Thursday, November 19, 2015

Outlining Our Trip

            Ahhh, jeeez.  I have to bring up the Goodreads thing again. 
            At this point The Fold has somehow made it to the final round of Goodreads best sci-fi novels of 2015.  This isn’t a humblebrag, I honestly have no idea how it ended up on this list.  There are a lot of much, much better books there.
            That being said, I’ve promised the marketing folks I would keep talking about it.  So if you happened to like The Fold and maybe never got around to reading any of the other, better books, maybe you could toss one last vote its way during this final round.  Just so it isn’t a total slaughter.
            Now... let’s move on.
            This week, I wanted to talk a bit about outlines.  Thing is, it’s kind of a tricky topic.  So, to explain this in simpler terms, let’s talk about road trips.  Right now, let’s you and me plan out a trip from LA to New York.  If you’re already in New York, fly out to LA, hang out for a while, and we’ll drive back. It’ll be great.
            Now, there’s a lot of ways we can do this.  We know where we’re starting, more or less (LA is a big place).  We know where we’re going (although our exact destination in New York might affect things a bit)  But there’s still a lot of flex room in how we do this.
            We can just say, “LA to New York” and start driving east.  Done.  That’s the whole plan.  We’ll figure it out as we go.  Spend a little more time here?  Maybe sleep in a few extra hours there?  Maybe go on a wild detour just to see Great Meteor Crater?
            We can get. To. New York.  I went on a road trip once and my partner-in-driving didn’t want to stop for anything.  Any.  Thing.  Petrified forest?  Roswell?  World’s biggest ball of twine?  No, nope, and no way.  We left Tuesday morning and we were going to be in New York for the weekend.  There were four points marked out on the route and that’s where we were stopping to sleep.  He didn’t see any point in wasting time because his goal was to get.  To.  New.  York.
            We can plan out the whole thing.  All of it.  I have another friend who used to be a planner in his younger days.  Crazy planner.  He would plan road trips out for his family in half hour increments.  I’m not joking.  Meals, gas stops, bathroom stops, hotels, morning showers, 90 minutes at this natural wonder, 30 at this roadside attraction, 60 at this—DAMMIT!  We spent 40 minutes at the giant tinfoil ball!  That means no afternoon bathroom break. You kids are just going to have to hold it until dinner.  And it’ll be coming out of your dessert time, I’m warning you now.
            And all this isn’t even considering us and our personal quirks.  You might be great at that sort of long-haul, ten hours behind the wheel thing, but I might only be good for four or five hours at a time.  I might have a fantastic sense of direction, but maybe you need GPS and a map at the same time.  I love all these bizarre roadside attractions with alien jerky and the continental divide and the Sunsphere, but you’d rather spend the time either driving, eating, or sleeping
            Plus, do we have time to spare on the road or do we need to be in New York  by this time next week?  Do we need to plan this out?  Is this a business trip or are we just having some fun for a couple of days?  Or weeks?
            As I said above, there’s lots of ways to do this.
            The same is true for outlines.  Maybe I don’t need one at all.  Perhaps I just need a few story points set down.  I could be the type who likes the whole thing plotted in exacting detail.  Maybe I’ve got ages to find my way or maybe I’m on a harsh deadline and don’t have time for even a single diversion.
            Y’see, Timmy, it’s hard to give advice on outlines because it’s such a personal thing.  Every writer is going to be a bit different, and the only thing that matters is that this outline works for this person.  And—like a lot of writerly advice—the only way to find out what works for you is to try it. 
            I struggled with outlines for ages before admitting they just weren’t for me.  If you haven’t used one before and your writing output is fine... hey, why fix what’s not broken?  And if you find yourself wandering and you never seem to get anywhere, maybe planning things out to some degree might help you a bit.
            This one’s all on you.
            No pressure.
            Next time... Okay, well, next Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the States, so I’m going to be watching Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and The Day The Earth Stood Still while I cook.  I hope wherever you are, it’s a good and peaceful day for you.
            The week after that, though...  I’ve been getting back into one of my hobbies lately, so I thought we could talk about painting.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Beware... The Mosquito!

            Okay, first, please forgive me for some shameless pandering...
            Somehow, my book The Fold was nominated for best sci-fi book of 2015 over at Goodreads.  I don’t know how. I don’t even go to Goodreads. 
            Regardless, it was nominated and made it to the semi-final round, which ends on Saturday.  So if you happen to be reading this and didn’t read anything better this year (like, say, Armada or The Water Knife—both also in the running), I’d appreciate it if you could hop over to Goodreads and cast a vote for The Fold.
            Sorry about all that.  Kind of annoying, wasn’t it?
            Anyway, this week I want to talk about annoying things. To be exact I want to talk about mosquitoes.  I’ve seen a lot of them lately.
            A mosquito is the frustrating, you-want-to-slap-them character who shows up in books or movies.  That man or woman who simply cannot take a hint or get a clue, no matter how hard the other characters hit them with one.  Usually the mosquito won’t shut up.  Ever.  No matter what.  Plus, it’s a safe bet if someone tells them not to do something, that will be the very next thing they do.
