Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Character-Building Experience

You can't have a story without characters. They don't need to be human. They don't even need to be alive. But if the reader doesn't have someone to focus on you're going nowhere fast.

For all of us, the goal is to create characters that live, ones a reader can bring to mind and identify with. Most of us could picture what Harry Potter looked like long before we'd heard of Daniel Radcliffe. In Casablanca, without even seeing what happened in Paris, we know enough about Rick to guess why Elsa's arrival is having such an effect on him. Even though we've never seen it, we can all extrapolate how Darth Vader would deal with someone having a loud cell phone conversation in a restaurant

However, for every character that leaps off the page or the screen to be remembered forever there are a dozen who languish in obscurity. And for every one of that dozen, there's a couple dozen more who never even made the cut. They were so flat on the page they couldn't catch anyone's attention.

Characters will make or break your writing, which means they deserve attention. The mistake I see again and again, though, is writers who give their characters too much attention. Their characters never get off the page because they've been buried alive and crushed there.

Some rules-of-thumb and reasons I've pasted together over the years...

Don't describe characters in exacting physical detail. Your audience doesn't need to know someone's precise height, weight, cup size, skin tone, inseam, hair color, nail polish, and eye pigment. They don't need to be told the exact tie pattern he's wearing, where her skirt hits her thigh, if he likes boxers or briefs, if she likes thongs over bikinis, how many fillings either of them have, or precisely what they're having at the restaurant for lunch down to drinks, side dishes, and condiments.

You don't need any of that in your writing. Honest.

Long descriptions bring the reader to a grinding halt. The longer the description, the louder the squeal of brakes. You're performing, as some folks like to say, the infodump. The writer is throwing out a pile of information at a time the reader wants action and forward motion (which is—for the record—always). It's wonderful to know that, as Jane steps into the street, everyone notices her Prada bag, Yves St.Laurent jacket, eel-skin boots, wedding band with matching engagement ring, the St.Christopher's medallion she wears outside her midnight-blue silk blouse, her sapphire eyeliner, and her $300 hairstyle that's starting to sag, giving her one loose blonde strand that hangs loose over her face in a kind of sexy way as she puffs and swipes at it with her free hand.

You know what's far, far more interesting than all of that, though? Why is Jane stepping into the street? Is it a crosswalk? Is she avoiding someone? Getting into a limo? Throwing herself in front of a bus? She's been frozen there in mid-movement while the writer (in this case, me) prattles on about her clothes and hair. Heck, by the time I got back to her you'd probably forgotten she was even outside.

There's another reason to not spend time on physical descriptions, whether you're writing a novel or a screenplay. Silly as it sounds, you don't have much say in what this character looks like. When people read, they form their own mental images, and they're usually pretty different from the ones that were written out. In Dan Abnett's Ravenor books, I always see the character of Kara Swole looking like my friend Penny from college. Their descriptions don't match up at all (well, they're both female gymnasts, but that's about it) yet this is how I picture Kara. For that matter, in the same books, I always see Harlon Nayl as Jett from Cowboy Bebop. As you refer back to your extensive description, you'll jar the readers out of the flow of the story as they think What? Blonde? I thought Jane had black hair? Jar them one too many times and they'll start to get resentful, and then they'll start to read something else.

If you're writing a screenplay, this is even more telling. It's really cool that you've described Lynne as 6'3" with raven hair, blue eyes, alabaster skin, the physique of a pro bodybuilder, and half a page of further description. Then Jessica Alba expressed interest in the part and suddenly Lynne was a 5'6" tanned brunette with a body built along very different lines. So you just wasted half a page and messed up the timing of your script for nothing.

So... extensive, elaborate physical descriptions are a no-no. Use broad strokes and fill in details only where you need to. Pick three or four good descriptive words for the character (not their clothes), and stick with them. Their dialogue and actions will bring them to life and your readers will fill in the rest.

