Thursday, June 23, 2016

Rejected by Inspector #12

            If I can shamelessly namedrop a bit,  I heard a great Richard Matheson quote from Jonathan Maberry a while back, which I will now paraphrase as such.
            Writing is the art of telling stories.  Publishing is the business of selling as many copies of that art as possible.
            If you break it down, this collection of rants is probably 98% about writing, maybe 2% about publishing.  This week, if I may, I’d like to step away from the straight writing stuff that I normally do and touch on an issue more on the publishing side of things.
            Nobody here likes getting rejected. Not for an apartment, not for a job, not for a date. Definitely not for our writing.  But that's life. Rejection happens all the time, even to the folks who get considered professionals.  I had a short story rejected from an anthology last year.  I’ve been trying to pitch a book trilogy to my editor for two years now, and he’s just not interested. Heck, my agent’s not even that interested in it.  These things happen.
            I bring this up because there’s a meme, or sometimes an article, that floats around a lot, presenting a bunch of facts that go something like this... 
            “Famous writer X showed their manuscript Y to twenty-three editors before someone bought it.  Not only that, bestselling novel Y2 by famous writer X2 was rejected by forty-two editors. Can you imagine that? Forty-two people passed on Y2?  Ha ha ha, how many of them are kicking themselves now?”
            This list can be ten or fifteen authors/books long, and I see it get used a lot to show how A) I shouldn’t give up hope just because of all my rejections, B) editors don’t know anything, C) the publishing industry is a dinosaur that’s going to die out any day now, just wait and see, or D) all of the above.
            So, at first glance, this list can seem like a really awesome thing. It makes me feel more positive about rejection.  It makes me feel more positive about that stupid editor’s decision.  It validates my feelings about big publishing and their ongoing habit of ignoring my letters.  And this is good, right?
            Thing is, there’s three problems here.  And I think they cause more issues than all this positive affirmation solves.  Y’see, Timmy, this list isn’t as clear-cut as it seems...
            First problem is the false parallel that often gets drawn because of this list.  Carrie was rejected many times and my early book-- The Suffering Map --was rejected many times.  Therefore, logically, my book must be just as good (and just as worthy of being published) as Stephen King’s breakout hit.
            We can all see the flaw there, right?  Just because an editor rejected a good book doesn’t mean all the books they reject are good. Some of them—let’s be honest—some of them are not good.  Some of them are bad.  We can all probably name one or two folks who aren’t as good at writing as they think they are.  And they can probably name two or three folks, too.
            I can freely admit, I’ve had books rejected by agents.  And they deserved to be rejected.  They were awful.  Honestly, in retrospect, I’m kind of ashamed I submitted one of them. 
            The next problem, to be blunt, is that writers don’t always send stories where they’re supposed to go.  Sometimes we get overeager or don’t do all the research we should.  If I’d sent Ex-Heroes to Harlequin, of course they would’ve rejected it. So would the Black Library (a very specific niche press), Razorbill (a young adult press), or Lonely Planet (a travel book publisher).  Getting rejected from these places would be completely understandable, but would it really say anything about the quality of my writing?  Or that editor's ability to recognize good writing?
            So should I consider those when I say that my book’s been rejected half a dozen times?
            Heck, a while back I spoke with a woman online as she lamented that her story had been rejected four times.  Ignoring the fact that four times is nothing, it turned out she’d submitted to four radically different markets.  She’d tried marketing it as young adult, sci-fi, fantasy, and as a horror novel.  Which really meant she’d been rejected once.  Once as a young adult story, once as a sci-fi story, and so on.
            Is that worth calling it quits over?
            Also, there are some writers out there who... well, who can’t take a hint.  They’re the literary equivalent of the guy who thinks if he keeps asking Phoebe out every Friday night, eventually she’ll break down and say yes. When an editor rejects a manuscript... that’s it.  Unless they specifically ask to see it again, I shouldn’t try to sneak it back in their pile six months later. No, not even if I explain that I tweaked three of the chapters. My goal is to convince them I’m a professional, and that’s not how professionals work.  But some people do it anyway, often the folks who tend to do “carpet bomb” submissions of twenty or thirty editors at a time.
            If Phoebe rejects my advances twenty times, is that twenty rejections?  Or is it just one (and I’m really bad at taking a hint)?
            So rejection numbers don’t necessarily tell a complete story.
            Finally, this list implies a really big misconception, something a lot of beginners (or willfully uninformed folks) don’t get.  When they hear that bestselling author Wakko Warner was rejected thirty times, they make the assumption that Wakko sent out the exact same book with the exact same query letter thirty times.  Thirty editors all saw the same book that got published, letter for letter, and every one of them passed on it.
            As someone who’s made those rounds, I’d be willing to bet some serious cash that’s not true.
