Time Travel for Writers

Technically, time travel is impossible, but as Isaac Asimov said, "I wouldn't want to give it up as a plot gimmick." Unfortunately, time travel has also been done A LOT, which leaves it open to accusations of cliche. It doesn't mean you can't do it (You can! Do!), but you need to know how it's been done and where your story fits into that (vast) collection.

Just because it's impossible doesn't mean you can't do it. Four common methods:
  1. Faster-than-light travel. If you travel close to the speed of light (theoretically possible), you actually travel into the future. If you could travel faster than the speed of light, you would go back in time. You can't, of course, but this is fiction. See also rules #3, 4, and 5 for space travel.
  2. Dial-a-time. You've seen Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, yes? Keanu Reeves' finest hour (if ever there was one). Their time machine was the soft sci-fi standard: don't explain how it works, just punch in a time and go. See also: Back to the Future.
  3. Wormholes. This is probably the most scientifically feasible method. If wormholes can be used to leap through space, then it should work for time too.
  4. In the minds of others. Like Quantum Leap, you don't go back in time yourself, but your mind does, implanting itself in the minds of others. You might be a watcher or you can take over that person's personality for a time and change things through them.

Most time travel stories must, at some point, deal with The Paradox. That is, they must answer the question: what happens to the present if you change something in the past? The impossibility of time travel means nobody knows, so you have a lot of freedom here. Beware, though, some of these devices are hard for a reader to wrap their head around.
  1. Time fork. If you change the past, then you actually create a fork in time. There's the "old" present that you came from, and the "new" present created by the events you changed. If you take your time machine back to the present, it will always be the "new" present, unless you can undo the changes you made.
  2. The Butterfly Effect. Like the time fork, except that any change--even your very presence or the butterfly you just swatted away--will have drastic effects on the future. This makes it highly unlikely that you can undo said changes.
  3. No change until you return. Say you kill your great-great-grandfather. In this scenario, you will continue to exist until you try to go back to the present, at which point you (and all descendants of your g.g.g-father) disappear. It doesn't make much sense, but it means you have a chance to undo things.
  4. Change occurs gradually. Like Back to the Future, your changes to the past become a ticking clock. If you stop your parents from falling in love, it's only a matter of time before you cease to exist.
  5. Change occurs immediately. If you kill your ancestor, you cease to exist there and then. Of course that's the true paradox: if you never existed, how did you kill your ancestor? Wouldn't that undo everything? Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. This is where stories get REALLY complicated.
  6. Events cannot be changed. The opposite of the paradox. Any attempts you make to change the past will either (A) be thwarted (e.g. the gun jams, your ancestor trips and dodges the bullet, your ancestor is saved by a medical miracle after you leave the scene, etc.) or (B) prove to have been a part of the timeline all along (e.g. he never was your ancestor, but his death is what brought your real ancestors together).

The biggest problem with time travel is how powerful it is. If you can go back in time and change any mistake before it happens, it immediately raises the question, "Why don't you just...?" Like, "Why don't you just go back in time to before you made the machine and stop everything from happening?" This is another place where time travel gets all headache-y, and where you need to be the most careful. Some ideas:
  1. The machine is broken. So you can't go back and forth until it's fixed. Of course, once you fix it, you could just go back and undo everything, but if everything is right again, maybe you don't want to.
  2. It's against the rules. Time travel is essentially magic: you make up the rules, then stick with them. If there's a plot hole, make up a rule to patch it up, but make sure that new rule is consistent with everything else that happens. Maybe time travel is uncontrollable (as in Quantum Leap, or anything with wormholes), or you can get somewhen in a broad sense (say, a certain year), but not close enough to fix details (i.e. the exact place and time where you would have opportunity to fix everything). Maybe you can't change the past. Maybe you can only go one direction (forward or backward, not both) or you can only jump a specified amount of time (like in 5-year increments).
  3. It makes things worse. In an attempt to subvert the plot hole, you do go back in time to fix it, but your old self doesn't listen, or someone worse comes back and fixes the machine after you broke it, or you killed a butterfly and spaces monkeys take over the planet in ten years. Whatever.

The short version of what's been done in time travel fiction is: EVERYTHING. Nothing's original, we talked about that. If you want to see for yourself what's been done, take a week off of work and read these.

