was visiting my old roommates, when this girl came in and said “Oh, hi, Larry. Welcome back” like she knew me. She was hot.  I mean, she was so gorgeous she took my breath away. She acted like she had known me from before I’d left for Alabama, but I was certain I would have remembered her.  Her name was Bridget.  I didn’t want to embarrass myself that I’d somehow forgotten this beautiful girl’s name, so I tried to be polite.

It turned out that we’d never met. She’d just thought it would be funny to embarrass me. She’d moved in down the street after I’d left and become friends with my old roommates.  Bridget had heard so much about me, that she figured she’d just mess with me. It wouldn’t be the last time she’d mess with my head… Or my heart. (oh, man, I’m cheesy).

We talked. It turned out that she’d never shot a pistol before. I’d just bought a Browning Buckmark the day after I’d gotten back from Alabama. (kind of a welcome back present to myself), so I invited her to come along to the range. Somehow it turned into a date. Yes. Our first date was shooting. Appropriate, I know. We then went hiking and watched UFC. I know! This one was a keeper. She was beautiful, smart, funny, and extremely talented, while I was unemployed, homeless, balding, and ugly. Yet two days after we’d met, I knew that I was going to marry this girl. It took her longer to come around, nearly a whole week.

Yep. We were that couple. We’ve been married for twelve years now. She is still the best thing that has ever happened to me.

Ironically, she was also a Californian. And we’d grown up about 100 miles away from each other. Pre-mission, we’d lived only a few blocks apart, worked in the same building (where I bought food daily from the establishment she worked at), attended the same dances, she’d been best friends with one of my co-workers, and we’d even had Psych 101 together, yet we’d never once met that entire year before I’d left for Alabama. I’m pretty sure I would have remembered the nearly six-foot-tall Viking goddess that looked suspiciously like the Baroness from GI-Joe.  (Yes, it is awesome to be me, thanks for asking).

Life sped along. We had our first child while still in college. That was a challenge. Full time jobs, full time school, and a baby… But we were badasses. None of that whining to mommy and daddy for us. I worked at the bookstore during the year, and did everything from Sprint customer service to providing Allstate rate quotes during the summers. My wife ran the international kitchen at the food court.  She always volunteered to close because we were so poor that we lived off the leftovers she brought home.

At some point, I realized that working in federal law enforcement was probably not a good fit for somebody with “authority” issues and complete lack of faith in the federal government.  So I applied for local law enforcement jobs.  For those that have been through it, you know what a long, tedious, annoying process that is. I’d been graduated for several months before I was finally hired by the sheriff’s department that I really wanted to work for, and to celebrate, my wife and I spent actual monies and flew out to California to visit relatives.  Of course, while we were there the sheriff’s department cut their budget and instituted a hiring freeze. Ooops.

So now I needed a job, quick. I had an accounting degree. I had never planned on being an accountant. I’d envisioned myself in a career with more ‘hitting’ in it. But a man’s got to feed his family. So I started applying. I was hired to be an “Associate Financial Analyst” for a Salt Lake branch of a giant fortune 500 company, where I could be a tiny cog in a machine.  By the time the sheriff’s department started hiring again, I’d settled into my boring, but better paying, accounting job, and we’d just had our second child… So I decided to stick with accounting.  It was sad, but it seemed like the responsible thing to do.

It turned out that I was actually a decent accountant. They dropped the Associate part from my title, and I got to do a lot of fun things, plus our factory made neat stuff for the music industry.  I liked most of the people I worked with, but as the years went by, the company got bigger, and therefore dumber. There were layoffs, downsizing, and all manner of corporate foolishness. It became a game for management to think of ways to justify not giving raises, except for when I got other job offers, because then I was worth keeping around.  (only two big raises I got where when I threatened to quit) After five years, I’d decided that the corporate world was a soul-sucking pit, designed to crush the human spirit. It was very depressing. That, and I hate cubicles.

