Thursday, February 4, 2016

Pod Six Was Jerks!

            Pop culture reference.  Long overdue, and to bring even more shame on my household, it’s kind of a repeat.  Sorry.
            Before I dive into things, I must shamefully point out that the latest book in my Ex-Heroes series got released this week.  The marketing folks are lovely people, bu tthey’ll be upset if I don’t mention it.  Ex-Isle is book #5 and it’s now on sale everywhere.  Check it out.
            And now, back to this week’s rant...
            This is something I’ve been meaning to talk about again for a while now.  As I mentioned, I’m kind of in a rush this week (even more on that below), so I thought this would be a good time to add in what’s more-or-less a repeat post.  At least, it is if you’ve been here since 2008...
            That being said, let’s talk about “Darmok.”
            “Darmok” was one of the first episodes of Star Trek:The Next Generation‘s fifth season.   The Enterprise visits an alien race, the Children of Tama, which has repeatedly brought first contact attempts to a grinding halt because the universal translator can’t make sense of their language.  The Tama language can be rendered in Federation English, yes, but the words and sentence structure make no sense.  Sensing the problem that needs to be overcome, Dathon--the Tama commander—kidnaps Captain Picard to a hostile world where the two must fight together to survive.  Through their trials together, Picard comes to realize that the Tama language is not based on ideas and concepts, but on stories and metaphors.  They wouldn’t say “I’m happy,” they’d say something like “Scrooge, on Christmas morning.”  They don’t say they’re relieved to see you, they’d say “Indy, finding Marion in the tent.”  It’s been impossible to translate the Tama language literally because the Federation doesn’t share their history and folklore.
            In a way, all of us do this every day. We reference movies, TV shows, pop culture events, and then we stack and combine them. Heck, that’s pretty much what memes are.
            We also do it on a smaller scale, though.  All of us have jokes that are only understood by our family or certain circles of friends or coworkers.  Some folks crack jokes from Playboy, others from Welcome to Night Vale.  These folks obsess over Scandal and these folks watch iZombie whenever they happen to catch it.  Some people like sports, others like science.  And all of us talk about what we know and what we like.
            I worked on a set once where people commonly asked “Where’s Waldo?”  A lot of my college friends understood when you talked about Virpi Zuckk, the third Pete, and nice shoes.  Some of my best friends and I make frequent references to Pod Six,  killing Jeff, and “the girl’s evil cheater magic.”    
            Heck, even this title is an in-joke.  It’s a reference to one of the first Adult Swim cartoons, Sealab 2021. But also, when two of my friends bought a house and decided to use their sunroom as a dedicated gaming room, we all sort of universally decided to call it Pod Six.  Because it’s where we all hang out and talk in weird references that only we’re going to understand.
            See where I’m going with this?
            A common problem I see again and again in stories is oblique references and figures of speech that the reader can’t understand.  It might make sense within the writer’s personal circle or clique, but outside readers end up scratching their heads.  Several of the writers responsible for this sort of mistake will try to justify their words in a number of ways...
            First is that my friends are real people.  Therefore, people really talk this way, and there’s nothing wrong with it.  Alas, as I’ve mentioned here many times before, “real” rarely translates to “good.”  Pointing to a few of my like-minded friends and saying “well, they got it,” isn’t going to win me points with an editor.
            Second is that I’ll argue common knowledge.  I’ll try to say this material is generally known-- universally known, even-- and it’s the reader who is in the feeble minority by not being aware of it.  This is probably the hardest to contradict, because if somebody honestly believes that everyone should know who the U.S. Secretary of State was in 1969, there’s not much you or I can do to convince them otherwise.  It’s much more likely, in the writer’s mind, that the readers are just uneducated simpletons who never learned the ten forms of Arabic verbs, don’t collect Magic cards, and couldn’t tell you the obvious differences between Iron Man and War Machine if their lives depended on it.
            Third, usually reserved for screenplays, is the auteur excuse.  I plan on directing this script, so it doesn’t matter if no one else can understand the writing (or if there are tons of inappropriate camera angles, staging instructions, and notes for actors).  The flaw here is that my screenplay will invariably end up getting shown to someone else.   A contest reader.  A producer.  An investor.  Someone out of that inner circle of friends who needs to look at my script and understand the writing.
            Y’see, Timmy, I can’t be writing just for my five closest friends.  Not if I want to succeed as a writer.  I’m not saying my writing has to appeal to everyone and be understood by everyone, but it can’t be so loaded with in-jokes and obscure references that nobody knows what I’m talking about.
            This is one of those inherent writer skills.  Something I just need to figure out how to do on my own, mostly by reading everything I can get your hands on.  I need to know words and phrases.  I have to know them and I have to be honestly aware of who else knows them.  Using extremely uncommon terms or words may show off my bachelor’s degree and vocabulary, but the moment a reader has to stop and think about what a word or phrase means, they’ve been taken out of my story
            And knocking people out of my story is one of the certain ways to make sure the reader puts my manuscript down and goes off to fold laundry.
            On an unrelated note... if you’re in San Diego and happen to be reading this just as it went up, I’m going to be at Mysterious Galaxy tonight (Thursday) talking and signing copies of Ex-Isle.  And on Saturday I’ll be at Dark Delicacies in Burbank doing more of the same.  Hope to see some of you there (and if not, you can call them and order books, too).
            Next time, I’d like to talk about how ignorant some of your characters are.
            Until then... go write.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Annnnnnd... ACTION!

