Thursday, November 19, 2020

Shouldn’t Throw Stones

There’s an aphorism about writing I heard a while back—“get your character up a tree and throw rocks at them.” It’s one of those fun, quick statements with a lot of truth behind it. A complex idea boiled down to something simple.

There’s another one, part of Pixar’s rules of storytelling. “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”  Because we’ve all seen that, right? The character who randomly finds the exact thing they need just when they need it.

Put these two together and my character’s picked the worst tree to climb up. Because it turns out that’s the rock-throwing tree! Since our town was founded, people have always thrown rocks up at that thing. The local little league uses that specific tree for pitching practice. Young couples throw rocks at that tree to see if they’ll live happily ever after. And they say if you throw rocks at it under a new moon, you can speak to a lost love one final time.

Okay, maybe going a bit overboard there. It’s kind of silly to believe this one tree has so many legends and habits and traditions of rock-throwing associated with it, right? Especially because some of them, you’ve got to wonder... why? How the heck did this become a thing? Why would all these people one day choose to throw rocks at this tree?

Which is what I wanted to talk about.

We’ve talked about the need for conflict before. If there’s no conflict—or an utterly minor, negligible conflict—I can’t have much of a plot. And without a plot, my characters are just kinda standing around without any. So this idea of throwing stones—of putting lots of obstacles between my character and their goal—is a solid one. We want our characters to have something to do, and we don’t want it to be easy for them to do it.

BUT...

Kind of like with the rock-throwing tree, we need to feel like there’s a reason behind this. If our character was stuck up in a tree and people just happened to randomly decide “hey, let’s throw rocks at that!”... we’d probably call foul. It’s just not terribly believable.

Okay, it might be believable once. Our minds will give a little leeway (especially in fiction) for a single bizarre coincidence. To quote the esteemed philosopher Elim Garak, however... I believe in coincidence. Coincidences happen every day. But I don't trust  coincidences.

If I’m going to have a lot of rocks thrown at my character, I need some solid, in-story reason why they’re being thrown. Because after my characters lose their keys or forget the password or drop the flash drive or run into a third mugger... well, it starts to look less like coincidence and more like weak writing.

Because even coincidences have a reason behind them. Why this person showed up early. Why that battery isn’t charged. Why Dot forgot to bring the incredibly important goober that this entire mission hinges on.

Even when it’s less coincidence and more an active thing—if it’s the same mugger chasing my protagonist across the city and popping up again and again—I have to ask why. Why is Phoebe so obsessed with mugging Yakko? Why does she keep doing this? Or how does she keep ending up just where he is again and again and again. or why does Yakko keep ending up in places where he’s going to get mugged when it just happened to him the other day.

Get your character up that tree and throw stones at them. Throw boulders at them. And handfuls of loose gravel. But know, within the story, why they’re all getting thrown. Is there a real reason for it?

Or is the only person the reader sees throwing stones... me?

In other news, in case you missed it, the A2Q now has a table of contents, so you can find all of it quick and easy. Also, with everything going on in the world I made my usual Black Friday offer a little early this year, so if you’re someone who could use it, please get in touch with me.

Next time here on the ranty blog...

Holy crap, it’s Thanksgiving. How is this year moving so slow and so fast at the same time? The barriers have been shattered! All time is existing at once!

Seriously, though, unless someone’s got a specific, pressing question I’ll probably take the day off and maybe throw some Cyber-Monday gift ideas at you. And next time I’ll talk about binding agreements...

Until then, go write.

And throw some stones.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Black Friday VIII – Black Friday the 13th

I do this every year, but I figured with everything going on in 2020 some folks might need some good news a little early. Plus, with the way the post office is going... well, I figured giving everyone an extra two weeks wouldn’t be bad, either.

That said, I’d like to take this almost-holiday Friday the thirteenth to offer you a little hope. With some depressing facts as a lead-in.

If you’re new to the ranty blog or to me and my writing in general, you may not know that I had a prolonged bout of poverty during my path to becoming a writer. I’d been doing okay in the film industry, and then was doing okay as a freelance journalist, but when the economy crumbled in 2008, the magazine I did most of my writing for started to flounder. Within two years lagging paychecks and a few fairly mundane surprise expenses (car repairs, a sick cat, a lost filling) had emptied my savings and maxed out my credit cards.

I had nothing.

And to be clear, I mean, nothing. My partner and I lived right at the poverty line from 2009 till about mid-2012. In Los Angeles. We shopped pretty much exclusively at the 99¢ Store. Our phone got shut off. We had no internet at home, so we used the library’s wifi for everything, and while we were there we’d “borrow” a roll or three of toilet paper, tucked away in our bags. We didn’t turn the heat on for two winters in a row. I missed out on potential work (and meeting some Hollywood legends) because I couldn’t afford gas anywhere (which didn’t help things). Hell, for one assignment I had to beg one of my editors to loan me gas money so I could drive to a screening.

Three. Years. Like that. Constantly stressed. Constantly feeling like crap.

Especially at the holidays.

The holidays are awful when you’re poor because you feel isolated at a time when people are supposed to be coming together. You can’t afford to travel. You can’t afford to buy gifts for family or friends. Hell, there were times I couldn’t go to a couple nice Christmas parties because we couldn’t afford to park there (friggin’ LA).

And you feel guilty about it. You spend time stressing about if maybe there was something else you could’ve done. About the people you love who you feel like you’re neglecting. About what people think about you, being so poor you can’t even get something for your significant other or your family. 

It’s that feeling all the time. Pretty much from mid-November to mid January. Guilt and dread and shame and self-doubt. Yay! Why don’t we ever hear that holiday song?

Being poor at the holidays absolutely sucks. Believe me, I know. The past seven years have been good to me, but I still get that twist deep in my gut when the credit card reader makes the angry buzz instead of a beep.

All that said... these days I’m in a better position, and I owe a good part of that to all of you. Because for some reason you like these odd stories I tell. And if I can help some of you avoid feeling miserable this holiday season, I’d like to do it.

So here’s the deal. If you’re in that bad place right now, where you can’t afford to give gifts to your family or friends, shoot me a note at my old PeterClines101@yahoo.com address. I’ve still got fifteen or sixteen random books saved from last year (when nobody took me up on this), and I might be able to scrounge up two or three more if need be. I’ll scribble in one and mail it out to you (postage is on me, too). I’ll even throw in wrapping paper if you need it. If you know your gift-target would like a specific book, feel free toask, but I can’t promise anything, sorry (I have what I have). I’ll send them out for as long as the books last.

It’s not much, I know. But it’ll be a gift you can give someone. And maybe you can feel a little less stressed at the holidays.

Again, this is for those of you who need some help getting gifts for others. The people pulling unemployment (or not!), cutting back on everything, and feeling like crap because they can’t afford holiday gifts for family or friends.  It’s not so you can recommend someone in a bad spot who might like a book. You could do that for them—go buy them a book. And buy locally! Support your local bookstores! And comic shops! And toy stores! And state that could flip the Senate (a gift that will keep on giving).

I’m also doing this on the honor system, so if you’re just trying to save some cash or score an autographed book... I won’t be able to stop you. Just know you’re a truly selfish, deplorable person and you’re taking away what might’ve been someone’s only bright moment this season. And Krampus will probably feed you to a squale.

So... Happy Holidays.