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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

The Madhatter Teaparty: Rescuing Your Characters from Endless Cups of Tea

Plot kicks my ass. It kicks my ass up one end of a story and down another, because honestly, all my characters want to do is snark at each other over tea. Or whisky. Or coffee. Or bug juice. Whatever. Any excuse for them to sit around flinging zingers at each other and discussing what they are going to do next works for me.

This over reliance on tea-and-conversation scenes is a hallmark of discovery or gardener writers like me. When we get stuck on what happens next, we just sit the characters down for a chat and let them figure it out. Needless to say, this is a time consuming bit of lazy writing, because while it may get us where we’re going eventually, we can spend literally thousands upon thousands of words over the course of a novel having the characters explain the plot to each other, and then we have to go back and remove all those scenes or make them more interesting in their final form (I spent a lot of time in Empire Ascendant in particular going back and making talking scenes more interesting. For real: in the first draft, the first 150 pages of that book was just people talking).

Since I started writing the Worldbreaker Saga, my goal has been to work hard on how I plot and draft novels so that I can write faster, stronger, and more readable stories. But when I was up last night putting in my 500 words for the new Nyx novella dropping on Patreon this month, I immediately caught myself falling into my old routine. After Nyx and her mercenary companions apprehend a rogue Death Magician in a nice action-packed opening, I wrote this:

Khos sat under a tattered awning, mouthing the words on the menu as a scrawny Nasheenian kid peered over his shoulder like a bird. Nyx saw a cup but no tea, nothing that looked remotely wet in that damn cup, sure as fuck not her either, and that annoyed her. He was always coming up with slim excuses to shirk off his work.

            He raised his big head, and had the sense to get up when she  came over the low fence surrounding the tea shop.

            “The fuck, Khos?” she said.

            “You found her?” he said.

            “No thanks to you,” she said. “I’m splitting this bounty with Anneke, cutting you out.”

            “I don’t think that’s necessary,” he said.

            “I don’t give a fuck what you think. Why are you always late to the game, Khos?”

            His glacial face moved into a frown. For all his bulk and careful movements made him seem slow, he wasn’t. Oh, sure, he wasn’t the best to pick up on social cues, but he wasn’t completely stupid. She didn’t like stupid people on her team, and she certainly never fucked stupid people, so he must not be stupid, even though she hated his face in this moment. 

            She reached for the teacup only to have her hand spasm. She shook out the tingling numbness and gripped the cup purposely. If anyone noticed, they said nothing. 

            Falling apart, she was.

            “Get me whisky,” she said, shaking the empty cup.

            “This is a dry town,” Khos said.

            She loomed over the scrawny kid. “Whisky,” she said.

            The kid took off.

            Nyx slumped into the chair across from Khos. “She had two death head beetles on her,” Nyx said.

            “Like the last one,” he said.

            “Want to get them back to Rhys,” she said. 

It just goes on and on like this. While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this scene, the truth is I have written tea-and-plot scenes so many times that they bore the crud out of me. And I can’t imagine how much they bore readers, at this point, even with the hints of conflict and tension woven in here.

And while the scene achieves several things: we get a pause after the opening action to regroup; we cover next steps; we get some character moments – I found myself a couple hundred words in before realized I was leaning on my old go-to scene just to churn out a few hundred words and call it done for the night. It repeats information about the beetle, and the fact that they have apprehended the suspect. While I like that it sets up Nyx’s usual distrust of Khos – conflict is always good – I feel I can do this in a scene with a cooler setting that ties into the plot. This could be a shooting range, or a public pool, or a kitchen where Khos is learning local recipes, you know, something that does more than the invisible “tea and whisky chat.” While sometimes you DO have to have a “talk plot” scene, it’s far better to have a “walk and talk plot” scene (or sex-and-exposition scene, which the GoT TV series has become famous for. That’s their own lazy writing go-to for these sorts of scenes).  Better is to have this scene happen somewhere that ties into the overall plot/theme of the book: this scene should happen at or near a crematorium, or in a morgue where Khos is searching bodies to see if any of the recent dead are among the girl’s gang. Fixing this is a classic “pope in the pool” technique from Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat ( was watching Mr. Robot recently and laughed uproariously at the first episode, because the main character literally saves a dog and I was like, Wow I can see how that conversation played out. “This character needs to be more likable. Have him save a cat or something!” And lo, the dog was saved. That likability probably could have been better achieved without inserting a dog into the show that then has to be mentioned again and again throughout; unless one is setting up the dog to serve some other purpose).

Leaning on your go-to lazy writing techniques happens even more when you’re writing fast, in short bursts. This is the trouble with giving myself short evening writing goals, and one of the reasons I prefer Saturday binge writing sessions when I can set everything up and write out what comes next. But I’m reserving my Saturdays for working on The Broken Heavens, and this novella won’t get done if I don’t carve out time for it. What this scene reinforced for me is the necessity of sitting down and writing out a couple of sentences about the scene I’m going to write before I write it, even if it’s only 500 words. Otherwise they are all going to end up like this. And while I can go back and fix it later to a morgue or crematorium scene, that’s a pain in the ass. Better to catch myself before I do it and fix it then. The more I write, the easier it is for all the writing to sound the same. Writing in a state of flow doesn’t always mean you write the best ideas, only the ones easiest for your brain to latch onto. While the may be great for the first couple of books, at some point your go-to stuff starts to feel like old hat. You have to start working harder, thinking the scenes through, figuring out how every piece works together and becomes resonant instead of just relying on your brain stew.

