Thursday, November 19, 2020

Shouldn’t Throw Stones

There’s an aphorism about writing I heard a while back—“get your character up a tree and throw rocks at them.” It’s one of those fun, quick statements with a lot of truth behind it. A complex idea boiled down to something simple.

There’s another one, part of Pixar’s rules of storytelling. “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”  Because we’ve all seen that, right? The character who randomly finds the exact thing they need just when they need it.

Put these two together and my character’s picked the worst tree to climb up. Because it turns out that’s the rock-throwing tree! Since our town was founded, people have always thrown rocks up at that thing. The local little league uses that specific tree for pitching practice. Young couples throw rocks at that tree to see if they’ll live happily ever after. And they say if you throw rocks at it under a new moon, you can speak to a lost love one final time.

Okay, maybe going a bit overboard there. It’s kind of silly to believe this one tree has so many legends and habits and traditions of rock-throwing associated with it, right? Especially because some of them, you’ve got to wonder... why? How the heck did this become a thing? Why would all these people one day choose to throw rocks at this tree?

Which is what I wanted to talk about.

We’ve talked about the need for conflict before. If there’s no conflict—or an utterly minor, negligible conflict—I can’t have much of a plot. And without a plot, my characters are just kinda standing around without any. So this idea of throwing stones—of putting lots of obstacles between my character and their goal—is a solid one. We want our characters to have something to do, and we don’t want it to be easy for them to do it.

BUT...

Kind of like with the rock-throwing tree, we need to feel like there’s a reason behind this. If our character was stuck up in a tree and people just happened to randomly decide “hey, let’s throw rocks at that!”... we’d probably call foul. It’s just not terribly believable.

Okay, it might be believable once. Our minds will give a little leeway (especially in fiction) for a single bizarre coincidence. To quote the esteemed philosopher Elim Garak, however... I believe in coincidence. Coincidences happen every day. But I don't trust  coincidences.

If I’m going to have a lot of rocks thrown at my character, I need some solid, in-story reason why they’re being thrown. Because after my characters lose their keys or forget the password or drop the flash drive or run into a third mugger... well, it starts to look less like coincidence and more like weak writing.

Because even coincidences have a reason behind them. Why this person showed up early. Why that battery isn’t charged. Why Dot forgot to bring the incredibly important goober that this entire mission hinges on.

Even when it’s less coincidence and more an active thing—if it’s the same mugger chasing my protagonist across the city and popping up again and again—I have to ask why. Why is Phoebe so obsessed with mugging Yakko? Why does she keep doing this? Or how does she keep ending up just where he is again and again and again. or why does Yakko keep ending up in places where he’s going to get mugged when it just happened to him the other day.

Get your character up that tree and throw stones at them. Throw boulders at them. And handfuls of loose gravel. But know, within the story, why they’re all getting thrown. Is there a real reason for it?

Or is the only person the reader sees throwing stones... me?

In other news, in case you missed it, the A2Q now has a table of contents, so you can find all of it quick and easy. Also, with everything going on in the world I made my usual Black Friday offer a little early this year, so if you’re someone who could use it, please get in touch with me.

Next time here on the ranty blog...

Holy crap, it’s Thanksgiving. How is this year moving so slow and so fast at the same time? The barriers have been shattered! All time is existing at once!

Seriously, though, unless someone’s got a specific, pressing question I’ll probably take the day off and maybe throw some Cyber-Monday gift ideas at you. And next time I’ll talk about binding agreements...

Until then, go write.

And throw some stones.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Black Friday VIII – Black Friday the 13th

I do this every year, but I figured with everything going on in 2020 some folks might need some good news a little early. Plus, with the way the post office is going... well, I figured giving everyone an extra two weeks wouldn’t be bad, either.

That said, I’d like to take this almost-holiday Friday the thirteenth to offer you a little hope. With some depressing facts as a lead-in.