In the novel I'm working on right now, for example, the antagonist I've just introduced is a pale man who's bald with tattoos on his head. There's hundreds of ways to interpret that description, but you've got a solid image in your head just off that, yes? Which means I'm now free to go talk about what he's doing with that AK-47, the ultimatum he's issuing for his boss... and he's already a bit more interesting and solid than Jane up above, yes? In about half the space.

Now, as far as the mental/ historical side, if this stuff is important, of course it should be included. If our main man has lost everyone he's ever cared about, if our heroine suffered from asthma as a child, or if an encyclopedic knowledge of rural New England history will be critical to resolving this mystery, then these things need to be in your writing. Again,though—no infodumps. If you introduce me to Robin and then explain how her hometown got its name, the name of her first pet, who she took to the prom, the state her parents grew up in, how she did on that second grade spelling test, and why she loves pink... there'd best be a damn good reason for all of that being in the first two pages, and it better all be important in the next 298.

That's the best rule of thumb for all of this descriptive stuff. Is it critical to what's going on within these pages? Your audience is going to assume if you're giving all this information, it's because they need this information. After the fourth or fifth exhaustive description of a character's jewelry, lunch time eating habits, or genealogy, your reader is going to make the assumption none of this is going anywhere and start skimming. First paragraphs, then pages, and then over the television listings to see what else could be filling this time...

Now, you can make an argument that any event in someone's past affects their present and every single decision shapes a person's life to some degree. Thus, anything you choose to include is relevant to the story on some level, yes? Again, though—this is not real life (please look back a few posts to resolve any confusion). No one wants to read about a character's personal history that does not have a direct bearing on what they're experiencing right now.

Again, for example...

I hate ketchup (and catsup). Honest and for true. Cannot stand it. Loathe it. Not for any flavor or texture issues, but for color. When I was five I was eating French fries and saw my dog, Flip, hit by a car outside the dining room window. Happened more or less right in front of me on Rt 1A in Cape Neddick, Maine. I could show you the spot today. I still remember his scream. And my screams. My mom and my little brother freaking out. And I remember the blood. And I've never been able to deal with ketchup since.

A formative event that still affects me to this day? Absolutely. I'd never deny it. Does it have anything whatsoever to do with the hints and suggestions I post here?

Nope. Not in the slightest.

It has nothing to do with my writing here, for CS Publications, or my own fiction, which is why most people reading this have never heard of it before. It has no business being in any of this. In fact, unless someone's writing a story where I've been replaced by an undercover agent/ alien shape-shifter/ android double and my girlfriend catches said doppelganger when he puts ketchup on his scrambled eggs-- this is a completely pointless bit of information about me.

Oh, but it builds character, you say? Expands the vast tapestry of my life? Tells everyone a little bit about me in so many ways? Makes me more human?

(Feel free to read that out loud in a Stewie Griffin voice)

So what?

You've got an actual story, don't you? If you want to focus on one thread in the tapestry of my life, choose one that shows the reader how my life relates to that story. Don't waste their time with something that has no bearing on the book/ screenplay/ short story they're reading.

Let the audience know how annoyed I was at thirteen when a doctor told me during a physical that writing wasn't "a real job." Explain how thrilled freshman-college-me was when he got a personal letter from Tom DeFalco rejecting my Marvel pitch but with hints and tips about how to improve and try again, plus a full copy of one of his Thor scripts for reference. Give them the visual of me in a panicky, cold sweat sitting outside Ron Moore's office, waiting to pitch a few Deep Space Nine stories I'd come up with that had impressed a long string of script readers and story editors.

See? That's all relevant. You're reading and saying "Wow, this guy's been serious about writing for a while now, hasn't he?" That's the kind of stuff that should come out in your writing.

And you've already forgotten my dog's name, haven't you? And the name of the road he was hit on? No worries. He'll always be important to me, but I understand why he's not important—or relevant—to you. Honest, I do.

Now, go write.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Few Quick Cuts

A common mistake I see from a lot of people is length. It does matter, but not in the way you're probably thinking right now (pervert). People produce things that are just too big, be it novels, screenplays, even short stories and short films. This can be especially deadly in genre fiction, where publishers and producers have a lot of expectations—and limitations—about what they want.

