Friday, March 30, 2012

Hunger Games

            Sorry I’m running a bit late.  I’m weak from starvation.
            Did I mention I was on a diet?  I can’t complain too much, because I’ve lost seven pounds in two weeks, and it’s actually starting to show in the waist.  Still...  I wouldn’t complain if one of you slipped me some Doritos.
            I’ve used food and cooking before as a metaphor for writing, and I think it’s one that works well.  What counts as good food is largely a matter of individual taste, although most of us can agree on a few key things that make food bad.   There’s also some good parallels between being a chef and being a writer.  Almost all of us can cook, but we recognize that being able to microwave hot dogs doesn’t make me a chef, just like being able to send a text message doesn’t make me a writer.  There’s also books and classes for both, but the only way to improve is to just get in there and do it—again and again and again. 
            Also dieting, like writing, is going to work different ways for different people.  I need to make a set diet and follow the rules strictly, but you might be one of those god-awful people who can eat anything you like.  Sticking to it is agony for me, but maybe you barely notice you’ve changed what you eat.
            This doesn’t mean I can alter my diet to match yours, though.  My girlfriend’s also dieting, so we’re shooting for the same basic goal, but we’re not following exactly the same path to get there.  This is the Golden Rule I mention here now and then, my one bit of guru-istic advice.  What works for me might not work for you, and it definitely won’t work for that other guy.  We all need to find what methods and habits work best for us when it comes to getting to that basic goal
            So, since starting this diet—I mentioned I was on a diet, yes?  And that I would probably be willing to harm two or three of you for some garlic bread?—it’s struck me that there’s another way food and writing are similar, and that’s in how we portion things out.
            All of us develop habits in our writing, and they tend to stick with us until we make a serious attempt to change them.  And just like eating, most of our initial habits are bad ones.  We go for the fun stuff without realizing how bad it is in large quantities.  ActionGoreOne-linersSexMelodrama.
            The next step, though, is when people now take their writing (or eating) to the other extreme.  I think all of us know someone who’s borderline insane about what they eat.  They have to know every ingredient in something, the precise number of calories, the recommended daily allowance of saturated fats, the grams of protein.  Heck, some of them don’t just want to know what’s in their food, they want to know each ingredient’s pedigree.  Was the low-fat cheese made from the milk of grass-fed cows?  Was the grain in this bread mechanically threshed or hand-sifted?  And it is organic grain grown in non-chemically fertilized soils?
            Once I started getting a lot more serious about writing, I tried doing all the outlines and character sketches and charts and index cards.  I made sure every character had an extensive backstory (all of which ended up on the page), every object had an elaborate description (all of which ended up on the page), and every location had an array of smells and sounds and sights that could only come from experience and practiced observation (and they all ended up on the page).  Because I was a serious writer now.  And serious writers take writing seriously.
            Just like this diet—I mentioned I was on a diet, yes?  And that I would gleefully kill half of you for a chocolate chip cookie?—when I started writing I needed to learn what habits were good and which were bad.  What were the things I was doing all the time that were hurting more than helping?  I had to figure out what things are good, which were good in moderation, and which were just plain bad.
            I mentioned a while back that I worked with a personal trainer for a few years.  In his heyday, Jerzy was an Olympic-class weightlifter and went on to  set a world record and even win several awards for bodybuilding.  One of the keys to his success was a ruthless diet that let him get his fat levels down to minimal levels.  To be honest, dangerous levels.  Just before a tournament, Jerzy would often get his body fat below two percent.  He looked phenomenal, but it actually left him very weak because his body had no reserves whatsoever.  It had access to what was in his system right at that moment and not a scrap more.
            So the moment the tournament was over, he’d go out and get the biggest, greasiest cheeseburger he could and eat the whole thing.  Sometimes two of them.  That’s not what you’d normally consider former Olympian-weightlifter food, but Jerzy knew that once he’d reached that heights of success it was imperative that he replenished those fat levels as quickly as possible.  His health depended on it.
            Y’see, Timmy, sometimes the stuff we think of as bad isn’t just good, sometimes we need it.  Because the big secret to eating well—and writing well—isn’t extremes, it’s moderation.  Drama needs to be moderated with comedy.  Comedy needs a bit of seriousness.  Horror needs calm.  Chaos needs structure.  The great stories, the ones we really remember forever, are never all one thing. 
            Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is considered one of the greatest pieces of writing in American literature, an unparalleled drama.  Yet the book has a lot of humor in it as we see events interpreted through the eyes of young Scout, a girl who’s a few years from even touching puberty.  Christopher Moore’s Lamb is a comedy about Jesus’ older brother, Biff, which gets very grim and serious at points.  Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life are both coming of age stories with a strong horror element.  For every skin-crawling moment in Stephen King’s IT, there’s a moment of complete twelve year old goofiness.
            Did I mention one of the standard things on this diet is a cheat day?  A lot of the best diets have them, because it’s easier to stomach all the food restrictions if you get a break from them every now and then.  One day a week I’m supposed to indulge.  I get to have Doritos and garlic bread and chocolate chip cookies.  And my body will forgive me for it because I’ve established this isn’t the norm. 
            So nobody has to die for me to get a cookie.
            Not this week, anyway.
            Next week I might be a bit short on time, but I had a capital idea I wanted to share with you.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

