Thursday, April 24, 2014

Draft Bored

            See what I did there?  A clever play on words.  Not quite a pun, definitely not a pop culture reference, but... well, it’ll do.
            It’ll do, pig.
            Also, random note—I set up a Tumblr a while back.  If you ever want to ask a quick question, send anonymous insults, or whatever, please feel free to stop by.
            Anyway, I’m about to wrap up this draft of my current project and it struck me that I haven’t blabbed on about the drafting process, so to speak, in a while.  A lot of folks hate doing drafts.  Some folks skip them altogether, convinced their words are gold the minute they’re set down.  And a few folks get caught in an endless loop of writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting and...
            So, here’s a basic step by step of how I go from bare idea to something I’m willing to hand to an editor.  And when I say editor, I mean “someone who will pay for these words I’ve written.”  That being said, this is also a good time to bring up the ever-popular golden rule.

What works for me might not work for you,
and it almost definitely won't work for that guy.

            I’ve mentioned once or thrice before that we all have our own way of writing.  Working through drafts in this way helps me a lot, but it’s not a guarantee of success for anyone except me.  You might need to modify these steps a bit, or maybe a lot.  But I think this is a good baseline method.
            To begin...
            While I’m working on a book, I usually scribble down notes and thoughts about the next book.  Characters, dialogue, action moments, reveals... all sorts of different elements.  I’ll shuffle these around into more or less the order I think they’ll end up.  These notes serves as a very, very rough outline, just enough so I can start writing on page one and go when it’s time to start...

            The First Draft—In my mind, this is the "just finish it" stage.  I just want to finish this draft with a beginning, an end, and the majority of points in between.  I don't worry about catching typos or crafting every subtle moment in the plot. 
            Consider this... diamonds don’t come out of the earth as clear, faceted gems.  They come out as ugly blobs that need lots of cuts and polishing.  So if I dig up a ten-gram diamond, I can’t expect it to make a ten gram gemstone.  If I’m lucky, I might get three or four grams out of it.  It’ll shrink as I work on it, because that’s how I improve it (see below).  So if I’ve got a ten-gram diamond and I’m insisting on a 9.9 gram gem... well, that’s going to make a pretty crappy engagement ring, yes?
            At this early stage, I don't hold anything back.  I let dialogue, descriptions, and action scenes run on a bit longer than they probably should.  I know I'll be cutting eventually, so there's no reason to worry about length now.  For this stage, it really is quantity over quality. 
            If I get stuck on something (an awkward conversation or complex action scene), I'll just skip it.  Things might not be perfect right now, but I know I’ll be able to go into the exact details of that conversation or this sequence later, so I'd rather keep moving forward and leave that stuff for Future Peter to deal with.  Again, for me, the most important thing is to get the overall framework done.  It's a lot easier to think about the little things when the big things aren't looming over you.
            Depending on the book, this process takes me anywhere from two to three months. I had one book take about six weeks, but that was pretty rare for me.
            I don’t show this draft to anyone.  I may take a night off, work on something else for a day, and then it’s right back for...

            The Second Draft-- Remember all those problems I left for Future Peter to deal with?  Those need to be dealt with now.  Gaps get filled in.  Characters get fleshed out a little more, and sometimes renamed.  All those awkward knots get worked out.   Because I can see a lot of these elements in relation to the whole story now , I'll usually find the answers to these problems are more apparent. 
            The goal with this draft is to have a readable manuscript.  No more little notes to myself  or trailing paragraphs that need to get connected somehow.  Someone should be able to pick this up and read it start to finish without thinking they lost a few pages or only got my notes on a chapter.
            Keep in mind this doesn't mean I do show it to people.  It just means I should be able to.  Really, the only person who might see this is my lady-love, and not even her always.  Usually she has to wait.
            For some folks, this stage would really be the first draft.  Those people have nice pages of their own somewhere out there on the web.  This isn’t one of them.  Plus, breaking it up like this takes a lot of pressure off, which I think is a good thing when you’re trying to treat writing like a real job.  No one likes a high-pressure job.
            Okay then, so... now I step away for a couple of days.  Maybe as much as a week.  I’ll watch movies, work out a little, or maybe even scribble up a few ranty blog posts in advance.  The goal is to push the manuscript as far out of my mind as possible.  Don't look at it, try not to think too much about it. 
            I’m just into this now with The Albuquerque Door, for those who care about such things.

