Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Big Lead-Up To...

Hahahhaaa... okay, so I had this post that I’d been working on for a while, but I never got it quite right and I kept pushing it back and pushing it back. And it just posted because, jeeez, mid-November? I won’t have to worry about that for a while.

Time is funny. Anyway... what I wanted to talk to you about.

A little earlier this year, I set down a book without finishing it. Might not sound big to you, but it’s big for me. It’s really rare for me to pick a book up and not finish it.  Don’t think it’s happened in over a year, easy, and I read around forty or fifty books a year, on average.

One of the big reasons I put it down is... well, to be honest, I’ve got no idea what’s going on. I’m more than halfway through and the plot in the book bears no resemblance to the one described on the back of the book.  Or anything  else really. When I set it down the other night, I described it to my partner as “watching a crime scene investigation where I don’t know who any of the people are, what their jobs are, what crime was committed, or what sort of legal system this is.”  There were things happening, but I had no idea what any of it meant or implied. It was just... stuff happening

Okay, I’m lying, I did finish the book. I have a problem,okay? I went back and read the last 117 pages and it went... I mean, pretty much just like I thought. We finally had the big reveal (which was the story described on the back of the book) and then had a minor twist to add a tiny bit more flavor.

Anyway, I thought it might be worth addressing this—the book’s problem, not my own compulsive need to consume bad things—because it’s something I’ve seen before. It’s an unusual issue because it’s a story problem I can only fully identify in retrospect.

So, quick recap on reveals and twists. I’ve talked about them here before a few times, so I don’t think we need more than that. I want to get to the heart of this particular issue.

The reveal is pretty much the standard way we get information across to our readers. New facts are presented to them, and depending on exactly what it is and what kind of ramifications it could have, these facts can have different levels of impact. We might just nod and accept it, or maybe it’ll have a ton of weight and impact.

A twist is a very specific type of reveal. Again, talked about them at length before, but the short form is that twists are information that the characters and the reader didn’t know was out there, and (importantly) this information forces us to look at a lot of previous facts in a new light. It’s also worth noting that twists almost always come later in my story because I need to establish those facts that need twisting. Make sense?

It’s the “later in the story” aspect of this I wanted to talk about. The issue I’ve been seeing is that a story will have a later twist, but it doesn’t establish any of the things its (hypothetically) twisting. I just tell you “Yakko is a redhead!” and expect that to have some kind of emotional or narrative weight. These stories try to tell us X is the really important thing, but they’d never really gone out of their way to convince anything else was important.

This is even worse in longer-form stories like novels or movies. We essentially go through two thirds or more of the story to get to “the good stuff,” but there’s nothing supporting it. There’s just been a lot of stalling and not talking about things until we get to that point.

Like... okay, imagine an old Twilight Zone episode where we see a spaceship land on a planet and they get out, wander around, and then maybe find a sign that basically says “hey, losers, you’ve been on Earth this whole time.” You know this episode, right? Is it even an actual episode? You know this archetypal story, right?

But here’s the thing—these stories have a lot more than that. They have assumptions and discussions about which planet this is and what did or didn’t happen here. Maybe even about who the astronauts are. We need to have strong reason to think this isn’t Earth for that twist to have any impact. Make sense? Up until that reveal everyone should be acting like it’s an alien world. Yeah, we’re going to find out the thing scratching at the door’s  just a beagle. But for now, before we get to that reveal... it’s a hideous alien monster. No, it can’t really hurt my characters, but they don’t know that. And they need to act accordingly.

I think a lot of this tends to come down to... well, not having an actual story. There’s nothing going on except that big reveal, so all my characters just sort of stand around twiddling their thumbs until we get to it. I’ve been so focused on what happens after the reveal that I haven’t considered what everyone’s supposed to be thinking or doing before that moment.

Just to be clear—I’m not saying mid-book twists aren’t cool. They’re super-cool.  They’re fantastic and I love ‘em. But y’see Timmy, there has to be a story before we get there.  Even if it’s all a bunch of misconceptions or faulty beliefs—my characters have to be doing something somewhat motivated in a world we can at least vaguely understand.

Have you read (or maybe seen) Wayward Pines? It was a fun series by Blake Crouch that became a pretty good television series. And it had a pretty solid quite a ways into it. A really perfect, made-you-reconsider-everything twist. But the main character, Ethan, is still doing stuff before then. He makes his own assessments of the small town he finds himself in, based off all the information he has, and he acts. He does things. Ethan treats the world he’s in like... well, the world he’s in, and not just a glorified waiting room until the “real” story begins.

I can have the cool twist. I can have a great reveal. But these things don’t stand alone. They need to be carefully woven into my story. There needs to be elements supporting them and guiding my readers to them.

Because nobody wants to read about a bunch of people standing around waiting for the big reveal.

Next time... well, we haven’t talked about how stupid I am for a while now.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Initial Incisions

Hey, so I know last time I said I was going to talk about twists, but...

This past weekend I subbed in for Jonathan Maberry at the San Diego Writers Coffeehouse and we talked about... well, all sorts of stuff. NaNoWriMo. Agents. Editing. One interesting question that came up was how do you edit? Which is a fair point. I’ve talked about editing here a bunch of times, but not anywhere near as much about what it is or how we do it.

First off, we need to be clear that there are different types of editing. There’s the type we’re going to talk about now (which I’m just going to call initial editing) but there’s also story editing and copyediting. I’ve talked about those a bit before, so I won’t go into them two much now. I will note that they exist and that all of these are very different things. So when we talk about editing—if we’re offering it, asking for it, or just doing it ourselves--it’s kind of important we’re clear what we mean.

What we were talking about at the Coffeehouse, and what I shall blather on about here, is what I’m going to call initial editing. There may be a better, more generally-recognized term for it, but that’s what I’m going with here. Really, I should’ve been calling it something like this for ages now because, like I said, they’re all different and I should’ve been as clear as possible.

Anyway...

This is the first real attempt at trimming and tightening my manuscript. If I was cooking, this would be the trimming the fat stage. Like, literally, trimming the fat. I can have a nice cut of meat (or a good head of cabbage, if you prefer) but that still doesn’t mean I’m going to use 100% of it when I cook. I’ll cut off that layer of fat and maybe that piece of gristle. I’ll peel off those outer, kinda banged up leaves of cabbage, but also trim them away from the really hard, solid stem at the core of the head. This is when I take thing that’s good or nice and make it into something great—something I want to impress other people with.

