Thursday, September 24, 2020

A Few Basic Things I Should’ve Mentioned...

I  was glancing back over the whole A2Q thing I did a few months back. I admit, I’ve been toying with the idea of combining the posts, expanding on some aspects, and offering it as a cheapo ebook (at all interesting to anyone?). And it struck me there are a few aspect of writing I kinda skimmed over and others I barely touched on at all.

So I thought it wouldn’t be a bad thing to add in a few basics about forming a plot, shaping my structure, dealing with characters, that sort of stuff. A little less how-to (“press your foot down on the gas pedal to go fast”) and a little more but-keep-in-mind (“don’t go ninety in a school zone while a cop’s parked there”). Make sense?

I’ve mentioned most of these ideas before, so they may feel familiar. Also, since I’m loosely tying this back to the A2Q, I’ll use my character examples there rather than my standard Animaniacs references. I don’t want anyone to think I’ve abandoned Yakko, Wakko, and Dot.

Anyway...

First, I should be clear who my protagonist is. In my head and on the page. If I spend the first five chapters of my book with Phoebe... everyone’s going to assume Phoebe’s the main character. The book’s clearly about her, right?  So when she vanishes for the next seven chapters and I focus on Luna or Quinn... well, people are going to keep wondering when we’re getting back to Phoebe.  Because she’s who I set up as the main character.

Now, a lot of books have a big cast of characters.  An ensemble, as some might say.  That’s cool.  But if my book’s going to be shifting between a bunch of characters, I need to establish that as soon as possible.  If the first four or five chapters are all the same character, it’s only natural my readers will assume that’s going to be the norm for this book, and it’ll be jarring when I jump out of that norm.

Second, speaking of jumping and jarring, is that I need to keep my POV consistent. Even with a third person POV, we’re usually looking over a specific person’s shoulder, so to speak. Which means that character can’t walk away and leave us behind.  Likewise, we can’t start over Phoebe’s shoulder and then drift over so we’re looking over Luna’s.

It’s cool to switch POV—there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it—but I need to make it very clear to my readers I’m doing it. They need that stability and consistency. If they start seeing things from new angles or hearing new pronouns, it’s going to knock them out of the story and break the flow. And that’s never a good thing.

Third, while we’re talking about peering over other shoulders, is that I should be clear who’s part of my story and who’s just... well, window dressing. I probably don’t want to spend three or four pages describing Doug, hearing his backstory, reminiscing about his workday, and then discover he’s just some random guy at the bar. Phoebe serves him a drink and then we never, ever hear about him again.

Names and descriptions are how I can tell my reader if a character’s going to be important and worth remembering or is they're just there to show Phoebe’s doing her job. Three paragraphs of character details means “Pay attention to this one.” So if I’m telling readers to keep track of people for no reason—or for very thin reasons—I’m wasting their time and my word count.

Fourth is I need to have an actual plot before I start focusing on subplots.  What’s the big, overall story of my book?  If it’s about Phoebe trying to fins out the secret of the super-werewolf, I should probably get that out to my readers before I start the betrayal subplot or the romance-issues subplot or the how-could-mom-and-dad-have-hidden-this-family-secret-from-us subplot.  After all, they picked up my book because the back cover said it was about fighting super-werewolves. I should be working toward meeting those expectations first.

If I find myself spending more time on a subplot (or subplots) than the actual plot, maybe I should pause and reconsider what my book’s about.

Fifth, closely related to four, is my subplots should relate to the main plot somehow.  They need to tie back or at least have similar themes so we see the parallels.  If I can pull a subplot out of my book and it doesn’t change anything it the main plot in the slightest... I might want to reconsider it. And if it’s an unrelated subplot to an unrelated subplot... okay, wow, I’m really getting lost at this point.

Sublots face a real danger of becoming, well, distracting. People are showing up for that sweet werewolf on werewolf action, and I don’t want to kill whatever tension I’m building by putting that on hold for  two or three chapters while I deal with inter-hunter rivalry and politics at the werewolf-hunting lodge. It’s like switching channels in the middle of a television show. What’s on the other channel isn’t necessarily bad, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the show we’re trying to watch.

Sixth is knowing when I need to reveal stuff. Remember how much fun it was when you met that certain someone and there were all those fascinating little mysteries about them? We wanted to learn all their tics and favorites and secrets. Where are they from? What’d they study in school? What do they do for a living? What are their dreams? Do they have brothers or sisters? Where’d they get that scar? Just how big is that tattoo?

But... we don’t want to learn those secrets from a dossier. We want to hang out with these people, talk over drinks, maybe stay up all night on the phone or on the couch. The memories of how we learn these things about people are just as important as what we learn. And it’s how we want to learn about characters, too. Just dumping pages and pages of backstory actually make a character less interesting. It kills that sense of mystery, because there’s nothing left to learn about them.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with me having incredibly fleshed out characters. But I might not need to use all of that backstory in the book. And I definitely don’t need to use it all in the first two or three chapters.