            The Third Draft—Time to make like a slasher and cut, cut, cut.  Two great rules-of-thumb I've mentioned a few times—

one adverb per page, four adjectives

2nd draft = 1st draft - 10%

            Yeah, the second rule goes off the previously mentioned assumption that my first clean, readable draft is my first draft.
            I spend this draft tracking down adverbs, adjectives, pointless dialogue descriptors, and so on.  If they can be cut, they get cut.  One thing I also go after here is common padding phrases that don't really do anything (sort of, somewhat, kind of, more or less).  One of my regular readers dubbed this somewhat syndrome, and I still call it that.  I like to tell myself I’ve gotten much better about it now that I’m aware of the problem. 
            Sometimes I also like to tell myself that I haven't gained that much weight since college...
            At this point I've gone through the whole manuscript at least twice, so a few larger cuts should be apparent, too.  Overcomplicated descriptions that slow down the narrative.  Awkward sentence structures.  Extensive character moments that really add nothing to the character, the story, or the plot.  Many of these things get tightened or cut altogether.
            I spend a week or two doing this.  This is usually when I let my lovely lady have a look.  She's my first set of eyes and lets me know I screwed up and I'm too close to see it.

            The Fourth Draft--This is the first big polish.  I go through sentence by sentence, looking for words that come up too often or stilted dialogue.  I also make sure all the cuts and swaps from the last draft haven't messed anything up.  Are the logic chains still complete?  Did I forget to change Pash’s name to Veek anywhere?  Does Arthur still have time to get that pistol?  Are there any odd character tics that I forgot to remove or add?  Does the whole thing have a good flow to it
            This draft doesn’t take long.  Just a day or two.  It’s just one slow, careful read of the story.
            Once I’ve got a solid fourth draft, I send it off to folks to get fresh eyes.   I generally use four or five friends I’ve know for years.  All of them are all professional writers and editors who know how to give useful criticism.  Not to beat a dead horse, but by professional I mean they get paid to do this for a living.  They have actual credentials.
            Speaking of which, some folks might hire a professional editor at this point. Nothing wrong with that.  The important thing is to get an opinion I can trust to be honest, even if I have to pay for it.  A few folks might argue that this is the publisher’s job, but I need to get a publisher first, and why are they going to bother with my crap manuscript?
            Anyway, this draft goes off into the world and it may be two weeks to a month before I look at it again.  The challenge is to resist messing with it while those people are looking at it.  I try to spend the time relaxing a bit, scribbling down ideas for later books (see above), or flexing different mental muscles.
            More than once, I’ve cleaned my office.

            The Fifth Draft-- Now I've gotten notes back from the folks I begged/ blackmailed/ paid to read this thing.  I go through the whole manuscript page by page with their comments.  If you’ve got multiple monitors, this is a great time to use them.
            Page one... what did everyone think?  What about page two?  How's page three look?  As I'm doing this, I've also got my own copy of the fourth draft that I'm using as a "master document."  This way I can see all the notes and make whatever changes are required. 
             I mentioned that I ask four or five people to make notes for me.  That gives me a broad sampling on each note/ issue that comes up.  If four people like something but one doesn't, odds are I'll call that good.  Nothing’s going to work for everyone.  If three don't and two do (and of course I do, or I wouldn't've written it), I'll sit and give it a good look.  If nobody likes it, well... I'm smart enough to admit when I've screwed up and something doesn't work.
            This draft can take another two weeks or more to finish with a full book manuscript.

