Friday, January 29, 2016

Annnnnnd... ACTION!

            Hey!  Wanted to thank all of you who came out last weekend to the Writers Coffeehouse. Hopefully hearing me talk about writing in the real world was at least as semi-useful as all of this.
            Also—shameful capitalist plug—my new book, Ex-Isle comes out next week from Broadway Paperbacks.  Check out that fantastic cover over there on the right.  It’s book five in the ongoing Ex-Heroes series, and I happen to think it’s pretty cool.  Granted, I might be a bit biased...
            (the audiobook’s still three weeks out but it is coming, I promise)
            Anyway, enough about that. Now... story time.
            About fourteen years ago some friends and I were in a pretty serious car crash.  Someone sideswiped us as we were pulling onto the freeway and then sped off.  My friend’s SUV was slammed into the concrete wall, bounced off, then slammed into the wall again because the wheels had twisted around to send us right back into it.  We skidded ten or twenty feet scraping against the wall.  The first impact was so hard that the passenger side door crumpled in, hit me, and fractured my ribs on that side.  I also caught half the windshield with my face.  I remember clenching my eyes shut on instinct, what felt like gravel hitting my cheeks and mouth and forehead. While part of me knew (in the greater sense) that we were in the middle of a collision of some kind, another part of me was still trying to figure out what the hell was going on.  And there was so much noise.  Screams and hollering from friends, metal on concrete, metal bending, glass breaking, highway noise because the windows were gone.  It wasn’t until everything stopped that I realized how loud it had been.
            Now, I took a while to write that out, and a while for you to read it, but the truth is, it took seconds.  Six or seven seconds, tops. Really, at the moment, it was just a blur of sensations. I didn’t piece together what had happened—and what I’d experienced—until afterwards.
            Action, by its very nature, is fast.  It’s a blur.  If you’ve ever been part of an accident of some kind, a fight, a collision, or any other kind of really dynamic moment, you know what I’m talking about.  A huge amount of action is stuff we figure out after the fact.  In the moment, I’m not quite sure how my shirt got ripped or why my arm’s bleeding or... oh, geez, I think I whacked my head a lot harder that I thought.
            Here are a couple of tips on how I try to make my action scenes seem fun and cool.

            Keep it fast--Action can’t drag. If it takes a full page for someone to throw a punch and connect, things are happening in slow motion.  Even a paragraph can seem like a long time, especially once multiple punches are thrown.
            My personal preference is to try to not have action take much longer to read then it would to experience.  I trim fight scenes and action moments down to the bare minimum to give them (pardon the phrase) a lot of punch. One way I do this is to clump some actions together and let the reader figure out what happened on their own
            He slammed three fast punches into the other man’s kidney.
            Karen did something quick with her hands, and now she held the pistol while the mugger wailed and held his wrist.

            Keep it simple—I practiced martial arts for a while and I also have a lot of experience with  weapons thanks to my time in the film industry.  Even though I know lots and lots of terminology, I try not to use it.  That kind of thing can clutter up an action scene, especially when I’m using a lot of foreign languages or obscure terms.  I want this to move fast, and if my reader has to stop to sound out words and parse meanings from context... that’s breaking the flow.  If they need to figure out if a P-90 TR is a rifle, a pistol, or a fitness program... well, maybe they’ll come back to it after lunch.
            Remember, there’s nothing wrong with terminology, but there’s a time and a place for everything.  That time is rarely when someone’s swinging a baseball bat at your head.

            Keep it sensory—Kind of related to the above, and something I touched on in my story.  Action is instinctive, with a certain subtlety to it. There isn’t a lot of thought involved, definitely not a lot of analysis or pretty imagery.  Keeping in mind the fast, simple nature I’ve been talking about, I try to keep action to sounds, sights, and physical sensations.  I can talk to you about a knife going deep into someone’s arm, severing arteries and veins as it goes... or I can just tell you about the hot, wet smell of blood and the scrape of metal on bone.  Which gets a faster reaction?
            Granted, writing this way does make it hard to describe some things, but a lot of that gets figured out after the fact anyway.  My characters will have a chance to sort things out once things cool down.