Seventh and last is flashbacks. Flashbacks are a fantastic narrative device, but... they get used wrong a lot. And when they’re wrong... they’re brutal. A clumsy flashback can kill a story really fast.

A flashback needs to be advancing the plot. Or increasing tension. Or giving my readers new information. In a great story, it’s doing more than one of these things. Maybe even all of them.

But a flashback that doesn’t do any of these things... that’s not a good flashback.  That’s wrong.  And it’ll bring things to a grinding halt and break the flow.


And that's seven basic things to keep in mind while I’m writing my story 

Now, as always, none of these are hard-fast, absolute rules.  If I hire someone to paint my house, there’s always a possibility this particular painter doesn’t use a roller. There can always be an exception.  But I should be striving to be the exception, not just assuming everyone will be okay with me not following all the standards. My readers are going in with certain expectations, and I need to be doing honestly amazing things to go against those expectations. 

Because if that same painter also doesn’t use a brush... or dropcloths... or a ladder...

Next time, just to be different, I’d like to explain something else to you. But I’m probably going to skim over most of it, if that’s okay.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Around Here We Call That...

I wanted to take a minute or two to talk about a certain type of talking.

We all have our own unique voice based on where we grew up or maybe where we ended up. It’s partly accent, partly regional vocabulary. I think we’ve talked about the whole pop vs. soda vs. cola thing before, right? Plus some of you weirdos who just call everything a coke. But there are tons of little things like that. For example, does your street have a parkway, a common, an easement, or a road strip?

Everyone has their own personal vocabulary, and their own preferred words. It’s a way we can identify people (and characters). And it’s a way we can learn a little more about them.

For example... I grew up in New England (mostly Maine, but a fair amount of time in Massachusetts), and I’ve been told my accent really comes out on certain words (like drawer). Plus my particular part of Maine has a unique term for tourists—goatropers—that my tongue still tries to fling out now and then. But at this point I’ve now spent (wow) half my life in southern California, so I’ve also picked up the odd habit of using “the” with freeway and highway numbers. And I started calling that strip of land the devil strip, just because I saw it explained that way once and fell in love with it. And my partner and I’ve been watching a lot of British gardening shows lately, so I’m pretty sure we’re using a lot of their terminology now.

And that last bit is what I wanted to talk about.

I’m betting most of you have had a job at some point with its own special vocabulary. Certain terms and phrases unique to that business. Sometimes they refer to specialized equipment, other times to certain practices or methods. If you were in retail, I bet you had to deal with a lot of terms that came down from some corporate desk, right?

And that’s another aspect of this. At that job, there were probably all the “correct” terms and phrases and names to use... and then there were the ones that actually got used on the job. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. There’s the way we get told it works, the way the people up top say it works... and there’s the way everybody down on the ground floor actually does it.

For example, again... most of you know I worked in the film industry for several years (a good chunk of that “half my life in Southern California” time). The film industry has a lot of special equipment and does a lot of things other jobs don’t, so it stands to reason there are a lot of special terms that get used. But... the terms that get used on a film set very often aren’t the ones that get taught at film school. Again and again I’d meet people who “knew” the industry, but were baffled by the actual terms used by the crew. Terms like needing a stinger, turning around, the abby singer, or the martini. And sometimes, yeah, it’s annoying but that martini gets an olive.

But it’s not like the film industry’s that rare. The military has a lot of their own terminology, and a lot of jargon that gets used in place of that terminology. So does the medical community. I’ve talked with my scientist-turned-urban-fantasy-author friend Kristi Charish numerous times about the language and phrases used in a lab. I have a bunch of friends in the game industry who’ve let jargon slide out now and then. I worked at a Walgreens through most of high school, a suit store for a year after college, and a few theaters in San Diego when I first moved to California. And all of these places had their own way of talking and referring to things. Even the same things.

Weird as it may sound, this is why I like having beta readers with different backgrounds than me. And why I like talking with people who work in all sorts  of fields. Because so often they’ll tell me “this isn’t how Wakko would say this,” or “Dot would probably call this a...”

It’s also why I love talking to people in person (or these days, on Zoom) when I’m asking them questions about things. A lot of the time when they’re speaking (rather than writing it out), they’ll fall back on that jargon first because it’s the natural way they speak about things. And that’s what I want to know—how would my characters naturally talk about these topics. What parts of their work vocabulary leak into their day-to-day conversations?

Of course, this is all just for flavor. I don’t want to bury my dialogue in jargon for the same reason I probably don’t want to write out an extreme accent—I don’t want my readers to get lost or confused in the dialogue. Believe me, back when I was in the film industry, I brought many Thanksgiving dinners to a dead halt as I tried to explain “things that happened at work” to my family. Because these were casual, everyday terms for me, but they had no idea what I was talking about.

