Thursday, April 27, 2017

Read it ALL! Every Page!

            Okay, not going to talk about editing.  For a couple reasons I decided to push that back a bit. If anyone really wants it sooner rather than later, please feel free to say something down below.  I’m flexible.
            Anyway, new topic.
            Bad movies.
            I’ve mentioned once or thrice before that I tend to do long Twitter rants most Saturdays about whatever (anonymous) bad movie I’ve dug up on Netflix, SyFy, Comet, or... well, sometimes from my own collection.  Terrible characters, wince-inducing dialogue,  eye-rolling motivations, bad pacing, awful reveals or twists.  Sometimes the movies are fun-bad, and other times...
            Look, on Saturdays my liver earns its keep.  Let’s just say that.
            A lot of folks follow along, and at least every other week somebody’ll make a comment about my masochistic tendencies.  Or my willingness to suffer.  Or ask why I don’t just watch something, y’know, good.
            Here’s the thing, though.  I kind of like the bad movies.  Yeah, they’re kind of painful sometimes, but they’re always at least mildly entertaining.  Even if it’s in a Mystery Science Theater sort of way.
            Plus, they’re kind of educational.  And a great exercise for the imagination.  Yeah, I know that sounds bizarre, but... it’s the truth.
            Let’s be honest.  We probably all know somebody who refuses to watch bad stuff, right?  Or to read it.  They’ll shut it off half an hour in or toss the book across the room, usually with a snide comment or three about how bad it was.
            Quick test, though... can they say why it’s bad?  Can they cite specific examples?  Anyone can say “this sucks,” but it’s a lot harder to explain why something sucks.
            Better yet... can they suggest ways to fix it?  How would I go about improving the plot structure?  The dialogue? The motivations of the hero and the villain?
            These aren’t ridiculous tasks.  As writers, we run up against them all the time.  There are scenes I’ve rewritten a dozen or more times because the dialogue just didn’t ring true.  There are times I’ve gotten halfway through something and realized it would be a lot better if I structured it a different way.  There are times I’ve guided everything towards Yakko doing something and then realized “wait a minute... why the heck would he do this?”
            Then I solve these problems. Because that’s my job.  I’m a writer.
            So in that sense, every bad movie or patience-testing novel is a chance to flex those muscles.  They’re exercise that I can do while I’m geeking out a bit.  Sometimes they even inspire a rant or three.
            That’s kind of important.  The exercise bit.  We all need to exercise.  No, not just because we sit in a chair for a good part of the day.  Well, yes, because of the chair, but also because exercise is how I get better... stronger... faster. 
            That holds for physical and mental exercise. I have to do it.  I have to do it regularly.  And I need to challenge myself with it.  If I’m following the same workout routine now that I was a year ago, it means I haven’t moved forward at all.  I’m going easy on myself.
            I know a lot of folks who pride themselves on not reading bad books.  “There’s no time for that,” they say.  “Why would I waste a day reading something awful?”  They’ll proudly tell me how they’re re-reading something by Neil Gaiman or Margaret Atwood or Michael Chabon or some obscure piece by Gertrude Stein or Faulkner.
            And there’s nothing wrong with reading any of these writers. They’re all just fantastic.  Their words are wonderful to read, and it’s almost frustrating how easy they can make it look.
            But this shouldn’t be easy.  If it’s easy... I’m probably doing something wrong.
            Y’see, Timmy, there’s only so much I can learn from the good stuff.  If it’s the only thing I take in, then I’m kinda limiting myself.  I’m not giving my brain a chance to exercise--to stretch and flex and try to do its own thing.  Following a perfect, well-laid path is great, but if it’s all I ever do, it’s all I’ll know how to do.  And if it’s a path that 90% of all English majors and would-be writers have followed at one point or another...  I'm not going to find anything new or surprising at the end of it.
            It’s like if I said I wanted to explore the whole world, but I never wanted to go off a paved road. Paved roads are great, yeah, but the way I’ll find stuff—especially new stuff most people haven’t seen before—is by traveling down the dirt roads and off road.  And sometimes getting out and wading through thigh-deep muddy water.
            ...oh, man, I hope that’s mud...
            I’d never say avoid the good stuff, because we want to surround ourselves with great material.  To bathe in it. Take long moonlight swims in it.  But... we all know what happens if you stay in the pool too long.
            Don’t be scared of reading something bad.  Or watching it.  Have fun with it. Force your way through.  And figure out why it’s bad. Where did it go wrong?  What does it need?  How could it be fixed?
            And then... go write.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Amazon Review Revisited

            For those who came in late...
            About seven months ago I came up with this idea of running a little experiment with Amazon’s review policy. A new wave of complaints had cropped up about reviews being deleted or blocked, and—as they tended to-there wasn’t a lot to them past “Amazon took down my review of XxX!”  Supposedly, the new rumor at the time was that everyone’s favorite online megastore was surfing social media sites, looking for potential connections between reviewers and reviewees—and using them as a reason to delete reviews.
            It struck me that I’d been hearing about review policies for years, but never seen any hard data on them.  It always came back to he said this, she said that, lots of people had it happen to them. There were never any hard facts.
            So... I decided to find some.
            I reviewed thirty books I’d really loved. One every day for the month of August.  I listed out all the social media connections between me and each author. I even did a handful of control reviews—ones that should get pulled regardless of social media connections.  And I listed all of it out for everyone to see.  And tweeted about it. And talked with folks on Twitter about it.
            A month after my little experiment ended, nothing had happened. No warnings, no deletions, no reprisals... absolutely nothing. Even on the control reviews, which really should’ve been removed under every possible version of the review guidelines. I left it at that and decided to check in six months later.
            Which is... right about now.
            How many control reviews finally got spotted by Amazon’s algorithms?  How many warnings were issued?  Did my account get frozen?
            Pretty much across the board... nothing’s changed.
            All thirty reviews are still up, including all the blatant control reviews.  Heck, two of the control reviews even have “people found this review helpful” checks.  I never heard a peep from Amazon. Even with the tweets.
            Seven months since the first review, Scott Sigler’s Alight (great series, check it out).  Scott and I have known each other for almost four years, if memory serves. We follow each other on Twitter, we’re both with Random House subsidiaries, we’ve done panels together, he even interviewed me last year at WonderCon in front of an audience of about three or four hundred people.  There is absolutely, no question a connection between us.
            That review is still up.
            I feel pretty comfortable saying the social-media scanning algorithm is either a myth or reaaaaaaally poorly written.  If it can’ t find a connection between me and Scott, it’s pretty inept. Same holds for me and the next two authors on the list—Chuck Wendig and Eloise Knapp.  There’s social media connections and shared blurbs galore.  Heck, with both of them I think there are pictures floating around.  Incriminating pictures, for these purposes.
            And yet... the reviews are still there.
            So, yeah, the social media bot probably isn’t real.  I wouldn’t bet anybody’s life on it, but the evidence sure seems to point that way.
            I think there’s another possible conclusion we can draw here, too. I might be stretching here, so bear with me. Feel free to point out flawed logic.
            The control reviews have nothing to do with the social media bot. As I mentioned above, just as they are they violate the basic rules for reviews.  And all six of them are still there.  Yeah, six examples isn’t a great number for a data pool, but considering the 100% survival rate...
            I think getting reviews pulled doesn’t have anything to do with the reviews themselves. I think it has to do with me. Or at least, my account.  Last time, one of the spitball-hypotheses I tossed out was that Amazon only applied its all-seeing eye to accounts based on suspicious activity or complaints about said account.  I’m more inclined to lean that way after six months of no activity.
            So if my review of Yakko’s Yappy Dog Omnibus gets quickly pulled, I think it’s more likely because of something else I did in the past than anything about this particular review.
            But, again, other ideas are always welcome.
            If I happen to notice anything happen with these reviews, I may revisit this again.  Barring that, though, I’m probably done with it.  Feel free to share the data with anyone next time you hear about reviews being pulled. 
            Or, in the spirit of science, repeat the experiment and share your results.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Trick in Three Acts

