Thursday, June 13, 2019

New Challenger Approaching

Y’know, I just noticed that there hasn’t been a single comment here in weeks. Not sure if that’s because more people are leaving comments over on Twitter when I link to these... or if I just haven’t been that interesting.

...let me know down in the comments.

Anyway, I’m a bit short on time—the past few weeks have been a bit crazy for me—but I still wanted to get something up here. And I realized there was a topic I hadn’t talked about in a while. Not in any detail, anyway...

One of the basic parts of storytelling is the obstacle.  It's what stands between my characters and whatever they want. Maybe they want to save the farm, but they’re too far in debt and can’t raise the money in time.  Maybe they want the super-bedazzled mitten, but there’s a big purple guy with his own army who also wants it.  Maybe they just want to ask that cute barista if she’d like to, I don’t know, get some coffee sometime or... no, wait, that’s stupid. Auugggggh, I have to go hide for at least a year. And maybe change my name.

Anyway...

Personally, I think an obstacle’s slightly different from a conflict.  It’s just terminology, yeah, but exterior problems tend to be called obstacles, while interior ones are almost always labeled as conflicts. Captain Marvel wants to save Earth from an alien invasion (obstacle), but first she needs to come to terms with the fact that her adoptive alien race, the Kree, may have been lying to her for years about a lot of stuff (conflict).  See what I mean?

Because of this, I prefer the overall term challenge.  I find that thinking about "obstacles" tends to make me think more about physical things in the way of my heroes, like parts of an obstacle course.  And, again, while this isn't technically wrong, it tends to lead to a lot of the same things in my writing.  This is when I get challenges with more of an episodic, low-end videogame feel to them.  My character defeats obstacle A then moves on to obstacle B, obstacle C and finishes up with D.

So here are a few thoughts about challenges, external and internal, that might be worth thinking about while I’m planning out my story—whether I’m writing a novel, short story, screenplay. or six-part epic somethingorother. I’ve mentioned them once or twice before, so if they sound familiar... good job.  You’ve been paying attention

First Thought-- I must have a challenge
I’m sure we’ve all run into books or movies where people either sit around doing nothing or just meander through events with little to no effort.  If the character needs something, they either already have it in their backpack or it’s in the first box they open. If they need help, people are always  able and willing.  Any lucky break that has to happen does happen just when they need it to.  I know these examples sound silly, but it’s stunning how often I see this happen in screenplays and/or book.

There needs to be something between my characters and their goals.  If there isn't,  they would've accomplished these goals already.  Look. I just got up and made myself a drink. I wanted one. I got it. Heck, if I hadn’t said anything you never would’ve known. That’s just not the stuff we see as bestselling, high-stakes drama.

Second Thought--My characters need a reason to confront said challenge.
If my characters are going to take on a challenge, they need a reason to do it. If I’ve spent the past four days walking through the desert, getting that drink is probably a life-or-death thing for me. Captain Marvel isn’t pursuing the Skrulls as a part time hobby—it’s her sworn duty as an officer of the Kree military. I need to make sure this reason is really there.  It might be clear in my head why the characters are going to undertake a challenge, but is it clear on the page?  This is doubly true for internal things, which can be a lot more subtle depending on what point of view I’m using

Third Thought—My challenge needs a reason to exist.
Like I said right at the start, I need to have some kind of challenge, but I don’t want a challenge that only exists to be a challenge.  It’s got no reason for existing in the world of my  story, no past, no future, no motivation.   It’s only there to serve as an obstacle for the protagonist to overcome.   We can probably all think of a book or movie where, for no reason at all, an obstacle just popped out of nowhere.   That kind of stuff just weakens any story.

Challenges have a purpose.  Whether they’re the driving force behind my story or minor distractions my characters need to deal with quick, they're a kind of antagonist—something or someone working against my heroes. That oasis is the only source of water for a hundred miles in this desert, which is why the people who used to liver here set so many guards to protect it. There’s also a reason the Skrulls are on Earth (they’re searching for a hidden lab) and there’s a reason they’re tough to find (they’re shapechangers). I need to think about why a challenge is in my story, and if there isn’t a real reason... maybe re-think it
.
One other note. I think it’s generally better if my audience (reader or viewer) has at least some idea why this challenge exists.  They don’t need to know all the details immediately (or even accurately), but I also shouldn’t be saving them for a last-page reveal.

Fourth Thought—My challenge needs to be daunting.
Not only am I weak from dehydration and facing ten armed guards around the oasis, the actual spring itself is booby-trapped. Someone centuries ago built all sorts of pressure plates around the thing and I’m not exactly in the best condition right now to be tip-toeing and balancing through this spike-launching mine field. Plus, if Captain Marvel can’t find the Skrull agents on Earth, they could establish a foothold here, rebuild their strength, and endanger peace throughout much of the galaxy.

This may be a weird way to look at it, but challenges are things we need to deal with, but we don’t want to deal with. My characters don’t want to deal with this because they don’t even want to be in this situation. I think we can all agree things would be a lot easier if that challenge wasn’t even there.

But it is there, so... goddammit...

Fifth Thought—My challenge can’t be impossible.
Okay, we all right fiction. But even within a fictional world there are things that just can’t happen. Normal people can’t punch out gods or outsmart supercomputers. And if all those guards around the oasis have motion sensors, night vision goggles, and shoot to kill orders, there’s very little I’m going to get—holy crap there’s fifty guards? I thought there were only ten. And when did they all get machine guns?

If you've ever watched a horror movie where the killer is merciless,unstoppable, and inescapable... well, that gets pretty dull after the second or third kill, doesn't it?  One of the reasons Jason Voorhees was scary is that he never ran.  He just sort of... marched? Lumbered?  It always felt like somebody could get away from Jason if they could just go a little faster. If it feels like there’s no chance, it’s not interesting. We already know the outcome.