            Keep it real—Like so many things in fiction, it all comes down to characters.  There’s a reason we can zone out dozens of attacks on the news but be gripped by a single one in a book.  Action needs to be based in real characters because my readers need to care about the people involved.  A stranger in a car crash is kind of sad in an abstract way, but Wakko in a car crash is a tragedy and we want constant updates.
            This also kind of works against the idea of “always start with action,” which is something I’ve talked about before.  It’s tough for readers to be invested in action when we don’t know the people involved.  If I start with an action scene it has to be twice as big to compensate for the fact that we don’t know the characters, and once it’s that big it’s going to effect the level of everything that comes after it.

            Now, as always, it’s pretty easy to find exceptions to these.  As I said, these are more tips than rules.  But there’s one particular exception I want to talk about.
            A pretty common character is, for lack of a better term, the fighting savant.  Batman, Jack Reacher, Melinda May, Ethan Hunt, Sarah Walker, Joe Ledger, Stealth—characters who’ve taken physical action to an art form through years of study and experience.  For these people to not use precise terminology for weapons or moves could seem a little odd.  It makes sense they’d be able to dissect action, picking out the beats and planning out responses like a painter reviewing their palette.
            Keep in mind, these characters by their very nature should be rare.  If I have a dozen utterly badass characters who all have badass moves with badass weapons... that’s going to get boring real quick.  It’s monotone.
            Also, keep the point of view in mind while writing.  Stealth may be a trained master of unarmed combat, but St. George gets by with his invulnerability and raw strength.  Whose narrative this is will affect how her actions are seen by the reader.
            And that’s that.  A handful of tips for writing killer action.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about, arguably, one of the finest episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation that was ever produced.
            Oh, and  next Thursday I’ll be at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, blabbing away and signing copies of Ex-Isle.  If you’re in the area, please stop by and say “hullo."
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

No Photobombers

            I spent time at a few conventions last year and, as I do, I tried to get lots of photographs of the various cosplayers there.  I’m always blown away by that sort of thing.  I worked in the film industry for years and it’s amazing to see so many folks who are so dedicated they can do costumes that are on par (or better, in some cases) than the ones that end up on film.
            Alas, one or two of my shots were spoiled by photobombers.  You know that term, right?  The folks who decide to lean into a picture and draw attention to themselves with a goofy grin or thumbs up, even though it’s really clear they’re not who the photographer wants things focused on.  If you’re Chris Pratt, Hayley Atwell, or William Shatner and you end up photobombing somebody—hey, power to you.  How fantastic would that be, looking at your pictures later and finding Hayley Atwell smiling and waving at you?
             On the other hand, if I’m someone that’s going to make 99.9999% of humanity say “who the hell is that?”... I’m kind of being a jerk.  Because I’m not supposed to be the focus of this picture.  And by drawing attention away from what is supposed to be the center of attention, I’ve messed up this image.
             Or, for our purposes, this story.
             In some ways, being a writer is a thankless job.  If I do it right, people shouldn’t even notice me. If I do a spectacular job, people should forget me altogether.  Screenwriters get hit even worse with this—their work is often credited to the actors or director.  The ugly truth of storytelling is that none of us really care about the storyteller, we just want to hear the stories.
           Some storytellers try to get noticed.  It’s a deliberate choice.  They lean in and draw attention to themselves.  They wink and point.  Sometimes they make goofy expressions and shout “Look at me!  Look what I’m doing!” 
            When I do this as a writer, it’s just like photobombing.  Textbombing?  Prosebomb?  Whatever we want to call it, it’s me drawing attention away from telling my story, which—in theory--is supposed to be the focus of my writing.
            Here’s a few simple ways I can make sure I’m not ruining my focus...

            Vocabulary—Stephen King once said that “Any word you have to search for in the thesaurus is the wrong word.”  And, personally, I think he’s completely right about that.  I don’t think using a thesaurus is bad.  I’ve got one right here on my desk.  I often use it to jog my memory when I know there’s a specific word I’m looking for, and the easiest way to find it is to look up a synonym. 
           But some folks default to their thesaurus.  They have a sentence—let’s say “The thin woman wore a red hat.”—and then just immediately go to find bigger, better words for it.  That’s how you end up with sentences like... well...
            “The rawboned feminine figure accoutred her cranium with a chapeau of deepest carmine felt.”
            That’s me, as a writer, trying to draw attention to myself when you, the reader, want to be focused on the story.
             Any word I choose just to get attention, to prove I don’t need to use a common, blue-collar word, is the wrong word.  Any word that makes my reader stop reading and start analyzing is the wrong word. I can try to justify my word choice any way I like, but absolutely no one is picking up my manuscript hoping for a vocabulary lesson.  When my reader can’t figure out what’s being said for the fourth or fifth time and decides to toss said manuscript in the big pile on the left... there’s only one person to blame.
            Like I said, I’ve got a thesaurus on my desk.  But it’s not right here in arm’s reach, like the dictionary.  It’s a shelf up and off to the side. Just enough that I really need to stand up to get at it.  And move some LEGO people.