             Very sorry I missed last week.  Last month was copyedits, this time I got layouts back for my next book (Paradox Bound, out this September, available everywhere somewhat-adequate books are sold) and spent my days going through it line by line and making notes.  Far too many notes, if you ask my editor.
            But we’re all here now.  Soooooo... let’s talk about magic tricks.
            Most people tend to think of magic tricks as kind of a bam done thing.  I pull your chosen card out of the deck or out from beneath your drink or out of your own shirt pocket.  I cut the lady in half without killing her.  Then I make the other lady float on air. 
            The truth is, though, well-done magic tricks almost always have a very specific set of steps.  There’s a casual set-up.  There’s a moment of confusion.  And then there’s the big surprise that makes the audience ask “How did you do that?!” 
            Think about it. When I do a card trick, the first part is actually showing you the deck of cards—a totally normal, regular deck of cards, right?  And then, after you pick a card, it vanishes from the deck... waaaaait a minute.  How’d I manage that, right?  And then when I reach over and pull the card out of your sleeve, or point it out sitting face-up under your own drink, right there in front of you the whole time... the crowd goes wild.
            And if you like, you can hear Michael Caine explain all of that in the trailer for a fantastic, underappreciated Christopher Nolan movie.
            So... why are we talking about magic tricks?
            A common term that gets thrown around a lot is three-act structure.  If you’ve been poking at this storytelling thing  for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard it from someone.  Doesn’t matter if you’re working on novels, screenplays, short stories, or even magic tricks—I’d be willing to bet late night Jack-in-the-Box money that you’ve come across this term or had it pushed at you.
            I’m a big believer in three-act structure. I think a good number of flawed stories can tie their problems back to it. Or to a lack of it.
            I also believe three act-structure gets misunderstood a lot.  And I think there are a lot of gurus and producers out there pushing “three act structure” who... well, don’t have any clue what they’re talking about.  We’ll get to that in a little bit.
            Oh, one other thing.  It’s important to note that three-act structure doesn’t really fit in with the other story structures I’ve talked about in the past—linear, dramatic, and narrative.  It’s kind of a different thing in the way a car can be an automatic and a rifle can be an automatic, but they’re not the same kind of automatic.
            Okay, so here we go...
            Any sort of storytelling has a beginning, a middle, and an end. 
            That’s three act structure.
            No, seriously. That’s pretty much it.
            If we want to go into a little more detail... every kind of story needs these three stages.  I’m not talking about page count, but the way my story develops.  If it’s done right, any reader can tell you when these parts begin and end in my story.
            In fiction we can even hang a name on each of these three acts.  We call them establishing the norm, introducing conflict, and then resolution.  You’ve probably heard of these, too.  I’ve talked about them here before, but let’s do a quick sum up.
            Establishing the norm is just that—showing how things normally are.  This is when my characters go to work, pay bills, spend time with their loved ones, and so on. It’s when we often find them at their most relatable.
            Remember that everybody has a “usual day.”  For Rey, a usual day means scavenging parts from middle-of-nowhere wrecks on a middle-of-nowhere planet.   For Steve Rogers, a usual day means going for a morning jog, meeting up with a coworker, and then dealing with some international terrorists who’ve seized a ship on the high seas. If my characters don’t have a normal day, they can’t have an abnormal day, a day when they’re thrown out of their element and have to impress us somehow.
            Introducing conflict means something is knocking my characters out of their comfortable little world and forcing them to take some sort of action.  The new manager says they have to pay all their back rent by the end of the month.  A dying stranger shoves a magic amulet into their hands.  Turns out that one night stand is going to have nine months of consequences followed by eighteen years of repercussions.  Or maybe some little droid shows up claiming it has information it has to get to the resistance, followed by a lot of people with guns who want said droid.
            Note that this can happen more than once in my story.  If my character keeps getting pushed further and further out of his or her comfort zone... that’s great.
            Also worth noting that conflict has to cause, well, conflict.  If I introduce something that doesn’t bother my protagonist, or takes no real effort to deal with... that’s just boring.  If it’s boring to them, it’s going to be boring to my audience.
            Resolution is, big surprise, when things come to an end. Usually because my protagonist has taken some action and made things come to an end.  It’s when answers are made known, hidden things get revealed, and plot threads all come together.
            Word of warning—if I’m submitting to contests or trying to catch the attention of an agent or editor, ending my story with “to be continued” immediately costs me at least twenty points in whatever grading system they’re using (so hope it isn’t a ten-point one).  If I’m doing this, my story doesn’t actually have a resolution.  It might even mean that I—the writer—don’t have a resolution for it.  And since this third step is an important part of the story, well...
            Look if I stop at mixing the cake and don’t take that last step, I can’t be surprised if most people don’t want to eat it, right?
            Or that some of it call it “sludge” instead of “cake”...
            That brings up another point.     Y’see, Timmy, a story that doesn’t have these three parts has a sort of... meandering quality to it.  Characters either do nothing or do tons of stuff without any real motivation to it. 
            This generally comes from writers only having one or two parts of a story.  Maybe they had a great opening and a cool middle, but didn’t quite know how to end it.  Or they came up with a cool opening and a clever end, but never figured out how those two acts would connect.  I’ve even seen a few folks write a very cool opening... and nothing else.  There was a great set up and then the story sort of spiraled off into... nowhere.
            Okay a few last notes. I’ll try to be quick.
            First, there are still a few little caveats to this, of course.   Many stories start in the middle and take a bit before they go back and explain the beginning.  In medias res some folks like to call it.  Other  stories start at the very end, and use the ending as a frame for the whole story. All of this is fine, and I’m sure all of us could list off a ton of great examples of books and movies that do this.
            What we need to remember, though, is all these stories still have a beginning, a middle, and an end, even if they’ve been juggled around a bit in their tellings.  As I’ve mentioned before, the narrative structure of a story doesn’t change the linear structure.  The events have a definitive starting point.  The characters have a baseline the audience sees them at.  There’s a progression brought about by conflict and changes resulting from the conflict.  And it all leads to a definitive conclusion. 
            Like the examples I mentioned above, I’ve seen stories that try to come in on the action, on the conflict. Thing is, they never go back to explain how these events began.  The story’s left flailing without that first act, wondering what set off these events and why the character’s invested in stopping them (or helping them along).
            Second thing, which I promised at the top, is some of the nonsense that gets spread about three act structure.  I see a lot of folks try to argue that all these acts have very specific lengths--you have to be done with this by page sixteen, this must happen by page twenty-three, that must be revealed by page forty-two.  That’s just nonsense, and it’s easy to find hundreds of examples that prove it’s nonsense.
            I think a lot of this comes from people who want to quantify stories somehow.  They want to be able to create a marketable formula of “how to make a bestseller,” and that’s just not possible.  Every story is going to have its own pace, and altering that pace at arbitrary points isn’t going to make it appeal to more people.
            I’ve also seen some people who try to argue for six act structure, seven act structure, or some other number. They justify this by pointing out that television shows often have four or five acts.  Sometimes a teaser and a closing, too.
            I think these arguments come from misunderstanding what three-act structure really is.  These particular gurus are trying to tie it back to those larger, more expansive structures I mentioned earlier.  Television shows do have multiple acts, yes, but that’s structuring for a format, not for a story.  I know a bunch of television writers, and none of them think that their scripts have a beginning, a middle, another middle, one more middle, and then an end.
            Now, all of this leads us to a question some of you have probably been wondering about since I started this little rant.  What’s so important about three-act structure? Why do we need it?
            The big reason is because a beginning, middle, and end in my plot usually means we’ve had character growth in our story.  You may have heard me mention one or thrice that good writing is about good characters.  As readers, we want to see who they start off as, what changes them, and how the change affects them in the long run.  That change is a real response that grew out of his or her experiences. 
            When that happens, readers stop thinking about these creations of mine as characters and start thinking of them as people.
            Next time, since I’ve just waded through a ton of tweaks and edits... I thought we could talk a bit about tweaks and editing.
            Until then, go write.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Con-etiquette, Part III