            Hey!  Wanted to thank all of you who came out last weekend to the Writers Coffeehouse. Hopefully hearing me talk about writing in the real world was at least as semi-useful as all of this.
            Also—shameful capitalist plug—my new book, Ex-Isle comes out next week from Broadway Paperbacks.  Check out that fantastic cover over there on the right.  It’s book five in the ongoing Ex-Heroes series, and I happen to think it’s pretty cool.  Granted, I might be a bit biased...
            (the audiobook’s still three weeks out but it is coming, I promise)
            Anyway, enough about that. Now... story time.
            About fourteen years ago some friends and I were in a pretty serious car crash.  Someone sideswiped us as we were pulling onto the freeway and then sped off.  My friend’s SUV was slammed into the concrete wall, bounced off, then slammed into the wall again because the wheels had twisted around to send us right back into it.  We skidded ten or twenty feet scraping against the wall.  The first impact was so hard that the passenger side door crumpled in, hit me, and fractured my ribs on that side.  I also caught half the windshield with my face.  I remember clenching my eyes shut on instinct, what felt like gravel hitting my cheeks and mouth and forehead. While part of me knew (in the greater sense) that we were in the middle of a collision of some kind, another part of me was still trying to figure out what the hell was going on.  And there was so much noise.  Screams and hollering from friends, metal on concrete, metal bending, glass breaking, highway noise because the windows were gone.  It wasn’t until everything stopped that I realized how loud it had been.
            Now, I took a while to write that out, and a while for you to read it, but the truth is, it took seconds.  Six or seven seconds, tops. Really, at the moment, it was just a blur of sensations. I didn’t piece together what had happened—and what I’d experienced—until afterwards.
            Action, by its very nature, is fast.  It’s a blur.  If you’ve ever been part of an accident of some kind, a fight, a collision, or any other kind of really dynamic moment, you know what I’m talking about.  A huge amount of action is stuff we figure out after the fact.  In the moment, I’m not quite sure how my shirt got ripped or why my arm’s bleeding or... oh, geez, I think I whacked my head a lot harder that I thought.
            Here are a couple of tips on how I try to make my action scenes seem fun and cool.

            Keep it fast--Action can’t drag. If it takes a full page for someone to throw a punch and connect, things are happening in slow motion.  Even a paragraph can seem like a long time, especially once multiple punches are thrown.
            My personal preference is to try to not have action take much longer to read then it would to experience.  I trim fight scenes and action moments down to the bare minimum to give them (pardon the phrase) a lot of punch. One way I do this is to clump some actions together and let the reader figure out what happened on their own
            He slammed three fast punches into the other man’s kidney.
            Karen did something quick with her hands and now she held the pistol and the mugger was wailing and holding his wrist.

            Keep it simple—I practiced martial arts for a while and I also have a lot of experience with  weapons thanks to my time in the film industry.  Even though I know lots and lots of terminology, I try not to use it.  That kind of thing can clutter up an action scene, especially when I’m using a lot of foreign languages or obscure terms.  I want this to move fast, and if my reader has to stop to sound out words and parse meanings from context... that’s breaking the flow.  If they need to figure out if a P-90 TR is a rifle, a pistol, or a fitness program... well, maybe they’ll come back to it after lunch.
            Remember, there’s nothing wrong with terminology, but there’s a time and a place for everything.  That time is rarely when someone’s swinging a baseball bat at your head.