There are two  other issues with the impossible challenge.  One is if I make my challenge out to be completely impossible and my hero pulls it off anyway, there’s a good chance it’s going to knock my audience out of the story. I’ve just shattered the rules of what’s possible in my story. That usually means it’s “throwing the book across the room” time.

The second issue is when I have challenges that seem impossible to my characters, but have painfully obvious solutions to my readers.  We just don’t like these characters, by nature of their stupidity, and that’s not going to win me any points.

Sixth Thought—Holy crap there are a lot of these
This was supposed to be a quick rehash of an old topic, but I keep finding things I want to add to this. I’ve got editing to do, dammit!

Seventh Thought—My challenge should be unexpected.
This isn’t a hill-I-will-die-on rule... but I’d be willing to fight on that hill for a little while. Once I admit that I need a challenge, it’s kinda the next logical step.

If my heroes are so prepared, so trained and equipped that they’re completely ready for this challenge... well, there isn’t really a challenge, is there? If they’ve covered all the angles, researched every possibility, how can they lose? And if they can’t lose... well, that’s kinda boring, isn’t it? We know the outcome again.

A standard part of so many stories—including Captain Marvel-- is when something changes or goes wrong.  The one thing we didn’t prepare for happens. We learned something new that completely flips our goals and  understanding of the situation.  One way or another, the plan’s shattered into a million pieces. I beat the guards and made it past the booby traps and WHAT? There are albino crocodiles in the oasis? Wait, are these guys actually poachers?

But think about it—when this happens in a story, it’s almost always the moment we love. It’s when my characters get to look good and show how smart or clever or tough they really are.

Eighth and Last Thought--I need to resolve my challenge
Once I’ve set up a challenge, it needs to be resolved somehow. I can’t crouch on a sand dune outside the oasis for five chapters studying the guards and their patrol patterns, then just wander off back into the desert. It leaves a lot of dangling threads and unanswered questions. Who were all those guys? How did they get here? Why did I give up when I desperately needed water?? How did I wander away if I was weak from dehydration? Why did the author spend five chapters on this if I was just going to wander away...?

To paraphrase Chekov, if we see a phaser on the bridge in act one, we need to see it on overload in act three. And then either disarm it or watch it take out the Enterprise. Because if I just leave it there buzzing and getting hotter, readers are going to ask what happened. They remember this stuff.

And they will judge me on it.

Those are my way-too-many thoughts on challenges. Maybe take some time and look at the challenges your own characters are facing. Are there any? Are they challenging enough? Does your character have a desire to avoid them and a need to face them?

Next time, speaking of challenges, I’m going to do something I’ve tried really hard to avoid here for years. I’m going to go negative.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

...Versus the World

As most of you know, I watch bad movies. I’m kind of a fan of them. I also think you can learn a lot by reading and watching the not-as-great stuff and figuring out how and where it went wrong. Read the good stuff too, absolutely, but don’t avoid the bad stuff.

Anyway, I was watching one particularly bad movie a week or three back, and it hit a problem. It hit a bunch, really, but we’re just going to dwell on the one. And that problem involved a television psychic.

Y’see, we’d clearly established the supernatural existed in this world.  I mean, I'm pretty sure we weren't supposed to think  demons and ghosts had never existed before this moment in time.  And since we’re dealing with demons and ghosts, a psychic isn’t exactly out of the question.

So... problem. Was this a real psychic or not? I mean, the character existed, yeah, but were they supposed to be a real psychic who had a TV show?  Or were they a fake psychic who performed in a world where the supernatural was real? The directing, acting, and special effects didn’t really help clarify this vagueness. As story choices went, it needed a lot more thought and attention than these filmmakers gave it.

It reminded me a bit of an essay I read a few years back. I wish I could give proper credit on this but I’ve never been able to find it again. I thought I’d read it in the introduction of a Lovecraft anthology, but I’ve gone over my library a couple of times trying to find it. Point is—this isn’t my clever observation.

To paraphrase, this essayist pointed out that we couldn’t really have supernatural stories until the late 18th or 19th century. According to them, it made sense this was when the first names of the genre began to appear.  Why?

Well, until then we hadn’t really defined what “natural” was, and that knowledge hadn’t been widely distributed, either. Sure, we can look back at tales from the Middle Ages and label them as ghost stories, folklore, or what have you, but at the time most people took these as... well, historical record. These were non-fiction. You didn’t put a horseshoe over your door with seven nails because it was a quaint tradition—you did it to keep the damned witch out. 

(...and. prithee, we all know of who I speak when I sayeth “the witch”-- Goody Lesswing! We all knowest this, I am just the one who sayeth it! Her evil eye did make my beans and corn shrivel up!)

In a way, this is the context issue I mentioned a few months back. Y’see, Timmy, if I don’t know what’s natural in a setting—what’s normal—I can’t tell you what’s unnatural. I can’t define an equation without having at least some idea what both halves of the equation are.  It’s like me asking “are you faster than Phoebe?” How can you answer that if you don’t know who Phoebe is? Maybe she uses a cane.  Maybe she’s my two-month old niece. Maybe she’s an Olympic sprinter.  Hell, maybe she’s a racing greyhound.  Likewise, how can I tell you a not-real story if I don’t establish what’s real and possible in this setting?

Now, I brought that up so I can mention this...

I can write an amazing world.  It can be a world at peace where nobody wants for anything. It can be a world of constant conflict.  It could be a secret, magical world or a widely-known sci-fi one.  One of the joys of fiction is we can create worlds where absolutely anything is possible.  Turing-tested artificial intelligence.  Dragon scales as currency. Space elevators. Zombie plagues. Swamp witches who keep you up at night tapping on your window.

