Drawing Plots

A plot is simultaneously the most necessary and the least interesting part of a book. As a reader I’m far more easily hooked by character/voice/description, and if those are solid then the linear events that happen while those are being shown off isn’t a large concern. But as a writer, you completely need that line of events in order to have a short story or novel instead of a reeeally long and ungood prose-poem. What if you could just… delegate the plotting to someone else and free your mind to focus a little more on the parts you’re really in to? You can: your plotting intern’s name is William Wallace Cook.

Plotto, created by Cook in 1928, is a workbook for figuring out plots for novels and short stories. You begin by choosing three broad clauses from the lists at the front; the A clause describes your protagonist, the B clause provides the source of the conflict, and the C clause provides the resolution. There are thousands of sub-clauses you can look through and string together if you like the method, but I’d say the book’s first chapter is least worth experimenting with for any writer.

The clauses are all worded broadly enough that you can fit any existing novel into this system. If I were using Plotto while brainstorming my first novel, I would have gone with clauses A8, B22, and C10: “A person influenced by an obligation, following a wrong course through mistaken judgment, meets with an experience whereby their error is corrected.” That’s an accurate summary, but it does miss some important details. Why doesn’t it tell you the main character should be a gullible rich kid? Where are the warring factions of dirtbag leftists and self-absorbed indie films? Cook doesn’t provide those because he knew whoever’s reading it would have different approaches to stories than he would.

Plotto‘s basic plots are vague because it trusts that you’ll fill in those gaps in a way that’s wholly unique to you. My example plot up there leaves plenty of room to choose the particular kind of character you want to write, the story’s tone, the precise nature and details of their situation — you would write a completely different book from mine using that same basic plot because you’re a different writer. Plotto urges its readers to spackle their unique style and approach onto its plot-frames rather than trying to force you in to hard and trite formulas like Save the Cat. This is a book to help you figure out what to write, trusting that you either have the how under control or are canny enough to figure that out in short order. As someone who’d been in a bit of a rut trying to figure out what to write next, I’ve found it really helpful for generating ideas to build on.

Whether you’ve just got a character you’re enamored with but have no idea what they should be doing, sitting down for daily writing sessions and need somewhere to start, or just want your outlines to feel slightly more like filling out a Shadowrun character sheet, give Plotto a try.

Six More Weeks of Halloween, plz

I had to work on Halloween and the morning after, so I feel kind of robbed and we don’t have any more costume-mandatory days until Mardi Gras season starts. Join me in keeping the spirit alive by reading horror novels and novellas straight through to Epiphany and ignoring all those other costumeless holidays standing in the way. Here are some of the best horror books I’ve read this past year if you need to know where to start. They weren’t all published in 2018, but they’re at least close enough for government work.

Ecstatic Inferno, by Autumn Christian
It feels like comparing writers to Philip K Dick is becoming kind of meaningless due to overuse, but I genuinely can’t come up with a better comparison for a short story collection that features God’s body washing up in a trash bag on the beach. There’s a story with a needle-toothed incubus where THAT ISN’T EVEN THE MOST UNSETTLING PART OF THE STORY. Most of the stories have a dreamlike lack of structure without feeling disorganized, with vivid surreal imagery and the sort of language use that you can’t quite explain why it works but fuck if you won’t be turning certain phrases over in your head for days afterward.

iHunt: Killing Monsters in the Gig Economy, by Olivia Hill
iHunt features several vampires and a werewolf, but the economy manages to be the bloodthirsty creature in the book and it doesn’t even have to exaggerate anything. The cast of characters are well-drawn and relatable to any millennial, and the quippy comedic action should satisfy any Buffy fan while presenting none of the weird Nice Guy hangups that series had.


Come Back to the Swamp, by Laura Morrison
It’s difficult to balance dramatic weight with quippy characters, but Laura Morrison always manages to do so without either feeling out of place. In addition to being both fun and ominous at points, Come Back to the Swamp makes great use of the novella format by leaving the nature of the swamp a mystery. Sure there’s probably interesting detail to what the swamp is up to and how it’s really operating, but that’s not strictly necessary for Bernice’s story and the decisions she has to make. The narrative is delivered with such an engaging voice that you won’t even have time to miss the exposition.

