Agents of SHIELD and the Peril of the Slow Burn

Last year around this time, all of my geek friends were buzzing about Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. For people who live under rocks or regularly attend hermit conventions, Agents is a spinoff of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, following the deeds and misdeeds of a plucky coterie of government agents. The show had an impressive pedigree. Produced and overseen by television wunderkind Joss Whedon (of Buffy and Angel fame; I hear he also did some canceled space western show) and run by writers Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen from the brilliant-but-canceled Dollhouse, Agents of SHIELD had the benefit of Disney backing, a solid budget, and guaranteed tie-ins with Marvel’s money-making movie machine. In short, it was a guaranteed hit.

Except it wasn’t. The show merely coasted, catching the occasional creative upswing from gnawing on the bones of the Thor movie, or stringing out the mystery of its lead character’s mysterious resurrection following his death in Avengers. It wasn’t until the end of the season, when the creative staff pulled out all the stops and turned their central concept entirely on its ear, that Agents of SHIELD got interesting. By then, I was the only one of my friends still watching. Apparently, I have infinite patience. Spread the word.

Be quick about it.

My little cadre of nerdlings wasn’t the only group similarly affected. 12+ million viewers tuned in for the premiere, but less than 5.5 million were still watching by the time the season ended. If you lose more than half the people with your plotting, you’re doing something wrong.

The agony here is that the showrunners did this intentionally. They knew they had to wait for a crucial event in Captain America: The Winter Soldier to set up the collapse of the organization they’d so lovingly crafted during the course of the show. They went with a slow burn, doling out hints and plot progression in tiny doses. And because of this, they lost their viewers.

Slow burn stories aren’t always failures. Think of how little has happened over the course of five books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. People grouse constantly about George R. R. Martin’s glacial pace (my favorite dig so far was the fan who dubbed him “The Mountain That Writes”, which I choose to believe was not a tacky weight joke) but they keep reading. Martin’s books are bestsellers, considered the tentpoles of the fantasy market. The series Game of Thrones, based on his films, is one of the most talked-about and lucrative shows on air.

So what’s George doing right? What’s SHIELD doing wrong? How does one dole out the plot slowly, but keep a reader’s interest?

The answers to these questions can’t be simple. The truth is that the slow burn is just not an easy technique to get right. If it was, I’d trust the Whedon family to pull it off. That entire clan is practically bursting at the seams with gooey, unspent genius.

So there’s an easy option:

Don’t slow burn. Just don’t. Don’t even slow burn. This is actually a legitimate option. There are plenty of great fantasy novels, especially recent ones like Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, that hit the ground running and don’t stop. Facts fly at you like the magically propelled bullets of McClellan’s magic users, and you’re never kept guessing about one mystery for long. There is definitely a place in fantasy for fast-paced, face value works, and McClellan’s Powder Mage Trilogy shows that these can be presented well.

But let’s be honest. There’s also a place for meaty fantasy that you can dig into, like a roast full of secrets. If this wasn’t true, we wouldn’t have meandering, beautiful works like The Wheel of Time, The Kingkiller Chronicles, or Martin’s eternal parade through Westeros. I like fast books. I love slow ones, especially those that get it right. What do those books do well?

Give the reader a reason to care. A nigh-universal truth of good slow-burn fantasy is that the author quickly gives the reader something to care about. If I’m asked to invest, I’ll only do so if I think the end result is worth it. Robert Jordan expertly demands an investment in his fourteen-book series in the prologue to The Eye of the World. He shows us Lews Therin Telamon, the Dragon, in his final moments of madness, struggling with a foe who claims that their battle has echoed throughout time. The next few chapters are a plod through a seemingly unrelated hamlet, punctuated by events of minor importance. We’re dragged on almost exclusively by the question of who Lews Therin was, and why he’s important to the series.

Pat Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind is the one book I’ve gotten through without an immediate lure to keep reading past the first fifty pages or so. It took a lot of effort for me to get past the slow build of his introduction. In fact, I quit reading Name a good three times out of boredom before I finally forced myself over the hurdle of its beginning. I was glad I continued, because he’d crafted an incredible work of fantasy. But nothing gripped me in the beginning, so I almost lost out on the experience.

Obviously, Rothfuss is not hurting for readers: he’s one of the preeminent fantasy authors of this generation despite having only released two major volumes of his masterwork. I like to think that the beauty of his prose was ultimately what pulled me in to the tragic tale of his protagonist, Kvothe. At the same time, I don’t want to depend on suddenly becoming a prose genius in order to snag my readers. That means we have a few legitimate options left to us.

Stunning characters. Some people argue that Kvothe hits this note perfectly, but in a vacuum, he’s not much of a character before his tale begins in earnest. We know he’s a mysterious innkeeper with a dangerous past, but mysterious pasts are a dime a dozen in fantasy. No, a better example would be the fiery dynamism and toxic intensity of Sario Grijalva, the villain and centerpiece of The Golden Key, by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott. Within the first few pages, you know that he is brilliant and he is uncontrollable. Like or hate him, getting to know Sario is reason enough to read the rest of the book.

