Thursday, February 16, 2017

My Latest Brilliant Idea

            So, a few weeks ago I got to witness an all-too common event.  The person whining about how “they stole my idea!”  Who they were isn’t important.  Sad truth is, it was a nonsense claim, one we’ve all seen more than a few times.
            Here’s an ugly truth that all half-decent writers know.  Ideas are cheap.  They’re cheap, borderline worthless, because they’re common.  Ridiculously common.  I can say with absolute certainty that I have more ideas for books than I am ever going to be able to write.  Seriously, even if I live to be a hundred, I’m pretty full up.  And know what? I’m going to have more ideas tomorrow. And the day after that.
            Not only that, but a lot of time my ideas will line up with the ideas other people have.  This is called parallel creation, and it happens a lot.  Especially when you consider how many folks come up with ideas they never do anything with.
            Here’s an absolutely true story.  Throughout 2008 and 2009, I placed in a few screenplay contests with a script I wrote called Reality Check.  It was about the crew of a retro-style spaceship who slowly come to realize they’re actually characters in a 1950s serial. Eventually, they figure out how to escape into the real world—which turns out to be a far more terrifying and dangerous place than they’re prepared to deal with. Especially when one of their mortal enemies follows them through.
            If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should.  It’s got a lot of the same elements as John Scalzi’s Redshirts, a ridiculously fun book that came out about two years after I won my last contest with Reality Check (if memory serves, I got a free copy of Final Draft for that one). 
            Now, I’m sure some people would go nuts and start shrieking about plagiarism and lawsuits.  Heck, I was dragged into a court case a few years back which was pretty clearly just weak parallel creation, but someone decided to sue over it anyway.  And lost.
            Simple truth is, Scalzi and I have never met (I think we were rushed past each other once at NYCC, but I’m not even sure of that). To the best of my knowledge he’s never been a judge or reader for a screenwriting contest.  I have absolutely no reason to think he ever saw my story.  We’re just two guys about the same age with similar educations, backgrounds, and interests who happened to look at something the same way and both decided to do something with it.  I wrote a screenplay, he wrote a novel.  That’s parallel creation.
            There’s also a funny rule of thumb I heard a while back that I think is, alas, horribly true.  The level of worry someone has about their idea being stolen is usually an inverse ratio to how good that idea actually is.  In other words, people tend to get really paranoid about their bad clichés and tropes being stolen.  That court case I mentioned before?  It was based off some ridiculously common clichés.  I mean, embarrassingly common.  I actually laughed out loud when the lawyer told me they were part of the core basis of the lawsuit.
            Y’see, Timmy, we all have ideas.  And the simple truth is, there’s somebody out there with the same influences, the same education, the same resources as me who’s having the same idea.  Maybe even ten or twenty people.
            Now, let me bring up a related point to keep in mind about ideas. In fact, here’s another story.  Genders, genres, and other facts have been changed (or maybe not) to protect the semi-innocent...
            I was at a convention a while back and one of the other attending authors offered me a copy of her book.  My to-read list is so huge I generally don’t accept such offers, but she was insistent so I said sure.  And then it slowly worked its way through my to-read pile until it was at the top.
            Said book was a fantasy novel that was aiming for a Game of Thrones-type feel.  It was very big on swordfighting.  Sword vs. sword, sword vs. axe,  sword vs. two swords, sword vs. sword and a dagger... 
            It just went on and on like this.  Every fifth or sixth page had a sword fight. Or a flashback to a sword fight.  Or someone talking about what they were going to do to someone else in an upcoming sword fight.
            And every battle ended bloody.  No mercy in this world.  Everyone either loses a head or an arm or gets impaled.  Sometimes all three.  Blood and guts sprayed everywhere and got on everyone.  House of a 1000 Corpses looked clean and sanitized compared to this book.
            Needless to say... it wasn’t that good.  There were several places where the book bordered on awful.  I read about fifty pages and skimmed the rest.  More sword fights.  More blood.  A few beatings.  The non-stop action wasn’t the only issue, alas, but it was the one that matters for today.
            Y’see, some of these battles were actually kind of clever.  They did things I hadn’t seen before in books or on screen. The way they approached a character or their training.  Some of the ways the fights went.  How some of them were described.
            But it’s not enough just to be original.  My book needs to be coherent, both in plot and in structure.  It needs to have flow.  These are the things that tie my ideas together and turn them into a story.
            I’ve mentioned before that ideas are rarely more than plot points, and a pile of plot points is not the same thing as a plot.  No matter how clever my idea is, it’s not going to automatically make my story into a good story.  Especially if... well, I don’t have a story.  And an idea without a story is...
            Well, it’s borderline worthless.
            Next time, I’d like to put a few thoughts on the block.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Love Is All You Need

