Thursday, October 11, 2018

When Writing is a Nightmare

            Yeah, I did it.  I went for the cheesy title...
            Sorry I missed last week.  I got some last minute line edits that I needed to go over... well, line by line.  They ate up a lot more time than expected.
            Plus, as I mentioned the other day, I’m going to be in Lubbock, Texas this weekend, giving a speech on reading and literacy.  Leaving tomorrow, in fact.  So I’ve been poking at my speech all week because... well, I have to give a speech in two days.
            Anyway, rather than leave you all hanging for another week, I dug around and found another old interview from back in the day.  As has come up once or thrice before, I used to do a lot of these.  Sometimes there’d be a movie coming out that the different writers would fight to do an article on.  Other times, the editors would hand-pick people for different assignments.  And now and then a stack of possibles would drop into your lap and you’d get to choose.  Usually these were the sort of “high risk” articles—you could choose it, make space for it on your schedule... but it might not end up happening for one reason or another.
            Fortunately this one did happen. 
            There’s a strong argument to be made that the 2010 reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street is what put Eric Heisserer on Hollywood’s radar.  That’s a tough thing to say, because so many people work for years and years before finally being noticed (after which they “come out of nowhere”).  But Nightmare gave Heisserer the clout to move on to other horror projects like the Final Destination franchise, the prequel/remake of The Thing, and Lights Out.
            And I’m sure he’s probably done some other noteworthy stuff since then...
            Anyway, a few of my standard points, but you’ll probably figure them out as we go.  I’m in bold, asking the questions.  Keep in mind a lot of these aren’t the exact, word-for-word questions I asked (which tended to be a bit more organic and conversational), so if the answer seems a bit off, don’t stress out over it.  If you see a long line of dashes (----------) it means there was something I didn’t transcribe, probably because it was just casual discussion, something I knew I wasn’t going to use in the final article for one reason or another, or something that Eric was willing to talk about off the record to help me understand some of his on the record answers.  Any links are entirely mine and aren’t meant to imply he’s specifically endorsing any of the ideas I’ve brought up here on the ranty blog—it’s just me linking from something he said to something similar that I’ve said. 
            By the nature of this discussion, there are going to be a few small spoilers in here, though not many.  Check out the movie if you haven’t seen it yet. 
            Material from this interview was originally used for an article that appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
            So, anyway, here’s me scaring Eric Heisserer with a few questions about the Nightmare on Elm Street reboot.
            (did you see what I did there?)
            (you did?)
            (...okay, I’ll see myself out)

So, how'd you end up on A Nightmare on Elm Street?  Did they come to you, did your reps push you for it, or was it something you wanted?
            It was one of those serendipity moments.  I went for a general at New Line and I think right before I was to go in they were hoping that [Mark] Swift and [Damian] Shannon would be able to transition over from Friday the 13th to do a take on Nightmare.  But they got locked into a Paramount deal and realized that they had to move fast on this thing.  So what started out as a general turned into an assignment.  It was pretty intense because I was only supposed to meet with Dave Neustadter, who's a junior there at New Line and instead I'm meeting Walt Hamada and Dave.  And I'm thinking to myself 'Why am I in the big conference room?  Did I say something bad about New Line?  I'm in trouble, aren't I...?'

So you walked in not even knowing this was now a specific assignment meeting?
            Correct.  They just pitched it at me.  They said 'You heard of a little thing called Nightmare on Elm Street?'

Were you really familiar with the original films to start with?
            Yeah.  I grew up loving those movies, especially Dream Warriors. 

Now, I want to make sure I've got the timeline right.  The screenplay started with Wesley Strick. 
            Yeah, he did a pass.

They filmed the movie.  Then they brought you in to do some rewrites so they could do reshoots.  Is that correct?
            No, they abandoned his draft entirely.  He did a draft for them and they decided to go in a very different direction.  And I came in at that point and they said 'Let's start fresh.'  So the producers, Brad [Fuller] and Drew [Form] at Platinum Dunes and the execs at New Line sat down and the five of us figured out tonally what kind of movie we wanted to make and how we wanted our villain to be.  Because there are various versions of Freddy Kruger.  He changes as the franchise went along.  Once we were all on the same page in terms of the tone of Freddy Kruger, I went off into my cave and I wrote for three and a half weeks or so in order to get a draft to them as fast as possible to put this thing on the production slate for Warners.

So this was a page-one rewrite?
            Yes.