What is ‘Real’? How do You Define ‘Real’?

            Pop culture reference.  Easy one, cause it’s been awhile...
            So, one thing we all strive for in our writing is realism.  We want our characters to feel real.  We want our dialogue to sound real.  We want our settings to have that level of detail that only comes from authentic knowledge and experience.
            To do this, writers will people watch and eavesdrop and travel to obscure places just to get an idea of what the air smells like.  They’ll labor over the dialogue to make it as real as possible.  They’ll add random events to their narrative to give that sense of uncaring fate.  They will make their story as close to reality as possible.
            Here’s the problem, though...
            Nobody wants reality. 
            Not real reality, anyway.  Oh, they may say they do, but that’s kind of a lie.  Most people want fictional reality.  They want clean dialogue.  They want characters who win (maybe not cheerfully or without scars, but they do win).  They want things to make sense.
            Allow me to explain.
            When people talk in reality, they make false starts and pause a lot and trip over their words.  They can drone on for several minutes at a time.  They talk over each other.  If you’ve ever looked at an unedited transcription of a conversation, you know that real dialogue is the worst possible thing for fiction.  People would claw their eyes out, and everything would take forever to say.  When I used to interview writers for articles, it was just understood that I was going to clean up their words a bit to eliminate all that stuff.  It would just be incredibly distracting in an article.
            So fiction writers don’t write real dialogue.  They write “real” dialogue, lines that have a certain verisimilitude, if I may be so bold, which appeals to people.  They get cleaned up and tightened and measured out.  These are the lines that make readers say “Wow, her dialogue felt so real, like she was someone I’d meet on the street.”  That’s what we all want, right?
            Did you catch that, by the way?  The dialogue wasn’t real—it felt real.  Think of how often things get phrased that way.  An open (and often unconscious) admission that this isn’t how real people talk.  But it feels like how real people should talk. 
            As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve made this mistake.  I copied real people’s speech patterns into The Suffering Map, then had two different editors mention that as a specific reason I was being rejected.  It didn’t matter that it was real dialogue, because it wasn’t “real” dialogue.
            Make sense?
            On a similar note, odd, unbelievable stuff happens in reality all the time.  There are amazing coincidences.  Lucky breaks.  Unexplained things just happen.  Heck, people die in freak accidents and that’s it.  Story’s over, no matter how many things are left unresolved.
            I’ve interviewed several screenwriters who did biopics or “based on true events” movies, and one thing most of them talked about was the material they didn’t use.  The events that were so ludicrous people just wouldn’t believe them.  A few different folks have said that the difference between fact and fiction is that  fiction has to be believable, and these writers realized that.  So they removed true events that would've made their story seem silly or implausible.
            Here’s another example I’ve used before (and will continue to use again)--  Vesna Vulovic.  She was a flight attendant back in the ‘70s (which technically means she was a stewardess) on a flight that was bombed by terrorists.  Vesna fell six miles through the air and survived.  Not in the sense of held alive in an iron lung on life support, mind you—she’s out there today walking, talking, having drinks with friends and laughing about things.  She wasn’t even in the hospital for three months.
            Is that the kind of event I should include in my realistic fiction?  Of course not.  Nobody would believe that.
            Should I kill my characters at random, leaving their arc unfinished and their secrets unrevealed?  Will readers applaud me for my daring and realistic writing?  Not a chance.  When I’m a writer I’m the God of my world, and if something doesn’t serve a greater purpose I’m a piss-poor god at best.
            Y’see, Timmy, reality is a messy thing.  Every aspect of it.  And I don’t want my writing to be messy.  I want it to be clean and polished and perfect. 
            Even when I’m making it “real.”
            Next time... well, I’m on a diet right now, and it’s kind of gnawing at me.  So I’ll probably end up talking about that.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What Lies Beneath