             Yes, it’s that time of year again.  The time when a young writer’s fancy turn to thoughts of...
            Well, getting published, usually.
            But, that aside, there’s romance in the air this weekend.  And everyone loves a good romance because, pretty much across the board, we’ve all either been in love, are in love, or want to be in love. It’s a wonderful feeling.  Heck those first few months of giddy romance are just fantastic, aren’t they?
            Love is great because we can relate to it.  We believe in it.  For the most part, we enjoy seeing other people in love.
             (except when Wakko started dating Phoebe... those jerks... hate them so much...)
            If those three traits sound familiar—relatable, believable, likable—it’s because I’ve mentioned them two or six times as the traits of good characters.  So a good romance can be a powerful tool in a story, because it immediately grounds one or two of my characters.
            However...
            Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where, with no warning, two characters start professing their mad love for each other?  No preamble, no chemistry, they just suddenly  start flirting and making long-term plans.  None of us likes emotional fakery, and few things can sink a story faster than a pasted-on love interest.  It makes us roll our eyes while reading books and laugh while we’re watching movie.
            So, let’s revisit a few simple rules that can help craft a love story for the ages...

            The First Rule--  Okay, like I was just saying, love needs real emotions, and I can’t have real emotions without real people.  And real people, oddly enough, act in realistic ways.  Note that I said realistic—not rational.  Love is one of the most bizarre, irrational things most of us will ever encounter in our lives. 
            If my characters are real, though, they’re going to have needs, desires, plans, and tastes.  And it’ll stand out if they make choices that go against those traits.  Yes, opposites attract—they even have a lot of fun together—but if we’re talking about real emotions, odds are these two are going to have more in common than not.  To put it another way, the career-minded Army officer probably isn’t going to make serious long term plans with the quirky socialist musician.  Although... maybe she used to play guitar or violin, and he reminds her of another path she could’ve taken.  Having past conflicts and secrets can make a character seem real, too.
            Even then, how far and how fast they take things should be consistent.  Some folks schedule every hour of every day, others live in the moment.  People can be confident or nervous, experienced or awkward.  For some folks it’s a huge moment to have that first cautious, fleeting kiss on the third date, and other folks are in the parking lot tearing each others clothes off half an hour after they meet.
           Simply put, my characters need to be believable if their relationship is going to be believable.

            The Second Rule--  Quick show of hands.  Who’s ever been in a situation where someone’s been trying to push you into a relationship?  Maybe it’s friends or coworkers.  Could be the person you’ve been on one date with.  Hopefully it’s not relatives, because that’s always kinda... weird.
            Regardless, the result is it makes us want to get away from the object of our potential affection.  Nobody likes feeling forced into something, and so we don’t enjoy seeing other people forced into things.  That’s just human nature.
            Now, for the record, “someone” includes me, the writer.  Characters need their own motivations to get into a relationship.  I can’t just have them do things for the convenience of the plot.  If I’ve based my whole story around the folklorist and the soldier saving the villagers because of their mutual respect for each other, then I need a real reason for them to get together, because they’re real people (as mentioned in the First Rule). 
            And no, the reason can’t be something like “because they need to face Demosthenes the Elder-Lich in the third act.”  It also can’t be “I need a sex scene to hold people’s attention.”  If this is the basis of Wakko and Phoebe’s relationship... well, they probably won’t be celebrating any major anniversaries.  Not with each other, anyway.
            People get together because they want to get together, not because other folks think they should be together.

            The Third Rule – This one could actually count as real-world advice.  Don’t confuse sex with love.  There are lots of points in a story where it might be completely acceptable for two characters to have sex.  We’re all mature adults here (well, most of us) and I’m willing to bet most of us have had sex with someone we weren’t madly in love with at that moment.  Or at any point later.  Simple fact—sex is fun.  It’s a stress-reliever.  It lets us avoid thinking about other things.  Heck, it can even keep you warm.
            However... sex doesn’t always translate to love.  In stories or in the real world.  If my two characters fall into bed (or onto a couch, up against a tree, on a kitchen counter, etc), I need to make sure I’m clear what it means for both of them.  Forcing something casual into something serious will just read as forced (refer back to the Second Rule).
            So... sex and love are not the same thing.  Don't forget it.