            Okay, last part of this little trilogy of advice for conventions.  I’ve talked about being a better vendor at a con and also just being a better attendee. So let’s talk about the big one...
            How to be a better guest of a con.
            This is the brass ring, the holy grail, the cake we were promised for so long.  The folks at Hypotheticon are going to pay for me to travel, put me up in a hotel, maybe even let me order room service!  I’ll get panels, maybe signings, a seat in the autograph area, and possibly even invited to one of those cool after parties all the cons have.
            Someday I’ll get invited to one of those parties...
            Anyway... here’s four tips based off a few decades of watching con guests and a few years of being one.
            Bonus—a lot of these points hold for book signings, too.

1) Be yourself
           This can be kind of a tough one.  The first time I was a guest at a con, I was so determined to look professional and make a good impression.  I wore a nice shirt and a sports coat and even debated a tie.  I wore nice shoes.  I bought a new messenger bag so I wouldn’t be carrying the ratty, cheap thing I’d had  up until then.
            One of my first panels got recorded.  If you find it (no, I will not link), you can see me fidgeting through the whole thing—tugging at my collar, rolling my shoulders to make the coat sit right.  I didn’t even realize I was doing it. It was just one of those unconscious things we all do when we’re uncomfortable. 
             Fortunately, my pants fit fine...
            The lesson I learned was to just be myself.  If you like wearing dress shirts and blazers, great. If you like jeans and t-shirts, fantastic.  Sun dress, tuxedo, bowling shirt, pink cowboy hat, black trenchcoat—if it’s what I’m comfortable wearing, then I should wear it.  People aren’t coming to the con to meet some stylized, twitchy version of me, they just want to meet meThe real, relaxed me.
            Plus, I’m a writer. It’s one of the few occupations where you can show up wearing pretty much anything and people will say “oh... must be a writer.”

2) Be grateful 
           Holy crap! Somebody thought I was worth investing in. Somebody thought I was worth being a guest at Hypotheticon!   They paid for my hotel and my flight and they stuck me on panels and maybe gave me table for autographs. It was all that stuff I was hoping for up top and more.
            I’m so thankful for that gift bag of books and freebies—and I make sure the people working the con know. I think it’s fantastic that somebody’s making sure I got lunch—and I make sure the folks working the con know.  They’re nice enough to have someone check on me and see if I need a bottle of water—and I let them know how awesome it is.
            Look, if I get mugged walking to the con and someone shoots off two of my fingers, this is still the best con I’ve been to in the past year. Because these people are making an investment in me and I want them to know I understand and appreciate it.  I mean, jeeeesh, they could’ve gone with Sarah Kuhn or Craig diLouie or Kristi Charish, somebody at least semi-popular, and they picked me.  I’m not going to complain about anything unless I lose at least three fingers, two toes, and an eye.