            They’re just... well, they’re annoying as hell.
            Worse yet, the mosquitoes never acknowledge the problems they’re causing.  They leave shattered plans, damaged treasures, and unachieved goals in their wake—almost never their own—and often don’t grasp why it’s such a big deal.  Was that important?  Don’t get so worked up.
            And... wow, when the mosquito is the main character?
            By the way, this is just my name for this type of character.  Don’t expect to find the term “mosquito” in use anywhere else until I put out my how-to book on writing—Storytelling-the Ed Wood Method! Also, I may come up with a better term before the end of this post.
            Now, this is just my thinking, but I feel there are two big reasons mosquitoes get annoying so fast in stories.  One is that... well, they aren’t good characters.  I don’t mean this in the sense of poorly written or imagined, just that they aren’t the kind of characters people like to read about or follow.  I’ve mentioned a few times here that good characters have to be likeable, relatable, and believable.  As we just said, mosquitoes aren’t likeable—they’re annoying.  That’s why they’re mosquitoes.  They’re also not relatable, because nobody thinks they’re this kind of person, which means no one will identify with them. Think about it—the most talkative, clueless person you know doesn’t think they’re talkative or clueless.  So right off the bat, a mosquito is failing two of the three basic criteria for a good character.
            The other reason mosquitoes are annoying in a story is because they violate the rule of three.  It’s a term I’ve brought up here once or thrice in the past.  It usually applies to screenwriting, but you can find it in books, too.  At its core, the rule of three tells us that if something keeps getting mentioned, it’s important to the plot or story.  If it wasn’t important, it wouldn’t be mentioned three times. 
            Simple, yes?  I’ve mentioned something similar with names.  If I make a point of telling you the waiter’s name, he must be important to the story somehow.  A bare bones version of this would be the popular adage of Chekov’s Rifle, which says if we see a phaser rifle on the bridge in Act One, it should be set to overload and kill someone in act three.  If something is in my story, there’s a reason for it being there.
            I see a lot of mosquitoes buzz around and around... but they don’t actually do anything.  Their buzzing doesn’t distract the bad guy at a key moment.  Their failure to follow instructions doesn’t save the day. Their refusal to admit fault doesn’t give a vital clue. What little they do contribute could easily be done by someone else.  Anyone else.
            They’re just annoying. 
            Y’see, Timmy, when a character has such a defining trait that doesn’t pay off somehow, we end up wondering why said character’s even here.  Why did I put someone in my story that nobody likes or relates to?  That serves no purpose?
            That being said... what are some good reasons to have a mosquito in my story?
            Contrast—Sometimes I start off writing a character as a mosquito so they can go through a transformation.  That’s a basic character arc, to start one way, change somehow, and end up as someone a bit different. In Hot Fuzz, Constable Danny Butterman is a mosquito.  He’s the screw-up, chattering cop that type-A police officer Nicholas Angel is partnered with.  Through the course of the film, though, Danny learns to take his responsibilities as a police officer more seriously, and by the end of the story he’s grown up a bit and become a different kind of cop.  In this case, the character starts annoying so they have room to grow.
            We’re All Thinking It—Every now and then, somebody needs to lay the cards on the table. Maybe say some things other characters don’t want to hear. And my mosquito can do this, since they’re usually talking non-stop anyway.  Vince Vaughn has played this character a few times, like in Made when he points out to his friend Bobby (Jon Faverau) that everybody knows Bobby’s would-be girlfriend is sleeping with their boss.  In Love & Other Drugs, Jamie’s little brother Josh pretty much gives a monologue about how eye-opening it was to have sex with someone he didn’t care about, and how up until now he’d really envied his big brother but now he kind of pities him.
            In the same way, if I’ve already got a mosquito, they can beat the audience to asking questions and pointing things out.  This can calm some nitpicky readers and help carry the suspension of disbelief.  On The Flash, Cisco’s tendency to babble makes it more acceptable that he’s constantly coming up with super-villain codenames for the metahumans he and his friends fight.   As with many things, though, this is something I want to be cautious with.  This should be a tool, not part of my core structure.
            Breaking Points—Sometimes the mosquito uses their annoyance to their own benefit.  “The Ransom of Red Chief,” Ruthless People, and The Ref all use the idea of kidnappers stuck dealing with a mosquito.  In The Usual Suspects, Verbal Gint’s nonstop babbling make it hard for the police to catch small holes in his story.
            It’s worth pointing out, though, that in all of these examples, the mosquito is the antagonist of the story.  Not necessarily the villain, but definitely the antagonist.  They start off with them as the victim, but our sympathies slowly shift to the other characters—they’re the ones we’re identifying with and relating to.
            Fast friends—Okay, I was tempted not to mention this one, but... what the hell.  I’m trusting you to use this responsibly.
            Sometimes we need to introduce a character just to kill them off.  The problem is that it’s really hard to have any sympathy for a character we’ve only known for seven or eight pages.  In this case, a mosquito can work because... well, if they’re talking non-stop they have to talk about something, right?  Family, goals, television shows, dirty jokes—there’s any number of things this character can spew out.  The reader can have a reason to like them and before the character gets annoying BANG they’re dead, just like that.