            The Fourth Rule-- This is a tough one, because Hollywood keeps trying to tell us otherwise.  How often in movies can you immediately spot “the love interest” as soon as s/he is introduced?  It doesn’t matter what kind of film it is or what’s going on, it’s easy to pick out him/ her the first time we see them.  You may have heard this moment called the “meet-cute,” usually in screenwriting circles.
            Y’see, Timmy, the simple truth is...  romance doesn’t always fit in a story.   Someone could be fighting for their life, painfully wounded, or so scared they’re a moment away from a heart attack.  Maybe they’re already in a relationship with someone else.  Maybe they just have no interest in a relationship—emotional or physical.
            Forcing a relationship in these situations also risks making one or both characters seem very unlikable.  There was a television show a few years back where a police officer was presumed dead and in hiding, but kept sneaking off (in his new identity) to check on his wife and son.  Thing is, he was also spending a lot of time with this sexy blonde contortionist (no, seriously) and there was a lot of, shall we say, tension between them.  And chemistry.
            Thing is, this made the officer a very hard-to-like character.  Is he cheating on his wife?  Or has he moved on and found something new?  Is he sympathetic or a heel?
            Similarly, I read a screenplay once where the two protagonists start feeling strong urges toward each other while they’re searching for the woman’s abducted daughter.  Not years-back abducted, mind you—four hours ago abducted.  But, wow, doesn’t this private detective have great arms and his eyes are so blue...
            In ten words or less—sometimes it’s just not going to happen.

            So there are the rules.  Now go forth and spread the love.
            Where appropriate.  Don’t be that guy.  Or woman.
            Oh, and before I forget, this Sunday is the Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies in Burbank.  If you happen to be in the Los Angeles area, please swing by and join us as we talk about writing, publishing, and all the different areas they overlap.
            Next time we’re back here, I’d like to talk to you about a couple of ideas I’ve had.
            Until then, go write.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Six Years Ago In Kazakhstan...

            If any of you happen to follow me on Twitter, you know I have a habit of watching bad B-movies on the weekend--usually while I’m geeking a bit.  While I do, I tweet out random observations about the story, dialogue, plot points, and so on. More often than not... they’re not positive ones.
            There’s usually a lot of drinking going on, too.
             A few weekends back I was watching this movie that went for the standard “group of assorted soldiers thrown into an unnatural situation” scenario.  The same one that’s been kind of become the standard since Aliens did it with the Colonial Marines.  Often copied, never duplicated, as they say.
            Maybe twenty minutes in, one of the civilians asked a grunt why they were all so dedicated to the sergeant.  And said grunt told him this two or three minute story about how, five years ago, they’d been stationed on Theta Sigma, things went belly-up one night on patrol, and Sarge was the only one who kept it together.  He got them out of that hell-zone on the death planet, and he even carried Bronsky for the last three miles.
            Then, maybe thirty five-forty minutes in, one of the civilian scientists asked the lieutenant why he was such a hard ass.  And he told her about how four years ago he’d been walking the perimeter, checking on his men, and he found some civilians in a restricted area. But he cut them some slack... and then the Lictors attacked. If he’d been hard then, if he’d sent them away as soon as he found them, those three people’d be alive today.
            And then someone sat with the Sarge for a while as he recovered from a wound (he’d been impaled right through the chest, and that put him off his feet for, y’know, almost six hours).  She asked how he could stay so positive, making jokes while the whole mission was turning to crap around them.  And he told her about how, seven years ago, he’d been on this bug hunt on Ceti Alpha Five...
            Look, you get the idea, right?  Do I really need to finish that story?
            Yeah, most movies don’t do it that many times, sure.  Still... that element’s kind of become a standard in a lot of military stories, too, hasn’t it?   The soldier/Marine/Amazon/Mooncop who gives us a flashback in dialogue to explain a strange bond, a weird character tic, or maybe even that scar she’s got that runs from her temple down past her jaw. 
            Here’s the funny thing, though. This never happens in Aliens.  Not once. Not even for a few seconds.
            Y’see, Timmy, in Aliens the story only goes forward. We don’t need to go backwards to learn interesting stuff about these characters.  We’re learning about them through how they react to things now, not how they reacted to them six years ago in Kazakhstan.
            If the only way I can make my characters interesting is by flashing back six or seven years... maybe I don’t have interesting characters.  Not now, anyway.  It’s possible they were interesting back then, but if they’re interesting now... why’s all their character development in the past?
            At the very least, I don’t have an interesting story.  If I did, wouldn’t there be  cool stuff happening now?  Stuff my characters could be reacting to and giving the reader a better sense of who they are, even as it drives the plot and story forward?
            If it’s only that recollection or flashback that’s making them cool... maybe that’s the story I should be telling.
            Anyway, just wanted to toss that out real quick.
            Thursday, our regularly scheduled post.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese

            Running a little late today, but still here. Thanks for waiting.
            So, our title this week is one of those not-so-clever aphorisms that folks usually  have to work through for a minute or two.  I only mention it here because Shane Black used it in Iron Man 3... with the whole joke being that Tony Stark (cuffed to a bed frame at the time) didn’t get it.
            In the interest of moving things along, the second mouse gets the cheese because the first mouse set off the trap... and got killed.  Now the trap’s harmless.
            See what I mean.  Obvious in retrospect, not so much when you first see it.
            That’s what I wanted to blab on about.  The traps that seem like good ideas at the time, for one reason or another, but later it’s clear they were the wrong choice. 
            Lots of aspiring writers fall into traps.  Sometimes it happens when they follow bad advice.  Other times it’s because they insist on using a method or writing in a style which really doesn’t work for them.  And sometimes... sometimes that trap’s just sitting there in the tall grass, waiting to snap shut on someone’s leg.
            We all want to think the traps are clear and easy to spot. But we’re all going to fall into a couple of them. That’s just life out here in the writing jungle.  The trick’s to get out as quick as possible.  Some folks, y’know,  get caught in a trap and then try to convince themselves they wanted to be at the bottom of a hole with two wooden stakes rammed through their legs.  Hell, everyone should be in a pit with two wooden stakes through their legs.  It’s really the best position to be in.
            None of us want to be that guy.  Or to listen to that guy. Right?
            So, with all that said, let me toss out some common—and maybe even dangerous—misconceptions people have about writing.

            Writing is easy -  Probably the most common misconception there is.  I mean, most of us learned how to put words on paper when we were ten, right?  We could write passable essays by ninth grade.  So writing for a living, for an audience greater than your immediate friends and loved ones, how hard could it be?  Anyone can do it once you’ve got a clever idea.  Heck, I’d bet 90% of Americans have immediate access to a word processor of some sort.
            Truth is, writing—not basic, grade-school literacy, mind you, but the ability to write-- is a skill which needs to be learned like any other.  All you need is to browse Twitter, Facebook, or the comment sections of any news feed to learn how few people can express their ideas through words.  Yeah, I took English and reading classes in school. But most of us went through twelve years of gym class, too, and we all understand that doesn’t qualify us to be in the Super Bowl.
            Writers need to train and practice for months--maybe even years--before they’re ready to show off their writing.  I don’t have hard numbers in front of me, but I feel safe saying Stephen King didn’t make much off the first 100,000 words he wrote.  It’s work.  Hard work.  It requires skill, a great deal of practice, some actual talent, and a heck of a lot of dedication.  That’s why so many people don’t succeed at it.
            This is probably the most successful trap because it doesn’t just catch the writer--it tends to kill them 2/3 of the time.  Most of the folks who believe that writing is easy have never actually written anything.  They also tend to come up with a lot of reasons (unrelated, of course) for why they never complete a manuscript.

            First person is easy -  A lot of prose writers start off with first person stories. It’s quick, it’s not hard to get into, it’s easy to find a voice.  It’s also very personable, so a reader can relate to my characters immediately.  Plus there are tons of formats ready and waiting; journals, diaries, letter, memoirs, and so on.  My first two published short stories were both first person.
            Truth is, though,first person is a very difficult, very limiting viewpoint to write in.  There’s a reason lots of professional writers avoid it.  It takes a lot of experience and planning to pull off a successful first person manuscript.
            Writers who get caught in this trap start their first novel and pound out 20,000 words worth of journal entries over one weekend.  There’s always that chance they may be brimming with so much raw talent they’re the next Hemingway or Steinbeck.  Alas, there’s a far better chance, they’ve just wasted a long weekend.