But no matter what kind of world it is, no matter how wild things seem, for the people living in it, it’s normal.  If aliens have invaded and we’ve been at war for the past six months and a third of the human race is dead... this is just the way things are. This is an average day. And no matter what kind of world they’re set in, average days are boring. Because they’re, well... average.  They’re just part of the daily grind. Even if the daily grind is mashing moonberries into juice that we use to keep the gorgons calm while we milk them for antivenin.

Y’see, Timmy—yep, a double y’see Timmy. I know, it’s been awhile—this is why worldbuilding isn’t plot.  It’s just setting.  No matter how fantastic or dynamic the world might be, it’s still just the backdrop. That’s it. It’s the world my story’s going to happen in—not my story.

Plot is when something changes in my character’s world. It’s when the norm gets disrupted—no matter how amazing or horrible or routinely frustrating that norm might be. It’s the thing that stands out to them, that drives them into action, that makes today not an average day.  When plot happens we should know it because our characters will know it.

When I’m planning my story, I need to be keenly aware of this. No matter how fantastic my world is, for the people living in it... its just the world.  It’s just the way things are. We want to see people deal with the change, to rise to the challenge of situations that are new to them.

Not deal with an average day in their world.

Next time... I really need to get these edits done, and this weekend is the Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies, and the Dystopian Bookclub at the Last Bookstore, so getting something done for next time might be a bit of a challenge. But I’ll try to do something.

You do something, too.  Go write.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Who’s the REAL Monster...?

Tomorrow’s my birthday. One of those big landmark/milestone birthdays. Which seems impossible because I don’t feel a day over 200 most of the time.

Anyway... to celebrate my final day as a young man, a couple of us are going to go see the new Godzilla movie tonight (I’ll be watching it at midnight when I become old), and that got me thinking about monsters. 

Monster stories are one of those sub-genres of horror I think get glossed over a lot. I’ve mentioned them in passing before, but it’s worth taking a closer look. Just because I have a monster in my story doesn’t automatically make it a monster story. And it’s my birthday so screw you all, we’re going to talk about monsters.

Horror is, simply put, the scary genre, so it’s not shocking to say that monster stories almost always involve some element of fear. It’s worth noting this fear should involve the characters and the audience. If only the audience is scared, this is more of a suspense situation.  If only the characters are scared... well, that could mean a lot of things.

The big thing that sets monster stories apart, I think, making them their own little sub-niche-genre, is that they’re about unstoppable things.  Go back to Frankenstein.  No matter what happens, the creature always breaks free, always survives. I’d tie this all the way back to the original novel, where even in the end the monster can’t be defeated—he just wanders away on his own terms to die. Except even in Shelly’s original book, we don’t know he dies. Even she left this window of “maybe he’s still out there.” Heck, go all the way back to Greek myths—we can cut off Medusa’s head and she’s still the most dangerous thing in a ten mile radius.

Because of this, a major element in pretty much every monster story is “getting the hell away from it.” Maybe it’s just the two of us running through the forest, trying to catch up with that bastard Wakko who left us behind (he’ll get his, don’t worry...). It might be a full scale evacuation of a city. There may be other elements, maybe even more dominant ones, but trying to get away is pretty much always going to be a big part of a monster story.

Another thing most good monster stories involve is a degree of self-reflection and sympathy. We’re scared by the monster but we also tend to feel a bit of pity for it. Every version of Frankenstein (well, okay, every good version) recognizes that the monster is horribly lonely, desperate to find any sort of companionship. The original Rodan has a complete gut-punch of an ending (I rewatched it recently and holy crap I did not register so much of it when I was a kid). Yeah, the monster in Super 8 is killing people, but it’s also been imprisoned and tortured by humans for the past twenty years or so.

This ties back to a common character trait I’ve mentioned one or ten times—relatability. We feel sympathy for monsters—even if it’s just for a few moments—because they reflect some basic truth about us, or humanity in general.  We all know what it’s like to be lonely. We’ve all lashed out. We’ve all growled at people and waved our arms and retreated up to the old windmill to fight off the villagers.

Anyway...

That leads to another point. Monsters tend to be characters in their own right. They aren’t nameless, unknown, unseen threats. They have personalities and motivations. They often have names. Like, actual, personal names, not just vague titles or pronouns. We all understand the difference between it and It, right...?

And one last thing. This one’s less of an absolute, but I think you’d find it to be a very common element. Comedy. Most of the best monster stories have some kind of comedy element. At the very least, they’re not dry and humorless. Partly because comedy is just unavoidable, and it naturally comes out at the most bizarre times.  But also because it lets us hang a lantern on the inherent absurdity of a lot of monster stories. Yeah, come on.  Be honest. I mean, seriously—how does a 350 foot tall lizard go unnoticed for so long? He’s five times bigger than a blue whale. Think how much it’d need to eat.

I mention all this because monsters are cool.  And because knowing my genre is important. All genres come with expectations, and the more often my genre story deviates from those expectations, the better the chances are it’s going to fall flat with my chosen audience.  If an anthology editor is looking for monster stories and I send in a piece of torture porn... that’s not going to work out well for me.  If I’ve led my agent to expect a monster story and instead I give him a fantasy romp with dragons, he’s probably going to start over from square one in a lot of ways. And if every movie in a franchise has been a slasher film and I suddenly decide to make a sci-fi monster movie...

Well, I’ve just made Jason X. Which isn’t a bad movie at all (I kinda love it), but it went against a lot of people’s expectations and stumbled hard because of that. It’s a monster movie in the middle of a slasher series.

Anyway, there’s some thoughts on monsters. Ponder them while you cheer on your favorite kaiju this weekend.

Speaking of this weekend—even though it’s my birthday, I’m helping out Jonathan Maberry by taking over the San Diego Writers Coffeehouse on Sunday.  So swing by Mysterious Galaxy between noon and three as we talk about writing, publishing, and all that.

