Friday, December 28, 2012

That What Got Done

            Well, it’s the end of the year.  Time to start thinking about New Year’s resolutions and all the things we really want to make sure we do this coming year.  And to celebrate the fact that 2012 was not, in fact, the end of the world.
            However, it’s also a good time to look back and think about what we did this year.  Did last year’s resolutions get met?  Did we get close?
            Did we even really try?
            I started off the year working for Amazon Studios, the film branch of the well-known online media giant.  I had a meeting and did a treatment for a sci-fi film called Original Soldiers they were trying to develop.  It was pretty clear early on that we had different opinions on it, but they decided to see what I did with it anyway (I saw Liam Neeson in a glorious B-action movie and they thought they could get... I don’t know, Schindler’s Robot).  They still went with someone else (or possible, as my girlfriend supects, just canned the project when they didn’t see a potential Oscar anywhere), but they paid very well for the work I did.
            After that it was diving back into Ex-Communication, which I’d only barely started.  That was a good chunk of the year (I think until late August or early September).  The final, sixth draft came in at a little over 100,000 words. And I’ll be doing some more work on it before the Crown release.
           It’s about time to mention Crown, too.  As some of you may have heard, I was offered a four book deal with Crown Publishing, a division of Random House, for the Ex-series just as I was finishing up Ex-Communication.  While it’s great on one front, it did sort of put me on hold for a while as far as “what to write next.”  If the deal happened, Crown was going to want another Ex-book.  If it didn’t happen, well, I usually wrote something non-superhero-and-zombie related between Ex-books as sort of a palate cleanser.  So there was a period of about two months this fall where I wasn’t really sure what to start working on.
            I ended up going back to a sci-fi horror idea I’d started ages ago (before my Crusoe mash-up) and doing a fair amount of work on that.  But then some things shifted, negotiations hit a certain point, and I shelved it again.  Alas, at this point I think I can honestly say Dead Moon has become my booty call idea.  I should keep that in mind next time it’s late at night and I’m feeling the need to poke at something...
            For a couple of reasons, I shifted over to an idea that had been tickling my mind, a concept for a new series.  After a false start, I ended up scribbling out almost 15,000 words of notes and outlines and huge swaths of action and dialogue.  I stopped because I didn’t want to burn out on it, and also because the Crown deal was finalized.
            So, right around Halloween, I started working on the fourth Ex-book.  Still working on a title for it, but the book itself is about 2/3 done by now.  I think I might actually be on schedule for the April 1st deadline.
            I also had to do a bunch of layout stuff and edits for the new editions of the Ex-books.  It wasn’t tough, but it is time-consuming. And there’s more of it coming in January.
            I also managed to squeeze in about ten reviews for Cinema Blend here and there.  I enjoy writing reviews because when they’re done right they’re a good mix of critical analysis, storytelling, and a bit of snark (when deserved).  Which reminds me, I still owe them a review for this box set...
            And of course, here on the ranty blog I scribbled out forty-four articles about writing.  In all fairness, this is one of the weakest years here since I started this.  Plus thirty-three articles on another page I keep up.  And those H.P. Legocraft pages.
            So that’s what I did.
            What did you do?
            Yeah, I know, I’ve got a bit of an advantage.  I don’t have kids.  This is my day job.  So I get to focus a lot more time on this than most people.
            But y’know what?  I had a full-time journalism job when I wrote Ex-Heroes. Almost all of my fellow authors at Permuted Press—Craig DiLouie, C Dulaney, Tony Faville, Jessica Meigs, Thom Brannan, and more—still have full time jobs.  Michael Crichton started writing when he was in medical school.  You don’t get much more full-time than that.  Edgar Rice Burroughs, Maya Angelou, John Grisham, David Wong, Clive Cussler, Stephen King... all these famous writers and many, many more had full-time jobs when they started their writing careers.  Heck, King had a full-time job and two kids.
            So, with that in mind... I ask you again.  What did you do this year?
            As I’ve mentioned before, it all comes down to priorities.  If I want to spend a few hours each day with my (hypothetical) kids or watching Netflix with my lovely lady, that’s my business and my decision.  It says where my priorities are and there's nothing wrong with that.  Likewise, the fact that my lovely lady and I live together, both work out of the home, and only see each other for a total of four or five hours a day on an average day... well, that says something about our priorities, too.
            A fellow I know got the screenplay rights to a fairly well-known book series.  It was at the same time I was starting a novel, so I jokingly said we should make a contest out of it.  He kind of brushed me off, but loudly announced his upcoming adaptation to the Twitterverse.
            The book I was starting was 14.  To the best of my knowledge, he still doesn’t have a first draft of his adaptation.  Granted, he’s trying to start a business and has two kids.  And there were a lot of movies he had to see.  And some opening night parties.  And a bi-weekly poker game he never misses...
            The only way to get ahead is to write.  There is nothing else. There are no tricks or magic bullets.  The work will not get done if you don’t do it.  It doesn’t matter how you spin it, if you’re not writing, you’re not getting any closer to selling something.  And if you’re not selling anything, it’s really hard to make a living at this.
            Which is why you’re here, yes?  To get some tips on making a living at this.
            A page a day.  That’s it. That’s all you need to do.  If you can write a page a day, you’ll have a solid draft of a novel by next New Year’s Eve.  You could have the first draft of that script done by April Fools Day.
            If you write it.
            But if the latest episode of Dexter or Dancing With The Stars deserves your time more than writing... well...
            Next time—or next year, if you prefer—I’d like to go over what this little collection of rants is trying to accomplish.
            Until then, pour yourself a glass of champagne, kiss someone special, and then go write.
            Just write one page.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