To free my mind from the corporate BS of my day job, I started writing again. The first thing I wrote was a thriller. (don’t even ask to see it, because it sucked).  After that, I decided I wanted to write a book about monster. I loved B-movies, only the protagonists were always stupid.  How cool would it be to have a big B monster epic, only with smart protagonists?

During that time I kept on expanding my knowledge of gun stuff. I had become a Utah CCW instructor to supplement my income, and I was really good at it. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m a hell of a good teacher when it is something I enjoy. I shot a ton of competition, mostly IDPA and 3gun. Plus, I had started getting articles published in gun magazines.  A friend of mine from the gun culture called me from Afghanistan.  He said a few of the guys in his unit had been talking, and they wanted to go in together to open a gun store when they got home. I was the one person they knew that knew guns and could also do math.

So I became part owner of a gun store. I was living the dream. I said goodbye toHumungous Manic Group. Ironically the person they hired to replace me made 10K a year more than I did when I quit. That’s the corporate world for ya.

Small business ownership is an interesting thing. You’ve got a lot of freedom, but at the same time it is the biggest chain you could ever shackle yourself with. We grew from a tiny little space in the front of a boat shop with two employees, to a giant building with a bunch of staff and a full shop. We amassed an impressive collection of hardware, and I was able to participate in some really neat training opportunities. There were challenges, oh, so many challenges, but I’ll get to that.

I finished Monster Hunter International, and was surprised to find that it was actually pretty good. Most of the people I showed it to loved it. It was like when I was a kid, and I did the little fantasy stories complete with cartoon drawings, and people complimented me. That’s a surprisingly addictive feeling for a writer, and I bet many of us feel that same way. So I decided to try and get it published.

I started out the old fashioned way, query agents and publishers, submit according to the guidelines, wait, and collect rejections. MHI got shot down over and over and over and over again, all while everyone I showed it to really enjoyed it.  I’m a businessman. I’m certainly not the sensitive artist type (you can’t work with Green Berets and Marines all day, and be “sensitive”).  I knew about how many books a publisher needed to turn in order to make a profit. I knew from my own reading tastes, and the many people that I corresponded with on the internet that MHI could sell, but the publishing industry said no.

So screw the publishing industry. I decided to publish it myself.  Self publishing is normally the kiss of death. It is where really crappy books, written by talentless hacks, go to die. But once again, I’m not the guy that can do anything half way.  I used my aforementioned internet gun culture contacts to spread the word. I did an online serial with Mike Kupari that got over a hundred thousand hits.  People knew I could write, so they lined up to buy the self published MHI.  A fan of the serial got an early copy to pass along to his friend who owned a big indy bookstore (Uncle Hugos). I figured I needed to sell 500 to break even. Anything over that was gravy.

Uh… Yeah. A couple thousand copies and a spot on the Entertainment Weekly bestseller list later… Uncle Hugo introduced me to Baen, and all of a sudden, I had a publishing contract. I was an actual writer. Holy crap, that was unexpected.

Meanwhile, back in the land of small business ownership… I was fried. I was teaching a couple hundred people a month. I had been working 80 hours a week or more at my shop, and I’d gotten to the point where I was having some differences of opinion with the other owner about our direction. I was neglecting my wife and children. I was burned out, suffering from insomnia, and bringing that stress home.  I’d poured a lot of effort into making the store a success. Selling my business was one of the hardest decisions I’d ever made, but I’m glad that I did. I made many good friends over those years and had many great opportunities.  I wished them the best and moved on. A year later they’d gone out of business.

For the first time in my adult life, I was unemployed for more than a couple of days. Plus the economy had just tanked. I had a single book deal, but I was just starting out. It wasn’t enough to live off of. There were fifty qualified accountants applying for every job. It was kind of scary.  So, to take my mind off of being unemployed, I wrote a couple more books. I’d later sell those too, so technically I can say that I’ve never been unemployed.

