Thursday, July 30, 2020

Time To Reduce

As we come out of an SDCC@Home weekend where I probably ate about as healthy as I would at an actual con (I was going for the full experience) I thought it’d be a great time to talk about reducing things.

He said, in a blog post he skipped getting on the treadmill to write....

Anyway, back when I was doing the A2Q we broke down different types of editing, and one of them I touched on was reductive editing. This is when I start cutting and trimming to make my story lean and tight. Figuring out what needs to be there as opposed to all the stuff I threw down while I was working on the first draft.

And since I just finished doing this with my new book last week, I thought I’d talk about some of the cuts I made and explain why I made them.

The first cut was easy. I had a section where two chapters overlapped. I liked the overlap at first. It was an action scene with multiple characters, and I thought it kept things moving to show all of his fight and then all of her fight, even though they happened at the same time.

But when I looked at it again during my editing pass it just felt... slow. Also kinda repetitive, since I kept referring to the other fight in both versions to show how they overlapped. Also, it created an odd problem with ending the chapters—either one had to end flat or I had to repeat the cool end-beat and weaken it. So I cherry picked a bit, leaned more into his than hers (for a couple of reasons, but I feel pretty good about it for the moment) and then cut 750 words of overlap.

The next one was rough. Throughout the book I had a few chapters where we switched POV and checked in with the main antagonist—the big bad in charge. Essentially, that big voice going “Meanwhile, at the mad scientist’s lair...” Thing is, these chapters never sat right at any point in the process. Not in my first draft. Not in my second, “cleaning up” draft. I didn’t want to give away too much in these chapters (since my villain was much more in the know than my protagonist), but it was hard not to mention some things without feeling like characters were deliberately not talking about things.

I’m not sure exactly what did it, but I know during my second draft I had the realization that I could probably cut one of these POV chapters altogether. There wasn’t a lot of necessary information in it, and I realized what there was I could shift to other chapters and characters without any real trouble. And that made me suddenly wonder... wait, do I actually need any of these chapters? I mean, a big chunk of the first one was just backstory justifying the antagonist and their behavior... while not talking about anything that would give things away. Another one introduced a character I’d only created to make some exposition read better. The more I looked at it... yeah, I’d definitely have to rework some things, but for the story I was telling these chapters were really distracting and didn’t add anything. Heck—two of them I still hadn’t even fleshed out, even though they’d been through two drafts.

So that was another six thousand words gone. A little over six thousand, really. Only a few pounding heartbeats for that one. And now the knives come out. Time for the death of a thousand cuts.

I’ve talked before about looking out for overused words. So I did a couple passes looking for that, adverbs, a lot of the “somewhat” words and phrases I can’t help but use in train-of-thought mode. We all have them, and you might already be aware of yours. If not, feel free to borrow mine for now and see where they get you.

I also had some other things that I was worried about—words that might be showing up a lot by nature of this specific story and how it was being told. That was another pass or three through the manuscript. I was kinda surprised that one or two didn’t get used as much as I thought they would, but... one I included as an afterthought showed up way more than I expected. Think I deleted eighty-something uses of that one.

One thing that did strike me with this is I didn’t find a lot of my usual padding. The adverbs and the “somewhat” phrases. It was still there, yeah, but not as thick as I’ve piled it on at times in the past. After twelve full books, I’m finally improving. Maybe.

In the end not quite a death of a thousand cuts. With additions and rewrites as I went, it worked out to a little over 300 words less. A full page gone.

That’s how this part of editing goes. Word by word. Sometimes chapter by chapter. All of this added up about 7,250 words gone out of what began as a 124K manuscript. And I still may trim a little more when I get notes back from my beta readers.

Next time, if you’re up for it, I’d like to play doctor for a little bit. No, not like that. Get your minds out of the gutter!

Until then, go write...

Friday, July 24, 2020

B-Movie Mistakes

If you’ve been following me for any amount of time, you’ve probably caught on to my questionable Saturday viewing habits. Questionable in the sense of “why would someone keep doing this to themselves? And to their liver?”

I’ll sit down with some little toy soldiers to build, put on a movie with aliens or giant monsters or werewolves, and tweet out the occasional observation, critique, or scream of pain. It’s kinda fun, in a masochistic sort of way, and I’m a big believer that you can learn a lot from figuring out where bad things went wrong and how they could be fixed. And I’ve seen a lot of screenplays go wrong over the years. Some I worked on. Some I read for contests. And... some I watched while building little toy soldiers.

Over all this time, I’ve seen definite patterns emerge. The same mistakes happening again and again and again. It was part of what made me start this whole ranty blog way back when in the distant before-time.

And screenwriting is a form of storytelling, which means some of these mistakes—maybe even all of them—are universal. I might not have any interest in writing movie scripts, sure. Not everyone does. But these issues can show up in books, short stories, comics... all sorts of storytelling formats.

So maybe they’re worth checking out.

Anyway, here are my top ten B-movie mistakes, updated a bit since the last time I write them out. Some of it may seem generally familiar. Some of it... well, I’ve found new ways to look at some problems over the past three years.