For publishers, word count translates to page count which translates to the size and cost of your novel. Size tells them how many copies of it will fit in their limited shelf-space at Borders (and how many other things they can't put there). Cost tells them how many they can hope to sell, as folks tend not to choose a $9.99 paperback when they're just looking for something new to read. Series books (like mysteries or epic fantasy) tend to be smaller, too, to encourage readers to buy more of the series.

For film producers, a long script means a long production time, which means keeping cast and crew on payroll longer. It also means more raw expenses. One second of 35mm film costs about two dollars. A longer film means the thousands of prints that go out to theaters will each cost more to make, and it also means theaters don't have time for more screenings. One huge weakness of Peter Jackson's King Kong in theaters was while Kong ran once most other films had two shows—they were pulling in ticket money twice as fast.

As always, I'm sure there's a bunch of folks reading this and saying "Oh, but what about..." Yes, there are always exceptions to these rules. Stephen King's The Stand or Desperation easily go far beyond what would be expected for genre horror novels. J.K. Rowling wasn't mincing words on those Harry Potter books either. I think we can all agree, however, that the Man from Maine and the boy sorcerer have shown a certain degree of strength in the marketplace. Publishers are probably not gambling too much by taking on their latest double-sized novel.

When any of us are selling like King, break out that 150,000 word mystery.

Speaking of the King, in his excellent book On Writing he states a simple rule for revisions. If you've read this page more than thrice and you don't own that book, stop now and go to your friendly neighborhood Borders or Barnes & Noble. No, seriously, go right now. The internet will be here when you get back. Heck, take your laptop and mooch free wireless up in the cafe. It'll make up for the price of the coffee.

Anyway... that rule...

Second Draft = First Draft – 10%

Couldn't be simpler, right? If you scribble out a 5000 word short story, trim 500 words before you show it to anyone. Your 120 page screenplay could probably get cut down to 108 pages without too much trouble. And that 100,000 word novel? Odds are there are 10,000 words you could lose.

While this sounds ruthless, brutal, and perhaps even a bit arbitrary, there's solid experience behind it which is worth at least considering for a moment. Since seventh grade you've had composition teachers telling you to remove unnecessary words. There's a reason tight writing lasts and purple prose—no matter how popular it is at the time-- gets forgotten.

So, a few easy ways to cut some of the fat from your writing...

Adverbs-- These are the most common sin (not original at all). As most of us get caught up in the flow of words, the impetus of a scene, and the thing that slides by most often is the all-but-useless adverb. For example...

--She ran quickly.

--He excitedly tore open the package, and happily said "This is the best Christmas ever!"

--They shouted loudly.

--"Maybe I saw something, maybe I didn't," Slim said coyly.

Of course she ran quickly! Have you ever heard someone shout quietly? Three out of five times if you're using an adverb, you don't need it. The fourth time odds are you're using the wrong verb, and once you find the right one, again, you won't need the adverb. And that fifth time... well, maybe it's only one in six. If you're using your vocabulary well, there aren't many times you need an adverb. For screenwriters, adverbs are the parentheticals of prose (which means you should be stomping out parentheticals, too).

Adjectives—These are the deadly ones, as people create compound adjectives from hell to describe things that tend to be pretty mundane when you think about it. We all do it now and then, however, because we're convinced this person, this place, this thing needs more description.

--He had sky-like cloudy dark blue eyes.

--She wore polished glossy black designer boots.

--The tall, majestic, awe-inspiring cliffs of weatherworn, charcoal-gray stone loomed over them.

There's an odd habit I've seen among fledgling fantasy writers to use dozens of adjectives per page, if not per sentence. It's part of that purple prose I mentioned above. Writer/ Editor/ Publisher Pat LoBrutto tossed out a great rule of thumb last time I heard him speak—"One adverb per page, four adjectives per page." It's only a rough guideline, of course, but if you're averaging six or seven adjectives in each paragraph maybe you should give them all a second look...

