Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Flow Factor

            I tried to come up with a clever title using Flo from those Progressive Insurance commercials, but I couldn’t come up with anything that didn’t feel... well, kind of awkward.  They weren’t bad titles, they just didn’t read well.  Or they required a bit of mental gymnastics to make sense.
            Either way, they didn’t work.
            Which is, oddly enough, what I wanted to blather on about this week.
            Have you ever read a book you just couldn’t put down?  One where you start reading just after lunch and suddenly realize it’s two in the morning?  Or maybe it was a movie that sucked you in and you were stunned to realize that the 163 minute run time was already used up.
            Oscar-winning screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin made a wonderful observation a while back.  To paraphrase, we experience good stories in our gut, not in our head.  A good story grabs us at an emotional level—in the gut.  But whenever something goes wrong, we start to analyze and examine it—we go into our head. 
            The best term I’ve heard for this is flow.  Put at its simplest, flow is the readability of my story.  It has to do with how much effort it takes for the reader to keep reading.  Having good flow means my writing is smooth and slick, that every line, paragraph, and chapter rolls into the next and carries you along for the ride.  Readers can’t stop because it’s actually easier to keep turning the page than to put the book down. 
            On the other hand, a story with bad flow will make a reader stumble a lot.  If I’m reading a book, whenever I pause to roll my eyes, scratch my head, or go back two or three pages to figure something out... each one's another bump in the road.  If you’ve ever tried a book and just couldn’t get into it, odds are the flow sucked.  You’d read, trip over a page or two, and put it back down.  You can’t get into it because you keep getting knocked back out.
             Flow is a large part of editing.  I’ve mentioned giving things a polish before, and it’s just what it sounds like.  It’s going through my manuscript and smoothing down the rough edges. It’s me knowing this could be a little clearer and people might get hung up on that.
            Unfortunately, this means flow isn’t something I can just fix by changing a word here or there.  It’s one of those things where you can tweak each element but still not affect the final outcome.  Getting good (or even better) at flow is an experience thing that just comes from writing.  The more I write, the more subtle methods and tricks and fixes I develop.
            That being said... here are a few things my story needs to do if it’s going to have good flow.  Or, if you prefer, these are some of the things a story with bad flow often won’t do...

            Be interesting--  Easiest way in the world to keep my story from lagging—don’t be boring.  This doesn’t mean I need five explosions and a swordfight on page one, but when I’m telling a story, I need to get to the story.  If it’s sci fi, I should show the reader something amazing.  If it’s a love story, my characters need to display some passion.  If it’s a horror story, I need to scare some folks, or at least weird them out a bit.
            Have characters act in character--  A writing coach named Drusilla Campbell once commented that when the nun viciously kills a gardener, that’s also when most people remember that laundry they have to fold.  People who are blatantly incompetent at their jobs, cruel people who do nice things, people who are just a little too smart or too scared or too law-abiding when it suits the story.  It's jarring when my characters act in contradictory ways to what the reader's come to expect.  And that jarring is what gets books and screenplays tossed in the big left-hand pile.
            Have smooth  dialogue--  Kind of related to the last point.  I can get away with one character who talks like a computer.  Maybe another who keeps slipping into a foreign language.  But too much stylized, unnatural, or just plain bad dialogue brings things to a grinding halt.  Adults should talk like adults, kids should talk like kids, and cybernetic lizard men should talk like... well, you know.
            Watch the word choice--  If I’m picking obscure or overly-long words just to create flowery descriptions or show off my vocabulary, there’s a good chance I’m disrupting the flow of my writing.  It’s really cool that I can describe someone as a female with resplendent obsidian ink ornamented across her glabrous scalp, but it’s much smoother and just as visual for me to say she’s a bald woman with dark tattoos.
            It’s worth noting that typos and misused words fall into this category, too.  Anytime someone sees something like that in print, it pulls them out of the story and puts them back in analyzing mode.  In their head.  And that’s not where I want them to be.
            Take it seriously.  Everyone makes a joke now and then to break the tension, but things need to carry the correct amount of gravity in my writing.  Death, rape, unrequited love, violence... I shouldn’t bring these things up and not address them in an appropriate way.  If my characters are drowning cats, threatening their employees, or punching strangers in the head, these acts should all be getting a response from my characters.  If the reader thinks I’m not taking the events in my book seriously, well... why should they?