If you’re new to the ranty blog or to me and my writing in general, you may not know that I had a prolonged bout of poverty during my path to becoming a writer. I’d been doing okay in the film industry, and then was doing okay as a freelance journalist, but when the economy crumbled in 2008, the magazine I did most of my writing for started to flounder. Within two years lagging paychecks and a few fairly mundane surprise expenses (car repairs, a sick cat, a lost filling) had emptied my savings and maxed out my credit cards.

I had nothing.

And to be clear, I mean, nothing. My partner and I lived right at the poverty line from 2009 till about mid-2012. In Los Angeles. We shopped pretty much exclusively at the 99¢ Store. Our phone got shut off. We had no internet at home, so we used the library’s wifi for everything, and while we were there we’d “borrow” a roll or three of toilet paper, tucked away in our bags. We didn’t turn the heat on for two winters in a row. I missed out on potential work (and meeting some Hollywood legends) because I couldn’t afford gas anywhere (which didn’t help things). Hell, for one assignment I had to beg one of my editors to loan me gas money so I could drive to a screening.

Three. Years. Like that. Constantly stressed. Constantly feeling like crap.

Especially at the holidays.

The holidays are awful when you’re poor because you feel isolated at a time when people are supposed to be coming together. You can’t afford to travel. You can’t afford to buy gifts for family or friends. Hell, there were times I couldn’t go to a couple nice Christmas parties because we couldn’t afford to park there (friggin’ LA).

And you feel guilty about it. You spend time stressing about if maybe there was something else you could’ve done. About the people you love who you feel like you’re neglecting. About what people think about you, being so poor you can’t even get something for your significant other or your family. 

It’s that feeling all the time. Pretty much from mid-November to mid January. Guilt and dread and shame and self-doubt. Yay! Why don’t we ever hear that holiday song?

Being poor at the holidays absolutely sucks. Believe me, I know. The past seven years have been good to me, but I still get that twist deep in my gut when the credit card reader makes the angry buzz instead of a beep.

All that said... these days I’m in a better position, and I owe a good part of that to all of you. Because for some reason you like these odd stories I tell. And if I can help some of you avoid feeling miserable this holiday season, I’d like to do it.

So here’s the deal. If you’re in that bad place right now, where you can’t afford to give gifts to your family or friends, shoot me a note at my old PeterClines101@yahoo.com address. I’ve still got fifteen or sixteen random books saved from last year (when nobody took me up on this), and I might be able to scrounge up two or three more if need be. I’ll scribble in one and mail it out to you (postage is on me, too). I’ll even throw in wrapping paper if you need it. If you know your gift-target would like a specific book, feel free toask, but I can’t promise anything, sorry (I have what I have). I’ll send them out for as long as the books last.

It’s not much, I know. But it’ll be a gift you can give someone. And maybe you can feel a little less stressed at the holidays.

Again, this is for those of you who need some help getting gifts for others. The people pulling unemployment (or not!), cutting back on everything, and feeling like crap because they can’t afford holiday gifts for family or friends.  It’s not so you can recommend someone in a bad spot who might like a book. You could do that for them—go buy them a book. And buy locally! Support your local bookstores! And comic shops! And toy stores! And state that could flip the Senate (a gift that will keep on giving).

I’m also doing this on the honor system, so if you’re just trying to save some cash or score an autographed book... I won’t be able to stop you. Just know you’re a truly selfish, deplorable person and you’re taking away what might’ve been someone’s only bright moment this season. And Krampus will probably feed you to a squale.

So... Happy Holidays.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Not THAT Kind of Action...

How’s everyone’s week been? Anything interesting going on in the world?

Today I’d like to dissect one of those chestnuts of bad advice that keeps floating around the internet and showing up in different writing-related groups. Well, it’s not so much bad as really misunderstood. Which is what happens when a lot of these things get distilled down to quick little buzzphrases instead of, y’know... explained.

So, an explanation.

The advice in question is start with action. I’m sure you’ve heard it once or thrice before. I’ve mentioned it here a couple of times and why it isn’t the best rule to follow.

Because starting my story with action doesn’t mean explosions and automatic weapons firing.  We don’t need to have dinosaurs in mech suits fighting vampire kaiju while SEAL team sixteen  (the best of the best of the best) blows up the Washington Monument to take out the ninja lizard men trying to steal the Declaration of Independence. No boxing matches, no car chases, none of whatever other type of wild action scene might grab the reader immediately.

