Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Telephone Game

            Hey, here we are.  Exactly halfway through NaNoWriMo.  How are things going?  Hopefully you’re about halfway through your goals.  Don’t freak out if you’re not.  There’s still plenty of time to get caught up.  You’re going to nail this.
            Anyway, I had an interesting back-and-forth with my editor last month, and I thought it would be worth sharing with you.
            I’ve talked a bit in the past about dialogue descriptors.  They’re one of those things that can be a bit tricky at first.  I don’t want to use too many different descriptors, to the point that I’m distracting from what’s actually being said.  I also don’t want to fall into a habit of using too many proper names, but... I don’t want to overuse pronouns to the point of being confusing.  And really, if I can trim away excess descriptors altogether, that can really pick up the pace.  Unless they’re there deliberately for pacing reasons.
            Not confusing at all so far, right?
            So here’s a wild theory of mine I’d like you to consider.
            And it’s a bit rambly.  Sorry.
            I think, on an instinctive level, we tend to view—or hear, I guess—dialogue as a binary thing.  A back and forth between two people.  Wakko speaks to Dot, Dot replies to Wakko, Wakko replies to Dot, and so on. 
            Because this is such a normal and natural thing for us, it’s how we interpret most conversations.  If I show you a page of nothing but dialogue, the automatic assumption is going to be that it’s between two people.  A to B to A to B.  It’s just how things tend to line up in our minds.
            This gives us a lot of stuff to play with as writers.  If Wakko speaks to Dot, the inherent understanding is that Dot’s reply is going to be to Wakko.  Which means we don’t need to point out she’s talking to him.  Sure, I might need something  if there are five people in the conversation, but when it’s just one on one dialogue, constantly pointing out who's talking and who they're talking to this can be... excessive.  I mean, who else could Dot be talking to?  Does she think out loud a lot?
            Likewise, I don’t need to explain that Wakko’s responding to Dot.  I probably don’t even need to say who’s responding.  Again, my reader’s already thinking in a binary mode, so they’ll figure it out on their own.  They’ll probably be glad I’m not spoon-feeding it to them, to be honest.  Again, A-B-A-B-A-B... this isn’t tough for a reader to understand.  I don’t need to label each element of it.
            Now here’s something to keep in mind.
            Have you ever had to do something that’s very repetitive?  Maybe something at work, maybe something for fun.  Stapling forms, ping-pong, folding laundry, even just one of those toys where you hit the rubber ball with a paddle?  Anything where it’s just one-two -done, one-two -done, one-two-done, and so on?
            Personally, I’ve found that the real killer in these situations is stopping to think about what I’m doing.  The moment I consider how I’m whacking that rubber ball again and again and again is the moment I lose my rhythm.  It’s when I stumble and mess up and have to go back to square one.
            I think the same holds for dialogue.  I can keep that back and forth and back and forth going for pages if my rhythm’s good.  It’ll be fast and smooth and just amazing.
            But...
            The moment I give the reader a reason to think about that back and forth of dialogue—any reason—is the moment they’re going to stumble.  And when they stumble, they’re going to stop and have to backtrack.  I’ve knocked them out of the story, and now they’ve gone from reading and enjoying it to... examining and measuring it.
            So during these long stretches of back and forth dialogue, it’s not a bad thing to remind the reader who’s speaking at points.  Especially if there might be something going on with my action or my structure that might make them question who’s speaking.  Again, I don’t want to risk a stumble.
            Now, going off something I brushed up against above...
            I think things get chaotic in dialogue when there are multiple speakers and the writer isn’t clear about it.  If I suddenly introduce Phoebe into the conversation between Wakko and Dot, this isn’t A-B-A-B anymore.  There’s a random C in there somewhere.  And if I don’t make it clear where it is, it’s going to make my reader stumble and break the flow.  Again, I want people reading my story, not analyzing it.
            So introducing that third element into the conversation is a great place for dialogue descriptors. In fact... I might go so far as to say it’s almost a necessary place for them.  I want to be very clear if it’s A, B, or C talking.
            Y’see, Timmy, we’re always going to keep defaulting back to that instinctive. binary, back-and-forth view of dialogue,.  A-B-A-B.  Unless I’m told otherwise, I’m going to assume the person speaking after Phoebe is the person who spoke before Phoebe.  So once I’ve got three or four people in the mix, I need to be a lot more careful with where I do (and don’t!) use dialogue descriptors.  I don’t want my writing to get bogged down with them, but I need to be sure it’s always clear who’s speaking.
            Because I don’t want my dialogue to be C-A-C-A.
            Get it?  Poop joke.
            Hey, next week is Thanksgiving.  Which means no post on Thursday and, well... if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know what I’m going to talk about on Black Friday.
            But maybe I’ll do something unrelated and semi-interesting on Monday or Tuesday.
            Until then... go write.

