Thursday, May 28, 2020

On Your Marks, Get Set...

Last week I talked about action and I almost spun off on a whole little semi-related tangent. I cut myself off there, but I still want to talk about it, ‘cause it’s one of those things that comes up a lot. And people get it wrong a lot.

What I wanted to address (revisit, really) is that old chestnut that gets dragged out in almost every writing class or discussion or guru-lecture. Start with action. I’m guessing you’ve heard it once or thrice, yes?  Probably just this year.

The problem here is action. Most people see that word and think of... well, all that stuff we talked about last time. Car chases. Ninjas fighting cyborg lizard men. Giant two-headed shark attacks!

So, naturally, this is what they begin with. They come up with a reason to begin with a bank heist. Or a plane crash. Or an armed home invasion. Which is kinda weird in a romantic Christmas story, but you’ve gotta start somewhere, right? And we need to start with action!

To be clear, this almost never works.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen me do one of my Saturday geekery binges, watching three or four bad B-movies in a row. And one of the most common problems they all have is that they start with action. Something crashing to Earth and killing some rednecks or, y’know, a giant two-headed shark attack. Usually in three feet of water. Most giant two-headed shark attacks occur in three feet of water.

But every time, these action-packed events involve people we don’t know and have no investment in. Which immediately lessons the action because it’s not involving anyone I care about, it’s just... happening. To put it in current events terms, we’ve all seen the news about hundreds of thousands of people dying across the globe from Covid-19—heck, we’re past a hundred thousand deaths just here in the US. And while it’s awful, it’s also kind of abstract... until it’s somebody we know. That’s when it hits home and all this stuff happening really connects with us.

Weirdly enough, as a side note... a lot of time the people in these opening action scenes tend to be awful, so I don’t even have basic human empathy for them. I want them to die, and that can switch the whole tone of my opening. Far too often, these events won’t even end up tying back to the story. They’re just little disconnected blips with characters we’ll never see or hear about again.

When I try to start with action like this, I’m just delaying the actual starting point of the story. And I’m doing it in a way that alienates my audience, too. Why would I want to do that?

And one other problem when I start this way. If I structure my story so it begins cranked up to eight-point-three, there’s only two things it can do. It can either take a huge hit and drop down to three or maybe four as I establish some kind of norm. Or it can stay up in that top fifteen percent of dramatic tension and be... kind of monotone. I mean, think about it—a whole story where the tension never shifts by more than ten percent in any direction?

So... why does start with action keep getting parroted around?

As I mentioned last time, there’s more to action than just swordfights. My typing all this up for you to read is action, and you reading it is action. Getting lectured by your boss, trying to get to class on time, cooking dinner, mowing the lawn... All of these things are action. They’re things happening.

More importantly, I think, is they’re actions we can all immediately understand, and they’re actions that can easily tell us something about the people involved in them.

Take mowing the lawn for example. How old is Wakko? Is he mowing his lawn or someone else’s? Why is he mowing it? How much effort is it for him? What’s he thinking about while he’s doing it? These are all really easy questions to answer while he’s pushing the mower back and forth. So something’s happening, we’re meeting the character, and maybe even getting to set up some simple, basic stakes.

When we say “start with action,” we want to feel that events are in progress. That these are real people who existed before page one. We just stumbled across them right now at what’s (hopefully) the point when all the interesting stuff’s about to begin.

Also, just to stop one train of thought real quick—yes, thinking is technically an action. So is fantasizing, realizing, remembering, reading, staring into space, and many other such things. But the key thing to remember here is all of these are really just Yakko sitting at his desk and not moving. So really... nothing’s happening.

And we want to have something happening. Something that falls in the middle ground between daydreaming and demon ninjas roaring down the street on AI-guided murdercycles. I mean, just off the top of my head, let’s look at some action-filled books and movies and see how they start...

Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins, as I’ve often pointed out, with the two main characters doing their morning jogs.

Fractured Tide by Leslie Lutz begins with a young woman writing/narrating a letter to her father, warning him not to come looking for her.

The Last Adventure of Constance Verity by A. Lee Martinez begins with the main character trying to explain her very thin resume at a job interview.

Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine’s Journey begins with the main character reshelving books in a book store while she complains about her older sister not taking her seriously

My latest book, Terminus, begins with a guy half-listening to a sermon being given on a beach at night. Heck, Ex-Heroes, the post-apocalyptic superheroes vs. zombies book that launched my career, begins with two people on guard duty chatting while a zombie keeps bumping into the wall below them.

Hell, you want an absolutely crazy one? Do you remember how the Transformers movie begins? Yes, Transformers by Michael “it still needs more explosions” Bay? A bunch of Army Rangers get back from a long patrol and hit the showers while their CO goes to call his wife and baby daughter. Seriously. That’s the opening of the movie.

And again, they’re all starting with action... but they’re not starting with action! They’re putting us right into the ongoing story. They’re introducing us to characters rather than slamming us into them.

They’re catching our interest and drawing us in. Getting us invested. Making us want to read more.

Which is a pretty good way to start a book.

Next time, I’d like to share a special message with you.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Action Figures

And now I’d like to take a minute and talk to you about this really cool Machine Man figure I got off eBay this week.

No, not really. Although he is pretty cool. He’s got replacement hands with pieces so it can look like his arms are extending like they do in the comics.

(someone at Marvel should let me write Machine Man)

Anyway, I thought it might be good to revisit action. Yes, anything my characters do is an action, but I specifically want to talk about action. The dinosaur cyborg swordfight/ gunfighter strafing the room/ six burly guys in a bar trying to take out one MMA fighter and getting their asses kicked kind of action. The type of action your college writing professor said was pandering to the lowest common denominator.

I love a good action scene. On the page. In a movie. Hell, some television shows these days have fantastic action scenes. And I’ve been part of a few action scenes here and there in my own life.

Action, by its very nature, is fast. It’s a blur. If you’ve ever been part of an accident, a fight, a collision, or any kind of really dynamic moment, you know what I’m talking about. In the moment, things are just happening. It’s not until later, when things settle down, that we take stock and piece together all the details of what just happened. And then I’m not quite sure how my arm got cut or how my pant leg got ripped or oh crap is that my blood?

Here are a couple tips I try to keep in mind when I’m writing action scenes.

Keep it fastAction can’t drag. If it takes a full page for someone to throw a punch and connect, that means things are happening in slow motion. Even a paragraph can seem like a long time if I stretch stuff out.

My personal belief is action shouldn’t take much longer to read then it would to experience. Throwing that punch and the moment of contact are a sentence, tops. I pare fight scenes and action moments down to the bare minimum so they read fast. Two ways I do this are to clump some actions together, and also to trust the reader to figure out what happened on their own. 

—Hector kicked one of the man’s feet away and flung his head down at the formica tabletop.

—One minute Officer Barroll had the young woman under control and then she kicked off the ground, went up over the officer’s shoulder, and now somehow she was behind him pushing his arm up along his spine.

Notice how in that second example you probably (hopefully) got a cool mental image of what happened, but you’ll notice I didn’t give a ton of details. I just provided some quick images and a bit of tone. Your brain filled in all the connective tissue, fleshing out the moment and creating a lot of the action.

Keep it simple—I know a lot of terminology for weapons and martial arts, but I actually try not to use a lot of it when I write. Again, just my opinion, but I think a lot of that “gun porn” type stuff clutters up action scenes. I want this to move fast, and the more technical I get, the less likely most people will know what I’m talking about. Yes ushiro geri is the correct term for what Wakko just did, but if my reader has to stop to sound out words or parse meanings from context... that’s probably breaking the flow.

There’s nothing wrong with terminology, but there’s a time and a place for everything.  That time is rarely when someone’s swinging a baseball bat at your head or when you’re shooting at a charging T-Rex. Action is much more about instinct, and instinct rarely involves copyrights, brand names, or model numbers.

Keep it sensory—I just mentioned action is instinctive. There isn’t a lot of thought involved, definitely not a lot of analysis or pretty imagery. With that fast, simple nature in mind, I try to keep a lot of action to sounds, sights, and physical sensations. Like I mentioned up above, specific details can come later. I could write about a knife going deep into someone’s arm, severing arteries and veins as it goes, but in the heat of the moment it might just be the hot, wet smell of blood and the scrape of metal on bone.