Just to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those things. But it should be clear there’s a lot of genres they won’t work in (although I do think a lot of Hallmark’s Christmas rom-coms could be improved by introducing kaiju). Heck, even in genres where this kind of high energy intro could work, they might not fit in the particular story I’m telling.

Trying to force these high-action openings into every story is the misunderstanding I mentioned up above. It makes for a lot of clumsy openings that often don’t match up with the tone or plot of the actual narrative. When we say a story should start with action, what we’re really saying is that characters should be active from the beginning. A story should start with something happening.

But... and this is why I’m revisiting this...

I’ve had a few people point out to me (with a few different tones to their voices) that lots of things count as something happening. Right now I’m typing. And pausing to re-read a bit as I go. And digesting lunch. And breathing. I mean, technically, sleeping is me “doing something.” So is walking from room to room. Taking a shower. Lying in bed staring at the ceiling, deep in thought. Yeah, those are all actions, no question. But none of these make for really compelling openings. They’re not exactly what I’d use to kick off a book.

So we don’t need to begin with gigantic, all-caps ACTION, but we also don’t want to begin with a light breeze making a few strands of my character’s hair drift side to side while she naps. 

I’ve been trying to think of a simple way to explain this better, that level of action that falls between explosions and mundane. And the other day I came up with what I think is a pretty solid one. With two small provisos.

So here’s your new rule to replace start with action.

Start with someone’s life changing.

This sounds big, but hear me out. It doesn’t need to be a permanent, scarring change. It doesn’t need to be gigantic. It just needs to disrupt the flow of their life to some level. It should be something that they notice happening if it’s going to be worth us using it as a starting point for the story.

Wakko finding out he’s got a flat tire when he’s heading into work is a change to his life—it’s going to affect his whole day. Same with Dot spilling her coffee and having to stop and clean it up. Phoebe finding out her ex thought she was “comfortably dull” (yes, no matter what they were doing) is going to change her life. And to use an example I’ve mentioned before, Sam Wilson realizing the guy he’s trying to run laps against is Captain America is definitely going to make some ripples in his life.

Keep in mind—the big change in Sam’s life comes much later, when Steve and Natasha show up at his place looking for a place to hide and learn Sam has some skills of his own. But the action of that opening scene... Sam’s just met an actual living legend and had a moment of bonding over their experience as returning combat vets. If nothing else ever happened, if Sam and Steve never saw each other again, we still know this moment would’ve had some affect on Sam, for the rest of that day if nothing else.

Simple enough, yes?

Okay, here are my two little additions/provisos to this rule.

One is that this life changing event doesn’t need to be connected to my main plot in any way. Or even a subplot. It can be, sure, but it doesn’t have to be. It's more about giving us a first impression of the character. Wakko’s flat tire doesn’t need to lead to the bigger overall story. The opinions of Phoebe’s ex don’t have to tie into a larger arc about relationships. And honestly, if you snipped that morning jog scene off The Winter Soldier and just began with Cap rescuing the ship at sea... what would really change, plot-wise? 

Two is a little trickier, but... it’s definitely worth keeping in mind. I’ve blathered on a couple times about the idea that characters should be used to things in their world. To the point that what would be amazing to us might be almost boring to them. With that in mind, I can start with something that might not be life-changing for the character as long as it would definitely be for the reader. Taking a gravity elevator-shuttle to the Moon is normal for Cali and Kurt, maybe even boring, but we can still appreciate the idea of kids bouncing around the cabin as people glide through the aisles and over seats. It’s nothing to them, but it’s something to us.

And one more time, just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with explosions, car chases, and vampire kaiju. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with dinosaurs in mech suits. But these big action pieces need to work with my story as a whole. They shouldn’t be something I just wrestled into place so I can say my story starts with action.

Look at the opening of your book. Does it change somebody’s life? Because that’s the big goal here, right...?

Next time, I’d like to hit you with a rock.

