Thursday, September 24, 2015

In Just Four Easy Steps

             Wow. This is post #325.  Go figure.
            If the title of this week’s rant sounds familiar, you’ve probably read or watched a lot of how-to pieces.  Y’know, the ones that say something like “Here’s how to turn this stuff we scavenged from a dumpster into a full wedding reception –with food—in just six simple steps.”  Or maybe it’s “Learn how to play concert piano in four easy lessons.”
            We’ve probably all tried one of these at least once.  Okay, maybe tried the belly fat ones twice.  And a few things become clear pretty quick.  If I’ve tried a few of these, I’ve probably also noticed a few recurring issues with these steps...
            1) They still require lots of practice.  Yeah, this is easy to do—on the nineteenth try.  The first eighteen are going to be messy and somebody might die, but by my nineteenth attempt I should be getting completely adequate results.
           2) They often require lots of other skills or equipment.   Learning the ceremony is easy once you’ve got a working knowledge of the Basque language. Yes, making these carrot roses is no problem at all as long as I have a 1 3/4” mellonballer (not a 2”—that’ll ruin the whole thing).
            3) They’re rarely simple.  A lot of times each of these “easy steps” ends up sounding like that guy at Comic-Con who walks up the microphone and says “I have a five part question, but first I just want to say how wonderful it is that all of you have come out to meet all of us, and the positivity in this room reminds me of a poem by Emily Dickinson, which I’d like to read a few lines from...”
            4) They’re rarely effective. In the long run, most of these “four-or-five easy steps to accomplish something” methods just aren’t worth it. Oh, I might learn a small trick or polish a skill, but in the end, all the money and time and frustration wasted on trying to do it the easy way could’ve been spent on learning... well, how to do it.  If I really want to learn how to make carrot roses that look fantastic, maybe I should actually... well, learn how and not try to figure out some trick that’ll let me skip the learning curve.
            Oddly enough, this kind of ties back to something I mentioned a while back. It’s a hypothesis I came up with during my time in the film industry and, well, it’s stood up to all my testing and research so far.  Maybe next time I write about it I’ll be able to refer to it as a theory.
            I call it the four step rule.  Pretty much everyone’s professional career goes through four stages.
            *Not knowing what I’m doing. 

            *Thinking I know what I’m doing. 

            *Realizing I don’t know what I’m doing. 

            *Knowing what I’m doing.

