Thursday, June 21, 2018

So You Want to be a Writer?

            Okay, so I’m about neck-deep in a draft right now, racing a deadline, and was a little worried I wouldn’t have time for a ranty blog post this week.
            Then, lucky for all of us, I got a message from Kristi Charish.
           I’ve mentioned Kristi twice or thrice here before.  She’s—and I’m not joking—an archeologist turned genetic engineer turned fantasy author.  No, seriously.  She’s pretty much solely responsible for making me like urban fantasy for the first time since college.  The first book in her Kincaid Strange series, The Voodoo Killings, is finally available in the US as a paperback, so you should go grab a copy.
            Anyway, because we live in different countries with a sizable chunk of North America between us, it was a special treat to get to hang out with Kristi in person at Phoenix Comic Fest last month.  There were many drinks and meals, and much talk about writing and publishing.  Including one very interesting discussion about teaching, fueled by her much more academic viewpoint.
            And then a few days ago, as I was wondering if this’d be a skip week for the ranty blog, Kristi got in touch with me and asked if I’d be interested in that discussion as a guest post...
            So here’s Ms. Charish with her informed thoughts on writing, higher education, and success (with a bunch of random links from me to semi-related posts I’ve made here)
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            Maybe you’ve always dreamt of being an author, or perhaps you’ve recently begun to dabble in prose on your off time. Maybe you’ve entertained fantasies of seeing your name on your book as you pass by the window of your favorite bookstore? Or, better yet, coming across the fruit of your imagination while surfing on Netflix.
            Fantastic! We like dreamers. Welcome to a profession that attracts a damnably eccentric mix of eclecticism!
            But you're new to the game, and like the studious person the western schooling system has honed you to be, you feel compelled to expand your education, broaden that nebulous toolbox of literary-like writing and story-telling skills the critics, pros, and amateur spectators alike keep going on about.
            You’re considering courses, a workshop – maybe even – gasp – an outright, all in, financially crippling, higher degree!
           Do I encourage pursuit of the full-fledged-degree-kind in the pursuit of writerly knowledge? Absolutely. By all means, pursue a higher education. Do a degree, ANY degree.
            …Whatever you do don’t make it an MFA in creative writing, and here’s why. 

The World’s Bestest Heart Surgeon
           Imagine you are the head of a prestigious medical school and you are a great heart surgeon – one of the world’s best. You’re so good at being a heart surgeon, you think you know the secret to training them. So much so you decide that over the next four years, you’re going to concentrate all your resources on proving you can.
            You meet with the rest of the staff (well, mostly the four other heart surgeons…) and all of you agree producing the world’s best heart surgeons is a worthy pursuit. It’s your duty as patrons of the heart surgeon caste to make more heart surgeons. You cut back on all the nonsense and distractions – pediatrics, infectious diseases, family medicine, dermatology - anything that doesn’t pertain to becoming an awesome, world’s bestest heart surgeon until the courses are all about heart health and surgery.
            500 students, a staff on board, a university endowment, plus all that tuition? It’s a bet you can’t lose! Heart Surgeon World Awards, here we come!
            Time travel four years and, low and behold, you have in your graduating class two of the world’s most up and coming heart surgeons! Everyone is gushing over their surgery technique and breathlessly anticipating the next research article. As an institution you have achieved world acclaim – Success!
            …At least until everyone starts asking what happened to the 498 other students…you know, the ones who didn’t make the World’s Best Heart Surgeon cut?
            Six other students had a natural aptitude for heart surgery. Not world’s best, but they go on to productive if not lucrative careers. Another ten aren’t cut out for surgery – the stress, hand eye coordination, can’t stand 7 hours without taking a pee – but they can teach. A couple get jobs at instructors at other universities.