            The Sixth Draft-- This one's another polishing draft, just like the fourth.   I need to make sure everything still works now that I’ve made those changes and tweaks from my reader's comments.  So, yet another line by line reading, adjusting as I go.
            And at this point... this is when I’m done.  There’s only so much a given writer—in this case, me—can do with a given story.  There comes a point when further work accomplishes nothing and I’m just rewriting for the sake of rewriting. I'm sure we all know someone who's just been working on the same manuscript for years and years because they've got another one or two drafts to put it through.  If my manuscript’s not ready for a publisher (or film producer) by now, it probably means I screwed up something big right at the start. 
            Maybe with my initial idea of rebooting the Laff-A-Lympics as a medical drama starring a gender-swapped, alcoholic Captain Caveman.
            Next time... well, if there’s anything next week it’ll be really quick.  I’ve got a flight on Thursday.  If you’re in Dallas next week, please swing by Texas Frightmare and say hi.  I’ll be in the Made in Texas room.
            Either way, go write.

Friday, April 18, 2014

No Capes!

            Decade-old pop culture reference, but it’s still relevant.  And fun.  Especially today.
            As a lot of the book covers over on the right suggest, I’m big on superheroes.  Have been for years and years now.  They’re a popular topic these days, too.  Comics.  Television.  Movies.  I tend to get asked about them a lot, and I talk about them a lot.
            Because superheroes are so popular, people are slapping that label on lots and lots of stories. There’s a distinction that needs to be made, though, and I think it’s one some folks have trouble grasping.  And since so much of being a good writer is grasping those little details, I thought it would be worth going over.  Apologies, because this one’s going to be a little more lecture-ish.
            First... a little history.
            The whole idea of masked avengers arguably started with The Scarlet Pimpernel.  There’s probably a strong case to be made for the Count of Monte Cristo, but I think for this little rant the Pimpernel’s probably the best example.  It was a 1904 story by the prolific Emma Orczy about a swashbuckler who fought for the oppressed in Robespierre’s France by using a series of disguises and a circle of secret operatives.  There was also Doctor Syn (a.k.a. the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh) in 1915, Zorro in 1919, and then a series of comic book superheroes like The Phantom and The Spider before we started seeing familiar folks like Batman in 1939 (seventy five years ago almost to the day, in fact).
            Interesting point, though...  None of these characters had any sort of actual powers.  They were just mortal men (and a few women, even back then) with a lot of training and skills who hid their true identities behind a mask or elaborate disguise.
            Now, on the other hand, stories of people with actual superhuman abilities have been around for thousands of years.  Literally, thousands.  Gilgamesh, Hercules, and Icarus all had superpowers centuries before the birth of Jesus (who, arguably, also had some powers of his own).  The regenerating Green Knight first appeared in medieval Arthurian legends.  The Grimms wrote up several stories about the strongest man in the world, the fastest man in the world, the man with the sharpest hearing, and so on.  Robert Louis Stevenson created a scientist who could change into a monster, and H.G. Wells had one who could turn invisible.  In modern day times, Stephen King started his career with a telekinetic teenager, a precognizant schoolteacher, and a pyrokinetic little girl.  Alexander Key, Dean Koontz, and Stephen Gould all wrote novels about people who could teleport.
            However... are any of these characters actually superheroes?
            My point is, superheroes and superpowers are, and have pretty much always been, two separate things.  One doesn’t necessarily require the other.  And, like a lot of story forms, if I get confused about which one I’m telling, things can go in a lot of weird ways that... well, don’t work.
            Now, some folks claim, for example, that Gilgamesh was always a superhero story.   So were all the Greek and Norse myths.  That’s what superheroes are, right?  Modern mythology?
            I kind of disagree with this.  H.P. Lovecraft once made the very clever observation that we couldn’t have true supernatural stories before the 19th century because until then people really didn’t know what the natural was.  So trying to re-classify older stories doesn’t work.  I think the same thing applies here.  There were many tales of heroes with superhuman powers and abilities before the Scarlet Pimpernel, but I’d argue the idea of an actual superhero story didn’t exist until the early 20th century.  There was a definite split there into those two distinct forms—superhero stories and superpower stories.
            And, as I mentioned above, if I don’t know which one I’m writing, it can cause some problems.  They’re not interchangeable, and some of the concepts don’t play well together.
            Let’s go over a couple basics I’ve observed over the years...
            Right at the start, I’ve noticed that superpowers stories tend to brush over the origin of said powers.  In both Jumper and the Harry Potter books, we’re just told that this is the way the world has always been.  Some folks get the teleport gene.  Some can do magic.  That’s it.  If superpower tales do have an origin in them, they tend to lean toward the hard sciences, making it as believable as possible... but still pretty much brushing over it.
            With superheroes, though, the origin is pretty much a standard.  A writer can also get away with somewhat sillier, softer-science origin stories.  More than a few characters have gotten superpowers from blood transfusions (including one of my own).  Lots of folks stumble across magic or alien artifacts.  Radiation was a common source of superpowers for decades, despite what we learned in seventh grade science class.  Heck, Stan Lee wrote a story where someone got their powers by standing near a nuclear bomb when it went off.  Absurd, yes?  Yet here we are today and that's still the accepted origin of the Incredible Hulk (though they’ve quietly retconned him a bit further away from ground zero).
            As far as character motivations go, a superhero story is almost always defined by a person who makes a conscious decision to publicly use their powers for a wider goal that may not benefit them (and often doesn’t).  Most of them feel morally compelled to use their abilities this way.  They aren’t doing it to show off or to get even with someone.  Obvious as it may sound...superheroes act heroically.
            This public nature also means they deal with public sentiment of one kind or another.  Iron Man's a celebrity in just about every sense of the word.  Superman's an iconic part of Metropolis.  Captain America's a venerable historic figure.  Batman and Spider-Man receive mixed reviews.  The X-Men are openly considered criminals.