            Structure—A friend of mine is really into cirque school.  I’ve seen her do some of those aerial silk tricks where she’ll climb to the top of the studio, wrap her legs, bring the silk around her body, and then sort of roll down the silk. She spins and the silk twirls all around her and it takes two or three minutes for her to work her way back down to the floor.  I’m sure most of you reading this have seen some version of this, either live or maybe on television.  Its really beautiful and amazing when done right.
            It’s also—and she’d be the first to admit this—a really inefficient way to get from point A to point B.  And taking even longer to do it, well, that just gets exhausting for the performer and the audience.  None of us have the stamina for that kind of thing.  Getting there is half the fun, absolutely, but the point of most trips is still getting there.
            When the trip itself becomes the focus, it means my goals have shifted.  Getting to point B isn’t the important thing anymore.  And since storytelling is, in essence, getting characters from point A to point B... well...
            If I think of my story as an A—B line (to fall back on geometry), how often does my chosen structure deviate off that line?  How many times does it not move along the line at all?  How often does it go backwards?
            And how much of this is because of how I’ve chosen to structure things?
            I’ve seen people write page-long sentences which serve no purpose except to be a page-long sentence.  Sure, it’s very impressive in an MFA, grammatical-accomplishment kind of way, but past that... does it really advance the story?  Is it pushing the narrative, or just pushing the fact that I sat through half a dozen classes on creative writing?
            If I’m overloading my story with flashbacks, a non-linear plotline, or twenty-two points of view... what am I hoping to accomplish?  Are they adding anything?  Would it honestly lessen the story to not have them? Or am I just adding in gimmicks that I’ve heard make a story better without any real understanding of how or why they work?
            Just like how an obscure word is wrong if it’s just there to be obscure, an overcomplicated structure is wrong if it serves no purpose except to be overcomplicated.

           Said—I’ve mentioned this a few times.  People will never notice if you use said.  Honest, they won’t.  Said is invisible.  What they notice is when my characters retort, respond, pontificate, depose, demand, declare, declaim, muse, mutter, mumble, snap, shout, snarl, grumble, growl, bark, whimper, whisper, hiss, yelp, yell, exclaim, or ejaculate.  Yeah, ejaculate.  Stop giggling, it was a common dialogue descriptor for many years.  Once I’ve got three or four characters doing this all over the page, I shouldn’t be too surprised if my audience stops reading to shake their heads or snicker. 
            Now, granted, there are times where my characters will be hollering or whispering or snarling.  And when that happens, I don’t want my readers to already be bored by my constant use of different dialogue descriptors.  I want it to count.  Overall, they’re just going to be saying stuff.  So I shouldn't overcomplicate things and draw attention to myself.

           These are just a few things to watch for in my writing, granted.  There’s always going to be that person who finds a clever new way to draw attention to themselves.  And there will always be exceptions, sure.   Really, though, photobombing my own story isn’t going to be a winning strategy.
            Never forget... first and foremost, people are showing up for the story.
            Quick note, before I forget.  If you happen to be in the Los Angeles area, this weekend I'm hosting the Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies in Burbank on Sunday.  It's three hours of writers talking about writing, it's open to everyone, and it's free. Stop by and talk.  I guarantee it'll be highly adequate.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about a big car accident I was in many years back.
            Until then, go write.
            Just don’t be seen doing it. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

