Thursday, October 26, 2017

Metaphorically Speaking

            It’s the Halloween season, so I thought this’d be a good time to tell you about this nightmarish thing I saw once. 
            I mean, it was just hideous.  This thing was like Lucifer and the heat death of the universe had a child together.  And not a wanted child. One of those “we got seriously drunk and shouldn’t’ve done this and it wasn’t even that fun but now I guess we’re parent together” children.  Yeah, there’s no question this thing knew its parents didn’t love each other and only stayed together for it.  You could see it in the eyes.  It had eyes like those island wells Conan used to find in all the old Robert E. Howard adventures.  Conan finds a lost city at the center of the island’s jungle (or at the top of a hill or plateau) and there’s always a big stone plaza with some kind of pool or well, swirling with water or blood or eternal, stygian darkness.  One of those sort of wells
            Its whole body was like that, really.  It was the kind of thing you’d read about in pulp supernatural stories or old horror comics, where the writers would throw together a few adjectives to create something that was just visually repellent on one level or another.  They’d exaggerate this limb or that feature to the point your mind just couldn’t help but register it as unnatural.  Alien, even.
            And the smell!  If you left someone to die alone of exposure on a mountainside, with just enough food and firewood to give them faint hope but not enough to actually keep them alive—the few minutes before life left their body, that’s just what it smelled like.
            Okay, there’s more (believe me, I’ll never forget this thing) but if I don’t stop now we’ll never get to the actual point I wanted to make.
            Every now and then I see a writer so desperate to be artsy, to write “literature,” that they load their work with metaphors and similes.  I mean dozens and dozens and dozens of them.  Why just call something red when we can describe it as the color of blood and roses and UMass sweatshirts, right?
            That last item is kind of a hint where this is going.
            Of course, blood and roses are the obvious choices if I’m going to describe something as red without... y’know, actually saying red.  So some writers feel the need to come up with seriously obscure visuals or tortured similes in order to not go the "obvious" route.  Yeah, you can all guess what color a UMass sweatshirt is because I just lined it up with blood and roses.  But if I told you the sky was the color of a UCLA sweatshirt is that... good?  Bad?  Unnatural?
            This is really similar to—a natural outgrowth of, really—an issue I’ve brought up a few times before.  Some writers go out of their way to find rarely-used, little-known words they can use in their manuscripts.  A few of them go one step further and use these words to create their metaphors.  Or they’ll use such obscure or personal references that the description means nothing.  Telling you the beast had fur the color of my first childhood cat doesn’t really tell you what color its fur is.
            I can still do worse, though.  Remember that nightmarish thing I saw, the one I described up above?  Let me ask you a question.
            Do you have any idea what this thing looks like? 
            Can you describe it at all?  Any specific aspect of it?  Height?  Weight?  Color?  Heck, do you even know if it’s alive or dead? Am I describing a creature or a statue or a really poorly-designed rocking chair?
            Sometimes we get so caught up in evoking a certain image or mood or sensation that we... well, we never actually describe anything.  Our attempt to viscerally describe the horror actually leaves us with a horror-shaped hole on the page.  It’s scary for half a beat, but then we realize there’s not anything there.  It breaks the flow as we have to stop and figure out what something
            In screenwriting, this kind of thing is even more deadly.  Screenwriting’s a really precise form where I need to correctly convey a message to multiple people.  The director, the actors, the prop people, the wardrobe folks. the makeup artists, maybe even a special effects team.  We need to all be on the same page regarding what the demon prince Ognaron looks like.  Because if we’re not, well... our shooting day is going to have a lot of delays.
            Back when I used to do interviews, David S. Goyer told me he got (playfully) chewed out once by Guillermo del Toro for a weak bit of metaphorical description he’d used in a script they were working on.  And then Goyer admitted he was telling me this because he’d done the same thing again—to himself—when he got to direct his own screenplay.
            Now, don’t get me wrong—I freakin’ love a good metaphor.  A clever, descriptive turn of phrase is like a shot of good whiskey. It’s a hard kick that makes me feel all warm and soft in the gut.  It’s not unusual to hear me make a small gasp or sigh after one.
            Y’know what happens if someone does shot after shot after shot after shot?  I’ll give you a hint—it’s not pleasant.  Yeah, some folks have more tolerance than others, but by the twelfth or thirteenth, well, most people are in a bad place.  Especially if they’ve been doing them one after another.  Too many in a row without something solid in there... that’s a recipe for disaster.
            Y’see, Timmy, like whiskey shots, I don't want to have nothing but metaphors.  They’re fantastic and lovely, but for them to really work I need some solid stuff, too.  Hell, there’s a reason people say to have a lot of bread before a night of drinking.  It’s plain and kinda boring... but it’s a solid foundation that makes the other stuff a lot easier to swallow
            So get out there and celebrate the wild, crazy horror that is Halloween.
            But, y’know, don’t be scared to actually describe it now and then.
            Next time, I’d like to share a bit of advice about something you should always never do.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Center of Attention