For our manuscripts, right off the bat this is going to mean having an open mind and a willingness to accept some possibly uncomfortable facts. If I refuse to believe there’s anything wrong, it’s really tough to fix anything. When I finally get to that first solid draft—usually the second draft, for me—it means things are very likely a little bloated with excess words Things that aren’t necessarily wrong, but my manuscript will almost definitely be stronger and cleaner without them.

I’m just going to list some words and phrases to keep an eye out for. To be very clear, this list isn’t complete and it definitely isn’t the end-all-be-all of things you should absolutely always delete from your manuscript. But I think it’s a good starting point, and as we go through maybe you’ll start to feel a pattern, a sense of the kind of stuff you should be looking for when you pull out the knives and start cutting. So fire up your word processor (or your blue pencil, if you’re hardcore old-school), find your Find function, and start looking for...

Adverbs and Adjectives
Let’s just start with the big ones. A lot of folks have very strong opinions on adjectives, and especially on adverbs. Man, they hate adverbs. Some people think all adverbs should be ripped out of your manuscript while other people think all adverbs should be burned alive in your manuscript. And some people say adverbs are wonderful things and we should cultivate them like clover on a low-water front lawn.

I’m not a fan of adverbs. They have their uses, absolutely, and I'm not saying I never use them, but I also know a lot of the time they’re something I stick in quick to modify a verb rather than spending a few seconds to find the right verb. It’s an easy habit to get into, because pretty much every sentence is going to have a verb and I can pause for five seconds here, ten seconds there, and suddenly that’s an extra minute I spent on that paragraph. Five or six minutes on this page. It’s a drag we can feel, so it’s not uncommon to fall back on our first choice. Which is why people slowly run or quickly run or clumsily run when they could be ambling, dashing, or stumbling. A good rule of thumb I got years back that I try to follow is four adjectives per page, one adverb.

That—
That can be a killer. There are times when it’s necessary for comprehension, or maybe even grammatically required depending on how I’ve structured things, but on a guess I’d say 75-80% of them are unnecessary in a story. It’s not uncommon for me to delete around 200 thats during my initial editing, if not more. Think about it. That’s almost an entire, actual page cut from my manuscript just by focusing on one word.

Somewhat Syndrome—
An editor friend of mine came up with this a while back. It’s from a bad habit I had of modifying, well, everything. Even in a loose third person POV, it’d seem odd for someone to look across a room and say “Yakko was six-foot-two and weighed one hundred-ninety-five pounds.” It just feels unnaturally accurate, doesn’t it? Sure, some characters might have that sort of precision, but not many. So I’d soften it up a bit. “Yakko was somewhere around six-foot-two and weighed maybe one-hundred-ninety-five pounds or so.”

Over the years I’ve come to add a few other words to this list, but for starters just try looking for things like somewhat, about, around, maybe, might, sort of, a bit, and kind of.  I’ll also toss out that I saw a similar list from Benjamin Dryer recently and he suggested cutting very, rather, really, quite, so, of course, and in fact.

Heck, while we’re at it, let’s mention appeared to be and its evil step-siblings seemed to be and looked like. The thing is, these phrases aren’t supposed to be used alone. They’re almost always part of a literary construction where the second half of that structure is either an implied or actual contradiction.  So when I’m saying “Yakko seemed to be six-foot-two,” what I’m really saying is “Yakko seemed to be six-foot-two but really he was barely five eleven.  And what I meant to say all along was just “Yakko was six-foot-two.”  So I should probably triple-check these and make sure I’m not accidentally establishing a contradiction I don’t mean to be (and wasting a bunch of words in the process).

Looking back over this list, it’s probably worth mentioning that, yeah, when I delete some of these words and phrases it might mean I need to spend more time rewriting other things so my dialogue or narration still makes sense. Sorry. It happens. Probably want to make sure I also don’t just repeat the problem. It’s all part of the normal editing process.

And again, I want to stress--these words aren’t always wrong. I can use multiple adverbs on the same page. I can say someone’s around six-foot-two. There are totally valid reasons for these things to happen. But the whole point of this initial editing is to look at how often I’m using these words and patterns. And to figure out if they’re really necessary.

Now, these aren’t the only things I tend to look for in this initial editing pass. There might be (will probably be) plot threads, descriptions, characters, and more that can use a little trimming. If any of you like, I could talk about editing those, too. But I think for now, this is long enough. We’ve all got things to do.

Speaking of which, to bring things full circle, this Sunday at noon is the Los Angeles Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. Come on by and talk with us about writing and publishing and all that sort of stuff. Or just lurk in the background and browse the store while you listen in. Either was, I’m bringing little danishes.

And next time, yes, twists. Finally. After that it’s up to you.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Ultimate NaNoWriMo Tip

Hey! I know it’s the day of costumes and candy, scary movies and fun photos, and all that sort of stuff. Writing’s probably the last thing on your mind right now. Heck, it might be sometime Friday afternoon when you read this.

Which, oddly enough, is what I wanted to talk about real quick.

As some of you are probably aware, Friday’s also the first day of November, which means it’s the first day of National Novel Writing Month.  People sit down at their keyboard, scoop up a legal pad, put a new sheet of paper in their old vintage typewriter, jam that USB16 plug into the hexadecimal cerebral port behind your left ear, and try to get an entire novel written—start to finish—in just 30 days.

Are you one of said people? Maybe you have been in the past. Maybe this is your first time. It’s my first time. Yeah, I’m going to try to get my current work in progress finished this month. Granted, I’m about 25K into it already, but my hope is to hit at least 100K this month. Yeah, even with the parents coming out for Thanksgiving.

(this will also be my convenient excuse later)

Anyway, lots of people are tossing out NaNoWriMo tips right now and I wanted to offer my own good news/bad news advice for you. More of  a mindset thing. I know it helped me a lot when I finally figured it out.

The bad news is this isn’t going to be a book. Not even close. See, the name NaNoWriMo is kinda deceptive, because we’re not really going to be writing a novel this month. We’re writing the first draft of a novel. Just a first draft. And, as we’ve discussed here a few times, there’s a big difference between a first draft and a polished, completed manuscript. 

