Thursday, January 24, 2013

His But Looks Like an Asterisk

             Bonus points if you get that reference...
            Something quick for you.  I’m trying to finish some rewrites.
            I’ve mentioned conflict once or thrice.  Usually I prefer the term challenge, which has also shown up here a few times.  Challenges are what make a story.  When my character deals with problems, obstacles, and unexpected twists, that’s what makes him or her interesting and keeps the audience engaged
            Yeah, there are a few character-heavy stories out there that manage to have no challenges at all and still be interesting.  Believe me when I say that they are very, very few and far between.  Much, much rarer than some of our college writing instructors and chosen gurus would have us believe.
            And really, at the end of the day, readers want to see challenges.  They want to read about characters who are doing something active—physically, emotionally, spiritually.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, characters who never face any sort of challenge are boring as hell.
            And that hundredth time is a coin toss.
            So here’s a simple test to see if my story has any kind of challenge in it.
"Who knows?  In a thousand years, even
you may be worth  something!
            Back when I was talking about expanding ideas, I mentioned that I should be using a lot of conjunctions when I explain my plot to someone.  If you look back at the example I gave (the first half of Raiders of the Lost Ark) you’ll notice that but accounted for almost half the conjunctions I used.  This is because but represents conflicts and setbacks.  Indy finds the Ark of the Covenant, but Belloq and the Nazis steal it out from under him.  I would’ve had a great time at the party, but my ex was there.   Congress says they want to accomplish a lot, but the House and Senate never agree on anything.
            Take your novel, screenplay, or short story.  Try to summarize it one page.  This isn’t a sales-pitch summary like you’d find on the inside flap of the dust jacket or on the back of the DVD.  Write up an honest summary from beginning to end with all the beats and plot points.  Don’t hold back, include as much as you can, but keep it at one page.
            Now let’s take a look at it.  How many times did you end up using but as a conjunction?  You can count however if it shows up, and maybe though, as well.
            If I can summarize my whole story without using the word but, I have a problem.  Because but is where my challenges are.  No but means no conflicts, and no conflicts means my characters aren’t doing anything worthwhile.
            And that means they’re boring as hell.
            Hopefully you see my point.  But I’m sure some folks won’t.
            Next time... hmmmm, not really sure what I’ll do next time.  Open to suggestions as always.  If none appear... well, I’m sure I’ll think of something really interesting.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Magical Mystery Tour

             Yes, the Beatles also gave writing advice.
            Is there nothing they couldn’t do...?
            Back when I was in college, I submitted a story to a magazine.  It was loosely based on the myth of the Wandering Jew, and I’d had a character passing through time at a couple key events in history.  I later incorporated it into my college novel, The Trinity, which none of you have ever read.  For good reason.
            The story was rejected.  Not really a surprise, in retrospect, but the editor did send back a personalized response.  He congratulated me on my language, my characters, my dialogue, and my descriptions.  “However,” he said (paraphrasing a bit), “there isn’t much of a story here.  It’s a really neat magical mystery tour, but that’s it.”
            That term threw me a bit at first.  Wasn’t much of a story?  I’d written about an immortal passing down through the ages.  He was there for the Crucifixion.  The fall of Rome.  Magellan’s voyage around the world.  The Boston Tea Party.  How could this editor say there wasn’t a story?  Well, college-age me grumbled a bit and moved on, but I eventually figured out what that editor was talking about.
            Let me give you a few quick examples...
            (and these are just titles to get the point across—don’t read too much into them)
            Sometimes the tour might be the Non-Stop Laughs Roadshow.  We’ve all read these stories or seen these films, where every single line pushes for another laugh.  There’s never a pause to breathe, not even a moment.  Sight gags, puns, fart jokes, awkward pauses, absurd segues, funny voices.  Characters, plot, tone—nothing matters but getting the next laugh.
            Another version could be Merlin’s Wondrous Mobile Fae Emporium.  Every page has something else magical or supernatural to remind us what a magical and supernatural world this is.  I introduce the reader to ancient gods, spirits, supernatural creatures, and arcane mailmen.  Magical weapons, armor, jewelry, and household utensils.  Everything is magical.  Everything is from the dawn of recorded history. Except maybe the bathmat.
            No, sorry, the bathmat was woven on the loom of Fate with the silk of astral spiders.  But the washcloth is pretty mundane.