            …that leaves 482 students. Students who were talented, clever, and industrious enough to get into medical school but for one reason or another didn’t make the heart surgeon cut. A lot of them would have made fantastic dermatologists, pediatricians, family physicians, nephrologists, epidemic specialists, etc, but, well, after four years listening to their professors go on about how this was the best medial school because it only trained heart surgeons, and how heart surgery was the only surgery worth performing, any other pursuit of medicine is a waste of time and meant you were second rate…Eventually they drink the Kool-Aid. Most never pick up a medical tool or book ever again, and the few who might have?
            Shame they can’t since they’ve had no other medical training whatsoever.
            But… you know… two World’s Best Heart Surgeons/500 students. Sometimes you need to sacrifice a cow…or was it an army?
            Look, we’re going to need your entire student body. Don’t ask why, just trust us it’s for the greater artistic good…
            If the Greatest Heart Surgeon Medical School was real it would be considered a resounding failure. Any program - history, life science, biology, forestry- run that way would be shut down – fast – because everyone grasps that there is more to medicine and a robust medical community than heart surgery and wasting 80% of your student body trying to mold the best isn’t just wrong, it’s stupid, idiotic, asinine, the work of a delusional heart surgery megalomaniac.
            Yet that’s what the majority of MFA creative writing programs do.
            Writing is an important communication and entertainment medium. It’s a way to discuss ideas, cultural shifts, politics – you name it – in ways that can’t be done with YouTube and FB articles. It’s storytelling. And just as in medicine where many disciplines are necessary to get the full picture, many kinds of writers and media make for a healthy and entertaining writing community. There’s no one right way or right type of novel to produce.
            Yet what I described above for the World’s Best Heart Surgery School isn’t too far off from how the majority of MFA programs are run. Damn the rest of the writing and entertainment world - we produce literary geniuses here! There’s a history there that Peter touched on in a previous post but it boils down to this: The inception of the Creative Writing MFA program wasn’t catalyzed by a desire or need for more novelists. They were invented as a Post-World War 2 tuition grab – a student holding cell. It’s morphed a bit over the last 80 years but the essential building blocks remain.
            Creative Writing Programs claim to be a pursuit of excellence in literature (FYI – probably not the kinds of book I, Peter, or anyone else who’s ever guested on this blog writes). But, funny thing, when you ask how well the writing careers are going for the majority of alumni (not the two or three prodigy examples they trot out), they tend to waffle on about how a degree in creative writing is about personal growth, not vocational training (AKA: tuition/student holding cell). 
           Well, I call bull...
You Really Don’t Need an MFA to be a Serious Novelist
            Back to the World’s Bestest Heart Surgery School, the university president has stopped by to scream about the incredibly poor vocational success of, well, most of your graduates. Like always, you hold up your two gifts to heart surgery Godhood (full disclosure: I don’t think the MFA success rate is anywhere near that high)…
            And find out that the History, Biology, and Marine Biology departments have all also produced three equally gifted heart surgeons who are outcompeting yours.
            It’s incredibly unlikely that a History program would produce a heart surgeon– there are very specific things you need to learn like heart anatomy and how to cut someone open without killing them.
            But creative writing is weird. You can learn to write almost anywhere. Law school, journalism, real medical school. Not only can these vocations inspire you, but unlike and MFA, which purports to teach you how to be literary, these other disciplines are trying to teach you something else entirely – they’re trying to teach you how to communicate the ideas you learn to the outside world. That’s priceless. That’s called perspective, and it’s what makes the writer and writing interesting, engaging.
            A great example is Carl Hiaasen, who was a journalist in Florida for many a year before he became a NYTbest-selling satire novelist. What does he write about? Corrupt politicians making scuzzy land deals in Florida, the war being waged on the beautiful everglades, and the very few and far between honest people who are trying to save his beloved state. It’s captivating, its relatable, he knows his material well and he communicates in a way that makes millions of readers care too.
            Much like the World’s Best Heart Surgery School doesn’t see the point in pediatricians, I worry that most MFA programs don’t see the merit and value of a Carl Hiaasen book.
