Thursday, April 11, 2019

POV

Well, it was fun taking March off, but now I’m back to work on a new project.  Working on a new outline.  And buffing a few rough edges off the thing I turned in back in February.

Of course, I’m still making time for the ranty blog.  And for drunken movie critiques on Saturdays.  It’s all an important part of the process.  Trust me.

Speaking of seeing things my way, I realized I haven’t talked about points of view in a while.  I’ve mentioned it here and there, but I don’t think I’ve focused on it in... a couple of years?  It’s about time to bring it up again.

Point of view is one of those things we all learned about in seventh or eighth grade and kind of memory-dumped once we passed that test.  It’s really important if you’re a writer (or a high school English teacher), but for everyone else it’s...

Well, it’s kinda irrelevant, to be honest.  I think most non-writer/schoolteacher folks have only the barest idea of how point of view works.  And there’s a pile of evidence that says they don’t really care if it doesn’t.  Yeah, sad but true.  All too many people won’t notice if my book has some major POV issues.

BUT...

That doesn’t mean we, as professional and aspiring writers, shouldn’t care about getting it right.  I mean, most people can’t tell you the difference between an alligator and a crocodile.  Doesn’t mean the difference isn’t there.  And if I want to be taken seriously as a herpetologist—especially in the overall herpetology industry and community—I should probably learn what that difference is.  And what using them means for my story.

Points of view.  Not crocodiles.  Using crocodiles in my story... well, okay, it really depends on the context and the genre.

Anyway...

If I’m going to take this whole being-a-writer thing seriously, I need to understand how the different points of view work so I can use them without confusing (or frustrating) my readers.  A lot of otherwise good stories I see get derailed by an irregular point of view... or by a complete lack of one.  They’ll just jump from character X to character Y to an omniscient point of view to Z’s journal.  Which means, as a reader, I’m constantly getting knocked out of the story as I try to figure out what angle I’m seeing things from.

So let’s talk about these a bit...

First person is when the narrator is a character in the story.  Usually (but not always) they’re the main character.  Everything I see or read in the story is filtered through this character.  I see what she sees, hear what she hears, feel what she feels, know what she knows.

On the plus side, first person can feel very easy and freeing to write.  I just get myself in character and go.  It’s great for lots of little train-of-thought sidebars and segues.  It’s also easier to build a connection with the reader, because I’m speaking directly to them with/through this character. 

On the downside... well, it’s all filtered through my character.  I don’t know what’s going on in that other room or Meanwhile, back in Washington or any of that.  Everything rests on this one character.  They’re our window into the story, and if they’re not a very clear or open window... well...

That makes me think of another point that’s probably worth mentioning.  In a first person story I’m getting access to all the narrator’s thoughts.  I know what they know, realize what they realize, and so on.  I mention it because this means I have to be very careful with any sort of reveal or twist.  About how I structure a lot of stuff in my story, really.  If I’m going to bring readers inside my character’s head, my character can’t suddenly decide not to think about something just because it makes things more dramatic.  Sure, if you ask me a question I can give you a vague answer out loud, but I guarantee you that in my head I’m thinking of the exact, precise answer.  When I see a giant crocodile in a clown suit, I don’t think “but then I saw something far beyond my wildest nightmares, which I will detail after the chapter break.”   I just think “oh holy $@#% crocodile clown!!  RUN!!” 

First person’s become fairly popular over the past decade or so, especially in YA fiction.  I’m just pulling numbers out of the air here, but I’d guess anywhere from a third to maybe even half of the books you’ll stumble across these days use a first person POV.

Second person is very rarely used, but I’ve seen it done once or thrice so I think it’s  worth touching on.  This point of view makes you, the reader, the main character and the writer projects all the action and emotion onto you.  “You walk across the parking lot and a feeling of unease begins to creep up your spine.  You hear a sudden noise and bolt for the shop door!” 

Plus side, second person is immediately personal for the reader.  I’ve dragged the reader into the story and made them part of it.  These things are happening to you, which makes it a bit easier to get invested.

Down side is that I’ve dragged the reader into the story and made them part of it.  I’m taking control of them, which means I’ve robbed my protagonist of their agency.  You’re going to do these things and feel like this and react like this.  If you’ve ever played D&D (or any RPG) where the dungeon master just takes control of the whole game, it’s a lot like that.

Second person requires an incredible level of empathy.  I need to know exactly how my readers are going to react as the story progresses so it will feel natural for them.  If I can pull it off, though, it can make for a truly amazing experience.  I highly recommend the Welcome to Night Vale episode “A Story About You” if you want a great example.

And this brings us to third person. It’s an independent, non-involved telling of the events of the story.  In a third person story, the reader (and the narrator) are just spectators.  Think of a television show or movie—we’re “there” but we’re also outside of the events, looking in at them.

Now, third person breaks down a couple different ways.  You may have heard of third person omniscient.  This is when I, as the writer, give the readers access to everything.  We see everyone’s actions.  We hear everyone’s thoughts.  We get everyone’s reactions, even the hidden, internal ones.  We can start here in the diner booth, going back and forth between the young couple on their first date, then leap into the server’s head to see his horrified reaction to their awkward displays of affection, and then drift over to the short order cook who’s secretly a serial killer and is debating which one of them he’s going to murder first.

Hey, these things happen.

Third person omniscient is great because it lets me dump everything.  I get to show every action, reaction, motivation, reflective character moment, all of it.  It lets me cover every base and round out every character.