However, anything can be done well again. Mix it in new ways and make it your own. Just don't make the mistake of thinking you're the first person to come up with the idea of time tourism, time police, fixing the future, stopping someone from wrecking the past, beings that move through time, a modern-day teenager stumbling upon a trip to that period in history he can never seem to understand in school (God bless you, Keanu)...

It's all been done, but you can do it again and better. Just don't be boring, and you'll be fine.

So You Want to be a Geek

Fine, nobody wants to be a geek, except those of us who are already geeks and need a way to feel proud about that (God bless you, Internet, for giving us that way!). But maybe you want to hang out with geeks? Understand what's going on at Comic Con? Date a geek?

Stop laughing. It happens.

Consider this an unofficial, non-exhaustive primer on the things you should know to understand the geek world...or at least to be able to visit our world without falling asleep or cringing all the time.

Please understand that the term "geek" is very broad (and yet completely distinct from "nerd"--we'll have that conversation later). The following list will help you with the most common breed: the sci-fi/fantasy geek. Although geek types frequently overlap, this list will not be as helpful with computer geeks, techno-geeks, math geeks, physics-and-other-hard-science geeks, history geeks, or any other form of "useful" geekery.

1. Watch the original Star Wars trilogy. Original theater edition is preferable, if you can find it.
         a) Although you are not required to have an opinion on the matter, know what it means that Han shot first.

2. Familiarize yourself with some form of Star Trek. Preferably TOS (the Original Series) or TNG (the Next Generation).
         a) You are not required to watch more than one episode or movie, but you should be able to recognize (by name or face) at least 3 crew members.
         b) Watching the new Star Trek movie is acceptable (because it's awesome), but assume that conversations about Kirk, Spock, etc. are speaking of the original series, unless otherwise specified. If you, for example, say, "Spock and Uhura are so hot together" without specifying the context, you will be known for a fraud.
         c) Actually, just avoid stating opinions in general.

3. Know your comic book superheroes:
         a) The origin stories of Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man.
         b) The identifying powers/features of the aforementioned superheroes, as well as: Wolverine, Cyclops, the Incredible Hulk, Punisher, each of the Fantastic Four.
         c) Although you should see Nolan's new Batman movies (again: awesome), do not assume the original Batman ever trained as a ninja. Though he should have.

4. Watch or read the entirety of LORD OF THE RINGS. Reading is preferable but, dude, it's 1,000+ pages. We understand.

5. Watch every episode of Firefly. (NOTE: This may no longer be relevant in 5-10 years, but for today's geek it is a necessity).

6. Know what anime is.
         a) Know the difference between "anime" (Japanese animation, which includes many different styles) and "anime-style" (non-Japanese animation that looks like it).
         b) Know the difference between dubbed and subbed.
         c) Never, under any circumstances, assume or imply that because something is animated, it is for children.

7. Watch one or more of the following, preferably subbed:
         a) Neon Genesis: Evangelion
         b) Vision of Escaflowne
         c) Cowboy Bebop
         d) Naruto (one season is acceptable)
         e) Dragonball Z (the cartoon, not the live action movie; one season is acceptable)
         f) Any film by Hayao Miyazaki (e.g. Laputa, Nausicaa, Porco Rosso, My Neighbor Totoro, etc.)
         g) Avatar: the Last Airbender (this is not anime, but I think it counts)

8. Play one of the following RPGs for at least one hour:
         a) Dungeons & Dragons
         b) World of Warcraft
         c) Any Final Fantasy game

9. Know the following terms:
         a) Saving throw
         b) Red shirt (from Star Trek)
         c) Orc
         d) d20
         e) Klingon
         f) Mech or Mecha
         g) Skynet
         h) XP
         i) Grok
         j) Holodeck

10. Memorize some obscure piece of trivia related to any of previous items. Example: "Did you know Neil Gaiman wrote the English dialog for Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke?" (true story).

I know that seems like a lot of work, but nobody said being a geek (even an honorary one) was easy.

Also understand there are many, MANY things that could adequately replace items on this list. If my fellow geeks were to make similar lists, they would all be different and would include things even I'm not familiar with.

So to you: Do you know everything on this list? What would you add/replace for someone who wanted to understand the geek world?