And next time, maybe we’ll talk about worldbuilding a bit.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Recycling

So, I wanted to blather on about something that seems to come up now and then.  I’m guessing for at least three out of four of you, this is going to seem kinda obvious.  But for that other person... you may really need to hear this.  No matter which direction you’re approaching it from.

I’m a big fan of recycling. Fan’s probably not even the right word. It just seems like a no brainer to me. Why wouldn’t you do it? Why would someone be against it? We recycle our glass and plastic. We compost a lot of our food waste and cardboard and even some old clothes. Yeah, you can compost old clothes.  Weird, I know.

We reuse and repurpose a lot of stuff, too. That comes out of, well, being poor.  Even though I’m on a much better footing these days, financially, I still try to reuse things. We never broke the habit of using those spaghetti sauce mason jars as glasses. Half our Tupperware is take-out containers. And I still look at frozen pizza boxes as potential tanks.

What’s odd, though, is a certain subset of folks who’ll mock you for doing this with your writing.

I’ve brought up many, many times the need to cut manuscripts.  We write so much stuff that gets trimmed away.  Clever bits of descriptions.  Cool dialogue.  Sometimes whole scenes, subplots, or even whole characters. When it comes time to hone and focus that first draft, all these things can fall under the editorial knife.

Now, weird as this may sound—like I said, for most of you this is going to sound bizarre, but—some people think this cut material’s gone for good. It’s been deleted. Even if some record still exists, it’s unusable now. Toxic. Radioactive. It’s somehow been tainted forever.

I think a lot of this comes from people who lean a little too heavily on the art side of writing. Oddly enough... the ones who don’t write that much.  They get a little too focused on the idea and the craft and the ART of it. I put these words together in this way for this story.  I didn’t use them like that or like that, and so pulling them out and putting them somewhere else would just be wrong.  It’s not what I first intended.  It’s not what those phrases were created to do.

If I listen to those folks too much... or maybe if I am one of those folks (it’s okay, admitting it is the first step)... I probably have a somewhat shallow view of recycled material.  Those dialogue exchanges that I cut, or that subplot or character... they’re not going to work anywhere else.  I’m not being artistically honest or something like that.  How could a character crafted for story A possibly work in story B? Dialogue that I’d intended for X just shouldn’t work coming out of Y’s mouth, especially if Y’s in a completely different book.

And if I do try it and it does work... well, that just says something about me, doesn’t it?  I probably don’t know what I’m doing. My writing must be pretty thin and generic if I can just pluck some material from here and drop it in over there.  I’m probably lazy as hell in other aspects of my life, too.

If you happen to be the one out of four who thinks this... sorry.  It just isn’t true.  In any way.  Just in case my tone wasn’t carrying through.

Of course I can repurpose material. Artists have done it throughout history.  We jot down notes for one thing and end up using them for another.  We cut from that and then repurpose it for this.  Exchanges of dialogue. Neat ways to describe something.  Maybe a whole scene of morning-after awkwardness or a supporting character who got nixed for space.

Granted, none of this is going to slide right in without a bit of work and some tweaks.  I’m probably going to have to change a few proper nouns, and possibly a few personal pronouns, too.  Maybe an adjective or three.  That’s just the nature of such things. But it’s still absolutely fine to use it.

And honestly, because it’s older stuff I didn’t use before... I may have improved since I first wrote it (hopefully I have). That was a great bit back then, but y’know, if I just did this it’d be fantastic.  Or maybe he seemed like a good character for back then, but now I realize this should all really be centered around her.

I’ve got a book coming out later this summer/early fall called Terminus (that’s probably what we’re calling it), and it’s got a discussion between two characters I’ve been trying to use for almost eight years now. Seriously. I had to cut it from another book, but it’s got some great character stuff and I’ve always wanted to use it. Terminus finally gave me a great place where it could fit. And, yeah, it needed some adjustment to fit in this story with these characters at this point in the overall story. But it’s still 80-85% the same and I think folks are going to love it when they read it.

Still not convinced? Are you one of those one out of four who’s ready to pop down to the comments and point out I'm one of those lazy hacks who barely qualifies as a real writer?

How about Ray Bradbury? Is he a lazy hack? Most of Fahrenheit 451 is recycled ideas, after all. Bradbury had already used the firemen (the book burning ones) in a bunch of different short stories.  They even show up in The Martian Chronicles.  He'd also done longer stories about book burning and corpse-burning (seriously).  The spider-like Mechanical Hound is from an old short story he’d never finished.  There it‘s a law-enforcement tool used by sheriffs and police. He lifted the entire description, almost word for word, and dropped it into 451, along with some dialogue about it. Heck, the whole book is an expanded version of his short story "The Fireman" which he expanded into a novella and then expanded again into a full book.

And he's not alone. Lots of writers have files of material they had to cut. And they're always trying to find that material a new home.

Y’see, Timmy, yeah, writing is an art. But like every kind of art, the “how I do it” is entirely up to me. My manuscript might be pristine and pure and new. It might make Frankenstein look like somebody with a small appendectomy scar. But honestly, none of that matters. The only thing that matters is the manuscript I have at the end. Does it flow? Are the characters believable?  Is the plot interesting? Does the dialogue ring true?

Then it’s good.  And that’s all that matters.

Next time... okay, to be terribly honest, next time is the day before my birthday. One of those milestone, “we should make note of this” birthdays. What I’m saying is, I’m probably going to be drunk. Which means I’ll end up talking about Godzilla or something.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

...Could Cut Diamonds

At the Writers Coffeehouse this past weekend we talked a little bit about starting a book, which is something I blabbed on about here just a few weeks back.  I thought it might be worth going over one particular aspect of both discussions.