If you don't mind me asking--it can be off the record--is Wesley's credit mostly from inherent stuff from the franchise?
            Yes.  Oddly enough a lot of that is.  Strick got his name on it because he was the first writer on and he had one idea that kind of changed the mythology of Freddy.  Which is to put into question if he was guilty or innocent.  That was the one thing in his draft that we stuck with in my draft and subsequent ones.  Freddy Krueger as Samara from The Ring-- you think that he just wants one thing and then it turns out he's just an evil mother@%#r.  And because of that one change in the mythology the WGA decided that it was not a remake but a sequel or some other deviant, and because of that Wes Craven's name wasn't put on there.  Which frustrates me because aside from that one change in Freddy's mythology, everything else is very true to Wes Craven's story structure.

Now why did you come on?  What about Wesley's script did they feel needed to change?
            Well, I really wanted to make it scary. Strick had some bizarre elements in his nightmare sequences that really didn't make them nightmares.  He had unicorns and the lead character was a barely-functioning autistic girl.  The ending was a long monologue, and the monologue is what kills Freddy Krueger.  So I understood why they wanted to start from scratch and rebuild the house for Freddy and focus first on making it scary and then figure out how to escalate that horror into the third act.  Looking at the original, there's a long gap in the last half of the film between appearances of Freddy Krueger, because people have figured out at that point in time that once you go to sleep, that's when he gets you.  Nancy, in Craven's original, spends about twenty minutes of screen time kind of MacGuyvering her house so that when she pulls him into the real world [she's got booby traps set up].  Johnny Depp goes to sleep, but that's a very shortened nightmare sequence where he's just pulled into the bed.  We really don't see Freddy.  So there's this long period  where you feel like, in this day and age, the movie would drag.  There's a lot of stuff that may have worked in '84, but it doesn't translate well to now. 
            So I was looking for a way to make Freddy more and more of  a menace as we got closer to the end of the movie.  I did so by researching insomnia and health and other side effects from that.  I discovered around the 70 hour mark of sleeplessness your brain starts to kick into what's called 'micronaps,' and that part of the brain shuts down for a while.  So you are actually asleep even though you're conscious and you feel awake for the most part.  That was my doorway into allowing Krueger to show up at unexpected times while they were awake and screw with the idea of what's reality versus what's dream.

A lot of the old "dream logic" seems to have gone away, too--the idea that absolutely anything can happen in the story because it's a dream.  Now Freddy's a worm, now he's a girl, now his tongue's twenty feet long...  Why is that?
            Exactly.  I wanted something a lot more grounded for a couple of reasons.  One is that I knew we were under budgetary considerations.  They wanted to hit a target number, so I knew that would help.
            The second thing I discovered is that the scares are harder to deliver when the audience realizes that they're in the dream world.  Because once they're keyed into that, the audience--at least part of them--starts to give up and think 'Well, they're screwed now.'  Because Freddy has full control there.  He can be anything he wants.  It's like being in the Matrix.  Breathing, running, distance--all of those are illusions.  So I found that to keep as grounded as possible allowed me to play with when that moment was that they'd fallen asleep and entered the dream world.  That just hit the buttons for me more as a horror writer more than playing with a fantastical landscape.

How do you normally approach a script?  Are you an outliner?  A notecard guy? 
            I start with note cards on a cork wall.  Anything and everything that comes to me for the project--whether it's a snippet of dialogue, an action sequence, a character, a backstory note--anything and everything I throw on there like a trash pile.  Then I figure out the things I like best from it, start to organize it a bit, and from there I go to outline.  Once I've got a decent outline. I use that as the spinal column of the script, and I make sure before I go to that, the script phase, that everybody else on the project agrees to it.  Everybody's seen it and they're happy with the skeleton of the piece.

What's a decent outline for you?  Ten pages?  Twenty? Thirty?
            I land somewhere around twenty pages with these things.

Does it change things a lot for you, writing-wise, to come in and start with someone else's material?
            It puts a lot of stuff on that cork wall right away.  I like that (laughs).  It gives me a lot of stuff to deal with right away.  I don't mind coming in with something that already has ingredients set out for me.

Freddy Kruger's a pretty solid horror icon.  Is it a little intimidating to step in and try to rewrite him, especially when he's not exactly faded from the public eye?
            Absolutely.  It was scary as hell. (laughs)  I just had to do my best to do him justice.  I wouldn't've taken the job if I thought all I was going to do was deliver something that was a little bit better than what they already had.  I had to deliver something I felt would really fit in with the mythology and restart him properly.