Until then... go write.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

The A2Q Master List

Hey, since I’ve been asked about this a few times now...

When I did the A2Q how-to-write-a-novel thing at the start of the year, it was every other week, and then every week, and trying to find those posts now, in reverse order, can make it a bit troublesome. So here’s a master list of more or less the whole thing. Now I can just point folks here, or you can just save the one bookmark. Y’know, if you felt this was bookmark-worthy.

Part One—The Idea

Part Two—The Plot

Part Three—The Characters

Part Four—The Story

Part Five—The Setting

Part Six—The Theme

Part Seven—The Outline

Part Eight—The First Draft

Part Nine—The Editing

Part Ten—The Criticism

Part Eleven—The Revisions

Part Twelve—The End
 
For the record, there were some other posts I slapped the A2Q tag on—the supplemental material, if you will—but I didn’t include them here. They’re useful, but most of them were afterthoughts and they’d feel a little jammed in, I think, if I tried to work them in here where they should be. When I someday bind all this into an ebook, I’ll make sure they’re all incorporated from the start.

Next up, rocks. And right after that, I’d like to do one holiday tradition a little early.

Now go write.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

TMI

So, hey... anything interesting going on in the world?

I kinda touched on this a month or so back, but since we’re all suffering from a bit of information overload right now, I thought it’d be a good topic to talk about. I mean, we’re all familiar with this feeling, right? Dealing with that person who just feels the need to tell us a little too much about things. Seriously, I get that Wakko’s excited about having a kid but do we need that many details about how the child was conceived? No, I completely understand why you thought she couldn’t get pregnant while she had her no y’know what, let’s just stop there.

Actually, let me stay here for another paragraph or three so I can tell you a porn story.

Years ago I was mildly obsessed with a little Canadian show called The X-Files. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It was kind of famous for bold storytelling choices. Multi-part stories and arcs. Realistic lighting. And some bold tricks for getting around the standards and practices rules for what you could show on television. As someone working on a television show at the time, I was amazed by some of the things they did. Especially one time when a recurring character killed a man by pistol-whipping him until he dropped to his knees, pressing the gun against the man’s head, and blowing his brain out.

Of course, we didn’t actually see this. Seeing something like that on broadcast television in the early 90s was strictly verboten, as Kurt Wagner would say. So the X-Files had Mr. X drag the nameless thug around a corner and we saw all this action the same way Mulder did, playing out on the walls as shadows and half-muffled sounds. You can probably picture it in your mind, even if you haven’t seen it. They showed less and did so much more.

The next day at work I was lamenting to my boss, Brad, that we never did anything this cool. Our little martial arts show was kind of... blunt. In the sense that sledgehammers are blunt. Brad just shrugged and said “It’s because all we do here is porn. Doesn’t matter what kind of show it is. Porn is when you show everything. That’s all anyone here knows how to do.”

That was many, many years ago, but I’ve always remembered it. I mean, porn really is the ultimate TMI situation, isn’t it? It’s pretty clear those two (or three) people went off to the poolhouse to have sex, but in porn we see... well, all of it. Every minute. From multiple angles.

Sometimes... our writing leans into porn. I’m not talking about sex, but like Brad said, we start showing everything.  We explain things that don’t need to be explained. Sometimes with far too much detail. A distracting amount of detail. Can you imagine if Ant-Man & The Wasp had a ten minute scene explaining how Pym particles work? Or how Hope controls her wings? Not only would it slow thing to a crawl and break the flow, but I bet anyone with even a thin grasp of science and physics would be able to punch a dozen holes in it.

But there’s another aspect to TMI as well. Experiencing a story is a personal thing. We’re reading it, but we’re feeling it in our gut and filling in a lot of details ourselves. As writers, we try to guide (and maybe even manipulate) how readers imagine things, but in the end a lot of it’s going to be very individual. If you’ve ever read a Jack Reacher book, you’re probably not picturing Tom Cruise, but you’re also not picturing the same person I am. The way I picture Danielle in the Ex-Heroes books probably isn’t the same way you picture her, and I probably don’t envision Veek from the Threshold books the same way you do.