And really, we’re writing a rushed first draft.  It’s going to have plot holes and dropped threads and factual errors and punctuation mistakes and typos.  Sooooooo many typos.  Incredibly embarrassing ones. It absolutely will, trust me.  Having a finished first draft is a fantastic starting point, but it’s going to need a lot more work after December first. No question about it.

Very sorry if you had any great plans about this finding an agent before Christmas. I’ve actually heard stories about agents who... well, I shouldn’t say they dread the first weeks of December. Or that they all physically cringe when they see “NaNoWriMo” in the introductory paragraph of the cover letter. But I think it’s fair to say they go into these things with a few strong opinions already formed.

Now, the good news is... well, it’s a first draft. We can stop worrying if an agent or an editor is going to like it because they’re never going to see it.  This draft is just for us to do whatever we want with.  I shouldn’t spend a minute second-guessing what those other people will want to see.  They may see later drafts, sure, but what we’re doing right now? This is just a big bowl full of cake batter. It’s got potential, sure, and it’s kinda yummy as is, but the truth is this isn’t even halfway through the process. There’s so much more that needs to happen before it’s ready to serve to anyone.

So forget ‘em.  Right now we can crank up the music and let our imaginations run wild.  We can do whatever we want.  We can tell our story.  We can drop all expectations and inhibitions and just write. Feel free to mess up, to use the wrong word, to make drastic changes, to leave things blank or marked [FIX THIS LATER]. Don’t worry about critics or agents or book covers or any of that

Seriously. NaNoWriMo is about the first draft so be selfish. Make it all about you and what you want to do. This is, as the youths say, the “dance like nobody’s watching” part of the process, so dance your ass off.  Hemingway said write drunk, edit sober, and well... we shouldn’t be doing a lot of editing this month. Let your creativity off the leash, eat nothing but corn chips, drink nothing but whiskey, run naked in the park, and don’t worry about anyone else and what they may think.  Do what you want to do with this one.  Do anything, free of worry or expectation.  Because this is just a first draft.

Also, don’t actually run naked in the park. You’ll probably get arrested, and that’s going to eat up a big chunk of your writing time.  Plus it’ll end up on YouTube and let’s be honest... unless you’re in really good shape that’s not going to help your career, either.

Although these days, who knows. Dad bod is kinda in with some folks.

You know what? If running naked in the park is part of your process, go for it. You do you. Tell the police I said it was okay.

Anyway, that’s my big NaNoWriMo tip for you.

Next time, I’d like to talk about twists. Really, about what happens before them.

Until then, go write.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Zombie Love

Hey, look! It’s even more bonus content! What the hell? This is turning into one of those blogs where there are semi-regular posts.

Hahahaa no it’s not. I’m just going to be really busy in November (for a couple of reasons) so I wanted to give you some extra stuff now while I had time. Plus, hey, it’s Halloween and I can always blather on about this sort of stuff a bit more. So everybody wins.

As a lot of you know, I worked on film crews for a lot of years, and then I wrote about filmmaking for another five or six years after that (there was a bit of overlap). This meant I got to interview a lot of screenwriters and writer-directors about their different projects, and some of them leaned into the spirit of this particular holiday season. And I still had some more of those sitting around so I figured, hey, why not share another one.

Some of you may be familiar with Fido, a wonderfully heartwarming (no, seriously) zombie story about a boy and his... well, pet zombie.  It was also a nearly fifteen year labor of love for Andrew Currie, Robert Chomiak , and Dennis Heaton, taking them from film school to Lionsgate Pictures, where the movie finally came to be with a very impressive cast. I got to speak with Andrew back then, and we talked a lot about his creative process and how the story evolved going from an elaborate novella to a screenplay to a finished movie.

A few of my standard points before we dive in.  I’m in bold, asking the questions.  Please keep in mind a lot of these aren’t the exact, word-for-word questions I asked (which tended to be a bit more organic and conversational), so if the answer seems a bit off, don’t stress out over it.  Any links are entirely mine and aren’t meant to imply Andrew’s specifically endorsing any of the ideas I’ve brought up here on the ranty blog—it’s just me linking from something he said to something similar that I’ve said.
By the nature of this discussion, there are going to be a few small spoilers in here, though not many.  Check out the movie if you haven’t seen it yet. It really is wonderful. I mean, it’s a feel-good zombie movie about families. What more could you want?

Material from this interview was originally used for an article that appeared in the CS Weekly online newsletter.

What got you into filmmaking and screenwriting?
I guess just, from a really young age, being a fan of movies.  I remember I was six years old and my dad took me to 2001: A Space Odyssey in the theatre.  And I still remember just being completely blown away by the movie—obviously not understanding it, but the visceral impact of the images.  And really being a life long film buff, a film geek I guess you’d say, staying up late watching horror films once everyone else went to bed.  The standard path (laughs).

You’ve written a lot of the stuff you’ve directed.  Do you think of yourself as a writer or director more? 
I think of myself as a writer-director.  I generally write on most of the things I direct.  I certainly have directed stuff I didn’t write.  I just find that, to me, there’s that idea that there are three films; there’s the film that you write, there’s the film that you shoot, and there’s the film you complete in post-production.  Those three phases to me are so fluid that they tend to all become one.  The writing process for me is directing on the page quite a bit.  I guess I find that being involved in the writing is fairly critical.

D’you think you’d ever write a screenplay without wanting to direct it?
Oh, I’d love to. (laughs)  But God knows who would want to direct it.  

Yeah, I’m not the fastest writer, and that’s another wonderful thing about collaborating.  What’s exciting for me about film is that it’s collaborative, it’s bouncing ideas off other creative people.  When we wrote Fido--Robert, Dennis, and I--we spent a lot of time in the story room together just bouncing around ideas.  I think often that’s the most fulfilling way of working, because you become so much more inspired by working with collaborators.

You’ve worked with Robert a few times, yes?
Yeah, Robert and I have co-written a couple things.  He’s wonderful, and he’s got that combination of having a wonderfully bizarre take on the world but also being a very pragmatic writer as well.  He’s great.

