Thursday, December 29, 2011

Let's Review

            Just enough time and space left in 2011 for me to squeeze in one last ranty blog post.
            This was a big year for me.  For the first time in my life, I spent the entire year writing fiction.  I’ve spent over five years as a full-time writer, but a lot of those years were writing magazine articles as well as my own stuff.  This was the first year of nothing but my fiction and living (well, squeaking by) on the money I made off that.
            Which also meant this was the first year I had no schedule.  I had a few broad deadlines for projects, but even most of those had a 30 day buffer built into the contract.  So anything I got done this year—or didn’t get done—was all my responsibility.  If I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done.
            How did I do with all the extra pressure of living the dream life?

            --I started the year by finishing up the last draft of Ex-Patriots, which hopefully two or three of you have since picked up and enjoyed.
            --Then I wrote The Junkie Quatrain as part of a bonus material deal with  Four interlocking/ overlapping short stories that form a pretty solid-sized novella (about 37,000 words) in six weeks.  I was pretty darned proud of that.  It reminded me of tales about Ray Bradbury and Robert Lewis Stevenson writing stories specifically to pay rent.  Permuted Press is putting out The Junkie Quatrain as an ebook next month (shameless plug), and I think is going to release them as a collected piece as well.
            --I wrote -14-, which was a whopping 149,000+ words in the first draft.  It went through five more drafts that cut a lot and added some more.  The 129,000 word manuscript is under the keen eyes of the Permuted editor right now.
            --I did about a dozen DVD reviews for the Cinema Blend website.  I wanted to do more, actually, but they’re shifting over to Blu-Rays and I haven’t gotten around to picking up a Blu-Ray player yet.  Maybe for my birthday...
            --I wrote forty-eight entries for the ranty blog (counting this one).  There’s also a half dozen on the H.P. Legocraft site and another nineteen entries on another blog I do.  Plus a few lengthy diatribes on the Permuted Press message boards and the Facebook fan page I’ve got going.
            --At the moment I’m 20,000 word into Ex-Communication, the third Ex- book.  To be honest I’d hoped to be a lot further along at this point, but then there were holidays and traveling and this monster eggnog my brother makes with lighter fluid...
            --And as soon as I finish this post I’m going to try to grind out a superhero story for an upcoming anthology called Corrupts Absolutely.  It’s due by December 31st, so we’ll see how I do.

            So, that's what I wrote this year. 
            How about you?
            Yeah, I had the advantage of writing fiction full time as my day job.  I’m guessing most of you didn’t have that.  Still, you’ve written something, right?
            Hopefully the answer is yes.  If it isn’t, here’s a simple New Year’s resolution, one I suggest every year about this time.
            Write a page a day.  That's all.  Tell yourself you’re going to do that and stick to it.  It’s about three hundred words, depending on your formatting. 
            If you write one page a day, you can have a short story by the end of January.  You could have a screenplay by the end of April, giving you plenty of time to enter some of the big contests.  Next Christmas you could have a very solid novel on your computer.  All from writing just one page a day. 
            If you're actually serious about being a writer, this should be the equivalent of resolving to sleep in the months to come.  Not sleep more or sleep better.  Just to sleep.  In other words, it should be something you couldn’t stop yourself from doing if you wanted to.
            Happy New Year to the double-handful of you who keep stopping by to read this.  Next time will be the first post of 2012, so I thought I'd do a quick recap about the history of the ranty blog and why I keep scribbling here once a week for several years now.
            Until then, go drink some champagne, kiss someone you love, and toast the new year.
            Then go write. 
            Just write one page.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Wherefore Art Thou Romeo

