Thursday, July 31, 2014

So Very Tired...

            Sorry for missing last week.  When I should’ve been posting this, I was at the San Diego Comic-Con, hanging out in the Geek & Sundry lounge and watching the Welcome to Night Vale panel (I even got to ask a question about writing).  And the G&S folks gave me a free copy of the Zombies: Keep Out! board game and a card game called Love Letters.   And Felicia Day smiled at me once as she walked past.
            Y’know, in retrospect, I’m not really sorry I missed last week.
            But I am finally caught up on my sleep. I was exhausted for a while there.
            Speaking of which...
            I write a series set in a post-apocalyptic world.  It was first put out by a small press that specializes in end-of-the-world fiction, and I’ve met a bunch of authors who work in that genre and related ones.  Needless to say, I’ve read a lot of these books and stories.  I’d have to guess close to a hundred in the past five years.
            I have seen a lot of people die on the page.
            I’ve characters die of disease or injury.  Seen them shot or stabbed.  Some have been crushed.  Many have been torn apart by zombies—both classic slow ones and the runners.  A few people have gone peacefully and with no pain... but not a lot of them. 
            On a semi-related note, for a long time there was a joke in comic circles that no one stayed dead except Bucky and Gwen Stacy (who’ve both been resurrected in recent years).  It’s one of the things that made some folks point to comics as low-brow, pulpy writing, because villains and heroes would always return with elaborate tales of how they’d avoided death... again.  The new term tossed about is death fatigue.  Readers are just plain bored with overhyped “deaths” that are reversed in twelve issues or less.
            What I’d like to blab on about this week is sympathy fatigue, also sometimes called compassion fatigue.  It’s a medical term that refers to when doctors, nurses, and caregivers have become so drained by the death and suffering they see that they just... well, can’t feel sympathetic anymore.  Constant exposure has desensitized them.  I had the (very awful) experience once of visiting the “death row” of an animal shelter, and the woman who mass-euthanised the cats and dogs admitted she didn’t even look at them anymore.
            Readers and audience members can feel sympathy fatigue, too.  After watching countless people die, the carnage just fades into a background hum.   It no longer carries any emotional weight.  How often have you watched a horror film with an audience and, after a certain point, people just start laughing? Characters on screen are stabbed, tortured, crushed, and decapitated, and you and your friends are giggling.  Maybe even cheering.
            How do I keep people from laughing?
            Let me get to that in a kind of roundabout way...
            A bad habit I’ve mentioned before is naming every character.  I think some time in the past an MFA professor or writing coach offered some advice about names and it went through a dozen iterations of the telephone game.  Now there’s a (thankfully small) school of thought that says every character should have a name.  That guy at the bus stop.  The cook behind the counter.  The woman in the leather jacket.
            When I give a character a name, I’m telling the reader that all these people are important.  There’s a reason she’s Phoebe and not “the blonde” or “the woman in the leather jacket.”  A name tells the reader to take note of this person because they’re going to affect the story.  If it turns out Phoebe has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot, it means I’ve distracted the reader.  And distractions kill the flow of my story.
            When this idea gets mixed with death, it creates a pattern you’ve probably seen before in stories.  We’ll get introduced to a random person, be told a bunch of character stuff about them, and then, eight or nine pages later... they’ll die.  Usually their death will be connected to the larger threat, if not the larger story.  Giant ants, Ebola, vampires, terrorists--whatever the actual protagonists are dealing with, these poor folks will stumble across it and be wiped out.  In some books, this can happen four or five times.  Introduce a character, kill ‘em.  Introduce a character, kill ‘em.  Introduce a character, kill ‘em.  Introduce a character... well, you get the point.
            The idea here is that I’m showing my readers the widespread nature of the threat, or perhaps the ruthlessness of the killers.  And it should carry emotional weight because I spent a couple of pages making Phoebe or Wakko or Dot feel like real people.  From a mathematical, by-the-numbers viewpoint, this is all good, right?
            Catch is, though, my readers are going to notice this pattern really quick.  Just like they’ll notice that I’m naming background characters who have nothing to do with the plot, most readers will realize I’m just introducing characters to kill them off.  So they’ll stop investing in these characters as a way to save time and effort.  It’s a defense mechanism.  They just stop caring.
            And once the reader stops caring, well...
            Perhaps the worst thing this means is that once my readers have been conditioned by all the meaningless deaths, they’re going to be numb to the important ones.  One of my leads will make a heroic sacrifice or that jerk supporting character will finally get what’s coming to her, and my readers will gloss over it the same way they barely registered the last six or seven deaths.  My whole story gets lessened because I’ve lessened the impact of death.
            Don’t get me wrong.  It’s okay to have people die.  I’m a big fan of it.  But I can’t use cheap tricks to give these deaths weight.  I need to be aware of who my characters are and what their deaths are accomplishing within my story structure.  If I just need someone to die gruesomely to set the mood or tone, I don’t need to make them a major character—or to convince my readers he or she is a major character.  And if I’m going to kill off one of my major characters, her death shouldn’t read just like the nineteen deaths that came before it.
            Because when I kill off someone important, I want you to care.
            Next time, I’d like to offer you all a simple choice.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

How I Learned to Stop Worrying...

