Thursday, December 31, 2009

Looking Back Over the Year

A solid year of this stuff. Who would've guessed any of us would be so interested in my blatherings for so long? I sure didn't.

So, the whole point of this blog (besides lowering my blood pressure) is to hopefully give a helpful hint or two. The best way to utilize those tips, silly as it sounds, is to write. That's why we're all here, yes?

That being said... what did you write this year?

As I said last year, I'm not interested in the cool ideas you’re going to do something with eventually. I don’t want you to talk about what you’ve planned to do. I also don’t care what clever software you bought, or what fascinating research you’ve done, or who you had an extended online chat with during lunch one day.

The question, my eleven faithful followers, is what have you written?

Y'see, Timmy, if you're not writing, that's kind of the end of the discussion right there. We can't talk about editing, improving, or polishing our work until we've actually got some work, right?

We have to write. Until you're writing on at least a semi-regular basis

So, what did I do over these past twelve months?

I wrote thirty-eight articles for Creative Screenwriting magazine. Granted, because of lead times some of this won't see print until next year, but by the same token some of the stuff that did come out this year were things I actually wrote last year. I got to sit down and talk with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, Nora Ephron, Mike Judge, Nancy Meyers, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, and even Frank Darabont at one point. Plus a bunch of screenwriters you've probably never heard of but loved their work (like David Self, Kundo Koyama,Tony Gilroy, Simon Kinberg, David Hayter, and Bruce Joel Rubin). If you haven't seen (500) Days of Summer yet, by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, you're missing out. Also add in another thirty-four reviews and interviews for the CS Weekly online newsletter (sign up over there on the right if you haven't already). That let me see a bunch of movies for free and also interview another pile of screenwriters like Stephan Elliot and Shane Black. There were also a few scattered reviews in there for both CinemaBlend and Coming Attractions. I think the final total for non-fiction pieces comes in at seventy-five.

It's also fair to mention that I got to work with two really great editors for a lot of this, David and Jeff. They've each got their own style, they each have their own preferences, and I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a headbutt or three in there throughout the year. They both kept me on my toes, though, and made sure I was putting out the best work I could. Half the reason I can write fast and tight is because of these two guys.

I scribbled down a quick short story/ article for the upcoming Moron's Guide to the Inevitable Zombocalypse which will see print in 2010. There's also a story going out to a time-travel anthology pretty much right alongside this post. I'm kind of proud of these two on a couple of levels. One is that they're two pretty solid stories that I managed to get out really quick. As soon as I had the idea, I had the whole story. The other thing was that it had a very Bradbury feel. In many of his autobiographical tales he talks about when he would rush out stories so he could pay the rent, and there is a very nice feel to ever-so-briefly living in that world of "I need money--I better write something quick and sell it."

I wrote one of those mash-up books that's so popular right now, blending modern horror tropes into classic literature. Although, in all fairness, about 60% of the finished book was written by someone else two hundred years ago, which is some serious lead time. Hopefully I'll get to say a bit more about that sometime soon. It's making the rounds right now, as they say.

To be honest, I don't know what they say. I just wanted to sound like I was in the loop, as they say.

I'm currently about 30,000 words into a sci-fi/horror novel set 200 years in the future. It's on the Moon, so it's beyond everything. Alas, it got set aside for the above-mentioned mash-up project, and it may take a bit of work to get back into it. There are a few moments in it that are just wonderful, though, so I'm sure it will see the light of day sometime or another.

There are also twenty-five pages of notes for an Ex-Heroes sequel. The publisher has been asking me about it since the day he bought the first book. However, while I was doing the Orci and Kurtzman interview mentioned above, Roberto Orci made an offhand comment about sequels while looking me right in the eyes and... well, he's been haunting me ever since. So expect me to dive into that in March, after there's been some response to the February release of Ex-Heroes.

Oh, and I managed to post here on a fairly regular basis. Better than last year, even. For a free blog that's supposed to go up once a week, 49 posts in a year is pretty impressive. At least from where I'm sitting. I also threw up a counter back in late June (starting it at 500), so using my impressive math skills it would seem I'm getting around 100 peeks a week here. So someone's looking at it besides me. Maybe all eleven of you keep coming back every day.

That's what I wrote this year. How about you?

Make the same New Year’s resolution as last year. A page a day. That's it. It usually works out to under 300 words if you've got the formatting right. If you write one page a day, you can have a short story by the end of January. You could have a solid screenplay by the time May rolls around. This time next year, you could have a novel. All that, out of a mere page a day. If you're actually serious about being a writer, this should be the equaivalent of making a resolution to breathe in the months to come.

Happy New Year to all eleven of you reading this. Next time, will be the first post of 2010, so I thought I'd do something that dealt with the first.

Until then, go drink some champagne and toast the new year.

Then go write. Just write one page.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Holiday Spirit

Okay, so it ended up being Thursday anyway. Happy Christmas Eve, everyone.

So, I got to sit down and talk with Shane Black last week. If you don't know who he is--shame on you. Why are you even reading this? Anyway, we talked a lot about the holidays and how they can affect storytelling.

I see holiday stories all the time. My own chosen genre ties well to several holidays. Plus, when I read for screenplay contests I'm almost guaranteed to get a dozen or so scripts about the true meaning of Arbor Day or some such thing.