            This week I wanted to blather for a minute about an unusual character/structure issue that I see come up now and then.  It’s one of those kinda basic ideas that can actually be difficult to spot.  Or explain.  And, to be honest, it’s something I’m dealing with a bit in my current book.
            I’ve talked before about protagonists.  How my main character should be the main focus of the story, the ones we’re spending the most time with.  Secondary characters should be secondary.  Background characters should kinda blur into the background. This all sounds straightforward, right?  I think we all understand this.
            A mistake I sometimes see is when every other character in the story immediately recognizes this character as the protagonist.  They all stop doing their own, natural thing and start treating the main character as... well, the center of things.  The character stops moving through the plot, and instead the plot begins to revolve around them.
            Let me give you an example...
            A few weekends back, one of my random movies was about a guy (we’ll call him Yakko) who wanted to propose to his girlfriend.  Had the ring and everything.  Thing was, said girlfriend got roped into being in charge of some office team-building thing up in the mountains. She had to cancel their plans for the weekend, unless...  He was an experienced camper/hiker and he had a big SUV—if he wanted to drive they could still kinda spend the weekend together.  Yakko thinks about it, decides sure, he can propose up by the lake, and agrees to help out.
            Thing was... as soon as their group got together and started driving up into the mountains, everyone started to defer to Yakko.  All the office folk who’d never met him before.  That jerk Evan from accounting.  Even his girlfriend, the one who was supposed to be in charge.  Suddenly the protagonist was the boss and nobody questioned it... or even mentioned it.
            This isn’t really surprising, on one level, that writers end up doing this.  If I want my character to be active and do things, they need to be in a position to do things, right?  Their decisions need to count and have an effect on the plot.  There’s a reason most of the Star Trek shows are about command officers and not the enlisted crew.  It’s tough to be active when everything about my position requires me to defer to someone else.
            Of course, the answer to this isn’t for me to have the unconnected boyfriend suddenly become the key figure on the teambuilding trip.  Or for the junior crewman to take command of Deep Space Nine.  Just because someone’s the center of attention in my story doesn’t make them the center of attention in their story.  There’s other stuff going on in the world and structures in place.  The wheels are in motion, as some folks like to say.  I may focus my story on an Army private, but that doesn’t mean suddenly everyone in the military should defer to that private just because she’s the protagonist.  The Army has a whole chain of command that would... well, kinda stop that from happening.
            How often in your own life have you had something to do, something important to say, and people just brushed you off or ignored you or talked over you?  It’s happened to me countless times.  Hell, it just happened yesterday on the phone with the bank.  It’s my life, but for some reason everyone else refuses to treat me as the most important person in it.
            Now, I can already hear people typing frantically in the comments, ready to explain three or seven ways that everyone in the US Armed Forces could end up deferring to a private.  And sure, it could happen.  Anything could happen. That’s the joy of fiction.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I’m going to do it, that explanation has to be part of my story.  It can’t be something that just happens, that I gloss over.  That’s lazy writing. That’s me writing myself into a corner and then smashing a hole in the wall rather than figuring a way out.
            I’ve talked about a similar idea before—the idea that I’m telling the right story.  It’s a weird idea, I know, but if I’ve set up a situation that requires a lot of stretching of conventional norms... well, I have to explain that stretching.  Why are we all deferring to the boss’s boyfriend?  Who put that crewman in charge of the Defiant?  Why is the general insisting everyone follow the private’s orders?
             Is my main character someone who’s going to be able to navigate my plot?  Is their social status, financial status, employment, or health going to be an unbelievable (or maybe flat up impossible) hindrance to the story I’m trying to tell?  If they aren’t, I’m probably going to need to explain or justify a lot of things.
            Or maybe I’m just focusing on the wrong person.
            In my current project, the main character is the fish out of water.  My ignorant stranger.  She’s the new kid on the job, and this means she’s pretty far down the totem pole.  So... why does she end up in the important meetings once the crisis occurs?  How is she an active person, making decisions that affect the story when there are so many people above her making their own decisions?
            It’s taking a bit of work.  But I’m making it happen.  Hopefully in a believable way.
            Next time, I wanted to talk about the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Time For A Break