I Always Wear a Mini-Parachute Under My Clothes

            Old reference from the Incredible Hulk comics.  Paraphrased, but very relevant.  Points if you know who said it.
           So, a few weeks back I talked about suspension of disbelief.  It’s how we guide our readers through the parts of our stories that, well, don’t hold up to rigorous examination.  They’re inherently wrong, illogical, or maybe just very out of character for that person on the page--or maybe for anyone.  This sort of thing breaks the flow of my story.  If I break the flow often enough, my reader’s just going to put the book down and move onto something more entertaining like the latest episode of Galavant.  Or laundry.
            Now, that being said, sometimes I just need a coincidence or an irrational act.  It’s the curse of being a writer.  Every now and then someone needs some amazing good luck or really horrible bad luck.  They find the key.  They forget the password.  They manage to make the nigh-impossible shot on their first try.  Their cell phone battery dies.
            Here’s a quick tip that can help make that moment work.
            There’s a device I’ve mentioned before called “hanging a lantern on it.”  It’s when I take that odd coincidence and—rather than try to hide it or brush it aside—I draw attention to it.  I put a spotlight on it.  Not as the writer, mind you, but within the story itself.  When I hang a lantern on something, an odd or unlikey event happens and my characters address the oddness or unlikelihood of it
            In my Ex-Heroes series, for example, the subject of origins comes up in the second book, Ex-Patriots.  One of the characters, Cesar Mendoza, has the ability to possess machinery, and explains that he got the power when he was younger.  According to him, he was struck by lightning while working on a car’s alternator.
            Ridiculous, right?
            Thing is, St. George immediately points out how ridiculous this is. He even gives examples and explains just how impossible it is for a lightning strike to give someone superpowers.  Cesar’s response is just to shrug and point out “Yeah, but it did.”  And then he asks how St. George got his powers, and our hero awkwardly admits he got his powers by getting caught in an explosion when a radioactive meteor hit a chemical storeroom at the lab where he was cleaning up.
            So, why does this little trick work?
            Well, y’see, Timmy, when my reader sees something ridiculous happen in the story and my characters acknowledge that thing is ridiculous, it makes them more believable and relatable.  It’s just the way we’re wired as people.  We can’t forgive a million-to-one coincidence that everyone takes in stride, but we kind of buy it if everbody comments on the odds we just beat.  When the reader and the character have the same reaction, it pulls the reader in a little bit rather than pushing them away.
            Now, does hanging a lantern make a story’s lucky coincidence totally acceptable?  Well, not always.  But it’ll push back the suspension of disbelief a few notches.  So if I’m asking the audience to accept something small-to-midsize (that five people on a subway car all have the same birthday), and I make a point of commenting on the oddness of it, the readers will probably accept it without too much trouble.  If it’s a huge coincidence that really strains belief (“None of the codebreakers thought to see if the password was his birthday?!?”)... well, there’s only so much any plot device can do.
            Also, keep in mind I can’t include dozens of belief-straining elements and hang a lantern on each one.  In fiction, just like in real life, people start to get weirded out by too many coincidences.  When it happens once it’s good (or bad) luck.  Twice is just crazy.  Three times... okay, now I’m looking around.  Four times and someone’s interfering with my life, somehow. 
            Looking at it from the authorial side of it, it’s something you can only do once or thrice before people start to catch on to what you’re really doing.  A good magician rarely repeats a trick, because once the audience sees what you’re doing, the trick’s ruined. 
            And now I can never use it again.
            So if my readers are going to think something is a bit unlikely... maybe my characters should, too.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about photobombers.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Woooooorld of Tomorrow!