            Again, though, just adjusting these elements doesn’t guarantee that my writing now has great flow.  Every story is unique and has its own path to follow.  But if you keep at it and continue to work on it, one day you’ll start to see the patterns.  And then you’ll be able to go with the flow.
            Next week, unless any of you have some requests or suggestions, I’ve been thinking about Captain America and superheroes a lot lately.  So I wanted to make a small distinction.  
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Is That All You’ve Got?

            I want to step away from actual writing rules and advice for a moment—just a moment, I promise—to address something that falls more under the publishing umbrella.
            I like reading Cracked.  I think it’s a fantastic site that combines humor with some honestly great advice and information.  It’s funny and educational.
            A while back they had a column that was essentially brutal-but-true dating advice.  And one thing they said stuck with me.  To paraphrase, if the best thing I can bring to the table is “that guy’s a much bigger jerk than me,” then I don’t deserve to get a date.
            I’ve heard that line, or variations on it, a few times.  I can shamefully admit there have been two or three points in my life when I fell back on that reasoning.  And in all cases... no one ended up getting what they were hoping for.
            Me getting a date with Phoebe is not about any of the other guys she’s dated.  There are no rankings or qualifications.  She’s not obligated to date me because her last boyfriend was—by some opinions—inferior to me.  It’s just about me.  And if I don’t do it for Phoebe than that’s the end of the discussion, no matter who else she’s dated, hung out with, or had flings with.  And this isn’t a problem with Phoebe—it’s a problem with my expectations.
            Makes sense, yes?
            One argument I see people make for why their novel or screenplay should succeed is they’ll point out how many books or movies are far worse.  We’ve all heard a friend or family member say “I could write something better than this!”  People point to the Asylum movies as proof that Hollywood will buy anything.  Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott (who wrote, among other things, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) have referred to this mindset as “crap-plus-one.”  It’s the belief that all I need to succeed is to be better than the worst example of something I can find.
            Y’see, Timmy, much like trying to get a date with Phoebe, if the best thing I can say about my book is “there are lots of published books much worse than mine,” then I don’t deserve to be published.  My script might be better than Sharknado, but that doesn’t mean anyone in Hollywood’s obligated to look at it.  An editor, publisher, or producer is not required to buy my manuscript just because they put out something else I thought was worse.  If my story doesn’t do it for them, that’s it.  While it doesn’t automatically mean there’s a problem with my story, it also doesn’t mean the problem is with them.
            I don’t need to be better than the worst.  I have to try to be as good as the best. And if I'm not trying that hard, well... I shouldn't be surprised how things end up.
            Next time, I’d like to get back into the regular flow of things here.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