That—This is a new rule someone introduced me to just a few weeks back, but I've already fallen hard for it. That is a word people tend to drop into their writing a lot, and a good four out of five times their writing would be tighter without it.

--He believed that once the button was pressed, the world would be saved.

--She ran off in the same direction that John had.

--George knew that once Jane saw the puppy that she would want to take it home.

Just use the Find feature in Word (it's up there under Edit). Search for uses of that and see how many of them are necessary. Odds are you'll find at least half of them aren't.

Appeared to... – This is one of those phrases people see used, latch onto, and use all the time—without understanding it. It tends to be used as an introduction of sorts, leading the reader into some purple-prose description. This phrase sometimes disguises itself as looked like or seemed to be or some variation thereof.

The thing is appeared to... doesn't get used alone. It's part of a literary construction where the second half of that structure is either an implied or actual contradiction. So when you're saying...

--She appeared to stand just shy of six feet tall.

--His eyes seemed to be burning embers in his skull.

What you're actually saying is...

--She appeared to stand just shy of six feet tall, but she was actually closer to five foot five without her monstrous boots.

--His eyes seemed to be burning embers in his skull, but really they were just catching the light.

And what you mean to be saying is just...

--She stood just shy of six feet tall.

--His eyes were burning embers in his skull.

Note that clever metaphor you just used in the second example. Nobody is going to think this poor guy has actual glowing coals in his eye sockets. They'll understand the visual image, honest.

Long Names – The King himself offhandedly suggests this rule in the above-mentioned On Writing. If you've got a lot of characters named Vandervecken, MacMortimerstein, or Bannakaffalatta, they're going to take up a lot of space as their names get used again and again. Not only that, several of them will die as other characters rush to blurt out "Dear God, Doctor MacMortimerstein, look out for that... ahhhhh, too late!"

Try using simple names like Vander, Mort, or Ban, which are easier for readers to keep track of as well. True, this will not lessen your word count, but it can shorten your page count, which is the next best thing. Of course, if there's a solid reason for alien cyborg billionaire midget Bannakaffalatta to be called Bannakaffalatta and not Ban, stick with it. But if it's just a background character you're using for two chapters or three scenes...

Somewhat Syndrome -- This one's the albatross I bear, and one of my friends points it out to me all the time. Symptoms include littering your writing with somewhat.., a bit..., slightly..., and other such modifiers. Nine times out of ten they're not doing anything except adding to your word count and slowing your story. Use the Find feature again, see how many of them are necessary, and look how much tighter and stronger your writing is without them.

So, grab your manuscript and snip, slice, and cut a few dozen words. See if you can make those sentences leaner and meaner. Suggest some of your own easy ways to trim if you've got them.

Then come back next week and I'll rip apart your characters.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Reality Sucks Because Reality Bites

One of your goals as a writer is to bring your stories to life. One of the tell-tale signs of bad writing (a waving red flag, really) is characters that talk, act, or react unnaturally to the world around them. It doesn't matter if that world is Manhattan, the ancient city of Babylon, or the main bridge of a Space Marine Thunderhawk orbital lander. If readers can't identify with what a character is saying or feeling, it's going to distance them from your writing. In some cases, that distance will include them setting down your manuscript, going out to lunch with friends, and completely forgetting it.

For the record—that's bad.

As writers, the main source we have to draw on is our own lives. We can spend hours doing research in libraries or people-watching from the patio of our favorite Mexican restaurant (El Zarape on Park—it's fantastic), but in the end it all comes down to things we've done and seen. We know how people act because we are people. We've all gone to school, hated our boss at work, and been cut off on the freeway. We've traveled a bit, kept secrets, and gotten our first kiss from that cute girl (or guy) we like. Well, most of us have, anyway.

However... this is where things tend to get a bit tricky.

People often confuse fiction-real with real-real. Y'see, the thing is, real life—the life you, I, and all the people we know are all living-- is actually kind of boring when you get right down to it. I think the average person feels they're living a pretty good life if they have one or two amazing days a month. And amazing usually just means having a great night at the club, a perfect evening out (or in) with a loved one, or just hanging with your friends while you watch a DVD with pizza and beer.