            In a superpowers story, the characters may have superhuman abilities, but their motivation tends to be personal, and their actions are usually behind-the-scenes.  When powers are revealed in superpowers books, it’s almost never a good thing.  Consider Carrie and Firestarter, both of which I hinted at up above.  In each book the girls hide their powers until they need them (for revenge and to rescue her father, respectively) and when their powers are revealed these are moments of absolute horror.  The Green Knight tests the character of knights on a one-at-a-time basis, and if you know that tale you know the awful way people learn about his powers.  In The Dead Zone, Johnny Smith’s trying to save the world, but he has to do it alone and secretly because no one will believe him.  Hiding your powers and staying apart from the world is a main theme in both the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books. 
            The abilities in superhero stories tend to be much more extreme, too.  There’s Superman and the Sentry, two examples of the “living god” superhero.  For decades the Flash could actually run faster than the speed of light.  The Scarlet Witch could alter reality on a planetary scale while Phoenix could telekinetically manipulate matter on a molecular level.  The only limit to what a Green Lantern ring can do is the wearer’s imagination.
            Compare this to superpower stories, where powers are usually much more “believable” and often have limiting side effects.  In The Dead Zone, Johnny Smith hemorrhages when he uses his powers too much, and so does Charlie’s dad in Firestarter.  In Dean Koontz’s The Bad Place, teleportation can mean scrambling your body, your mind, or both.  In Limitless, the IQ-enhancing drug can (and usually does) kill you when you go into withdrawal.  In fact, the only two superpower stories I can think of where someone has overwhelming powers would be Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven and the film Dark City (but if you can think of others, please let me know).
             In a superhero story, I’d say a costume is almost necessary, much in the same way a cowboy needs a hat and a horse.  Mostly because it’s how my hero or heroine protects their secret identity and the people around them.  However, I will toss out the proviso that putting my main character in a costume doesn’t make my story a superhero story, just like putting them on a horse doesn’t automatically make it a western.   
            Superpowers stories involve street clothes.  Even if someone has a “uniform” way of dressing, it tends to be suits, boots, leather jackets, and other things that wouldn’t look that out of place on a city street.  Hercules didn’t have a special outfit for performing the twelve labors.  Carrie doesn’t duck out of her prom to put on a leotard and a domino mask.  On Grimm, Nick tends to just dress like a police detective, even when he knows he’s going up against Wesen or other monsters.
            I also think a lot of this difference has to do with the world a given story is set in.  More often than not, a superpowers story has a very realistic setting.  Aside from a very limited, few beings (most of whom stay out of the public eye), there’s almost nothing to distinguish it from the real, day-to-day world we read about online.  And that’s going to affect what characters know and how they react to things.  Even how they interact with each other.
            By contrast, look at the settings for some of our well-known superheroes.  In both the Marvel and DC universes, the existence of aliens—several types of aliens—is a well-documented fact.  New York was very visibly invaded by aliens in The Avengers movie.  Superman’s a known alien.  So are Hawkgirl and Hawkman.  Green Lantern works for aliens.  Magic is real in both universes, too.  Spider-Man is a common sight swinging through his version of New York, where the Avengers and Fantastic Four both have very public office building.  Heck, I think the Avengers have two or three buildings at this point.
            Needless to say... those stories are not set in the real world.  And, as I said before, the setting definitely influences my story.
            So, all that being said...
            I think one of the problems with pushing a superpowers story into the superhero mold is the silliness factor.  The motivations don’t always work as well.  When someone puts on a costume in a real world setting, it tends to feel like the writer isn’t taking things seriously.  In the final chapter of the BBC’s Jekyll, when Dr. Jackman unites with Hyde to become truly superhuman, It would’ve been ridiculous if he’d stopped to pull on a leotard and cape.  There’s a well-meaning little indie film called Sidekick where the hero does just that in the third act to rescue his love interest, and it feels completely absurd.
            You get similar issues going the other way, too.  People historically read superhero comics for escapism.  We want to see Superman fly around the country, not walk across it.  When someone picks up the latest Incredible Hulk, they want to see him get angry and perform some feats of amazing strength, usually coupled with some amazing property damage.  While some of the issues Doctor Banner’s dual personality causes him are interesting, nobody opens an issue of the Hulk really hoping to see ten or eleven pages of Bruce sitting in a diner discussing physical strength vs. spiritual strength with the waitress.  I think Marvel and DC’s sales figures over the past few years will back me up on this.  The audience for superhero stories isn’t looking for stark realism.
            This is also why some things in related universes just don't mix well.  John Constantine is part of the DC Universe, but he doesn't really fit with in with the Superman, Captain Atom, Green Arrow crowd.  Neither does Dream of the Endless.  Marvel has zombie hitman Terror, who also is clearly in the Marvel universe but just never sat right alongside Spidey, Captain Marvel, Daredevil, and the rest.  Whenever these two types of characters interact it always seems awkward, and one or the other doesn't really feel right.
            Now, granted, these aren’t formal rules that have been set down by tenured professors.   If we just look at a lot of fiction, though, we’ll see that this separation of powers (so to speak) has been around for ages.  I’ve given a bunch of examples here, and even more when I first talked about this idea a few years ago
            As always, I'm sure someone can dig around and find that one story where Constantine teamed up with Green Lantern and it was magnificent.  But overall, if I’m going to play with super-powered characters, it’s probably a good idea to be clear what kind of story I want to tell.  Because if I don’t... well, there might be some clashes.  Not the fun bare-knuckle kind, either.
            Next time, while I try to finish up this new draft before Texas Frightmare, I’d like to talk about drafts.
            But until then, go write.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Flow Factor

