Thursday, June 25, 2020

A Quick Follow-Up Question

I’ve been talking about genre writing for a few weeks now, I know, but I actually had one last thing that’s been tickling my brain.

I’m sure I’m not the only one binging shows right now. Things I’ve wanted to see again or watch for the first time. My partner and I are kinda doing a Voyager rewatch, but we’re also stretching out this last season of She-Ra. And I just finished Parasyte, an anime I’ve meant to watch since I first read some of the manga... jeeez, twenty years ago? I tried rewatching The Prisoner but gave up on it and settled for some old G1 Transformers cartoons.

There’s also another show we’ve been watching, and I’ll politely not name this one. It’s another older show (a few years now), and it’s got a strong mystery element. Well, it tries to have one, anyway.

(to be polite, some of the following plot points may be altered from of the actual show we’re watching... or are they?)

The main subplot is that our hero’s trying to learn why his father left decades ago, and has tracked down the small farming town where Dad ended up living. And dying—with a lot of things left unanswered. Things like why did Dad abandon his family? Why come to this small town? What’s with all the old books in the study? Or the ring of corn around the house? And the strange old guy who takes care of the corn who has the same name as our hero? And is this mysterious woman, Lacey, his half-sister or... something else?

Pretty much ever other week, said hero finds out some tantalizing new clue about his long-lost father and then does... nothing.

Again and again, the show has moments where we learn that Bud, the town mechanic, played chess with Dad every week... and they talked a lot. Helen, the retired nurse who hangs out in the park? It turns out she was there for Lacey’s birth... and it wasn’t exactly a normal birth. And Sheriff Mawkin? well, she was only a deputy when Dad moved to this town, but he took her aside then and told her that some day his son might come looking for him.

And our hero would be amazed and thrilled and confused about what he’d just learned... until the end of the scene. At which point, he’d completely forget about these little tidbits and act like nothing had happened. Until they came up again two or three episodes later.

We end up getting annoyed with things like this because in theory our characters are supposed to mirror our readers (or audiences, if you will). If the point is to make my readers think “Wait, what the hell does that mean...?” then this is something my characters should be thinking—and maybe even voicing—too. And they should be acting on that reaction. I can’t have a character say “this changes everything!” and then go on acting as if nothing has changed. They can’t find out Bud has the answer to the question that’s haunted them for years and then not get around to asking Bud about it. It’s frustrating because we know we wouldn’t leave it like this. We’d want more. We’d demand more!

One of the easiest things we can do at any point in our writing is to just ask ourselves “What would I be doing right now?” How would we react? What would we say? What would we be important to us right now in this situation? And if we’d demand more in this situation, well, maybe I should really think about why my characters aren’t.

I think this is also one of the reasons using mysterious characters flops so often. Because Mister X offers some vague statement or response and the main characters just... accept it. They don’t have follow-ups. They don’t demand more. They don’t take what they’ve learned and run with it. They just shrug their shoulders and say “Huh.”

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying we need to answer every question the moment it’s asked. They can get teased out and end up being false answers, misunderstandings, or red herrings. That’s part of a good mystery. A necessary part, some might argue.  So it’s okay not to answer questions right away.

But y’see, Timmy, it’s not okay to never ask those the questions. If my characters don’t care enough to ask, they can’t really care about the answers. Which means my readers probably shouldn’t care.

Which means all this mystery stuff is just a waste of time because nobody cares about it.

Next time...

Okay, I’m juggling a couple things right now. I know I haven’t updated the FAQ in a while. I’m also trying to set up theWriters Coffeehouse as an online thing. And, hahahahaaa yeah I’m trying to finish a book right now.

I guess what I’m asking is, what would you like to see in the next few weeks? Any particular topics you’d like me to blather on about? Something you want to hear a fresh take on, or a problem that’s been gnawing at you? Let me know down below.

And if nobody says anything... I may take a week off and try to get a bit caught up on things.

But for now... go write.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Maltese MacGuffin

So, last week I talked a little bit about a couple genre problems I see pop up all the time. I think they’re most common in fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, but the truth is they show up all over the place. It was a fun little rant, You should check it out if you missed it.