            Keep it sensory—Kind of related to the above, and something I touched on in my story.  Action is instinctive, with a certain subtlety to it. There isn’t a lot of thought involved, definitely not a lot of analysis or pretty imagery.  Keeping in mind the fast, simple nature I’ve been talking about, I try to keep action to sounds, sights, and physical sensations.  I can talk to you about a knife going deep into someone’s arm, severing arteries and veins as it goes... or I can just tell you about the hot, wet smell of blood and the scrape of metal on bone.  Which gets a faster reaction?
            Granted, writing this way does make it hard to describe some things, but a lot of that gets figured out after the fact anyway.  My characters will have a chance to sort things out once things cool down.

            Keep it real—Like so many things in fiction, it all comes down to characters.  There’s a reason we can zone out dozens of attacks on the news but be gripped by a single one in a book.  Action needs to be based in real characters because my readers need to care about the people involved.  A stranger in a car crash is kind of sad in an abstract way, but Wakko in a car crash is a tragedy and we want constant updates.
            This also kind of works against the idea of “always start with action,” which is something I’ve talked about before.  It’s tough for readers to be invested in action when we don’t know the people involved.  If I start with an action scene it has to be twice as big to compensate for the fact that we don’t know the characters, and once it’s that big it’s going to effect the level of everything that comes after it.

            Now, as always, it’s pretty easy to find exceptions to these.  As I said, these are more tips than rules.  But there’s one particular exception I want to talk about.
            A pretty common character is, for lack of a better term, the fighting savant.  Batman, Jack Reacher, Melinda May, Ethan Hunt, Sarah Walker, Joe Ledger, Stealth—characters who’ve taken physical action to an art form through years of study and experience.  For these people to not use precise terminology for weapons or moves could seem a little odd.  It makes sense they’d be able to dissect action, picking out the beats and planning out responses like a painter reviewing their palette.
            But...
            Keep in mind, these characters by their very nature should be rare.  If I have a dozen utterly badass characters who all have badass moves with badass weapons... that’s going to get boring real quick.  It’s monotone.
            Also, keep the point of view in mind while writing.  Stealth may be a trained master of unarmed combat, but St. George gets by with his invulnerability and raw strength.  Whose narrative this is will affect how her actions are seen by the reader.
            And that’s that.  A handful of tips for writing killer action.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about, arguably, one of the finest episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation that was ever produced.
            Oh, and  next Thursday I’ll be at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, blabbing away and signing copies of Ex-Isle.  If you’re in the area, please stop by and say “hullo."
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

No Photobombers

            I spent time at a few conventions last year and, as I do, I tried to get lots of photographs of the various cosplayers there.  I’m always blown away by that sort of thing.  I worked in the film industry for years and it’s amazing to see so many folks who are so dedicated they can do costumes that are on par (or better, in some cases) than the ones that end up on film.
            Alas, one or two of my shots were spoiled by photobombers.  You know that term, right?  The folks who decide to lean into a picture and draw attention to themselves with a goofy grin or thumbs up, even though it’s really clear they’re not who the photographer wants things focused on.  If you’re Chris Pratt, Hayley Atwell, or William Shatner and you end up photobombing somebody—hey, power to you.  How fantastic would that be, looking at your pictures later and finding Hayley Atwell smiling and waving at you?
             On the other hand, if I’m someone that’s going to make 99.9999% of humanity say “who the hell is that?”... I’m kind of being a jerk.  Because I’m not supposed to be the focus of this picture.  And by drawing attention away from what is supposed to be the center of attention, I’ve messed up this image.
             Or, for our purposes, this story.
             In some ways, being a writer is a thankless job.  If I do it right, people shouldn’t even notice me. If I do a spectacular job, people should forget me altogether.  Screenwriters get hit even worse with this—their work is often credited to the actors or director.  The ugly truth of storytelling is that none of us really care about the storyteller, we just want to hear the stories.
           Some storytellers try to get noticed.  It’s a deliberate choice.  They lean in and draw attention to themselves.  They wink and point.  Sometimes they make goofy expressions and shout “Look at me!  Look what I’m doing!” 
            When I do this as a writer, it’s just like photobombing.  Textbombing?  Prosebomb?  Whatever we want to call it, it’s me drawing attention away from telling my story, which—in theory--is supposed to be the focus of my writing.
            Here’s a few simple ways I can make sure I’m not ruining my focus...