10) Bad directing
Let’s just get this one out of the way, because it’s the easiest one. It’s also the most universal one. This’ll be a horrible blow to anyone who likes auteur theory, but while there are some phenomenal directors out there, the simple truth is there’s also a lot who have absolutely no clue what they’re doing. None. Yeah, even some directors you’ve heard of.  They have no concept of narrative, continuity, pacing... anything.

This is a killer because ultimately, the director’s the one interpreting the story on the page into a visual story on the screen. Even if they didn’t write the script, the best story can be ruined by a bad storyteller.  How often have we seen a book or movie that had a really cool idea or an interesting character and it was just... wasted?

Because of this—random true fact—whenever you see a horrible story on screen, it’s always the fault of the director and producers. Never the screenwriter. The only reason scripts get shot is because the director and producers insist on shooting them. If it was a great script and they butchered it—that’s their fault. If it was a bad script and they decided to shoot it anyway—that’s also their fault.

9) Showing the wrong thing
This kinda falls under bad directing, but I’ve seen it enough times that it really deserves it own number. Sometimes a story keeps pushing X in our face when we really want to see Y. Or Z. Sometimes the story calls for Y to be the center of focus, but we still keep putting X on camera. And sometimes there’s no need to see X at all—we understand it through dialogue and acting and other bits of context—but we show X anyway.

A lot of this is a general failure of empathy—the filmmakers aren’t thinking about how the movie’s going to be seen. I’ve also talked a couple times about subtlety, using the scalpel vs. the sledgehammer, and that’s a big part of this, too. Sometimes there’s a reason we’re seeing a lot of nudity or a swirling vortex of gore, but all too often... it’s just because the storyteller doesn’t know what else to show us.

8) Bad action
Pretty sure we can all think of an example of this. The almost slow-motion fight scenes that feel like they filmed the rehearsal. The medium-speed chase that drags on waaaaaay too long. The pointless shoot-out that clearly wasn’t thought through since everyone’s standing out in the open.

Action gets seen as filler a lot of the time, and it doesn’t help that a lot of gurus teach it that way. “Hit page 23—you need an action beat! Hit page 42—another action beat!” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with action, but bad action is particularly bad in the visual storytelling format of movies. Unnecessary action isn’t much better.

Think of scale, too. It’s always better to have a small, well-done action scene than a sprawling, poorly-executed one. We can relate to two people fighting so much better that two gangs of sixty people each slamming together. Especially when it’s supposed to be two gangs of sixty members each but there are maybe eight people on screen. Moving in slow motion.

7) Too Much Stuff
Remember when we were young and there was that one kid (we all knew this kid) who got so excited to be Dungeon Master? And he made that awesome dungeon with five liches and a dozen displacer beasts and twenty gold dragons and thirty platinum dragons and fifty minotaurs all wearing +3 plate armor and using +5 flaming axes and a hundred zombies and Demogorgon and half the Egyptian gods and...

I think we’ve all played that game, right? Let’s be honest... maybe some of us were that kid?

Some B-movies get like that.  The filmmakers have too many ideas—way more than their budget or schedule allows—and they try to stick everything into the story.  Every cool idea from every other cool story, sure to be just as cool here, right? Truth is, they almost never are.  All these extra ideas just end up being under-developed distractions at best. 

6) Killing the wrong people
There’s always going to be collateral damage in certain types of stories. Thing is, by nature of being collateral damage, the story doesn’t focus on these people and their deaths don’t really register.  And they shouldn’t. That’s what collateral means after all—they’re secondary. Not as important. But in the tight, compressed nature of a movie, we need these deaths to be important. They need to serve a purpose in the story, hopefully on more than one level.

I’ve talked about the awful habit of introducing characters for no purpose except to kill them.  We meet Phoebe, get three or four minutes of backstory and bam she’s dead without moving the plot forward an inch. Because Phoebe wasn’t really part of the plot, she was just there to wear a bikini top and let the FX crew show off their new blood fountain.

The only thing worse than this is when it’s time for the ultimate sacrifice... and my hero doesn’t make it. A minor character steps forward to throw the final switch or recite the last words. And the “hero” sits back and watches as someone else saves the day.

5) Wasting Time
This one’s the flipside of point #7. I just mentioned that in the limited space of a movie script, everything needs to serve a purpose. If that touching backstory linking two characters doesn’t affect the plot or story somehow, it’s just five minutes of filler I could’ve spent on something else... like the plot or the story. If these shouted arguments don’t somehow reveal something key to the progress of the movie... they may just be a lot of wasted time.

One of the most common time-wasters in B-movies is the unconnected opening. It’s when the first five or ten minutes focus on a group of characters we’ll never see again, usually never even reference again, and who have no effect on the rest of the plot. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these openings that couldn’t be cut, and I’d guess 83% of the time the whole movie would be stronger—on many levels—without it.

4) Not knowing what genre my story is
I’ve mentioned a few times that I worked on a B-level sex-revenge-thriller-sequel where the director thought he was making a noir mystery. I’ve seen horror films done as sci-fi and fantasy movies that were done as horror films, and vice versa.  Heck, I’ve written stories where I’d planned it as one thing, and realized halfway through it was something very different.