Coming up with Chapter Titles

There is no wrong way to do chapters and chapter titles. Short titles. Long titles. Chapters titled with the name of the POV character. Excerpts of the chapter used as titles. Titles by date or location. Straightforward titles. Obscure titles. Numbers only. No titles (not even numbers). No chapters at all.

All of it has been done, and all of it can work. That makes everything I say here my opinion only. Ignore it as you will.

Think about what chapter titles are good for. Honestly, I think most readers ignore them, especially when so many books have only numbers to designate the chapters. For that reason, if you're not sure what to do, numbering the chapters is a good, safe default.

As both writer and reader, I use chapter titles as markers, to remember what happens and where (in the book) it happens. I don't always flip back for information, but when I do, it's nice to have those markers there. So I think a good chapter title is ACCURATE and MEMORABLE.

ACCURATE means the title makes sense after the reader has read the chapter. A symbolic title like "Red Cats" (for a chapter in which there are no red cats, nor does any character compare plot events to red cats--which is to say, the connection is just an exercise for the reader) might be very clever on a re-read, but serves no other purpose.

MEMORABLE means the title makes it easy to remember what happened in that chapter later. "Vague Omens" might not be a good chapter title, unless the omens were memorable by themselves.

But chapters can serve one more purpose: to make the reader want to know more. I don't know about you, but when I finish a chapter, I often read the title of the next one, even if I plan to put the book down, and sometimes, that title convinces me to keep going. A hint of what's to come, naming an event or mystery the reader has been looking forward to, an implication that something terrible is about to happen...all of these can make good chapter titles.

But as I said, that's just my opinion, and there is no wrong way to do it. How do you title your chapters?

7 Things You Never Wanted to Know

I have been coerced by the hilarious and talented K. Marie Criddle to tell you 7 things about myself. I'll understand if you stop reading the blog after this.

I first beat Super Mario Bros. 2 on Wednesday, February 15, 1989. That's right, I KNOW THE DATE.

The Care Bears Movie still creeps me out.

I learned to play Bryan Adam's "Everything I Do" on the piano to impress girls. It worked once. We broke up 2 months later.

I straighten things obsessively, especially board games. My wife, Cindy, used to taunt me in Ticket to Ride by intentionally bumping her trains out of place, because she knew it drove me crazy. (I do love her, though. Really.)

One day, we were on vacation with my family and teaching them Ticket to Ride. Cindy said, "It's fun to bug Adam with this game. Watch." She bumped a train out of place, and every single member of my family shouted, "What are you doing?!" and moved to straighten it.

I love my family.

When I was a kid, I stapled my thumb trying to put together my first novel (an illustrated Choose Your Own Adventure). After crying, running to Mom, getting a tissue, and waiting for the blood to clot, I went back to the novel and STAPLED MY THUMB AGAIN.

In order of increasing terror, the creatures I am most phobically afraid of are: spiders, scorpions, facehuggers.

Presented without comment:

Yeah, I think we're done here.

The Power of Story

I sometimes come across the opinion that non-fiction is "useful" while fiction is purely for entertainment. For someone who loves to read, it can be hard to hear (especially when it's followed by an implication that what I write is not useful).

Ah, but it's not true. Non-fiction is certainly useful, just like a history textbook is useful, but it doesn't have the power of story.

Let's start with geography. I'm pretty good at it, but even I have trouble finding most countries in Africa. I can find Egypt, Libya, Madagascar, South Africa, and maybe Ethiopia and Somalia, but the other 48 countries are harder to pin down. I think most Americans are the same. Why? Well think about the countries you know. I know Egypt from the Bible (among other things). I know Madagascar because its the only island nation and I've seen the movie. I know Libya and Somalia because we've fought wars there.

And I know Tunisia because of Star Wars.

I know where these countries are because I have stories--even dumb ones--associated with them in my mind. No matter how many times I've memorized African geography (and I have), the only nations that stick over time are the ones for which I've learned a story.

Another example: I've been to church my whole life, but I'd have a hard time telling you the content of most sermons. Not because I didn't listen, but because they didn't stick. I do, however, remember stories. Like when my pastor went fishing without a line "so the fish wouldn't bother him." Or the story of the bridge raiser who sacrificed his son to save the people on the bridge.

