Sunday, July 4, 2010

Writing Advice from Bestselling Author Michael A. Stackpole

Michael Salsbury
At Origins and Gen Con 2009, I had the opportunity to attend seminars on writing provided by New York Times bestselling author Michael A. Stackpole. Mr. Stackpole appeared at Origins 2010 as well, and once more I had the opportunity to learn from him. As always, his seminars were very informative and professionally delivered.

Due to (in my opinion) a poorly publicized seminar schedule at Origins, Mr. Stackpole's seminars were poorly attended this year. I only found out about them when I saw him in the Exhibit Hall signing autographs. Had I not seen him there, I would have had no idea he was even at Origins. His seminars weren't listed on the site where other seminars and events were listed.

For Mr. Stackpole's "Serial Fiction" seminar, I was the only attendee for the first half or so. Ever the professional, he gave the seminar anyway and I eagerly listened. Later, others showed up. Here's what I took away from that seminar:

  • In a typical series of stories, 70% of the material is "case work" - or material that is there as part of the current story only. It isn't used or referred to again in the series. The other 30% is "soap opera" material, or material that shows the growth of the main character(s) over the series and provides a "pay off" for series readers who stick with it.

  • Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries are a good example of series fiction

  • Case characters grow much faster in serial fiction than the "mythos" (main) character

  • You need to plan out ahead how many stories/books you're going to have. You also want to have some vague idea what's in them, so you can plant clues in the earlier books to use later.

  • When planting details in the early books, try to avoid too many concrete details. Say "I came from a big family" rather than "I have 2 sisters and 4 brothers" because you may find when you get to the book where you plan to use that fact, it might make more sense to have 3 sisters or 3 brothers instead.

  • Keep track of your world details in a file, even for background characters. That way you'll know what you've established already as you go along, and you won't have to go back to find out those details later.

  • It's not necessary in serial fiction to "dot every i" or "cross every t" as far as sub-plots go. It's OK to leave the reader wondering what happened to a minor character or plot line.

  • "Soap opera" material should appear in the middle of your main story

  • In a 10-part story, the breakdown should be something like this:
    Parts 1-2: Case material
    Part 3: A storyline
    Part 4: More case material
    Part 5: B storyline is resolved
    Part 6: More case material
    Part 7: A storyline
    Parts 8-9: Case material
    Part 10: resolve the case and the A storyline

  • Remember that every story in your series is the "first story" to some reader. Make sure that you plant enough information in each story that a reader can pick it up and get up to speed with just that story.

  • You may be tempted to do a 100% mythos story, where you explore a "what if" scenario for your main character or resolve some issue from their past. This generally isn't a good idea. It tends to result in too much change for the character to keep them viable or too little story to keep readers interested. Fan fiction is a possible exception.

  • Something Mr. Stackpole has done is publish a serial fiction line in ten 1,000 word sections on his web site. This collection of ten stories is approximately "novel-size" and is bundled together and published as a single book or collection. If you start selling the collection before you publish the last stories in the series, some readers will buy the collection to read those last stores (even if you give them away on your web site).

  • Burn Notice on USA Network is a good example of series writing, because about 70% of each episode is case material and about 30% of it is "mythos" material. Each season has an "up or down" feel to it.

In his seminar on "21 ways to kill a novel", Mr. Stackpole provided plenty of useful advice:

  • Writing to a fad is a bad idea. By the time you recognize a fad, the market is usually saturated.

  • Look for "evergreen" areas like Tolkien-style fantasy, "pet fantasy" (kid with a psychic link to an animal), or time travel stories.

  • Don't write things you don't enjoy reading. Readers will sense it.

  • Make sure you do market research in the field you're choosing to write in. Read the current leaders in that field. See how they tell stories, what they include in the stories, and from this develop a picture of what the audience expects from your story.

  • Have a long-term career plan. Know what you're writing next.

  • Make sure your characterization is good. Having no (or poor) characterization is the number one way to kill a novel. Write at least two sentences about each character that describes them one way, and one that goes against that. (Example: "Dave was an expert sailor and navigator. Unfortunately, he was unable to swim.")

  • Give readers enough time to connect with your characters, or you will distance the reader from them. You want the reader to feel like they can see inside the character's head, especially if they'll be a viewpoint character. Introduce them early on.

  • In every book, you need at least one "normal" character, or someone who is relatively normal. If you don't, readers will have difficulty gauging how "crazy" the other characters really are.

  • Don't bounce the point of view around. This disorients the reader.

  • No "tin" dialogue. Dialogue has to be appropriate to the character, the setting of the novel, and the situation. Listen to how real people talk in a similar situation. Don't repeat things in the dialogue that you say in the narrative.

  • Let the characters decide what's going to happen, not the author. If the story in your novel appears to die out, go back about 7,000 words. Somewhere around there you'll probably find that you made the character do something he or she would never have done. Once you fix that, you'll be able to move ahead.

  • Characters have to take responsibility for their actions and there must be consequences to the choices they make.

  • Characters should grow, not just change. Growth is an attempt to alter behavior based on external factors, and the change made through growth is permanent. It may be some type of experimentation. It may even be a decision not to change something if that change would take the character away from who they are.

  • "Nobody cries over change." but they might cry during growth.

  • Make sure the story has an emotional "heart". Show the characters reacting to the good and bad things that happen, and how the events affected them.

  • Predictability = Boredom

  • Your story must have a plot. Even if people don't like your characters, they must be able to latch onto your plot. If they can't, they'll walk away from the story.

  • If your research activities are stopping you from writing, you're doing too much research.

  • Don't "file the serial numbers off someone else's novel". Don't just re-tell a Shakespeare story. You want the reader to say "I didn't expect THAT to happen!" or "I've never seen THAT before!"

  • Make sure you examine the consequences of things in your stories. If you have a device in your story that replicates physical objects easily and cheaply, there's a definite impact on the economy in that world.

  • Things in the story, like character and place names, should fit together and flow well.

  • Think about how you choose to name things. The word "pope" has a particular meaning to Catholics, but not to other religions. The word "elder" means something to Mormons. The word "league" in reference to measurement has a specific meaning.

  • Make sure the cultures and subcultures in your world get along.

  • Sticking to your original outline can kill your novel. Make sure you give it a chance to grow naturally.

  • Make sure you have an appropriate head-heart-hand mix. The "head" is the puzzle part of the story. The "heart" is the emotional core. The "hand" is the action.

  • Try to have sentences of 12 words or less.

  • "Show" as much action as possible and "tell" very little.

  • Be careful with math and units of measure.

  • Make sure the mechanics in the story are right. Don't have characters putting tinfoil in the microwave or talk about the "hammer" on a pistol that uses clips.

  • Don't give an editor the opportunity to say "no" to your novel.

  • Don't revise as you go. Wait until you have the draft finished.

If you found any of this useful, you'll undoubtedly like the various writing tips and guides Mr. Stackpole sells through his web store. I've purchased a few of these in the past and found them very useful. They generally include a bit more information than is communicated in the seminar, and are distributed in PDF format - which makes them easy to adapt to electronic readers like the iPhone, iPod, iPad, Kindle, and others.

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


  1. Thank you so much for your cliff notes from the seminar. They are really fantastic tips! :)