            Welcome back.  Glad to see you all survived the violent transition to 2016.
            I like to start the year by going over what this pile of rants is for and why I do it.  I think it’s good for any of you who’ve stumbled across this page.  It’s also good for me, to help stay focused on helpful tips and suggestions and, yes, the occasional rule.
            That’s more or less how this started, almost nine years ago now.  At the time, I was writing for a screenwriting magazine, and I’d see tons of articles and websites about tricks and gimmicks—the sort of stuff you worry about after writing.  I’d guess at least two-thirds of writing articles, even in our own magazine, fell into this category.  Stuff like how to get an agent or manager, how to aggressively network, how to arrange book signings, that sort of thing.  Most of which seemed like... well, like it was skipping a few steps.
            And some of these folks were asking to be paid for their pearls of so-called wisdom.  
            So, I went to my editor with a few spec columns about... writing.  Some basic things I’d written up based on my own years of many failures and a few successes (or, as some folks call it, experience).  And the columns were rejected.  A few months later I went to another editor, he passed them up the chain, and they were rejected again.  Those three columns became the first posts here.  I’d tossed them up just so it felt like I’d done something with them.  I thought they were fairly well written and made some good points—I didn’t want them to languish on my computer.  Maybe in the tiny, limited space that was the internet somebody would stumble across them and find them useful.
            (Bonus fact. Maybe a year after I started posting here full time somebody pointed out Thoth-Amon was also the evil sorcerer in the Conan books and comics.  Completely slipped my mind when I picked the name for the site.  I just went with it because Thoth was the Egyptian god of writing)
            Anyway, as I worked my way further into the life of a full-time writer, I was exposed to more and more people’s work.  I read scripts for a couple different contests and got a bunch of exposure to it (reading 400+ pages a day will do that to you).  And it struck me that I kept seeing the same basic mistakes.  Often to wince-inducing levels.
            Okay, so this is just my own experience, but at this point my experience is pretty broad so I feel good about saying it...
            Most aspiring writers fall into one of two camps.  Some think writing and storytelling are mechanical, quantifiable processes that can be broken down into solid rules and formulas.  These are the folks who will use Syd Field as proof that their screenplay is perfect and quote the MLA Handbook to explain why their novel deserves to be published  
           The other group think rules are for old-school losers who don’t get that spelling, formatting, and structure just hamper the creative process and will get overlooked when people see the inherent art in the writing.  Nothing matters past the pure art of words flowing out of their fingertips.  Because we all have fantastic stories to tell.  Don’t know how to spell that word?  That’s what spellchecker’s for.  Don’t know what the word means?  Well, they’ll get it from context.  Not in the mood to write? Then just wait for the muse to strike.  Someone said bad things about your writing?  Ignore them, what do they know?!  Nothing matters except being happy about your writing.
            Both of these groups are usually wrong, for the record.
            Note that I said “usually.”  Most folks think it’s all-or-nothing.  You have to be on one extreme or another.  The truth is that it’s more of a middle ground.
            Y'see, Timmy, there are correct and incorrect things in writing. I have to know how to spell (me—not my spellchecker).  I have to understand grammar.  I need to have a sense of pacing.  If I’m writing a script, I’ve got to know the current accepted format.  As a writer, I can’t ignore any of these requirements, because these are things I can get wrong and I’ll be judged on them. 
            On the other hand, there is no “right” way to start your writing day or to develop a character.  There’s only the way that’s right for me and my story.  Or you and your story.  Or her and her story.  This is the Golden Rule that I’ve mentioned here once or thrice.  If I ask twenty different writers about their method, I’m going to get twenty different answers.  And all of these answers are valid, because all of these methods work for that writer
            But that still doesn’t mean I can ignore every convention or rule I don’t like. I need to understand the rules if I want to break them successfully. Yeah, maybe there are ten or twenty people who broke the rules and succeeded... but there are hundreds of thousands, probably millions, who broke the rules and failed miserably.
            And that’s what I try to do here.  Talk about writing.  Not the after-the-fact-stuff, just writing.  I talk about rules that we need to learn and follow (until we’ve got the experience to bend or break them).  I try to offer some various tips and suggestions I’ve heard over the years that may (or may not) help out when it comes to crafting a story.
            I have a few topics on deck for the weeks ahead.  Author visibility.  Action.  Inside jokes.  Stakes.  Motives.  A few others.  And if there’s something that’s been gnawing at you that you’d like me to blab about, let me know down in the comments.  I’ve been doing this for a while—there aren’t many topics I haven’t had a painful learning experience with, and I’m always willing to share.
            Oh, also... if you happen to live in the southern California area, I’d like to recommend the Writers Coffeehouse.  It’s a monthly meeting of writers of all types and levels to talk about... well, writing.  All aspects from first ideas and editing to pitching and marketing.  It’s free, it’s fun, and it’s open to everyone.  Jonathan Maberry (author of the Joe Ledger series, the Rot & Ruin series, and many others) brought it with him when he moved to the San Diego area, and he hosts a Coffeehouse the first Sunday of every month at the Mysterious Galaxy bookstore. And starting this month, on the 24th, I’m going to be hosting one here in Los Angeles at Dark Delicacies.
            So check that out if you’re in the area.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about lanterns.
            Until then... go write.