The franchise changed quite a bit over time.  Freddy went from honestly creepy in the first one to more of an... an evil comedian in the later movies.  He's a lot more dark and savage in this.  Was the focus from the start to "get back to basics," as it were?
            Yeah.  Right.  I knew that he still needed to have some sense of humor, but I wanted to make it sadistic rather than wise-cracky, Tonight Show.  The reason I went there first is it just gives us more room to grow if this series continues after this first relaunch.  I've noticed that a lot of franchises, by the time they're at the third or fourth film, they bend more and more toward comedy.  Like Lethal Weapon, for instance.  I think if we start there, there isn't much elbow room for Freddy.  He can always become more wisecracking later on in the franchise, but what makes him an icon is horror is that first and foremost he's scary.  He's someone you don't want to have show up in your dreams.

Nightmare on Elm Street had a great run, originally, as a franchise.  While you were writing were you thinking ahead to sequels or planting any seeds?
            Yeah.  I had to think way down field, otherwise... I don't know if we would've built the movie around the character if we thought of it as a stand-alone story or something we didn't want to revisit.  We could've done a lot more with Krueger's history and the history of the town, the kids, and the parents.  Realizing that we could explore those layers allowed us, and me as a writer, the freedom to leave questions unanswered.  Or to place questions out there of who this guy is and where he came from.  Of course, I had to internally have all those answers ready for New Line because they wouldn't let me get away with that (laughs).

Now, there's also a very interesting twist, hinted at in the trailer, that Fred Krueger might have actually been innocent when the parents killed him.  What made that so appealing?
            What made it appealing was it forced an investigation, some procedural elements into the story.  Our kids, not knowing what happened with Freddy, and feeling that he may be exacting revenge because he was falsely accused or falsely murdered, that allows us investigative beats to get to the truth.  Without that, with just the idea that he's evil and now he shows up in dreams and he's killing people... there's not a whole lot to do there, storywise (chuckles).  'Well, I guess I've got to stay awake and I don't know what to do after that."

There's an interesting twist to this, although not in the usual sense.  We start the movie focused on Kris.  She's pretty solidly the main character.  Then a third of the way in... you kill her and shift the focus to Nancy.  How hard is that to pull off?
            Well, that was Craven's original plan.  We follow a character that we think is going to be our protagonist and then Craven pulls a Psycho and kills her off and then we hook up with Nancy from that point.  I'm kind of mirroring the structure of Craven's story.  I can't take credit for that one.

I noticed technology's a bit more prevalent in this one. When Wes Craven made the original, you didn't have iPods or cell phones with a hundred apps on them-- these days pretty much everyone is carrying an alarm clock around with them.  Did this hinder or help you a lot?
            It helped a couple of times.  Nancy uses her cell phone to set an alarm to wake herself up around the middle of the movie.------ The technology can still have the same problems as the lack of technology did back then.

There's a very low bodycount in this film.  I think we only see... what, four or five people die?  And two of those are kind of low-key, all things considered.  Why is that?
            Not so much, no.  It's not like it's a guy in a hockey mask killing everybody off.  Part of the reason for that is we wanted to spend more time with our characters.  Do our best to get to know them and the relationship between their parents who are involved in covering up what happened to Krueger.  And part of it is it's harder, I think, in Freddy Krueger's universe, in the Nightmare on Elm Street  world, to get away with a whole slew of murders in a town and not draw a lot of attention and not change the game.  If it were a camp by a lake and everybody's off and sequestered in the woods, then you can kill ten or twelve people in one movie.  But here we are in Springwood, a pleasant suburbia, and even one or two [murders] is going to draw a lot of attention. Local, state, national.  Beyond a certain number if someone's cutting up the teens of such-and-such place.   Even if it looks like it's accidental deaths, there are a lot of eyebrows being raised.  So you have to be careful about that and not have body count be the focus of the story.  Just find out how Krueger can work under the guise of a dream.

How many drafts?
            Three? --- Wow... that was my very first draft after about three and a half weeks on the project.  There's one that's March 19 that gets rid of a lot stuff that was just thrown in there. It cleans up a lot of stuff and manages dialogue better.  A lot of the dialogue in the January draft was just placeholder, in terms of throwing in as text what we later wanted to make subtext.  So there's a March 19th draft and then a production draft in May.