There’s one thing any writer needs to understand if they want to be successful. It took me  a while to get it.  Really get it. 

Ideas are cheap.  Ridiculously cheap.  They’re a dime a dozen.  I’d guess on an average day I have at least a dozen random ideas for books, short stories, screenplays, or television episodes. 

Now, in my experience, beginning writers tend to hit one of two problems when it comes to ideas, and they’re really two flipsides of the same issue. 

One type of writer laments that they never have good ideas.  Yeah, I might have a couple clever thoughts, but they’re not, y’know... book-worthy.  Not like some of the stuff out there. Wanderers or  Middlegame or Black Leopard, Red Wolf or... I mean, all that stuff is so good.  On so many levels.  The ideas I come up with all feel kinda average.  They’re not worth writing about, so I don’t write. I wait for the good ideas to strike.

If I’m the second type, I have too many ideas.  I’ve barely finished writing my third screenplay this month but I’ve already got an idea for a series of epic novels.  Which leads me to a comic book series.  And a podcast.  And a collection of linked short stories. I can barely keep up with all the ideas I have.

In either case, I’m probably suffering from a misconception.  The same one, really. I think anything that goes on the page has to be pure, award-winning gold.  The difference is that the first type of writer won’t put anything down because they know it isn’t  gold, whereas the other folks are assuming it must be gold because they put it down on the page.

Make sense?

The catch, of course, is that most of the stuff that I put down isn’t going to be gold.  It’s going to be rewritten and edited down and polished.  I shouldn’t be thinking of story ideas as gold, but more like diamonds.  When I find a diamond in the wild, it’s a crusty black lump.  They’re not sparkly or faceted, and they definitely don’t look like they’re worth six or eight thousand dollars per carat.  Diamonds need to be cut and recut, measured and examined, cut again, and then polished some more.  That’s how they get ready to be placed in a setting and shown off to the world.

So that first group of writers is tossing out all those black, coarse stones because none of them look like engagement rings.  The second group‘s busy sticking the crusty lumps on gold bands and asking you to pay three months salary for them. 

Hopefully it’s easy to see why neither of these is the right approach.

What’s the trick, then? Is there a way to know which ideas are the good ones to spend time cutting and polishing?  How can I tell if it’s an idea with potential or a bad idea or maybe a good idea but just one idea too many?

Well, y’see Timmy, the ugly truth is... a lot of the time, I can’t tell.  I just need to do the work.  I might go through a hundred pages or a solid week or three of outlining and realize there’s not really anything there.  A fairly successful friend of mine spent months working on a novel.  He got almost 70,000 words into it before he realized... it just wasn’t working.  So he stopped and moved on.

Sure, yeah, he probably could’ve cheated a bit.  Tweaked a few things, maybe tossed out a deus ex machina or two, but in the end it didn’t work because it didn’t work.  No clever phrase or substituted word or literary sleight of hand was going to change that.

I know a lot of folks have trouble accepting this, even though we all understand this sort of thing happens in a lot of other jobs. Chefs come up with cool recipes they never get to use.  Engineers design things that never get built.  Hell, do you have any idea how many unproduced scripts there are floating around Hollywood that have Oscar-winning screenwriters behind them?  Every creative person puts out a lot of material that never gets seen by anyone.  We do a lot of work and it gets cut or replaced or just... not used.

Don’t get paralyzed wondering if your ideas are gold.  Odds are they aren’t.  But you’ll find some diamonds in the rough, and once you know how to spot them it’ll be an easier (and quicker) process to find them next time.  For now, take what you’ve got and work with that.  There’s a chance there’s a shiny diamond or two in there somewhere.  If you put the work into them.

Speaking of cutting out excess material, next week I wanted to talk to you about recycling.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Expletive Deleted

A few weeks back, a superhero movie kinda came and went in the world. No, not that one. That one’s still doing fine.  The other one, that came out two weeks before it. I admit, I didn’t see the other one. I’m not against reboots or remakes, but it felt like all this had going for it was... it was R-rated.  So the protagonist could swear.  And the filmmakers could show more gore.  And maybe a butt or a boob or something.  Again, didn’t see it.

Thing is “profanity” isn’t really much of a selling point once we’re past... what, ten years old? Blood and gore usually just draws attention to it vanishing between scenes. Seeing a naked butt on screen lost a lot of its appeal once the internet became a thing. I guess you could make an argument for whose butt it is, but even that's only going to get you so far...

We’ve all known for a while now that this sort of stuff doesn’t make a good movie.  It doesn’t automatically mean my movie is bad, but if these are the only elements I’m pushing to say my movie is good... well, I can’t be surprised if I don’t do well at the box office.  As A. Lee Martinez noted a few weeks back, ”I never trust a story that wants to impress me with its gore and vulgarity. I have enjoyed many a story with gore and vulgarity, but never one that was sold to me that way.”

I think this is true of most storytelling. There isn’t much we’d consider taboo in stories anymore.  And there’s an audience for almost everything.  There are sub-genres and sub-sub-genres and when you go deep enough pretty much anything goes.

Because of this, though, I think sometimes writers get caught up in the idea of just showing everything.  All the gore and sex and violence they can manage, all written out in long, elaborate detail.  I mean, it fills up the page and, hey, check it out.  Bet you’ve never pictured someone getting split in half that way before, have you?

We need to understand, though, that these excessive and explicit moments are very rarely part of the story or plot—they’re just descriptions.  If Bob dies, it rarely matters if it took me one sentence or seven pages to kill him.  In the end, Bob is dead and it kinda boils down to how much of this actually advanced the plot, and how much of it my readers could just skip over with a yawn.