            I don’t remember exactly how I stumbled onto this, but it was one of those instantly-makes-sense things.  I know my film career followed it.  And just looking around set, I could see it in all the people I worked with and where they fit into this pattern.  In fact, the more I looked, the more I came to realize this pattern applied to almost everything.  I could see it with people on movie sets, yeah, but also with the staff members for an online game I worked on for a while.  I have a friend who was a police officer, and he agreed a lot of cops followed the same pattern. 
            Now, there’s an unfortunate side-effect of this.  I also noticed a few people who were pretty mediocre workers, but were convinced they were amazing. These folks were stuck at step two because they never had (or never acknowledged) that slap down moment.  They never bothered to improve because they never acknowledged a need to improve.  They just stayed at those early, flawed levels.
            I’m sure most of you can see that all of this applies to writing, too.  When I first sat down to write a story in third grade, every aspect of it was a mystery to me.  I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.  Character elements, linear and narrative structure, dialogue —these terms meant nothing to me.  Of course, once the words were typed out in front of me, it was clear I was a genius. I mean, look at them—they’re typed!
            Alas, many editors did not agree with my assessment of those pages, and I had a good sized stack of rejections before I had body hair.  And that file folder got thicker and thicker for many years.
            I think I was in college when I started to consider that every single editor I submitted to might not be the problem.  Maybe my stories weren’t genius just because they were typed.  Yeah, the ones I was writing at that point had a much more elaborate vocabulary than my old ones (and I used it as often as I could), but were they really any better than the ones I’d been writing at age eleven...?
            I had dozens and dozens of rejections under my belt, but it turned out I really didn’t know much about writing or storytelling. All my “experience” was essentially eight or nine years of doing all the wrong things.  I’d missed opportunities and ignored good advice because I was convinced I knew it all. 
            And being able to admit that was what let me finally improve. And improving was what let me get where I am today.  Working with other professionals who treat me like a professional.  Able to offer actual advice with experience backing it up (even if a chunk of that experience is, “wow, I screwed up a lot back then...”).
            Now, last time I talked about these four steps, a few folks asked me if it was possible to skip some of them—specifically, step two.  If I realize I’m at step one, can I jump right to step three?  I’ve thought about this on and off, and also heard a few things in other interviews and articles that fit into this little outline.  So I’m going to say this...
            No.  You cannot skip any of the steps.  If I tell you that I did skip step two, it really means I’m stuck there and in denial.
            It comes down to, as my lovely lady has called it, paying your dues.  We all have to do it.  We can pay our dues sooner and get it over with or pay them later with interest.  I can get down in the gritty, sweaty, unrewarding trenches and take the long route—doing all the work and learning how to do it.  Or I can rely on nothing but luck, tricks, and gimmicks to get me there in a tenth the time—and then fall from a much greater height when it comes out I don’t know how things are done.  I’m sure we can all think of tons of Hollywood stories of someone who shot to the top in record time, only to come crashing all the way back down to where they started out (or even lower...).
            Y’see, Timmy, we need that screw-up stage.  It’s important.  Not to sound all new-agey or melodramatic, but it’s the crucible that burns away the screw-ups and forges us into better writers.  We go in like iron, but we come out like steel.  If we don’t go through it, we’ll never be as good as we could be.
            All that being said...  It is possible to manage how much time you spend on step two. How do we do it?
            I need to be open to criticism.  And to listen to it.  Try not to be defensive.  Learn how to tell valid feedback from personal preferences.  Be able to admit something isn’t good or doesn’t work like it’s supposed to.  Yeah, it’ll be frustrating and disheartening and there’s a good chance I’ll find out I spent a lot of time on something that’s just going to go in the circular file.  But if I’m open to learning from all that—to admitting I need to improve—that’ll speed up the learning process.
            One last thought.  Joe Quesada—an artist/writer/editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics—made a wonderful observation in his foreword to Brian Michael Bendis’ storytelling book Words For Pictures.  “If you’re not falling, you’re not trying hard enough.”  If I don’t screw up now and then, it’s probably a good sign I’m not trying too hard.  If I never challenge myself, I’m never going to get better. 
            We all need to fail.  And it’s okay to fail.  The only problem is if I’m determined not to learn from it.
            Next time, I’d like to talk to you about something you may have seen before. And before.  And before.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Come On and Twist A Little Closer Now

