This Plan Does Have a Ton of Problems
Enter a deadly, high-stakes world where everything is mostly fine actually.
My story Liquid Smoke is…hm, what’s a grandiose way to say vaporware novella. A bold and tragically unfinished tale of raucous adventure? Nice.
Anyway there’s a scene where the bossy older sister is telling the burly younger sister about her plan to break into a desert fortress, which involves the younger sister swimming through a very long and narrow water pipe. Too narrow to fit, say, an oxygen tank.
“Wait, you mean I have to just, like, hold my breath the whole way?”
Cherry takes a sudden interest in a distant rack of fur-covered bulletproof vests. “Mmhm,” she says.
“Quick question,” I yell, raising a finger. “How long do I have to be in that dark cramped pipe filled with water?”
Now she’s so far away she’s basically in another area code. “Um we’re still running the numbers.”
Cherry says bzzt bsshh or something I can’t even hear her way over there. So I glare at her and she feels it and stomps back over and gives me her annoying fakey smile and says, “Seven minutes.”
I start laughing. “My personal best for holding my breath is maybe 20 seconds tops and you know this.”
“I do know it and I’ve got a plan and you’re gonna—”
“I’m not gonna, I’m gonna die is what I’m gonna.”
“I’ll admit,” now she’s giggling, “this plan does have a ton of problems.”
This little moment, pretty minor in the grand scheme of things (just kidding there was no grand scheme) was what made me decide to revisit my novel Chokeville with these two dopes as the main characters.
“But why?” you might ask. “I’m not seeing anything of merit here.”
First off, rude. Secondly, the inspiring part for me was this: Their plans are bad and they find that funny. I liked that they mostly enjoyed each other’s company, and I liked that they weren’t very good at what they do.
That seemed like a refreshing change from a lot of other yarns out there right now. I plugged the sisters into [what I hope is] a thrilling, pulpy city, but they themselves aren’t particularly important. They aren’t saving the world. They’re just two low-level goons trying to survive until payday. (I don’t really worry about themes too much, but work and money are pretty central to this book.)
Mostly I liked the goofy tone. I started this version in earnest in April 2020 and didn’t want to spend my time working on something dark and miserable, and certainly didn’t want to put that out into the world. I wanted something deeply unserious.
The problem is that it might be difficult to keep your attention for 350 pages if it’s too deeply unserious. Frankly, it might be difficult to keep your attention through this very sentence, when you could instead be watching a TikTok where a pug somehow manages to fart the breakdown in “Freak on a Leash.” (I just made that up as an example, but if I ever saw it I would just watch that forever and never read another novel again.)
So if I want you to read my book, I need you to—at the very least!—care about the characters and want to find out what happens to them. And if everything is unserious, it can be hard to care.
ME, A GENIUS: What if there was a novel that was just fun interesting things happening and everyone was mostly fine?
THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY: Bye bye stupid!
I remember reading about Breaking Bad and how the writers kept forcing the characters into various narrative corners and then tightening the screws and making things worse to see how they responded. You know, like a storyteller?
That’s not what comes naturally to me. I mostly write short comedic things, so my instinct is always to find the funny, not the drama. In fact, one of my go-to techniques is to create drama and then undercut it rather than intensify it.
Let’s take an example from this very newsletter: Bad Forest is Bad. The protagonist is attacked in the woods by a horrific deer demon. Exciting! How will he get out of this one? But before anything can escalate and get interesting, the demon’s like I just want a hug. And then it becomes about the awkwardness of that situation, and then it ends.
OK, fine enough for a weird newsletter or comedy sketch or the like. But a novel probably won’t be a page-turner if it’s just “welp that happened” on a loop.
So that’s what I’m focusing on in the latest revisions. Give everything a delicate soupçon of tension, ratchet up the stakes here and there, increase the peril by like 30%, and, finally, purchase a 100-pack of sacks with dollar signs on them to hold the advance from my book deal.
I think this will be the last of these “behind the scenes” posts for a while. I’m basically just hurting my own feelings! For free!
This has been Chokemail by Fireland. Shipped every other Sunday from Chokeville.
It can be hard to balance genuine tension with humor, but at the very least your humor is good enough to keep me reading.
I have to admit, I did feel disappointed when I saw this was another behind the scenes post and not an update from Fort Hook. Not against the behind the scenes stuff, just feels like it's been a while since the actual meta newsletter from Fort Hook had an update. I'd be fine if they alternated, but it's feeling a bit like a new show took over the timeslot of one I was already watching in between seasons.
I would definitely read that. I would suggest, if you haven't already, reading Starship Grifters by Rob Kroese (part of the Rex Nihilo sci-fi series), and Dove Season by Johnny Shaw (part of the Jimmy Veeder Fiasco (not sci-fi) series). Both, I think, tick the box you are trying to check or check the box you are trying to tick. In fact, after reading one of your recent posts I remember thinking, oh, this gives me the same tingly feeling I get when I read Johnny Shaw's stuff. Shaw is currently writing one page excerpts from "little known" publications on his Patreon that you might find interesting. So to reiterate, I would read that.