The downside to third person omniscient is... well, I’m showing everything to my readers.  And one of the major aspects of storytelling is concealing things from them.  Deciding exactly when this gets revealed, that gets seen, this gets realized.  If I’m inherently showing everything, then it’s going to be clear—maybe awkwardly clear—when I’m deciding not to show something. It’s like trying to do a striptease when you’re already naked.  It can still be fun and sexy, but it’s also going to be painfully apparent what your hands are blocking.

Now, there’s also third person limited.   This is when my story keeps the reader as a spectator but I’m much more selective about what they see.  I may decide we’re only going to focus on Yakko and his thoughts.  Think of it as seeing over his shoulder.  Or perhaps I’ll only let the reader see actions but not get access to what any of the characters are thinking.

Third person limited can strike a nice balance between getting my readers invested, because I can get very close to a character, but still restricting what I’m showing them.  It works well for almost any kind of story or genre.  To the best of my knowledge, it’s still the most common point of view for fiction, even with the rise of first person stories that I mentioned up above.

The trick with third person limited is I can see these certain things very clearly, but not other things.  It’s a little bit like first person in that sense.  I’ve chosen to limit things to this one character, whether I’m inside their head or outside of it.  So my story needs to depend a lot on what they experience, not what’s happening to other people in other places.

Hopefully it’s clear that point of view is a big part of storytelling.  It’s going to affect how my narrative unfolds.  It’ll also determine which things I can tell you or explain during the course of the story.  If I have an inconsistent point of view, it’s going to be jarring and break the flow of my story.  If I’ve chosen the wrong point of view, things may come crashing down around me right from the start.

Whoa, whoa, WHOA!  The wrong point of view, you say.  How can there be a wrong point of view?  Sure, it may change the story a bit one way or another, but how can the point of view be wrong?  It’s just an arbitrary decision I make about how I’m going to tell my story, right?

Well... consider this.

Let’s say I’ve decided to write a mystery novel in third person omniscient. In fact, let’s say it’s that little diner scene I mentioned up above.  So here’s our first chapter with Dot and Phoebe out on their date.  Dot’s thinking about first kisses, Phoebe’s thinking of morning-afters.  Here’s their server who was raised a bit too conservative and can’t stop himself from inwardly cringing at two women clearly out on a date, even though he’s trying to be more open and accepting.  And over there, looking out from the kitchen, is Wakko the short order cook, who’s thinking about Phoebe and Dot and—

No, wait.  Hang on.  We can’t see what he’s thinking.  That’ll kinda kill the mystery aspect of this, won’t it?

Okay, so we’ll just never peek inside Wakko’s head.  Of course, any mystery fan is going to wonder why we’re seeing inside everyone’s head except his, and they’re probably going to assume (pretty quickly) it’s because he’s the killer.  And they’ll be right.  In which case my mystery has faceplanted pretty early on.

Of course, I could just decide to see inside Wakko’s head from the start, but now this isn’t a mystery.  If we know he’s the killer from the start, this is more of a thriller.  And it’s a tricky one, because now the investigators searching for Dot’s killer (yeah, sorry, he went after Dot) are going to be playing catch-up with the readers for the whole book.  We’ve know it’s Wakko since chapter one, after all.

So, choosing the right point of view is important in a story.  At best, the wrong one can mean a lot of extra work.  At worst... it means I might do a lot of work and then discover I’ve written myself into a corner.

Another important thing to remember is that my point of view needs to be consistent.  If ninety-five percent of my book is focused on Phoebe and her thoughts and her actions and what she sees, it’s going to be very jarring on page 324 when the narrative suddenly jumps into Wakko’s head for a few paragraphs.  If I switch viewpoints five or six times in the same chapter, it can get confusing real fast. Likewise, we can’t start over Wakko’s shoulder and then driiiiiiiiiiiiiift over so we’re suddenly looking over Dot’s.

Now, this isn’t to say we can’t change point of view in a story.   It’s cool to switch POV and there’s nothing wrong with it.  My Ex-Heroes series regularly switches between third person points of view in the present, and goes into first person for flashback chapters.  But I’m also very, very clear when I’m doing this. 

Think of it this way.  Whatever POV I choose, it’s kinda like looking through a pair of binoculars.  I can see this.  But if I suddenly whip the binoculars over to look at that... well, it takes a couple of minutes.  I need to find that, focus on it.  And if I didn’t know that shift was coming—or that it even happened—imagine how disorienting it would be.  What am I looking at now?  Am I seeing it from a different angle?  Is this even the same pair of binoculars?  I need to make it clear to my readers this shift has happened. If they abruptly start seeing things from new angles or hearing new pronouns, they’re going to go back to figure out when things changed.  Which means they’re not moving forward with the story anymore. 

And that’s never a good thing.

And this concludes my  not-so-quick overview of different viewpoints.
 
Next time, I’d like to talk about Guido a bit.  No, not downtown Guido.  The guy from X-Factor.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Shadow Agency

This week—requests are granted!

Also, as you may have noticed, the majority of responses I got in comments/ tweets/ DMs/ etc were in favor of the new layout, so I’m going to stick with it for now.

A few weeks back someone asked about characters.  How do I get a sense of who they are.  How do I make sure when they do something it’s what they’d do instead of just what the plot (and by extension—I ) want them to do?

Okay, these are two related-but-different questions.  Let’s look at each of them on their own, then figure out that relationship-overlap.  Which I think is what we’re aiming for with this request.

Also, because there’s a lot to unpack here, expect a lot of links to previous posts.  I don’t want to bury you in too much rehashed stuff.  You’re here for exciting hot takes on the art of writing, yes?

First off, how do I get a sense of who my characters are as individuals?  What makes them unique?  What makes them stand out?

