Saturday, May 23, 2009

Putting Babies on Spikes

Again, if you don’t get the title reference—expand your horizons.

So, a phrase you may have heard echoing about now and then is “killing your babies.” It’s just as gruesome as it sounds. Honest. I just heard it from a friend of mine a few weeks ago as he gutted the opening of a script he’s been working on for almost a year. One fellow brought it up when I interviewed him last week about his new film.

Many folk have heard the phrase, but how many understand it?

In every piece of writing, there’s at least one thing the author is extremely proud of. A clever line of dialogue, a character nuance, a dramatic moment or reveal that just could not be any better. We’ve all had them. A place where the language and the creativity and the skill all hit that perfect point where it’s hard to believe we created something this good. I usually fret over them for hours, convinced I must’ve read it somewhere else before and unintentionally copied it. After all, there’s no way I could’ve written something that good...

Perhaps it’s not even necessarily high art, just something the writer’s very fond of. Maybe it’s a clever reference you know a handful of friends will get. A loving tribute to someone special. A sly wink at some other book or movie. Heck, it could even just be something silly and pointless the writer got obsessive about. As a not-so-wise man once said, “the alien love-child stays in no matter what!”

The problem is, while these bits often are very well-done within their own limits, they don’t always work in the larger scope of things. As a writer, your loyalty has to be to the big picture. Not to individual scenes, but to the story as a whole. We’ve all heard awful cases where firefighters have to cut off someone’s leg to save them from a burning wreck. History tells of us brave generals who lost battles so they could win the war.

Y’see, Timmy, what it comes down to is... writers need to make sacrifices sometimes. And the gods of storytelling are ancient, dark gods. So when they call for a sacrifice, they don’t want to see a small tithe or minor inconvenience. They want something big.

They want something you love.

A story...

Submitted for your approval is San Diego Police Officer Andrew Barroll. He was one of the supporting characters in my oft-exampled first attempt at a novel The Suffering Map (now on sale absolutely nowhere). He first appears in a flashback one character has as a uniform officer she met almost a year ago. Halfway through the book he reappears, now a detective assigned to investigate the series of horrifically mutilated corpses that are being discovered around San Diego because of... well, let’s just say it’s part of the story and leave it at that. For the second half of the book, five different plot threads are getting wound tighter and tighter, and Barroll and his partner get closer to discovering who’s committing the brutal murders. He was the good cop. The solid, dedicated, everyman character. The kind of character where you knew he’d just have to get a bigger part to play in a later book.

Alas, the first draft of The Suffering Map was just over 150,000 words. Somewhat huge for a first novel from an unknown, completely uncredited writer. The second draft was even longer. It wasn’t until the third draft that I began to snip those words I thought might be excessive, and it wasn’t until the 4th draft that those cuts were noticeable.

In the fifth draft, a little over 90% of Barroll’s thread of the story vanished.

I remember feeling a dreadful churning in my stomach as I was highlighting and deleting entire chapters out of my first completed novel. A great end-of-the-chapter button vanished. Two carefully thought-out characters ceased to exist altogether. If you worked it out time-wise, probably about eight weeks of writing was deleted over the course of half an hour. Freddy Krueger aspires to be the slasher I was that afternoon. It took a few days of work to patch up the loose ends after the slaughter.

That’s what “killing your babies” means. It means doing things you hate to do. It’s when you’re willing to take huge swaths of your writing, hours and hours of work, and send them to the bin for a tighter, stronger story. You do what needs to be done, even if it means trashing your absolute, favorite part.

Alas, some folks just can’t bring themselves to make these big sacrifices. They can’t bear the thought of omitting the character they based off their high school sweetheart, refuse to admit the story doesn’t need that brilliant monologue on capitalism, and can’t figure out why the beautiful seven page description of a forest brings their story toa crashing halt. Which is a shame, because it’s the only way someone’s writing can get stronger. If you can’t look at your work objectively and see the difference between what needs to be in there and what you want to be in there, you don’t have any chance at improving.

In the end, detective Barroll appeared in one chapter of The Suffering Map. A morgue scene as the body is examined and a gruesome clue is revealed, more for the readers than for the investigators. That’s it.

And, while it pains me to this day, the story is much stronger for it.

Next time, I'd like to talk a little bit about basic concepts.