I've talked about genre a lot over the past few weeks, so I won’t go into it much more here. To sum up quick if you don’t want to hit the link, all genres have certain expectations when it comes to tone, pacing, and even structure.  If I’ve got a story in one genre that I’m telling with the expectations of another, there’s going to be a clash. And that clash probably won’t help my storytelling.

3) Plot Zombies
All credit to A. Lee Martinez, creator of this wonderful term. Sometimes, characters do things that are unnatural for them just to further the plot. The brave person becomes cowardly. The timid person does something wild and unpredictable. People argue and storm off for no reason. Well, so one of them can get murdered by the monster after going for a calming nighttime swim in the lake, but past that... no reason.

Plot zombies just stumble around a movie, doing whatever the story calls for. They don’t have any personality or agency, and one’s pretty much as good as the next one Really, one plot zombie’s the same as any other plot zombie. If I have an inspiring speech or an act of wild abandon or a last minute moment of brilliance, and there’s no reason I can’t swap all the characters around in it... it means I’ve got plot zombies.

2) Horrible dialogue
Bad dialogue always makes for bad characters.  If we can’t believe in the characters, we can’t believe in the story.  If I can’t believe in the story... well, that’s kind of it, isn’t it?

So many movies have painfully bad dialogue. Pointless arguments. Annoying characters. Awful technobabble.  And sometimes—too much of the time—it’s just bad.  It’s lines that sound like they went back and forth through Google translate and then the actor’s seeing them for the first time on a teleprompter while they’re filming.

Personally, bad dialogue drives me nuts, because it means the storytellers have no idea what human beings sound like. It’s a massive failure of empathy, and that empathy almost always shows up elsewhere. I’ve never, ever seen a story with bad dialogue that excelled everywhere else. It just doesn’t happen.

1) Who am I rooting for?
This is still the number one killer in America. This is what brings so many B-movies—so many STORIES—to a gear-grinding halt. 

So many movies have absolutely no likable characters. Everyone’s self-centered, obnoxious, stupid, or arrogant... or a combination of these traits. They’re all awful, sometimes disgusting people. All of them. The bad guys and the good guys.  People start dying and I’m always glad, no matter who they are.

If I’m expected to sit here and watch this for ninety minute, I need a reason to follow someone besides “they’re the main character.”  I need to like watching their story play out. I need to be able to identify with some aspect of their personality. The movie needs to have someone I actually care about. ‘Cause if it doesn’t. I won’t care if they win or lose. And if I don’t care about that... well... I’m not going  to be sitting here for ninety minutes

And that’s my personal, current top ten B-movie mistakes.

Hey, speaking of movies... this Saturday I’m doing my usual Saturday geekery, but for SDCC @ Home I’m doing it as a watch-along party. Come hang out on (LINK) Twitter starting at noon (PST) for Krull, followed by the Keanu Reeves Constantine at 2:30, and finishing up the day with Resident Evil at 5:00. It’s going to be fun and maybe a little informative. Plus there’ll be a couple other folks chiming in with the #KrullKon2020 hashtag, and even a few giveaways.

And next time here, I thought I’d talk a bit about editing this new book.

Until then... go write.

And maybe enjoy a movie or three.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

SDCC @ Home

In the before time, this would be the day I pack up and drive down to San Diego to beat the traffic. I’d crash with some friends, play some games, watch a movie, have a drink or three, and then tomorrow would begin the fun logistical nightmare that is San Diego Comic Con.

Of course, I moved to San Diego, and last year I found out how much easier some aspects of SDCC are when you can just walk a few blocks and hop on the train to downtown. and now that I’ve worked out the kinks, this year should be...

Oh. Right.

While SDCC is technically not happening, the folks behind it are trying to bring a lot of it home to, well, everyone. Panels and programs are getting released online, and you can spend the next few days watching and learning. Plus a lot of side things are going on directly from vendors, publishers, and even some creative folks like me.

For example...

Friday at 4:00 (PST)on the SDCC YouTube Channel, I’m going to be on a panel with Kiersten White, Henry Herz, and Fonda Lee as we talk about creating worlds, characters, and conflicts as sci-fi and fantasy writers.

Saturday at 12:00 (PST) on Twitter, I’m going to be hosting an unofficial geekery watch party with a couple author friends and a trio of great B-movies to comment on. Krull. Constantine. Resident Evil. We’re going to watch them all, talk about why we love them, the things they do really well... and some of the thing they don’t. Plus, there’s going to be some giveaways from Audible (seriously) and tons of celebrity guests (no, not seriously... probably).

Sunday... well, normally we do some version of the Writers Coffeehouse at SDCC. As some of you know I’ve been trying to get it going again as an online Q & A/ discussion, where I ask a bunch of writer friends to help answer your questions about writing. There’s already a few episodes up on my own YouTube channel, and on Sunday I’m going to put up a lot more. So hop over there and get answers from Django Wexler, Kristi Charish, A. Lee Martinez, ML Brennan, Stephen Blackmoore, and more.

And all of this for the low, low price of absolutely free, delivered to you right there on your couch as you safely physically distance and do your part to help get Covid under control.

Enjoy.