From A Certain Point of View...

            An easy pop culture reference for you in the title.  Especially because I explained it last week.  My apologies this is running a bit late.  Glad to see you all made it through the Mayan Doomsday with no problem, though.
            This week’s topic is kind of timely because I just got notes back from my editor and he’s called me on this in a few places.  I’ve also recently read two books by other people that suffered a lot on this front, and it kept good stories from being really great stories. 
            So let’s see if we can work through this together.
            You might remember when your junior high school teacher would talk about  first person and third person.  And third person would get divided up, too, with phrases like omniscient or objective or limited.  If you’re anything like me, you probably erased most of that from your internal hard drive as soon as the quiz was over.  
            If we’re going to take this whole being-a-writer thing seriously, though, it means going back and re-learning this stuff and knowing how these rules work.  More to the point, we need to understand how they work so we can use them without confusing or frustrating our readers.  A lot of otherwise good stories I see get ruined by an erratic, irregular point of view... or by a complete lack of one.  They jump from character X to character Y to an omniscient point of view to Z’s first person point of view and then back to X’s journal. 
            For a reader, this is a lot like trying to watch a movie while riding a Tilt-A-Whirl.
            For those poor folks who didn’t get that last reference, a Tilt-A-Whirl is a carnival ride that spins the riders in one direction while moving them up and down on a circular track that’s spinning in the other direction.
            Let’s do a quick recap.
            First person is when the narrator is a character in the story, usually (but not always) the main character.  Everything I see or read in this story is filtered through that character.  I see what she sees, hear what she hears, feel what she feels, know what she knows.  That knowing bit’s important—in a first person story I’m getting access to all the narrator’s thoughts as well.  This can be very freeing, but very limiting and challenging as well.
            I’ve mentioned epistolary style here a few times.  It’s a form of first person where the writer tells the story through letters, journals, and other “existing” material produced by the narrator (or narrators).  Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an epistolary novel, and so are Tony Faville’s Kings of the Dead and Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. 
            Second person is very, very rarely used, but I’ve seen it done a few times so I thought it was worth mentioning.  It’s when the main character is you and the writer projects all the action and emotion onto you.  “You walk down the hall and a feeling of unease begins to creep up your spine.”  Second person is tough to work in because I’m forcing my reader into the story and taking away all their control.  It’s not my story or Wakko’s story—it’s your story, and you’re going to do these things and feel like this and react like this.  That tends to be kind of awkward. 
            If you remember the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, those were usually done in second person.  And you may remember that they were a bit odd to read, especially if you picked one up later in life.  If you’re a bit geeky, second person is like having a dungeon master who takes control of the whole game.
            Third person is still the most common point of view for fiction, even with the rise of first person stories in the past decade or so.  It’s an independent, non-involved narration of the events of the story.  In a third person story, the reader is just a spectator.  There’s still a question of how much they see, though...
            In a third person omniscient story, the reader gets access to everything.  I see Yakko, Wakko, and Dot’s actions—no matter where they are—and I also see inside their heads.  I know what they’re thinking and how they’re reacting to things, even when they don’t show it.  I don’t have numbers to back it up, but off my own experience I’d guess most stories get written this way.
            A third person limited story keeps the reader as a spectator but limits how much they see.  I may decide we’re only going to focus on Wakko and not wander away to see what other characters are doing.  Or perhaps I’ll only let the reader see actions and not get access to what the characters are thinking.
            The trick with limited is that it’s like looking through a telescope or a pair of binoculars.  I can see certain things very clearly, but not other things—even if they’re very close.  And if I try to switch targets abruptly, it gets very confusing.
            So, it’s clear that a big part of storytelling is the point of view.  It affects how the narrative unfolds.  It also determines what kind of things the writer can tell you or explain during the course of the story. If I have an inconsistent point of view, it’s going to be jarring and break the flow of my story.  If I’ve chosen the wrong point of view, things may come crashing down around me right from the start.
            Now, I’m sure some of you are wondering how can there be a wrong point of view?  Sure, it may change the story a bit one way or another, but how can the point of view be wrong?  It’s just an arbitrary decision, right?
            Consider this example...
            Let’s say I’ve decide to write a mystery novel in third person omniscient.  I start off with my detective (let’s make her a female).  So for the first few chapters I’ve got access to what’s going on around her, what she thinks of the various people she meets, what they think of her, and so on.  Then we get to the crime scene and... well, hang on.  Maybe the murderer’s here.  If she is (yep, the killer’s female, too) the reader will know instantly because we’re seeing what’s going on inside her head.  I mean, it’s kind of a cheat  if the murderer’s here at the scene of the crime and not thinking about the murder, right?
            So maybe it’s better if we just never peek inside her head.  Of course, any savvy mystery fan is going to wonder why we’re seeing inside everyone’s head except Phoebe’s (yep, it was Phoebe all along), and they’re probably going to assume it’s because she’s the killer.  And they’ll be right.  In which case this isn’t a mystery anymore, it’s just withheld information... and poorly withheld at that.
            Of course, I could just decide to see inside Phoebe’s head from the start, but now this isn’t a mystery.  If we know she’s the killer from the start, this is more of a suspense-thriller.  And it’s a tricky one, because now the detective is going to be playing catch-up with the readers for the whole book.
            It’s worth mentioning that Alfred Bester pulls off a wonderful third-person omniscient mystery in his book The Demolished Man.  But it’s kind of a trick. The mystery in his story isn’t who the murderer is, but how he managed to pull off his crime in a world where all police are telepaths.
            So, choosing the right point of view is important in a story.  At best, the wrong one can mean a lot of extra work.  At worst, it means I might find I’ve written myself into a corner.
            Another important thing to remember is that my point of view needs to be consistent.  If ninety-five percent of my book is focused on Phoebe and her thoughts and her actions and what she sees, it’s going to be very jarring on page 324 when the narrative suddenly jumps into Wakko’s head for a few paragraphs.  If I switch viewpoints five or six times in the same chapter, it can get confusing real fast.  If I’ve been doing an epistolary novel for the first three-quarters of my manuscript, switching to third person omniscient for the last quarter is going to take some adjustment.  And as I’ve pointed out many times, odds are the way readers will probably deal with this is deciding to put the book down and get caught up on all those Person of Interest episodes on their DVR.
            If you want to switch points of view in your story, here’s a couple of tips that might help...