And yeah, sure, sometimes there’s a point to it.  There’s a narrative reason I need two pages of gore or three pages of sex or a character who drops an f-bombs in every sentence they speak or think.  Nobody would say otherwise (nobody you should listen to, anyway).  But this is a lot like adverbs, adjectives, or exclamation points.  The more I use them, the weaker they get.  They start to clutter up the page.  So I want to be a little conservative with them.

Here, lemme give you a very non-conservative example....

My friend Autumn Christian wrote a wonderful book called Girl Like A Bomb. The main character (and narrator), Bev, discovers she’s got an unusual superpower. When she has sex with people, they get... better. They clean up. They get focused. They become the best, self-actualized version of themselves.

Now, you might guess sex is a big part of this book, and you’d be right (consider that your warning if you decide to pick it up). The first few times Bev has sex—like any teenager—it’s a wild ride and it’s very explicit. It’s an all-new experience for her, she likes it, and she is, as they say, DTF.

But after those first few encounters—and one much more violent one (consider that your other warning)—Bev becomes all-too-aware of the effect her gift is having on her partners. It’s still fun, but it’s also a responsibility, and this shows in her narration.  Less than halfway through the book, her various encounters becomes a quick sentence or less, sometimes coming across as more of an annoying obligation or burden.  Because while the story involves sex, it’s not really about sex—it’s about what Bev can do with her superpower. So that’s what Christian focuses on.

And this holds for everything.  If I push any story element up to ten for my whole book—sex, action, violence, gore, cool lines—it’s going to get boring fast.  Sure, there’s a small percentage of readers that’ll be thrilled, but it’s reeeeeeeeeeeeeally tough to find any sort of wide appeal that way.

Plus... in a way, all this extensive description is me feeding everything to my reader.  I’m telling them everything instead of showing them everything.  And, yeah, I know that sounds weird but...

Okay, look... I’m going to let you in on a secret.  This is one of the six Great Secrets of storytelling that you can only learn from a crow after they eat 169 peanuts in a row from your hand.  It’s the first and easiest of the secrets to learn, but I’m just going to give it to you for free...

You’ve probably heard people talk about showing vs. telling all the time, but we rarely bring up the obvious.  We have to tell.  That’s all we can do. I’m typing words for you to read, telling you what the characters see, hear, feel, smell, think, whatever. On the surface, telling is pretty much it for us as writers.

When we talk about showing, we’re talking about making images appear in the reader’s mind. And the longer it takes for those images to form, the less effective they are at creating some kind of emotional response. So, to speed things up, we want the reader to do some of the work for us. We want them to tell them just enough—just the right things—and have them fill in the blanks.  They supply the horror or the excitement or the disgust so it’s instantly summoned to their mind, rather than waiting for me to spell it all out. It’s the difference between me telling you a joke that you immediately get and me having to explain the joke to you (“Because, y’see, the last guy was hiding in the refrigerator, so when they threw it over the railing he ended up...”).

That’s what showing is.

See, when I wrote out that little bit of dialogue, you got that.  Even if you didn’t recognize the joke, you understood the situation of having to spell out the punchline for somebody.  You filled in everything around that sentence fragment.

Truth is, the big majority of readers like doing this. They enjoy it when we trust them enough to understand things. When we don’t spell everything out for them.  In graphic detail.  Billy Wilder used to say you could let the audience add 2 + 2 now and then and they’d love you for it. Heck, I’ve got a whole loosely-scientific theory about how this kind of writing sets off the pleasure centers of our brain.  No seriously.

So y’see Timmy, I don’t need to wipe every single one of these excessive, over-described bits from my manuscript.  But, like adverbs, if I’ve got a bunch on every page... ehh, I might want to stop to reconsider some of my choices.

Next time, I’ve got a few more ideas to bounce off you.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

That Figure in Black

Today, I was hoping we could have a quick talk about that mysterious figure across the street.  You know the one.  Over there.  The person in the hat and trenchcoat who’s just standing on the edge of the shadows, watching us as we dig up this old time capsule.  The one who said something cryptic as you walked by.

You know who I mean.

No, seriously.  We all know the character I’m talking about, right?  The one who shows up in the first chapter, spouts a few  statements, and then vanishes for the next three or four hundred pages.  Heck, maybe they don’t come back at all.

Maybe—and let’s be honest here—maybe we’ve even written a character like that.  I know I have.  It’s okay.  Admitting it is the first step to getting better.

Truth is, characters like this are the one of the reasons so many agents and editors say they hate prologues.  So often, these characters don’t do anything except waste our time building a  false sense of mystery, dropping psuedo-hints that rarely, if ever, amount to anything.  They just... they’re awful.

So... how could we make them better?

Let me ask you this.  Forget the aura of mystery. What if they spilled their guts in chapter one instead?  They’re standing there across the street, then they walk over and just start telling us everything.  I mean, almost uncomfortable amounts of personal information.

What would this character say?

Who are they?  No, seriously—who are they?  What’s their actual name?  Who do they work for?  Why are they here?  Why are they dressed all in black?  Why are they saying these words?  What do they know? If they know more, why aren’t they just explaining everything?  Are they on my protagonist’s side?  If they are, why don’t they stick around to help?  If they aren’t, why aren’t they taking more direct action against the protagonist?  Why are they so cryptic?

Now, once I know all that... let's look at my original version of this moment.  Is my mysterious figure acting believably?  Naturally?  This is my chance to make sure everything lines up, so my readers—including agents and editors—won’t feel cheated later on.

I’ve talked about something similar to this before—the detective’s speech.  That sometimes it’s worth writing out a chapter I might never use because it’ll help me figure out exactly how things are working in my story.  Because... well, I should know how things work in my story.  And why they work that way.

And why that guy’s sitting in his car across the street, watching us talk.

Next time... Look, I’ll be honest.  Next time might get a little explicit.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

In The Beginning...

Running a bit late with this today.  Sorry.