Stories stick, even fiction. I have trouble remembering the details of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, but I will always remember the moment in Voyage of the Dawn Treader when Eustace needed Aslan's help to shed the dragon skin he could not.

We DO write fiction to entertain, but I hope the stories I write also have meaning for those who read them. Because those stories--meaningful or not--will stick in their minds a lot longer than most non-fiction.

What stories mean something to you?

D&D vs. Fiction

One of my first novel attempts--which crapped out at 20,000 words and which you will never read--was a Dungeons & Dragons novel. I've been playing D&D and other games like it since 1989, and writing a novel was a natural extension of the worlds and characters I'd been making up all along.

But D&D does not necessarily make good fiction. It's sort of a running gag in the fantasy genre that you can tell which novels were really D&D games. This post is about why that is.

In D&D, there is no protagonist. D&D is not about one character, but about the party. They share the story and tell it together. This can work in fiction, but it usually doesn't.
In fiction, even if there are many major characters, the story is still about only one of them. THE LORD OF THE RINGS was always about Frodo, even though every party member had their adventures.

In D&D, the story and world revolve entirely around the party. Because D&D is half shared storytelling and half strategy game, it has to revolve around the players, otherwise they get bored. So when the mysterious stranger approaches the party with a quest, nobody asks, "Why us?"
In fiction, there needs to be a good reason the world can only be saved by the protagonist (especially in YA, where there are often more skilled and more experienced characters about). Anything else feels like it's happening because the plot needs it to. It feels fake.

In D&D, a character is defined by what they can DO. They're defined by their classes, skills, and statistics. Their character arc is the levels they gain and the equipment they pick up.
In fiction, a character is defined by what they WANT and what they CHOOSE. Their character arc is internal--what does the character learn about themselves and how does that change them? In fiction, a half-elf fighter is just a stereotype, but a half-elf fighter who wants to be a wizard, but whose human father wouldn't let him because he hates magic, is interesting.

In D&D, every world is essentially the same. Oh, the kingdoms and politics are different, and some DMs will come up with unique deities and monsters. But the races, classes, and rules are the same. They have to be so the players know what to expect from game to game, and can feel secure that the rules are balanced. Translated to fiction, this results in a feeling of sameness to the worlds. Everyone is a fighter, thief, cleric, or wizard. Primary cultures are medieval-European in flavor. Magic is just something certain people do (but only a limited number of times per day).

There's nothing inherently wrong with this. Some people want this when they read fantasy, and certainly there are DMs who get uber-creative with worlds and rules. But if you're not careful, this sameness is what will happen.

D&D revolves around the players, outside the game. They're the ones making the decisions and steering the story. You might think, then, that fiction revolves around the reader, but it doesn't. The reader is like a spectator to a D&D game, which is not terribly interesting. They have no decisions to make, but they want to root for someone who does. That's why fiction revolves around the characters.

Have you ever transitioned from D&D to writing? Or have you read a novel that felt like it did? Tell me in the comments.

Writing Emotions

One recurring comment in my recent beta round of Air Pirates was to add more emotion. "How does he feel about this?" "Can there be some sort of emotional understanding here, not just an intellectualization of events?"

Turns out this is hard for me. I'm not a very emotional person. I don't really trust emotions, and I've spent large chunks of my life ignoring them. So now I find myself Googling things like "What does guilt feel like?"

I guess my transformation to android is complete.

But I've learned a couple things which might help those of you who, while not fully cybernetic perhaps, have similar emotional inhibitors installed.

1) The Bookshelf Muse has lists of common external and internal reactions to tons of emotions. Scroll down the sidebar (where they also have details for various common settings, weather conditions, colors, shapes, textures, and even symbolism!). I do find many of the reactions to be more excessive than my characters usually are (big surprise there), but even so it helps me thinks of similar reactions my characters would have. This site is indispensable.

2) Put myself in the character's situation. I ask myself what I would feel were the same thing happening to me. I realize this sounds obvious to most of you, and even ridiculous that I'd even have to mention it. But understand that, were I in the same situations as my characters, I'd shut down whatever feelings I have and think my way through the problem.

Probably that's not really true, but sitting in my writer's chair--rather than a piss-scented prison cell aboard a pirate ship--it's hard for me to do anything but intellectualize.