Chapters – Writing different chapters from different points of view has been a standard for centuries.  Mary Shelly did it in Frankenstein.  Faulkner did it.  Heck, even William Shakespeare did it.  It was fairly common for different scenes of Will’s plays to jump to different locations and focus on different characters.  If it was good enough for him... well, who am I to say that doesn’t work?
            In the Ex-Heroes series I switch from third person to first-person every third or fourth chapter.  That first person point of view is entirely contained within the chapter, though.

Markers – This is like the chapter method but on a smaller scale.  Stephen King uses this one a lot.  He’ll be writing from one character’s point of view and then use a set of markers or flags to make it clear a shift has happened. 
# # #
            The readers continued to scroll down through the page, gleaning small clues and hints.  Some of the tips were subtle, other direct, and everyone took a little something different.  A few of the readers shook their heads and scoffed at the ideas being presented, convinced that they had a better grasp of what writing really involved and how it should be treated.  They mocked the idea of limiting creativity with rules or even loose guidelines.  But most of the readers saw the simple truths the blogger was trying to get across, and they got some useful tips from the post.
# # #
            See how the narrative shifted there?  But you accepted it—both times—because of the markers.  They let you know what was coming next was different from what you were just reading.
            In a way, this is one of the oldest methods.  Lots of old novels were done in the epistolary style, and this gave the reader an automatic, familiar marker for the start and close of each viewpoint.  I try to use this method in the non-flashback chapters of the Ex-Heroes series.