            Well, this is overdue.
            So sorry for the long delay.  I’d hoped to get this up before I left for NYCC, but that day turned into the usual rush of dealing with this and that and more of this.  I don’t know why it’s always so frantic. It’s not like I was going to be there for a week or something.  Two nights, but I always pack as if I’m gone for a week anyway. I’ve got stuff for different weather conditions.
            Stuff for downtime.  Some stuff for fans. I’m ridiculously overprepared.
            But let’s take a brief break from that and talk about paragraph breaks.
            Like that weird one I just did up there.
            I’ve mentioned paragraphs here once or twice before.  If sentences are taking a nice bite of the story, paragraphs are three or mouthfuls before having a taste of something else.  I eat some spaghetti, then I have a sip of wine or maybe nibble some garlic bread.  The different tastes and textures work together to make the meal more enjoyable.  If I just had to sit and eat a bowl of spaghetti with nothing to break it up, it’d get kind of monotonous. No matter how much I like spaghetti.
            Hell, at some point, depending on the size of the bowl, I’d probably even start dreading the stuff.
            And that’s what I’m trying to avoid with paragraphs.  I don’t want readers to get bored or intimidated by what they see on the page. I want to break up the text in a way that furthers the story.
            For example, when two people are talking, my attention goes back and forth between them.  Yakko to Wakko.  Someone new talks, and my attention shifts to them.  Perhaps it’s going back and forth, or it could be bouncing between three or four people.
            Think of paragraphs as those moments of attention.  If something shifts my attention away, I should have a new paragraph.  And then maybe it’ll shift back. or perhaps shift to something new, and my attention will follow it there.
            Even if the same character keeps talking, it can get broken into two or more paragraphs. In any long monologue, I should be able to sense the pauses and shifts, the places where our attention moves on to a slightly different aspect of the topic.  Maybe I’m going on about death, with a slight shift into funeral arrangements, my time in Kazakhstan, maybe even thinking ahead to my own end.  Perhaps we’re talking about relationships, and being in love vs. young love vs. older love, and maybe those few times we mistook sex for love, or knew it wasn’t love and didn’t really care at the moment.  In each of these long discussions, it’s easy to see where it could—and should—spin off into a separate paragraph.
            Y’see, Timmy, when I don’t break things up, I end up with a paragraph where it jumps around a lot, nothing’s really described, and it covers a lot of ground.  Sometimes I may do that for a certain effect, yeah, but most of the time... that’s not great storytelling. Of course, the flipside to this is breaking something in the wrong place.
            When I do that, the flow stumbles, because it means I’ve probably broken a point of focus.  Like up at the top, when I broke the second paragraph in the middle of describing the items I was packing.  Or just two sentences back.  I should’ve started the new paragraph on “Of course,” because where I did break it cut off this whole idea I’m trying to explain.
            Which, granted, helped to explain it.
            See—new idea, new break, great flow.
            Breaks also alter the pacing.  Have you ever noticed in a lot of movies and television shows, we get more cuts (jumping from one camera angle to another) as action and tension build?  We jump from Arya to Brienne, back to Arya, to a wide shot, to Sansa watching them duel, then back to Brienne and Arya for that dagger flip... 
            You can feel the energy and the pace right there, just seeing it written out, can’t you?  We understand there’s a lot going on and that all these people are—in their own way—involved in making this complete scene.  Our attention jumps around in one paragraph, but it does it fast because this is a fast-paced scene. 
            See, in prose (unlike film), those breaks would slow down the action.  Notice how the whole Arya--Brienne fight, almost two minutes on film, gets summed up really nicely in there?  When an action scene moves into several paragraphs, it tends to make things drag.  If I take six or seven lines to describe something that happens in one or two seconds, I’m altering the flow and forcing the action to that pace. 
            There may be reasons to do that, sure... but I’d better have a reason if I’m doing it that way.
            There’s also another issue at work here.  As readers, we kind of expect these breaks.  How often have you seen a wall of text in a book or online and just groaned a bit (out loud or internally).  They make that TL;DR reflex twitch in the back of our brains.  It’s because we understand information doesn’t come in giant slabs like that.  A wall of text is someone going on way more than necessary about a single topic. 
           The breaks help us keep things organized, too.  Remember I mentioned the back and forth aspect of watching a conversation?  We tend to follow that in prose, too.  If I have dialogue between Yakko and Dot, we don’t expect that dialogue to share a paragraph.  The breaks help us set the back and forth rhythm in our minds.  And when something disrupts that rhythm, it also breaks the flow.
            And, as I’ve mentioned many times before, breaking the flow of my story can be fatal.
            Because that’s my ultimate goal.  To have my story be smooth and readable. For it to draw people in, not push them away.  You’ll find people who try to tell you the punctuation and formatting of a story don’t matter, that a good story will stand on its own despite those things.  The truth is, though, the way it’s set out is going to have a huge impact on how it’s interpreted by readers.  How easily it flows.  How fast it feels. How accessible it looks. 
            So break things up. Y’know before your readers decide they need a break...
            Next time, I’d like to talk a little more about the center of our attention.
            Until then, go write.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

NYCC Schedule

            Hey, okay, absolutely the last reminder.  Honest and for true.  Here's a few places you can find me over the weekend at NYCC...