            First off, a little poll for all of you reading this.  I’ve been thinking of taking a bunch of the posts here and making a condensed, somewhat more organized document that might pass as a book on writing.  If I put something like that out in ebook format for $1.99 or so, would anyone have any interest in such a thing?  I’m also thinking of pairing it with The Suffering Map, released as a cautionary tale about first novels, probably for just a buck.  Does any of that sound vaguely interesting to anyone?  Let me know in the comments section.  
            Now, on to a long-overdue rant about dialogue.
            I’ve said here once or twice or thrice that dialogue can make or break a story.  That’s because dialogue is how we learn about the characters, and they’re what the story’s all about.  So if my dialogue is good, it can lift an okay story that much higher.  If it’s bad, it can sink even the most Pulitzer-worthy piece.
            A key element in great dialogue is subtext.  A couple years back I got to interview actor Chris Eigeman about his screenwriting/ directing debut, and he told me a wonderful quote by Edith Wharton, which I’m now about to butcher for you because I’m quoting someone who quoted a quote to me.  According to Wharton, dialogue is the foam at the tip of a wave.  The wave—all the stuff under the foam and supporting it—is your character, their backstory, their motivation, and everything going on in the story.  But no matter how big that wave is, the thing we all see--the thing that always draws our eye—is that foam.
            On the flipside of that, most bad dialogue has no subtext.   To stick with our previous imagery, if good dialogue is foam on the tip of a wave, bad dialogue is a stagnant tidepool with no motion and no life in it.  Not all of it mind you—some people are very creative and unique in their badness.  But I’d say a good sixty or seventy percent of the awful stuff I’ve seen would vanish if people weren’t so on the nose with their writing.
            I’ve mentioned that phrase a few times here, and some of you may have seen it on feedback forms (for other people’s manuscripts, of course).  On the nose dialogue is when someone says precisely what they mean or what they’re doing without any subtlety or characterization whatsoever.  It comes across as flat because... well, there’s no depth to it.  There's nothing implied, no innuendoes, no meaning at all past the words themselves.
            If you think about it, most of us are subtle in real life.  We prefer to imply things rather than say them aloud, and when we do speak a lot of us skirt around the things we’re trying to say.  We’re inherently big on subtext and body language, and people who are too straightforward kind of creep us out.  Consider some recent conversations you’ve had.  Think about what you said vs. what you meant.   
            There was a wonderful show on years ago called Keen Eddie, where the Human Target was forced into sharing a London apartment with the Baroness from that god-awful G.I. Joe movie.  At least once an episode they’d shout “I hate you!” “I hate you, too!” back and forth at each other, and while it was pretty dead-on the first few times, it soon became more of a habit with them.  Eventually, even though they kept using the same phrase, it became pretty clear they didn’t hate each other at all, and were using “hate” instead of another word. 
            And then Fox cancelled Keen Eddie.  Because that’s how things go when your show’s on Fox.
            But I digress.
            Check out this example.