            Writing doesn’t require any writing -  I think we’ve all heard or seen that person who talks about their brilliant story ideas, and usually follows it up with—“Well, I’ll write it out when someone’s willing to pay me.”
            This mindset is a remnant of the huge spec script boom in Hollywood a few decades back.  It was one of those rare periods when studios acknowledged the importance of writers and were paying millions for screenplays—or even just the idea for one.  And that frenzy sold some books, too
            However... this was almost thirty years ago. These days producers and publishers are much more cautious and they’re not interested in ideas.  They’re interested in complete, finished works.  Not two-thirds of a manuscript.  Not most of a script. 
            Want easy proof of this?  What do you think will happen if I self-published my idea?  Not a complete manuscript, just my one-page, cool idea?  How far do you think that’ll take me? 
            If not having a manuscript doesn’t work for self-publishing, it’s sure not going to fly in traditional publishing.
            Just to save time, knowing the right people won’t change this.  No, it won’t.  I don’t care what that website said.  As a first-timer, I’m an unknown quantity.  Who spends money on unknowns?
            Not to sound too harsh but... well, no, this is harsh because people can only end up in this trap by choice.  If someone can’t write and complete something, they can’t be a writer.  That’s really all there is to it.  I should stop now and go back to those criminal justice classes I thought about signing up for.

            Writers don’t need to read -  Somewhere along the line, some numbskull started pushing the idea that writers shouldn’t waste time reading—they should spend all their time writing.  This is kind of like saying drivers shouldn’t waste their time stopping for gas. 
            Every professional writer I’ve ever met, interviewed, or even just read about (myself included) reads voraciously.  A writer should be devouring works in their chosen field to stay current and snacking heavily on everything else to stay fresh.
            Alas, the folks who fall into this trap tend to write plain awful stuff.  Not from any inherent lack of talent—they just have no clue what’s been done.  They go for every easy idea, hit every cliché plot point, and tend to follow the textbook formulas they were taught in some creative writing class somewhere.  What else can they do?  They’ve had no other input.  They end up trying to mimic one or two famous examples of what they aspire to... and usually end up looking just like the worst of the worst.

            Research everything – This one’s  more insidious than deadly, which is why I saved it for near the end.  We all want to get the facts right in our stories.  We check books, make phone calls, visit locations... okay, yeah, and maybe some of us just spend a lot of time on Wikipedia.  Point is, how can I be expected to move forward with my story if I don’t know the exact month they started laying railroad track in Independence, Missouri?  It’ll ruin everything if I say June and it turns out to be July.
            This is an awful trap because getting stuck in it means I’m trying to do the right thing.  Research is important, but I can’t ever forget that research isn’t writing.  There’s a time for putting noses in books but there’s also a time for putting fingers to keyboard (or pen to paper if you’re old-fashioned).         
            Some folks get caught in an even deeper layer of this trap.  They get stuck researching how to write.  We’ve all known someone like this, yes?  The one who buys books, takes classes, studies YouTube tutorials... but never does any actual writing. 
            For some people this becomes a defense mechanism of sorts, sometimes subconsciously and sometimes... not so subconsciously.  If I never start, I won’t have to put the work in, and my work stays in that wonderful hypothetical stage where it’ll be the greatest thing ever committed to paper... if only I had time to write it down.

            Rewrite until it’s perfect - The last and deadliest of the traps in our showroom.  For some folks, rewriting turns into an endless loop.  There’s always another opinion to listen to, more feedback to get, and revisions which need to be done because of them.  Just thought of a new way to do those action scenes?  That calls for another draft.  Maybe last night’s Agents of SHIELD inspired a new opening?  Perhaps my old college beau is visiting and s/he thought the ending needed a touch more romance, and any decent writer knows changing the end means changing everything that leads up to the end.
            There are two ways people fall into this trap.  One is a combination of bad advice and bad judgment.  So many gurus tell people to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.  How many times have you heard “writing is rewriting” parroted in classes or on message boards?  There’s some truth to that, yeah, but eventually, a writer just needs to call it done and move on or they’re going to be trapped in one manuscript forever.
            The other way people fall into this trap is by purpose.  A bit like with research, constant rewrites are an excuse not to actually produce anything.  You don’t expect me to show you an incomplete or old draft, do you?  I was going to send it to some agents or publishers, but I think it needs one more polish to make it perfect.  Maybe one more after I go through and clean up a few loose threads.  Rewrites are a way some writers--again, consciously or not-- can avoid possible failure yet still keep up the illusion of forward motion.
            Are all of these traps deadly?  No, but getting snagged in one can definitely cost me some time.  Yeah, I’ve fallen into one or three of them over the years.  Fortunately, one of those things only has to slam on your ankle once and you’ll rarely let it happen again.
            Assuming, of course, that I get out of it the first time.
            Next time, I’d like to talk with you real quick about my buddy Marc, who I was stationed with in Kuwait six years ago...
            Until then, go write. 
            And watch your step.