(a lot of off the record stuff)
           
            Really that was pretty much it.  We talked for another five or ten minutes, Eric explained a couple things I’d heard with a gentleman's agreement it wouldn't be used (and it still hasn't been), and that was it.
            So... next week.
            Well, I still have the things I planned for last week.  I just need to make some adjustments.
            Until then... go write.
            And if you happen to be near Lubbock this weekend, come hear me talk about literacy.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

This Saturday...

            Hey, if you happen to live in the rough vicinity of Lubbock, Texas, I’m going to be there this weekend.  I’m doing a signing Saturday afternoon, and giving a little speech that night about writing and literacy to help promote... well, writing and literacy. 
            First, somewhere around 1:30 I’ll be at Barnes & Noble in the South Plains Mall.  They’re having a Star Wars day, so this is just going to be a little quiet, off-to-the-side thing.  I’ll probably be there for about an hour, so if you want to stop by, chat for a bit, and maybe get something signed... that’d be cool.
            Then that night I’ll be joining the folks from Literacy Lubbock for dinner, drinks, and a speech from me—
            —oh crap I need to write a speech—
            —a speech from me which’ll probably be me babbling away about cooking and supercomputers and old Seinfeld episodes.  Which will all circle back around to literacy in a very brilliant and impressive way.  It’s $35 a head, but it all goes to a good cause.  Plus you get to hang out afterwards and laugh about my rambling speech.
            So...  Lubbock.  Saturday.  Hope to see some of you there.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Elementary

            Many thanks to all of you who tossed some new topic ideas at me (here and on Twitter).  I think this might fill up all the slots I had for the rest of the year.  I may even take some time to rethink my upcoming plans.
            Anyway, for now, the potential Sherlock Holmes idea stuck in my head, so let me babble about that for a minute or three.
            There’s a pair of terms that have been floating around for a bit now—Watsonian and Doylist.  On the off chance you don’t get the reference, the terms come from Dr. John (or Joan) Watson, constant companion to Sherlock Holmes, and also to their creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  When we use these terms, we’re saying there’s two ways to look at any story element.  The in-story reason for this happening, and the author’s reason for this happening.  They’re often very different, but they’re both very important.
            For example...
            Why did Sherlock Holmes die in “The Final Problem,” plunging to his death at Reichenbach Falls?  Well, from Watson’s point of view, Holmes sacrificed himself because it was the only way to stop Moriarty.  The two evenly-matched men fight, and while Holmes dies, Moriarty’s now-leaderless criminal empire will crumble.  A net win for society. 
            From Doyle’s point of view, though, he was just sick of writing Sherlock Holmes stories.  He was making money off them, yeah, but he wanted to move on and start writing more serious, important stuff about, well... ghosts and fairies.  No, seriously.  So he killed Holmes off and tried (unsuccessfully) to move on.
            Yeah, don’t be the person pointing out Doyle later retconned the death.  When he wrote this story, Holmes was dead.  Toast.  Joined the choir invisible.
            Of course, this principal doesn’t just apply to Sherlock Holmes stories.  If you look at most stories, the elements break down into these two categories.
            --Why did Han Solo get frozen in carbonite?  The Watsonian reason is that Vader wanted to test the carbon-freezing process and Boba Fett wanted to collect on Solo’s sizeable bounty.  The Doylist reason is that Harrison Ford wasn’t sure he wanted to come back to play Solo again, so George Lucas needed an ending that could explain Solo’s potential absence but also contain the possibility of bringing him back.
            --Why did the Twelfth Doctor regenerate?  Watsonian reason—he was shot by the Cybermen and managed to hold off his regeneration briefly before transforming into the Thirteenth Doctor.  Doylist—Peter Capaldi was leaving the series, as was showrunner Stephen Moffat, and the new team decided to cast Jodie Whittaker.
            Here’s one of my own—Why does Ex-Patriots begin with a Fourth of July fireworks show?  Well, from a Watsonian point of view, the citizens of the Mount are celebrating.  It’s the Fourth, but it’s also one of their first major holidays since things have (for them) kinda stabilized after the zombocalypse.  So they’re partying hard.
            From a Doylist point of view, though... this opening lets me start with action.  There’s a lot going on.  It gives me a chance to re-introduce our four main heroes. It also lets be immediately bring up the idea of nations and patriotism, which are key themes in the book.  Heck, because this was one of those very rare times where I knew there’d be another book in the series, this was also a setup for a plot thread in Ex-Communication.
            This all makes sense, yes?
            Why are we talking about it?
            I think it’s really important to remember these distinctions when we’re talking about writing.  To be more specific, when we’re talking about aspects of writing.  If we’re discussing dialogue or characters or settings, we should be clear if this is an in-world discussion or an authorial discussion.  Are we talking about things as they relate to the characters, or as they relate to the author (and the audience)?
            “Authorial”?   Ooooh, don’t I sound all clever...
            For example, once or thrice I’ve mentioned my belief that all good, successful characters have three common traits—they’re believable, they’re relatable, and they’re likable.  But I’ve seen some pushback on this.  I’ve had people online and in person argue that characters don’t need to be likable.  Characters just need to be fascinating or compelling or... well, look.  They don’t need to be likable.
            Here’s the thing.  In a Watsonian sense—I agree with this.  I mean, I’ve said this myself lots of times (pretty much every time I talk about these traits).  Likable doesn’t mean we want a character to marry into our family and they always have a kind word to say.  Within the story, there are tons of popular protagonists who aren’t remotely likable.  Who are kind of awful, really.  There’s not a version of Hannibal Lecter—books, movies, or television—that most of us would want to have a private dinner with.  We probably couldn’t count the number of books and movies that have hit men or assassins as their main characters.  And to bring us back around, most modern interpretations of Sherlock Holmes rightly point out that the guy’s an abrasive, condescending ass. 
            (...and that’s with the people he likes.)
            But in a Doylist sense, viewed from outside... we kinda like these people.  We admire Lecter’s twisted ethics.  We envy the ultra-competent man or woman of action.  And it’s kind of pleasant to watch Holmes point out what’s sitting right in front of everyone’s face.  That separation of fiction, the thin sheath that keeps us from absolutely immersing into the story, lets us enjoy these characters in ways we couldn’t in real life.
            I mean if we didn’t like them as readers, why would we keep reading about them?  Who’d torture themselves like that.  Hell, why would we keep writing about them if we didn’t like them?  I can’t imagine sitting down and working for months on a story about a character I didn’t enjoy on some level.
            This holds for so a lot of aspects of writing.  I’ve mentioned before that realistic dialogue in fiction is different from the actual conversations we have with each other in the real world.  Other characters might not get my protagonist, but the reader should be able to relate to them.  And I’m never going to be able build any sort of tension if I don’t understand the difference between what my readers know and what my character knows.
            Y’see, Timmy, when I’m taking in advice I need to be clear if we’re talking about things in a Watsonian or Doylist sense.  And when I see advice from other writers, I should stop and think about how they mean it.  Are they talking about the actual pace of events in the timeline of the story, or the pacing in the narrative?  Are they talking about the motives of the characters or the writer?
            In the future, I’m going to try to be better about this, too.
            Next time...
            Well, thanks to some of you, I’ve got next time all planed out in advance.
            Until then... go write.

