Originally posted this over at Reddit, but I want to capture the whole thought here. Feedback is floating in about my novel is floating in, and yes it looks like I’ll be re-drafting Mesh. Not too crazy. The consensus seems that Mesh is ‘good,’ and now I should focus on making it ‘great.’ I can live with that.
My professional author friends are (rightly) asking structural questions about Mesh: does this character *have* to be this way? Does this thing drive the story? I’m taking their feedback with care, and thinking deeply about what they mean. After all, I need to care about Mesh and its characters if I expect anyone else to.
One person challenged me to think about why Roman – my protag – is the way that he is. Is it right, is it necessary for Roman to be a disabled kid? Why is he Mexican? Am I doing this to say ‘Yay, diversity and accessibility?’ My kneejerk answer is “It’s important,” but that’s an insufficient answer. Those are fair questions to ask, and I’ve been thinking hard about the answer.
If there’s one beef I’ve had about popular science fiction over the years, it’s been that the main characters are two-dimensional, unrealistic, and insincere. Think about how wooden most scifi protags are, especially at the beginning of a movie, where Captain Perfect of the USS Flawlessness approaches Planet Hypothesis to learn a new form of human postulation. We’ve improved over time, seeing new character depth (Hello Stranger Things and Next-Gen), but we still have much progress to make.
So, here’s Roman, my protag. How will I make him an authentic, genuine person that you care about? As Pixar tells us in their ‘Storytelling Rules,’ we admire a character for trying more than we do for their success. So Roman has to be trying, but what will he be trying to do?
This is where the personal part of Mesh comes in. Roman’s journey isn’t about saving the world, it’s about not letting the world destroy him. His life is complicated and difficult, like mine and many others. His family suffered some tremendous losses (the car crash that disables Roman also kills his sister – try living with that when you’re thirteen) and he has to learn to carry on. So every day he gets up, lives his life, and does the best that he can – that’s Roman trying. He’s trying to make it work, and that’s why I admire him as a character. His journey through Mesh shows that resilience, ingenuity, and spunk are still valuable skills to have in the 21st Century.
All that being said, how close am I coming to addressing these structural story issues? Does it make sense that I’m trying to make ‘good scifi’ that helps push back against the soulless, money-driven, bottom-line-only stories that suck the life out of us?
When I asked people what they thought on Reddit, I got some different ideas. The consensus seems to be that I’m on the right track. Stories should be character driven, with a strong focus on making sure the people in the story look, feel, and act like real people. I’m still trying to figure out what that means. For now, this is as far as I’ve gotten. Now it’s time to get busy, and get writing.
In closing, here’s what William Shatner sounds like when he’s trying. One thing about trying is that when you aren’t clear about what you’re trying or why, you can come across as insincere. Fun fact: This song was written by Nick Hornby.
Monday morning box office numbers are in, and they ain’t pretty. According to Buzzfeed, Variety, Vulture, and Polygon, Dark Phoenix failed to meet opening weekend expectations, falling well short of the expected $40-50M that Disney was estimating. I’m not here to crow about the loss. Rather, I think this means that ‘Dark Phoenix’ is Marvel’s ‘jump the shark’ moment, with long-term implications for the 3-5 year roadmap of science fiction. What does it mean to jump the shark anyway?
See kids, back in the olden days there was this thing called TV, and on this invention they showed shows. One of the most popular shows of all time, ‘Happy Days,’ tried to re-invigorate itself with an episode where Fonzi jumps over a shark on waterskis. The strategy backfired, and simply highlighted how ‘Happy Days’ was over. Now ‘jumping the shark‘ is our metaphor for the implosion of anything popular. (See also: Facebook games, Payless shoes, and Live/Laugh/Love signs)
So when we see something like a major X-Men franchise film fall short of expectations, that’s a clue. Some might be shocked that Marvel movies in a post-Endgame era aren’t the guaranteed cash cow they’re seen to be. To those people I say: gee, who would have seen that coming with six of them opening in the first half of 2019, alone? Please.
Like the detective genre in the thirties, westerns in the fifties, disaster movies in the seventies and action movies in the eighties, we’re in a genre glue. The era of magic punching people is destined to come to an end. Call it ‘Avenger fatigue,’ call it ‘The Superhero Glut,’ people will eventually grow sick of superhero movies and move on to something else. The change is on its way, and ‘Dark Phoenix’ is the proof.