            Pop culture reference, four hundred years late.  Plus, if you actually know how to read that title line, you’ve got a hint at what this week’s ranty blog is about.
            Sorry this is late, by the way.  Yesterday was early Christmas lunches with family and parties at night with friends.
            Speaking of which, one last push before Christmas—you can still order Kindle books as last minute gifts and my publisher has a ton of them on sale for dirt cheap prices, including my own Ex-Heroes.  You can also pick up the Kindle version of The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe for half off the paperback price.
            Now, with all that out of the way... let’s get back to our title subject.
            One thing I stumble on a lot in stories is names.  Sometimes writers will load up every single character in their manuscript with a proper name.  I read through and I know the given name of the cabbie, the waitress,  the office intern, the homeless guy at the freeway exit, the woman whose ahead of the main character in line at the grocery store.  It doesn’t matter how important—or unimportant—they are to the story, they get a name.
            Another thing that makes for a troublesome read is when there are lots of people with similar names.  Sometimes, if there are enough of them, it can just be the first letter of the name.  Believe it or not, I read two scripts this year by two different people, but each screenplay was loaded with names that began with the letter J.  There was Jason, Jackie, Jerry, Jonathan, Javarius, Jacob, Jenny, and even a Jesus.  I read one the year before where everyone’s name began with P.  Since names are the reader’s shorthand for characters, making them confusing is not a great way to go.
            What I’d like to do now is to suggest a simple rule of thumb that can eliminate both of these potential problems.  And I’d like to illustrate this rule of thumb with a popular character most of you probably know...
            Calvin and Hobbes was created by Bill Watterson back at the end of that ancient decade known as the ‘80s.  The glaciers had retreated, a few mammoths still wandered the plains, and I had just started college in western Massachusetts.  The two title characters were Calvin and his stuffed tiger, but after them the two people we saw the most were Calvin’s long-suffering mom and sometimes just-as-mischievous dad (no real question where Calvin got it from).  Their names, as any fan of the series knows, were Mom and Dad.
            No, seriously.  That was it.  Mom and Dad.  I challenge anyone here to find a single scrap of evidence from the decade or so of Calvin and Hobbes strips that shows these two characters have any names past that.
            There’s a simple explanation for why they didn’t.  The entire strip is done from Calvin’s point of view.  In his world, people randomly transmorgify into giant bugs or space aliens.  Dinosaurs are still common if you know where to look.  And those two adults in his house with the sagging poll numbers are just Mom and Dad.  Not “just” in the sense that they’re diminished somehow—they simply don’t have any identity past what Calvin’s given them.
            A character’s name should be what your main characters refer to them by.  If my main character doesn’t know their name (and never will) there’s probably not a reason for the reader to know it.  Calvin never thinks of his parents as anything other than Mom and Dad, so within the story of Calvin and Hobbes they never get names, just those simple titles. 
            It’s not just Calvin and Hobbes, of course.  There are a lot of examples where storytellers don’t name someone because it’s unrealistic for the main character(s) to know that name.  A few other well-known characters without names include...

--The little red-haired girl
--The alien bounty hunter from X-Files
--The other woman
--House’s cellmate
--The cute blonde waitress

            It didn’t lessen any of these characters to not have actual names.  If anything, you could probably make the case that some of them were more memorable because they didn’t have names—it added to their sense of mystery
            Consider it this way.  Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” is about Red, Andy, and the other prisoners.  Because of this very few of the guards get named, even though there are dozens of them in the story.  They’re the outsiders.  But in King’s The Green Mile it’s the guards who are the focus of the story so most of the prisoners don’t get names, even though there are hundreds of them in the prison.
            Or, if you prefer, consider this.  If you’ve ever worked as a waiter or waitress, or ran the checkout counter at a store, how many of your customers could you name?  On the flipside, can you name the waiter from the last time you went out?  Or the clerk the last time you bought something?  They were probably even wearing a nametag, but I bet you can’t.  And the reason you can’t is because they weren’t important to your story. 
            While giving every character a name helps show how well-thought out the world is, in the long run it makes a story confusing.  If your main character doesn’t know who someone is, there’s nothing wrong with just calling them Man #3 or the other girl, and it usually makes for a much cleaner, easier read when you don’t have to info-dump half a dozen names on each page.
            Next time, I thought I’d do my annual sum-up of the year in writing.
            Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, and a general Happy Holidays to you all.
            Try not to take the whole week off from writing.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

He Wakes Up In a Bathtub Full of Ice And...