           And he’s not the only example. Would Michael Crichton have written such a captivating novel about a deadly extraterrestrial virus or bringing dinosaurs back to life if he’d done an MFA over medical school? Diana Gabaldon of Outlander fame holds three degrees in science, including marine biology, and it shows in all the science she trickles through her novels.
>            It’s a distinct possibility that my alma matter’s Department of Science has produced more successful novelists in the last ten years than MFA Writing Program…
            Claiming to teach literary artistry is all fine and well but there has to be some kind of tangible real-world, quantifiable measurement of success, otherwise it becomes a nebulous black box, a dark corner…. And nebulous boxes and dark corners are where things from 80s horror movies and Peter’s books hide, so if that’s the only reason you decide to skip the MFA so be it.
            The point is you (and your bank account) really don’t need an MFA to be a great writer. 

But I really want to improve my writing, and, you know…writing rules.
            Sigh. Let it be said that you can teach yourself writing by reading and lots of practice. There is no reason for you to spend money to become an author.
            Disclaimer aside, if you are hell bent on burning money or feel you really need the support, these are some options I can recommend.
            Cheapest/ Best Value: Writing groups/coffee house meet-ups. Free for the price of a coffee. Google your area but I hear The Writer’s Coffeehouse is popular.
            Cheap/ Good Value: Community Centers/Library writing programs. Average 6 weeks to 2 months a couple nights a week and range Free -$100. Often run by a published author vetted by the community center.
            Medium priced/ Still Good Value: Community College Writing Classes. Evening or afternoon classes that run roughly six to eight weeks and cost anywhere from $120-200. Bonus: Instructors often have teaching credentials.
            Expensive/Questionable value/not recommended: All Star/Celebrity/NYT Bestselling/Intensive Author Workshop and/or Cruise. They range from two to six weeks, cost upwards of four grand, and often boast a rotating roster of world class authors as instructors. You do get one on one time with the authors as advertised and that might be incentive enough for the odd superfan. I don’t recommend them. The instructors might be star studded novelists but that doesn’t mean they can teach and their alumni track records leave much to be desired. In comparison, self-driven, free writer’s groups have a staggering publication success rate. A new laptop and a trip to a remote cabin to write is arguably a much better return
on a four thousand dollar investment.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

One Of Those Character-Building Experiences

            Despite the title, you might like this little rant...
            We talked about characters for a while at the Writers Coffeehouse this past Sunday.  Mostly about my long-standing (but sometimes contentious)  three necessary character traits.  And I figured I'd already threatened all of you with a character post, so we could spin off in a slightly different direction here...
            I can’t have a story without characters, right?  Should be obvious.  Oh, sure, I’ve seen one or two clever pieces that are just elaborate settings with no actual people in them, but I’m going to say 999,999 times out of a million no characters means no plot, no story, no nothing.  They don’t need to be human.  They don’t even need to be alive.  But if my reader doesn’t have someone to focus, I’m going nowhere fast. 
            For all of us, the goal's to create characters that seem alive on the page.  People a reader can identify with and picture in their mind.  Characters will make or break my writing, which means they deserve attention. 
            A mistake I see again and again and again, however, is writers who give their characters too much attention.  Their writing becomes all about character and not about anything else.  These characters never get off the page because... well, they get buried alive there.
            A couple of good rules-of-thumb.  As always, your mileage may vary, but these seem to be pretty solid and common, in my experience.
            I shouldn’t describe characters in exacting physical detail.  I’ve mentioned this before.  We, the audience, don’t need to know someone’s precise height, weight, waist, inseam, show size, cup size, hair color, eye color, or how much of what they shave and how often.  We really don’t need to be told the exact tie pattern he’s wearing, where her skirt hits her thigh, if he likes boxers or briefs, if she likes thongs over bikinis, how many fillings either of them have, the name of her first pet, the state his parents grew up in, how they both did on that third grade geography test, and precisely what they had at the restaurant last night for dinner--including condiments.