So when I start describing too much, things stop meshing in my reader’s mind. I’m breaking the flow again. I’m repeating “six foot blonde” again and again while you’ve already decided Phoebe should be a brunette.

And there’s another way too much information hinders things. In the bigger, overall world of the story, we like having space to wonder and imagine. Especially in speculative fiction. We enjoy filling in some of the blanks ourselves.

For example, when I was a little kid growing up on Star Wars, I assumed the Rebellion was poor (like me) and couldn’t afford to buy cool new ships to fight the Empire. So most of what they had—the X-wings and Y-wings—was essentially kitbashed stuff they cobbled together. They had the basic instructions and diagrams, and they just made the ships out of whatever parts they had (which is why they all had little differences). Heck, I was so convinced of this, I assumed when the Rebellion started using A-wings in Return of the Jedi they were retrofitted snowspeeder hulls, now with airtight canopies and stronger engines. 

Was I right? It didn’t matter—the story had space for me to fill things in on my own. Which is a big part of what I loved about it. Sometimes, leaving things unanswered and unexplained is good. It leaves room for my reader (or my audience) to fill things in on their own and create their own mythology.

Not to mention, it gets harder to tell stories. A good story is about things we don’t know. It’s about the characters (and us) learning and experiencing new things. But the more I know about a character or event, the harder it is to tell a really strong story about them. All the information’s already out there. People give Disney a lot of crap for wiping the Star Wars slate clean and starting over, but the simple truth is it opened up tons of storytelling opportunities. Most of the great Star Wars stories of the past eight years couldn’t’ve been told before, because all those spaces had been filled up and sanded smooth. There were no gaps of knowledge left to fill in.

This can be tough, the idea of not explaining things. There’s a lot of empathy needed. I really need to understand what information my readers will want to know, what they’ll enjoy figuring out for themselves, and when they’ll be fine with nothing more than a handwave explanation of me saying “the flux capacitor is what makes time travel possible.”

It’s also tough because—like with research—sometimes we’ve worked out a really cool explanation or some ironclad reasoning, and we want to share it. We want people to see how clever it is and how well we thought it out. We want them to know we’ve thought of everything.

And let’s be very honest with each other... sometimes we want to fill pages. Nothing wrong with that. Filling pages is kind of the job. I mean, pretty much the first 100 pages of The Fold is scientists and engineers talking about how their little project works. But I’ve also never explained how the Cerberus armor works in the Ex-Heroes books or how Barry turns into Zzzap. And nobody’s complained yet.

Y’see, Timmy, I shouldn’t be scared about not explaining things. Look at some of the explanations and descriptions in your book. It might be new information, but is it necessary information? Does the story need it or does it maybe run a little smoother without it?

Next time... I’d like to talk about how we start things.

Yeah, I know. Great post to do halfway through NaNoWriMo.

Until then, wear your mask, wash your hands, and go write.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

NaNoWriMo Go Go GO!

And here we are, mere hours into November. I hope you got to have a little Halloween fun, even if it was just watching some favorite movies or making creepy displays for your home. We had a socially-distant candy bowl but... didn’t get a lot of takers. Which means now I have a lot of candy.

But now it’s November, and we all know what that means...

NaNoWriMo!!!!

(shouted like the opening to “Mortal Kombat”)

If that handful of syllables means nothing to you, we’re talking about National Novel Writing Month. Every November thousands of folks sit themselves down at the keyboard or microphone or notepad and try to get an entire book out—start to finish—in just thirty days.

This is probably going to be one of the most brutal years ever to try to do NaNoWriMo. Yeah, it’s just after Halloween and heading full speed into the holidays, but at least that part’s normal. We’re also dealing with a somewhat intense election cycle (already in progress) here in the states. Plus a pandemic that’s raging around the world at levels anywhere from “screaming woman in the grocery store” to “actual kaiju attack,” depending on where you are.

As I mentioned the other day, it’s understandable if you’ve had trouble focusing on your writing. Or if you just don’t feel up to this. NaNoWriMo can be fun and it can get your enthusiasm for writing really stoked again. But the truth is, it’s a huge, exhausting undertaking.