There was also one other genre problem I wanted to talk about, but I didn’t want that post to get ridiculously long. And in an odd way, this is sort of a reverse-genre problem. Less a problem with writing genre, more one with identifying it.

I’d like to talk to you about a little indie film from a few years back called Pulp Fiction. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Excellent.

What’s that? How does this relate to genre rant, you ask? I mean, Pulp Fiction clearly isn’t a genre movie. Not in that sci-fi/fantasy sense, anyway.

Except... well, do you remember the mysterious briefcase that floats through the story? The one with something bright and glowing inside of it, something we never see. There are a lot of theories out there about what’s in the briefcase, but one of the more interesting ones is that it’s Marsellus Wallace’s soul. He made a deal with the devil as a young man and now he’s made a new deal to get it back. Jules and Vincent, you see, are the go-betweens who are getting the soul from Satan’s reps (Brett and his two partners). This is why the briefcase’s combination is 666 and why everyone is stunned by the beauty of the thing in the case—it’s a pure, innocent soul. It also explain why the bad guy’s can’t hit Vince and Jules—it really is divine protection.

And if the movie’s got this spiritual/magic element to it now—souls and the devil and actual divine protection—well... isn’t this a gritty urban fantasy movie? I mean, that’s pretty close to the definition of urban fantasy. Maybe supernatural crime or supernatural noir, if we want to give a more flavorful description.

Of course the real question is this. If it is Wallace’s soul in the briefcase... what changes in the movie? What would be different?

Before you answer, let me point out the thing in the briefcase is what we’d call a MacGuffin. It’s an object that drives the plot without really having anything to do with it. The Maltese Falcon’s another famous one. It’s the motivation behind everything that happens in the movie—every death and betrayal and double cross—but the titular statue only shows up in the last ten minutes.

So the answer to the above question about “what would be different” is, of course, nothing. Again, the thing in the briefcase is just a MacGuffin. It could contain a human soul, a gold brick, a Tron ID disc, absolutely anything... and it wouldn’t change the plot in the slightest. Because it isn’t actually interacting with anything in a meaningful way. We can make an argument the briefcase is, but whatever’s inside it is... irrelevant.

So it’d be kinda dumb to call Pulp Fiction an urban fantasy movie. The sole element that would put it in that genre is almost completely disconnected from the plot and/or story. It may contain that element--that plot device, if you will—but that doesn’t necessarily push the movie into a different genre.

Which is the problem I wanted to talk about. Some folks have a bad habit of using a single element of a book or movie to justify bumping it into a new genre. I’ve talked about this a couple times with superpowers stories that try to call themselves superhero stories, and the problems that can cause. Just because someone’s using a sword doesn’t make my story high fantasy or historical fiction. Setting it ten years in the future doesn’t automatically mean it’s sci-fi. And just because there might be a soul in that briefcase doesn’t make Pulp Fiction urban fantasy.

I’ve seen this sooooo many times. You probably have as well. A book or show that’s really X but got marketed as Y by the author or publisher. Something that has one simple conceit to it that could be a genre element, but really the story fits into another genre altogether.

As I’ve mentioned before with superhero stories vs. superpowers stories, the big problem here becomes audience expectations. If everybody had gone into Pulp Fiction being told it was a supernatural crime story, it would’ve affected how they viewed everything they were shown. And let’s be honest... they would’ve been annoyed. Probably pissed. Because the story went against everything they thought they were going get.

What’s my point? I need to be honest with genre labels. I need to be aware of what my story really is, even if it’s got a MacGuffin or setting that might make it look like something else. Again, having a sword doesn’t suddenly make this historical fiction.

And yeah, it’s really tempting when comedies are selling to say “Why, yes, my manuscript Terminus contains several laughs and completely reads as a comedy.” But this almost always works against me. Sure, sometimes a reader will say “this isn’t what I expected at all but I ended up loving it anyway...” but those times are few and far between.

So be honest with yourself about what you’ve written. Even if it has ghosts or clones. Or a disembodied soul in a briefcase.

