When I was finalizing the third draft of Spheria, I engaged three fantastic beta readers who gave me invaluable feedback on what worked and what didn’t. I changed a good deal in the book based on their feedback and recommend this step as a best practice for all writers. For detailed information, please see my Novel Creation Process.
It seems I had a little problem with Diet Coke. Let me elaborate.
I am a huge Diet Coke fan. I consume way more of this substance than is realistically healthy. I have attempted to wean myself off it many times, but the process is futile. Now I accept it as my vice and compared to other possibilities it’s not so bad. I may not be alone. I worked at a company where we stocked free beverages and Diet Coke was the most popular drink by a wide margin.
When I wrote my first draft, I made the assumption that since I love Diet Coke, everyone does. So in about five scenes, with five different characters, they were drinking a Diet Coke. One, in particular, chugged and savored it after a flight (this scene was eventually deleted.)
One of my beta readers, Therese, after completing a read through, made the statement, “I was expecting Diet Coke to have some involvement in the climax since it was mentioned so many times.” I guess what I created here was False Foreshadowing.
Isn’t this just a red herring? I think it's not and for a subtle reason. A red herring is defined as “something, especially a clue, that is intended to be misleading or distracting from the real issue.” The key word in the definition is “intended.” In my Diet Coke example, I did not put that foreshadowing in there intentionally, but it would have left the reader feeling gypped, as it did Therese. It was not misleading; it was just irrelevant.
Fun Fact: the term Red Herring originates with hunting dogs. The salting process that turns a herring red creates such a pungent fish that they were used to throw hunting dogs off a trail.
I googled this term and found only a couple mentions in a different context: to describe foreshadowing that ends up being the opposite of what the reader expected. I think that’s more in line with a red herring, actually. Or if I had to make a term for it, I would call it “Deceptive Foreshadowing.”
So here is my definition of False Foreshadowing:
I think this is analogous to another more common writing mistake: word repetition. It is never good to use the same word over and over in a short span of space. Never do this. It is never fun for your readers.
Once this was pointed out to me, it was simple to fix. I left two scenes in with Diet Coke, changed another to Dr. Pepper, change the fourth to Iced Tea, and removed the fifth altogether.
So there you go – avoid False Foreshadowing!
Movies are better
One could argue that movies are easily the best medium to distribute stories to the masses. Surely they are the most approachable. You don’t even need to be able to read to watch a movie. They are generally quick (under 2 hours), engaging, and passive. The viewer can in most cases just sit back and enjoy the ride. How can anything improve on that?
Games are better
Hold on. When I am watching a movie, I am a mere observer. I am being fed information and just looking through a window onto the deeds of the hero. It may be cool to watch, but wouldn’t it be better if I was the hero? This is exactly why games are better than movies. They place me, the viewer, into the role of the hero and the story is about me, about what I do. Granted there are generally confines to this and the designers can tell an actual story, but I feel like it’s about me, I am the glue that keeps it all together.
Also, the average game these days takes between 20 and 80 hours to complete. Compare that to a 2-hour movie. If a movie is $12 a seat, the entertainment cost is $6 per hour. For a $60 game, the entertainment cost is between 75 cents and $3 per hour. That’s a great value! I won’t even get into the typical 99 cent mobile game, the value there is pretty much unbeatable.
Books are better
Given all the benefits we get with movies and games, why would I think books are better? First, no matter how many millions of dollars are spent on computer generated graphics and special effects (e.g. Avatar), nothing visual can ever exceed my own imagination.
In a book, we take visual cues from the author, customize them to fit how we want things to look, and create a fantastic model in our minds. It looks exactly the way we want to see things, and any missing detail can be filled in just the way we want. The characters can even look like whatever actors we might want to be playing the part, not the ones the casting director chose. (Fifty Shades of Grey anyone?).
Because of this, we, as readers, get to see and experience the drama unfold exactly the way we want to. We are not at the mercy of some movie director to choose the setting, the time of day, or the color of the curtains. How many movies have you seen after reading the book, and thought, “that’s not how I pictured it.” Most. And can you think of a case where the movie actually looked better than how you imagined it. Maybe here or there, but this is the exception, not the norm.
Another reason books are better, for the audience, is there are just so many of them to choose from. Anything you could possibly want to experience is in a book. Compared to games and movies, there are way more! Check out these statistics from Amazon. They currently have over 30 million paperbacks, just over 850 thousand movies, and only 60 thousand PC games. To stress this difference, check out this bar chart. You can’t even see the one for games.