Now, Fido was originally a short story by Dennis, yes?
Well, Dennis had written this... it was somewhere between a short story and a script.  It was seventy or eighty pages, it was pretty long.  It was about a little boy in a small town who had a pet zombie.  The boy just fed him raw meat so he wouldn’t eat people.  We all went to Simon Fraser University together for film school.  Dennis and Robert did two years of the program, and I went for the whole four years, and when I graduated we all decided we wanted to write something together.  It was one of those things where everyone brings five ideas to the table, and Dennis brought Fido.  We just all immediately got excited by it and the potential for it.  We actually wrote the first draft really quickly.  A lot of the basics came really quick, but it really was nothing more than a world with zombies and Leave It To Beaver, cardboard cut-out characters.  There was a lot of fun, but we also didn’t have much to say about the world.  

That was back in 1994.  We went off and did other projects, and I took the script out to the Canadian Film Center in 1996 and worked on it out there, and then came back.  We started working on it again in 2001, and by then we had all developed more as writers.  We approached it much more from theme and character, and it made such a difference.  The world became much more complex.  And then September 11th happened and that started to affect the story in a political way as well.  It just started getting layers that were really exciting for me as the director.  You’re telling this absurdist comedy and you’ve got these other layers that you’re putting in, and whether people get them or not became an interesting debate for us.  You can lay something in, but if it’s too subtle it just flashes past people.

You mentioned 9/11.  There’s a lot of underlying paranoia and a very us-vs-them mood, even past the usual zombie movie standards.  How much of that was very deliberate?
Oh, it was very specifically an allegory, but it’s quite subtle.  You know, for example, in the beginning of the film Mr. Bottoms comes into the classroom and he tells the kids that he’s building the fences higher and there’s going to be security vans on every corner and he’s going to take everyone’s picture “just in case they get lost.”  And that was very much referencing Homeland Security.  What was really exciting was when we started thinking about the film in that way, it really started to affect the characters, namely Bill, the father.  The idea of ZomCom-- which is sort of the government and a corporation as an amalgamation-- pushing fear within a community as a means of control, which happens (pause) in many, many places in the world.  And Bill ended up becoming the embodiment of fear.  He’s terrified of zombies and his goal in life, really, is to die and not have to come back, and he’s got this slightly absurd childhood trauma of having to shoot his father when his father turned.  And the central irony of the whole movie, for me anyway, is that Fido is this dead creature who comes into the family and is more emotionally engaged in the world than the father.

So the allegory was certainly intentional.  What we really wanted to do was, on the surface, just have fun and play with the idea of Lassie and the “boy and his dog” story, but then on the deeper level have that political resonance and then in terms of the characters, tying to that.  Really, the theme we were writing from was “love, not fear, makes you alive.”  Bill is the embodiment of fear and Fido is the embodiment of love.  He brings this relationship into the family and becomes a catalyst for change within the family.

You did a short about a zombie, Night of the Living, a few years back, yes?  Are you a fan of zombie movies?
Yeah.  I saw a zombie movie, I don’t even know what it was, when I was really little.  I remember being really traumatized by it.  In a good way (laughs).  Y’know, there are so many damned zombie movies out there, it’s a bit of a drag.  When we started Fido in ’94 there weren’t that many around.  Now I have to read some critic going “they’re just taking the end of Shaun of the Dead and turning it into a movie.”  Which is really painful when we wrote it fourteen years ago.

For me, they make such great metaphors.  I think what’s interesting about zombies is that they are so close to us.  They are human in a way, and they tap into some primal fears in a really visceral way.  The idea of death and dying and mortality and disease, they embody all of those things.  A lot of monsters and creatures in horror are of the supernatural variety or completely inhuman, so they’re not as close to us in that respect.  So zombies have a greater sense of dread about them.

There’s a lot of baggage that comes with the word zombie.  Did it make it tough to sell people on this story?
It did.  What was great about it was getting Lionsgate and having such big fans.  They read the script and said they loved it, and let’s shoot it as it is.  They were completely behind it.  There were other distributors and there were concerns about the script.  Those concerns were mainly “what is it?” Is it a family film, a horror film, a zombie movie?    The majority of the people, and very happily all of the actors, got what the world was and the depth of it and the fact that it had this satirical throughline.  But certainly for a percentage of people there was this sense of, how is that mishmash of genres going to work.

There’s a few things that it seems somebody would’ve started pointing at (the killings, Mr. Theopolis, schoolkids with guns, etc).  Did you get a lot of notes from the producers or the studio about the script?
No, that was the great thing.  I don’t think I got a single note.  Everyone who was in on the film, Lionsgate, they were really big supporters.  It was almost odd that people were just so supportive.  I mean, I’d just made one feature before this called Mile Zero, which is a very character-driven drama, completely unlike Fido. 

Did the R rating come as a shock to you?
Absolutely.  I was quite disappointed with the MPAA and I had many conversations with them.  I went into the editing room  and we tried different things.  In the end, what they needed to make it PG-13 just undermined the film in a way that just wasn’t something we wanted or Lionsgate wanted.  So we decided we had to stay with an R.  The thing about the MPAA is that they really got the humor and they said they were real fans of the movie.  I think because children and the elderly get consumed in the movie, I started wondering if there was a moral compass at play.  There’s so little violence, I was really surprised with them being so hard on it, especially in light of so many other films that are PG-13.

Was doing the script as a group, the three of you, was it very different, process-wise, than if you’d just sat down and done it on your own?
The process for Fido was so unique in the sense that it went on for so many years.  When I was out at the Film Center I was working on it for about a year on my own, and then I’d come back and we’d all work on it.  It became a really dragged out process, and we got to a certain point, which was about a year and a half before shooting, where the three of us just did everything we could do and it was time for me to take it and start moving it towards production.  So Dennis and Robert stepped off at that point.  Screenplays can certainly exist just as screenplays, but there’s a point when they have to move towards the reality of being made and things change.  Dennis and Robert were wonderful about it-- I don’t want to sound like I’m insulting them.  They stepped away and then I worked on it, finessing certain things, and moving it towards production in terms of the reality of creating the world and making it happen.

Do you have any solid habits or methods when you write?
I really believe in the outline.  I always work from a beat sheet.  In terms of the scene by scene, I just find it’s such a wonderful focusing tool for me.  The way I write is probably quite a bit with the directing hat on, maybe more so than I should.  I tend to imagine the scene, and then re-imagine it and flip it over and over in my head until it clicks and then put it down on paper.  Even when I direct I work from a beat sheet, in the sense of what the real intent of the scene is and the character beats and the key moments.  I think it’s important to keep those clear and present.