Next time, speaking of genre (some more) I’ve got a little mystery for you to ponder...

Until then, go write.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Steampunk Mechdragon Issues

Like a lot of you, I’m still feeling a little overwhelmed by everything going on right now. Awe-inspiring stuff. Long overdue stuff. But still overwhelming.

I thought about updating my list of top ten B-movie mistakes, but I really haven’t been up for bad movie geekery for a few weeks. So I shelved that idea for a while. Then it occurred to me there’s a related topic I haven’t discussed in... well, years. Not directly, anyway.

It probably goes without saying that I really like genre fiction. I grew up with Doctor Who and Star Wars and comics about Spaceknights who came to Earth to protect us from alien shapeshifting sorcerers. Sci-fi, horror, fantasy—I like reading ‘em, I like writing ‘em.

But you probably knew all of that already.

Point is, I’ve consumed so much of this stuff. In so many formats. A lot of it’s been fantastic. Some of it’s been... not so fantastic.

As I started taking storytelling and writing more seriously, as I started really breaking things down and studying them, I noticed a few similarities. Common problems that showed up again and again, especially in genre stories. Three of them.

To be clear, they’re not confined specifically to these stories—you might see these issues crop up in mysteries or romances or even literary fiction. They’re also not the only problems these stories can ever have (not by a longshot). But it’s kind of amazing how often a problematic sci-fi or fantasy and even horror will have one or more of these three issues.

The first issue is when we bury our stories in too much of our chosen genre. If I have an idea, it gets included in the story. No matter what it is—neat visual, cool character beat, clever way a door opens—I’ll fit it in there. If it was scary in that story, it’ll be scary in my story. Most of us have probably read a genre novel that went to great lengths to explain how the weapons, shoes, uniforms, food, transportation, education, and economics are all very different on that other world or in that not-too-distant future. If it's a magical world, everything is ancient and magical and built by the fae. If it's a sci-fi world, everything has nanites and AI and came from interdimensional aliens. People don’t wear glasses in these stories, they have optykwear, and a good set of optykwear can cost you seven or eight neshseks.

The problem with writing like this is my audience has nothing to connect with as they’re overwhelmed with all these unfamiliar elements. The people are different. The setting’s different. Motivations are different. Yeah, it’s a really cool alternate world where the Dark Ages never happened, all coinage is brass,  and wars are now fought with steampunk robot dragons run by difference engines, but the important thing is that my readers need to be able to understand this world and relate to it, while it’s on the page in front of them.

All the worldbuilding is good, but my story needs to have something my audience can immediately identify with in some way, and it’s best if it’s the main character. Someone who hates their job, who wants something they can’t have, or maybe who just feels like an outsider. A person with a universal need or desire.

When a reader believes in my characters, they’ll believe in what’s happening to my characters. It has to do with willing suspension of disbelief—I can’t believe in the big elements of a story if I don’t believe in the basics of it. Once I’m invested in Wakko’s life, then I’ll be more willing to go with it when he goes to work shoveling coal in the belly of a a giant steampunk dragon (but one day he’s going to be the commodore of the whole mechdragon fleet—you just wait and see)

There’s one very closely related issue to this, so close I’m not even going to branch off and make it a separate thing. Sometimes, all the laying-on of more genre gets a little monotone. Dramatic stories that are non-stop drama. The horror movie that’s nothing but horror. The magical fantasy series where everything is magical and fantastic. No matter how much I love this thing, it gets boring pretty quick when it’s all I’m getting.

We want our fiction to mirror our lives as much as possible, and the truth is very few of us lead monotone lives. They get broken up with moments of laughter (not always at appropriate times), random pettiness, unexpected excitement, casual flirting, and more. Our stories should be the same way.

The second issue happens when I try to explain everything. It’s confusing enough that I dropped readers right into a steampunk mechdragon battle, but now I’m going to pause that battle for ten pages while I explain how mechdragons came to be and where the best coal for their boilers is mined and how the creation of functioning wings (and the required steam- piston musculature) changed the nature of battle and hey I should probably talk about dragon tactics for a bit, right?