A compelling mystery. “Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.” I mean, where do you go from there? To the rest of the book, that’s where. In one clever sentence, Brandon Sanderson sets up the central mystery of his debut novel Elantris. The question of how and why Raoden is damned, and what he is going to do about it, consume the rest of the book. To his credit, Sanderson gives enough hints to keep stringing us along the moment the mystery starts to grow cold. And then ending, to give nothing away, is a satisfying and brilliant answer to those questions.

One hell of a setting. This one doesn’t always work, because brilliant settings are more numerous in the genre than the aforementioned grim strangers with shrouded pasts. Every once in a while, a writer strikes gold. H.P. Lovecraft may not have been much of a success during his lifetime, but his stories have endured throughout the decades and only continue to grow in popularity. Yes, they’re dated. They’re often thin on plot and character. But we keep reading. Why? Because Lovecraft has built an enthralling setting of ancient monsters and body horror that pulls us in. He crafted a universe where every shadow and most lights conceal things that are ready to kill you, or worse, change the very foundations of who you are.

None of these are guarantors of keeping your readers’ interest. Obviously, the people behind Agents of SHIELD know the foundations of good drama, and they failed to maintain their audience. Still, the pitfall of potentially losing our readers shouldn’t stop us, as writers, from trying to craft worlds steeped in nuance and measured doses of exposition. If anything, the challenge should make success sweeter.

Too Many Cooks

I have a problem.

It’s a pretty severe one for a writer to have, and it’s common. Among a group of people, it’d be easy to classify my issue as a matter of “too many cooks in the kitchen.” But I’m one person, and that’s compounds the issue. I can’t kick anyone out of the kitchen, because all of the chefs are me. Now, I’m not claiming a multiple personality disorder (although anyone who’s seen me before noon knows that Morning Chris is the Hyde to the mild-mannered Jekyll of Rest-of-Day Chris), but I do have primal forces warring with one another in my brain.

They’re all telling me what to write next.

It’s not that I’m low on concepts. Most writers don’t suffer from a lack thereof. Any good author will tell you that ideas are cheap. We come up with a dozen other stories we could be telling while working on the current one or two. That, by the way, is the reason why no self-respecting author has ever responded to the proposal, “Hey, I have this great idea and I want you to write it!” with anything more than a scornful laugh. It’s not because we’re jerks. It’s because our dozens of ideas are just as good as yours or better, and they have the benefit of being ours.

(Okay, that was kind of a jerky thing to say. I’m at peace with it.)

Some writers can work on multiple projects at once. For me, there can be only one. Because of this, since finishing Binder’s Blood, all of my concepts have been fighting one another like deranged Highlanders in my brain. I’ve come up with a few conclusions to grease the path to the coming Quickening.

The Wrath of Sequelitis. The moment I finished my second edit of this story, I said to myself, “I want to know what happens next.” Though the story I told was self-contained, there are some obvious hooks for a sequel. If there weren’t, resisting the temptation to continue would be easy. But here’s the issue: I don’t have an agent. I don’t know if this book will draw one, and I certainly don’t have the audacity to hope it’ll garner a publisher’s interest overnight. I’m proud of this piece, but I also want to be a working author. Right now, I don’t have the career luxury to throw good words after bad. So no, no sequel for Kal and his plucky crew of binders. Yet.

Sequels are a great path for writers who have a book contract in hand, especially one that mandates continuing or concluding a story they’ve already begun. For me, the best thing I can do is move on and try something vastly different. Which brings me to…

Nostalgia, Interrupted. Remember how I said ideas are cheap? They’re also numerous. Bunnies on Viagra numerous. My journey so far is littered with the aborted beginnings of no few stories. It’s tempting to pick up work on Champion or Songs of the Flame, or other works with dumber working titles. So tempting that you can call me Tantalus. I love my old stuff. Every story had a bit of gusto to it that I’m finding harder to recreate as I mature.

They’re also crap. Each tale that I picked up and put back down, I rejected because it wasn’t what I was looking to write. As tantalizing as it is to seek shelter in my old stuff, anything that I pick up and dust off is going to need plot doctoring to the point that it will almost be unrecognizable from the tale I loved. I’m okay with killing darlings. I’m that guy who cheered when Ned Stark’s head went for a solo stroll at the end of A Game of Thrones. But I’m not sure I’m all right with shattering the rose-colored lenses through which I view some of my earlier work just to turn them into something functional. So there’s always the last option.

Trying New Things. This sounds like it should be easy, right? There are a figurative ton of ideas duking it out in my head, punctuated by quips in a terrible Christopher Lambert impersonation. I should be able to pluck one or two, force them to get it on (I’ll bring beer), and abduct the resulting story from its spent parents. Turns out that it’s not so easy.

Having ideas is not the same as having good ideas. Having good ideas is not the same as having writable ideas. And even the ideas that are good and writable come under some suspicion. You see, completing a book is immensely freeing, but it can also be crippling. The next work can’t be too similar, or it’s just the first step on the road to M. Night Shyamalan one-trick ponyhood. No one wants that.