Until then... get back to writing.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Geek Stuff

Okay, time for a personal confession.

I am a geek. Long time nerd. I was one of those sci-fi/ fantasy/ comic-book weirdoes long before most of you reading this were born. An outcast all through grade school and high school with only a few equally geeky friends.

I saw Star Wars in the movie theater when it was just Star Wars. None of this tacked-on- “Well, I always planned a trilogy of trilogies”- A New Hope nonsense. I remember when the Doctor turned into a tall guy with curly hair and a scarf, back at a time when you knew Daleks were supposed to be scary but couldn’t quite figure out why. I devoured the tales of Hawk the Slayer, Rom the Spaceknight, and John Carter, the Warlord of Mars. I remember the X-Men when they weren’t cool and Wolverine dressed in bright yellow spandex. Heck, when I learned how to play Dungeons & Dragons it was just two magazine-sized paperbacks with red and blue covers. It was a proud, thrilling moment for me when I first found out I was going to work on a Beastmaster movie (the shame came later).

Alas, sci-fi and fantasy get a bum rap from most folks, and those two genre tags are often seen as a kiss of death by agents, publishers, and studios. Heck, producer Ron Moore went out of his way to keep people from calling Battlestar Galactica sci-fi, despite that glaring network label. Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park was almost never shelved in the sci-fi/ fantasy section. Same with his Eaters of the Dead and all those Harry Potter books.

What years of digesting this stuff have shown me, though, is a lot of bad genre stuff tends to be bad for all the same reasons. Oh, there are some films and books that have found bold and daring ways to be awful no one could’ve possibly thought of (for examples of this, I recommend the novel Einstein’s Bridge and/or the film Women of the Prehistoric Planet), and there are a lot of the same basic problems you’ll see in any story or script, but overall the lethal genre flaws tend to fall into three categories.

One of the biggest mistakes I see in a lot of genre stuff is writers who are trying to make it too amazing. They cram in everything they can think of, every idea they have. It’s a bit like when that one overeager kid got to be the Dungeon Master for the first time and created that dungeon with fifteen platinum dragons and twenty giant purple worms and thirty minotaurs armed with +5 flaming swords and every door had a poison needle trap and... and... and...

I read one sci-fi screenplay a while back that dealt with a character awoken from cryogenic suspension thousands of years in the future, superhuman bio-technology that let people live at an accelerated rate, the different physics reactions this accelerated rate caused, gladiatorial games, social clans, an arms race, interplanetary civil wars, and an ethical debate over cloning. These weren’t just touched on, mind you, but all were essential, key elements in a 100-odd page script.

The problem with writing screenplays or stories like this is your audience has nothing left to latch onto as they’re overwhelmed with everything that’s different. The location is different. The rules are different. The people are different. Motivations are different. The writer may have created the most unique 37th Century world ever, but the audience needs to be able to understand to it now.

This leads us right into problem two—when the writer tries to explain all of it. I think most people reading this have seen a story or script that suddenly deviates into exposition. Characters will suddenly spout out a page or three on what the fabled Amulet of Sativa can do once it’s soaked in the blood of an innocent or how space travel works. Worse yet, sometimes this explanation will just pour out between the dialogue as the writer talks directly to his or her audience.

What this leads to is stories that are phenomenally detailed and exotic, but nothing ever actually happens in them. Five pages explaining why the Cawdor hive-gang has hated the Escher hive-gang for the past twenty years is really just five pages of characters sitting around twiddling their thumbs.

And this leads us to big problem number three—when the writer doesn’t explain any of it. Strangers make ominous proclamations. Disturbing photos arrive in the mail. Eerie carvings of strange, vaguely-familiar symbols are found on the wall. And people don’t address or flat-out ignore all these odd things.

A lot of the time, in my experience, this is a desperate attempt to create an aura of mystery and amazement around the characters or events when there really isn’t anything mysterious or amazing there. The writer just watched a lot of episodes of LOST or Fringe or maybe just the Matrix one too many times.

So, how can you beat these problems? How can you prove to editors, agents, and readers that your genre work is true literature and not at all like the feeble attempts of these other fanboy hacks who’ve been encouraged by their geek friends?

(Apologies to all my geek friends—I wasn’t talking about you.)