Monday, November 12, 2018

My Brush with Greatness

             I've been thinking about this all day.  Well, a dozen different versions of this...
            About nine and a half years ago I entered an awful phase.  The small-press, first time author looking for blurbs phase.  It’s when you have no credits to fall back on, no industry clout behind you, but you have to somehow get people with both of these things to read your book and say nice things about it.
            Needless to say, it’s tough.
            Near-impossible.
            I, however, had a plan.
            Since I’d worked in the film industry, and was still writing about it at the time, it occurred to me that rather than go after recognizable authors, I could go after recognizable actors.  Hunt down some of the cult icons that would mesh with a superheroes-fighting-zombies story.  Their names might not carry a ton of weight in the literary world, but they would with the fans I wanted to reach.
            So I called in some favors with people I knew and ended up with a short list of email addresses and phone numbers for certain managers, agents, and small offices.
            Alas, it did not go well.
            I got no response from most of the emails.  My phone calls were stonewalled.  The best response I got was from Bruce Campbell’s manager, who let me give my spiel and then—very pleasantly and politely, without a hint of malice or snark—told me that Bruce was just too busy to be reading anything at the time.
            (Damn you, Burn Notice!  Damn you!!!!!)
            I hit the bottom of my list pretty quick.  And it was my biggest long shot.  A comic legend who had an office in LA... an office I’d managed to get the phone number for.
            I dialed and ran through the spiel one more time in my head.  The friendly-but-casual-but-confident approach that would get me past the person answering the office phone to the person I needed to speak to, who would then get me to the person I wanted to speak to. Well, I had no illusions about actually speaking to him, but hopefully I could convince that second person to hand off my manuscript to--
            “Hey, it’s Stan.”
            To be fair, true believers, I’m not 100% sure that’s what he said.  By the time he’d reached the second word I’d recognized the voice.  The voice I’d heard in hundreds of interviews.  The voice that had narrated all those episodes of Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends when I was a kid.
            That voice on the phone knocked pretty much every coherent thought I had out of my head.  He was on the phone!  With me!  Right NOW!  I WAS ON THE PHONE WITH STAN LEE!!!
            “Hello?”
            I was still kind of in shock, but I realized I needed to say something or he was going to hang up.  I still couldn’t get my thoughts in gear, though.  Couldn’t adapt, couldn’t stay professional, couldn’t...
            I blurted out my spiel, probably at double time, all in one breath, and ended up asking Stan Lee if I could speak to whoever could get me in touch with Stan Lee.
            There was a pause at the other end of the line, then a little laugh, and then “Yeah, just hang on.”  At which point I heard the phone get muffled, handed off, and found myself speaking to someone else who brusquely assured me Stan was far too busy for whatever my request was and click the call was over.
            I’m sure he’d forgotten about it five minutes later, but I’ll never forget the brief moments I found myself talking with one of the most influential people in my life.
            Well, okay...  babbling at him.  And him taking it good naturedly.
            Rest In Peace, Stan.  You were inspirational in so many ways, to so many millions of creators, and I wouldn’t be here today without you.
            Excelsior!