3) Be on time
             If I’m a guest of Hypotheticon, I’m probably going to be on a couple panels, maybe have an autograph session or two.  And I want to be on time for every single one of them.  It’s the absolute easiest way to show a bit of gratitude and respect. 
            This means double-checking and triple-checking to be sure I’m where I’m supposed to be when I’m supposed to be there.  If I’m at a popular, crowded con (especially one of the big ones like SDCC or NYCC), it might take a lot longer to get from point A to point B, and I need to factor that in to my travel times.  Also, it’s not unusual for con schedules to change.  That first email you got might say 1:30, but by the time the con’s up and running the panel’s now at 1:45. or maybe 1:00.
            I know of one panel at NYCC 2015 where the moderator was almost half an hour late because the con schedule changed over the three weeks since he first wrote up his personal itinerary. That guy was a serious jerk.  You don’t want to be like him.
            Like the above point #2, remember how amazing it is that somebody thought it was worth their time and money to have me here.  I at least owe them the common decency of being on time for the places they want me to be.  Yes, even if it means skipping lunch or cutting off my conversation with that editor or producer or really excited fan.  Be polite, apologize, and get where you need to be.

4)Don’t be a panel hog
            Okay, simple math problem. I’m on a panel with four other authors (five total) and there are 100 people in the audience.  How many people came to hear me talk?
            Well, there’s a lot of factors there, sure.  I may be stuck on a panel with Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or Andy Weir.  I might be the screenwriter on a panel with Grant Gustin, Melissa Benoist, Stephen Amell,  and Caity Lotz.  But most of the time, I can probably go with simple math and assume about 20% of that audience is here to listen to me.
            Another way to consider this is that 80% of the audience is not here to listen to me.  If they want to hear from Kristi or Craig or Sarah (to use our previous examples), they’re going to be seriously annoyed if I try to dominate every question the moderator throws out. And people who are annoyed at me rarely want to buy my books... at least, in my simple understanding of human psychology.
            I’ve seen this from both sides.  I’ve been on panels where somebody always had to speak first, kept leaping in, kept talking over people.  I’ve been out in the audience when one panelist cut into every response to make their observation or their funny comment.  It’s not fun from either direction.  It’s mildly amusing at first, but after a while you just want that person to shut up and let someone else talk for two minutes.
            And, yeah, that “shut up” also comes from both sides of it.
            It’s tough, because we all want to get noticed.  It’s so freakin’ rare for writers to be in the spotlight, the temptation’s to do pretty much anything we can to keep that focus on us.  Plus, I’ve got such a great follow-up comment to that question and a clever, double-entendre closing remark.
            It’s easy to stay in that spotlight.  But I want it to be a positive focus.  I want people to remember me, but for all the right reasons—not because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut for five minutes.
            Want an easy way to stand out on a panel?  Make sure everyone else gets a chance to speak.  Defer to other speakers.  Make a point of passing off your “turn” to someone else who hasn’t gotten to speak much.  It’s just being polite, and they—and their fans—will remember you for it.

            So there’s that—four easy steps to being a fantastic convention guest.
            Come back in a couple days and listen to be blab on about the three steps of a good magic trick.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Can You Describe the Suspect?

            So, a friend of mine gave me a book a while back...
            Okay, gave might be the wrong word.  I think she got rid of the book and I happened to be the unlucky recipient, like a bottle imp or that sexually-transmitted monster in It Follows.  She needed it out of her life, I just happened to conveniently be there at the right time. It was nothing personal.
            Anyway...
            The first page of the book was nothing but exposition about the main character’s backstory. Exquisite, laboriously crafted, meticulous exposition.  Where she grew up. How she grew up. Facts about her mother, father, and brother. 
            Page two was her life as a child, a teen, and a blossoming adult.  Favorite toys, sports, and fashions.  Random crushes. Assorted adventures.
            Page three was the college years.  Classes she liked and didn’t. Boys she liked and didn’t.  Women she liked and didn’t.  Intellectual growth, sexual discovery, more fashion, and a tiny bit of body modification which would lead to arguments with her parents.
            Page four was after college. The new job. New fashions.  Being an amateur athlete. Competing in the office and out on the street. Getting better. Moving up the ladder, seeing big things in her future at the job and the sport.
            Page five was the accident. The long, drawn out accident.  Gruesome details of it as it happened.  More gruesome details as doctors took drastic action to prevent further damage.  Some of this spilled onto page six.
            Most of six and seven were recovery. Coming to terms with her new life.  Depression. Self loathing.  Breaking up with Chris.  Purging everything that reminded her of who and what she used to be. Getting rid of so many favorite clothes and shoes.  Won’t be needing shoes anymore. More sulking and self loathing.
            On page eight— we introduced the next character.
            By sheer coincidence, page eight is also where I stopped reading.
            Seven pages of long, rambling sentences showing off an impressive vocabulary, but all of it telling the story, not one line of it showing anything.  Nothing actually happened, I just got told a bunch of stuff that had happened in the past.  There wasn’t even any dialogue in all of that.  None.  After all the clothes talk, I could probably tell you how many days the main character’s bra and underwear matched, but I didn’t have the slightest clue what kind of voice she had.  Or anyone around her.
            Hell, you probably started skimming all that, right?  And that was just me describing what the book was describing.
            A common problem for all writers is when description gets too excessive.  I get caught up in giving all the details and nuances of this person I fleshed out in my character sketch.  Or mentioning every detail of that period furniture and firearms I spent three days researching.  Or maybe just taking all those little things I noticed on my hike through the woods and putting every one of them down on the page.
            And at some point, while I’m pouring all this magnificent stuff out, I lose track of the fact that somebody’s going to have to read all this.  And since most readers are more interested in the plot and story--the active elements of my writing—odds are they’re going to start skimming after the fourth or fifth flowery description they’ve come to realize has no bearing on the story
            So, maybe I should question why I’m including stuff my readers are just going to gloss over. Most semi-decent storytellers would.  Alfred Hitchcock once said that drama is life with all the dull bits cut outElmore Leonard said he leaves out all the parts people would skip anyway.
            Excessive description that serves no purpose... serves no purpose.  That’s all there is to it.  And, no, “art” isn’t a purpose.  If I’m going to spend seven pages describing Phoebe’s wardrobe through the first twenty-six years of her life, everything that happens in the rest of the book better hinge on those clothing choices.
            (Bonus tip--this kind of overwriting is deadly in scripts.  By its very nature, screenwriting is a very concise, minimal form of storytelling.  A sure way to get rejected from a contest is to put in piles of description that just shouldn’t be there.)
            Now, I’d like to mention another issue with massive over-description.  We all tend to form our own mental pictures of people and objects in stories.  My lovely lady and I were chatting once about Jack Reacher, the Lee Child character, and realized we both had very different ideas about what he looked like.  I get notes from people all the time about how this cover got Stealth wrong or Cerberus doesn’t look like that.
            That’s part of the joy of books.  We can all have our own image of characters like Stealth or James Stark or Kincaid Strange or Sinjir Rath Velus.  In that little movie theater inside our skulls, they have a certain look and sound that’s special just to us.  And nothing’s more distracting than to be constantly reminded of all the many details that don’t match up with that mental picture we’ve already formed.
            Okay, one last thing...
            There’s a flipside to description, and that’s when I never actually describe anything.  Sometimes this is an attempt to invoke mystery or suspense.  Other times it’s a way to evoke an emotional response with a clever metaphor or simile (when the knife sinks into your gut and it’s like every painful sensation in your life got balled up, hammered flat, and pushed up under your ribs). 
            And sometimes... well, sometimes it’s just a cheat.  I can try to avoid the monster for as long as possible, which helps build suspense and dread, but eventually I need to say what it is.  It’s not uncommon for a writer to try to find a way around an actual description at this point.  After all, I’ve been talking about how fantastic the Hypotheticoid is for three-quarters of the manuscript now, and my description of it may not live up to all that hype.
            But I still need to describe it.
            So, here’s an easy tip.  It’s so easy I bet half of you will shake your head and ignore it.  And some of you are probably already doing this without thinking about it.
            If I’m going to describe something... I need a reason to describe it.  That’s all. I need a reason for the level of detail I’m using.  The cashier at WalMart and a medical examiner can both see a bullet hole in a person’s head, but they’re both going to view it very differently.  And if it takes me three paragraphs to explain what the cashier sees, what am I going to need for the medical examiner?
            If I’m going to describe a character, I should have a reason for doing it.  I can’t describe the last police officer I dealt with, but I can give a lot of details about the last few people I went out to dinner with.  I’m betting nobody here can list everyone they crossed paths with the last time they were in a grocery store.  Oh, one or two might stand out, but let’s face it... there were probably dozens of people there.  
            And they just weren’t important in the long run.  
            Y’see, Timmy, if I waste my descriptions on the little things, they won’t have any weight when I get to the big things.  Because by then my readers will already be conditioned to skim my descriptions because they don’t matter.  And once readers are just skimming...
            Well, then I’ve got nothing.
            Now go write.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Con-etiquette , Part II