Anyway, here’s four quick things for all of us to keep in mind so we don’t get as intimidated or overwhelmed trying to do this, y’know, intimidating thing at this overwhelming point in time.

1) We Shouldn’t be Hard on Ourselves—NaNoWriMo is supposed to be fun.  Technically we’re on a deadline, yeah, but it’s a self-imposed deadline with no consequences if it’s missed. Seriously, relax. Push yourself, but don’t pressure yourself.  The real goal here is to improve, and any and every improvement counts. So have fun and try to enjoy all the little victories this month. 

And don't worry about "winning." This is a time when coming in second or third is still a fantastic achievement. So don’t beat yourself up if you don’t make your daily or weekly word count. That’s the kind of thing that only makes you feel bad about yourself. It doesn’t help anything, it just makes you not enjoy writing as much.

2) Pace Ourselves—nobody wins a marathon by sprinting the entire way. Trying to fill every single waking moment with writing will burn any of us out quick. Seriously. And it’ll show in the work.

It’s tough, especially on projects like this, but we need to stay aware of diminishing returns. Personally, when I’m on a deadline, a lot of times I’ll work late into the night. Sometimes it goes great, but more often than not... I start to slow down. I get distracted. My productivity drops. Eventually it hits the point where I would’ve been better off going to bed two hours ago because I would’ve gotten just as much done in half an hour after a good night’s sleep.

Again, you can’t sprint for a month. And after too many sprints, you’re just going to crash. So find a good, steady pace that works for you and just keep it up. Remember, we’re not trying to write faster, we’re trying to write at a much more regular rate. It’s better to do a thousand word every day than two thousand every third or fourth day.

3) Rest and recharge—if the last two pieces of advice got together and had an advice baby, it’d be this. Don’t be scared to just step away for a little while. Have a meal at the table, maybe a drink out back.  Curl up with somebody on the couch and watch an episode of The Mandalorian or Camp Cretaceous or something. Put on your mask and go for a walk. Take a nap. Take a shower. No, seriously, take a shower.  Yeah, I’m talking to you—you’ve been sitting there since midnight Saturday and you’ve got Halloween stink and writer stink on you. Please use lots of shampoo.

My point is, again, don’t feel bad about stepping away from the computer for an hour.  We’re trying to get a lot done, yeah, but we also don’t want to overwork our brains to the point they overheat and seize up. Take time to cool down and refuel. I’m not saying take off two or three days, but don’t be scared to get up and stretch now and then. In the end, it’ll make everything run smoother and faster overall.

4) Nobody’s Going to Buy This— Seriously. They won't. I don't care what somebody said on that other website, it’s just not going to happen. As pressing concerns go, this is only slightly behind wondering if we can get Letitia Wright to play the lead in the movie adaptation. We’re just not there yet. Nowhere near it.

Y’see, Timmy, National Novel Writing Month isn’t really an accurate name, because we’re not writing a novel. We’re writing the first draft of a novel.  Maybe even just the first draft of a novella. And there’s a huge difference between a first draft and a polished, completed manuscript. Most relevant to our discussion here—nobody’s going to buy a first draft. No agent’s going to look at it. No film studio will pre-emptively buy the rights after a prolonged bidding war.

This draft's for us. It’s to do whatever we want with. Don’t wast time wondering about agents or editors or producers. They’re never going to see this. They may see the third or fourth draft later—and be interested in it—but what we’re doing right now? This is just the first steps. If we actually complete this draft, we’ll barely be halfway through the process.

So forget them.  Right now, just crank up the music and let your imagination run wild.  Do whatever you want. Tell your story. Drop all inhibitions and expectations and just write.

Try to keep these things in mind over the next couple days.  Hopefully they’ll make things a little easier for you. Which’ll make the writing a little more enjoyable.

Next time...

Jeeeez, let’s be honest. Who knows what things are going to be like next time we talk. Crap, not the best thing to say when I’m trying to psych you up. But let’s all take a deep breath (no matter what) and...

Yeah, next time, I’m going to beg you to stop telling me things.

Until then... go write.