            I tried to come up with a clever title using Flo from those Progressive Insurance commercials, but I couldn’t come up with anything that didn’t feel... well, kind of awkward.  They weren’t bad titles, they just didn’t read well.  Or they required a bit of mental gymnastics to make sense.
            Either way, they didn’t work.
            Which is, oddly enough, what I wanted to blather on about this week.
            Have you ever read a book you just couldn’t put down?  One where you start reading just after lunch and suddenly realize it’s two in the morning?  Or maybe it was a movie that sucked you in and you were stunned to realize that the 163 minute run time was already used up.
            Oscar-winning screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin made a wonderful observation a while back.  To paraphrase, we experience good stories in our gut, not in our head.  A good story grabs us at an emotional level—in the gut.  But whenever something goes wrong, we start to analyze and examine it—we go into our head. 
            The best term I’ve heard for this is flow.  Put at its simplest, flow is the readability of my story.  It has to do with how much effort it takes for the reader to keep reading.  Having good flow means my writing is smooth and slick, that every line, paragraph, and chapter rolls into the next and carries you along for the ride.  Readers can’t stop because it’s actually easier to keep turning the page than to put the book down. 
            On the other hand, a story with bad flow will make a reader stumble a lot.  If I’m reading a book, whenever I pause to roll my eyes, scratch my head, or go back two or three pages to figure something out... each one's another bump in the road.  If you’ve ever tried a book and just couldn’t get into it, odds are the flow sucked.  You’d read, trip over a page or two, and put it back down.  You can’t get into it because you keep getting knocked back out.
             Flow is a large part of editing.  I’ve mentioned giving things a polish before, and it’s just what it sounds like.  It’s going through my manuscript and smoothing down the rough edges. It’s me knowing this could be a little clearer and people might get hung up on that.
            Unfortunately, this means flow isn’t something I can just fix by changing a word here or there.  It’s one of those things where you can tweak each element but still not affect the final outcome.  Getting good (or even better) at flow is an experience thing that just comes from writing.  The more I write, the more subtle methods and tricks and fixes I develop.
            That being said... here are a few things my story needs to do if it’s going to have good flow.  Or, if you prefer, these are some of the things a story with bad flow often won’t do...