            “Hey, fellas,” said Wakko, “what do you think of my new painting?”  He turned the easel to his brother and sister.
            “It’s very, ummm... colorful,” said Dot after a few moments.
            “Yeah,” said Yakko.  “Yeah, I was going to go with colorful, too.”
            Now, considering that I didn’t really describe it at all, do you think Wakko’s painting is any good?  Do you think Dot and Yakko like it?  Probably not, because most of us pick up on little things.  There was that pause before they answered, and the kind of stammer to Dot’s response.  We’ve all been in this situation, and we all understand the little white lies (or maybe big, whopping lies, depending on the painting) that are being told here.
            Here’s a few more examples of statements with subtext...

            “Rico, you’re like family to me.  That’s why I’ve chosen you for this job, because I know you won’t disappoint me.”

            “Actually, the partners and I have talked about it, David, and we feel you’d probably be more comfortable in a different position—something with an easier pace.”
            “Hey, it’s not too late.  Would you like to come up for a cup of coffee?”

            There’s a hidden message to each of these statements, and again it’s one most of you probably picked up on immediately, even out of context.  This is the other thing about subtext—it lets the reader feel smart.  When my characters are spelling out every single thing they’re thinking and doing, it comes across like I’m over-simplifying things for my audience.  Another way to say “over-simplifying,” of course, is “dumbing down,” and we all love it when people think they need to dumb stuff down for us, right...?
            I’m not saying every single line has to be packed with subtext, mind you.  That kind of writing becomes impenetrable because it requires too much effort on the part of the reader.  As I said above, though, consider how often your own words are layered in real life.
            Because when your characters start talking like real people, that’s when they become real people.
            Speaking of which, next time I wanted to talk real quick about reality vs. reality.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