            I don’t need any of that in my writing.  I promise.  Because these sort of long descriptions bring things to a grinding halt.  The longer the description, the louder the squeal of brakes. And the harder the crash. 
            When I do this, I’m doing an infodump.  I’m throwing out a pile of information at a time the reader wants action and forward motion (which is—for the record—always).  It’s wonderful to know that, as Phoebe steps out into the street, everyone notices her D & G bag, Yves St.Laurent jacket,  eel-skin boots, platinum wedding band with matching engagement ring (not to mention the size of that rock—three carats, easy), the small St.Christopher’s medallion she wears outside her emerald-green satin blouse, her meticulous eyeliner, and her $300 hairdo that’s starting to sag, giving her one loose strand that hangs loose over her face in a kind of sexy way as she puffs and swipes at it with her free hand.
            You know what’s far, far more interesting than all of that, though?  Why's Phoebe stepping into the street?  Is it a crosswalk?  Is she getting into a limo?  Throwing herself in front of a bus?  She’s been frozen there in mid-movement while the writer (in this case, me) prattles on about her clothes and hair.  Heck, after all that description, did you even remember she was outside?
            There’s another simple reason to not spend time on physical descriptions, whether I’m writing a novel or a screenplay.  Silly as it sounds... I don’t have much say in what this character looks like.  When we read, we all form our own mental images, and they’re usually pretty different from the ones written out.  An example I've mentioned before, from Dan Abnett’s excellent Ravenor books, is the  character of Kara Swole, who I always picture like my friend Penny from college.  Their descriptions don’t really match up (well, they’re both female gymnasts, but that’s about it) yet this is how I picture Kara as I read each chapter.  Something just clicked in my mind and that's what she looks like.
            But my Kara probably doesn't look like your Kara.  If you read the books, maybe you picture her more like Melissa Benoist.  Or Zazie Beetz.  Or that cashier at the grocery store you were kinda crushing on.
            So extensive, super-elaborate physical descriptions are probably going to be a waste of everyone's time.  I should use broad strokes and only fill in details where I really need to.  Pick three or four good descriptive words for the character (not their clothes), and stick with them.  Their dialogue and actions will bring them to life and my readers will fill in the rest. 
            In the novel I’m finishing up right now, one of the main characters is a tall, dark skinned woman with frizzy hair who wears the same uniform/jumpsuit as everyone else.  You’ve got her in mind just off that, don’t you?  Without anything else.  Yeah, a hundred people are going to interpret that description a hundred different ways, but you’ve got a solid image in your head, yes?  Which means I’m now free to go talk about her new Caretaker job on the Moon and how it goes horribly wrong when that meteor hits out at Hades Cemetery and the dead start to rise and hey this is already more interesting than a long list of personal details, isn’t it?
            Now, as far as the mental/ emotional/ historical side of my character goes, if this stuff is important, of course it should be included.  If my romantic lead has lost everyone he’s ever cared about, if my adventurous heroine suffered from asthma as a child, or if a knowledge of rural New England history will be critical to resolving this mystery, then there’s a chance these things need to be in my writing.
            However, there’s a good rule of thumb for all of this stuff, too (so many thumbs).  Is it critical to what’s going on within these pages?   My audience is going to assume if I’m giving all this information, it’s because they need this information.   After my fourth or fifth exhaustive description of a given character’s childhood traumas, college love life, or medical history, my reader’s going to make the natural assumption none of this is going anywhere and start skimming.  First they’ll skim paragraphs, then pages, and then over the bookshelf or television listings to see what else could be filling this time...
            Now, there’s an argument to be made that any event in someone’s past affects their present and every single decision shapes a person’s life to some degree.  As a wise man once said, we are the sum of our memories.  Thus, anything I choose to include is relevant to the story on some level, right? 