Do It As Little As Possible—Some people think switching viewpoints is hip and edgy, so they do it as often as possible, in as many ways as possible.  There’s nothing wrong with this in theory, but—like flashbacks—there needs to be a real reason for it.  If I’m just switching viewpoints to switch viewpoints... well...  that’s going to get old really quick.
            Lots of books have three main characters and spend alternating chapters with each one.  As mentioned above, though, these characters rarely come in halfway through the manuscript.  It’s clear from the beginning that these are the points of view the book will use and it sticks to them.

Don’t Do It At All- this is a bit challenging, but if you can pull it off your readers will love you for it.  Just stay in one voice—one viewpoint—for the entire story.  No cutaways or cheats.
            There are certain drawbacks to this method.  If I never switch viewpoints everything has to come from the same direction.  If I’ve chosen to tell the entire story from Yakko’s first-person point of view, then everything that happens has to meet Yakko’s language, his experiences, his knowledge base.  But this can make for a very, very powerful story if done right.

            And there you have it.  A quick (well, not that quick) overview of different viewpoints, and a few tips on how to use them in your stories. 
            Next week... well, later this week, really... it’s Christmas.  I’m enjoying some time off, to be honest.  But maybe I’ll put up something about the year in review and we can all see how well my time was spent.  And maybe talk about yours, too.
            Until then, have some eggnog.  And try to write a little bit.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

I Win. I Always Win.

             Minor pop-culture reference for those of you who are good with movie quotes.  And if you are, you’ll see the conflict with today’s little rant...
            Also, a shameless plug.  My book 14 was chosen as best sci-fi novel of the year by, and the publisher’s got the Kindle version on sale right now for just $2.99.  Please check it out and then come back to tell me I’m a talentless hack.
            Speaking of which...
            This is going to be one of those divisive posts, but I think it fits the nature of what I try to do here.  This is one of those perhaps painfully obvious tips a writer needs to follow if they want any measure of success.  And when I say “success” I refer to the age-old definitions of selling your stuff and making money.
            If you want that kind of success, your hero has to win.
           I’m using hero in the gender-blind sense.  If it makes you feel better, feel free to substitute in heroine or protagonist.  I’m not against any of these terms or the characters they attach to, I just think hero is short, quick, and to the point.
            And the hero wins.
            Pretty much always.
            A couple spoilers coming up, too.  Nature of the beast for this kind of rant, sorry.  You may want to stop here if you’re way behind in your required reading or viewing.
           There’s a belief in some circles that having the hero of the story fail and die somehow improves the story.  This usually ties back to the twin ideas of art and realism which... well, which I mock here on a regular basis.  It’s the belief that inserting something random and depressing into my story is more “honest” because life is often random and depressing. 
            And as we all know, art imitates life.  Therefore, if I’m imitating life, I must be making art, right?  That’s just simple math.
            As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, this ending sucks.  It sucks because we all inherently know the hero is supposed to win.  The hero is supposed to win because we identify with the hero.  If the hero loses, it means we lost.  We’re losers. 
            Believe it or not, this sort of statement doesn’t go over well with most people.
            Now, before people start scribbling the angry comments (although I’m sure at least one person already has), let me finish.  I’m not saying that every book has to end with happy smiles and people rolling around on piles of money in their new castle.  My hero does not need to defeat the lizard men ninjas, save the world, and end up with nymphomaniac/ heiress Reiko Aylesworth in a flying car.
            Keep in mind, the hero doesn’t necessarily need to enjoy winning.  I just said they need to win.  They may be crippled or scarred—physically, emotionally, or both.  If the hero ends up wounded or broken after all they’ve done, really that just makes us identify with them a little more, doesn’t it?  I know if I had to fight a dozen terrorists in the Nakatomi Building in my bare feet, I’d get the crap kicked out of me.
            But I’d still win, of course...
            Heck, it may only be a moral or spiritual victory.  Atticus Finch loses his court case in To Kill A Mockingbird.  At the end of Rocky, our title hero’s battered, bruised, and can barely stand.  And Rocky loses the fight.  The refs rule for Apollo Creed.
            And yet, we all understand that he’s won in the way that really matters.  He's proven he's not a loser.  He's shown that he can go the distance.
            The hero doesn’t even need to survive the story.  There are plenty of characters in books and film who didn’t live to enjoy their victories.  Let me give a few quick examples... 
            If you’ve seen The Professional, you know the end is a fiery bloodbath.  Only one person walks away, and it definitely isn’t Leon.  Stephen King has killed off his heroes in The Dead Zone, The Stand, IT, Desperation, and more.  Reese dies at the end of Terminator, and when Arnold plays a good Terminator in the next two movies he always gets destroyed.  J.K. Rowling has a lot of bodies at her feet by the end of the Harry Potter series, enough so that she almost seems as kill-happy as Joss Whedon, and he’s just legendary for killing his heroes in brutal ways—in comics, television, and film.
            And yet, in all of these examples, the hero wins.  No question about it.  Anyone who’s read or seen any of these stories will tell you the good guys won and the bad guys lost.
            So if I’m going to kill off my hero or if my plot resolves with a massive failure... maybe it’s worth rethinking that.
            Especially if I want to win.
            Next time, I’d like to discuss a common writing problem and the wisdom of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, December 7, 2012

That’s Crossing The Line!