            Have you noticed the somewhat blatant examples of product placement on television shows lately?  Our heroes are on a stakeout, driving to a crime scene, or fleeing for their lives... and they suddenly stop talk about how cool their car is.  Heroes jumped that shark early on with their constant references to the Nissan Rogue, but as of late it seems like almost every show is doing it.  There was a truly awful example on House a few weeks back.
            For the record, I give CHUCK a pass on blatant product placement because the show completely embraces the idea of blatant product placement and, as such, blends it in a lot better than the others.  It pretty much made Subway cool by pointing out how ridiculously un-cool Subway is.
            One thing we’ve all seen is when a story veers off into unrelated, irrelevant material for a little while.  It’s as if the writer lost track of where their story was going and it just meandered away.  We’ve all heard people say "I let the characters guide me,” but if the characters are guiding the story off the page and into a different book, it’s probably time for the writer to pause for a moment and reassess things.
Violet, moments before her gruesome end.
            For example, remember in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the book, not the movie) there’s the whole recurring bit about how the bad kids keep messing things up and putting their various parts where they’re not supposed to be.  Eventually little Violet Beauregarde chews some gum she shouldn’t and swells up into a giant blueberry.  The other guests are horrified, Wonka sighs in regret, and the Oompa-Loompas roll poor Violet away to a soundproofed room where the other guests can’t hear her screams or terror and agony as the little people gut the swollen girl and harvest her organs for the international black market ring that the candy factory is just a front for.
            You don’t remember that bit?
            It is a bit off from the rest of Dahl’s book, isn’t it?  Tonally speaking.  Probably why he didn’t include a scene like that.  If you do remember that scene... well, you should probably talk to someone.  Preferably someone who can prescribe medication
            The problem I’m talking about is telling a story that isn’t your story.  Sometimes, in the middle of a perfectly good tale, writers will steer off into... well, something else entirely.  Another few examples...
            If I’m doing a touching character piece, I shouldn’t have a ninja attack.
            A post-apocalyptic thriller probably should not have a song and dance number in the middle of it.
            If I’m writing a romantic comedy, no one should get kidnapped and harvested for their organs (a common theme to veer off into, apparently).
            In a pulse-pounding action story, no one should pause for a ten minute monologue about how horrible it was watching their mom get worn away by cancer.
            If you’ve been reading the ranty blog for a while, you probably remember a while back when I talked about the rules of love.  The fourth rule relates directly to this idea.  Sometimes a romantic element just doesn’t fit in a story.  Maybe the people are too different.  Perhaps there’s too many other things going on.  Maybe the current situation just doesn’t allow for those kind of thoughts.
            A lot of time when we see stuff like this, it’s a poor attempt to copy something else.  The writer’s seen an element work in another existing story and tried to transplant it into this story, regardless of whether or not it works.
            Speaking of black market organs, that’s a great analogy—transplants.  If any of your family or friends has ever needed blood, bone marrow, or maybe a kidney, you know it’s a big deal (and hopefully you’re all tagged as donors).  Even with blood, which is pretty easy these days, there’s a half-dozen or so tests that need to be run.  If it’s an actual organ transplant there’s a ton of factors that need to match up for it to be successful, and these factors need to be determined by a professional.  Even between close relatives there can be huge differences.  I can’t just toss kidneys from one person to another and assume they’re going to work, because if even one of those factors doesn’t match up, I’ll have two dead people on my hands.
            The same is true of stories, too.  Something that’s creepy in your book might not be creepy in my book.  Just because this joke worked when she said it doesn’t mean it’ll work when he says it.  This story may have ended with the young couple together, but it doesn’t mean mine can do it.  If I just pull elements from one story and stick them in another, there’s a better chance I’ll kill the story than save it.  I need to do cross-checking and make sure all the factors line up before I do a transplant.
            What are the important factors?  Well, a big one is whether or not the patient actually needs a transplant or not.  Is there a reason to bring in this odd element?  Does it contribute to my story in one way or another?
            Past that, it depends on what’s being transplanted, and also from what into what.  Each one’s going to be different.  A joke or a clever description might not need much alteration, but pulling over a major subplot or character could take lots of work to both the element and the story it’s going into.  That’s part of the job of being a writer—knowing what works, what doesn’t, and what I need to do to bridge the gap.
            More to the point, it’s my job to tell the story I’m telling.  I shouldn’t be trying to tell my sci-fi story with a bit of Stephanie Meyer tween romance twisted in.  I shouldn’t be writing my dramatic screenplay but with that fun scene from Captain America wedged into it.  And it’s a bit silly to stick a cute dog in my horror short story just because all the Tintin books have one. 
            Know your story and write your story.  Don’t worry about that other story.
            Next time, I’d like to babble on about a great lesson you can learn from the parents in Calvin & Hobbes.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Counting the Minutes