I want my readers to be able to flow past odd spellings or to figure out unusual terms from context. And I want the readers who know this jargon to see that I’ve done my research, for them to feel instantly familiar with the characters they should be identifying with the most. Again, just that dash of flavor that makes something perfect.

So learn those odd terms and casual phrases. Make characters talk like the people they’re supposed to be, in the jobs they’re supposed to have. Because it’ll grab your readers and pull them deeper into the story.

And personally, I like it when my writing pulls readers deeper into the story.

Next time, I thought I might go back over a few basics.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The End... Or Is It?

I don't know if you can tell from that side but holy crap is the new Blogger a mess on this side.

I’ve been threatening to talk about endings for a while now. Shouldn’t be that big a deal, right? Easy topic.

One thing all of our books and stories and screenplays have in common is an ending. They’re going to be different for all of us, and for all of our different projects, but everyone of them has an end. Even if it’s part of a series, this discrete part of that overall story has concluded and another part will (hopefully) begin at some other time. Hopefully on the sooner side

Endings come in all shapes and sizes. They can be happy. They can be semi-positive. They can be ambiguous. They can be blunt. They can tease more potential story or be very, very clear this is the end

But one way or another... the story ends.

We don’t talk much about the fact that there are different types of endings. Not just in that happy-sad-ambiguous sense. In a structural, nuts and bolts sense. There’s also the type of ending where I think I might get to do another book someday, the ending where I know I’m going to get another book immediately, and the ending where I know that this is it, we’re done. Just to name a few.

Also, before I go much further, I’m going to toss around some terms here and I think some of them get used in very general, catch-all ways a lot of the time. Which I also think is what causes some of the issues I’m blathering on about. So some of my blathering may go against things you’ve been taught or picked up here and there.

That said, let’s lean into television for a moment. Yeah, I know most of you aren’t here for screenwriting, but I think this is a good, universal reference point. You should all understand what I’m talking about.

There’s a certain class of network show that tends to have what we might think of as a respawn point most of the time. No matter what’s happened, no matter what the characters have gone through, by the end of the episode they’re pretty much right back where they began—physically and emotionally. They’ve reset for new stories next week. We see this in a lot of sitcoms and even some one hour dramas.

There are also shows that have season arcs, with story elements that carry through from episode to episode. A lot of these end on dramatic revelations or beats that aren’t quite cliffhangers, but still compel the audience to think about what’s going to happen next.

What’s that? Why aren’t they cliffhangers? Good question. This is just my own musings, granted, but I think the big difference between a cliffhanger and a dramatic ending is where they compel us to pick things back up next time. What does the audience/reader need to see next? So it’s a structural, framing difference. If I’ve got a cliffhanger, the next chapter/episode/issue/book needs to begin right here, right at this moment where we left off. With a dramatic ending... the story can resume a little later. We’ve all seen this. “Three hours later, his mind was still reeling from this new information...”

Again, this is just my take, but I think it’s a take that hold up pretty well. And I’ve experienced the jarring results when someone sets up a cliffhanger, but then just treats it as a dramatic ending when the story resumes. Or doesn’t resume. Because if it doesn’t resume, that kinda kills the whole “needs to resume” aspect of it, doesn’t it?

I think it’s also worth noting that a lot of newer, bingeable content is created to be seen as one ongoing story. Each episode still has an ending, but they’re structured very deliberately to line right up with the next episode, more like act breaks than episode conclusions. These shows tend to have really powerful season finales, because that’s the ending that really matters—the one that makes us come back for next season.

And, as I mentioned above with books, there are the endings that imply the potential for more story if the opportunity arises (“hey, we don’t know if we’re renewed yet so just in case...”) and the ones that wrap everything up nice and tight. They all lived happily ever after.

Why am I blathering on about all of this?

Hopefully it’s clear that the type of ending I have—structurally--should give the reader a sense of what comes next. And what doesn’t come next. Again, this is an ending, which means... something should end.

That doesn’t mean I just stop typing. But I’ve seen that plenty of times in books and on some shows, and even a few movies. Things just... stop. The werewolves lunge down the street, our heroes raise their swords and shotguns to fight and wait why is the next page blank.

This is why I’ve been going back and forth with this for so many weeks. It’s tough to talk about endings because each one’s going to be unique to that story and that writer. I can’t say “Don’t do X” when X might be exactly what need to happen in your particular story. A lot of it is going to come down to each of us looking at our story with an honest, critical eye.

Let me toss this out, and then I’ll ramble on a little more. Have I actually ended my story? Or have I just stopped telling it? They’re not the same thing, and if I don’t realize that... well, that’s probably a bit or a red flag right there.