So, I’m wading into a new book this month, and I figured... well, that’s probably a great time to talk about getting started and the draft process.

Of course, right off the bat... did I really start it this month?  I mean, sure, about two weeks ago I sat down and started actively working on an outline for it.  But the truth is, this is actually the second outline.  I first pitched it to my agent almost two years ago (and then again to my editor that summer).  They both said (and eventually, I agreed) that it needed some more work.

And, really, the bare idea came almost a year before that.  Back in early 2016, if memory serves.  I know I talked with another author, Kristi Charish, about one aspect of it back then, to get her thoughts and expertise on parts of it.

When do we “start” writing?  When does it count?  Is it when we first start thinking about a project?  When we actually make some notes or an outline?  Or is it not until I write VAMPIRE KAIJU: BOOK ONE by Peter Clines   CHAPTER ONE...?

I think that’s worth mentioning, because whenever I see someone talking about writing a book in five weeks or two months or whatever, I always wonder what they’re counting.  A finished, polished manuscript?  Just the first draft?  Are they counting the time they spent outlining, or that they started mulling it over months—maybe years—in advance?

Paradox Bound came out in 2017, but I pitched it to my editor and wrote up a first rough outline back in 2013.  And Dead Moon, my new one that just came out on Valentine’s Day?  My very first stab at that actually happened back in 2011, right after I finished writing Ex-Patriots.  Yeah, it was a different book back then, but still... when I sat down to “start” writing it in 2017, I already had about 30,000 words done.

So how long did they take to write...?

Again, just think about that the next time you see someone say they wrote something in a short amount of time.  Or in a very long amount of time.  We all have our own thoughts about what counts as starting and stopping points.

Anyway...

At the risk of sounding arrogant, let me walk you through my process.  Well, more of a quick stroll, really.  I’ve talked about a lot of this before (so I’ll add a lot of links), and I don’t want to bore you with it since... well, odds are you won’t be doing things this way.

No, seriously, you won’t.  The process I use is pretty much unique to me.  And the process you use is unique to you—even if maybe you haven’t figured it out yet.  Or you’re in the process of evolving from one process to another.  I’m just showing off mine to maybe spark some thoughts and help you think about such things.

So... let’s get started.

All of this always starts with an idea.  Maybe you’re the type who writes them down, maybe you keep it in your head for a while.  I’m 50-50 on it.  If an idea really sings in my head right at the start, in any sort of way, I always write it down.  But some I mull over for a while.  I let them ferment in my brain, see if they grow a little or get a better shape.

Eventually all these notes come together in some form of rough outline.  I think we all do some kind of outline.  Even the most random of road trips starts with, at the bare minimum, “let’s head west.”  Maybe it’s just a page or two of those rough notes.  Maybe it’s an extensive beat sheet.  It might be a huge stack of color-coded index cards.  This stage is really going to come down to “whatever works for you.”  The outline I just finished up for this project is twelve pages, with another two page document about the characters, but that’s just me.

And now, I guess, we’re ready to “start” writing.

My first drafts are big, messy things.  I write a lot, but I also skip a lot of things.  The only goal with a first draft is to get it done.  Nothing else matters.  Not punctuation, not spelling, not finding the exact right word or crafting the perfect cool line to end that chapter on.  These things’ll matter eventually, but right now... I just want to finish this draft.

NaNoWriMo is really all about this.  It’s pushing yourself to just focus on finishing a first draft, rather than slowing down to worry about individual scenes and chapters.  If you’re especially determined (or masochistic) you could try the 3 Day Novel contest.  My partner’s done it a few times now and... well, I just try to keep her supplied with coffee and stay out of her way.

Once I’ve got this done, I dive into my second draft.  This is me in clean-up mode.  All the stuff I skipped gets filled in.  Sentences I never finished, incomplete descriptions, the places where I had to look up a certain place or name and for now it’s just ######### or [ADD BIG FIGHT HERE] or [MAKE THIS NOT SUCK SO MUCH!!!]

I also take a good look at the things I skipped.  Why didn’t I write it earlier?  Could I not come up with anything to go between these two elements?  Was I just not interested in writing that bit? If I’m not interested in writing it, people probably aren’t going to be interested in reading it.  This might tighten things up right here.

For me. the goal with this draft is to end up with a solid, readable manuscript.  Someone should be able to go to page one to page 500 and never hit any weird gaps or confusing typos or anything else that immediately kills the flow.

Third draft is editing.  I go through the whole manuscript line by line.  I check all my spelling.  I look for repetition and redundancy.  I cut a lot of excess words here.  Thousands of words, usually.  This involves a bunch of passes, the last one to make sure all this random cutting and tweaking hasn’t created any new hiccups.

When I’m all done with this—which can take a week or so—I try to get it in front of a few people I trust.  My partner.  Old friends who've ended up in the storytelling line of work.  People who’ve heard me talk about it and people who don’t know a thing about it.  The important thing is they’re all going to give me honest thoughts and opinions.  Which may sting sometimes, but will be much more useful.

Once I have all these notes from folks, I start my fourth draft.  Now I’m going through all these copies one line at a time, taking notes of my own and implementing changes where they’re needed.  How many people liked this bit?  How many didn’t like that one?  Whoops, guess I missed a comma there.  Now, having been away from this for a month or so while other folks were reading it, that line’s really dumb, isn’t it? Did I actually think that was deep and clever at some point?

This takes at least a week. Often more.  I’m simultaneously reading three or four copies of the book line by line, getting everyone’s thoughts and takes on it.  Weighing their thoughts against my own and each others.  Sometimes it goes fast, other times... it’s really slow.

And this eventually, finally brings us to the fifth draft.  This is me going through the whole thing again to make sure those fourth draft edits didn’t leave anything hanging or tweak a key point.  Just a nice, slow read-through.