            The High-Tech Pan-Galactic Tour is sci-fi for the sake of sci-fi.  Because in the future or alien world that I’ve created, everything is different.  People wear clothes for different reasons.  They have robots that aren’t really robots.  Things are powered in an entirely different way.  Transportation, food, the internet, entertainment... it’s all very alien and unrelatable.  Don’t even ask about sex.  In the future it’s so different you wouldn’t’ believe it.
            We could also call the tour, say, Captain Spaulding’s Traveling Horror Show.  It’s when people die one after another in horrible ways, usually after witnessing the gruesome death of the last poor bastard.  There’s blood and gore and some really nauseating dietary choices and a few nightmarish torture scenes.  Running someone feet-first through a meat grinder is tame compared to what happens in the horror show.
            In my case, it was the Historical Talent Show and Social Mixer.  If my story is set in the 1960s, my character will run into every single person you’ve ever heard of from that decade.  Fidel Castro, Andy Warhol, the Apollo 11 crew, the cast of Star Trek, Ed Sullivan, Harper Lee, Kurt Vonnegut, Kennedy, Nixon, Hendrix, Elvis, and (of course) the Beatles.  Most of them won’t do anything, but they’ll pass through and offer a few words here and there.  Maybe one of them will offer a helpful tip, but odds are they’re just there to get recognized.
            Y’see, Timmy, the mistake I made—one I still see lots of people make—is the assumption that a pile of plot points is the same thing as a story.  This is kind of like saying a pile of lumber is the same thing as a house, or there's no difference between a palette of oil paints and the Mona Lisa.
            A lot of the time these stories will end up with a very episodic feel to them.  In the case of comedies, it’ll be a constant stream of setup-joke-setup-joke-setup-joke.  In horror stories, it’s victim-death-victim-death-victim-death.  The magical mystery tour almost always feels episodic because I’m using it to show you one thing after another with very little connection between them.  Oh, look, it’s the Crucifixion.  Oh, look, it’s Magellan.  Oh, look, it’s Paul Revere.
            All of these things I’ve listed above are great elements, no question about it.  If they’re not doing anything to advance the plot or the story, though, they’re just distractions.  There’s a point that this kind of thing is rich detail and there’s a point that it’s just padding.  And that’s the kind of detail that just slows down my story.
            Assuming I’ve even got a story.
            Any time you feel the need to drop a detail like this into your manuscript, stop for a minute and think.  This may absolutely be the greatest take on werewolves anyone’s ever put on paper, but if the werewolf’s only in the story to show this take... maybe I should save it for something else.  I may have scribbled the most elaborate death scene ever, but if absolutely nothing changes in the story when I swap out those six pages with “And then Phoebe killed Wakko,” maybe I should reconsider those six pages.
            And if I can just pull them out altogether without changing the story...  Well, I’ve got to wonder what they were doing there in the first place.
            Next time, I want to talk about your but for a little bit.  Especially yours.
            Yours... not quite so much.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Guns. Lots of Guns.

            This is my rifle, this is my gun.  One is for killing, the other’s for fun.
            A while back there was a discussion on a page I browse semi-regularly.  A few folks were moaning about the overzealous use of firearms terminology in some stories.  It can get frustrating and distracting, I admit.  There are writers who feel a need to show off their knowledge by naming every single weapon, component and accessory their protagonist or villain is using.  Every time they’re seen.
            The term I’ve heard for this, which I have to admit I love, is gun porn.
            The real question, of course, would be... is this a bad thing or not? 
            The answer is one of those gray areas of writing.  It depends a bit on what the author’s trying to do.  It depends on the character.  Honestly, it’s a simple issue, but because firearms tend to be a very divisive subject—where some folks love and worship them to an almost obsessive degree and other folks hate and revile then to an equally obsessive degree—they get brushed into their own special category sometimes in writing, even though they don’t need it.
            See, a pistol or rifle is really just like any other object in my story.  It’s a name, and there’s a time for proper names and a time for pronouns.  To paraphrase the song, if every time Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla walks into a room, Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla makes a point of patting the holster of Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla’s Sig Sauer Pro2340 pistol and considers that now maybe it’s time for Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla to draw his Sig Sauer Pro2340 pistol...
            Well, Peter William Clines will be putting that manuscript down pretty fast.  Peter William Clines can tell you that much for sure.
            We’d all much rather read that when Rufus walks into a room he makes a point of patting the holster of his pistol and considers that now maybe it’s time for him to draw it. 
            On the flipside, I was watching an old giant monster movie the other day.  Not one of the classy ones from Japan, but a western attempt to cash in on the  craze.  At one point, the characters are gathered in the war room looking at a map of the city, trying to figure out if they’ll be able to stop the monster or not.  And the three-star general stabs his finger down on the map and says “We’ve got to get it out in the open so we can throw all our stuff at it!”