New York’s Hottest Club is Stufft

             Pop culture reference.  Long overdue.
            This is overdue, too.  Many thanks for your patience while I was away last week.  ConDor was lots of fun, got to speak with some great people, and even ended up with a few ideas for future ranty blog posts.
            Speaking of which...
            I blabbered on a while back about the bad habit of sticking absolutely everything into a story—the kitchen sink approach to storytelling, if you will.  If I’m writing a historical story, it’s crammed full of historical events and people.  If it’s a sci-fi story, I make sure every single person, place, and thing has a sci-fi, high-tech twist.  When I do this, it can get distracting really fast as my reader is buried in facts and details that really have nothing to do with my actual story.
            Sometimes, writers do this with their characters.  They give them lots of elements and defining points.  Lots of them.  Again, the kitchen sink approach.
            For example, I could make Yakko a guy from the backwoods of Maine and constantly reference his sheltered New England upbringing.   And he’s also a Piggers fan (go Piggers!) who’ll cheer/ defend/ quote/ relate things to the Piggers at every chance he gets.  Oh, and he’s also a ninja who studied for twenty years in Japan before returning to America.
            Now, in and of themselves, none of these are bad character elements.  Being the fish out of water isn’t far from being the ignorant stranger.  Ninjas are cool.  Lots of folks love the Piggers.
            But if Yakko’s ninja skills are never going to be necessary to further the plot—or even just to deal with an action set piece—maybe they’re not such a great character element after all.  If his devout love of the Piggers is irrelevant to the story, maybe I shouldn’t spend forty or fifty pages on it.  And if I could switch his background from rural Maine to suburban Texas with no repercussions, maybe it’s not that much of a character trait.  Again, none of these are inherently bad elements, but I really should spend time on an aspect of Yakko’s personality or backstory that has an affect on the story. 
            And if he doesn’t have an aspect that affects the story... well, why is he there?  Sure, he cracks some funny jokes and other characters bounce some dialogue off him.  Maybe he even throws a key punch during a fight. 
            But in the long run, does Yakko do anything that another character couldn’t do?  What makes him unique?  Why is he here and not Wakko or Dot?
            I see a lot of this, I hate to say, in genre material.  Fantasy.  Urban fantasy.  Sci-fi.  Writers add in lots and lots of stuff to show how their world is different from other fictional ones.  And they do the same thing with their characters.  No one is just human.  They’re all sorcerers, telepaths, half-zombies, androids, paladins, and time traveling prophets.  But four out of five times this is just a label that’s been slapped on them as an attempt at characterization.  None of these traits are relevant in any way.
            For example...
            I read a story recently where one of the characters, a very small woman, turned out to be a female leprechaun.  Kind of makes sense—little leprechauns have to come from somewhere, right?  Whenever she got worked up (in any sense) her eyes and hair would turn green and she’d get a sparkly rainbow aura.  Halfway through the story she’s bitten by a vampire and becomes one herself.  So now she’s a vampire leprechaun.  No, I’m not joking.  She’d even change into a green bat.  And eventually she dies when she can’t find cover at sunrise.
            This all sounds kind of cool, yeah, but the thing is... none of this had any affect on the story. Not a single bit.  Her leprechaun abilities didn’t do anything.  Her vampire abilities didn’t do anything.  The combination of them didn’t do anything. 
            In fact, the biggest effect on the story was a four page discussion over drinks about being a leprechaun, followed by an interesting scene (see above) back at the protagonist’s apartment, and then many references to the fact that she was now one of the undead, and an undead leprechaun at that.  Heck, sunrise happened during a big fight scene, so she just could’ve been killed by one of the evil plant people.  If she’d just been a small woman the story would’ve progressed almost exactly the same, just with more time and space to give her some... well, useful traits.  And she would’ve been a lot more relatable
            If I had to give this a name, I’d call it the Stefon Factor.  If you’re not familiar with Stefon, the overly-enthusiastic club promoter from Saturday Night Live, he tends to talk about clubs that are filled with... well, oddities.  Lots of oddities.  In his own words, “This club has everything!”  But the truth is he rarely talks about the clubs themselves.  They just get defined by the patrons (which, granted, was part of the joke).
            Y'see, Timmy, in the same way a pile of random story points don't automatically add up to an interesting story, a handful of assorted character elements doesn't always result in a worthwhile character.  When I’m creating a character, his or her traits should have an effect on the story.  As I’ve mentioned before, every superhero group has a strong guy because at some point they need a strong guy.  And if my story has a vampire leprechaun, then at some point things should come to a dead halt if I don’t have the powers  of a vampire leprechaun to call on.
            Now, let me give you a more positive example...
            There’s an old Martin Caidin book called Cyborg which inspired a much more well-known television show called The Six Million Dollar Man.  Now, this may sound kind of obvious, but the entire book is about the fact that Colonel Steve Austin has been loaded full of bionic parts after a plane crash.  He goes on a couple of missions which would be nigh-impossible without his cybernetics.  The story also focuses on Austin coming to grips with the fact that his government has turned him into a Frankenstein’s Monster, that almost half of his body isn’t him anymore.   If he wasn’t a bionic man, none of this would work.  The plot would struggle and his character arc would be nonexistent.  It’s not just a random label—the whole book hinges on the fact that he’s a cyborg.
            So give your characters relevant traits.  Make them necessary to your story.  Because if they aren’t... why are they there?
            Next time, a few quick thoughts on dating.
            Until then, go write.