I found my current job through a series of flukes and coincidences. I’m now the finance manager with a defense contractor. I do like supporting the military. I just crunch numbers, but in a way I’m helping keep F-16s in the sky to rain fire on our enemies. Sweet! It is honestly the best job I’ve ever had. My boss has integrity. I run my side of things with a lot of freedom and it is very professional.  I’m selling an ever increasing number of books, but I actually like my day job.  Every time I get some new bit of good writing related news, I have to assure her that I’m not planning on quitting anytime soon.

The Baen version of MHI came out, and it was a surprising hit, even ending up on another bestseller list and getting killer reviews. It went through four printings in its first year, which is remarkable.  I’ve since sold three more books to Baen, have fingers crossed on a fourth that I just sent in, and I’ve been asked to do another sci-fi series collaborating with powerhouse author, John Ringo.

The writing career has been going well.  I am humbled by how awesome you folks reading this are. My readers never cease to amaze me. The Monster Hunter Nation is an impressive bunch. So, I’ll keep making crap up to entertain you, and in exchange you give me money, and tell your friends to give me money. It’s a win-win for everyone!

Bridget and I have more kids now. I don’t like to talk about my family a whole lot on my blog, not because I don’t love them, quite the opposite in fact, they’re the center of my universe, but because the internet is a strange place. But life is good for the Correia family. We’re in the process of building a house in the mountains and getting the heck out of the suburbs. If they’re lucky, I may get some cows for the children to have as pets, and then steak. It’s that whole circle of life thing, you know.

And that’s it for the About Me.

EDIT:  Somebody pointed out that I’venot updated this for a couple of years. It has been really busy.

We had a 4th (surprise!) kid.

We moved from the suburbs out to a place that I lovingly call Yard Moose Mountain. We’re in a very small town in the mountains, and I love it.

I retired from my military contracting job, so now I’m a fulltime author. Which is good, because I’ve been crazy busy. My 10th novel will be out this summer, with 16 more under contract. My audiobooks have won two Audie Awards in a row, and my books are now in 7 languages.

And it is because I’ve got the best fans around.

About James Duckett

James is a geeky, nerdy dude. He writes, sometimes. He blogs, sometimes. He's helpful to people, sometimes. He doesn't like to repeat himself, sometimes. He's funny... looking... always.

His hopes and aspirations of the future is to one day find a way that people will pay him while he sleeps. It is his dream job.

Why horror?

In honor of National Women in Horror Month and Mercedes M. Yeardley’s podcast on Monday, I thought I would discuss why I am adding some horror to my reading list.  While I doubt I’ll ever write it, and I’m not sure how much of it I can take,  I can see some advantage to at least familiarizing myself with the genre.

A scene from Disney's "The Watcher In the Woods," a good movie to watch next to someone you'd love to comfort.
A scene from Disney’s “The Watcher In the Woods,” a good movie to watch next to someone you’d love to comfort.
  1. I hope to learn to be meaner to my characters. I’m not. I tend to avoid conflict in real life, and that tends to make me want to avoid it in my writing. So perhaps if I “raise the bar” on what I could do it’ll make it easier for me to at least do something. I don’t want to call it “desensitizing myself,” but perhaps it’s more giving myself permission to be meaner after having seen someone else go far beyond what I would try. “At least I’m not as nasty as Dan Wells!”
  2. I love suspense and tension, and need to learn how to write it. I don’t necessarily need to see the resultant violence and gore, but the knowledge that something bad can and will happen is kinda trippy, at least in entertainment. One of the most deliciously suspenseful shows I remember growing up was a network TV sci-fi thriller about an escaped alien shapeshifter loose on earth and assuming the identities of people it killed. They would intersperse scenes with random shots of people, and it was creepy as all get out, because you knew that any one of them could be the creature. I want to learn how to capture that in my writing.
  3. Horror description packs a visceral punch. Again, I don’t necessarily want to write horror, but I may want to purposely use imagery that impacts on a more gut level to heighten the tension. There are times when being able to elicit horror-like responses in your reader will be a useful skill to have.
  4. Horror knows there are worse things than dying. Another way of building tension in a story is by raising the stakes for your characters. But the fear of death, or the world in peril have been done countless times. While the threat of death is still often present in horror, it’s not the worst that can happen. Learning new ways to threaten your characters and grip your readers can be a good thing.
  5. Horror knows what you can’t see is sometimes even scarier. The most frightening movies don’t show the monster, or at most reveal tantalizing hints. Just watch the previews for the latest Godzilla movie. But if we as writers need to show, not tell, think of what we can do if we can learn to not even show, but instead tap into our readers’ imaginations and inner fears. Elements of horror can be useful tools to have in our toolboxes.
  6. Horror makes you care. As Michaelbrent Collings will tell you, horror works because it gets up close and personal. It focuses close up on a character you can identify with and runs you through the wringer with them. A significant part of the horror is not just that something bad is happening to someone, but that something bad is happening to someone you care about. How do they get you to care? They might have some tricks to share.