            The thing is... I can only do this rarely.  Once a book is almost too much.  More like once every two or three books.  The moment I start to overuse this, it becomes a cheap gag—the sort of thing done in bad horror movies and SyFy films from the Asylum.
            Keep in mind, there are other ways to make a mosquito acceptable, too.  The important thing is that I have a reason for giving my character such an abrasive trait.  If I don’t... it’s going to be really challenging for me to keep my readers interested.
            And writing is challenging enough as it is without making it harder for no reason.
            Next time, let’s take this storytelling thing on the road.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Do Something

             Remember, remember, the fifth of November...
            So, at the risk of possibly getting some grumbly comments, I wanted to talk for a little bit about a new buzzword I see popping up more and more often.  Agency.  Journalists and critics are latching onto it to talk about characters (often women and people of color, but I've seen it applied to characters of all genders and races). Like so many buzzwords, though, I rarely see it defined by the folks using it.
            Which, of course, makes it easier for them to use...
            This is a bit misleading, though. Agency isn’t a new word. It’s actually a fairly old sociology term (from the Enlightenment) that’s migrated into literature.  Well, migrated’s a bit misleading, too.  Maybe it was chloroformed and woke up tied to a chair, unsure what it was doing here.
            In a sociological and philosophical sense, agency refers, in simple terms, to free will. Can a person make their own choices and affect the world around them?  How much does the world or society they exist in constrain that ability to make choices? Does it cancel out free will altogether, or just the appearance of free will?  Is there a point where I no longer have free will?
            While this is fascinating stuff to debate over drinks, it doesn’t really have anything to do with literature.  As I’ve mentioned in the past, when I’m writing, I’m more or less the god of this little world I’m creating.  And I’m a micro-managing god, too.  None of the characters move, speak, or have a single thought without my say-so.  There is no free will. Zero.  Because I’m creating all of it.  Every sentence, every idea, every word, every punctuation mark.  It all comes from me.
            Okay, in all fairness, some of the punctuation comes from my beta-readers and copyeditor.
            When critics and literary pundits talk about characters having agency, at the core they’re talking about something we’ve addressed here many times. A a writer, I need to make my readers believe these characters are people who are having an actual effect on the story.  My characters shouldn't be window dressing, they need to do things.  If I’m going to make a point of Wakko or Yakko or Dot being in my story, then there should be an actual reason they’re in the story.
            I read a book a while back that was your standard “chosen one shall save us” sort of thing.  A young girl—we’ll call her Phoebe—discovers her birthright and powers, must go into hiding, has to fight off enemies she didn’t know she had, needs to learn how to harness and direct her abilities.  We’ve all seen this a few dozen times at this point, right?
            Except... well, Phoebe didn’t really do anything.  She didn’t discover her powers, she learned about them from her parents.  She didn’t decide to go into hiding, she was told to go—pretty much forced.  There were two guardians who fought off the enemies for her (one actually sacrificed himself so she could get away).  Hell, when Phoebe finally got to the Tabernacle and began to train, people were even walking her through that.  She just kind of stood around looking dazed and confused.  Phoebe didn’t make an actual, independent decision about something until page 114.
            Not exactly inspirational, that chosen one.  In fact, for those first 113 pages Phoebe could’ve been a duffelbag full of towels all the other characters were hanging off to one another.  She just didn’t do anything.
            Y’see, Timmy, my characters need to face challenges and need to respond to them.  They should make choices—ones that are consistent with who they are.  They need to be active, with their own thoughts and opinions.  And they should have a real affect on how the story plays out.
            Here’s a simple test we can perform.  Let’s say I scribble out a two or three page summary of my current novel or story or screenplay (choose which one applies to you).  I want to be as thorough as possible without changing how I’m telling the story.  So I put all the introductions, reveals, explanations, and so on in the same order they appear in the book.  Make sense?
            Okay, so let’s look at this.  What characters did I mention? Which ones did I skip over?  Reading through my summary, I mention Eli, Harry, Zeke, Theo, and Fifteen.  I don’t mention Eli’s childhood friends by name, the bus driver, the cashier, or the cigarette man.  That’s because they’re all supporting and background characters.  By nature of the beast, they should be a little more... well, two dimensional.  They’re the stepping stones and redshirts of our story, so we’re not going to focus on them too much.
           So let’s look at the characters we made a point of mentioning and naming.  These should all be important to the story, right?  Every one of them is key somehow.
            Now, take one of them out.
            If these are actual characters who are supporting the plot and making things happen, my story should fall apart without them.  If Dot can step in and immediately pick up the slack from Wakko’s absence... well, he can’t have been that important to things.  If nothing at all changes when Yakko vanishes, he definitely wasn’t important.  And if they’re not important, if they’re not having an effect... I really need to ask myself why they’re here.
            So do great stuff with your characters.  By having them do stuff.
            Next time... I’d like to talk about the bug problem.
            Until then, go write.