            After a given number of rejections, a good writer’s going to take note that something isn’t working.  It might be a low number, just two or three.  It might be as high as a dozen.  But only a really deluded person is going to keep doing the exact same thing again and again and expect the results are going to radically change.
          Personally, I’d rewrite my cover letter after every fourth or fifth rejection.  Sometimes it would be to update it with a new sale or credit.  Other times I’d come up with a cleaner, slicker way to get a point across.  All too often, it was to fix the typo that had slipped past three revisions and didn’t get noticed until after I sent things out.   Whatever made me do it, it was rare for more than a handful of editors to get the exact same letter from me.  And  different people interpret those letters different ways
            Not only that, if I was lucky enough to get any sort of feedback... I listened to it.  I didn’t always follow it word for word, but if the people who were in the position to buy my stories offered suggestions, I considered them.  The Suffering Map went through a pretty decent revision halfway through my submissions, and then another one right after I attended the SDSU Writers’ Conference. 
            Out of its dozen or so submissions, I’d guess at least three different versions of it went out under three or four different cover letters.
            So, with all of this in mind...  is it that amazing a particular book was rejected forty-two times? 
            It seems kind of, well, normal, doesn’t it?
            It’s always fantastic to look back at the people who inspired us and how they got their start.  If I want to walk that same path, though, I need to look at that start without any blinders or preconceptions. Which is going to make the path look a lot tougher.
            But it’ll also make it easier to follow.
            Next time...
            I don’t know. Between the ranty blog and the Writers Coffeehouse, it feels like I’ve been going on and on about so many things, it all feels a bit repetitive to me.  Is there an appropriate writing topic anybody’d like to hear me babble on about?
            If not... I’ll put something together...
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Single Purpose Ideas

            Whoa!  Two weeks in a row.  Haven’t managed that in a while...
            One of my favorite television shows is winding up, and while I absolutely love it overall, I’ve been looking back on it with a bit more of a critical eye.  Specifically one season where it felt like the show went off the rails.
            No, it’s not important which show.
            The thing is, it struck me that at one point the basic idea of the show changed, but the show itself didn’t.  It kept telling the same kind of stories—stories that didn’t fit this new idea.  And that’s where it fumbled.  A similar show I was watching had the same problem—its stories didn’t fit its basic premise.
            This isn’t an uncommon problem.  I’ve seen it in books, too.  Heck, as my editor just pointed out, I got my feet a bit wet in it with one of my recent drafts (which kind of sparked this).
            So, let’s talk about ideas.
            I’ve talked in the past about limited and unlimited concepts. I think about 99.99% of all stories fall into one of these categories.  Which one I’m using should have an effect on how I structure my story.
            A limited concept is one that comes with a clear, specific goal. Yakko wants to get home. Dot wants to get the girl.  Wakko wants to save the farm.  Phoebe wants to stop the bad guy.  My character has an objective, the story is about them achieving it.  A to B.
            At its heart, this is probably the simplest kind of story, and one of the most common.  A self-contained book is a limited concept.  So are most movies.  There may be more steps involved than just A to B, but really it boils down to discover goal, accomplish goal.
            The flipside of this is an unlimited concept. This is where my characters have less of a goal and more of a general mission, if that makes sense. Wakko is trying to raise his kids as a single dad in the big city.  Yakko solves complex medical cases.  Dot and her team of specialists protect the country—and sometimes the world—from supernatural and alien threats.
            An unlimited concept is a bit more complex because it’s a much broader idea.  Most ongoing television shows (the thought-out ones, anyway) are unlimited concepts.  So are most book series.  The reason for this is because an unlimited concept, by its nature, can go on and on for a long time without feeling stretched out.  They don’t have a clear end point.
            Now, we’ve all seen what happens when these things get swapped. A writer may have a very solid limited concept that they decide—or are told—to do as an unlimited one.  It doesn’t matter if you have a very solid three-season story about people trying to get off this weird island, the network says it needs to run for four seasons.  Sorry, we meant five.  Okay, make it six.
            This is when things start to fall apart.  The story starts to feel padded because we all recognize that it’s... well, padded.  Forward movement has stopped, because forward movement would mean hitting the end of the story.
            Everybody loves to talk about prequels, but every prequel inherently has to be a limited concept.  A is where we begin, B is the story we already know. There’s only so much that happens between them.  Every prequel automatically starts with a limited amount of time to tell a story in.  As a writer, I can’t keep putting off B.  Eventually we have to get there, because if we don’t, it’s going to become clear I’m putting off B for no reason except to put off B.  This is a big problem a lot of prequels have.
            Let me give you an example.