Just once, I wish Hollywood would get the message early and learn how to make graceful exits. After all, we keep seeing genres bled white by greed. It never works out, it always turns into a joke of itself, and it ends up doing your reputation more harm than good. As Harold from Spongebob says: “How many times do we have to teach you this lesson, old man?”
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that this means a huge opportunity for Mesh. No magic punching people, no tired cliches, no boring tropes. Mesh will be ready for a fresh look by sci-fi experiencers looking for a fresh experience. No bloated corporate hype, no overpaid gasbags waxing poetic from the teleprompter. Mesh is a dive back into the old-school, cutting-edge, seat-of-your-pants world of tech, geekery, and adventure. My fingers are crossed that it’ll be hitting the bookshelves just as people become ready to read it.
I’m looking forward to that future.
Happy to say that I finished polishing Mesh a couple of days early. As a result, heart in mouth, I sent it to my best-selling author friend. I heard back from her a few hours ago:
“I started it this morning—you made it hard to go to work! Will continue ASAP!”
Fun fact: You can type the phrase ‘beta readers’ only using your left hand. These are the things you learn, slamming to a stop after months of writing, fretting, honing, and polishing your very own novel. Last Friday, I turned Mesh over to my beta readers and stood back to let them read, review, comment, and suggest. I’m already learning some valuable points about Mesh that I would never have seen on my own.
So yes, Jackson uses beta readers when he writes. Not every writer does, but I do. Let’s take a moment to discuss beta readers, so that if you write, or if you want to be a Beta Reader, you’ll have a sense of what is involved.
A concise discussion on the topic is provided at the link above (Thank you, NYbookeditors.com). Books need beta readers like software needs beta testers. Nothing sucks worse than trying to get a book published only to hear crickets from agents, publishers and the general public. Beta readers will tell you if you suck, where you suck, why you suck, and how to suck less.
Remember, you will suck before you succeed.
Do you want to be a beta reader? I promise you, there’s some effort involved. Some readers are great at pointing out plot inconsistencies, while others focus on spelling and grammar. In any case, it’s almost like doing a book report. You won’t enjoy it, unless you like what you’re reading.
That’s why I’m profoundly grateful, having found some readers that are willing to help me. It’s not easy to do what they’re doing, but it’s absolutely necessary in the process of writing things people want to read.
Thanks folks! 😀
Posted this update on Instagram first, but I’m saying it here, too: Mesh is finished, the new draft is complete. After two years and 91K words, I’m happy to say that my YA scifi novel is finally done.
Eighteen months ago, I started out to tell a story with fun premise:
“My name is Roman Diaz. One day I was a nerdy kid. The next day I’m on the run. Everyone thinks I’m a terrorist. I just wanted an ‘A’ on my science project.”
Fourteen-year-old Roman is on the fast track to nowhere, as a wheelchair-bound nerd in a dead-end school. A prestigious technical academy offers him and his geeky best-friend Zeke a way out. How can they say no?
Miramar Technical High isn’t just another magnet school: it’s an incubator for the next Elon Musk and Albert Einstein. Their new principal, Doctor Gray, has created a strange community of geeks, gamers and geniuses. Roman and Zeke are addicted to the weird, techno-anarchy of a campus filled with tough, smart kids. Pranks, hacks, and androids are only the beginning.
The stakes for success are high: Roman and Zeke join the Snow Foxes, the top talent at Miramar, to build a tool that will not only win first prize at the Titan Conference, but will also change the world. Everything changes when they learn the truth about Project November, and their techno-god principal. Friends become enemies. Truths becomes lies. Rockstar students are criminals … that’s what it says on TV, anyway.
Roman is now the most hunted kid in America. What is he going to do? Miramar created a secret weapon that the bad guys didn’t count on: The Mesh. It’s a secret project, something nobody cared about. Is it really the only thing standing between the forces of good and evil?
MESH is the first novel in a science fiction YA series that will appeal to readers of Ernie Cline’s READY PLAYER ONE and binge-watchers of STRANGER THINGS.
I’m happy to say that I’ve been able to do what I started out to accomplish. Now Mesh, with a few bumps and thumps, will be in the hands of my Beta Readers. After that, I plan to send it off for sale to some professionals in the print business.
With the success of Mesh will come my contribution back to the scifi genre I’ve been living, loving, and learning since I was a child. Science fiction is truly growing and changing, and I want to be a part of that growth and change.