One thing I like to do at this point is switch the whole thing into another font.  If I’ve been writing in Times New Roman, I switch it all over to Courier New.  If you’ve been doing that Comic Sans thing, hey, you needed to switch anyway.  When I do this, it makes everything sit differently on the page.  The words look different.  And suddenly passages I’ve been glossing over (after going through this a dozen times) are fresh and new.

And at this point... I wrap it up.  I think it’s important to just say “done” and move on to new projects, or else you can get stuck in an endless trap of rewriting again and again.  After all these rewrites and edits, there’s not much else I can do.

So that’s my process, beginning to end, in a nutshell.

Hey, what do you want?  I just started a new book.  I’ve got work to do.

Speaking of which... next time, I’d like to talk to you a bit about that guy across the street who just said the weirdest thing to me.  See him right over... where did he go?

Until then... go write.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Kondo Method

This one may ramble a bit.  Apologies in advance.

An idea struck me the other day, and I realized I haven’t talked about it here in a while so I thought I’d go over it again.  And, as usual, the best way to do that is with a story.

I talked last summer about moving and gettiing rid of a ton of old Warhammer figures.  I’d built and painted a lot of them.  Some of them were classic figs from twenty-odd years ago.  A few of them were honestly kind of beautiful, in their own way.  A couple were still sealed in the original package.

But, after a surprising amount of soul-searching, I finally just had to admit I was never going to play with these models again on the battlefield.  Or display them in any sort of cool way.  I was keeping them... just to keep them.  Because they were classics and that’s it.  Heck, I’d guess at least a third of them were for armies I didn’t even play anymore.  They were just cluttering up my shelves, and had been for years.  A couple of them for decades.

So I saved a few, maybe six or seven, that I thought I may use someday.  Or just really liked a lot.  The rest... got traded in for store credit.

But here’s the thing.  With them gone, my shelves became a lot cleaner and neater.  And I got a lot better with my hobby time.  I could find things much faster, which meant I was getting more done.   It sounds really straightforward, but getting rid of my the clutter that wasn’t doing anything made my hobby much better.

I think this holds for stories, too.  As writers, we like to think the only limit is our imaginations.  But we’re still dealing with other restrictions.  The size of my manuscript.  The size of my cast of characters.  The patience of my readers. If someone’s going to take up space in my story, there needs to be a reason for them to be there.

An example I’ve given before is Guido, the super-strong mutant from X-Factor.  Guido was a fun-loving, John Lennon-sunglasses-wearing guy who made the “gorilla body” physique popular years before Luther in The Umbrella Academy.  Also, as I understand it, now he’s dead and one of the lords of Hell or something like that, because who wants fun-loving characters around when we could have drama, right? Or maybe he’s alive again.  I lost track.

Anyway...

When Guido made his debut with X-Factor at a press conference, one of the reporters called out “He must be the strong guy!  Every group’s got a strong guy!”  Which led Guido to start calling himself Strong Guy from that point on, but also drew attention to the point that... well, yeah.  Every group does have a strong guy.  Because in the stories most superhero comics lean towards, a strong guy is very handy to have around.  There’s a reason to have them on the team and in the story.

In stories, we sometimes end up with characters that don’t serve a purpose.  Perhaps they’ve got a fantastic voice or a really clever description.  Maybe they’re a kind of character that doesn’t get seen a lot.  Maybe I came up with the idea for them in the shower and just really like how they turned out.

But if they’re not really doing anything to advance the plot or the story... I should probably get rid of them.

Before anyone goes nuts, I admit this is a bit of a broad statement.  There are going to be lots of characters in any story, and some of them are going to have a minimal-at-best effect on the outcome.  The guy serving our food.  That woman guarding the armory.  The fourth person to die in the battle.

Thing is, though, I shouldn’t be putting a lot of effort into someone who isn’t actually going to be doing anything.  All my characters should be propelling the plot and/ or story forward.  If they’re just standing around not really doing much... well, why would I spend a lot of effort on them?  Why give them a name and a backstory and a detailed physical description if all they’re going to do is walk up to the table and drop off three drinks?

This brings me nicely to a potential exception to this statement.  Sometimes we just run into someone interesting.  That one person who stands out because of their wild wardrobe or random pearls of wisdom or... heck, I don’t know, maybe they’re just funny and flirting a lot.  It’s not that uncommon to have this sort of chance, memorable encounter.  Think of the bit player in a movie who stands out in a scene just as much as the main character. Sure they exist, and we all love to encounter them in a story.  Sometimes the reason to be there can just be “this is really cool.”

However...

If I’ve got three or four or more characters like this, that’s starting to really cut into my page count.  At just three or four pages per encounter, that’s twelve or sixteen pages of my manuscript that have nothing to do with my story.  It adds up quick.  This is me deciding I’ll keep a few of those little toy soldiers, but just the special ones, and the ones that look good, and the ones that have fond memories, and the rare ones,  and suddenly I’ve put a hundred of them back on the shelf.

If I’m one of those writers who tries to make every single character special... well, there’s a good chance people are going to start getting frustrated with my lack of focus.

Y’see, Timmy, it keeps coming back to that idea of clutter.  Things getting in the way and slowing us down.  It’s okay to a small extent, but once it hits a certain point... we just have to stop everything.  And the people we’re trying to impress with it...  they’ll probably get annoyed with me.  Or flee in terror and call one of those hoarders shows.  Or the literary equivalent of one, I guess.

I may have some of the coolest, rarest, most beautiful characters out there.  But if they’re not really doing anything, I should maybe at least consider getting rid of them.

Speaking of which, next time...

Well, I’m starting a new book, and we haven’t talked about that whole process in a while.  So maybe I’ll talk a bit about drafts.  Unless one of you has something else you’d rather hear about?

Until then... go write.