I think most people reading this have seen a story or two that suddenly deviated into that sort of excessive, often unnecessary exposition. I’ve read many stories that suddenly go to great lengths to explain how and why the serial killer turned out the way she did. Or how she ended up with superpowers and exactly how they work. Or both. At length.

What this leads to is stories that feel very detailed, but very little ever actually, y’know, happens. Page after page of explanation can add up really fast, and suddenly a third of my book is just... details.  And while I’m going over those details, my characters are just sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for something to happen again. It can also annoy my readers as all this information gets doled out, especially if it’s something that feels unnecessary and unmotivated.

I think there’s two ways to deal with this issue. One is something I’ve talked about here in the past—the ignorant stranger.  If I’m going to explain things, I should have an actual, in-story reason for them to be explained. Wakko may know the day-to-day workings of a mechdragon, but Phoebe’s a stowaway and he needs to help her pass as a crew member or she’ll be “dropped off”... and they’re three thousand feet up. So he has a solid, understandable reason to explain everything and she can ask a lot of the questions my readers probably have.

The other way to deal with this issue is the quick and easy one. Cut it. I can delete anything that isn’t actually necessary to the story. This can be tough, because, I mean... steampunk mechdragon wars! There’s so much cool stuff in those three words. But how much of it do I really need? Is it relevant or is it just me piling more “genre” onto the plot and story? Yeah, ceramic teeth are cool, especially on that scale, and I’ve come up with a crazy way how they’re made, but does my story fall apart if the reader just knows the mechdragon has... teeth? Does it change anything if in their mind they picture the teeth are brass or steel or diamond? Pages are precious—do I really want to spend part of one on this?

The third issue is actually the reverse of the last one. It’s when I don’t explain anything. There’s so much new stuff that there’s no context. I can’t tell if neshseks are coins or bills or maybe they’re not even money. Maybe this world works on the barter system and they’re some kind of gourd. Could be a massage or a sex act or maybe it’s some kind of pet? Maybe it’s a pet that gives great massages?

But it’s not just terminology. The genres also tend to collect mysterious characters who drop vague hints or implied threats for... reasons. Creepy messages appear on walls, sidewalks, computer screens and we never learn how they got there. Disturbing objects are discovered in the attic and never, ever discussed again.

I think there are two general reasons this issue happens. First is that, as the writer, I’ve sunk deep into my fictional world for the past five months and I forgot the reader... hasn’t. They have no idea what a neshsek looks like. Or what it’s used for. Or how many you can seriously expect to get from a relative stranger for two tinted sets of optykwear

The other reason is that people are trying to duplicate the sense of mystery and anticipation they got from another story, but they don’t really understand how and why it worked there. A lot of these weird mysteries are just a general lack. There is no explanation or reason or motivation behind what’s happening in the story. It’s just happening right now because... I wanted to tell a weird creepy story.

A friend of mine gave me a great rule of thumb once, and I think it’s the best way to deal with this issue. I kinda mentioned it up above—my main characters should mirror my audience. If my goal’s to make my audience puzzled and eager to learn more, then really Phoebe should be puzzled and want to learn more. If the reader’s angry about something, Wakko should probably be angry about it, too. Likewise, if Phoebe and Wakko are both really annoyed because they still don’t know what’s going on... well, I can probably guess how my audience feels right now, one way or the other...

Are these the only three problems that might crop up in my genre writing? No, not at all. I have faith in you that you will find awesome, all-new problems. But these are the ones I see appear again and again. So maybe they’re worth looking for in my manuscript. Just in case.

Next time... I’ve got kind of a follow up idea to this. It didn’t really fit here, but it’s a genre problem. Sort of.

Stay safe out there. Wash your hands. Wear your mask.

Until next time, go write.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Getting the Message

This post ended up being a bit more timely than I expected.

I wanted to talk a bit about having a message in my work. I’ve touched on this recently when I was talking about theme during the A2Q. I think there’s a bit of a difference between having a message and a theme, and I felt it was worth going over that.