            In case you forgot, Smallville was the story of high school student Clark Kent growing up in the titular town, developing the powers and learning the lessons that will eventually make him the greatest hero ever.  The producers joked early on that when Clark learned to fly, the series would be over. After all, at that point he’d be Superman.  We began with Clark already strong, fast, and invulnerable.  Heat vision and X-ray vision showed up before season two was halfway done, then super-hearing (all usually just in time to counter a specific problem).  And then...
            Well, Smallville did really well in the ratings.  So it kept getting renewed.  The network and the producers didn’t want the show to end, so they had to keep coming up with reasons for Clark to not become Superman.  Because Superman was point B.  Once we’re there, the show’s over.  So Clark developed every Kryptonian power there was and then spent eight more years not learning to fly and not being Superman.  Heck, the last four seasons pretty much took place entirely in Metropolis.  And while a good chunk of it was still interesting... a lot of it just felt like stretching things out.
            The other issue with a limited concept is when the characters just start to ignore their goal.  Like when the whole point of my story is to save the farm, but I’ve just spent six chapters on Wakko going to an art gallery opening and buying something by a hot new—wait a minute!  He’s trying to save the farm but he’s dropping money on outsider art?  What the hell?
            Once I’ve set a goal for my character—and it should be a big one—this needs to be their focus.  They can head in another direction for a little bit, but their attention really needs to stay on that end point of B.  Veering too far off course and getting distracted will just have my readers rolling their eyes.  I can’t say Dot only has until tomorrow to stop Armageddon and then have her take an afternoon at the spa and dinner out with the cute guy from marketing because, hey, life is short, right?
            That fantastic show I mentioned up top—the one that’s ending—it had this problem.  It started as an unlimited concept, a very procedural-type show.  But halfway through season three, the show shifted (very beautifully and organically) into a limited concept.  Thing is... it kept doing procedural, one off stories all through season four.  There’s a bomb ticking away somewhere, ready to take out half the city, but our heroes keep stopping in their search to hand out speeding tickets and chase down drug dealers.  It became teeth-grindingly frustrating as the protagonists continued to get bogged down in minor side stories while that huge B goal loomed over them.
            Another problem I see a lot with limited concept stories is when people try to go past B. Because in an A to B story... B is the end. We’re done.  Anything after this is just... well, excess.  Trying to force the story on past B to C just becomes awkward.  Once the crew of the Federation starship Voyager makes it home to the Alpha Quadrant, the show’s over.  Sure, we could’ve had another season of everyone being debriefed, getting accustomed to life back on Earth, maybe getting assigned to new ships or new missions... but that’s not what Voyager was about.
            A great example of this you may have heard of is the Moonlighting Curse, named after the old show with Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd.  The idea is, basically, once my two main characters sleep together, my show is doomed.  And I think there is some truth to this... in certain cases.
            Y’see, Timmy, a lot of television and book series will have a plot built around an unlimited concept (two zany, mismatched partners solve crimes).  The story, however, is a limited concept about these two characters—will they fall in love, or at least fall into bed?  And when that happens, when they’ve hit point B, their story is over.  It doesn’t matter if the plot is unlimited—there’s nowhere else for the characters to go except past B, and that’s fumbly, unexplored, and usually uninteresting territory (when compared to that original A to B).
          Whenever I get an idea, I try to take a good look at it.  Is it limited or unlimited?  What am I thinking of doing with it?  Does my idea match up with the story I’m hoping to tell?
            Because if it doesn’t... something’s going to need to change.
            Next time, I’d like to alter the mood a bit and talk about rejection.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Not Very Nice Guys

            Long overdue, I know. I could make excuses but... well, the honest truth is I just took a few weeks off to recharge the batteries a bit.  I watched some movies.  Built some LEGO sets and a few little toy soldiers.  There may have been some drinking, too.
            Yeah, selfish of me.  I’m not a nice guy.
            As some of you know, a few years back I was hired by Amazon Studios to do a movie treatment for a very loose idea they had about robot soldiers (nothing ever happened with it).  I even went in and chatted with some folks at the production company they’d farmed the movie out to.  As we talked about stories and motivations, one of the producers told me about a great sign she’d seen outside the door for one of the development heads at Warner Brothers.


            Let me follow that up with another story before I explain.  You may be aware of a CW show called Arrow which chronicles the adventures of the Green Arrow and a number of related DC heroes and villains.  Well, a while back one of the characters they started hinting at for season three was Ra’s al Ghul, the leader of  the League of Assassins.  And one actor name that briefly floated around was Liam Neeson, who’d played Ra’s in the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy.  Much to everyone’s surprise, when MTV asked him about it on a press tour, Neeson said he’d take the part again in an instant if they offered it to him (they did not). 