Granted, writing this way can make it hard to describe some things, but again... a lot of that gets figured out after the fact anyway.  My characters will have a chance to sort things out once everything cools down. And some things get bandaged up.

Keep it real—Finally, like so many things in writing, it all comes down to characters.  Action needs to be based in characters with real emotion, characters we have some investment in. A stranger in a high speed car crash is kind of sad in an abstract way, but Yakko in a car crash is a tragedy and we want constant updates.

We also need to have some sense of stakes here. Is someone’s life at risk? Is it someone we should care about? Someone who’s going to have an effect on the plot? If I don’t have any of this, odds are my action is just some empty filler.

Now, as I mentioned at the top, these are all just tips, not rules. There’s lots of times you might want to ignore one or two of them. But there’s one particular exception I want to talk about.

A pretty common character to come across in stories is what we could probably call the fighting savant. You know the type. Batman, Melinda May, Jack Reacher, Stealth, John Wick—they’re the tough, unstoppable characters who’ve taken physical action to an art form through years of study and experience. For these people to not use precise terminology for weapons or moves could seem a little odd.  It makes sense they’d be able to dissect action as it’s happening around them, picking out beats and planning out responses the way you or I pick our lunch at Panda Express.

But remember... these characters by their very nature should be rare. If I’ve got a dozen utterly badass characters who all have badass moves with badass weapons... it means I’ve got a dozen guys who are all kinda average. It’s monotone, and it’s going to get boring real fast.

Two smaller tips to keep in mind when dealing with these savant-folks. One... think about fairy tales. You’ve probably seen some version of that old Grimm’s tale about the guy with a collection of friends. One is the strongest person in the world, one’s the fastest person in the world, one’s got the best hearing in the world... you know the story I’m talking about, yes? It’s a group of people who have superlative abilities, but in a very narrow, focused range. They don’t have a lot of overlap, which is why each one of them is individually important to my team. I mean, if I've got a team where every person can hit a bullseye from a hundred yards with a rifle, pistol, or knife... well, what the hell do I need a sharpshooter for? If they’re all strong enough to punch through concrete, what do I need a strong guy for? And if everyone on the team can do everything... I can probably get by with a much smaller team.

The other thing to remember is point of view. This character might be a master of  unarmed combat, but this one is a borderline giant who favors brute strength and savagery. They’re both going to give us some unstoppable action, but it’s going to be a very different kind of action depending on whose narrative it is. And that should reflect in my writing.

And that’s that.  A handful of ideas for writing fast, hard-hitting action.

Although I did actually have one other thing to say about action. But maybe it should wait until next time.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

My Chronicle of the Plague Months

I finished up the A2Q last week, and for a brief moment I had no idea what I would blather on about this time. Seriously, a complete blank. There’s just so much crap going on in the world right now (as I talked about a few weeks ago) and I was stressing a bit over my own manuscript that I’m working on right now (the non-werewolf one).

So I thought I might talk a little bit about that. The stress and the non-werewolf manuscript. Because maybe you’re stressing about the same thing. Or something closely related. Probably not the fact that your work in progress doesn't have any werewolves. That's a much bigger problem you'll have to deal with on your own.

My new book opens in a bar. The first three chapters are set there (granted, I write kinda short chapters compared to most people). And as I’m heading toward the end of this draft and getting ready to loop around for another look, I’m kinda dreading those chapters.

I mean... is a bar even normal anymore? It was when I started this, but now it feels a little weird. What’s going to be “normal” when my agent and editor see this in a month or two? Do these dozen or so bar patrons—does the whole vibe of the bar—come across differently now? Should they be wearing masks? Should the bartender have gloves? And what does it mean if I write them not wearing masks of gloves. How will people see the book? Hell, how will people see me? I mean, for some idiot reason wearing/not wearing a mask during a pandemic has become a political statement.

How much of the real world should I be incorporating into my writing? I mean, a lot of really smart people are saying things can’t go back to the way they were. Do readers and editors want to see the world that is? The world that was? Should I be incorporating masks and social distancing and hell is the romance angle in this totally stupid now? Can two people have a random meet-cute in a world where most people don’t go anywhere casually? Are people still hooking up in the plague years, or is this scene going to come across as less sexy and more incredibly risky?