Friday, September 21, 2018

One and Done

            Okay, book edits have been turned in, but I never made it to IKEA.  One of our cats is sick and has been getting daily trips to the vet for fluids.  So the library and game room are still stuck in transition.
            Plus, I managed to squeeze a ranty blog post into all of this, only to realize at the last moment (just as I was inserting links and pictures) that I’d talked about this exact topic just a few months ago.  I mean, I used some of the same examples and everything.  I may be a hack, but I’m not that much of a hack.
            So let me skip ahead in my list of topics and talk briefly about killing people.
            A while back I mentioned a bad habit people have that I named “describe and die.”  It’s when an author (or screenwriter) gives us tons of details about a character in an attempt to make them likeable and relatable.  As a way to get us quickly invested. 
            And then kills them.
            Today I wanted to mention a little offshoot of this that I ended up talking about with my editor recently.  Call it a connected bad habit.  One I think grew out of necessity...
            This is going to seem rambling, but stick with me.
            One of the ugly truths about screenwriting is that so many things come back to budget.  I can write the most elaborate script with a broad palette of characters, but at the end of the day it’s going to come down what we can afford to do—especially in television.  I may have written dozens of little characters here and there to help bring the world to life, but the reality is they’re going to be cut and trimmed down to the bare minimum we need to move the plot along.
            Of course, most of us don’t see this.  We just see the final version.  And we tend to absorb some storytelling lessons from it.  Even the bad, unnatural ones.
            In screenwriting it makes sense that we’ll never, ever have a speaking role that isn’t important.  It costs almost a thousand dollars just for someone to have one line.  Seriously.  That actress saying “Your drink, sir”—she just paid rent for the month.  And she’ll get a sliver of the residuals, because she’s a speaking actor.  So Hollywood is reeeeeeeeeaaally conservative when it comes to handing out random lines to random people.  I’ve personally watched those parts get whittled away as new script revisions came out.
            Of course, that’s Hollywood.  Books have no budget.  We can have casts of thousands and dinosaurs and spaceships and all sorts of stuff.  If someone needs to speak, they can speak.
            But...
            Some folks still follow that minimal-character idea, not understanding it’s an element of budgeting, not storytelling.  And when I combine this with describe-and-die, it creates a really weird mechanic in my story.  Not only do I “create” real characters just to kill them off... they’re the only other characters I’m creating.  Nobody else gets a line of description or a few words of dialogue.
            Y’see, Timmy, now my story only has three types of people in it.  Protagonists, antagonists, and... victims.  Heck, depending on my story, I may not even have an actual antagonist.  Now all I’ve got is protagonists and victims.
            Which doesn’t feel like a very well-rounded world, does it?
            I’ve talked here a few times about the need to keep things tight, but—like so many things in life—this goes horribly wrong once it’s taken to extremes.  I don’t want to trim away every single interaction or description in the name of brevity.  A non-stop, breakneck pace is going to get exhausting really fast.
            I shouldn’t be afraid to have a little more in my story.  I don’t want my world to be cluttered, but I also don’t want it to be a stark, utilitarian framework.  Because the truth is... sometimes people are just there.
            Usually blocking an aisle in IKEA.
            Next time...
            Okay, look, my schedule for topics is a mess now, so if you’ve got something you really want to hear me blather on about, let me know down in the comments.  And if nobody does, I’ll just end up blabbing on about Sherlock Holmes or something...
            So until then—go write.