            If you don’t get the title reference, I’m afraid you have to leave.  It’s not my choice, you understand.  It’s the law.
            I’ve run into a few folks recently talking about spoilers, usually pertaining to twists.  It’s a little bothersome how many times I’ve seen people say that knowing a twist in advance shouldn’t—and doesn’t—affect their view of a story.  And this is... well, just wrong.  That’s not a matter of opinion.  It’s just flat out wrong.
            So I thought it might be worth discussing some of the finer points of a well-executed twist.
            First, though, let’s define a few terms.
            A mystery is when the main character and the readers are aware that information has been hidden from them, and the story usually involves the search for that unknown fact. At it’s simplest, a mystery is when someone in my story asks a question and then tries to find the answer. 
            Suspense is when there’s an important piece of information my readers know and the characters don’t. The key here is that my characters don’t know that they need to know this vital fact. The woman Yakko is going upstairs with is the murderer.  There’s a bomb under the table.  Dot’s going into a meeting with a bunch of her superiors who all know what she did.  These are common suspense situations.
           A twist is when information is revealed that my characters and the audience didn’t know was being kept from them.  They don’t even suspect those facts are out there, waiting to affect the story.  When a twist appears, it comes from out of nowhere and changes a lot of perceptions for the characters and the audience.  We’ve all been told that Luke Skywalker’s father is dead, so when we learn that Darth Vader is his father, it’s a bombshell that alters our view of everything.
            Assuming we didn’t see all the advertising for the prequels...
            But that’s a different discussion...
            Notice that in most of these, the characters and the readers are in the same position.  Their view of things lines up.  The only time it doesn’t (with suspense) is when the characters are in extreme danger because of what they don’t know, which cranks up the tension for the audience.
            Going off the above definitions, one of the main components of a successful twist is that the reader (or audience) doesn’t know it’s coming.  We can’t be surprised or taken off guard by something we’re expecting, right?  So without that element... well, it’s not a twist anymore.  This moment becomes empty, poorly structured suspense, a missed beat in the structure of my story.
            Personally, this is why I’m so nuts about spoilers.  One small spoiler can rip the heart out of a great reveal and leave it flapping in the wind like an empty shirt on a clothesline.  Rather than identifying with the characters, we’re waiting for them to catch up and shaking our heads at how long it’s taking them.
            Y’see, Timmy, saying a twist should still make sense whether or not I know it’s coming is like saying a defibrillator should still work whether or not it’s got electricity running through it.  We’ve removed a vital element that it needs to function.  A working defibrillator won’t always perform the function it was made to, yeah, but it simply can’t when it’s not even plugged in.
            Now, there are two other things that can make a twist flop.  One is when the information the twist reveals isn’t actually a surprise, or it’s something the reader probably figured out on their own.  If you’re a long-time fan of The Simpsons, you may remember one time when Homer told the Nativity story in church.  And he ended his little sermon with these drama-filled words...
            “And did you know that baby Jesus grew up to be... Jesus?”
            It’s a perfect example of this point.  If I’m two or three steps ahead of the characters and the author, a “reveal” like this borders on comedy.  Which is great if I’m writing comedy, not so good if my book is a techno-thriller.  A twist that tells us something we already know, by definition, isn’t a twist, and it doesn’t matter if the author hasn’t specifically spelled it out or not in the book.  If all my readers figure out who Dr. Acula really is on page two, it’s my own fault when the big twist falls flat.
            The second thing that kills a twist is the flipside of what I just said.  It’s also not a twist if there’s absolutely no way we could’ve suspected it.  Yes, a twist depends on us not knowing something’s coming, but when it arrives it needs to fit with everything we’ve been told all along.  A reveal should mesh with what we know, not contradict, and make us look at things in a new way.  Finding out Phoebe is my long-lost cousin in the last fifty pages is a twist.  Finding out Phoebe is a third-gender alien from the year 2241 in the last fifty pages means I should...
          Wait, an alien from 2241?  Hasn’t this a period murder-mystery novel for the past two hundred pages?  What the hell...?
            I once read a book where we found out in the last twenty pages that the leader of the all-woman biker gang is actually a vampire.  And while we’d known this was an urban fantasy novel, there’d been no clue whatsoever that vampires exist.  It was a first person story and the main character had never even told us that vampires were a thing, even though we learned in those final pages that this is the vampire she knew had killed her husband.  The reveal clashed with what I knew about the world and the character, and that clash jarred me out of the book at a point when the author really needed me to be sucked into it.
            And that’s the real killer. When my twist falls flat, for any reason, it breaks the flow of the story.  And since big twists tend to come toward the end of a story, it means I’m giving my readers a reason to stop when I want them to be checking the clock to see how late it is and if they can finish the book tonight.
            A twist is a powerful device, the five-point-palm technique of storytelling.  It needs to be done a certain way, but if I can master it I’ll be unstoppable. And if I do it wrong...  I’m just going to piss off my target.
            Next time, I think we need to discuss paying dues.  Especially those of you who’ve been here for a while.
            Until then, go write.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Pace Car