            Well... sort of.  A point I’ve tried to hammer home many, many times before—this is not real life.  No one wants to read about a character’s personal or family history that doesn’t have any bearing on what they’re experiencing right now.
            Again, for example...
            When I was five years old I saw my dog, Flip, get hit by a car in Maine.  That same year I got stabbed in the eye with a pair of sewing scissors.  I got my heart horribly broken junior year of college, to the point that several friends thought I might kill myself.   A year after graduating from UMass, I decided to move to California on a whim, quit my job on the spot, and spent two weeks quietly terrified that I’d made the worst decision of my life.
            All formative event that still affects me to this day?  Absolutely. 
            Do they have anything to do with the tips, rules, and suggestions I post here? 
            Not really. 
            But they build character, right?  They all expand the vast tapestry of my life. They tell everyone here a little bit about me and make me more human.
            So what? 
            I’ve got an actual story, don’t I?   I don’t want to waste your time with stuff that has no bearing on the writing advice you're here for.  If I want to focus on one thread in the tapestry of my life, I should choose one that shows them how my life relates to this.  
            I’ll tell you about how annoyed barely-a-teenager me was when a doctor casually told me that writing wasn’t "a real job.”  I can explain how thrilled high school-senior-me was when I got a personal letter from Tom DeFalco rejecting my Marvel Comics story but including some tips, a Marvel submission guide, and a full copy of one of his Thor scripts for reference.  I can give you the wonderful visual of me in a panicky, cold sweat sitting outside Ron Moore’s office, waiting to pitch a few Deep Space Nine stories I’d come up with.  And maybe I can break the rule of three and finish it off with the story of financially-desperate me getting an offer to write some bonus material for Audible just when I really needed the money.
            See?  That’s all relevant.  You’re reading that and saying “Wow, this guy’s been serious about writing for a while now, hasn’t he?”
            That’s the kind of stuff I need to put in my writing.  The relevant description and backstory.  The stuff that matters to the story I’m telling.
            And you’ve forgotten my dog’s name, haven’t you?  No, don’t worry about it.  He’ll always be important to me, but I understand why he’s not important to you. Especially in this context.  
            No, really, I do.
            Build fantastic characters.  But don’t build unnecessary stuff. Or, at least, don’t put it in your story.
            Next time... well, I'm on a deadline so you may just get something quick from me.  or maybe a guest post.  We'll see.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Prologue Problems

            Random quick question.  Do the links I drop in here show up okay?  I've noticed a few times they seem to get overlooked, and I'm not sure if it's a visibility thing or people just... well, not bothering to click through. Please let me know if you think it needs to be tweaked.
            So, anyway, I wanted to take a few minutes and talk about the P word.
            Over on the Writers Coffeehouse Facebook group, somebody asked a while back about prologues. I had thoughts, but that’s kind of a crappy platform for longer answers (Facebook, not the Coffeehouse group). Personally, I’m a big believer in the Facebook rule of thumb—with very few exceptions, if a post is longer than my thumb, there’s a good chance I’ll skip it.
            I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.
            Anyway, that long answer...
            Yes, it’s true. Most editors cringe a bit when they see a prologue. They may display a strong bias against them. Sometimes—very few, but it may happen on rare occasions—they might even judge them unfairly.
            But, usually, they’ve got a reason for acting this way.
            Two things to address.
            First is a small misunderstanding. It’s not like editors just hate the word prologue. They don’t see it and or fly into a blind rage or something. If I ask around, I won’t find a bunch of professional story editors who were beat up by a prologue every day after school in sixth grade and are exacting revenge now that they’re in the position of power.
            What this means is that I won’t avoid the issues here by going “heh-heh-heh... I’ll just title my prologue ‘Chapter One’ and they’ll never know...”
            They’ll know because of the real issue here.