Taking a couple of hours to rest, and celebrate. One part of the job is over, now the next part (editing and polishing) is about to begin.
So without further ado, here’s a digital painting that I’ve been working on for a couple of weeks. Working on this while finishing Mesh, it’s teaching me that universal truth: Unlike the dictionary, ‘Suck’ Comes Before ‘Succeed’ in the process of creativity. Enjoy the painting and see below for some notes.
Even though I’m not super happy with the final product, I need to move on. Watching Bob Ross (because, Bob Ross) I realized that I wanted to paint, too. So I started working on something that I was interested in and if you’re one of my Beta Readers, you know that this is a scene from ‘Mesh.’
It took me around twenty hours to do this. Learned a lot about how to paint digitally using Photoshop and my digital drawing tablet along the way. I wish the project came out better, but I also remember that quote from Jake the Dog in Adventure Time: “Suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.”
So here’s me and the painting I made. Yes, I know it sucks, but that’s how I get better. You can see some of the progress pics below in this Imgur gallery:
Re-reading a thread on Reddit about Iron Giant makes me realize how many lives that story touched. I’ll write a love letter to Brad Bird and The Iron Giant someday, but that isn’t what I want to talk about. Rather, I want to talk about formative scifi, because it’s the only scifi that matters. Therefore, Mesh must be formative scifi and that’s where my calories will really be burned.
Let me explain. “Formative experience is the everyday life we lived growing up and the know-how we develop as a result,” by this definition. “More often than not, the know-how develops beyond our awareness. We simply react or do the things we do, based on a familiarity, having seen or experienced something like it before.” As children, those formative moments become the pillars we stand on, or the rocks that crush us, for the rest of our lives. Further, for most of us, we’re trying to turn those rocks into pillars because, self-actualization and stuff.
Scifi always played a formative role in my life, and for many others. Iron Giant was clearly a formative experience for many, and it’s one of the reasons Brad Bird is such a talented storyteller. Contrast Iron Giant with a movie like Titan A.E.: one is a timeless story about love, loss, and acceptance … the other is, well, Titan A.E. You can enjoy both for what they are, but only one of them really worked to resonate on a human level. If I want readers to love Mesh as much as I do, I have to make sure the human connection is there.
But beyond Mesh, the only science fiction worth having in 2019 is formative scifi. Just as Tor points out, scifi books help us fight for a better world. That’s what we need right now. Regardless of where we come from, where we’re going is a dark and desperate place unless humanity can step back from the brink.
So, I want Mesh to be a part of that solution. I want my stories to be formative for someone, and therefore, Mesh has to resonate. If you believe in stories that matter, I want to know you. I want to tell a story that matters to you.
Writing a thriller is like cooking spaghetti. Your reader doesn’t really care which noodle goes where, they just want the noodles to taste good together. The sheer level of effort required to make this last chunk of Mesh, to make the rest of the story come together in a neat, elegant order, is much higher than I first expected. I’m discovering new respect for authors like Frederick Forsyth, John Le Carré, and Tom Clancy. As your story builds to a climax, you can’t have a voice in the back of your head going “Yeah, that doesn’t fit together.”
At first, I thought at first I could write through the voice. Keep grinding, the answers will come. Some plots can afford that level of flexibility, but not a thriller. No, a thriller plot – which is what Mesh is, a YA scifi thriller – has to come together in that last act with no loose ends. Not only that, the loose end you tie up in Act Three can’t unravel four loose ends in Act Two. It’s somewhere between creativity and craftiness, productivity and puzzleology. In short, yeah it’s a lot of work.
I thought diagramming the story would prevent this from happening. Turns out, it works for the major chunks but not for the nitty-gritty details. Those are the details, IMHO, that separate stories like ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ from ‘The DaVinci Code.’ Fixing this, making Mesh the best story I can tell, is where I’m at right now.
Does this mean I should quit? Of course not. These are simply the problems I need to solve if I plan on being a good writer. Craft must be honed, you have to love the process of practice. I recall a Reddit post by a professional pianist that I think applies directly to my growth as a writer. “I think you have to have a growth mindset,” he says. “You have to enjoy the grind itself.”
So this is me, enjoying the grind. I’m not complaining. Yeah, I want to do this. Yeah, it’s going to take a lot of work. However, if it means a reader goes ‘Wow!’ at the end of Mesh, then it’ll all be worth it.
Back to the book!