            Okay, first off, I’m afraid I need to have a shameful self-promotional moment. The Ex-Heroes series is Amazon’s Kindle deal of the month.  You can pick up digital copies of all four books for less than ten dollars.  So... there’s that.
            And now, moving on to our actual topic of the week...
            Last week I gave some more-or-less quick answers to a couple questions and requests folks had left here on the ranty blog.  This week I wanted to address one in particular that was worth a little more space.
            So... here we go.
            I'd love to hear your thoughts on plotting and pacing. I'm struggling with knowing when to do what plot elements so things don't drag and so they seem natural, and don't feel like the story is on rails.
            Okay, this is another tough one because every story is going to have its own specific pace. 
            One of the reasons a lot of folks end up worrying about this, in my opinion, is because of an often misunderstood writing rule that gets thrown at them all the time—start with action!  There’s a bunch of problems with this statement, many of which I’ve talked about before, but one key one is that it gives people a very skewed view of pacing.  If my story starts cranked up to eleven, it’s hard to make anything feel urgent after that point.  And if it doesn’t start at eleven, well, why is anyone going to keep reading, right?
            Part of this is about dramatic structure, knowing where things should happen in my story for maximum impact.  It’s also about compressing time so things don’t sprawl.  Yeah, maybe four hours passed while Wakko was pulling his turn standing watch, but do I really need eight pages of him standing around doing... well, nothing?
            I think that’s one of the biggest problems when people have “pacing issues.”  It’s not whether or not my chapter is slow or fast, if it’s filled with action or dialogue or inner monologues. It’s about whether or not anything’s actually happening.  When my story come to a grinding halt, it’s not because I’ve got characters doing research instead of kung-fu... it’s because the story’s come to a grinding halt.  It’s stopped moving forward
            A good way to check pacing is to go through my story and ask myself this—what purpose does this element/ scene/ chapter have in the overall story?  Is it forwarding the plot?  Is it forwarding a character’s story?  If it doesn’t do either of these things... why am I spending time on it?  As William Goldman said in The Princess Bride, “What with one thing and another, three years passed.”
            Speaking of famous screenwriters, Shane Black once made a great observation about what he called “shoe leather” scenes in scripts.  If I have a scene where two guys are having a conversation and another scene where there’s a key news story on the television... why aren’t they the same scene?  A good part of storytelling is trying to accomplish two things at once rather than spreading things so thin they’re see-through.  It’s great to have a character scene, sure, but maybe those character moments could also advance the plot somehow.  I really want to use a lot of this research material, but could it advance someone’s story?
            Y’see, Timmy, if I’m lucky and somewhat skilled, my audience might let me have one scene that doesn’t really do anything.  Maybe two.  But pushing it to a third means my story is dragging, and four is going to get eyerolls.
            Now, all that being said (yep, there’s always a however), there is still one thing to keep in mind for pacing.  Every story is going to start slow and pick up speed, yes.  And all those stories are going to be moving at their own pace. I need to be careful, though, when I try to slow things down, for whatever reason.  If you’ve ever driven a car with a manual transmission (or know of such things), you’ve probably heard the term downshifting.  It’s when I shift into a lower gear to help with slowing down (you’ve probably seen James Bond do it a few times).  It’s one thing to go from fifth gear to fourth, it’s something else entirely to go from fifth down to second.  Odds are that’ll going to leave parts of my transmission  (read—story) scattered behind me, possibly on fire.
            So if my story involves a lot of zero-to-sixty-to-ten-to ninety-to-fifteen pacing—yes, even though it’s still technically moving forward—I may want to rethink a few things.  And if it doesn’t involve any forward motion...
            Well, I may need to rethink a lot of things.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about how Darth Vader killed Luke Skywalker’s father.
            Until then... go write.