            And that’s point number two
            Y’see, editors dislike prologues because so often… well, they’re done wrong. Yes, even when they’re titled Chapter One. Much like flashbacks, bad prologues are an all-too common problem, and on one level it just becomes a lot easier to say “don’t do it” then to explain the many issues that often pop up.
            (oddly enough, when I’ve talked about flashback flaws, the first one I discuss is usually some kind of mislabeled prologue.  But that’s a discussion for another time...)
            Investment is probably the biggest problem with most prologues. It’s something I’ve blabbed on about before. Writers try to have something super exciting/mysterious/sexy/scary happen in the first three pages, because so many gurus have pounded that sort of thing home again and again.  
            Without an investment in the characters involved, though, none of it means anything. At worst, it feels like my story stumbles right out of the gate.  At best, it’s got a tenth of the weight it would have if it was happening to someone who mattered. 
            But wait, says the clever writer. I will create characters for you to be invested in. They’ll be great, even if they don’t make it past the prologue.
            Alas, I’ve talked about this before, too.  This is ye olde “describe and die” chestnut.  Or Brazil nut, really, because it's so frustrating...
            Put it this way...  Have you ever seen a movie that begins with a lot of voice-over explaining things, but it turns out all that voice-over is unnecessary?  Or it all gets explained more organically once the actual story begins?  Sometimes in the first ten or fifteen minutes?
            That’s the problem with a lot of prologues.
            Now, if I may, I’d like to give one more thought on why—in my opinion—editors don’t like prologues.  Again, this is just my opinion.  Definitely not a hard-fast rule you should live by.
            But I’d really consider it...
            At least half of the time, an editor is only going to be reading the first fifty pages of my book.  I’m tempted to say most of the time.  And if those first nine or ten pages are completely unconnected to anything else in the next forty, well... I’ve kinda wasted 20% of my submission, haven’t I?  In fact, odds are I’ve wasted the whole submission.
            Hang on a minute, though!  What if I just (heh-heh-heh...) don’t include the prologue for this submission? I’ll give them those fifty solid pages, then add the prologue back on when the editor—inevitably—asks to see the full manuscript.  Dodged that bullet, didn’t I?
            Well, not really.  The editor’s going to remember seeing those first fifty pages.  They’re going to remember that they worked fine without the prologue.  Hell, they got a full manuscript request without the prologue.
            So why does it have a prologue now?
            Again, I’m not saying prologues are bad.  Nobody is. The first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is essentially a prologue passing as Chapter One.  The Fold has a prologue.   So do all the Ex-Heroes books.  They’re even titled as prologues. 
            And y’know what?  My editor’s never mentioned them to me once.  Because they don’t feel like false attempts to ramp up the tension.  They’re all part of the story.  They tie directly to the main characters. 
            Three quick questions I should ask myself about my prologue...
            1) Does it involve the protagonists in any way?  If they’re not in it, not mentioned in it, if the events in it don’t effect them in any way... I may have a problem.
            2) Does it actually have an effect on the plot?  Okay, if it doesn’t effect the characters, hopefully it at least get the plot going.  This could be that inciting incident we’ve all heard about.
            3) How long does it take for it to pay off?  If my prologue isn’t going to make sense until the last twenty pages of the book—or halfway through book three in the planned series—oh, that’s a paddlin’.

            If my answer to one of these questions is iffy, I can probably still make my prologue work.  Probably.  If I’ve got questionable answers to two or three... well...
            You better believe that’s a paddlin’.
            And I don't know about you, but I try to avoid getting a paddlin’. 
            Oh, since I brought it up earlier, this weekend’s the Writers Coffeehouse here in Los Angeles.  Come by Dark Delicacies noon to three on Sunday and join us for our usual, rambling discussion of writing and publishing.  You’ll get to watch me offer writing advice in real time.
            And next time here, we’ll try to have one of those character-building experiences.
            Hopefully, not a paddlin’.
            Until then, go write.