            Did anyone notice the clever title...?
            So, this time last week I talked about some of the ways I can be a better con-goer, based off my own meager experience.  This time I’d like to blather on  about a couple ways I can be a better vendor. Which, admittedly, is pretty much the hardest way to attend a convention (said as someone who's stood on both sides of the folding table).
            Being a vendor—any kind of vendor—means I’m starting Hypotheticon already in the red.  Paying for a table, paying for whatever I’m selling (books, for most of us, yes?), sometimes paying for internet, electricity, travel, housing.  There’s only two or three cons I do as a vendor, but I can say off the top of my head I probably start opening day a grand in the hole.  Not a great place to be.
            Here’s a couple easy things I can do to get out of that hole...

1) Be happy to be there—I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen vendors lurking behind their own tables.  I was at one con and the guy across the aisle from me actually just sat behind his table scowling. He barely talked to people--just sat there looking like he’d lost a bet and was stuck minding the store while his partner was off hooking up with the Australian women's volleyball team.
            Not a lot of people stopped to talk with him, as memory serves.
            I try to make a point of always standing behind my table. At the very least, I kneel on a chair.  I try to smile and be upbeat.  If I look upset, why would anyone stop to talk with me?  If I don’t look at least mildly excited to be here at Hypotheticon, isn’t it natural to assume whatever I’m selling is boring?
            Think of any surly, grumpy cashier you’ve ever had to deal with.  Did you want to deal with them?  Did they make you want to spend more time in their store?
            Don’t be the grumpy person.

2) Be polite to the customers—This kinda feeds into the last point. First off, I need to respect the fact that people at the con just might not have money to spend. Or maybe they’re not ready to spend it now (I’ve only been here for an hour, I’m still looking around, STOP PRESSURING ME!).  Remember, nobody likes the hard sell, on the internet or in real life.
            Second, I need to respect the fact that some people just might not like what I’m selling.  Nothing wrong with that. My mom doesn’t like all the stuff I write. Neither of my grandmothers was too fond of my chosen genres, either. That’s just the way things work.
            Also, I shouldn’t shout at people. Sure, I can try to call them over, maybe even have a quick long-distance sales pitch.  I’ve been known to call out “excuse me, sir, are you a fan of hypotheticals by chance?” to people walking past my booth at Hypotheticon.  But I don’t want to be hollering at every passer-by like a carnival barker.  I think we’ve all been in a mall or store where someone randomly shouts “HI, TRY OUR CHICKEN FINGERS!” or maybe “WELCOME TO TOYS R US!”
            Seriously, how often do we cringe from that?  It pretty much guarantees that’s not the store we’ll be walking into next, right?
            Look at it this way—would you, personally, stand at a booth when the vendor kept shouting at other people? Are you more likely to walk over to a booth where there are other people already standing there?
            Okay, now think of how those two points work together...
            Also, one last point that struck me at SDCC last year. Cons are getting tough for vendors because 95% of what vendors are offering is available online.  I remember being thrilled about ten years back when I found an old Maskatron (one of my very first sci-fi toys), something I hadn't seen in years.  But I just now searched eBay and found dozens of Maskatrons available for sale, in and out of the box--one of them selling for less then I paid ten years ago.  There are countless online shops selling old toys, geeky t-shirts, art prints, rare comics, and more.  The "once-a-year-geek-yard-sale" aspect of cons is over.  So the big thing I've got going for me as a vendor is in-person interaction.
            Which leads nicely into...