            All our stuff...?
            Y’see, Timmy, just like some characters, there’s going to be times it makes perfect sense to write out the full name of a pistol, and some when it’s perfectly fine to just call it “her pistol” or “his rifle.”  There will be times when the full name of a weapon is going to be a distraction more than anything else, but also times that it’s going to seem silly and out of character not to use it.  It’s important for me to remember that it isn’t always about what I know or what’s right—it’s about what the character knows and thinks is right.  A trained assassin might see a Heckler & Koch G36, but a schoolteacher's probably just going to see a big, scary-looking machine gun.
            In my own book, Ex-Patriots, Stealth is a deductive genius and a walking Wikipedia.  She’s Sherlock Holmes in spandex and body armor.  Early in the book, when she first encounters the soldiers from Project Krypton, she immediately identifies the exact model of rifles they’re using and realizes the unusual way the weapons are being used.  Yet in that same moment, it’s clear St. George—a former maintenance guy—has no clue what kind of rifles the soldiers are using.
            Watch The Matrix sometime.  Is that a love letter to gun culture or what?  And not a single weapon is named in the movie.  Not one.  The closest they get is when they talk about the EMP they use against the Sentinel robots.
            I just finished reading one of the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher, and at one point Harry and his friends end up with a few pistols and shotguns.  And that’s what they’ve got—a few pistols and shotguns.  Harry identifies one of the pistols as a 9mm when he gets it, but that’s all the explanation we ever get.
            Ash may have his double-barreled Remington 12 gauge, but most of us just think of it as his boomstick.  And that name really fits with a guy who’s not too bright and making a lot of stuff up as he goes.
            We all know Chekhov has a rifle hanging above the mantle, and we accept that as sage bit of writing wisdom.  Yet who among us has stopped to question what kind of rifle it is?  I’d bet a ton of money that nobody here has, because it’s just not important.
            As a small side note, I mentioned a ways back that this is a good rule of thumb for screenplays.  Unless it is life-or-death important to the plot that the bad guy is carrying a Glock 34 9mm with a custom rubber grip—I mean, the plot will collapse if he doesn’t have this specific weapon—then I’m not going to waste my words naming weapons.  When the movie gets made, there are going to be prop masters and armorers who know much more about this stuff than me, and they’re going to make good choices so we all look good.  Until then, my characters can just have pistols, shotguns, machine guns, and so on.
            And on another somewhat related note... a common criticism I see is folks shrieking, “They’re called magazines, not clips!”  This is kind of the same issue as above.  Sometimes I need to make sure that the weapons are loaded with magazines, but there are just as many times it makes more sense to call them clips—even though it’s inaccurate.  Yes, many folks who knows their weapons knows the difference.  If my characters don’t, though, then it wouldn’t be that surprising for them to call that thing holding bullets a clip.  It’s been a common mistake for almost eighty years, after all.  In fact, it’d come across a bit odd and fake if every non-soldier and non-gun-enthusiast in my story used precise firearms terminology.
            So here’s a little suggestion I’ll toss out for you.  Maybe this’ll work for you, maybe it won’t.  The next time one of your character pulls his pistol or swings up her rifle, ask yourself this...
            Would you be as specific and descriptive with the weapon’s name if it was a bow?
            There are lots of different types of bows, with many strings, grips, pulls, models, extra add-ons, and so forth.  That’s not even counting the arrows themselves, and the different shaft lengths, fletching, heads, and notching.  Professional archers are very specific about what they will and won’t use.  So at this moment in your story, if someone aimed their bow at your character... how much detail would you feel compelled to use?
            If the answer is “not much,” maybe that’s a sign to rethink how much detail’s going into that firearm.
            Next time, courtesy of the Beatles, we’re going to take a little trip.  Odds are you won’t enjoy it.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Mission Statement

             Happy 2013, everyone.  Hope you had a fantastic New Year.
            As I often do at the start of the year, I wanted to blab on for a minute or three about what I try to accomplish with this little collection of rants and ravings.  And I think one of the best ways to accomplish that is to start off by mentioning a few things I won’t be doing here.
            First and foremost, this page isn’t about “when you’re done.”  I’m always coming across blogs and message boards where people want to know what to do with their finished manuscript.  How do I get an agent?  How do I promote myself?  How do I get an "in" with a publisher?  Should I self-publish?  How do I get blurbs?
            None of that here.