One thing would be their general backstory and personal preferences.  If I’ve got a character—especially one of my main characters or important supporting ones—I should know a lot about them.  And I’m talking about me, the author.  For almost all of my characters, there are things I know about them that never make it into the books.  Maybe it’s about their relationship with their parents, their worst class in school, or their favorite bands.  It can be games they play, people they’ve slept with, or their first car.  A lot of this sounds like weird stuff, yeah, but all of this says a little something about who someone is, which means it’s going to affect how they react to the world around them.

There’s also their voice.  The way people phrase things and the words they choose.  Their background will have an effect on how they act, and it’s also going to effect how they talk. This is one of the easiest ways to make characters distinct on the page (or in an audiobook).

Also, I could think about how people react to this character.  Do folks wince at the sound of Dot’s voice?  Do they instinctively lean away from Wakko?  Do they lean toward Phoebe?  And are people right to react this way, or is it because they know something else that we don’t?

All of this should give me a really good sense of who my character is.  Again—I probably won’t use all of it.  I may never see Yakko stumbling through a date or listening to music or reminiscing about his old VW Bug.  But these are all the little elements that help move a character from a basic stereotype and into actual, memorable person-hood.

Okay, the second part of all this is about these characters making decisions. 

There’s a term you may have heard around the interwebs called agency.  It first appeared back in the 1700s, when people were having Enlightening discussions about philosophy and sociology.  At its simplest, agency refers to free will.  Can a person make their own choices and affect the world around them?  How much does the world they exist in restrict that ability to make choices?  If I can’t travel alone, vote, or choose who to love... do I have free will, or just the appearance of free will?  Do people in prison have free will?  Free will may have gotten them there—or maybe the conditions forced on them by society did—but now they have almost no freedom to make choices at all, so...?  Is there a point where I no longer have free will?

Anyway, that’s all heavy stuff.  It’s a little different (and easier) for us when we’re talking about agency in a literary sense. Fictional entities don’t have free will because they’re... well, they don’t actually exist.  But as a writer, I need to make my readers believe these characters are real people who are having an actual affect on the world around them.  They need to do things, and these things need to matter.

If cowards are suddenly going to leap forward and be brave, there should be a clear reason.  If a cold person falls madly in love, we should understand why and how.  If someone decides to open the spooky mystery box after it’s killed half their friends... well, we should be with them on this, even if we don’t like it.

Yeah, sure, it’s possible to make inconsistent decisions or choices that move the plot forward.  We’ve all seen it happen.  The wonderful A. Lee Martinez (he of the Constance Verity books and the Save The Movies podcast) came up with plot zombie a little while ago to explain this.  It’s when characters are only acting in service of the plot, not out of any actual developed or established character traits.
           
This is, just to be clear, a bad thing.

Y’see, Timmy, my characters need to face challenges and need to respond to them.  They need to make choices—ones that are consistent with who they are.    And the results of these choices should have a real affect on how the story plays out. 

Because if they’re not... Well, then they’re not really doing anything. They’re just empty puppets.  Not even the good kind of puppets.  They’re just sock puppets that I’m using to try to convince my readers this is a real story. 

So make your characters do things.  In character.

Next time, I’d like to look at some things from a different angle.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Most Basic of Basics

I don’t have a lot of time this week because tomorrow is the start of (cue cheering) WonderCon in Anaheim.  I’m going to be there hanging out for parts, signing some books, and Sunday I’ll be holding a two hour version of the Writer’s Coffeehouse.  Please feel free to stop by, say hi, and listen to me talk about this crazy business of writing stuff.

Speaking of which...

Keeping in mind our limited time, I wanted to take a quirk moment to chat with you about one of the most important thing to learn in storytelling.  This can easily be a make-or-break thing.  I’ve heard contest directors talk about it, agents talk about it, editors talk about it.  They all see it constantly and it makes all of them roll their eyes.

Spelling and vocabulary.

I’ve got to know how to spell if I want to make it as a writer.

Now I’m sure a couple folks have already rolled there own eyes and moved on to watching some cool YouTube videos.  I mean, I said this was going to be about basics, but nobody thought we’d go this basic, right?  We don’t need a grade school refresher.  Besides, its the 21st century.  People have spellcheckers on their phones!  Technology’s made knowing how to sell pointless.

Right?

Well...  As I’ve talked about once or thrice before, spellcheckers are pretty much idiots.  They can tell me if a word’s spelled right, but they can’t tell me if it’s the right word.  It’s the classic there, their, or they’re argument.

And that’s the vocabulary half of this.  Some of the greatest computers out there are pretty bad when it comes to understanding grammar, which means it’s doubtful they’re always going to know which word I’m trying to use.  Which means there’s a good chance it doesn’t’ actually know if this word is spelled right or not.  Did I want there or their?  Only one of them’s correct, and if I don’t know which it’s supposed to be...

F’r example, check out this list.  I’ve done this sort of thing before.  These are all words people used in articles on fairly popular, journalistic websites (some news, some entertainment) pared up with the word they meant to use.  I’m willing to bet all those articles were spellchecked and given a good thumbs up from the computer, but the writer didn’t know the difference.  Or maybe their editor.  Or maybe both of them

lede and lead
poles and polls
borders and boarders
allude and elude
right and rite
peek and peak
serfs and surfs
reign
and rein

Yeah, a couple of those are laughable, I know, but I swear I didn’t make any of these up.  They meant to use X, but they printed Y. A couple of these I’ve seen multiple tines, even.