            Classic movie reference.  Come on, broaden your horizons.  Watch something made before 1976.
           Anyway, I’d like to start today by telling a story or two.  They’re examples of a problem I see crop up now and then, and one I just finished wrestling with myself.  It’s one of those issues where it’s easy to either write myself into a corner or (worse yet) write something where characters are acting in an unbelievable way.
            Oh, and by the way, before I forget, there’s a thermonuclear warhead in the apartment next door.  Something like ten megatons, if I read the specs right.  Armed and everything.  Just thought you should know.
            Anyway, let me tell you the first story.
            In my often-referenced novel The Suffering Map (unpublished, for good reason), one of the main antagonists is Uncle Louis.  Louis is an old-school mobster with a legendary temper, and he’s rather upset that someone (we’ll call him Rob) threatened his niece (who’s in her late fifties).  He sends a man to rough Rob up a bit, and that man ends up dead with his body horribly mutilated.  So Louis sends two men to kill Rob.  They both end up dead and mutilated.  And when this news reaches Louis he decides...
            Well, actually, he decided to wait for three days and then go after Rob.
            See, I had this whole structure of days worked out, and it turned into kind of a vicious circle.  I needed three days to pass, so Louis had to wait.  Which meant I needed to come up with stuff for everyone else to be doing.  By the time I abandoned that structure, though, I’d grown kind of fond of the reveals and character moments I’d created.  Now Louis had to wait so I’d have room for those bits, no matter how strange and out of character it seemed.  It wasn’t until my fifth draft that I realized this was just dragging things and creating a huge lag in the plot.
            Though not as huge as that bomb sitting next door.  I looked it up.  That’s almost fifty times the size of the bomb they dropped on Nagasaki.  Think about that.  I mean, I think it’s small compared to some missiles and such, but right here in the middle of Los Angeles that could still kill a lot of people.  Millions, easy.
            Anyway, back on track.
            Here’s another example of what I wanted to talk about today.
            A few years back a woman I knew wrote an urban fantasy story and asked me to look at it.  A single mom activates a portal and she and her kids are transferred to a mystical realm.  There’s some magic, some disobeyed instructions, and all three kids vanish.  Invisible?  Teleported?  Dead?  We don’t know, and Phoebe, our heroine, was desperate to find out.
            Well... until she ran into the handsome barbarian chieftain, anyway.  Then Phoebe became aware of just how shredded and torn her clothes were after coming through the portal... and how much skin they exposed... and how much skin the chieftain was showing.  Tight, tanned, well-muscled skin, and Phoebe started wondering if there was a Mrs. Chieftain, and if not... just how prudish were people in this semi-medieval world?
            Speaking of kids...  Hmmmm.  Sounds like one of the little kids next door is hitting the warhead with something.  Maybe a hammer.  Yeah, there are kids next door, too.  Didn’t I mention that before?  I guess one’s technically an infant and the little girl’s a toddler, but they third one is seven or eight.  He’s hammer-competent.
            Well, probably can’t do anything about it.  At best, he might turn on the timer.  If he hasn’t already.
            But I’m wandering away from the point again...
            Or am I...?
            Y’see, Timmy, there are some threats that are just too huge for me to ignore.  Either as physical threats or emotional ones.  One of my children vanishing.  A man in a hockey mask stalking toward me through the forest.  An armed nuclear bomb. 
            Once I know about these things... that’s that.  I can’t establish a huge threat and then ignore it.  If I tell you there’s a nuclear bomb next door, that has to be the priority.  Not being polite.  Not property laws.  Not getting a good night’s sleep and dealing with it in the morning. 
            In my new book, the characters found out about an immediate global threat.  Not a ten years down the road thing—this time tomorrow half the planet will be dead and by the weekend all of it will be.  And it put me in an awkward spot when they did, because at that point nothing else could matter.  Nothing.  Once they realized how big that threat was, they couldn’t be thinking about anything except taking care of it.  Yeah, they could have little asides or chuckles, but nothing that distracted them. 
            It forced me to restructure the end of my story.  But it also made the end much stronger.  And nobody’s standing around wondering about that bomb next door.
            Alas, I’m going to miss next week because of the San Diego ComicCon.  Please swing by the Random House area (technically the Crown/Broadway booth) on Friday after 2:00, say “hullo,” and call me a talentless hack in front of important people.
            When I come back, odds are I’m going to be very fatigued.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Reverse Engineering

            A quick tip for this week.
            When I was still a scrabbling writer looking for my first real success, I was sure there was some sort of trick to writing.  That it wasn’t about putting in years of work and getting experience, it was just about finding the right topic or the right genre.   I wrote lots of stories that focused on all the wrong things, because I was convinced it wasn’t how I wrote, it was what I wrote about.
            Needless to say, this wasn’t true.
            It wasn’t just me, though.  Lots of writers think this at some point in their learning curve.  They think success is some wave that all those other people are riding.  They figured out what was going to be hot this year and jumped on that wave.  Young adult stories.  Werewolf stories.  Space opera stories.  Western stories.  All I need to do is aim my story at the next wave and then I’ll be successful, too.
            Again... this isn’t true.
            A while back I saw Joss Whedon’s fun and super-low budget Much Ado About Nothing.  Some of the actors were there and did a little Q & A afterwards.  Someone asked Alexis Deinsof about the wisdom of deciding to do a slightly-updated Shakespeare play as a movie.  He smiled and said “You can’t start at ‘success’ and work backward to ‘What should I write about?’
            When a story finds a home with an editor or a producer or a reader, it’s not because of trickery.  It’s because that writer knew how to tell a story and that story appealed to said reader or editor at that particular time.  That’s all.  So copying a theme or a genre from something successful isn’t going to help me.  Rushing to copy the current “hot thing” isn’t going to help me. 
            The only thing I can do to improve my odds at success is be the best writer possible.
            Next time, because it’s always good to have your website noticed by lots of people in the NSA, let’s talk about nuclear weapons and blowing up cities.  We can watch the hit counter go crazy together.
            Until then, go write.