How is it for you when actors start asking for changes?  Either actual rewrites of scenes or just adlibs on set?
I like and encourage improvisation at times, but the truth is sometimes if you allow improv just to start happening in an escalating way, what you can end up with is something that’s not nearly as coherent a story as it should be.  I really believe in getting a script to the place where it really works and then having faith in that structure.  Story structure works.  Character arcs work.  When they’re well written they really do fulfill the promise of the script.  A lot of times actors will bring wonderful moments and wonderful bits into the process, and I completely support that, and love that, as long as the arc and the integrity of the structure is being honored.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Some Outlining Questions

Look! Bonus content! It’s what the internet screams for!

Last weekend I was in Dallas talking to folks about NaNoWriMo. Overall I think it went pretty well. People laughed and chuckled in all the places I hoped they would.

However... there is strong evidence that I may have had waaaaaaaay too much caffeine before giving said talk. Combine that with a very echoey big room and, well, some of my brilliant observations about writing were lost. And most of my awkward jokes, too. So it’s a pros and cons situation.

Anyway, since I’ve been asked about a few things that got lost in my speed-echoes, I thought I could tweak part of the speech and post it here for everyone. It’s helpful for NaNoWriMo, but it’s some good overall stuff to keep in mind, too. Plus, this way I can add in a ton of links to help explain things even further.

What I’ve got below are eleven questions for you to think about when you're sitting down with your story.  Depending on your particular plot/story/genre//cast of characters, there’s a chance one or two of these might not work for you.  But a lot of them should. In fact, I’d say if a lot of these don’t apply to the story I’m trying to tell, I’m probably missing something important.

1) Who’s my main character—or characters, depending? Man, woman, non-binary, young, old, straight, gay, werewolf, vampire, bionic space Pope, who are they?

2) What’s a normal day for them? What would they be doing today if they weren’t falling in love or saving us from vampire kaiju? What’s their day job?

3) What happens to make this not a normal day? What changes in their life? Why are we writing a story about this day & not a day last week or next month? Fancy folks call this the inciting incident or introducing conflict. I just like to say.. why is this not a normal day?

4) What are they trying to do? Really simply, what’s my book about? This is their goal?

5) Why are they trying to do it? Fancy people call this “their motivation.” Kidnapped friend? Revenge? The greater good? Nanite bomb implanted in their groin? Why aren’t they just saying screw this and going back to their normal life?

6) How are they trying to do it? What actions are they taking? Do they have a plan? Are they making it up as they go along? We want our characters to do something.

7) What’s stopping them from getting it done right now? Is their goal far away? Under guard? Super expensive? Only dates cheerleaders?

8) Do I have an antagonist? Somebody openly trying to stop my hero, for major or minor reasons. My antagonist doesn’t need to be a villain, but they’re definitely somebody with opposing views.

9) What does my antagonist want? This is another character, so we want to develop them. They’re going to have goals, too, even if it’s just “kill all those kids out at the summer camp” or “stomp across Vatican City once the sun goes down.”

10) Why do they want it? My antagonist needs to have motives, too. So just like with my hero–why are they doing this?

11) Finally, what happens when my hero achieves their goal? Are there parades? Explosions? Bloody vengeance? Long passionate kisses? What happens if everything works out right? And on the flipside, what’s going to happen if they don’t achieve their goal?

Now, again, these aren’t end-all be-all questions. There’s a good chance 1 or 2 of them might not apply to the story you’re telling. But the answers to most of these questions should exist, even if I’m never going to specifically spell them out in my story.

Y’see, Timmy, if I can answer all of these... look at what I’ve got. It means I’ve got characters. I’ve got an established norm. I’ve got an inciting incident. I’ve got goals and motivations and obstacles. And these are the kind of things that form the bare bones of an outline. They should spell out a basic plot and story. If I can answer these, I know I’ve got an actual story.

And if I can’t... well... odds are I’ve got some more work to do.

Hey, speaking of bonus posts, I wanted to toss out something else seasonal on Monday or Tuesday. And then back to our usually scheduled rants on Thursday.

Until then, get back to writing! Go on... write!

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Scary Stories to Tell...

Pop culture reference. Haven’t done one of those in ages...

I've blathered on about different genres a bunch of times. It seemed like this might be a good time in the year to revisit one in particular that I haven’t talked about in a while. On the off chance you haven’t noticed the sudden rise of bats, pumpkins, and scarecrows in your neighborhood, we’re going to be talking about horror.

Maybe it’s just the particular bubble I’m in, but it feels like horror’s finally, truly inching its way out into the mainstream. Even just ten or fifteen years ago, a lot of folks still viewed horror as this big, general bin filled with Satanists, slashers, and screaming people. And, let's be honest, anyone who wrote horror clearly was just working through tons of childhood issues, right? Probably didn’t help that for years there were some folks who loudly insisted you could only write horror if you’d gone through something traumatic...

Simple truth is, just like sci-fi or comedy or romance, horror stories get broken down into many different sub-genres.  Us is horror, sure, but that doesn’t mean we immediately lump it in with the new Halloween reboot. Cherie Priest’s The Toll is horror, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s doing the same things as Wesley Chu’s Walking Dead tie-in book, Typhoon. And none of these are like my story Dead Moon.

I’ve mentioned once or thrice before that sometimes things get the wrong genre label hung on them, and it creates a clash of expectations. We went in told we were getting a story that would do this and this, but got one that did that by using that. And, personally, I think this is true with sub-genres, too. If I tell readers they’re getting a slasher story and it turns out to be much more of a monster story, there’s a good chance a lot of the story is just going to feel off balance to them. It won’t hit a lot of the “correct” benchmarks my audience is expecting.

That said, I wanted to toss out a couple different sub-genres of horror to think about. Some of them are well established and have been discussed (and debated) to death.  Others are just things I've noticed and named on my own that I feel are worth mentioning. I’ve brought up a lot of them before.

Supernatural stories
This one’s easy. It's pretty much the classic spooky story. The pale woman out hitchhiking alone in the middle of night.  The awful-smelling thing down in the lower berth. That creepy guy in the elevator letting you know there's room for one more...