All Hail the House Gods, by Andrew J Stone
This novella has an amount of narrative tension that might seem a little unwarranted going in to a book about sentient houses, and I can’t quite quantify WHY it actually works, but it seriously does. It builds a great atmosphere of desperate pathos and near-hopelessness for the little human colony, the houses and the mystery surrounding them are genuinely foreboding, and it feels like it’s a metaphor for so much that’s been wrong with society but it never reads as moralizing or didactic.

Polymer, by Caleb Wilson
Take one of those hour long “Glitchwave/Retrocore MEGAMIX” videos from Youtube, pour it into a form fitting yet breathable jumpsuit, and make it the protagonist in a side-scrolling beat ’em up arcade game. There’s some clever and really well-executed literary trickery going on in this book: the first-person-collective narration, playing with ideas of spectacle and celebrity culture, the gleeful magic-techno-horror aesthetic mashup of the castle. But don’t let all the postmodern stuff throw you off, watching a rockstar monster hunter fight his way through a multidimensional deathtrap with a synth-powered sword is awesome enough on a surface level.

Book Review: Meddling Kids

Subgenre: Uptempo Eldritch Sleuthpunk

That cover made me check the prices of old Monster In My Pocket sets on Ebay. Then I balked at the starting bids, read the book, and got far more fun out of it than if I’d spent the same amount of money on stale plastic figurines. The only accurate description I can come up with is that it’s like if P.G. Wodehouse did a line of coke off of a Hot Fuzz DVD.

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Review – Molotov Hearts

Okay okay yes I read a rom-com and I’m not going to mince words with some “it’s a romantic comedy BUUUUT-” qualifying statements. Molotov Hearts by Chris Eng is an entertaining book whose plot centers on two people who catch feelings for each other. It isn’t solely about the love between the guy and the girl though, it’s also about the love for and within the punk scene. In the same sense that this review is about my love of minor spoilers.

Socially-maligned high schooler Jenn watches the punk kids loitering after school, particularly the cute guy always reading physics textbooks. After a fight with her abusive mother she sneaks off to join their punk house, dumpster dives, suffocates at basement shows, and gets to smash. But such a plot summary overlooks the hand-sewn details.

Molotov Hearts’ plot is propelled almost entirely by women’s agency. Jenn takes the initiative to goes over and talk to the punks and her dude, Becky bails her out at school after they break up, other punk girls front bands and lead the dumpster-diving excursion. There’s no synchronized shouting of “girl power” to oversell things, women getting shxt done is just the default state of the Molotov Hearts world. Jenn’s authoritarian mother is full of agency and fairly evil, but eh, representation isn’t always enough without class consciousness. And is this book ever conscious of its class! The life of the punk house isn’t a glamorized Lost Boys carefree adventure — the dumpster diving scene is as filthy and dangerous as it is calorie-dense, most of the punks dress themselves from piles on the floor (if they do dress themselves) and there’s an appropriate lack of headboards. It reads like it’s drawn from actual bummy quasi-commune experience rather than someone trying to piece together what dejected punk kids do based on Rancid and MxPx lyrics.

But that’s all window dressing, albeit window dressing that knows it should be old bedsheets instead of actual curtains. I wouldn’t have stuck with the book were it not for the characters. Jenn is smart and resourceful, but not tritely hypercompetent. She doesn’t get everything right; her friends straight-out tell her that her priorities are pretty screwed up at one point and there really aren’t enough books out there willing to let their protagonists be wrong about things. Or have friends that call them out on it and then¬†actually talk about what’s going on. But even if fidelity to actual human behavior isn’t your thing, there’s still plenty of fun and snark as the punks play off each other and pwn some posers.¬†

If I had a consistent rating system Molotov Hearts would get 4.5 out of 5 somethings. Let’s say 4.5 perfectly good wheels of cheese pulled out of the Safeway dumpster.
(I’m only marking it down because it doesn’t acknowledge that Blink-182’s first album was pretty legit and if we can’t have petty squabbles like that then what’s the point of a subculture anyways.)