So I’m tossing things together. Seeing what works. Starting with characters, or with setting concepts that enthrall me. I don’t yet know what I’m going to work on next, but I feel like it’s sitting there, just beyond my grasp.

And on that, at least, the cooks agree.

New Beginnings

This seemed a fitting topic for a couple reasons.

To start, this is my first post since Shadowling was rescued from the bowels of the Internet by my domain registrar, NameCheap. They forgot to bill my card on file, which led to the domain registration lapsing, but they were also extremely helpful in resurrecting the site, plucking it from a place beyond death and breathing life back into it as if it were a latter-day Gandalf the White. The only downside is that I lost all of my previous blogs. This post represents a new beginning.

The poetry of that aside, I’m also starting work on a new book. Binder’s Blood, my first effort, is in the hands of alpha readers. As rewarding it is to see an idea that plagued me for so long in a semi-complete state, it’s daunting to be starting on something brand new for the first time in a year or so.

For me, starting a novel really means beginning two or three new projects all at once and having them fight it out in my head. Think of it like the Hunger Games, except with more pretentious dialogue. Only one story shall survive, likely through treachery most foul.

I hate beginnings. The start of a novel is the hardest portion to write. That’s all right, because it should be: it’s the most important part. For established writers, the beginning of a novel is their chance to hook new readers and set the tone for their story. For an unpublished author like me, it takes on a whole new essentiality. The beginning of my book, especially the first 5-10 pages, is the only chance many new writers have to impress an agent.

Sure, this is unfair. Some books start slow. Binder’s Blood is a long piece, at 220,000+ words, and it begins as a meditation. Guess what? Agents don’t care. If that slow rumination doesn’t draw them in immediately, they have legitimate reason to believe that it won’t drag in readers who have no familiarity with a new author. I’m still in the midst of queries, but one of my biggest fears is that my beginning might not have requisite zing, and I haven’t decided what to do about it.

So, beginnings. What should a good beginning do?

Answers to that question may vary, but here are mine:

A good beginning…

1) …should establish the setting. Paint a picture so that the reader can fall into the world. It doesn’t matter if your first scene’s set in a junkyard or a crumbling palace on a distant world. Every place has quirks and magic to it, especially a mundane place. If your story is set in a back alley, why is there a spray painting of a mouse eating Manhattan on the wall? If every location has a bit of character, it’ll be more memorable and more precious to readers.

This shouldn’t be taken to encourage info-dumping. Piling on all of a place’s history and quirks in a few messy paragraphs turns the story into a boring textbook about a locale. Doling out hints over the course of the tale is much more likely to get readers curious about a setting. Keep them wanting more.

2) …should grab the reader’s interest. Many authors seem to think this means that a story must begin with an action scene. Robin Hobb’s brilliant Assassin’s Apprentice is a good case for proving this false. At the very beginning, we see the young bastard FitzChivalry delivered into the hands of his father’s soldiers. There is no fighting. There are no pulse-pounding chase scenes. We’re just given a boy who is sent to a group of rough men and many questions about why this has happened, and what the import of it is to the rest of the story. And it’s brilliant. By the end of the first chapter, the reader wants to know much more about Fitz and why his honorable father abandoned him. No action movie cliches needed.

That said, a good fight scene can be a stellar sell for a story. Within the first few pages of Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule, we see Richard, a woods guide, fight with a group of assassins who should definitely not be in his decidedly boring forest. He also rescues a beautiful and magical maiden from a realm beyond his own.

Your beginning must be a lure to the reader. Give them what they want, and they’ll stop there. Draw it out, tease them onward, and they’ll stay with you through the story you want to tell.

3) …should start at the right place. As an author, one of my biggest worries has always been where to begin things. Do I provide some setup, or am I brave enough to toss a reader into the fray and hope they won’t abandon the plot because it’s too confusing?

Some writers excel at beginning a tale in media res (“in the midst of things”) and can handily fill in the details of what has happened without making their first few pages feel like a “Previously, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer…” introduction. Others, like Robert Jordan in The Wheel of Time, really want us to settle in with the characters before any of the serious stuff starts to happen.

The good news is that most readers, especially genre fiction readers, are smarter than you’d think. Not only will they follow your plotting unless it’s a total mess, they’ll also extract and extrapolate information they aren’t specifically given. Worry less about them and more about where the story really starts. One tip that I’ve heard bandied about a few times is to begin writing where it feels right. Then cut off a few thousand words from the beginning. If the tale still makes good sense, you started too late. Cut the chaff, and you have a great new beginning.

4) …must set up the book that’s about to be read. Throwing in every possible trick to a hook a reader is great, but make sure that the beginning still fits with the rest of your story. All of the frills are great, but the single required function of a beginning is that it starts off your story. If you have a clever beginning, make sure that wit and sparkle carries through the entire tale. Make sure your setup has payoff, and your readers will love you for it.