There are a few key things about these stories.  One of the biggies is that our protagonist usually doesn’t suffer any physical harm. Their underwear needs to go through the wash three or four times and they may not sleep well for years, but overall they tend to come out okay. If anyone suffers in a supernatural story it's usually the bad guy or a supporting character. Also, these stories tend not to have explanations-- they just are. There aren't any cursed objects or ancient histories at play.  This is just the kind of stuff that happens in a supernatural world.

Thrillers
Thrillers stand a bit away from the pack ‘cause they tend to be more grounded than most horror stories. Very few vampires, no demons, not a lot of machete-killers. Even if they have a supernatural element, the horror rarely comes from that element. They’re very real-world horror stories, for the most part.

The key thing is that a thriller’s all about right now.  It's about the ticking clock, the killer hiding behind the drapes, or the foot that’s just inches from the lethal booby trap. There's a lot of suspense focused on one or two characters and it stays focused on them for the run of my story.  A thriller keeps the characters (and the reader) on edge for almost the whole story.

Giant Evil stories
These are the tales when the universe itself is against my characters.  Every person they meet, every object they find, everything they do--it all serves some greater, awful evil. It’s just so big and overwhelming. You may have heard the terms “Lovecraftian horror” or “cosmic horror” too.

I think a lot, if not most, post-apocalyptic stories fall here. The ones that lean towards horror over sci-fi, anyway. The entire world now belongs to the zombie hordes, the cannibal gangs, the killer virus, whatever. I’d probably toss a lot of haunted house stories in here, too, because the haunted house (or ship, or insane asylum, or spaceship, or whatever) is essentially the universe of the story.  There’s nothing else for us or for the characters to interact with. 1408, The Shining, and Event Horizon could all be seen as supernatural stories, but their settings really elevate them to giant evil stories.

Slasher stories
When you get right down to it, these stories are just about body count. How many men, women, and teenagers can the killer reduce to cold meat? Point to note--almost never children.

One of the big things with slasher stories is there's usually a degree of creativity and violence to the deaths, although it's important to note it's rarely deliberate or malicious. It's just the killer using the most convenient tools at hand for the job. They’re pretty much a parkour of death. The original Friday the 13th franchise pretty much became the standard for slasher stories, and it's what most people tend to think of first when  the term comes up.

A lot slasher stories used to have a mystery sub-element to them, trying to figure out who the killer was. Then it kind of morphed into being a (usually) weak twist. Slasher stories also developed a bad habit of falling back on using insanity as their only motivation and got stereotyped as "psycho-killer" movies. Which is a shame 'cause some of them are very clever and creepy.

Torture porn
I’m not sure if Stephen King actually coined the term “torture porn” in his old Entertainment Weekly column (does he still do that?), but that’s the first place I remember seeing it.  At its simplest, torture porn is about making the reader squirm.  If I can make them physically ill, that’s a big win. 

The characters in torture porn are almost always underdeveloped, going with the idea that we’ll just relate to them and what they’re going through on a basic human level. More than any other form of horror, torture porn isn’t about characters—it’s about the visceral things being done to the characters.  They’re getting skinned, scalped, boiled, slowly impaled, vivisected... and we’re getting every gory detail of it.  Somebody I used to work with once told me “porn is when you show everything,” and this sub-genre really leaves nothing to the imagination.

A key element to torture porn is the victim is almost always helpless. They’re bound, drugged, completely alone, or vastly outnumbered. Unlike a slasher film-- where there's always that sense that Phoebe might escape if she just ran a little faster or make a bit less noise-- there is no question in these stories that the victim is not going to get away.  That hope isn't here, because that's not what these stories are about.

Worth noting there’s a few distinctions between a slasher story and a torture porn story, and one of the big ones is the sheer number of people killed. Slasher’s are about the body count, but (as the name implies) torture porn is about how long single deaths can be drawn out.

Monster stories
The tales in this little sub-genre tend to be about unstoppable, inescapable things that mean the protagonist harm. Monsters are rarely secretive or mysterious, but they do have an alarming tendency to be nigh-invulnerable. The emphasis here is that there's nothing my heroes (or anyone else) do can that'll stop this thing's rampage, and any worthwhile rampage tends to involve people dying.

I just talked about monsters a few months back, so I won’t rehash a lot of that here. You can just go read my birthday post.

Adventure Horror stories
To paraphrase from the original Hellboy movie (which fits nicely in this category), adventure horror is where the good guys bump back.  While they may use a lot of tropes from some of the other subgenres, the key element to these stories is that the heroes are fighting back. Not in a desperate, flailing way, but in a trained, well-equipped, locked-and-loaded way.

I’m not saying it won’t go exceptionally bad for them (and it often does), but there stories are about protagonists who get to inflict a bit of damage and live to tell the tale.  For a while, anyway.  To quote an even wiser man... even monsters have nightmares.

So there’s a couple of subgenres we could break horror down into.  And like I said before, there’s many more.  It’s not a complete list, and you can probably think of some others we could talk about. Feel free to add ‘em down in the comments.

Also, why are we talking about this?

When most of us start off as writers, we flail a bit. We attempt to copy stories even though we don’t quite understand all the mechanics of them.  We’re not sure where our own stories fit under that big horror umbrella (or sci-fi, or fantasy, or...).  We'll begin a tale in one sub-genre, then move into a plot more fitting a different one, wrap up with an ending that belongs on a third, and have the overall tone of yet another. 

Y’see, Timmy, it's important to know what I’m writing for two different reasons.  One is so I’ll be true to it and don't end up with a sprawling story that covers everything and goes nowhere.  Two is that I also want to be able to market my story, which means I need to know what it is. If I tell the editor it's not torture porn when it plainly is, at the best I’m going to get rejected. My readers may toss it aside.

At the worst, they'll all remember me as "that idiot" the next time they see something of mine.

Next time... well, next time it’s actually Halloween. But it’s also the day before November begins. And for a lot of writers November means NaNoWriMo. So I wanted to toss out a few quick thoughts about that.

Until then, go write.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

DFW Writers Workshop

     So, hey, if you're in the Dallas area and you're not doing anything tomorrow...


Thursday, October 10, 2019

Going Over The Numbers

Another quick post. Something that crossed my mind the other day. A little odd for a mostly writing blog, I know, but I wanted to talk about numbers for a few minutes.

I’ve rambled on here once or thrice about characters. Protagonists vs antagonists. Main characters vs.  supporting characters vs. background characters. Who should get named and who shouldn’t.