For that first problem, have a touchstone. Make sure your story has a main character your audience can immediately relate to. A protagonist who hates their job. Somebody lusting after someone they can’t have. Someone who feels like an outsider. Simply put, a person who has a universal need or desire. I’ve mentioned once or thrice that believable characters make for believable stories, and that’s especially true here in the genres. Luke Skywalker was a small-town boy who didn’t want to go into the family business. John Carter was a Civil War veteran from Virginia trying to find a purpose after the war. Ellen Ripley was the second in command of a mining ship who just wanted to get home to her daughter. Once the reader can believe in your characters, they can believe in what’s happening to your characters. This is a large part of Stephen King’s success, that 95% of his stories involve absolutely ordinary people living absolutely ordinary lives. By the time clowns crawl out of the sewers or a wall of mist rolls across the lake, the reader’s already invested in those folks. We believe in the characters, so we have to believe in what’s happening to the characters.

There are two things you can do for the second problem. One is to trim out anything that doesn’t need to be there. You may have the coolest take on vampires ever, but if you’re only including the vampires because you’ve got this cool take, yank them out and have your characters get attacked by bandits. It’s really cool that you’ve created the entire history and art of the nidhar, an ancient short-range weapon consisting of an array of blades that are held one between each finger before releasing them... but couldn’t your character get by with just a throwing knife?

Here’s a helpful example. Isaac Asimov once wrote a clever short story called “Nightfall,” later expanded to a novel of the same name. In the preface, he explains that he uses miles, hours, and years not because his planet is related to Earth, but because he saw no point in overcomplicating the story. If it works for the master...

The other thing you can do is fall back on the ignorant stranger method I’ve mentioned a few times. It’s nifty that taxicabs and busses are all electric and run by robots at this point in the future—but doesn’t Yakko already know that? I mean, he’s from the future, right? Shouldn’t Lord Murrain already know why he sent his henchman, Wakko, off to search the arctic wastes for a year (to search for the legendary Ice Sword)? Why does Wakko need to explain where he’s been? If this material isn’t vital to your story, trim out that paragraph or three of exposition and just trust that your readers are smart enough to understand future taxis are cool and Wakko found that which he sought.

To solve that third issue, make sure you know what you’re keeping secret, and that it really is a secret. Nothing will frustrate your audience more than to struggle and stumble through a whole story and then realize the writer has no intention of revealing the big mystery, or that there really isn’t one. Figure out what the story’s secret is and work backwards, making sure characters are motivated to hide it and/ or smart enough to uncover it.

Here’s a fun little tip I once heard from that nice lady over at A Buck A Page. Your main character should mirror your audience. So if your main character is constantly saying “I don’t understand,” or “What does that mean?” it probably means your audience is, too. Or, worse yet, they already hate your main character for being a $#&%ing idiot and threw your work across the room fifteen pages back. This also gives you a great guideline, though, of when stuff should be revealed. If you’re well into the third act of your tale and the main character still doesn’t have a clue what’s going on... well, I’m sure a few of the readers will keep reading to the end. Three or four of them, at least...

And that’s all I’ve got for you, unless anyone wants to debate Shogun Warriors vs. Micronauts. Hopefully this’ll help get some more good genre stuff out there for eager audiences.

Next time, just for fun, let’s kill a few babies.

Until then, get back to writing.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Few Times Around the Block

This week, I wanted to discuss something I’m sure nobody wants to hear about. No, not about the test results or that it looks like Chuck is being cancelled by those idiots at NBC. What I wanted to talk about is an affliction more deadly than Ebola and swine flu combined.

Well... sort of. Not really. It just feels that way a lot of the time.

I have to be honest. I don’t really believe in writer’s block. Oh, I believe someone can have trouble finding the right words and phrasing and it can trip them up for a minute. Or that they found too many good sentences and have written themselves into a corner. That happens. It’s happened to me several times.

But, really... that someone could get so stuck that they can’t write anything? Nothing at all? Any writer who comes to an honest-to-God dead halt when they hit a problem is a bit more of a poser than they’d probably like to admit.

Sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov never suffered from writer’s block. Neither has prolific author Piers Anthony. Stephen King got hit by a high-speed van, hovered near death for a few days, and a few weeks after he could move had his wife set up a desk and his laptop computer for him. The screenwriting team of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have three movies coming out this summer, right after their new series Fringe. Almost all of them were written in one six month period.