Friday, September 14, 2018

A Little Context

            Wow.  A wild week with Dragon Con. And then a just as wild but far less fun week on the floor of the game room when I threw my back out the day after getting home.  Just flopped there between the boxes and the brand-new couch I couldn’t make it up on to...
            But I’m okay now.  Well, much better... 80-85%.
            I’m still in the process of moving into my new place.  Yeah, I’m going to keep talking about this for ages.  And milking it for useful analogies.
            I’m guessing most of you have moved, and you know how it’s not just about that one day.  It’s a whole ongoing process—packing up there and spreading back out here.  I mean, we’re here now, but there are still maybe twenty or thirty boxes scattered through different rooms, and we’ve kinda developed unpacking fatigue.  That’s not even counting the library.
            We’re also discovering that some of our stuff is just... well, bad, now.  Things are in new configurations and combinations and some of them just don’t work.  They look kinda weird or ugly.  Sometimes, they actually don’t function correctly anymore.  This shelf was short enough to fit well below my old office window, but not this one.  Which leaves me with nowhere to put the printer.
            We’ve got a fair amount of stuff that worked there but doesn’t work here.  So it’s probably getting replaced.  Which means more weekends putting furniture together in my future...
            Funny thing is, this related to something I wanted to talk about.
            What a coincidence, right?
            I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies.  I take in a lot of storytelling, just on a week-to-week basis.  And a common thing I see is people copying a beat or a character moment or some kind of set-up.
            To be clear, I’m not taking about plagiarism.  While there are some blatant rip-offs out there, and books that try to capitalize off other books, that’s not what I want to talk about here.  Those folks have much bigger issues to deal with than we have time and space to discuss...
            What I’m talking about is when people are using a moment they saw in a previous story and trying to getthe same emotional resonance with the reader (or audience) as it did in that other tale.  A key reveal at just the right moment.  A fervent declaration of love (or at least lust).
            And they accomplish this by copying that original story beat as close as they can.
            Remember when the Hulk beat the crap out of Loki in The Avengers?  And then did the exact same thing to Thor in Ragnarok?  Funny as hell both times, right? 
            So now let’s picture an adult man doing that with a baby.  Holding it by one leg, swinging it up over his shoulder, and slamming it face-first into the ground two or three times.  That should be funny, too, right?
            No, of course not.  Hopefully you were all cringing a bit just at the thought of that.  It’d be nightmarish to watch, and for someone to actually think that it’d be funny...?
            Again these shelves worked in my old office, but not my new one.  Everything around them is different.  The windows.  The angles.  The carpet.  The colors.
            How about this one-- watching someone undress can be sexy as all hell.  Unbuttoning shirts.  Sliding out of pants.  Maybe just tearing open a coat if you’re both impatient.
            But in a different context, those very same actions can be mundane, annoying, or depressing. Heck, even kinda creepy.
            Yeah, someone doing that exact same little striptease can be creepy as hell.  Because if I’m seeing it from outside the bedroom window, maybe with some leaves in the way, while I hear that rough breathing... Hey, we all know what that handheld POV shot means.  We’ve seen horror movies.  There’s a psychopath out there in the bushes watching that person strip!  They’re probably wearing a weird mask and everything.
            I mean, assuming the director’s not just copying this shot and doesn’t understand what it meant in other films...
            And this may sound like extreme examples—talking about killing babies and stripteases—but it holds for pretty much anything.  Seeing a building collapse can be terrifying.  Or exciting.  Or frustrating.  Heck, if I do demolition for a living it could be boring.
            Y’see, Timmy, the problem with all of these examples is that sometimes people try to copy something they've seen in other stories without understanding why it worked in those stories.  Yes it was exciting/scary/titillating/romantic over there, but that was over there in a certain context.  The reaction it created isn’t something inherent to the elements themselves.  It was a result of the combining narrative voice and character development and plot structure that led up to them.
            Think about that striptease again.  Think of all the different ways it could be interpreted by someone.  It depends on when they see it.  Where they're seeing it from.  How they know the other person.  How that person knows them.
            Think of all the different ways it could be interpreted by an audience.
            And if I can’t think of any other ways... that might be part of the problem, too.
            Next time, I’d like to bounce an idea off you.
            Until then... go write.
            I’m going to IKEA again.  This time for bookshelves.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