Anyway, those are the only tips I've got. Like I said, I'm not very good at this. I bet you've got some tips though, yes?

How to Use TVTropes.org

TV Tropes is a fantastic site, collecting every story trope humanity has ever done, along with examples. If you've got a spare month or two (not a typo), I highly recommend heading over there. If you've never been, let me give you some tips on how to use the site.

1) Let it depress you. Start with some trope you're writing, say air pirates. Follow the links to all the interesting, related tropes--especially ones you thought were original--like cool-looking airships or the villain's airborne fortress that threatens to rain cannonballs on the goodguys. Come to the realization that there is NOTHING original in your story AT ALL. Quit writing.

2) Let it encourage you. After you've quit writing for a few years, realize that nobody ELSE is original either. That makes unoriginality okay (within reason). The goal in fiction is not originality, but to take what's been done and make it fresh and interesting again. To make it YOURS.

3) Let it inform you. Now that the tropes are no longer soul-crushing, find your favorite trope to see how it has been handled before, how it's been subverted, and how famous the examples are so you know what you can get away with. Come up with subversions of your own, or mix it with other tropes in new and interesting ways.

4) Let it inspire you. Stuck for ideas? How about the origin story of a Judge-Dredd-style adventure hero and his possibly-insane sidekick facing an evil tribal circus in the African jungle. If that doesn't work, just hit the TV Tropes Story Idea Generator one more time until you find something you DO like! And if it sounds too lame or familiar, just add ninjas (or samurai or pirates or mecha or whythehecknot all of them). Because it's AWESOME.

Are any of you even still reading this, or did I lose you like 15 links ago?

So You Want to be a Ninja...


THE BASICS. Spelling, grammar, punctuation--these are your katas, the fundamentals. Any peasant can throw a punch or toss together a grammatically correct sentence. You must know why it is correct. You must be so familiar with the rules that even your Twitter updates are punctuated properly. Only then can you improvise, creating your own forms by intent, not laziness.

WORDS. Words are your weapons, and you must become familiar with as many as possible. More than familiar, you must become adept in their use. A simple farmer can pick up a sword and make a clumsy effort at wielding it. You must be its master. And you must know which weapons are appropriate for each situation. A polearm is all but useless in assassination, as "puissant" and "scion" would find a poor home in the mouth of the common taxi driver.

With knowledge of weapons and katas, you would make a decent fighter, a writer of e-mails, a composer of persuasive essays. Any daimyo would be glad to have you among their common militia, but you would not be a ninja.

STYLE. Fighting is more than killing your opponent, and writing is more than words strung in the proper order. The samurai know this, and you can learn much from them. You must be aware of the clarity of your writing, the variation of sentence structure, the powerful techniques of imagery and metaphor. Writing is an art, not simply a means of communication.

With a knowledge of style, you could choose your own path. You could become a mercenary, writing for whomever would pay you. You could begin the path of the samurai, accepting their bushido and writing only the truth--news, non-fiction, and the like. If you seek a life of security and reputation, then perhaps the way of the samurai is for you.

Or you could begin the life of a ninja. To the samurai, bushido is life. To the ninja, it is a hindrance. The art of the ninja is lies and misdirection, surprise and subterfuge. To become a ninja, you must learn many techniques the samurai are not taught, master them, and make them your own.

You must learn the secrets of tension and plot, what drives a story forward and hooks the reader until the end. You must learn to create characters that are real, believable, and can gain or lose sympathy with the audience, as the situation dictates. You must understand the ways of dialogue to make your characters to speak without tearing down the lie you have constructed.

These are basic knowledge to the ninja, but they are only the beginning. Millions have gone before you. Most do not survive. The shinobi masters whose names you've heard are the exception, not the rule.

It takes more determination than you've ever known to become a ninja, but you can do it. I believe in you.

And if I'm wrong, it won't matter. You'll be dead.

Cooking for Nine

You may know I have an acute fear of failure. The kind that makes me terrified of stupid things--like small talk or mowing the lawn--just because I might fail at it. This, of course, makes writing and getting critiques rather difficult. Anyone who's been writing for a while knows you can't please everybody--even the best books have haters, and the unpublished more than most.

Turns out cooking for my family is good practice then. For a sufficiently large family,* somebody will always hate whatever you cook for them. And they're kids, which means they're just as honest as if they were hiding behind the anonymity of the internet.