But it struck me that one thing that almost never comes up is, well, how many characters should I have. How many can my story really support? How many does my story need?

Yeah, that sounds a little odd but some stories need more characters than others. A murder mystery with two characters doesn’t leave a lot of room for red herrings—especially when one of them is dead on page two (thanks, Owen!). If I want to write a slasher or torture porn story, well, I’m going to need a few extra teenage campers to send off into the woods. Heck, think how much it could limit my sci-fi story not to have a red shirt or three that can head up to that ridge to look around.

The truth is, a lot of stories have certain minimums. Nothing’s written down, mind you—there’s no chart somewhere that says romance=8 characters, mystery=15, urban fantasy=23.  But, as I just hinted, I can start hitting some odd problems when my story’s understaffed. Suddenly my murderous alien monster seems a little less genetically superior because, well, it’s not managing to kill anyone. Because there’s nobody for it to kill.

One of my Saturday geekery movies a few weeks back had this problem. It was a slasher film. Nubile kids up at the lake smoking pot and having premarital sex (a recipe for sudden death). Thing is... there were only four of them. Two couples. Which... well, it didn’t give our murderous killer much to work with. He just kinda stood around for a lot of the movie. And then he had two “attacks” where he didn’t kill anybody. Or even wound them.

If I had to guess, based off my own experience with such things, the screenplay went through a lot of revisions and had a lot of cuts. A LOT of cuts. And one thing that went away was extra characters. All those people with just one or two lines, anybody who only had a single contribution toward advancing the plot, everyone who was only there to look good in a bathing suit or a wet t-shirt.   They all got trimmed and cut and combined and suddenly—again, this is my just my guess—this summer camp went from nine or ten counselors to only four. And, sure, each of these four had a lot to do, but they were just too rare for our mystery murderer to kill one of them off at the end of act one. Or even act two. The story couldn’t afford to lose a character, so the killer kept... not killing them.

Essentially, it was a slasher film where nobody got slashed.

Sometimes, weird as it sounds, we need that nubile teen in the wet t-shirt running through the woods. Okay, we don’t need her specifically, but we need somebody there because what happens to that person is setting a certain mood and letting us know some things up front. More characters raise the stakes and heighten the mystery. We need the red shirts, the lab assistants, and that guy who’s acting shifty but has a pretty solid alibi for the time of the murder because sometimes they really are advancing the plot.

And, yeah, I know this may sound a little odd to say because I’ve talked a lot here about paring away excess. I’ve made many posts about trimming the fat and figuring out if I really need this character or not. But this is one of those odd balance things we all need to figure out for ourselves. Which really sucks, I know. I wish that chart did exist so I could just tell you how many characters is the correct number for your story.

Y’see, Timmy, this is one of those things that just falls under experience and empathy. It can’t really be taught, it just needs to be figured out. And I’m going to need to figure it out every single time, because my mystery in the Hamptons is going to (hopefully) be different than my mystery in the Catskills and neither of them are like my Long Island mystery (which partly takes place at the club, so there are at least a dozen suspects. Three dozen if we’re going to consider staff). I need to figure out that perfect balance between enough characters to propel the plot forward, but not so many that I’m bogging it down.

It's tough, but it can be done. And you can do it.

I was going to say “count on it!” but that’s just way too cheesy.

Anyway...

This weekend is the Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies and also the Dystopian Book Club at the Last Bookstore. If you’re in the southern California area, maybe I’ll see you there for at least one of them.

Next time here... okay, look. Next time I'm probably going to do something quick. I'll explain why then. But if you're in the Dallas area, leave the 20th open.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Default Heroes

Just a few quick thoughts this week. Well, not super-quick. It’s a simple idea, but it might take a bit to explain.

As some of you may know, I have a habit of watching B-movies on the weekend, and often tweet out my thoughts and critiques of them while I build up my armies of little toy soldiers. I recently had a brief epiphany about a common problem they have, and it’s a problem I’ve also seen in books, comics... really, in pretty much every form of storytelling.  And it kinda grows off something I’ve talked about before.

A common problem in B-movies (but as I said, it shows up in all story formats) is trying to figure out who I’m supposed to be rooting for. The story gives us protagonists who are dull, completely unrelatable, offensive, or just plain annoying. Heck, sometimes it’s not an “or” situation but an “and”—the storytellers double down on just how bad a lead character that can have, on several levels.

And I find myself wondering how this happened. How did the storytellers settle on that person as their protagonist?  They don’t hit any of the benchmarks of being a hero—either in the protagonist or heroic sense. They’re not even a good character in a general sense. So why are we spending all our time with them?

Which is, I realized, the key problem.

When we end up with protagonists like this, it’s the storytellers falling back to default mode. We’re not making any changes or adjustments of our own, we’re just going to pick up the story and run with it as-is.  It’s factory-settings storytelling, so to speak.

For example, our protagonist should be the character we spend the most time with, right? Well, we’re spending the most time with, uhhhhh, that guy. So he must be our protagonist, right? Yeah, definitely our hero. I mean, there’ve been six chapters about him so far.

But there’s more to someone being my protagonist than just awkwardly being the center of attention. They have to be an active part of the story. Really, they need to be the active part, because if I’m focusing on them it’s their story.  And, seriously, why would I focus on them if there was another character doing more to drive the plot forward? If somebody else is doing more, it’s probably their story and I should really be focused on them.

And even that’s just the nuts and bolts structural stuff. There’s still all those stories where it’s assumed just because Wakko is our hero-by-default that everything he does is automatically, well, heroic. Every line of dialogue he speaks and every action he takes must be good because its the hero speaking/taking them. That’s the very definition of the hero, right—what they do is flawless and heroic!

But again... there’s more to it than that. To be a good hero, someone needs to be a good character. Sure, they can have some flaws, but they should have some strengths, too. As A. Lee Martinez once pointed out, there’s more to be being a good person than just not being a bad person. In the same way, there’s more to being the hero than just not being the person in the background.

Y’see Timmy, the default settings can work, but there’s nothing special about them. In fact, they’re usually not that great. Adequate at best.

And we all want to be better than adequate, right?