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Mr. Nobody

            A while back I asked for topic suggestions and this got tossed out by someone (you know who you are).  I’ve been playing with it in my head for a few weeks because it’s one of those topics/questions that’s a little more complex than it seems on the surface.  But I think I’ve got a handle on it to where I could mutter on about it for a bit.
            Or maybe not.  Maybe I’m just suffering from leftover Halloween candy withdrawal.  I guess we’ll see.
            So, the question was, paraphrased, ‘Who deserves to be a character in my story?”  Not in the sense of “wow, this guy on Twitter thinks he should be in my next book”—the answer to that is pretty much always no.  No, we’re talking about where we draw those lines between main characters, supporting characters, and those folks in the background. 
            For example, in the book I’m working on right now, I just mentioned a Lyft driver.  How much detail and backstory do they deserve?  Should they have a gender?  A  hair color?  Maybe an elaborate backstory involving a wild one night stand, a million-dollar art heist, and a cursed music box?
            Should I maybe even give them... a name?
            Now, on a simple, first-draft level, the answer to all of this is yes.  Go for it.  I don’t know how many times I’ve said good characters are the most important part of any story.  So, logically, more good characters makes for an even better story, right? 
            And this is the whole point of a first draft.  Getting it all written down.  All of it.  Everything.  EVERYTHING!  Every crazy idea and phenomenal character concept and neat cameo I can come up.  So my Lyft driver is named Phoebe and that one night stand was actually a threesome and she was blackmailed into working the art heist because they knew about her skill with laser-based sensors but she didn’t know “they” were part of the Black Monks of Beleth, a monastery that deifies a fallen angel who’s now one of the nine kings of Hell and, damn, this stuff really writes itself, doesn’t it?
            However...
            Yeah, there’s a “however.” 
            You probably saw that coming...
            Like a lot of first draft elements, eventually I need to sit down and decide how many of them really contribute to my story versus distracting from it.  In this case, how many of these characters.  And that’s when the real decisions happen.
            For me, it always comes down to how much are they moving the plot or story forward.  Are they sharing important information my protagonist (and my audience) don’t know?  Are they setting something in motion?  Is it vitally important we remember this character fifty pages from now?
            And I should be clear what “moving the story forward” means.  If Yakko needs a ride so he doesn’t miss his meeting with Dot, that doesn’t mean Phoebe the Lyft driver is moving the story forward.  Being in the plot doesn’t inherently make a character essential to the plot.
            Easy way to check—does anything change if I cut out that whole car ride?  If I ended one chapter with Yakko calling a Lyft and started the next one with him running into the lobby of an office building... is anyone going to be really confused?  Will my book be lacking something (except maybe an extra 4000 words)...?
            I’ve mentioned the idea of who gets (or doesn’t get) a name before, and I think it’s a great guideline for this sort of thing.  I don’t want to confuse my readers by naming every single character.  If I’m going to bother to name a character, readers are going to assume I did it for a reason.  This person is going to matter somehow.
            And I think this holds for character traits overall.  If I’m going to spend three paragraphs describing her clothes, his drinking habits, their sexual experiences in college, how she turned down her birthright and he never worked for anything... well, my readers are going to assume this is important.  I wouldn’t just be writing all this out for no reason, would I?  I’m a professional, after all.  There’s a plan to all of this, and it’s a plan of my own careful devising.
            But...
            Yeah, there’s a “but,” too.
            But I need to be sure of that plan.  Sometimes things can seem to be important threads of the plan, but really they’re just bulk filler.  Once or twice I’ve mentioned the idea of “describe and die.”  It’s when the writer introduces characters, gives us tons of description and backstory, and then kills them.  It can seem like a good use of description... but it’s something that wears thin really fast. 
            Like... after one use.
            So imagine how frustrated my readers would get if I did “describe and... do nothing.”
            To be clear, I’m not saying to pare away every single character description that doesn’t advance the plot.  But I need to be careful how and where I’m using them..  There are lots and lots of reasons it might be worth bumping someone up to minor character-hood and giving them a little more.  I just need to be sure I’ve got a valid reason.
            For example...
           In the book I just turned in, there’s an evacuation scene, and I tossed out quick, one-line descriptions for three different characters as my protagonist deals with the crowd.  Two of them even had a very quick dialogue exchange with said protagonist before one of them is abruptly killed.
            Spoilers, but you’ll forget by February.
            Anyway, my editor suggested trimming that down, getting rid of the other exchanges and descriptions and just dealing with the imminent victim.  I explained why I’d rather not—one was that it pushed me into a very light “describe and die” situation. Two is that—after years of watching and working on television—it always feels a little odd and cheap to me when the only person the protagonist interacts with in a crowd is the person something happens to.  Y’know, like when the reporter talks to a random person in the audience about holding the concert despite the building needing repairs, and when that roof beam breaks and falls... well, you know who was under it, right?
            And my editor accepted that.
            Which is a great way to look at it.  Feel free to introduce minor characters.  Give them a line or three of description.  Maybe a paragraph or two of backstory.  But if someone asks why I’m focusing on this person for a few extra beats, can I give a better explanation than “it’s kinda cool,” or “it’s a very pretty description”...?
            Because if I can’t... maybe they don’t deserve to be a character.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about phone calls and rhythm and dialogue.
            Oh, and one other random segue...
            I’m hardly a prude, and I know there are lots of authors out there that have much earthier blogs than mine (some of which are really fantastic).  But I always kept it kinda clean here.  Mostly because this originally grew out of some professional articles I’d been pitching, and I tried to keep that general feel and tone, even though I’ve gotten a bit more loose and casual over the years.
            Anyway, I bring it up because a couple of you have posted some rather *coughs* emphatic responses to things lately.  And while I greatly appreciate the enthusiasm (and the comments), I prefer to keep things at a level that doesn’t get blocked by a lot of web filters.  Alas, the only real moderation tool I have here is a delete button, and I’ve had to resort to that.  Many apologies if your comments vanished in the (tiny) purge.  Again, they’re appreciated but...
            You all get the point.
            Next time, dialogue.
            For now, go write.