3) Be honest—Okay, who’s encountered the vendor...  no, let’s put it this way.  Who’s encountered the random person on the con floor who says “Would you like a free stress test?” or maybe “Would you like a free portrait?”... only to find out that free leads to “please buy my art or books” or maybe even “for the love of--oh, please don’t walk away I need this sale”...?
            As I mentioned above, we all have our own gimmicks and tricks and methods for bringing people to our booth and pitching our stories.  But they need to be honest. I can’t tell someone I’ve got the cure for cancer and then say “it’s a book about alien zombies in space” once they’re standing in front of me.
            I can’t lie if I’m trying to sell my books. Not about awards or blurbs or genre or why I called you over or anything.  The minute we think someone’s being dishonest with us, we walk away. And someone fighting to keep us there just makes us want to run more.  Oddly enough, being pushy tends to push people away...
            So don’t lie, and don't be pushy about it.

4) Be polite to other vendors
            So... let’s be honest. Cons are kind of scary because—to an extent—they can be seen as a zero sum game.  If you’re spending money at his booth, it’s money you don’t have to spend at my booth.  Her gain is my loss, and vice versa.
            Thing is, though... if I look at it this way, I’m just going to come across as a dick. 
            A friend of mine was at a con once where the guy in the next booth kept interrupting her while she was making her spiel, trying to lure the folks she was speaking with over to his booth.   I was at one con where a publisher was undercutting some of their authors who were also there.  At another con, some vendors were shooting random people with Nerf guns... including other vendors trying to talk to customers.
            Personally, I try to be nice to everyone at cons.  Other writers aren’t my competition.  Never forget that.  This isn’t a scheme or a marketing strategy—it’s just the truth. Plus, most of them are just fun, fantastic people, so the whole experience will be better if I’m working with them rather than against them.
            And you know what?  I’d guess at least a third of the people who stop by my table when I’m a vendor come by because another vendor recommended me.  For a while, Craig diLouie and I would get paired up at cons by our publisher and we loved it. We could (and often did) pitch each other’s books to whoever stopped by our table.  I did the same thing with Peter Stinson at SDCC one year. And Katie Cord from Evil Girlfriend Media.  And Tim Long.  And Ellie Knapp.  And Jonathan Moon.  And Jessica Meigs. All of these folks are great writers, and I wasn’t going to twist someone’s arm to make them buy my books when it was clear one of these other authors was a better fit for their tastes.
            It will never, ever hurt me to help out another vendor.  Especially if they’re another author selling their own books. And the truth is, as I mentioned above, it's tough to just break even at cons as a vendor.  Really tough. It's better to just look at the whole thing as a publicity event rather than a sales event.
            Plus, it’s always great to have someone who’ll cover my booth if I have to run for the bathroom.  Or for food.  And nobody’s going to do that if I’m a jerk.

            And there you have it. Four really simple ways I can be a better vendor.  And probably make my way out of that hole I was talking about at the start of this.
            One week from now, how to be a better con guest.
            A few days from now... I can’t even describe what we’ll be talking about.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Can’t Find The Target

            By odd coincidence, this is post 404.
            There’s an old development saying you’ve probably heard—let’s throw it at the wall and see what sticks. The premise here is that if we use every single idea we have, surely the good ones will do something to get noticed.  They’ll stick to the wall or rise to the top or... something.
            The unwritten part of this premise is that you’ll also end up with a serious mess.  Yeah, my two or three good ideas stuck to the wall, but look at all the crap piled up on the floor under them. Hell, look at the wall itself.  It’s all stained and smeared and streaked.  This isn’t a clean-up situation, it’s a straight repaint.  I can say with confidence that we're not getting our security deposit back.
            With all that in mind, I’d like to tell you the story of Phoebe McProtagonist...

            Phoebe struggled through life from an early age, born ten months premature on the same day her father died in the Middle East, one week before his two-year tour ended.  Overwhelmed with grief, her mother committed suicide during the birth.  Phoebe’s years as an orphan in child protective services left her hard and jaded, and she never had a single role model—growing up without parents, foster parents, inspiring teachers, sports heroes, pop icons, internet stars, or even a giving tree.
            In high school, Phoebe struggled with drug addiction, alcohol addiction, adrenaline addiction, video game addiction, sex addiction, a hoarding problem, OCD, Tourette’s syndrome, and extreme boredom because she wasn’t being challenged (no inspiring teachers, remember). She got pregnant three times on prom night, couldn’t get any abortions because she lived in a red state, then suffered four miscarriages from drinking lead-tainted Jaegerbombs after graduation.
            (alcohol addiction, remember?)  
            Determined to honor the memory of her unborn children, Phoebe withdrew from society and home-grad-schooled herself, eventually receiving magna cum laude, perfect attendance, and a triple doctorate in music theory, film criticism, and genetic engineering.  Thus armed, she applied to be an astronaut and, after months of rigorous testing, was finally accepted into the astronaut training program by those goddamned f@¢%!#g bastards at NASA.
            (Tourette’s, remember?)
            But when the rest of her team was killed in a launchpad fire that also burned down her house,  Phoebe takes time off to sort out her life.  She sorts it out, gets her groove back, gets her ducks in a row, realizes what’s important, and is struck by lightning walking along the beach.  As she lies on the shore, feeling a moment of divine bliss and agony as all the hair on her body burns away, giant mutant fiddler crabs come out of the ocean, the product of unregulated industrial waste dumping—
            (red state, remember? See how it all ties together? That’s what good literature does!)
            —and drag her away into the water. In her final moments, the race between drowning and being eaten alive by the mutant crabs, she realizes the single secret to clean energy, FTL travel, and how to make the perfect 7&7.  But there is no one to tell before she dies, because she walked the beach alone.
~The End~