           He also offered some advice about why Ra’s was an interesting character and how an actor should play him.  “They have to believe in their philosophy,” Neeson explained.  “Ra’s al Ghul absolutely believed what he was doing was ultimately saving civilization, and it was quite a good argument he comes up with.  Throughout the ages this fraternity, that brought the plague to wipe out a section of mankind because it needed to be regenerated again.  Very dangerous, but you have to believe it.”
            See where we’re going here?
            Pretty much every story has an antagonist of some kind.  A flat-out villain, maybe a misguided but well-meaning opponent, perhaps a few mindless pawns of the system, but somebody.  It’s the rare story that has no antagonist of any sort.
            As both of those stories above explain, the antagonist has to have their own reasons and motivations for what they’re doing.  That producer had gotten tired of villains who twirled their mustaches for no reason, or for extremely weak reasons.  If one of my characters is going to shut down the prom, rob a casino, or blow up the United Nations, they’d better have a real reason for doing it.
            A lot of stories fall apart because they don’t have a good villain.  All too often, writers just think their antagonist just needs to do bad things and—done!  Why are they doing it?  Well, they’re the bad guy.  Bad guys do bad things, right?
            And, please, for the love of Tzeentch, do not say “because they’re insane.” That’s the cop-out answer.  If I say my villain’s motivation is “they’re insane” I’m aiming about three inches below the dirt-simplest, first-choice answer.
            Why do I need a well thought-out villain?
            Well, my villain’s arguably the second most important character in my story (after my hero).  He or she is why the story is happening. After all, if they weren’t posing some sort of challenge to my hero... well, heck, why even put pants on today?  Why do anything?  My hero might as well spend the day in underwear and a t-shirt, drinking and getting caught up with Star Wars: Rebels or Animaniacs.
            The problem, of course, is that it’s tough to logically explain why someone would decide to be the villain, right?  Aside from vampires or demons or some kind of inherently evil thing... why choose to be the bad guy?  Why would anyone decide to be a Nazi? I mean, how could anyone do that? 
            As it happens, that Nazi reference did set something up for me (go Godwin!).  A great way to explain this is with Magneto, the X-Men’s recurring nemesis.  If you aren’t a big X-Men fan, Professor X and Magneto used to be allies.  They were friends who shared the same beliefs and goals.  But at some point, Magneto decided he needed to follow a different, more extreme path.  He became the villain of the series, and the arch-enemy of the X-Men.
            So....why did Magneto decide to become a villain?
            That’s the interesting point and what this is really all about.  He didn’t.  Magneto decided everyone else was doing things wrong and that—much like Ra’s Al Ghul up above—he was going to start doing them right.  In his mind, Magneto is the hero of the series while his old friend and the X-Men are a bunch of well-meaning idiots who, alas,  keep getting in the way of his bigger-picture goals.
            Y’see, Timmy, for every character, the story is about them.  In the same way I’m the main character in my life story and you’re the main character in yours, the villain believes the story is all about them. They think they’re the hero.  Try to think of the most reprehensible character you can, then put yourself in their shoes.  They all believe they’re in the right.  Yes, even if it’s a drug lord or a DVD pirate or a mutant master of magnetism. 
            Part of my job as a writer is to get inside their head and figure out how someone could rationalize things like this.  What makes someone think being a bully or a hit man or a far-right fascist Nazi is a good decision?  What’s their motivation? How do they continue to justify it as time goes on, and how do the people around them justify it? 
            We’ve talked about something like this before—triangles.  In a romantic triangle, all too often one of the two choices is made absurdly ridiculous.  We’ve all probably made a bad choice in partners at some point in our lives, but not one that bordered on being a flat-out evil dictator or sociopath.
            When someone’s significant other shows signs of being cruel, a bully, manipulative, dishonest... that’s usually when we end up asking “why the hell are these two people together?”  These triangles fail because that first choice isn’t a person, they’re just a caricature.  We don’t see why someone would act like that, let alone why someone else would choose to be with them.
            And let me toss out one last bit of advice. I heard years ago—and you may have heard it, too—that the three most common motives for murder are love, money, and revenge.  If I’m going to pick one of these as my villain’s motivation... man, it better be spectacular. The greatest love story ever committed to paper (without being even slightly cheesy).  A sum of money beyond imagining (but, of course, not so huge it would destroy the world economy).  The most elaborate revenge-worthy crime ever (yet not taken to such an extreme that my antagonist becomes a joke).  If I’m going to have someone wear the bear suit... I have to earn it.
            A great villain deserves no less.
            Next time, I want to talk about big ideas. And ides that may not be as big as they seem at first glance.
            Oh, on another note, if you happen to be in the Los Angeles area, this Sunday is another Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies in Burbank.  It's open to writers of all levels, it's completely free, and it's at least as adequate as this blog.  This month we're going to be talking about editing, drafts, and some social media stuff.  Stop by and check it out.
            Until then... go write.