Oh, and hey-- next weekend is the Dystopian Bookclub (a.k.a. We’re All Gonna Die!) at the Last Bookstore in LA. We’re reading Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler, and if you start soon you could have it done in time to join us for wine and snacks and interesting discussion.

Next time, I want to go over some numbers with you.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Getting It

Is it just the view on my screen, or has the tag cloud over there in the right margin kind of... collapsed? Shattered? It doesn’t look right, that’s for sure. Apologies if you’ve gone looking for something and it’s especially hard to find.

Anyway...

I stumbled across an issue recently in two very different books, and then in a movie, and it’s semi-related to some things I’ve talked about before. So I figured it might be worth a little refresher. And, not to sound silly but.. some of you are going to get this immediately and some of you aren’t.

There’s an idea I’ve mentioned here a  few times, which I first heard (read, really) from Damon Knight.  If we’re presented with a fact we don’t know, it’s information. If it’s a fact we do know, it’s just noise. I don’t bother to explain what the ranty blog is about every week, because if you’ve found yourself here odds are you already know. But I will discuss Phoebe’s height a lot this week (she’s over six feet tall) because it’s kind of germane to the discussion, as one might say.

It’s very important that Phoebe is tall in my story. In fact, it’s semi-critical that my readers know she’s just over six feet. It’s a key point for her, and I can’t have them picturing her shorter—let alone drastically shorter—because it’ll make things very confusing at a later point in the story.

So... how do I do this? How do I make sure that when readers picture Phoebe, they picture her as just-over-six-feet in height? That it’s one of her defining details, something they absolutely picture about her?

Well, yeah, I have to put it in her description, sure. Writing it out is kind of a given. But I’ve talked before about how descriptions don’t always stick. We get mental images of characters that don’t always match up with their written descriptions. And, as I’ve mentioned, it’s really important that people remember Phoebe’s pretty tall (she is, as I may have mentioned, just over six feet).

Which brings us to another idea I’ve talked about—repetition. I’ve talked before about repeating words, phrases, and structures to get a certain effect. What I’d like to talk about today is using repetition on a slightly more visible level to try to cement important details (like Phoebe’s just over-six foot height) in my reader’s mind.

And I’d like to do that with the obvious example—A Christmas Story.

For those of you who are somehow unfamiliar with the movie, A Christmas Story is about a boy named Ralphie who wants... well, we can probably say is obsessed with getting a Red Ryder BB gun. It’s pretty much all he talks about. In fact, in a  ninety-three minute movie, he mentions it by name almost thirty times. He’s basically saying it every three minutes. If we go off standard script timing the Red Ryder BB gun comes up every three and a half pages. Is this a good rate to mention something important? I mean, A Christmas Story’s a legendary film, so it’s gotta be doing something right, yeah?

Let’s keep a few things in mind, though. Ralphie’s an obsessed little kid. He’s basically the nice version of Eric Cartman ranting about what color MegaMan he wants for his birthday. He’s single-focused in a way most mature adults grow out of pretty quick. And while it’s funny in small doses, I think we can all be honest and admit that Ralphie’s... kind of annoying. It’s in a cute way, but there’s no way he’d get away with this if he wasn’t a chubby-cheeked little kid with glasses.

(who later grew up to hate Iron Man and run tech support for Mysterio--seriously!)

But if I’m not writing from the point of view of an adorkable pre-teen, this level of repetition can get annoying real fast and start dragging my story down. Take Phoebe and her just over six-foot height for example. I only mentioned her five times (six counting this one), but the mentions of her and her height were starting to get on your nerves, weren’t they? There’s just so many times I can repeat this information before you’re grinding your teeth and saying “Yes, I get it, can we move on now please...”  In this case, repetition is more of a necessary evil, because there’s no way for us to get things across without putting it on the page somehow.

So... how many times?

As a good rule of thumb, I think I’d like to fall back on, well, another rule of thumb I’ve mentioned here once or thrice before. The rule of three. Really, really quick and dirty, the rule of three basically says by the third time I mention something—who Dot got the necklace from, needing to be worthy to lift the hammer Mjolnir, or how tall Phoebe is—my audience almost always gets it.

I’d like to add a small proviso to that, just for when we’re talking about this specific instance. Whatever my super-important detail is, I should mention or give an example of it twice very early on. If it’s Dot’s necklace, maybe she can muse about it once and someone can ask her about it. If it’s about that hammer, maybe Odin can whisper about it once and Thor can demonstrate it fifteen or twenty minutes later. Maybe Phoebe can address some part of her morning ritual she needs to adjust for her height (crouching in the shower) and then someone else can actually flat our comment on it.  These are all early, act one sort of things. Formative things. A one-two punch to land the information and drive it home before it has a chance to become noise.

And then forget about it. If a moment comes up in the story that absolutely calls for this detail to be mentioned again, but if not... don’t. Trust that your audience has it in mind.

The third time should be very close to the payoff, even if it’s hundreds of pages later. This is my last chance to nudge that idea into the reader’s mind before the reveal slams it into their eyes. Or ears. Okay, also into their minds. Look, this isn’t an exact science, okay?

And again, this is only if that fact or detail is really important. Like, deathly important.  Story collapses without it important. If it’s just me wanting Phoebe to be a blonde or, hey, the hammer has a woven leather grip... well, these are just regular bits of description. They’re the things I don’t worry about because my readers are probably going to have their own mental images for them. And that’s fine.. Seriously. If you want to picture Phoebe having auburn-brown hair, that’s cool  And because it’s not important, I don’t want to be driving that point of description home.

Actually, y’know what? I just thought about a better analogy (thus rendering most of this post irrelevant). We’ve talked about names here a bunch of times. How it’s okay not to name some characters? I can just let them sort of be in the background? 

That’s what details are like. There will be a lot of details in my writing that can be beautifully done, but ultimately they’re just sort of there and that’s okay. My reader can enjoy them in the moment but doesn’t need to keep them firmly in mind for things to work in my story. The ones I want to repeat, the ones that need to be specific, are the ones that are going to have an effect on how things unfold.

Y’see, Timmy, much like with names, I don’t want to bog down or annoy my readers with a bunch of details that aren’t going to matter. And I still don’t want to overuse the ones that are going to matter, because that’ll annoy them, too. I need to find that sweet spot where the facts register and get remembered, but don’t become noise.

Next time, I’d like to talk real quick about going with the default settings on this thing.

Until then, go write.