If I’m Being Honest With Myself...

            Okay, look... there’s a good chance this post will piss you off.
            Two things I ask you to keep in mind, going in.
            First is that this comes from a place of kindness.  If you’re reading this, I want you to succeed.  All of you.  Well, okay, not him, but the rest of you, absolutely.  So I’m saying these things because... well, they need to be said.  And you need to hear them.
            Some of you really need to hear them.
            Second is that everything I’m going to be talking about is something I’ve personally experienced.  Not that I’ve seen another writer doing it—I’ve done it.  I’ve believed it.  I’ve been the person needing that smack in the face.
            And I learned from it.  And got better because of it.
            Writing’s tough.  It’s hard work.  I know this, because I’ve been doing it for a living for over a decade now.  When someone tells me how easy and wonderful and fun writing is, I’m often tempted to point out...
            Well, look.  There was a point when I thought writing was easy and fun.  It was back when I wasn’t taking it seriously.
            My writing ability started making huge leaps when I was finally able to admit a few things to myself.  I think that’s true of most people in most fields—if we can’t be honest about where we are, it’s hard to improve.
            That being said...

My first attempts at writing will suck—This sounds harsh, yeah, but... well...  Too often when we’re starting out, we just can’t get past the idea that something we wrote isn’t good.  I know I couldn’t.  My work was typed.  It was a full page long!  My mom liked it!  Of course it deserved to sell.  It deserved awards!  International awards!
            Seriously, there was soooooo much writing before my “first novel.”  There was Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth (two different versions).  A trope-filled sci-fi novel.  Some Boba Fett and Doctor Who fan fic.  A fantasy novel  fuelled by a sudden influx of hormones during my teen years (enough said about that).  The Werewolf Detective of Newbury Street, The Trinity, The Suffering Map, about half of a novel called Mouth.
            And then... Ex-Heroes. 
            It’s just against human nature to spend hours on something and then tell yourself you just wasted a bunch of time.  Why would I write something I couldn’t sell?  Obviously I wouldn’t, so my latest project must deserve a six-figure advance.
            The problem here is the learning curve.  None of us like to be the inexperienced rookie, but the fact is it’s where everyone starts.  Surgeons, chefs, pilots, astronomers, mechanics... and writers.  Oh, there are a few gifted amateurs out there, yeah—very, very few—but the vast majority of us have to work at something to get good at it.  And we can’t improve until we accept that we need improvement.

My first draft is going to suck—There was a point where I’d fret over my first draft.  I’d spend hours laboring over individual words, each sentence, every paragraph.  I’d get halfway down the page and then go back to try to fix things.  It meant my productivity was slowed to a crawl because I kept worrying about what had happened in my story instead of what was going to happen.
            The freeing moment was when I realized my first draft was always going to suck.  Always.  And that’s okay.  Everyone’s first draft sucks.  Everybody has to go back and rework stuff.  It’s the nature of the beast. 
            With those expectations gone, it became much easier for me to finish a first draft, which is essential if I ever wanted to get to a second draft.  And a third draft.  And maybe even a sale.
            No, needing another draft doesn’t make me a lesser writer in any way.  Every single professional writer I know (and I know a lot of them at this point) does a second draft.  And usually a third and fourth.