            Okay, that was maybe a little bit over the top, but you might be surprised how common this kind of storytelling is.  I saw it in writers’ groups in college (part of the reason I don’t belong to such groups anymore) and countless times when I used to read for screenplay contests.  You wouldn’t believe the number of dramatic stories that are just brimming with excess plot devices and story threads. Hell, I freely admit some of the early drafts of The Suffering Map were the same way.
            This springs from a common misconception--that writing a bunch of plot points and character elements is the same thing as writing a story.  The logic is that if I load up my story with every possible dramatic idea for every single character, one of them’s bound to hit the target, right?  And then, eventually, the story will be dramatic.  Plus, adversity builds character, therefore it stands to reason all this extra  adversity in my story will make for fantastic characters.
            I mean, Phoebe comes across a great character, right...?
            Simple truth is, this is all just excessive. If I’m doing this, I’m wasting ideas and wasting words, using thirty or forty examples instead of just three good ones.  It’s the kind of thing that tells a reader I was more interested in creating art than I was in telling any kind of decent story.
            Of course, in all fairness, it’s not just the artsy literature types who do this, although I must admit, they seem to be the most common offenders.  We’ve all read (or seen) the action story where every punch draws blood, every car chase ends with an explosion, and every leap rattles bones.  Plus every character had a snappy one-liner to toss out (or at least think about) before, during, and after offing one of the villains. And there were lots and lots of villains...
            Then there’s the sci-fi stories that have vast interstellar conflicts and near-magical technology and unstoppable cyborg monsters and omnipotent, cosmic beings and sacred orbs   Seriously, reading contest scripts I was so sick of orbs.  I came to loathe the word.  Know what else?  Nobody in bad fantasy ever has eyes, they all have orbs.
            Friggin’ orbs.
            And sooooo many horror story that have cubic yards of blood and gore everywhere.  Plus there’s a little chalk-skinned child who moves in high-speed “shaky vision.”  And a secret psychopath.  And one person who snaps and gets dozens of people killed because they opens a door or invite something in or play with the puzzle box. 
            It’s been almost thirty years, people. Thirty. Years.  Haven’t you figured this out yet?  Nothing good comes from opening the damned puzzle box!  Even my mom knows this!
            Y’see, Timmy, whatever my chosen genre is, just loading a bucket up with plot elements and flinging them at the wall does not create a story.  It’s the opposite of writing in just about every way possible.  No, not even if I only consider the leftover stuff. As I mentioned above, all those other ideas are still going to leave stains and streaks, no matter how solid the good stuff is.
            Take that as you will.
            Next week I’ll talk a bit more about cons, and I might talk about excessive stuff a little more, too.
            Until then, go write.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Con Etiquette, Pt I

             D’you see what I did there...?
            So, Emerald City Comic Con was a few weeks back,  Wondercon’s this weekend, and we’re kinda lunging full force into the spring con season (followed by the summer con season, the fall con season...).  I think I may be doing eight or nine cons this year, which may be a new record for me.
            I love cons.  I think I went to my first convention, in Boston, for my thirteenth or fourteenth birthday. I met artist/writer Dave Cockrum (who gave young me some career advice), a few Marvel editors, and Matthew Waterhouse (who played Adric on Doctor Who back in the day).  And we won’t talk much about when that was, but I’m pretty sure Reagan was president at the time...
            Over the past couple of years, though, I’ve been seeing conventions in a whole new way.  I started going as a vendor, hawking my books to whoever I could attract over to my little folding table.  Nowadays I’ve hit the point where more of my con time is panels and signings.  If I happen to be at a table, it’s not quite so much work to get somebody to talk to me.
            Anyway, while my experience isn’t exactly overwhelming, I thought it might be cool to toss out a couple of convention tips I’ve gleaned over my years of con-going, seeing things from a few different angles.  But I thought I’d divide them up a bit.  Today I’ll talk about attending cons as a fan, next week as a vendor, and that last week I’ll talk about the holy grail—being a guest of the con.
            Sound interesting?
            Well, good.  ‘Cause that’s how I’m doing it.
            Let’s start with the basic form of con-attendance—as a fan.

1) Be aware of my surroundings – Soldiers and police have a great term called situational awareness.  Really simply put, it means I’m being constantly aware of what’s going on around me and how it might affect me... or vice-versa.
            This ability can make me a convention ninja, no joke.
            If I’m going to wander around the con for a day, I should at least try to be aware of the other people around me.  At a crowded convention, all it takes is one person who decides to stop in the middle of a busy aisle or intersection.  I don’t want to be the person everyone’s glaring at... or deliberately slamming their shoulder into.
            Another factor here—what have I brought for bags?  We all have something at cons. I generally just have a messenger bag, but lots of folks have whatever big bag they’re handing out with passes.  I’ve even seen a couple folks wearing backpacks that are probably larger than you’d need to spend a summer backpacking in Europe. There’s nothing wrong with any of these, I just need to be aware of how much space they take up. Suddenly those random stops or turns make me a serious menace (and a major annoyance).
            Also, most cons are going to have limited dining facilities.  I really shouldn’t camp out for an extra hour after I’m done eating.  I know this is a tough one, because so many big cons—looking at you, SDCC—have very, very limited places to stop and rest.  Once I actually score a table, there’s a mad desire to hang onto it as long as possible. I just need to remember—everyone else wandering around feels exactly the same way.

2) Be respectful of everyone’s time—Most con events are timed one way or another.  Panels and autograph sessions are rarely more than an hour.  Even vendor interactions don’t last long—they’re generally trying to manage a large area and juggle numerous potential clients at once.
            If I’m spending five minutes at the microphone or in front of a line or even in front of somebody’s booth... that’s a big chunk of time. We’ve all been there when that guy gets up in front of the panel and talks for three minutes before getting to his question.  I’ve seen people argue their case for submitting book manuscripts and art samples at publisher’s booths, no matter how often the random marketing intern has to explain they’re not the person for that.  I’ve watched people stand dead center in front of a booth, talking to the vendor for ten minutes, then admit they don’t have any money.

3) Don’t be creepy—Okay, I know this is a tough one because nobody... okay, most people don’t think they’re being creepy. Just remember—not everybody likes it. No, it doesn’t matter what kind of con it is.  I just really need to be honest with myself when I engage with cosplayers, vendors, professionals, con staff. How am I coming across
            No, not in a perfect world, in this world. How are people going to react to what I’m saying or doing?  Is that woman really going to be happy I wrapped myself around her or pinched her ass? Is that vendor really going to be pleased that I stood by his booth breathing heavily for twenty minutes? Is it okay that I keep staring at that woman’s cleavage?
            Yes, a lot of these involve women—go figure!  It's kinda sad how many times this has to get brought up.  No staring, no touching, no rude comments.  If I’m trying to justify how whatever I’m about to say or do is okay... I’m probably doing something creepy.
             Seriously, don’t be creepy. 

