Thursday, March 22, 2018

The First Time Around

            Is it still a pop culture reference if I’m referencing one of my own books? I mean is it really a “reference” when J.K. Rowling talks about Harry Potter? Or is it just self promotion...?
            Anyway, this week I wanted to blab about an issue that cropped up in a book I just read. I mean, it’s a fairly common problem, truth be told, and it’s easy to see why it happens.  But it’s one of those things that almost always makes readers grind their teeth. Even if they’re not sure why they’re grinding their teeth.
            And to explain this, I’d like to start by talking about my mom.
            My mom had me when she was really young.  Not scandalously, Gilmore Girls young, but young enough that there was still a touch of scandal.  Especially back in New England during Nixon’s presidency.  It’s struck me a couple times in my life to think where she was in her life at the same age.
            Of course, I didn’t always think like this.  I didn’t really put the math together until some time late in high school, I think.  Because my mom didn’t look young. She looked... well, mom-aged.  Why would I look deeper into something that was totally normal?  My thoughts just never turned that way.
            No, the odd thing when I was growing up was how all my friends had old parents. I think I was around seven or eight when it first struck me that the particular friends I’d ended up with all had parents that were at least a decade older than my mom. It was odd, yeah, but I logically assumed that all those many, many parents I hadn’t met were normal mom-age.
            Hopefully the point I’m trying to make is clear.  All of us assume our lives are normal.  That we’re the baseline.  Even when we come to realize they might not be normal in a greater societal sense, they’re still normal for us.  It still doesn’t surprise me that my mom’s not-quite twenty years older than me because... well, she always has been.
            And this is true for fictional people, too.  The world they live in is—big shocker—the world they live in.  It doesn’t surprise them.  Kincaid Strange isn’t shocked spirits and voodoo are real because that’s her world.  Since Charles grew up in a world of metal spiders, a horned God on television, and mechanical implants in the back of people’s skulls, these things are more annoying background noise to him than disturbing.   Constance Verity doesn’t get surprised by aliens or androids or monstrous creatures at the center of the Earth because for her... well, that’s a Thursday.
            Granted, they can still get surprised when something changes in their world. We tend to call that “plot."  But the day to day aspects of their life shouldn’t come as any big shock.  They’ve seen it and experienced it before.  It’s normal to them.
            One mistake I see a lot in stories and screenplays is when characters in my story go for a hover-drive, go to work at the vat-meat processing plant, or telepathically scan perps for evidence of crimes... and are in awe of these things.  Maybe even feel the need to dwell on these things for a paragraph or three.  It knocks a reader out of the story because it’s immediately apparent this is something the characters should be familiar with.
            But it’s not just genre stuff. This happens in “real world” stories, too.  I’ve seen characters be eyes-wide amazed at the smell of dog food and the price of milk.  Not because these things are radically different than expected, mind you.  Just because... they’re there.
            Let me put it a slightly different way. And I’ll give you another personal example.  Or, in this case, you can give yourself the example.  No, you don’t need to share or even write it down, don’t worry.  Just keep it in your head.
            Do you remember the very first time you saw your current (or most recent) significant other naked?  Girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband, whoever they may be.  I’m not asking for a date and time—do you recall how you felt at that moment, at the sight of them exposed to you?  What was running through your mind?  What your heart was doing in your chest?
            Okay, now get yourself under control--there’s a follow-up.
            How did you feel the last time you saw them naked?  Maybe this morning or just the other night. Were you as focused? As breathless?  Heck, were you even thinking about them?  Not in a “someone else” way, I just mean maybe you were working out a problem from one of your own stories.  Or thinking about stuff you had to do this weekend.  Heck, maybe you were reading and they were just walking around in the background.  You knew they were there but you just had to finish this chapter.
            Y’see, Timmy, sometimes, storytellers get focused on the fact that this is the first time my readers have seen Wakko perform an exorcism.  Or it’s the first time we’ve seen a dynochromium field in use.  Or it’s the first time we’ve seen Phoebe and Yakko together (in any sense). And so the writer want to explain these things—to show how horrible or amazing or beautiful they are.
            But just because this is new for the reader doesn’t mean it’s new for the character.  It’s not their first time.  These are normal things for them.  Mundane. Perhaps even a little boring.  Definitely not cause for heart-pounding excitement.  
            When I start shaping dialogue and reactions to be informative for the audience rather than to make sense for the other characters, my focus is going in the wrong direction.  It might seem right on a quick-pass, mechanical level, but when we really study these examples... they just don’t work.  You may recall all the times I’ve brought up that most hated of dialogue phrases-- “as you know.”  It’s a perfect example of writing my dialogue for the reader and not for the characters.
            Now, there’s an addendum to this, and it’s a real killer.  It’s when I make plot points out of these things people should’ve known about before.  If my characters all know Wakko can actually use dowsing to find water, they shouldn’t be completely baffled why he’s digging a deep hole out in the field.  At the very least, they should have some suspicions about why he’s doing it. 
            Because if they don’t—or they don’t even consider his dowsing abilities—well, they’re going to look like idiots in the end.
            An easy way to get around this is something I’ve mentioned a few times before.  I call it the Ignorant Stranger.  It’s pretty much the opposite of “as you know.”  In some cases it can help a lot to have a character in my story who’s not quite as in the know.  Someone who things need to be explained to, because this is the first time they’re being exposed to something.  They can even be my protagonist.  In fact, it’s not a bad thing if they are.  If my hero needs things explained to them, it means they’re in new, unknown territory.  And—as mentioned above-that’s where I tend to find a plot.
            One of the worst things I can do as a writer is confuse the first time my readers see something with the first time my characters do.  It’ll ultimately come across as false and it’s one of those clumsy mistakes that’s hard to recover from.  I need to find the balance point, the sweet spot where I’m informing my readers but things still make sense and feel natural for my characters.
            Next time... okay, I’m trying to get a draft done before the end of the month, so next time might just be a few quick questions for you to think about.
            Oh, and if you’re going to be at Wonder Con this weekend, I’m there all day Sunday.  At 11:00 I’m doing a two hour version of the Writers Coffeehouse, at 2:00 I’m on a panel called “Knowledge: Handle With Care,” and we’re doing a book signing right after that.
            Until then... go write