And I’m sure you know what they all mean, right?  You wouldn’t be laughing if you didn’t know both of the words.  If I only know one of them, well... that’s not entirely helpful, is it?  Especially as a writer.  Words are supposed to be my thing, the raw material of my trade, but I don’t know what they mean?  Would you want surgery from a doctor who knew what some of your organs did?

Now, a common defense I see for this a lot is that I don’t need to know.  Spelling’s not that important, and it’s all just an arbitrary constrict, anyway.  Readers will get my meaning from context.  If I meant polls and I wrote poles, when it’s actually in a sentence people will still understand what I’m trying to say

Yeah.  Yeah, they will.  That’s why most readers and agents and editors will excuse a mistake or two.  We’re all human.  We make typos.  We get a little tired and bleary-eyed during that 2 am line edit the day before a book’s due (not that I’ve ever done that...).

But, y’see, Timmy, if I don’t know how to spell, if I don’t know my vocabulary, if I’m just depending on the computer too do it all for me... I’m going to make more of these mistakes.  More and more, the longer my manuscript is.  Dozens, maybe hundreds of them.

And, yeah, we’ll all gloss over one or two points where we just need to get it from context.  Maybe even three or four.  But there hits a point—and it really isn’t that high—where we start to wonder if this person really knows what they’re doing.  Again, how many times do you really want to here your doctor joke “Wow, what do you think that does?”

Want proof?

Well, I’ve littered half a dozen or so of these mistakes all through this little rant.  You probably noticed some and chuckled.  Hopefully all of them.  I’m tempted to say someone might even leap down halfway through reading this to comment on the irony of my post on spelling having such blatant spelling errors.  And they’d be kinda justified.  Here I am, trying to say I understand the craft, that my words are worth your time, worth reading, and yet...

I’m making a lot of really blatant, basic mistakes in just three or four pages. 

It’s understandable that they’d shake their head, scoff, and say “oh, no, good sir.  Not you.  Not today.”

To put it another way, we’d understand if I got rejected over that kind of thing.

And I don’t want to see anybody here rejected over that kind of thing.

This weekend—WonderCon!

Next time, I want to talk about what you can do.  Or, really, what your characters can do.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Not Just Heroic...

Trying something a little new with the formatting here.  Please make your comments/thanks/complaints in the space down below.

Anyway, looking at the calendar, it’s getting to that season where I blather on about superheroes again.

Or maybe superpowers.

Or both.  They’re kinda related after all.

As some of the book covers displayed on this page suggest, superheroes are kinda my jam.  Have been for years and years now. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but I feel safe saying my knowledge level is in the higher percentiles.  I thought about these stories a lot as a kid growing up and, in a way, even more since I’ve moved into this odd career of “professional storyteller.”  It’s a topic I can blather on about a lot.

As I’m about to demonstrate...

One thing I’ve noticed in some corners is a bad habit people have of labeling a lot of things “superhero” stories, because that title carries a lot of weight.  About twenty billion dollars worth, if we go off the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Not exactly a bad weight to have hanging on your shoulders.

But...

I think it’s worth noting that there are a lot of differences between a superhero story and a story about people with superpowers.  They are not the same thing.  Not remotely.  And if I try to do one while using the devices and tropes of another... well, I’m going to mess with people’s expectations.  Which usually leads to a disappointed audience.

Now, granted, none of what I’m spouting here is formal rules set down by tenured professors or doctoral candidates.  If we just look at a lot of fiction, though, we’ll see that this idea’s been around for ages.  Superhero stories and superpowers stories have always been two very different animals.

So, what are some of those differences?

Let’s break ‘em down...

First off, superpowers do not automatically equal superheroes.  We can all agree on that, right?  CarrieBlackbirdsLimitlessGirl Like A BombGlass. Stranger Things. All of these stories feature people with superhuman abilities. 

But are any of these superhero stories?  Not really.  Just having some sort of superpower doesn’t automatically make someone heroic.  Heck, in a couple of those stories the person with the powers is arguably the villain

And that brings me to my second point (one of the big ones).  Heroics depend very much on motivation.  The same action can be heroic in one situation, almost cowardly or bully-ish in another.  Or maybe it’s just an action.  We all do things on a daily basis that are personally motivated, and maybe even a bit challenging, but it doesn’t make them heroic, right?  A superhero story's almost always defined by a character who makes a conscious decision to use their powers for a wider goal that may not benefit them (and often doesn’t).  Obvious as it may sound... superheroes act heroically.

And just to be clear, when I’m speaking about heroic actions.  Don’t confuse heroic actions (a.k.a. actions that are brave and selfless and pure of heart) with the actions of our hero (a.k.a actions taken by the protagonist).  Just because he’s the hero of the story doesn’t mean all his actions are automatically heroic.  Make sense?

Good.

When you read stories about super-powered folks, though, they’re almost always more personal and intimate.  Dare I say... a little selfish.  In these stories, people are doing things much more for themselves than for any sort of greater good.  It’s not that they’re evil, it’s just that the plot concerns them first and maybe the world second or third.  If at all.

Another common point of confusion here is doing the right thing for the wrong reason.  Is Yakko taking down the bad guy because it’s the right thing to do... or just to get revenge?  Is Dot stopping the bomb to save thousands of innocents... or just to save her friends who are handcuffed to it?  Is Wakko fighting the Automata Society to end their reign of terror... or just so they’ll stop coming after him?

A third point (strongly related to the last one) is that superhero stories tend to be about public use of powers and abilities.  They’re about people who’ve decided to use their abilities to help others, and they get seen doing it.  This public nature also means they deal with public reactions of one kind or another.  Sometimes they’re loved, sometimes they’re feared and hated.