Very few ninja attacks.

Not that many pirates.

Almost no killer cyborgs from the future.

Not one nymphomaniac Famke-Janssen-look-alike billionaire heiress with amnesia who needs me to follow her to Europe to fend off the Knights Templar while she tries to locate the ancient mystical talisman that will restore her memory and bring about world peace.

(I really had my hopes up for that one...)

The other big problem is one you've probably heard of. Truth is stranger than fiction. No, really, it is. Even considering that last little fantasy. The world is a truly bizarre place filled with amazing coincidences and connections. They're completely ridiculous. Did you know there's a direct link between the development of the Japanese tea ceremony and the rise of the Freemasons? Honest, there is.

Take Vesna Vulovic. Vesna was a flight attendant on a DC-9 that was bombed in mid-air by terrorists in 1972. She was trapped inside the ruins of the plane's hull as it plummeted more than six miles to the ground. However, through a near miraculous series of events and conditions, Vesna survived her fall. She fell 33,000 feet, was in the hospital for a mere two months afterwards, and is still alive today, walking, talking, and laughing.

So... does that mean a character should fall six miles and live in your writing? It really happened, so it must be believable, right?

Another great historical example is Grigori Rasputin, sometimes called the Mad Monk. Rasputin had a truly disturbing amount of influence over Alexandra, the wife of Tsar Nicholas II (why he had this influence... well, that's a topic for the after-hours discussion) and in 1916 a group of Russian nobles decided he needed to be "removed." But how do you quietly get rid of a man who would be huge by today's standards (some reports claim he stood almost six and a half feet tall)? As it turned out, they poisoned him, beat him, stabbed him, shot him, beat him some more, smothered him, beat him a third time just to be safe, and then dumped his body in the Neva River.

Final cause of death, when the body washed ashore a few days later?


Another true story, and yet how often have you found yourself scoffing at the film character who ignores knives, bullets, and broken limbs? Or berated the screenwriters when someone survives a three story fall or a major car crash with only a few scrapes?

Here's another one, a bit simpler and closer to home. I once worked with a guy named Carlos. He was an electrician and a best boy on several television shows and films that I worked on back when I was a prop master. One day at lunch I realized Carlos had the odd habit of putting "bro" at the end of almost every sentence when he spoke in English. At the time I was slogging my way through my first serious attempt at a novel, The Suffering Map, and ended up adopting his habit for one of my characters. When I got requests to send the manuscript to a few agents, I was thrilled. And every copy came back with the same note, worded in a variety of ways.

"The dialogue doesn't sound real."

At which point I smacked myself in the forehead, because I'd forgotten this same tip I'd given to dozens and dozens of people.....

Cloverfield is an excellent example of a movie that had flawlessly real reactions and dialogue—dialogue that made you want to smack every one of the main characters into unconciousness. Indie films have almost become a genre unto themselves, where "indie" refers to real stories about real people reacting in real ways to real situations... and boring the hell out of the audience.

Y'see, it doesn't matter if something is real or not. What matters is that it works and draws in the audience. Books are not real life. Movies are not real life. No, not even if they're biographies or documentaries. They're a window, and the thing about windows is that they only offer a limited view, whether you're looking inside or out. Simple common sense will tell you that you cannot make a window that lets you see everything. There will always be something just out of sight, around the corner, or just too big to see all at once.

A good writer knows just how big to make that window. They know just what they want you looking at. They won't let you see distracting things. They'll make sure it's all fresh and sharp (or old and rotting, depending on what they're trying to show you). They won't waste an inch of glass displaying something that isn't part of the view they want you to see.

Because if you try to make a window big enough to see everything... well, even if it wasn't impossible, it's not very structurally sound. Those are the windows that crack in the wind or just shatter under their own weight.