            Vocabulary—Stephen King once said that “Any word you have to search for in the thesaurus is the wrong word.”  And, personally, I think he’s completely right about that.  I don’t think using a thesaurus is bad.  I’ve got one right here on my desk.  I often use it to jog my memory when I know there’s a specific word I’m looking for, and the easiest way to find it is to look up a synonym. 
           But some folks default to their thesaurus.  They have a sentence—let’s say “The thin woman wore a red hat.”—and then just immediately go to find bigger, better words for it.  That’s how you end up with sentences like... well...
            “The rawboned feminine figure accoutred her cranium with a chapeau of deepest carmine felt.”
            That’s me, as a writer, trying to draw attention to myself when you, the reader, want to be focused on the story.
             Any word I choose just to get attention, to prove I don’t need to use a common, blue-collar word, is the wrong word.  Any word that makes my reader stop reading and start analyzing is the wrong word. I can try to justify my word choice any way I like, but absolutely no one is picking up my manuscript hoping for a vocabulary lesson.  When my reader can’t figure out what’s being said for the fourth or fifth time and decides to toss said manuscript in the big pile on the left... there’s only one person to blame.
            Like I said, I’ve got a thesaurus on my desk.  But it’s not right here in arm’s reach, like the dictionary.  It’s a shelf up and off to the side. Just enough that I really need to stand up to get at it.  And move some LEGO people.

            Structure—A friend of mine is really into cirque school.  I’ve seen her do some of those aerial silk tricks where she’ll climb to the top of the studio, wrap her legs, bring the silk around her body, and then sort of roll down the silk. She spins and the silk twirls all around her and it takes two or three minutes for her to work her way back down to the floor.  I’m sure most of you reading this have seen some version of this, either live or maybe on television.  Its really beautiful and amazing when done right.
            It’s also—and she’d be the first to admit this—a really inefficient way to get from point A to point B.  And taking even longer to do it, well, that just gets exhausting for the performer and the audience.  None of us have the stamina for that kind of thing.  Getting there is half the fun, absolutely, but the point of most trips is still getting there.
            When the trip itself becomes the focus, it means my goals have shifted.  Getting to point B isn’t the important thing anymore.  And since storytelling is, in essence, getting characters from point A to point B... well...
            If I think of my story as an A—B line (to fall back on geometry), how often does my chosen structure deviate off that line?  How many times does it not move along the line at all?  How often does it go backwards?
            And how much of this is because of how I’ve chosen to structure things?
            I’ve seen people write page-long sentences which serve no purpose except to be a page-long sentence.  Sure, it’s very impressive in an MFA, grammatical-accomplishment kind of way, but past that... does it really advance the story?  Is it pushing the narrative, or just pushing the fact that I sat through half a dozen classes on creative writing?
            If I’m overloading my story with flashbacks, a non-linear plotline, or twenty-two points of view... what am I hoping to accomplish?  Are they adding anything?  Would it honestly lessen the story to not have them? Or am I just adding in gimmicks that I’ve heard make a story better without any real understanding of how or why they work?
            Just like how an obscure word is wrong if it’s just there to be obscure, an overcomplicated structure is wrong if it serves no purpose except to be overcomplicated.

           Said—I’ve mentioned this a few times.  People will never notice if you use said.  Honest, they won’t.  Said is invisible.  What they notice is when my characters retort, respond, pontificate, depose, demand, declare, declaim, muse, mutter, mumble, snap, shout, snarl, grumble, growl, bark, whimper, whisper, hiss, yelp, yell, exclaim, or ejaculate.  Yeah, ejaculate.  Stop giggling, it was a common dialogue descriptor for many years.  Once I’ve got three or four characters doing this all over the page, I shouldn’t be too surprised if my audience stops reading to shake their heads or snicker. 
            Now, granted, there are times where my characters will be hollering or whispering or snarling.  And when that happens, I don’t want my readers to already be bored by my constant use of different dialogue descriptors.  I want it to count.  Overall, they’re just going to be saying stuff.  So I shouldn't overcomplicate things and draw attention to myself.

           These are just a few things to watch for in my writing, granted.  There’s always going to be that person who finds a clever new way to draw attention to themselves.  And there will always be exceptions, sure.   Really, though, photobombing my own story isn’t going to be a winning strategy.
            Never forget... first and foremost, people are showing up for the story.
            Quick note, before I forget.  If you happen to be in the Los Angeles area, this weekend I'm hosting the Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies in Burbank on Sunday.  It's three hours of writers talking about writing, it's open to everyone, and it's free. Stop by and talk.  I guarantee it'll be highly adequate.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about a big car accident I was in many years back.
            Until then, go write.
            Just don’t be seen doing it.