            It’s Christmastime.  Of course we’re all counting the minutes.
            I’m also counting the minutes until John Carter comes out, but that’s another story entirely.
            You know who else counts minutes?  Script supervisors.  It’s one of those credits you see in film and television that a lot of non-industry people don’t really know what it means.
            Very simply put, the script supervisor (often called the scripty)  keeps track of things.  He or she’s the one who notes exactly what’s been filmed (what shots and sizes and angles and lines) from each scene.  Like lots of other key folks on set, the script supervisor does their own breakdown of the script.  And the scripty’s breakdown is all about time.
            The standard estimate for a screenplay is a page a minute  If you talk to most script supervisors, they’ll tell you it’s actually closer to fifty-odd seconds (I want to say fifty-three), but a page a minute is a solid estimate.  There’s always going to be some wiggle room, of course, especially when you’re dealing with action.  As I’ve mentioned here before, the lobby scene in The Matrix is less than half a page.  According to Hollywood legend, the chariot race in Ben Hur was just one line in the script.
            This is why most professional readers groan when they get a screenplay that’s 140 or 150 pages long.  That’s two and a half hours.  Any script that long has a major strike against it before the reader’s looked at page one.  I read two scripts this year that the writer had “squashed” to make them shorter, but I could tell they were both over 200 pages, easy.  That’s close to three and a half hours.  Possibly even more if they’d had action sequences in them.  Which they did.
            If you’re a screenwriter, look at your script.  If you’ve got a solid page of dialogue, that’s a minute of talking heads.  A minute is a brutally long time in a movie.
            Don’t believe me?  Try this.  Look up at the ceiling and count off ten Mississippis.  Don’t cheat, don’t rush... just look up and count them out in your head nice and steady like you’re supposed to.  Go on.  I’ll wait.

            That was ten seconds.  Oscar-winning screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin pointed out once that ten seconds can be an eternity on screen. 
            So think about how long some of those character monologues are.  It may be brilliant on the page, but there’s a good chance it’ll be torturous to watch.  It’s important to understand the distinction between how long something takes on the page and how long these actions and conversations will actually need (or not need).
            This goes for prose writers too (just so you don’t feel left out).  I’ve mentioned the pacing issues that can happen if action gets stretched out too long.  Certain things happen at certain speeds, and if they get slowed down with dialogue, descriptions, or excessive action they’re just going to look silly.  Not in the good way.
            And when something reads silly, people put your manuscript down in the big pile on the left.
            Next time, I wanted to tell you a story about telling you a different story.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Simon Says, One Step Back

