ZHackers

  • ZHackers: Volume Three and why it's now FOUR Books!
  • ZHackers: Volume Three and why it's now FOUR Books!

    (40 comments)

    Yes, ZHackers: Volume 3 is going to be not one, but four books! Four very nerdy, thoughtful books full of big ideas, science experiments, and engineering projects gallore!

    But why four whole books and not just one big one, and how come ZHackers: Volume 3 became such a big, long book in the first place? Well, it's time to go down the rabbit hole because this is the story of growing pains as a writer and how characters and editing can yield big improvements and lead to major series-altering changes down the line.

    Years ago, when I set out writing the very first draft of ZHackers: Volume 3, when I was still working on my computer engineering degree and Volume 2 was only an unedited manuscript, my idea of the book was fairly simple and straightforward, a tale about three engineers building windmills and such, and then SPOILERS REDACTED at the end. The whole third book was going to be about 50k words long, tight and fast-paced like the first book.

    But, I'm a very different writer now. ZHackers: Volume 1, is a fine book and a good introduction to the series. Joey Sneddon isn't wrong when he calls it "a romp of a read." There's action, and humor, and the characters bounce off each other with tons of ideas.

    It's also a fairly simple, straightforward story. It's short enough that the narrow focus on Daniel, Richard, and Samantha makes sense. There isn't time to get to know all the other people in the tower, and it makes sense that Daniel wouldn't get to know "Bioengineering Girl" or many of the others.

    Every writer has strengths and weaknesses, and for me, creating characters is both. A small cast of main characters with rich internal lives? Easy! Coming up with believable and interesting set of secondary characters? Constant struggle.

    Sometimes, in the early drafts of Volumes 2 and 3, I'd put in a cardboard cutout of a character for Daniel to interact with in a particular situation. It got the story going and provided opportunities for drama and conflict. But then it came time to edit Volume 2, and the glaring, obvious thing to do was flesh out these sometimes unnamed props into actual people with psychologies and wants and needs.

    Suddenly, it wasn't just Daniel, Richard, and Samantha and a bunch of cardboard cut-outs, and that instantly made Volume 2 so much better, more dramatic and emotionally resonant! And in the process, I learned how to create dynamic secondary characters. But this not only opened up new opportunities to explore in my half-written draft of Volume 3, but demanded I follow up on the them. What good is hinting at dramatic scenarios if they're not followed up on. By fleshing out the characters of Melissa, Tom, Wallace, and Katrina, I'd opened up an entire toolbox to power Volume 3's story engine.

    So, when I came back to my draft of Volume 3, I wasn't very impressed. The core idea was good, but all my weaknesses that I'd worked to overcome in the previous book, were still around in this manuscript. Plus, teachers like Film Critic Hulk and a couple years of carefully disecting films had taught me to recognize dramatic flaws I wouldn't have noticed before.

    Narrative Propulsion, And Then, and Therefore:

    If you're thinking that first draft of Volume 3 sounds like a complete mess, right now, you'd be half right. It probably still would've passed by many readers with a "Hmm, that was pretty good. I really liked when they A, B, and C." That was the reaction a few early readers had anyway. But, I knew I could do a lot better.

    You see, Film Critic Hulk (who was building on ideas of South Park creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker) had introduced to me a very simple concept. You see, if you want to make your story compelling to readers, you need to create narrative propulsion, which drives one story point to the next. You don't need to be JJ Abrams (please don't actually) always driving from one beat to the next without a moment to let things sit, but if you let your story lose momentum, you get what many critics call the second-act lull and eventually people get bored.

    And the key to narrative propulsion is to link scenes with purposeful transitions. It's very easy to tell a story by telling what happens first, and then what happens next, and then what happens after that, and so on. For example:

    One morning, Bob stubbed his toe, and then he put some ice on it. Then he went to his doctor. After that he parked in the far end of the office parking lot and limped all the way to the door. Bob was late for work and his boss chewed him out.