I’ll note a lot of stories that are just about folks with superpowers tend to involve hiding abilities.  Keeping things secret from the world at large.  In the same way their motives are personal, their actions tend to be a lot more low-key and behind the scenes.  In fact, when abilities get revealed in a superpowers story, it’s almost always a cause for panic.

That flows nicely into point number four.  The abilities in superhero stories tend to be much more extreme.  Phoebe’s not just strong, she’s throwing-cars-down-the-street strong.  Wakko doesn’t just move things with his mind, he can throw cars down the street with his mind. Dot doesn’t just start fires, she can throw fireballs that blast cars down the street.

You get the point.  Superhero stories involve throwing a lot of cars around.

But when a story’s just about someone with superpowers, we tend to see a lot more limits on those abilities.  Not always (Dark City and The Lathe of Heaven come to mind), but most of the time they seem to be much more grounded in reality.  A little easier to rationalize, at least.  Side effects and odd handicaps are kind of common..

And for our fifth and final point, let’s talk about the elephant in the superhero room.  The costume.  The outfit that hides our hero’s secret identity from the world.

I wouldn’t say a costume/secret identity is absolutely necessary, but I do think it creates a lot of odd situations in my story if there isn’t one.  If everyone knows who Yakko is, then they know who Yakko’s friends and family are.  They can find out where he lives and shops and eats.  If he’s not using a secret identity, he’s either aiming for a very solitary life or he’s painting a lot of targets on people and places.

One other aspect of this a friend of mine once brought up (he’s one of the writers on the new Pet Semetary movie (shameless plug)) is that a superhero often becomes an identity unto themselves.  They’re iconic symbols, and not necessarily tied to the people who first created them.  Spider-Man, Batman, Ms. Marvel, Superman, Captain America, the Flash... all of these superhero identites have had multiple people behind them.

Compare all of that to a story about superpowers, where secret identities almost never come up because... well, like I mentioned in point three, nobody knows about them.  I don’t have to hide my identity when I teleport because I do everything I can to make sure nobody finds out I can teleport.  So the people in these stories tend to wear... well, street clothes.  They never duck into a phone booth to change before using their powers in public because—again—they almost never use their powers in public.

Okay, for our sixth and final-for-reals-now point, let me add this.  The setting matters a lot in these stories, too.  If I’m just telling a story about superpowers, they’re almost always set in the real world.  Or, at least, a world indistinguishable from the real world to the casual viewer.  Because if they weren’t, it’d imply having superpowers wasn’t that impressive.    Being telepathic in the sci-fi world of the Federation—a coalition of hundreds of alien races with unique abilities-- is checking a box on a recruitment form.  Being telepathic in a documentary about 1940’s Paris, though... that’s freakin’ amazing.

Superhero stories, though, tend to take place in worlds that are already fantastic.  They’re already pre-loaded with amazing things.  Consider the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Aliens are real and publicly known.  Magic is real and publicly known.  Cyborgs.  Androids.  Inhumans.  Demons.  People fly!  Lots of people!  This is not the world outside anyone’s window.

Now, again, this is not a set of iron-clad guidelines.  I have not defended my thesis or gone through rigorous peer review.  This is just forty-odd years of observation paired with forty-odd years of thinking about how stories are told.  And, as I often say, there's always going to be exceptions.  So if I’ve got a superhero who doesn’t wear a costume or a super-powered person who’s acting very heroically, it doesn’t mean my whole story’s about to collapse.

But maybe I should run my story of super-powered beings through this list and just see what side of things they fall on.  Does most of it line up with the kind of story I want to tell?  Is the label I’m putting on it—and the expectations that label will bring—going to match up with what my story delivers?

Because if it doesn’t... maybe I’m writing the wrong thing.

Next time, I’d like to quickly revisit an old favorite before heading off to Wondercon for the weekend.

Until then... go write!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Can We Just Talk a Bit...?

            Well, this one’s going to be a little awkward.  We just said this weekend that we’d talk about dialogue next time at the Writers Coffeehouse.  But then we got a request for it here, so... overlap.  One way or the other, the second time is going to end up making me look a little lazy, little bit like a hack.
            I mean, more than usual.
            Ha ha ha, you’re welcome critics.  Just tossing that one out there for you.
            Anyway...
            Dialogue.
            I’ve  blabbed on once or thrice about how important dialogue is.  Yeah, I know I’ve said characters are the most important thing, but dialogue’s how we bring those characters to life.  It’s the fuel for the fancy sports car, the foam that hides the gigantic wave, the beautiful full moon that shows us a bloodthirsty werewolf.  You get the idea.  They’re interdependent.  I can’t have good characters without good dialogue, and bad dialogue is almost always going to lead to bad characters.  It’s the circle of fictional life.
            If a character doesn’t sound right, if their dialogue is stilted or unnatural, it’s going to keep me—the reader—from believing in them. And if I can’t believe in them, I cant get invested in them or their goals.  Which means I’m not invested in the story and I’m probably going to go listen to music while I organize my LEGO bricks or something like that.
            So here’s a bunch of elements/angles I try to keep in mind and watch out for when I’m writing dialogue.  Some things to watch out for, some things to make sure I have.  All sorts of stuff.  And I’ve talked about a lot of these before, so some of them may sound familiar...