Remember that this is not BAD, to do. Plenty of people write the same book over and over and do well doing that. But I don’t want to be OK or even just Good. I want to be GREAT. And these days, with the competition that books have with other sorts of media for readers’ time, I don’t feel that I can afford to be “OK” or even “Good.” More and more, I see that there is only room for great, and everything else.

Work in Progress

Because not everything I write is bug and blood and deserts.

Well, not all deserts, anyway.

From the latest WIP, a short story titled, “Sense of Dark.”


Everything that mattered happened in the dark.

It was eighteen in the morning, the deepest part of the black, with the promise of dawn another eight hours distant. This was when they brought in the suicides, the lunatics, the infanticides, the condemned; all the twisted and brutalized bodies that the day shift refused to process and management wanted processed quickly… but after dark.

In their long, stark-white rooms, the butchers worked nimbly, silently during the long twenty-hour cycle of night.

The body was just another bruised husk, some mangled thing the techs hauled in under the ruinous glare of the organic overlights. The worms were dying in the casings up there, so the light along the far edge of the operating room was pale lavender instead of white.

“Where did you find her?” Sohaila asked, ripping open the green slick that protected the corpse. She never did like the quiet. Every new body was another excuse for chatter, for warmth – anything to prove she was alive.


“Water? Port? Elevator? It matters.”

The tech sighed. He was a new kid, a couple months on the job. His partner was already finishing up the check-in on her slide. Sohaila saw it in his face already that he wouldn’t make it on the dark shift. Living your life in the dark was one thing, but living your life in the dark with corpses was another.

“Elevator dock.”

“There are three in this sector. Which one?”

Beneath the slick, the body was dry and desiccated. If they were anywhere near a desert, some forensic might have guessed she was a mummy right off, but with all the elevators opening up into vacuum now and the Nothing that had torn apart the world on the other side of the water bay a decade before, the desert was the least likely guess on how this one had met its end. The body was curled up on its side, elbows tucked, mouth yawning, feet crossed. It was naked, which wasn’t so unusual. Bodies that came in this way were the sort that got stripped of all valuables – either right before they died or soon after. Especially if they died near an elevator where the throwoffs and castaways congregated.

“All right,” Sohaila said. She reached behind her for the bone saw.

The boy tech turned away quickly. “Done, Paya?”

“We’re checked in. Verified she’s not in the system. Some stray.” Paya, the girl tech, tapped her forehead at Sohaila. “See you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” Sohaila said. There were always plenty of bodies. What they all lacked was the time to process them.

She cracked open the chest and studied the state of the organs. More or less salvageable, with some creative treatment. She began preparing her solution. During the day shift, they sometimes bothered with an autopsy, but at night management expressly forbid it. It cut into profits, and at no gain. If they accidently processed someone with legal funeral rights, it would cost them less to pay out than it cost the butchers to perform an autopsy on every wayward body that crossed the slab. A fruitful, virus-like populace out here made life cheap, and litigation cheaper.

She turned the body over for better access to the kidneys. They were easier to rehydrate from behind. As she did, she noted an indentation just above the left hip. Someone had been peeling at the skin. She rubbed at it, and saw the traces of some kind of inked tattoo. A little chill ran up her spine. She pulled her hands away, let the body fall back. Took a breath. They tattooed company girls on the left hip, the ones management imported for the C-level executives from other worlds on the Inner Rim. Too many bodies meant the new ones that got in had to be signed in and accounted for at all times. And anybody they imported from beyond the vacuum… came in at great and terrible expense.

Sohaila grabbed a specimen slide and scraped quickly at the grit beneath the body’s nails and stored it in the transparent slide. She turned and slipped it into the particle analyzer behind her, switched it on.


She started, and knocked the analyzer off. Turned.

Giati, one of the butchers who worked near reception, smiled at her from the door. There was a familiar man behind her, dressed in a formal gray doctor’s coat.

“Sorry, Dr. Dirish is taking this one tonight,” Giati said.

Sohaila opened her mouth to ask what managmeent’s top day doctor was doing working in the dark.

“Have you started?” Dr. Dirish said before she could speak. He pushed past Giati and went straight for the body.

“No, not yet. Just opened the chest. The organs are good.”

“Perfect, that’s fine.” He pulled the slick back closed over the body. It hissed and melted and sealed itself back up. He smiled thinly. “Did you remove anything from the body?”

“No, nothing,” Sohaila said.

“Wonderful. Perfect. Giati, excuse me.” He released the body’s carriage, and the carriage floated free of the examining table. “Good night. I’ll be sure to have them send you the next one.”

Sohaila forced a smile. Watched the doctor and Giati leave, pushing the body out ahead of them.

Then she was alone again. No people. No bodies. The room was very still.

“Well,” she said aloud. “That’s that, isn’t it?”