Y’see, Timmy, one of the biggest things that stops folks from writing, in my opinion, is just fear. Plain old fear. To be honest, I think it’s the only reason someone can’t pick up a pen or set their hands to the keyboard and put out something.

Now, a lot of folks like to toss around terms like inspiration, craft, and my all-time favorite, ART, as reasons they can’t write. And in all fairness, there does need to be an idea that’s compelling you. There is more to writing than banging your fingers on the keyboard to form phonetically-spelled words. And even I’ll admit to there being a chance that your writing could be labeled art by the high-fallutin’ folks at the New Yorker. But none of these should have any bearing on your ability to write.

As a writer, you are your own boss (unless you’re working on a television series in a writer’s room). Can you imagine walking into your day job and telling your supervisor “Actually, Dot, I’m not sure I’m ready to work today. It’s just... it’s not there for me, y’know?” It wouldn’t fly at the Buy More, so why should it at your desk?

Now, this is going to be one of those tips that sounds incredibly stupid, but that’s because it’s so simple and straightforward most people don’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak.

The easiest way to never get writer’s block?

Don’t stop writing.

Told you it’d sound stupid. But it’s true. You can’t have writer’s block if you’ve always got words pouring out of you. It isn’t something that happens when you’re writing, it’s something that happens when you’ve stopped writing.

So, with that in mind, here’s a few ways you can keep the words flowing and never stop writing.

Why so serious? One thing I know can make people freeze is the sheer thought that they are writing. This is that big fear I was just talking about. They are partaking in the same art as Shakespeare and Dickens, Steinbeck and Hemingway, Hitchcock and Serling.. How could someone not approach this with the gravity it truly deserves? How could they risk putting down a single word that isn’t gold-gilt and ready to head off to the publisher so it can change the lives of millions?

Easy. Just remember most of them aren’t. We all get a first draft, and often a second and third, too. Way back at the dawn of the ranty blog, I talked about finding a place or a format you can write in that takes all the pressure off you. For some folks it’s writing in longhand. Some use a different word processing program—or a different computer altogether. Just remember, the majority of the words you write will never see print, so don’t stress that they’re not flawless.

Move on. This is another suggestion you’ve probably heard before. Have more than one project going at a time. It also helps if they’re all a bit different, in terms of genre, format, and so on. If you get stuck on script A, you can switch over to short story B or tell-all book C. At any given time I’m juggling screenwriter interviews and articles for the magazine, the ranty blog here, and whatever fiction projects of my own I’m working on.

Prime the pump. If you need to start writing, just start. Write anything. Type out a list of your pets. Favorite books. Favorite Christmas presents. People you’ve slept with. People you wish you’d slept with. Just get the words flowing, and then start tossing in some verbs and adjectives. Go with stream of consciousness or random fragments or quotes you’ve been meaning to jot down for other projects.

After fifteen or twenty minutes of this, you’ll probably find you’re writing coherent, consecutive sentences. Even if they don’t have anything to do with your current project—or any of your side projects—they’ve still gotten that part of your brain up and running for the real work of the day.

Reload! Sometimes the reason you’re not moving forward is because you’re out of gas. Read a book or watch a movie. Not one of your favorites, but something new. Get some fresh words and ideas and images into your head. Once they start swirling around in there, they might find that starting point you were looking for—or maybe even an all-new one.

Quit while you’re ahead. No, it’s not as harsh as it sounds. Simply put, if you feel like you’ve five or six pages of writing to get out today, only do four. If you know where the rest of this page is going, stop after the first paragraph.

What you’re doing is giving yourself an easy starting place tomorrow. There are few things more intimidating than sitting down with no idea what to write, so this way you’ve got that last page or so from last night to start with. Like the tip above, once you’re going it’s a lot easier to keep going.

And that’s that. Five ways to keep writing.

Do they all work for me? Nope. To be honest, one of these methods I’ve had spotty luck with and another has never worked for me at all, but I know folks who get by fine with it. That’s the whole point of the ranty blog’s golden rule. Please feel free to toss out any of your own, as well. I know I’m always happy to have a few spares on hand.

On which note, we should all get back to writing. Next week I want to go back to my roots and talk about some sci-fi/ fantasy stuff. We’re long overdue for some hardcore geekery here.

But until then, go write.