    Compare that to:

    One morning, Bob stubbed his toe, and it hurt, so he put some ice on it.  It still wasn't feeling better, so he went to his doctor, who told him it was broken.  Because of the delay, he had to park at the far end of the parking lot at the and had to limp all the way to the door.  Bob opened the front door with dread.  His boss was going to chew him out for sure.

    That first one tells you what happened, but it's really terrible storytelling. It's all "And then" whereas the second paragraph is all this, therefore that, and something but then another thing. It's all about cause and effect. He puts ice on his sore toe, but it's still not feeling better, so he does something about it.

    The 45k (going on 70k) word manuscript for Volume 3 had some of that, but there were a few stretches where I hadn't really built in emotional, dramatic reasons beyond something being the next reasonable thing to do.

    So, I started my second draft, weaving in all the new threads and characters, with an eye to make sure every scene pulled its dramatic weight, being driven by character wants and needs and conflict, rather than simply advancing the story to the next interesting place. And boy does the story work better with Daniel on his toes for Wallace's next attempt to cause trouble, serious questions about whether to kill or try to save the zombies, and various ways in which the characters attempt to cheat death, accept their fates or reject it hanging over each encounter.

    Suddenly the characters aren't doing something because it's just the kind of thing they'd do in a situation like that, they're doing it because they have to, because five other problems are going to come to a head if they don't find some way to transcend their limitations and work together. That's purpose and yes, narrative propulsion.

    ZHackers: Volume 3 doubled in size with all the new characters, storylines, and connective tissue interweaving the elements with tension and purpose, but it reads much faster. This helps carry people through all the interesting technical discussions, thought experiments, and critical commentary that make ZHackers special and worth reading. It's why a twenty-page scene with Daniel and friends conducting a science experiment step-by-step can make for a page-turning climax, and two characters debating the finer points of the Kobayashi Maru so heartfelt.

    The Break Up:

    So, now that 50-70k words had exploded into ~140k words, much, *much* larger than the previous two books, a single Volume 3 would look comically oversized next to 1 and 2. I began to reassess the book's structure, and with a little prompting, whether it even made sense to release as a single book. My gut said that yes, ZHackers: Volume 3 was still a single arc within the larger story. None of the pieces were quite as standalone as Volumes 1 and 2. From the beginning, the book was setting up themes, problems, and questions that wouldn't be wrapped up until the very end. Volume 3 was still Volume 3, *but* there were distinct phases or acts, places where some piece is completed or the story launches in a new direction.

    And, moreover, Volume 3 had *two* plausible endings depending on what you see as the central focus of the story with the first propelling into the second. More accurately, it has both a *climax* and a *conclusion*. Breaking ZHackers up, allows each book to lend weight and finality to one phase of the story. The first two parts deliver significant turning points, leaving the climax to the third part and allowing the fourth to drive Volume 3 to its conclusion.

    Which is perfectly fitting with the philosophy for Volumes 1 and 2 of making each arc of the story its own book. Plus, Volume 3 has taken far longer than I'd anticipated, and I've had fans begging for more books for *years* now, so getting at least the parts that are ready out sooner is a good thing. And for new fans, being able to pick up the first part of Volume 3 means they don't have to shell out $60 to read some of the real engineering stuff ZHackers has been promising all these years - the good stuff! New fans can just pick up Volumes 1, 2, and 3.0 to try if they don't want to commit to the rest.

    Breaking up Volume 3 serves the story structure, gets fans new material sooner, serves new fans just trying the series, and as an added bonus means three more sets of cover artwork. It does increase the printing cost a little, so I might've been able to reduce the price a little bit as a single book, but with the extra artwork it feels worth it to me, especially considering that page-for-page, Volumes 3.0 and 3.1 are still better value than Volumes 1 and 2.

    Al Fin:

    ZHackers: Volume 3.0 and ZHackers: Volume 3.1 come out this month, and thanks to a lot of work in editing and rewrites, I think they represent the best, most purposeful and engaging entries in the series yet. But you don't have to take my word for it!

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