If you’re having these kinda thoughts well... join the club. It makes sense, after all. It shows you have a good level of empathy, that you’re thinking about these things and how they’ll be seen by other people.

But thinking about them doesn’t answer the big question. What should we do? How should we—or should we—be altering things in our work to match the world better?

I think what we’re all experiencing right now is a kind of common problem, it’s just rare for all of us to be going through it at the same time, and on this scale. We’re trying to write for the future. We’re trying to guess what readers and agents and editors are going to want to see in nine or ten months.

To some extent, this is always an issue. There are people who find themselves writing political thrillers during major elections. Folks have written books about cutting-edge technology that’s obsolete by the time anyone gets to read it. If you’re a Lee Child fan, you may have heard the story of how a change in the way currency was designed and printed made the entire twist of his first Jack Reacher novel, The Killing Floor, completely impossible. I wrote a book about the American Dream in late 2015/early 2016, and by the time it came out parts of it looked almost foolishly optimistic. These things happen. The world keeps progressing.

Hell, even more hardcore genre books can have this problem. How many sci-fi books and movies are set in a future that we’ve already reached and passed? 2001: A Space Odyssey and its sequel 2010? Back to the Future? Thundarr the Barbarian? A ton of Star Trek? All of these stories involved “future” events and well... we know those futures didn’t happen.

Y’see Timmy, we can’t predict the future. Even the relatively near future. And our readers and editors know this. Things will always happen that might make some part of my book obsolete or impossible. If it doesn’t happen in the process of writing it, it’ll definitely happen at some point. It's inevitable.

My point is... don’t worry about it right now. Take a breath. The world’s in a very weird place and nobody has any idea what it’s going to be like a year from now. Absolutely no one. So for this book, just do what feels right. And a year from now we can all worry about what things are like a year from now.

I will toss out two small addendums to this.

First, the easy one. If this really gnaws at you, maybe you could incorporate some “current” elements at a lesser level. I mean, here in southern California (probably in most cities) it wasn’t exactly rare to see people wearing masks, especially during flu season or some outbreak. Heck, if you’ve been at an airport any time in the past few years, I’m sure you’ve seen people wearing them there. So it’s not like it would be unnatural to mention masks on a few people, or someone keeping that one alligator-length away from other folks.

Addendum the second. I’ve mentioned once or thrice there are some writers who seriously excel at pumping out really fast, very topical books. It’s a really specific type of market and you need to be a very specific type of writer to do well in it.

I bring it up because I guarantee you these folks have already written the lockdown murder mystery novel, the “have to venture out during quarantine” novel, the “falling in love over Zoom” novel, the “lost soul finds new purpose handmaking masks” novel, the “unfeeling businessman learns the real meaning of life after a beloved person dies of covid-19” novel, and probably far to many “brave reporter uncovers the real conspiracy behind the lockdowns” novels. Wow, that was a hell of a run on sentence. If Ray Porter narrated my blog, he would smack me upside the head for that one.

My point is, unless I’ve already finished it, I should probably hold off on something that ties directly to current events. There’s a really good chance a lot of writers already beat me to it (in the sense that their novel’s already done). Which means there’s a really good chance agents and editors are already swamped with these brilliant, high-concept ideas that I just thought up off the top of my head and all of you could immediately picture. Even if I go the self pub-route, odds are these other writers have already sewn up that market. Or bled it dry. Maybe both. Whichever of those works best for you.

But my big point still stands. For now, try not to worry too much about this. Make sure your book works overall, that all the big beats work before fretting over small details. Even if some aspect of the world means my book is now 100% impossible, it can still be looked at as a story of the world that was, and it’ll still need to be the best book I can make it.

Anyway... that’s my semi-inspirational, reassuring ramble for this week. Hopefully it helped a few of you. It actually calmed be a bit just writing it out.

Next time... I don’t know. After three months working on the A2Q, I feel a little lost. Is there a particular topic anyone would like me to address and blather on about? Something from the A2Q I could clarify? Just a random question that’s been bugging you? Let me know down below.

And if nobody has anything... well, I’m sure I’ll come up with something exciting.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

A2Q Part Twelve—Completion

Well. Here we are. One last time.