For someone who's afraid to even play a friendly game of soccer, you can imagine what this does to my ego.**

But here's the bright side, and hopefully something you can use in your writing: no matter how strange or bad my cooking is, there's always at least one person that likes it. See, the converse law of "You can't please everybody" is "You will always please somebody."

It might be only your mom or your best friend, but it will be somebody. In order to get past the crotch-kicking that is rejection, you have to focus on that person. Internalize their opinion. Believe them. Honestly, it's the only way to keep moving forward when you feel like everyone else is cranking your soul through a sausage grinder.

Mm, sausage. Maybe everybody will like that...

* I don't know for sure, but I'd bet "sufficiently large" might even mean "two."

** It doesn't help that they're all Thai, so the foods I actually
like to cook are generally frowned upon.

That Can Be My Next Tweet! (also, Markov Chains)

I found this site via Keriann Martin, and I've been spending far too much time on it. It's a Tweet jumbler called That can be my next tweet! Here were some results it made from my Twitter feed:

(My next business venture)
Individually-wrapped bananas. I could tape record everything they know how to be as 4.99. Done.

(No, really. I clever.)
I really clever. Dreamworks is endearing themselves to buy those are not actually really need to really?

(In which I am apparently stealing from Firefly)
I was afraid of fixing Hagai's emotional arc today like Wash and Inara's banter in which is that?

(Poor novel planning)
From Reading? My mom was present when I think of a puppy? I think it's not a good inciting event...

(I think I know who drank the rum)
Shoot, with the rum gone? S.C. Butler says you're NOT looking for the rewards are not fame.

(A special message for Keriann)
:-D It's okay, Keri. You can compose wonderful stuff like a water bender. I just watch DIEHARD.

Okay, well I think it's fun. If those were lame, or my geekery posts aren't your thing, you might want to step back. I'm about to explain how this thing works.

It's a simple statistical model using something called Markov chains. Basically, you give the model some set of input text (in this case, your Twitter feed), and it uses that to generate a statistically similar output. For example, say you give it a very small input of 3 tweets:

Why is the rum gone?
Firefly is the bomb. Why is it cancelled again?
I'm gone, watching Firefly and drinking rum.

To produce output, first the model will randomly select one of the starting words: Why, Firefly, or I'm. (Why) Then it looks at what words follow that one. In this case, both instances of the word are followed by 'is'. (Why is)

Here's where it gets interesting. After 'is' comes either 'the' (twice) or 'it' (once), so the model will choose 'the' 66.7% of the time and 'it' the other 33.3%. (Why is the) Then again, after 'the' comes either 'rum' (once) or 'bomb' (once). (Why is the bomb)

Finally, when it reaches an end word--gone, again, or rum--it starts a new sentence using one of the random starting words, or it just stops, having produced all the output it's going to produce. (Why is the bomb. Why is the rum. Firefly and drinking rum. I'm gone.)

So there's your useless fact for the day. The model can be made smarter a number of ways, for example by taking into account not just the current word, but also the word before it (e.g. 'is' might be followed by 'it' or 'the', but 'Firefly is' will always be followed by 'the'). Also, notice the tweet jumble ignores @ mentions, URLs, and hashtags.

What are Markov chains good for, other than silly-sounding word jumbles? It turns out they're great for modeling thermodynamics or economics, for prediction in speech recognition software, for auto-generation of music. Spammers use them to insert real-looking paragraphs in an attempt to get past spam filters, and Google's PageRank is defined by Markov chain probabilities.

But I just use them to waste time with insightful tweets about publishing and Jesus: "Okay, how you can just heard of Publishing? Thanks for Jesus or not? Yeah, I'm quite okay with one."

Scams and Cons

Among other oddities, I've been researching con artists for my latest shiny. For some reason, these grab my attention, from The Sting to Matchstick Men to Ocean's Eleven. Here are a few of the more interesting cons I've come across.

In the interest of readability, the target in these cons is named Mark. The con artist is Carl, and his accomplice (if there is one) is Anna.

Dressed as a poor musician, Anna buys something cheap from Mark's restaurant. When the bill arrives, Anna tells Mark she left her wallet elsewhere. She offers to leave her old, beat-up fiddle as collateral, then leaves.