            I’ve been asked about a dozen times lately to take part in “The Next Big Thing.”  If you’re not familiar with it, it’s sort of a self-promotional blog tour that a lot of authors are passing around.  I passed on it because that’s not the kind of thing I use this page for.  Oh, sure, I’ll mention it if I have a new release or maybe if something of mine goes on sale, but I don't want to go much further than that.  This page is more about hints and instruction than anything else.
            And I suck at self-promotion.
            But that’s all a bit besides the point.  I didn’t want to blather on about crossing that line this week.  I wanted to talk about crossing lines.
            Some people think a genre story has to be pure.  A horror story should be nothing but suspense and scares and gore.  Every moment of a drama should be serious and weighty.  Comedies should be non-stop laughs—there shouldn’t be a moment where something inherently funny isn’t happening on the page or the screen..
            The thing is, those "pure" stories are all boring as hell.  The horror ones stop being scary.  The drama becomes melodrama.  The comedy becomes painful. 
            The reason for this is a lack of variety.  An idea I’ve mentioned before is that the tension levels in a story should rise as the story progresses.  It’s great to begin my story with the action dialed up to nine, but it doesn’t really leave me anywhere to go.  If my novel or screenplay has everything dialed up to nine, what I’ve really got is a monotone story.
            Likewise, if every point on my story graph is the same point—say unspeakable horror or maybe uber-cool action—then what I now have is a homogenous script.  Flipping pages is like cutting into a block of cheese.  Every part is just like every other part.  Case in point...
            unspeakable horror
            Unspeakable Horror
            Unspeakable Horror
            Even when I’m escalating things, getting the same point over and over and over again becomes silly pretty quick. 
            Consider most of the good stories you’ve read or seen.  There’s a lot of comedy in Jaws.  Ernie Cline’s cyber-fantasy tale Ready Player One has some moments of serious suspense.  Raiders of the Lost Ark has a wonderful love story in it.  Dan Abnett’s sci-fi action novel Embedded has a pretty enthusiastic sex scene.  Ghostbusters actually gets a bit scary at points.  The characters in the new Hobbit movie break out into song.  Twice.
            That being said, I don’t think any of us would call Jaws a comedy, and Embedded is hardly a porno.  Raiders has that love story and a couple really good laughs, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind would call it a romantic comedy.  And The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is definitely not a musical.  We all realize that little dips and swings into what would qualify as another genre doesn’t invalidate a story.
            If anything, they usually strengthen it.
            The secret to all storytelling is characters, and the best characters are going to act like real people.  They’ll tell jokes at the wrong time.  Some of them will think about love and sex when they should be paying attention in board meetings, and others will fret about those board meetings at moments they should be thinking about love and sex.  A few of them might even be stressed about scratching the paint on Dad’s car when they should really be worried about the axe murderer lumbering up behind them.  
            One of the most dramatic moments in The Empire Strikes Back is when they're about to test the carbon-freezing on Han Solo.  For all intents, he's walking to his execution.  He knows it, his friends know it, we know it.  Even if he survives-- he's gone.  Leia knows this and finally admits her true feelings... and Han responds with a wiseass comment.  We all giggle and then there’s a horrible blast of steam as Han’s turned into a piece of collectible wall art.
            Y’see, Timmy, if my stories and characters lack this kind of range they’re going to come across as very flat and tedious.  If I can’t have a moment of laughter, a bit of flirting, or a non-sequitor distracted thought, my characters are going to feel like puppets rather than people.  Much like a chef uses a few different flavors to bring out the main tastes of a meal, a writer wants to sprinkle in a few moments that step out of the genre to make the characters and the material much more powerful.
            So don’t be scared to stretch a toe over those lines now and then.
            I know I said I was going to talk about structure, but that’s kind of a huge set of post so I think I might save it until the new year and take a bit of stress out of my holidays.  So next time, I’m  probably just going to say something quick about heroes.
            Until then, go write.