            Okay, first off... more shameless pandering.
            My publisher’s doing a big sale for the holidays he’s calling Black December.  The ebook versions of ten best sellers and new releases are marked down to a mere $2.99 for the whole month.  That includes my own Ex-Heroes, available over in the right hand column here.  He’s also got five ebooks for free.  No strings, no tricks, absolutely free.  Five books he’s just giving away.  Go check it out.
            Oh, and The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe isn’t part of the sale, but the ebook version's still marked down to half the paperback price.  Just saying...
            Now, with that out of the way, I’d like to talk to you about Pitch Black.
            If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it.  Sharp dialogue, good characters, a lot of action, and a damned clever story backing it all up.  It’s the movie that really launched Vin Diesel’s career as “the guy you do not mess with,” and if you watch it with the commentary you’ll learn he also had a fair amount to do with shaping the script.
            There’s a wonderful bit early on when our assembled heroes need to make a break across a stretch of open ground.  As it turns out, Diesel’s character, Riddick, has superhuman vision and can see in the dark.  He peers out, announces it “Looks clear,” and the group of survivors dashes for cover.  But then things come soaring down out of the dark sky and... well, not everyone makes it.  One of the other survivors immediately blames Riddick—“You said it was clear!”
            “I said it looked clear!” Riddick snaps back.
            This bit usually gets a dark chuckle from the audience.  It also points out something I’ve mentioned here once or thrice before, and I thought it was worth blabbing on about in a bit more detail this week.  As our heroes learned the hard way, “It looks clear” is not the same thing as, “It is clear.”  Riddick knew they’re not synonymous, and that difference is very important.  "It looks clear" implies there's a bit more to be said.
            This is a construction I see come up a lot, where writers put an additional step between the story and the reader.  Usually they do it by adding an extra layer of verbiage that relates to something internal.  Other times it’s an attempt to do something clever with the description.  It seems to show up a lot in high fantasy writing because people mistakenly use it in the elaborate, purple-prose descriptions that genre tends to attract.  I’ve also seen people follow this route when they’re trying to be mysterious and imply a lot of spookiness that might not actually be there.
            And, to be honest, it’s something I used to do a lot myself.
            Let me give you a few examples...
            He thought about trying to be a writer
            We’ve all seen this one somewhere, right?  Nothing wrong with it on the surface.  But let’s stop and break it down for a moment.
            The act of thinking implies this isn’t happening, it’s just a possibility.  So if my character’s thinking about trying to do something, it means this is a possibility of a possibility of something happening.  Unless he’s specifically thinking about the actual attempt instead of the end product, this is just excess words.
            He thought about being a writer.
            See?  Cleaner, clearer, and two words shorter.  Here’s another one.
            She decided to write her blog post.
            This is fine if she decided to—but that was as far as she got because something kept her from doing it.  But if she decided to do it and then she did it, the writer’s just eating up words again. We all make hundreds of decisions and choices every day, but most readers want to hear about the actions, not the decision to take an action.  I wouldn’t write Peter decided to make a turkey sandwich, made the sandwich, and then chose to sit at the table to eat it. Well, I wouldn’t write stuff like that any more, at least.  Why would I want to waste all those words on mundane stuff?  Peter made a turkey sandwich and sat at the table to eat it.  Likewise, the sheer act of writing tells us our lovely blogger made a decision.
            She wrote her blog post.
            See?  Nothing else needed.  Now check out this one...
            Phoebe appeared to be a shapely blonde who stood six feet tall.
            Appeared to be is one of those phrases I got in my head and used to use all the time.  Sometimes I’d swap in one of its kissing cousins, looked like, seemed to be , and a few wild combinations we shouldn’t discuss in polite company.  Problem was, I didn't understand these phrases.  Y’see, Timmy, they don’t get used alone.  This sort of phrase is the first part of a construction where the second half is either an actual or implied contradiction.  That sentence up above is really saying something more like this—
            Phoebe appeared to be a shapely blonde who stood six feet tall, but she actually bleached her hair on a regular basis and made a point of always wearing spike heels.
            There’s nothing wrong with that sentence, of course, whether it’s written out or left implied.  None of us will fault Phoebe for thinking that blondes have more fun and wanting to be a few inches taller.  The problem is that a lot of the time I wasn’t trying to establish a contradiction, I just wanted artsy sentence structure.  What I really wanted to say was this--
            Phoebe was a shapely blonde who stood six feet tall.
            So I was subtly pushing the reader back for no reason with extra words, while also showing that I didn’t really know what I was doing.  If a writer isn’t trying to establish that contradiction, using appeared to be and its bastard stepchildren isn't just wasted words-- it's wrong. 
            Now, there’s nothing wrong with an elaborate sentence now and then.  Most of us love a good turn of phrase—it’s the kind of thing that made us want to be writers.  Just remember that like any other element in your writing, there has to be a point to that long string of words, and they have to be used correctly. Because if they’re not, I’m just eating up words and wasting everyone’s time.
            Speaking of which, next time I was going to rant about something for about a minute.
            Until then, go write.