            Transcription- Okay, some of you know that I used to be an entertainment journalist and I did lots and lots of interviews.  One thing that never really struck me until then was that, with very few exceptions, people trip over themselves a lot verbally.  We have false starts.  We repeat phrases.  We trail off.  We make odd noises while we try to think of words.  It’s very human.  However, anyone who’s ever read a strict word-for-word transcription of a conversation (or typed up a lot of them) will tell you it’s awkward, hard to follow, and a lot gets lost without the exact inflection of certain words.
            I don’t want to write dialogue in this kind of ultra-realistic manner.  It’ll drive my readers and editor nuts, plus it wastes my word count on dozens of unnecessary lines.  While this sort of rambling can work great in actual spoken dialogue, it’s almost  always horrible on the page. 

            Grammar – As you’ve probably noticed in your day to day life, very few people speak in perfect, grammatically correct English, aside from androids and a few interpretations of Sherlock Holmes.  The rest of us speak differing degrees of colloquial English.  Our verbs don't always line up with our nouns.  Tenses don't always match.  Like I just mentioned above, a lot of "spoken" English looks awful on the page.  And this makes some folks choke, because they can't reconcile the words on the page with the voice in their head.  When I do this I lose that natural aspect of language in favor of the strict rules of grammar, and I end up with a lot of characters speaking in a precise, regulated manner that just doesn’t flow.

            Contractions- This is kind of a loosely-connected, kissing-cousins issue with the grammar one I just mentioned.  A lot of people start out writing this way because they’re trying to follow all the rules of spelling and punctuation so they write out every word and every syllable.  They want to write correctly!
            Again, most of us use contractions in every day speech—scientists, politicians, professors, soldiers, everyone.  It’s in our nature to make things quick and simple.  Without contractions, dialogue just sounds stilted and wooden.  If there’s a reason for someone to speak that way (ESL, robots, Sherlock Holmes, what have you), then by all means do it.  If my characters are regular, native English-speaking mortals, though...
            As a bonus, using contractions also drops my word count and page count.

            On The Nose—Okay, in simple terms, this is when a character says exactly what they’re thinking without any subtlety whatsoever.  It’s the difference between “Hey, do you want to come up for a cup of coffee?” and “Would you like to come up and have sexual relations in my living room right now?”  There's no inference or implications, no innuendoes or layered meanings—no subtlety at all.  And the truth is, we’re always layering meaning into what we say.
            Pro tip—I’d guess nine times out of ten, if a character’s talking to themselves out loud, it’s on the nose dialogue.  It just works out that way.  I’d guess that at least half the time it’s just exposition (see below). 

            Similarity- People are individuals, and we’ve all got our own unique way of speaking.  People from California don’t talk like people from Maine (I’ve lived almost two decades in each state, I know), people living in the twelfth century don’t talk like people from the fortieth, and uneducated idiots don’t speak like innovative quadruple-doctorate holders. 
            My characters need to be individuals as well, with their own tics and habits that make them distinct from the people around them.  If a reader can’t tell who’s speaking without seeing the dialogue headers... I might need to get back to work.
            Let me follow this with a few specifics...

            Humor—Here’s a basic fact of human nature.  We make jokes at the worst possible times.  Breakups.  Office reviews.  Funerals.  It’s just the way we’re wired.  The more serious the situation, the more imperative that release valve is for us.  In fact, we kinda get suspicious or uneasy around people who never crack jokes.  Not everyone and not at every moment, but when there’s no joking at all... it just feels wrong.
            Plus, how we joke says something about us.  Does someone make non-stop raunchy jokes?  Do they have a dry sense of humor?  A completely awful sense of humor.  Do they have any sense of when it is and isn’t appropriate to tell a certain joke?

            Flirting—Similar to humor in that it’s almost universal.  We show affection for one another.  We flirt with friends and lovers and potential lovers, sometimes even at extremely inopportune times.  It's not always serious, it can take many forms, but that little bit of playfulness and innuendo is present in a lot of casual dialogue exchanges. 
            Flirting is a lot like joking because it's impossible to flirt with on the nose dialogue.  Flirting requires subtlety and implied meanings.  Flirting without subtlety sounds a lot more like propositioning, and that gives a very different tone to things.  If nobody in my story ever flirts with anyone on any level, there might be something to consider there.

            Profanity—another ugly fact of human nature.  We make emphatic, near-automatic statements sometimes.  We throw out insults.  How we swear and respond to things says something about us.  Phoebe does not swear like Wakko, and Phoebe doesn’t swear in front of Wakko the same way she swears in front of her mother.  Or maybe she does.  Either way, that’s telling us something about her and making her more of an individual.
            Fun fact—profanity is regional.  The way we swear and insult people here is not how they do it there.  So this can let me give a little more depth to characters and make them a bit more unique.

            Accents- Speaking of regional dialogue...  Writing in accents is a common rookie writer issue.  I made it a bunch of  times while I was starting out, and still do it now and then.  There are a handful of pro writers out there who can do truly amazing accented dialogue, yeah, but keep that in mind—only a handful.  The vast majority of the time, writing out accents and odd speech tics will drive readers and editors nuts. 
            I usually accent by picking out just one or two key words or sentence structures and making these the only words I show it with.  Just the bare minimum reminders that the character has an accent.  Like most character traits, my readers will fill in the rest.
            Weird note—this can become odd with audiobooks, because the narrator will most likely add an accent of some sort to differentiate the character. So the most subtle of written accents can almost become an uncomfortable stereotype once they’re combined.  Another reason to think about dialing things back.