As an author, in fact, one of the most challenging things I have found is to think of something truly original to write about. In Blake Snyder’s excellent book on screenwriting, Save the Cat, he goes so far as to say that there are really only 10 unique stories, and they are just retold over and over in different ways. And all good authors, since the time of the Greeks, have “stood on the shoulders of giants”. In other words, we take ideas from the greats, alter them, combine them, and hopefully make something a little bit original from the parts. When I describe the premise for Spheria to people, they frequently ask, “like The Matrix?” or “like Snow Crash?” In fact, yes, it builds on ideas found in The Matrix, Flatland, The Sims, Minecraft, and, to a lesser degree, Avatar. My hope is that I have made something new from these familiar parts.
Staying Power and the Technology Dilemma
Here is the real reason books are better than these other forms of media: they are timeless. I even underlined that for effect. As far as books go, they are about as low-tech as you can possibly get. I know they are all digital now and we read them on our Kindle or iPhone, but that is not a requirement. You can get the same exact experience reading them on a piece of papyrus, or a gold plate.
Movies, however, require technology. And as this technology improves the quality of the experience gets noticeably better. Let me ask you, when was the last time you watched a black and white movie? Unless you are in film school, or have a desire to trace the lineage of modern film, probably not since TVs were in black and white (and thus, for some of you, the answer is probably ‘never’). So herein lies the problem with movies, once technology advances, the old style of movies are no longer engaging. First we had color, then we had high definition, now we have 3D, and we are on the cusp of having immersive movies where you are "inside the movie", also called 360 degree video or VR Cinema. If you want to preview what I am referring to without any special hardware, check out Littlstar.
It’s even worse with games. Games made just 10 years ago look laughable today. In many cases you cannot even run them on modern hardware without some special emulator, assuming they have even been ported. Games that large teams of people poured years of their lives into have thus been lost to time and will never be more than a memory. Take, for example, the phenomenal video game Interstate ’76 from 1997. It had state of the art graphics at the time. Today they look more than primitive. The characters don't even have mouths for God's sake!
The oldest known book is the Etruscan Gold Book which is 2,673 years old. That is staying power. You can still read this book, provided you understand the language, several millennia later. You don’t need anything special to consume the media. It still communicates an identical experience as on the day it was created.
Speaking of language, yes, these can be lost to time, or even evolve, so that older works are unreadable. I personally have difficulty reading Shakespeare. The good news is that most works considered of exceptional merit get upgraded to modern language. Take the Bible as the most successful example. Even the works of Shakespeare have been modernized as in this version of The Tempest.
Call it egotistical. But one of the reasons I am making a book, is I want to make something that has the potential to last. Something my grandchildren can read, and say “I was not alive when he was, but I think I know him just a little bit now.” I will close with an ancient Egyptian quote from 1187 BC which stated:
Yesterday was an enormous milestone for me: I actually finished my first draft, after three long years of fits and starts. When I woke up today, I happened to have the day off, and I looked at the computer and thought "I could do this again." Maybe I am meant to be a writer.
But I am still a way from completion of this current one, so let me not get too ahead of myself. I was at a writers group last month and I announced proudly to everyone "I am almost done with my novel!"
To which they asked, "How many times have you rewritten it?".
"Um," I fumbled, "none."
"Then you are nowhere near done," was the common response from the room.
I tried to recover with "I mean, almost done with my first draft." Then I quietly skulked away to figure out what the heck they were talking about.
Fast forward a month, and the completion of my draft, and I now know. Skimming it, I have characters discussing things that never actually happened. And even people’s names changed over time, so I have old names and new names for various people. Not to mention the chapter or two that I really don’t care a lot for. So now I get it, there is a bit more work to be done before I can reveal it to the world.
As I was gearing up for this next phase I listened to a podcast with Hugh Howey, the indie author of the wildly successful Wool series of books. They asked him “how many times do you go through your work and rewrite it.” To which he replied “Gosh, six or seven”. Six or seven! It took me three years for number one!
So what does this have to do with programming. I was at lunch today with my friend Alan and was describing some of what has to be done now, and some of the issues I have with the book. And he said “just like programming.”
And he is right.
As a programmer for 20 years, the process we go through writing code is basically the same as what I am going through writing this book. At this point, the novel is complete, and it builds! Yes, it compiles! But that is no guarantee that it exists without bugs, and I’m sure the code (words) is far from elegant or optimized. Have I duplicated any chunks of code? Have I overwritten any variables? Do I have any infinite loops? The answer to these all is a definitely “yes.”
So this next phase, like in programming, is essentially “refactoring.” Writers call this “second draft”, but refactoring is a much more descriptive word. Yes, I am about to refactor my novel.
Hope it doesn’t take another three years.