            Be interesting--  Easiest way in the world to keep my story from lagging—don’t be boring.  This doesn’t mean I need five explosions and a swordfight on page one, but when I’m telling a story, I need to get to the story.  If it’s sci fi, I should show the reader something amazing.  If it’s a love story, my characters need to display some passion.  If it’s a horror story, I need to scare some folks, or at least weird them out a bit.
            Have characters act in character--  A writing coach named Drusilla Campbell once commented that when the nun viciously kills a gardener, that’s also when most people remember that laundry they have to fold.  People who are blatantly incompetent at their jobs, cruel people who do nice things, people who are just a little too smart or too scared or too law-abiding when it suits the story.  It's jarring when my characters act in contradictory ways to what the reader's come to expect.  And that jarring is what gets books and screenplays tossed in the big left-hand pile.
            Have smooth  dialogue--  Kind of related to the last point.  I can get away with one character who talks like a computer.  Maybe another who keeps slipping into a foreign language.  But too much stylized, unnatural, or just plain bad dialogue brings things to a grinding halt.  Adults should talk like adults, kids should talk like kids, and cybernetic lizard men should talk like... well, you know.
            Watch the word choice--  If I’m picking obscure or overly-long words just to create flowery descriptions or show off my vocabulary, there’s a good chance I’m disrupting the flow of my writing.  It’s really cool that I can describe someone as a female with resplendent obsidian ink ornamented across her glabrous scalp, but it’s much smoother and just as visual for me to say she’s a bald woman with dark tattoos.
            It’s worth noting that typos and misused words fall into this category, too.  Anytime someone sees something like that in print, it pulls them out of the story and puts them back in analyzing mode.  In their head.  And that’s not where I want them to be.
            Take it seriously.  Everyone makes a joke now and then to break the tension, but things need to carry the correct amount of gravity in my writing.  Death, rape, unrequited love, violence... I shouldn’t bring these things up and not address them in an appropriate way.  If my characters are drowning cats, threatening their employees, or punching strangers in the head, these acts should all be getting a response from my characters.  If the reader thinks I’m not taking the events in my book seriously, well... why should they?

            Again, though, just adjusting these elements doesn’t guarantee that my writing now has great flow.  Every story is unique and has its own path to follow.  But if you keep at it and continue to work on it, one day you’ll start to see the patterns.  And then you’ll be able to go with the flow.
            Next week, unless any of you have some requests or suggestions, I’ve been thinking about Captain America and superheroes a lot lately.  So I wanted to make a small distinction.  
            Until then, go write.