            Extra descriptors—I’ve mentioned once or thrice that said is pretty muchinvisible on the page.  But it can still wear thin.  I don't always need to use it, because after a point it should be apparent who's talking.
            Plus with less words, dialogue gets leaner and faster.  Tension builds in the exchanges because the reader isn’t getting slowed down by ongoing reminders of who’s talking.
            Not only that, once I've got some of these speech patterns down for my characters, I should need descriptors even less.  In my book, Dead Moon, Tessa’s dialogue could almost never get confused with Cali’s or Jake’s or Waghid’s.  They’re all distinct, and their speech patterns identify them just as well as a header would.

            Names—If I don’t need them around the dialogue, I need them even less in the dialogue.  Pay attention the next time you’re on the phone with someone.  How often do they use your name?  How often do you use theirs?  Heck, if my friends call my cell phone I know who it is before I even answer—and they know I know—so I usually just say “Hey, what’s up?”  We don’t use our names, and  we definitely don’t use them again and again in the same conversation.
            Spoken names can also come across as a bit fake.  It's me acknowledging the audience may be having trouble keeping track, and throwing in a name is the easiest way to deal with it, rather than the best way.  Remember, if I’ve got two characters who’ve been introduced, it's really rare that they'll need to keep using each other's names.  Especially if they're the only ones there.

            Monologues – Here’s another observation.  We don’t talk for long.  People rarely speak in long paragraphs or pages.  We tend to talk in bursts—two or three sentences at best.  There’s always rare exceptions, sure, but for the most part we get our ideas out pretty quickly (if not always efficiently)
            When I have big blocks of dialogue, I should really think about breaking them up.  Is this person just talking to themselves (see above)?  Is nobody there to interrupt them with a counterpoint or question or a random snarky comment?  Is my monologue necessary?  Does it flow?  Is this a time or situation where Yakko should be giving a four paragraph speech?
            A good clue when examining a monologue--how many monologues have there already been.  One script I read a while back for a screenwriting contest had half-page dialogue blocks on almost every page.  If I’m on page forty-five and this is my fifth full-page monologue... odds are something needs to be reworked.
            I also shouldn’t try to get around this with a “sounding board” character who’s just there to bounce things off.  Talking is communication, which means it has to be a two-way street.  If I’ve got somebody who serves no purpose in my story except to be the other person in the room while someone thinks out loud... they’re not really serving a purpose.

            Cool lines--  Our latest ugly truth--everything becomes mundane when there's no baseline.  If everyone on my mercenary team is two hundred pounds of swollen muscle... who's the big guy?  When everyone owns a seven-bedroom mansion, owning a seven-bedroom mansion doesn't really mean anything.  If anybody can hit a bull’s-eye at 100 yards out, then hitting  a bull’s-eye isn't all that impressive, is it?
            The same holds for dialogue.  We all want to have a memorable line or three that sticks in the reader's mind forever.  The thing is, they're memorable because they stand out.  They’re rare.  If I try to make every line a cool line, or even most of them, none of them are going to stand out.  When everything's turned up to eleven, it's all at eleven-- it's monotone.

            Exposition—Remember being a kid in school and being bored by textbook lectures or filmstrips that talked to you like you were an idiot?  That’s what exposition is like to my readers.
            Use the Ignorant Stranger as a guideline and figure out how much of my dialogue is crossing that line. If any character ever gives an explanation of something that the other characters in the room already should know (or my reader should know), cut that line. If it’s filled with necessary facts, find a better way to get them across.

            "As you know..." – I’ve said this before, but... if you take nothing else from this rant, take this.  I need to find every sentence or paragraph in my writing that starts with this phrase or one of it's halfbreed cousins. 
            Once I've found them, I need to delete them.  Gone.  Destroyed.
            This is probably the clumsiest way to do exposition there is.  Think about it.  A character saying “As you know”  is openly acknowledging the people they’re talking to already know what’s about to be said.  I’m wasting time, I’m wasting space on the page, and I’m wasting my reader’s patience.    If I've got a rock-solid, lean-and-mean manuscript, I might be able to get away with doing this once.  Just once.  As long as I don't do it my first ten pages or so.  Past that, I need to get out my editorial knife and start cutting.

            What is that, fifteen tips? Here’s one more for a nice, hexadecimal sixteen.
            You’ve probably heard someone suggest reading your manuscript out loud to catch errors and see how things flow.  Personally, while I think this works great for catching errors, it’s not as good for catching dialogue issues.  We wrote these lines, so we know how they’re supposed to sound and what they’re supposed to convey.  There’s a chance we’ll be performing what’s not on the page, if that makes sense.
            So if you can stand to listen... get someone else to read it out loud.  Maybe just a chapter or two.  Let a friend or family member who doesn’t know it read it out loud and see what they do with it.
            And there you have it.  A big pile of tips which should help your dialogue seem a little more real.  Fictional-real, anyway.  Not real-real.
            Next week... I think it may be time to talk about superheroes.
            Until then, go write.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