            Beginning with a minor aside, go see John Carter.  The original book, A Princess of Mars, has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid and I’ve referenced it here once or thrice for storytelling examples because it tends to be relevant.  I got invited to a press screening on Tuesday and loved it.  So go see it and prove a bunch of Disney marketing execs wrong.
           Continuing on to a second minor aside, ConDor Con was pretty fun.  It was a bit stunning to hear that another writer, Art Holcomb, reads this little collection of rants on a regular basis.  So expect me to be very self-conscious for the next few weeks.
            Anyway, on to the reason you all bother to show up here...
            I know I hinted that I was going to talk about dialogue this week, but two weeks back my friend Bobbie (who I know from a far classier place on the web) asked about sequels.  I started thinking about responses and the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had to say.  This wasn’t just something to jot off a quick answer to in the comments —it was a full post.
            So, here’s my thoughts on sequels.
            First off—and I can’t stress this enough—here’s my first thought about writing a sequel.
            Don’t do it.
            I don’t think you should ever write a book or screenplay with a sequel in mind.  Ever.  The only time to do this is when the person paying you says you’re going to get a sequel.  If I go to a publisher or a producer with a story that is “the first in a three part epic,” there is no possible reality in which I am going to be making a sale.  It’s just good math.  Most publishers and producers don’t want to be stuck with one manuscript from an unknown writer that doesn’t sell, so why would they possibly want to get stuck with two or three or more?  Why risk signing a contract for a three book/ movie series when you don’t even know if the first one’s going to do well? 
           Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  There’s always some chance of someone buying a series.  But the odds are already slim for an unknown writer, so why trim them down to almost nothing by writing something that’s going to put the publisher in an awkward position?
Seriously, would you think
this was getting a sequel?
            Ex-Heroes was written as a single, stand-alone book.  So was A Princess of Mars (see, it was relevant) and Rendezvous with Rama and Interview With the Vampire.  Same with Star Wars (no subtitle), Pirates of the Caribbean, The Matrix, and Planet of the Apes (both versions).  I got to interview Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci once--arguably the  most successful, highest paid screenwriting team in Hollywood today--and they both shook their heads and scoffed at the idea of working on a  sequel story before you even knew how the first one was going to go over.
            Now, if you've bothered to read any of the stuff I’ve written past this blog, you may be poised to respond.   Some of you may have already skipped to the comment section.  Yes, Ex-Patriots was clearly written with a sequel in mind.  And the only reason I got to do that was because the first book did so well the publisher guaranteed me two sequels.  When the third book comes out you’ll notice everything stops there.  If they both do well, maybe Permuted Press will offer me a fourth and fifth.  Or maybe just a fourth.  Or maybe another three.  It’s foolish of me to plan on anything until both of us know where things stand.
            So, to recap, never write something that depends on a sequel.  Never. Ever.
            With that out of the way, let’s talk about writing sequels.
            One of the big challenges in writing a sequel (but not the only one) is making it accessible for everyone.  Readers can’t feel alienated and left out.  If my manuscript doesn’t have an entry point for them, I’ve just ruined the chances of anyone randomly picking it up and enjoying it.  And they won’t say “oh, I should’ve read Book X first,” they’re just going to say “It sucked.”
            As a writer, I need to make sure everyone is up to speed.  I don’t need to revisit every detail of the first book in the sequel, but I do need to make sure readers have a basic grasp of my characters, the world they’re in, and any key events that happened in their past.
            Here’s a few ways you can do that.
            First is just honest recollections.  People talk about things that have happened to them in the past.  I do it here all the time.  Someone could go back and reconstruct a semi-decent history of my life just from this blog.  I didn’t lay it all out in order, but a lot of it’s come up at one time or another.  When my lovely lady and I talk, it’s not unusual to mention “the last time your parents were out here” or “that place we went mini-golfing.”  My friend Marcus and I talk about theater shows and movie nights and miniature wargames we’ve played.  When I talk with my friend Patrick, we sometimes discuss films or shows we worked on—some separately and some we worked on together.
            The trick, of course, like all dialogue, is that it has to be motivated and it has to sound natural.  Patrick and I don’t randomly discuss films, after all, it usually spins out of another conversation.  If I’m just going to have a character do an infodump then it’ll come across as awkward at best, false at worst. 
            Second is character descriptions.  Hopefully my characters have grown and changed a bit since the first story, so I can also add in hints of things that happened in the last book.  Maybe someone has a special coat or a piece of jewelry or maybe a new nervous habit.  It’s easy to mention where these things came from or the circumstances that led your character to them.
            In Ex-Patriots, for example, St. George now wears a long, dagger-like tooth on his jacket, a trophy from the final battle in Ex-Heroes.  He’s also got a web of scars on his arm where a zombie demon bit him.  And he can actually fly now, unlike the extended leaps he was doing in the first book.  Since all of these elements are part of his character, it’s simple to bring them up early on in the story.
            The Third way is the ignorant stranger.  Sometimes I have to tell someone else what happened before and why things are the way they are.  Maybe I need to explain why I have all these scars (like St. George had to explain to Captain Freedom in Ex-Patriots).  Perhaps Han Solo has to remind Leia he’s glad to help the rebellion, but he’s also hiding from Jabba the Hutt (in The Empire Strikes Back).  And I’m sure more than a few of us had to explain to the new kid what happened last summer between Wakko and Dot.  There are always meetings and debriefings and those awful Christmas catch-up letters.
            The ignorant stranger works very well with sequels because odds are I’m going to be introducing new characters.  As long as I’m not trying to do the “they were here all along” bit, that’s an instant excuse to explain things and talk about the past.
            And the Fourth thing you can do is probably the most important to remember.  Don’t do anything.  Sometimes we don’t need to know what happened before to understand what’s going on right now.  Most of the Friday the 13th films didn’t felt the need to explain Jason’s origins.  They understood that there’s not much we need to understand about a psychopath past “he’s here” and “he has a machete.” 
            Tell the things you need to tell, but don’t be scared to leave some things mysterious, too.  Let the audience piece a few things together on their own.  You want a story with an entry point, but you also want it to entice readers to go back and see what happened before.  If I spell out everything that happened in book one, there’s no need for you to go back and actually read it, is there?
            The best part about all these methods, of course, is that they’re all pretty natural.  I can slip them into conversations and introduce them into a story without much effort.  And that means I’m getting this information out to the reader without making it look like I’m beating said reader over the head with it. 
            Speaking of sequels, I need to get back to Ex-Communication.
            Next time, that rant about dialogue.
            Until then, go write.