Remember, real life is never the answer.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Why Your Friends and Family Suck

Despite every loudmouthed producer or "saying it like it is" celebrity you've ever seen on TMZ, one of the hardest things to find in Hollywood is an honest opinion. People are terrified of saying "No." They've almost brainwashed themselves against it. Everyone worries about offending someone and the possible ramifications it could have. You can lose your job in Hollywood for upsetting someone. That same someone could be your boss three years from now. The person asking "Do you like this?" could end up deciding whether or not you get health insurance and a new office next year. So "no" is all but forbidden.

Instead, people dance around answers. They waffle. They make excuses or use doublespeak. In some cases they flat-out lie. Anything to avoid speaking the truth or giving their opinion on something.

And the result is movies like Sahara and X-Men 3.

But that's material for another rant. Three or four of them, really...

Where am I going with this? Well, you'll see in a moment or two, if you haven't already...

Except for a few rare exceptions (those lucky folks who've found a long-time partner to work with), writing is something you have to do alone. The odd conundrum here is that one of the very few ways you can improve as a writer is to get feedback. People need to read your work and express their thoughts and opinions about it. You need an audience. And it needs to be a real audience.

What's a real audience? Well, it's people who will give you a real opinion. An honest opinion. They're the ones who won't mince words or spare your feelings, because they understand you need to know what's wrong with your work so you can improve it. Being nice, just saying it's good no matter what, doesn't help you. It only undermines your attempts to get better.

Another little story...

My mother read a lot of crap writing when I was a little kid. The vast majority of it was mine (reading Stephen King's Christine was her own decision). She slogged through at least three versions of Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth between third and seventh grade, several pieces of Star Wars fanfic (long before there was such a term), countless short stories, and a truly awful sci-fi "novel" that would put the old 1950's serials to shame with its clich├ęs. I know for a fact I wouldn't be where I am today if she hadn't kept reading and encouraging me to write more.

However, there came a point when I made a realization. My mom was always going to say she liked what I was writing because she was my mom and that's what good mothers do. It didn't matter if the material was good, bad, or borderline nonsensical, mom would congratulate me on it.

Which is when I realized I needed to start getting other opinions.

Now, granted, this is an extreme example. I'm not saying my mother should've told the twelve-year-old me that my writing was childish and predictable and I didn't have a chance of ever getting published. That would've just been cruel, and also a bit unfair. So in one way, this blind kindness was a good thing.

However, this kindness can also be a trap, and many people, willingly or not, fall into it.

Let's take Bobo for example (not his real name). Bobo surrounds himself with people who won't give him honest opinions. He'll only show his writing to family members or to friends so close they've got all the same interests and background. Parents, siblings, friends, lovers—people with a strong desire not to hurt his feelings, and, on some level, a vested interest in keeping him happy.

Surprise, surprise, wha'd'you know—these people all say Bobo's writing is great. His mom and dad think it's wonderful. His friends got all the jokes. His brother likes it. His girlfriend (or boyfriend—Bobo is open-minded) even thinks he should send it out to some magazines or agents.

Are they all lying to him? Possibly not. There's always that chance Bobo is the next John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury, or Harper Lee, unable to produce anything except pure gold when put in a room with pen and paper. A regular Rumplestiltskin of words, that Bobo.

But, as the men in Vegas say, I wouldn't put money on it.

Finding a real, honest audience for your work can take years. I came out of college with one friend whose opinion I completely trust and am always desperate to hear. She is tough and merciless, make no mistake, and I absolutely love her for it. In the many years since then (almost--gasp-- two decades now), out of the hundreds of people I've met, there are maybe five or six more I know I can show work to and get real, useful criticism.

That's what you're looking for, after all. Criticism. The real stuff, not the whiny, jealous, ranty stuff of people online or people who never finish their own writing. As the word implies, you want people who can make practical, critical observations about your work. Better yet, people who can make those observations and suggest improvements.
And then, of course-- you have to be willing to listen to them. As I mentioned before, honest opinions can be hard to come by. Opinions that come with useful suggestions are almost unheard of.

But the real shame would be if you finally get some and you ignore them.

Now, get back to writing.