My writing needs editing.  Lots of editing—As I mentioned, I’ve been doing this for a while.  Surely by now I’ve hit the point where my stuff rolls onto the page (or screen) pretty much ready to go, yes?  I mean, at this point I must qualify as a good writer and I don’t need to obsess so much over those beginner-things, right?
            Alas, no.  Like I just said, my first draft is going to need work.  We all make the easy first choice now and then.  Things slip past us.  We misjudge how some things are going to be read. I’m fortunate to have a circle of friends and a really good editor at my publisher who all call me out when I make these mistakes or just take the easy route when I’m capable of doing something better.
            As I mentioned above, part of this is the ability to accept these notes and criticisms.  I’m not saying they’re all going to be right (and I’ve been given a few really idiotic notes over the years), but if my default position is that any criticism is wrong then my work is never going to improve past the first draft. 
            Which, as I mentioned above, sucks.

My writing needs cuts—Sticking to the theme, if I believe my writing is perfect, it stands to reason all of it is perfect.  It’s not 90% perfect with those two odd blocks that should be cut.  When I first started to edit, one of my big problems was that everything needed to be there.  It was all part of the story.  Each subplot, every action detail and character moment, all of the clever references and in-jokes.
            The Suffering Map was where I first started to realize things needed to be cut.  I’d overwritten—which is fine in a first draft as long as I can admit it in later drafts.  I had too many characters, too much detail, subplots that had grown too big, character arcs that became too complex.  It took a while, but I made huge cuts to the book.  It had to be done.  Heck, I just cut a whole subplot from the book I’m editing right now.  About 2500 words gone, snip-snip, in about five minutes.
            And the book it better for it.

My writing is going to be rejected –Know what I’ve got that most of you reading this will never have?  Rejection letters.  Paper letters that were mailed to me by editors.  I’ve got dozens of them.  Heck, I’ve probably got a dozen from Marvel Comics alone.  And since then I’ve got them from magazines, big publishers, journals, magazines, ezines...
            But when that first rejection from Marvel came... I was crushed.  Devastated.  How could they not like my story?  It was a full page!  I included a colored pencil rendering of what the cover should look like.  Did I mention it was typed?!
            It took me weeks—whole weeks, plural—to work up my courage to try again, and then they shot that one down, too.
            Granted, I was eleven, and those stories were awful.  I mean... really awful.
            Rejection is part of the process.  I still get rejections today.  I expect I’ll be getting then for the foreseeable future.
            Which is a good time to mention...

Rejection does not automatically mean my writing is bad—Getting that email is tough, like a punch to the gut.  It’s easy to let it get under the skin and fester.  Self-doubt feeds on rejections, so it’s important to think of it as “still looking for the right home.”
            Like I said, I’m still getting rejections today, even with the fairly solid list of credits and accolades after my name.  Editors and publishers are people too, and nothing is going to appeal to everyone.  Getting rejected became a lot easier for me when I realized it didn’t show up on my permanent record and it wasn’t a personal attack  It was just a person who didn’t connect with that particular story for some reason.
            Now, there’s a flipside worth mentioning here...

Rejection also doesn’t automatically mean my writing is good—There’s a lot of memes and recurring stories and a few general mindsets that push the idea that if my work gets rejected by an agent or editor it must be good, because all those people are idiots.  And it can be a comforting thought.
            It's also kinda close to conspiracy-theory reasoning, if you think about it.
            Going right back to the beginning of this little rant, there’s a decent chance my work just isn’t good.  No big deal.  Like I said, I had dozens and dozens of rejections before I started to get some sales.
            But if I refuse to back away from the idea that it might be me—if I take dozens of rejections as proof the system is stupid rather than admit the possibility my manuscript wasn’t ready to go out—then I’m never going to improve.
           
            If I can admit these things to myself, it can only make me a better, stronger writer.  It’s not a flaw or a weakness.  In fact, if I look at the above statements and immediately think “Well, yeah, but none of that applies to me...” it’s probably a good sign I’m in denial about some things.
            And that’s not going to help me get anywhere.
            Speaking of getting anywhere, if you’re in the Atlanta area I’m at Dragon Con this weekend.  Come find me and we can talk about books and writing and is Clark Gregg coming back to Agents of SHIELD or what?
            Next time, I’d like to put a few things in context.
            Until then, go write.