This is the final part of the A2Q, and I think this last topic is the thing that gets overlooked the most when people give out writing tips. In fact, a lot of writing advice dances quickly around it. Because it’s not a pleasant thing to think about.

That thing—the last part—is this.

Eventually you have to stop.

A lot of you've probably had someone tell you “writing is rewriting.” It’s one of those maxims that gets tossed around a lot. And it’s true. Sort of.

But the part they probably didn’t tell you is that rewriting is also a trap. It’s a rabbit hole you can fall down, working on draft after draft after draft. It becomes constant revisions, always finding something else to tweak, a better word to use, a more dramatic place to break those paragraphs in. It can keep you stuck in place, doing lots of work for smaller and smaller returns.

If you’ve ever followed any sort of exercise routine, you know that a key part of it is that you have to keep challenging yourself. You have to increase the weight or the reps. You have to run an extra mile, or get your time down by two minutes. If I keep doing the same thing again and again, the benefits of it begin to drop off. Eventually I plateau and I’m just here at this level. Not advancing in any way.

Weird as it may sound, writing is a lot like this. We need to keep pushing ourselves. To make our mental muscles flex and stretch and try new things. If we fall into a rut, we’re never going to accomplish anything.

I say this from experience. During the A2Q—and a bunch of other times here on the ranty blog—I’ve mentioned my first completed novel, The Suffering Map. It was my “just moved to California” novel and there’s a fair argument to be made that I spent close to twelve years working on it. Hell, most of those years were just the first draft (although, in all fairness, for almost seven of them I gave up on it and focused on screenwriting). There are nine different versions of it currently in my computer.

In the end, it got me some mild interest from a few agents. And that was it. Nothing else.

So around late 2006 I put it aside and started working on something new.

And this can be scary. It’s borderline terrifying to think we’re going to take this werewolf manuscript that we’ve been pouring all our great thoughts and clever ideas into for months (or years)—that we’ve put all this energy and effort into—and forget about it. It seems like a huge waste, doesn’t it? What was the point of doing all this if I’m just going to put it aside and move on?

Which is why sometimes... we embrace the trap. We might not admit it out loud, but sticking with this manuscript feels safe. Because stopping means we either need to risk rejection or admit it needs to get put away. Either of these can be a huge punch in the gut. But if I keep working on it, if I keep telling myself it’s just not quite ready yet... I can put off that moment.  I mean, it’ll happen soon, absolutely. As soon as I can do one more draft

And again, I’m saying this from experience. When I set The Suffering Map aside, I think I spent a week wondering if I was making a mistake. Should I give it one more look before filing it away? Maybe try one more submission? Was I giving up too soon?

But I finally embraced the truth. I’d done all I could with this particular manuscript, and it  wasn’t going to get any better. And neither was I. I needed to work with new characters in new situations. I had to follow some different paths, not the ones I’d walked back and forth on a dozen times and beaten down so nothing could grow there any more.

That’s where we are now with this book we’ve been writing. My werewolf book, your whatever-it-may-be book. I can’t tell you exactly when you’re going to reach this point, but it’s important to realize this point exists. Reaching it is good. It’s a normal part of the book-writing process—moving on to the next book.

What happens with this one? That’s going to be up to you. Maybe you’ll acknowledge it’s not quite ready yet, stash it away on a jump drive or in the cloud (maybe both, just to be safe) and move on. Maybe you’ll send it out to a dozen agents or publishers. Perhaps you’ll decide to publish it yourself. Again, it’s up to you to decide what’s right for you and your book.

Whatever the decision is, though, it’s time to say goodbye to this thing we’ve been working on and move on to something else. To let our brains shift into new patterns. Get them working on some different concepts, something new and exciting.

Because if we don’t, we’re just going to stall out.

And that, m’friends, is all I’ve got for you as far as how to write a book. How to take that tale out of your head and put it down on the page in the best way possible. Even at 110 pages on this end, I know it could’ve been a little denser in a few places. But I tried to keep this to easy-to-digest chunks and included links wherever I could. Plus, y’know... pandemic. And I was trying to finish an actual book of my own.

Anyway, I hope it was semi-educational and at least partially useful for some of you.

Next time... well, we’ll see what we’re all up for.

Until then, go write.