Later, Carl enters the restaurant and spies the fiddle. After asking where Mark got it, Carl says the fiddle is a classic and offers $50,000 for it. Mark can't sell it, of course (it's not his), so Carl leaves his business card and tells him to tell the owner of the fiddle of his offer. Carl leaves.

Anna finally returns with her wallet. If Mark dutifully passes on the message, the con fails (though with no repercussions for Carl or Anna). But Mark is greedy and desperate for $50,000. He offers to buy Anna's fiddle. Anna, of course, refuses, as the fiddle is her work, but she is finally convinced to sell it for a modest sum, say $500.

At that point, Anna and Carl disappear, with a profit of $500, less the cost of the piece-of-junk fiddle now in Mark's hands.

Anna mugs Mark, but Carl shows up just in time to save him. Now Carl has Mark's trust. With a bit of smooth-talking, Carl can get a reward or a favor from Mark--one that would make him more money than simply mugging Mark would have.

This one requires some charisma. Carl claims he can make it rain for Mark's crops (or that his medicine can cure Mark's disease, or that he can change the outcome of a sporting event in Mark's favor, etc). Mark pays up front, and if it actually rains, Mark believes Carl did it. If it doesn't, Carl convinces Mark he needs more time and/or money.

Like Rainmaker, but more about math than charisma. Carl sends out a free tip on some sporting event (say the first game of the NFL playoffs) to many marks. Half of them are told the Chargers will win, the other half, the 49ers. Whatever the outcome, half of Carl's tips will have been right.

The second week of the season, he sends out another tip, but only to those marks who received the winning tip from the week before. Again, half the tips say Team A, half say Team B, and in the end half of them will have been proven right.

He does this each week, until the day before the Super Bowl when he has a very small group of people who have received apparently perfect winning tips for the entire season. That's when he sells the final tip--who will win the Super Bowl--for $1,000 each.

The key to a good con is charisma and legitimacy. Maybe you imagine Carl as a sleazy, underhanded crook--easy to spot because he feels like a liar.


But for a con game to work, Mark has to trust Carl completely (con is short for confidence, after all). That means Carl is going to be the friendliest, most humble person Mark ever met.


Man I can't wait to write that character.

Anyway, what have you been researching lately?

How to Make Deadlines

Most of the time, I don't make deadlines for myself. I'm lazy. Instead I just keep plugging along, figuring 50 words is better than zero. While that's true, it's stupid of me not to set goals. I work BETTER with them, even if it's just to squeeze out another couple sentences because I'm almost there.

Until recently, one of my rationalizations was that writing is subjective. How could I set a deadline for something creative and unpredictable? Turns out that's crap. Two of my previous jobs were both creative (game design) and unpredictable (computer programming), but if I didn't tell my bosses when I thought a task would be done, they'd be pissed.

And you know what? I did do it. I set deadlines for tasks that were impossible to measure, and most of the time I met them. Here are three tips that (hopefully) will help me do it again, without the bosses who taught me these things.

1) Take your initial estimate and double it. It's human nature to underestimate how long a task will take. Unless you have strong data backing you up (e.g. you have written your last three novels in under two months), doubling your estimate will take care of this bias and give you flexibility when the unexpected happens.

2) If a task will take longer than two weeks, break it up into smaller tasks. Two weeks is about as long as most people can accurately plan. When a deadline is farther away, the tendency to procrastinate increases. Breaking a huge task up into smaller ones will keep the necessary pressure on and make your estimates more accurate.

3) Pay attention to how often you beat (or miss) your deadlines. This is how you improve over time. If you usually miss your deadlines, loosen them up a bit. If you usually beat your deadlines by a lot, maybe you don't have to double your estimates anymore. The longer you practice this, the better your estimation skills will be.

Remember, the goal of deadlines is not to make you work faster. The goal is to accurately estimate how long a task will take and to help you work at a consistent pace.

Granted, for most of us (myself included), "a consistent pace" and "faster" are the same thing. When I don't make deadlines, I tend to go on a writing binge followed by weeks of self-justified laziness. There's nothing wrong with taking breaks, but they should be intentional, which mine weren't.

Do you keep deadlines? Got any tips to share for those of us who can't even make them, let alone keep them?