This Little Piggy Went to Market

            A couple folks have asked me questions related to marketing over the past few weeks, so I thought it’d be worth going over a couple things about this.
            There’s a wonderful Richard Matheson quote that Jonathan Maberry related to me a few years back.  If you’ve gone to either of the SoCal Writers Coffeehouses and listened to us speak (well, Jonathan speaks, I kinda babble on a lot until I run out of breath), you’ve probably heard it three or four times.  Writing is art, publishing is the business of selling as many copies of that art as possible.
            Marketing, big surprise, is part of publishing.  It’s a very necessary part of publishing, whether I’m doing it myself, with a small press, or I’m the favorite author at a Big Five imprint.  It’s how people discover I’ve got something to sell.
            Marketing can take a lot of forms.  It’s everything from me posting the new cover on Twitter to your book being plastered on the side of a bus.  It’s the copy on the back of the book and me summing it up in two lines for you at a convention.
            But the sole point of it, in all these examples, is to sell books.
            And sometimes... this can create some conflicts with the art side.
            As we move forward here, I’m sure some folks may try to read into this.  It isn’t a subtweet or an angry rant.  I’m not calling anyone out or absolving anyone of blame or any of that.  I’m just tossing out some facts.  Publishing is a business, and if I want to be successful in that business (and avoid a ton of stress), it helps to understand how it works.
            Also, I know there’s a fine line between marketing and publicity and I always mess it up, so please forgive me if I weave back and forth across that line once or thrice here.  I don’t think I’m ever going to end up in the other lane, but we may hear those bumpy lane divider once or thrice.
            Okay, so, if marketing is getting people to buy my book, how do I do that?  I can tell them the genre and see if it’s something they like.  Maybe the type of characters I use.  I can point out other books like it, or other storylines it may tie into.  I can even offer little summaries or excerpts to tease potential readers with.  Doesn’t this sound like a creepy/sexy/amazing/funny story?  You saw the dragon, right?  You know you like dragons.  And this one’s got a lightsaber.  Trust me, The Jedi of Krynn is the book you've been waiting your whole life for.
            But seriously...
            One of the big challenges here—the conflict between art and business—is how much do we tell?  How do we find that fine line between getting the sale and keeping the book enjoyable?  Tell too much and now all the book’s punch is already out there.  Don’t tell enough and... well, maybe nobody reads it at all.
            Do I mention every character in the book, even if some are supposed to be surprises?  Should I mention the big twist?  Should I hint at it?  Heck, sometimes even just naming the genre can be a bit of a spoiler.  And every spoiler saps a little bit of the story’s power... which lessens the chances for word-of-mouth sales.  Now my cool novel is just kind of a bland book with no real surprises in it.
            Sometimes what seem like simples questions can cause marketing headaches.  For example...
            (Some minor MCU spoilers coming at you)
            Does Ant Man & The Wasp tie into Avengers: Infinity War
            Simple question, right?  But how do you answer it?  If I say no I’m lying, which people will then call me out for and complain about.  If I say yes, people complain because... well, 99.5% of the film doesn’t tie in at all.  And that last half a percent... well, if I’m saying yes, I’m kinda spoiling that super-powerful reveal, aren’t I?  There really isn’t a good way to answer it.
            Of course, even not answering it at all can cause problems, because then people will speculate around that sort of “negative space” left by the non-answer.  They’ll read into things, make assumptions, and develop expectations.  And these expectations will either be correct, in which case...  well, they’re acting like spoilers again.  Or they’re incorrect, and now people are upset because the expectations they went in with aren't being met, no matter what the actual story is (or how good it is).
            There’s another angle here, too.  One you’ve probably heard before.  People like series.  They like them a lot, if you look at sales records. To be honest, publishers like them, too.  Editors love to see a new book with series potential.  And spin off potential.  And tie-in potential.
            But here’s another catch.  People want to know how all this stuff fits together.  They want to know if something is canon or set on Earth-23 or Earth 15 but still canon or does this involve Wakko before or after his cybernetic upgrades?  Because let’s face it—there’s no point reading any of the stories before he became bionic, right?  Why even bother?
            So when things don’t fall into a neat A-B-C, 1-2-3 pattern, it’s not unusual for marketing to just... well, kind of wing it.  Like, how would you number the Star Wars films (and all the spin off books)?  By the order they came out?  That won’t make much sense.  By the order they fit in the story?  That means A New Hope: Episode IV is actually movie six.   And how does that work if they do a new prequel story?  Do we re-number everything?  Do we just number some things but not others?  I saw Rogue One listed once as Star Wars: Book 18, and I have no clue what that’s supposed to mean.
            Sure, we could leave them unnumbered but... well, that could cost sales, too.  Some folks don’t like reading a series until it’s done, and if I don’t say it’s a trilogy or whatever, well... maybe they’ll never pick it up at all.  So I probably need some kind of designation if I want these to sell, right?
            Or do I?
            Plus... sometimes explaining where things fit in can be a spoiler.  We thought this story was in the future, but it’s actually in the past.  We thought it was here on Earth but it’s actually on the mirror-universe world of Urth.  And that puts us back at... well, what do we tell?  How do we keep the book enjoyable while also getting people to buy it?
            It’s a mess.  Seriously.  And everyone’s clawing their way through trying to find a balance that preserves the art but still serves the business.  Everyone knows you can’t pick one over the other, but every single book (or movie or television show) becomes a new attempt at finding that balance point.  The guidelines we use for my book won’t work for yours. 
            And it doesn’t help when some folks, deliberately or not, muddle things even more.  We’ll play up the mention of that character or the appearance of that plot thread. I’ve seen things described as romances because of one thin subplot, or spiritual because someone prays at some point (I won’t tell you what they were praying for...)  I’ve mentioned before how for a while any book or movie with a somehow-superhuman character was billed as a superhero story.  These are the things that make people grumble about marketing, and make marketing folks grumble about people who just follow buzzwords.
            Anyway...
            I just thought it was worth tossing this out.  Mostly because a few folks have complained long and hard about the marketing for Dead Moon.  I’ve tried to address some of these things for, oh, eight or nine months now but... well, as I’ve been saying, some complaints are inevitable, no matter what. 
            But also partly because, like I said in the beginning, this is stuff worth knowing and thinking about.
            And I’m sure there will be some more thoughts down in the comments.
            Next time—like, tomorrow—some thoughts on dialogue.
            Until then, go write.