I think one thing we need to do, as writers, is make sure we’ve finished our stories. If my book is about a chosen one accepting his destiny and fighting the manifestation of pure evil... well, by the end of my book he should’ve accepted his destiny and fought the manifestation of pure evil. If my story is all about the school valedictorian desperately wanting to ask out the head cheerleader... at the end of the story she should’ve asked out the cheerleader. This is basic, three-act structure stuff. Once I’ve set up conflict, I need to resolve that conflict. If I don’t... I’ve kinda failed as a  storyteller. You remember what Chekov said about that phaser rifle hanging over the fireplace in act one, right?

Ahh, I see some hands and at least one scoffing shake of the head. Yes you did. I saw you. Let me slap down two provisos on this, not so much exceptions as places for a little more thought and that honest, critical eye I mentioned up above.

First, it’s not unusual for my protagonist’s stated goals to be different from the actual goals of the story. The valedictorian may think this is about asking out the cheerleader, but the book is more about her accepting who she is and gaining self confidence. Plus, she’s clearly supposed to be with the goth girl who paints all the drama club’s backdrops. So, yes, in this sense the resolution may not be the one the character hoped for or originally set out, but my story’s (hopefully) structured in a way that still makes this a cohesive whole.

Also, it’s not unusual for a story to veer off and for characters to suddenly find themselves with all new goals. Maybe the valedictorian had worked up her nerve, was approaching the cheerleader out in front of the school and oh holy crap! Cyborg werewolf kidnappers! They’ve got the cheerleader! And they’re going to infect her with lycanthropic nanites at midnight if the valedictorian doesn’t stop them! This is going to take all her computer and science skills, plus maybe some help from that goth girl who paints all the drama club’s backdrops...

Again, though, there should’ve maybe been a few tiny hints so this kidnapping wasn’t coming out of nowhere. Or didn’t happen in the back third of the book after 200 pages of high school drama and musings. It’s a goal that’s carried through the narrative and eventually achieved.

Second, there’s the possibility there’s more to this. Maybe my book’s part of a trilogy or an ongoing series. Maybe it’s in a shared universe and questions here are going to be answered over there. If the story’s going to continue on and spill over into other places, isn’t it normal that things won’t end yet?That questions will be left unanswered?

Well, yes and no. Sure, there may be three or four more books, or another season’s worth of episodes, or maybe a new issue in just a month. But that doesn’t change that this, the book I’m holding (or season I’m watching or what have you), is a single thing. Yes, The Hunger Games is a story of a ruling elite being overthrown by a rising rebellion, but book one (and two) are really the story of Katniss training for the arena and then surviving in the Games (again). If book one had ended with five people still alive in the arena, will she make it out, pick up book two in just ten months... well, you’re already laughing, aren’t you? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t’ve bothered with book two after an ending like that. I’d bet a few million other people wouldn’t’ve, either.

Y’see, Timmy, this one book still needs to stand on its own . It may have threads or whole subplots that continue on in other places, but this book still needs to be a self-contained thing. It has to hold some kind of story within itself. Yes, the series might be about finding the six, errr... seven... Eternity Crystals (copyright 2020, Peter Clines), but what’s happening in this part of that overall story? Are my heroes involved in a big heist to get the Chronos Crystal, even if they don’t fully realize what it is yet? Or has an old friend distracted them away from their quest to help rescue a cheerleader from cyborg werewolf kidnappers? What goals have I set for my characters to accomplish in this book?

Because if this book doesn’t have any goals for them... what are my characters accomplishing? They either don’t have goals, or they have goals that aren’t met. Either way... not an exiting read. And not likely to get a lot of folks to book two.

Again, every ending is going to be unique to every book by every author. But the one thing they should all have in common is that things need to be resolved. No resolution means my characters (and my readers) are just kind of left flailing and unfulfilled.

Ultimately, the thing I need to remember is that the end of my book is it. This is the last chance to amaze my reader. My final chance to shape their emotions, to lock down what they think about my book. Once they turn that last page, it’s all in their hands.

We talk about first impressions, but the last impression means something, too. It’s what people are going to walk away with. How many books or shows or movies have you enjoyed—maybe really enjoyed—and then the end just left you snarling in frustration?

And why are we usually frustrated? Because we didn’t get answers. Because ultimately nothing happened. Because we feel like we wasted our time.

Stick the landing. Nail your ending. Get that phaser rifle down from the fireplace and make sure it goes off.

Speaking of endings (shameless plug) if the end of the world is your kind of thing, my latest novel--Terminus –finally came out in ebook last week. If you haven’t checked it out yet, it’s kinda fun and fairly inexpensive. If you have checked it out and enjoyed it, reviews are always appreciated.

Next time... I’d like to talk about jargon a bit.

Until then, go write.