So there’s the list of what I hope to gain from reading horror. If you’re going to do something similar I would recommend a little research first. I plan to start with something by Michaelbrent Collings because I’m familiar with his views on horror and can trust him not to lead me somewhere I don’t want to go.

Perhaps I’ll regret this little experiment.  Perhaps not. I’ll keep you posted.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Too much or too little?

It’s an easy trap to fall into as writers: we want to build tension and suspense, so we must keep our readers guessing. We don’t want them to know any more than absolutely necessary, and we never want them to know more than the main character knows–they should know less, if at all possible!

Are we sure?

...but kept the audience guessing.
…but kept the audience guessing.

I’ve been reading “The Mote in God’s Eye” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. I’ll just admit this is yet another party I’m late in coming to and leave it at that. I won’t say much about the novel, but I will say it’s a wonderful study in asymmetrical information. Initially we don’t know more than the main characters do, perhaps even less. Even when the authors give us viewpoints from the aliens we don’t really learn much–certainly not enough to upset the balance of information. We’re still as much in the dark as the main characters. We know someone knows more about what’s going on than we do, and that bothers us, but only a little. We trust that we will find out soon enough.

But around the midpoint of the novel this begins to change as the authors begin to ratchet up the tension. Some of that tension is from the rising action of the novel. But suddenly we, as the readers, are presented with information to shake our foundations while the main characters are not. We now know more than they do, and that in itself becomes another source of tension! It’s like a horror movie when we’re practically yelling at the screen, “Don’t go in that room! You’re going to die!”

...and the audience that knew enough to make it funny.
…and the audience that knew enough to make it funny.

It works beautifully, I think. The action in the novel has fallen off, but the tension continues to build primarily because we know that the characters, though acting correctly based on what they know, are acting entirely wrong for what is really going on, but we have no way to let them know. Being in the know is a burden!

And yet it’s that knowledge that makes the novel continue to feel taut, continues to keep us anxiously engaged. Were we still to know only what the main characters know we might be tempted to yawn or even set the book aside. The action has slowed, and we would have no way of knowing the situation is much, much worse than they realize. Knowledge in the novel is still asymmetrical.

Eventually we know (or at least hope) we will need to reach state where that asymmetry is gone and everyone will know everything worth knowing. It will be, I assume, intensely satisfying. But until then, that asymmetry will continue to grate and cause reader anxiety, and that’s precisely what the authors wanted, I believe.

So don’t always assume the asymmetry always has to be at the reader’s expense. Keeping them as uninformed as the protagonists is a natural way to go, and there is nothing wrong with it. But sometimes it can be even more effective to let your readers in on the secret. Or, as in the case of “The Mote in God’s Eye” it even works well to switch back and forth.

In the end it comes down to this: What’s best for the story? What makes for the best story you can tell?

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…