4) Remember, everyone here is human—Yes, even that artist/writer/actor I’ve worshipped as my personal god/dess for the past five/ten/twenty years.  Some people aren’t dealing well with the crowd.   Some need to hydrate.   Some people need a drink of the other variety.  Some folks are just tired—cons can be exhausting.  Maybe they’ve answered that same question I just asked fifty times today.
            If someone seems annoyed or they get a little short with me, I should try to give them the benefit of the doubt before tweeting about what a horrible person they are.  Granted, maybe they are a horrible person—they’re out there, sure—but there’s a good chance they’re just kinda burned out.
            And let’s not also forget that... well, maybe I already messed up one or two of those first three rules.

            So there’s that.  Four simple rules that can make me a lot more popular at  a convention. Or, at the very least, not as annoying.
            Remember them at Wondercon.
            And come back in a couple days for my next pearl of writing wisdom.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sentence DNA

            Okay, so, a few weeks back (before the amazing ten year anniversary) I said I’d blab on a bit about words.  That time has finally come.
            Be ascared. Be very ascared.
            Anyway...
            It’s been a while, so I figured I’d bring up spelling again.  I’m sure it seems silly that I keep revisiting this topic again and again.  But there’s a reason for it.  Words are the absolute core of what we do as writers, the bare-bones building blocks.  They’re the DNA of storytelling, the atoms to my sentence molecules.
            I must have a solid, working vocabulary if I want to be a writer. No question, no excuses.  I need to know what words mean.  I have to know how to spell them.  I have to be able to tell them apart.
            That last one’s a killer.  We’ve all seen people go on about there/they’re/their and of course about its and it’s.  But I’ve seen folks mess up corporeal and corpulent. I’ve seen major websites confuse possible and posable.
            Granted, ninety-five percent of the people making these mistakes aren’t claiming to be writers.  They’re just folks trying to express their thoughts online.  This isn’t their field of specialty.  As I’ve pointed out before, I can cook, but I’m not a chef.  I can do an oil change and rotate my tires, but I’m no mechanic.  And I don’t think the folks at my garage would look down at me for not being able to tell a carburetor and a fuel pump apart on sight.
            But...
            I’d probably look down on them if they couldn’t tell the two apart.  I’d eye all their work and claims with a bit of skepticism.  Truth is, I probably wouldn’t trust them with my car anymore. It’s the kind of ignorance that calls all their work into question.
            That’s why spelling is so important for writers.  It’s one of the first benchmarks we need to pass—one of the first indicators that we know what we’re doing.  I can’t tell you how many times, as a contest reader, I would start judging a screenplay because it had two or three misspelled or misused words in the first two pages.  If I hit twenty pages and there were more than ten typos...  Well, even when I wasn’t supposed to judge on spelling, there’s simply no way that’s not going to color my thoughts when I hit another problem.
            And y’know what?  The scripts with spelling problems always had another problem. Always.
            I wasn’t alone in this, just in case you’re thinking I’m some hypercritical jerk who’s scared of newcomers taking his job or something (keep in mind, this was almost eight or nine years ago—nobody wanted my job back then).  A good number of readers—and editors and agents—are also writers.  Even when we’re not supposed to judge on spelling... we all kinda judge on spelling.
            Anybody who’s a professional in this word-making field will.
            That said... here’s a list of paired-up words.  They’re homophones or malonyms or just... well, screwups.  As always, all of these examples come from actual mistakes I’ve seen in the wild—in books, catalogs, and on various websites that try to claim a degree of professionalism.  Hell, one of these was in an article about how to be a better writer!
            Yeah, it’s just painful to think people messed up some of these...

mote vs. moot
conscious vs. conscience
defuse vs. diffuse
reign vs. rein
angle vs. angel
dual vs. duel
idle vs. idol
dyed vs. died
pique vs. peak
emulate vs. immolate
bawl vs. ball
jive vs. jibe
do vs. due
sleight vs. slight
rouge vs. rogue
marital vs. martial
hansom vs. handsome
don vs. dawn
gild vs. guild
turn style vs. turnstile

            Neat list, eh?
            Did you know what both words meant?  In every example?  Because, again, I need to know what words meanAll the words.  Not a pretty good idea, not a general sense of how it works, not pretty-sure-that’s-the-one-I’m-looking-for.  These are my basics, after all.  This is sugar vs. salt for a chef, or carburetor vs. fuel pump for a mechanic.  If I mess these up... well, I can’t be shocked when people stop treating me like a professional.
            Actually, if you don’t mind me running a bit long, I want to toss out something else here, too.  Another point I’ve mentioned before, but it still bears repeating.
            Sometimes, for storytelling reasons, maybe I want spelling mistakes in my work. Maybe it’s an epistolary story, or just a jutted-down note within the narrative, and the character in question isn’t supposed to be all that bright. Then it makes sense that they may not be good at spelling, yes?
            I need to be super-careful when I do this.  This is one of those things that can make me lose points with editors and writers.  Seriously.  I’ve seen both.
            D’you notice up above when I’d written jutted instead of jotted?  Not a huge mistake.  Understandable, even—U and O are pretty close on the keyboard.
            Which means, of course, there’s a chance that’s an actual mistake, not one I added in for narrative effect.  If I see somebody mess up they’re and their, I’m left wondering if the character’s not too bright... or the author isn’t. There’s no real way to be sure.
            Compare that to when I used ascared up top. It’s not a word you’ll find in many dictionaries, but it’s a generally accepted colloquialism. It’s also (take notes now) a spelling that would raise flags for copy editors or even the dumbest of spellcheckers. And readers. We’d immediately question how such a blatant, easily caught error made it in, and the default assumption would be that I meant for it to be.
            Y’see, Timmy, I need to be smart about deliberate mistakes in my writing. It needs to be very clear they’re deliberate—screw-ups the character made, not me.  Because if they’re not sure, most readers are going to assume it’s my mistake.  And as I mentioned above, if I make too many mistakes...
            Well, again, I can’t be shocked by how people react.
            Next time...
            This is getting tough, because I’m thinking of making Tuesday posts a semi-regular thing, but they’ll probably be a bit broader and not quite as writing-specific. So “next time” won’t actually deal with writing, but it’ll still—
            Y’know what? Just keep checking back here.  It’ll be worth it.  Hopefully.
            Until then, go write.