Thursday, March 15, 2018

It’s Not THAT Bad

            I tried a few pop culture references for this week, but none of them seemed to work just right.  They weren’t awful, but that’s the best I can say about them.  They weren’t awful.
            Speaking of which...
            A while back I mentioned an idea called Crap +1.  It’s a viewpoint screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott noticed (and named)--a common way some people approached screenwriting.  It’s a mindset where I look at something absolutely horrible and say “well, my script is better than that.” And that got made, therefore logic and fairness dictate that my script deserves to get made, right?
            I’m betting you’ve probably seen this reasoning applied to books, too, yes?  And publishers?  That garbage book got published, so of course the publishers are going to want to snatch up my slightly-better-than-garbage book.  The bad book prooves I deserve to be published just by existing.
            It doesn’t work that way, of course.  The big problem with the crap+1 theory is that what it really justifies is laziness.  It assumes my work just needs to be “slightly better” to qualify as good.  Which simply isn’t true.  My story might be “better” than an illiterate piece of derivative fan-fic... but that still doesn’t mean my story is any good.
            I’ve found this mindset also pushes a certain degree of entitlement.  The idea that I’m somehow owed an equal form or level or success (logic and fairness, remember?). If that made it, I deserve to make it.   At the end of the day, nobody else’s success has anything to do with my success.  The universe—or a Big Five publisher—is not required to do something for me just because it did it for someone else who I feel is less talented/ less creative/ less determined/meaner/uglier than me.
            It’s an easy trap to fall into.  The crap + 1 mindset.  Try to avoid it.  In all aspects of your life.
            Anyway, it struck me recently that some writers use this sort of logic and justification within their stories, too.  Especially in the darker, grittier tales that some folks like.  A lot of these stories operate under the idea that my character or their actions or the outcomes will be seen as good once we compare them to something worse.  The story has unlikable, awful people as our protagonists or in the cast of supporting characters around them... but that’s okay because there are people in the story who are even more awful and unlikable.
            Think about it.  How often have we seen something where my protagonist is a violent, abusive, racist... but, wow, you should see the bad guy!  My heroine just brutally killed two dozen people, yeah, but that’s not even half as many as her antagonist killed in an earlier scene.  Hell, sometimes that bar is literally as low as “well, he didn’t try to rape any of them... I guess he’s the one we’re rooting for?”
            How ridiculous is this when we stop and think about it?  Yes, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was responsible for more deaths than Charles Manson, but that doesn’t mean Manson was a nice person. Yakko isn’t likable because he’s only cruel to women when he could be cruel to women and children.
            A. Lee Martinez (he of the wonderful Constance Verity books, among others) made an observation once.  Being a good person is more than not being a bad person.  This is fantastically simple and true.  It’s fine to say Wakko’s not a serial killer, but that doesn’t make him a hero.  Or even a good person.  That’s the kind of dating logic “nice” guys use.  “Well, I’m not going to treat her like crap the way some guys would—so why doesn’t she want to go out with me?” 
            I’ve talked about this before when discussing characters, especially my main characters. They need to be likable.  By which I mean, my readers need an actual reason to like them.  A reason that counts as "good" when it’s divorced from any conditionals.  Helping out someone in need.  Showing restraint with power.  Defending and supporting the weak.  These are all inherently good actions that don’t need to be compared to anyone else’s to be good.
            Not being awful is just... that’s the bare-bones minimum.  It should be baseline human existence.  It’s definitely not a quality to cheer about in my main character.
            Along with the crap+1 idea, I think this is also a bit of binary thinking slipping in here.  This character is marginally better than the antagonist, yes, but you know what else they are...?  Not the villain.  So, logically then, they must be the hero, right? I mean, who else can they be in my story?
            And that brings me to one last aspect of all this.  I’ve mentioned before the need for my characters to win.  They can still get hurt, physically or emotionally--even die--but they need to succeed at their goals.  Because my readers identify with the heroes, and they don’t want to identify with people who don’t win because it reflects back on them.
            With this talk of being “slightly better than...,” it’s worth noting that the antagonist losing is not the same thing as the protagonist winning.  They can be connected, but this isn’t always a nice Venn diagram overlap.  If someone else stops the bad guy... that doesn’t mean my hero wins.  If the antagonist somehow fumbles things themselves... that doesn’t mean the good guy succeeded.  And if they villain just gives up and walks away... well... nobody’s really earned a victory parade for that.
            My hero needs to actually be a hero...not just a rung above the villain.  They actually need to win... not just be nearby when the plot is resolved.  And all of this needs to be in my story, which is actually good... not just slightly better than someone else’s.
            Next time... there’s something I’d like to discuss for the first time.
            Until then, go write.