            Speaking of which, I also don’t use this page for self-promotion.  I may mention stuff that’s new or noteworthy, but that’s about it.  No sales or contests or interviews (not with me, anyway).  There’s some Amazon links on the side, yeah, but those are almost more for credentials purposes than sales.
            (Although if you want to buy them, I’ll never object to that...)
            Not to sound harsh, but this page also isn’t for inspirational ideas, mindless encouragement, or a joyous celebration of art.  I’m not really big on the special snowflake, “we can all succeed” mindset.  To be honest, I think it’s one of the most damaging things out there on the internet.  I’m also not a fan of those folks who see writing as some wild, bohemian expression of art where there are no wrong answers or directions.  They’re not far behind the special snowflake people.  If that’s the kind of “advice” you’re looking for... wow, this is so not the place you want to be.
            So, with all that out of the way... what is this place supposed to be about?
            Well, it struck me many years back that there aren’t many places online to find actual help with writingNot useful help, anyway.  Yeah, all that other stuff is important, but the writing is the big thing.  Nothing else matters if my writing is sub-par.  I can do tons of research on surfboards, wetsuits, skegs, surf wax, wave formation, and all that.  Thing is, if I don’t take the first step of leaving Nebraska, that’s all pointless information.  If I don’t have a decent book or script, it doesn’t matter how much work I put into self-promotion.
            I look around and I see a lot of folks making mistakes.  Sometimes it’s from inexperience.  Sometimes it’s from following bad advice.  And a few times... okay, sometimes I have no clue where people are getting their information from.  None whatsoever.
            I also see some would-be gurus offering hard-fast “rules” for writing.  Your characters must do this.  This element of your plot must unfold by this page.  And it gnaws at me because they’re just plain wrong.  There are a lot of rules in writing, but it’s not all rules.  If it was,  writing would just be mechanical fill-in-the blanks (granted, it seems like it is for some people).  One of the biggest things to realize is which rules can and can’t be ignored.  It’s finding the methods and styles that work for you within the frameworks that work for everyone else.
            That’s what this is all about.  Taking that idea in your head and fleshing it out and turning it into a few dozen or a few hundred coherent pages.  Hopefully pages other people will want to read all on their own without you begging or pleading or tricking them into it.
            Heck, maybe they’ll even pay you for those pages.
           So sometimes I point out the places where you really have to do this, but also the places where it’s entirely up to you.  Every now and then I’ll talk about a  recurring mistake I see a lot.  And most of the time I’ll just toss out a few ideas on how to work with (or work around) different issues that can come up when writing a short story or novel or screenplay.  Issues like spelling or structure or dialogue or characters or action or point of view or... well, there are a lot of them.
            Anyway, what makes me qualified to say these things and toss out these tips?
            Well, I’ve been trying to do this for over thirty years now.  I was stabbing at the keys on my mom’s old Smith-Corona before most of you ever considered writing as anything more than homework.  I tried to write my first book in third grade, then another one in seventh grade, plus two while I was in high school.  I spent years poring over different writing magazines and journals, pulling out every tip and hint and suggestion I could, and then trying all of them out (even the contradictory ones).  I took writing classes in high school and college.  I joined writing groups.  I made two attempts at the college novel, then the after-college novel, and then the “moved to California” novel.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say I probably submitted more manuscripts with paper and postage than at least half of you have done through the miracle space-age technology of email.
            And it all led somewhere.  I received personal rejection letters from editors at magazines and comic books encouraging me to try again.  One of my college writing professors, the multi-award winning novelist John Edgar Wideman, told me with absolute certainty that I was going to make it as a writer.  The first script I wrote got me a meeting with Ron Moore (of Deep Space Nine and later Battlestar Galactica).  Agents asked to look at my manuscripts.
            More to the point, people eventually started to pay me for my writing.  It’s not the only yardstick for success, granted, but I think we can all agree it’s the one that’s universally accepted and pretty much always has been.  My ability to write got me a job as an entertainment journalist.  I sold short stories to journals and anthologies.  I’ve sold half a dozen books to Permuted Press, and later to Crown Publishing, a division of Random House—and some of those books have sold very, very well and received a lot of praise (okay, so there’s a little self-promotion).  Amazon Studios hired me to develop a screenplay idea for them and write up a treatment.  For the past six years, I’ve supported myself by stringing words together in a way that pleased people enough that they paid me to keep doing it.
            So... that’s what I’m bringing to the table.
            If you’re interested, stick around.  Next time I want to talk a bit about the BFG-9000 plasma rifle in the forty-watt range and other firearms.
            Until then... go write.