However, with recent events in mind, I want to be clear right up front I’m talking about having a message while writing fiction. Messages exist in the world. A lot of them are good, and a lot of them need to be shouted from the rooftops. Right now, here in the United States, we’re suffering from a lot of chaos because some folks thought ignoring some messages for years would make them go away... and those folks are the ones who really needed to hear them.

But while we’re talking about fiction....

As I’ve mentioned before, theme is the underlying threads that tie plot and story together. It’s connective tissue that helps my book become more unified and complete. As such, it tends to be a subtle thing.

Messages, on the other hand, tend to be thick and clumsy. They can’t be missed or misinterpreted. They’re heavy, beat- you-over-the-head things.  Most of them have never even heard of subtlety, let alone been in the same room with it.

A kinda common thing is people who decide to write a book or screenplay about a message. Not with a message, mind you, but about a message. There’s an important difference there. When I’m more interested in the message than the story, things fall out of balance pretty quick. 

Here’s a simple test.  If my story or script has a message in it, at what point did the message come into it?  Did it grow naturally from the idea for a certain character or scene?  Or did this story start with the message, and then get fleshed out with minor things like characters, plot, and dialogue? Is this about telling a story... or pushing an agenda?

Let me give you a few examples.

If you’re of a certain age, you may remember a couple books and movies about the evil threat that is Dungeons & Dragons. We’ve all seen so many tales of the horrors of alcoholism and drug addiction. I remember some college writing class stories about innocents being “absorbed” by the industrial military complex only to discover they now had oil for blood (get it? Get it?). Hell, back when I read for screenplay contests, I was once presented with a script about the ghosts of aborted children-who-might-have-been haunting a clinic worker until she leads a crusade against the mustache-twirling, thoroughly evil doctors who ran the clinic.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with my story having a message. Most of the best stories do, on one level or another. Problems arise, however, if I approach things from the wrong end, like some of the folks I just mentioned did. 

When a writer starts with the message, everything else tends to get slaved to that singular idea. Characters tend to have awkward or unbelievable motivations because the story isn’t about what these folks would naturally, organically do. All their decisions, actions, and reactions are bent to reinforce the message. So they often come across as puppets that all enforce the idea.

In one of the examples above, no matter what your personal views on religion or gaming are, does anyone seriously think Satan is trying to get to kids through D&D? How is that possibly going to sound believable? All the crap going on in the world right now, and the devil’s big plan to recruit souls is rolling dice? Or reading books about a kid wizard who’s an adequate student at best and really should’ve ended up with Luna Lovegood, as was clearly the original plan.

But that’s besides the point.

Also, when the message dominates my writing, dialogue suffers. Characters spout out a lot of emphatic monologues, and they sound... forced. Insincere. They’re all just serving as a mouthpiece for my views and ideas—strictly for or against with no middle ground. This makes their words become stiff and on the nose. My characters can’t be there just to parrot my viewpoints on different matters. They need to have agency or they’re going to come across as fake.

In some ways, we’ve all encountered this under the name of marketing. And while there are some really fantastic, sincere marketers out there, there are a lot of folks who are just... selling something. And they’re not doing it well.

We’ve all dealt with that, right? That godawful social media account that wants you to be safe at home but more importantly be safe at home eating Fauxritos, now available in sixteen flavors and four textures. Or that person who inserts themselves into every conversation or thread to tell you this is a heartbreaking and important moment in history, and it’s a lot like a moment in their book, which is available right now on Amazon for a sale price of just $3.99...

Y’see, Timmy, my story can have a message, but it can’t be about the message. That's just a sales pitch. The message needs to serve the story, not the other way around. The story needs to be something my audience can believe in, with characters they can also believe in. We can all feel the insincerity radiating from those message-based books and movies, and it makes our skin crawl. Even if it’s a message we agree with.

And I don’t know about you, but that’s definitely not the message I want my writing to send.

Next time...

Seriously, I have no idea right now if there’ll be a next time. The country’s in a rapid downward spiral. At this rate, I could see everything that spreads subversive messages shut down this time next week. And I went and made message a keyword for this.

It should hopefully go without saying—it shouldn’t need saying... Black Lives Matter.

Please be safe. Wear your masks. Take care of yourselves out there.

Go write.