Here's what any aspiring writer need to understand about these holiday stories. They've been done. All of them. Done many, many times. If you can actually come up with a new holiday-centric plot that hasn't been done before, it will be nothing short of miraculous.

Look at Christmas, for example. In books and films and short stories we've seen Santa as a saint and also as a monster. We've seen him as the good guy, the bad guy, a clone, a robot, a magical toymaker, a guy who wished for the job, and a guy who stumbled into it. Heck, I just heard about a movie recently where Santa turned out to be the Antichrist.

We've seen Santa quit. We've seen him get hired and get downsized. We've seen him get replaced, go on vacation, get arrested, and deal with elf union bosses and their demands.

Christmas has been disrupted by Scrooges, Grinches, gremlins, zombies, musical skeleton men, snowmen (good and bad), mythological rivals, evil Santas, drug dealers, terrorists, hit men, aliens (most notably Martians), and even Satan himself.

I'm not even scratching the surface, mind you. Everything I'm saying about Christmas applies to every other holiday. Halloween, Hanukah, Easter, Ramadan, Thanksgiving, Passover, Labor Day, Valentine's Day, President's Day, Boxing Day, Independence Day, and even the winter solstice. Yes, that's right, there's a movie about Passover. When Do We Eat? It also featured heavy drug use.

Now don't get me wrong on this. I'm not against stories that center around a given holiday. There are many I love, and there's a huge market for this stuff. As I hinted above, horror and Halloween go together like chocolate and peanut butter. The Hallmark Channel does a few dozen holiday movies every year, as does Disney.

What I will say, though, is that if you want to write a holiday story, you have to know the oeuvre back and forth. You have to know all the stories that have come before yours. Because I can guarantee you, the editor or producer you're subbing to has been exposed to them. They've also been exposed to the dozens of manuscripts about said holiday that came in before yours, and there's a good chance those tales trod over all the same ground. Writing a regular story is challenging. Writing a Christmas story means you have to start at the top of the pack and then go even further.

Keep that in mind as you're gathered around the fireplace telling stories of Christmases past, present, and future.

Next week, I'd like to sum up 2009. Until then, enjoy your eggnog and have a very happy holidays.

And if you can fit in some writing, good for you.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dating Tips

Seven shopping days left to get something for that special someone.

Oddly enought, this week I wanted to prattle on for a moment about one of those off-writing things I tend not to talk about much. It's more of a mindset, and it applies to writers of prose and scripts alike. Simply put, I want to talk about dating.

I want to toss out a hypothetical situation for you. More exact, a hypothetical person. I'll call her Phoebe. If you want to substitute a different name, go ahead.

Phoebe's my dream woman. She's what every man aspires to. I can't think of anything I've wanted more than to be with Phoebe--and you can feel free to take "be with" any way you like and you'd be right. She is, in all ways, perfect.

Well, perfect might be overstating it. Just a bit.

To be honest, she'd be much hotter if her hair was a bit lighter. And not so long. If she was more of a platinum blonde, Phoebe would be unbelievably hot. So really she's just a haircut and a box of dye away from being my perfect woman.

Okay, maybe if her chin wasn't quite so sharp. Makes her face a bit too pointy for my liking. Rounded would bring out her cheeks and her smile more.

Speaking of which... slight overbite. You can't really notice it until you're close to her. That's when you can also see one of her incisors has this little twist to it. Nothing braces couldn't fix, though. Maybe those transparent ones.

Also--please don't think I'm shallow for this--maybe a little more in the, well, the chestal region. Phoebe is a touch on the small side. Not flat, by any means, and they're nicely formed. I'm not talking about anything grotesque, mind you, but something in a B-cup would give her an absolutely killer figure. Again that's minor. Heck, I think these days it's just outpatient surgery.

Y'know, if she wore some nicer clothes, it'd help show off that figure, too. Everything Phoebe owns is that kind of frumpy-baggy look. It was kind of cute in college, but come on. Dress up a bit now and then. Would it be so wrong to wear something eye-catching? Once we're together, I 'll take her on a nice shopping spree before we go out anywhere.

Although I don't know where we'll go out. We don't have many of the same interests. Her taste in movies sucks, to be honest, and she's not really much of an athletic person. I'll work on that, get her to watch something better and stop subjecting me to that crap stuff she likes to watch.

At least the sex will probably be worth it. As long as she doesn't make that same weird noise she makes when she's excited. That sound creeps me out.

Still my dream girl, though, and I'd love to be with her--in any sense of the phrase.

So, at this point I can guess what a lot of you are thinking. Why the hell is Phoebe my dream girl if I want to change everything about her? She sounds like an okay person as is, but it's pretty apparent she's not what I'm looking for, despite my insistence that I want to be with her. I mean, why would anyone want to be involved with someone just to change everything about them?

Which, as it turns out, is the point I wanted to make.

There are lots of folks who talk about how much they want to be writers. They'll tell you it's been a lifelong dream to see their name on a shelf in a bookstore, or to hear actors reciting their dialogue. There's nothing they want more, and they'll do whatever it takes, make any sacrifice necessary, to make that dream become a reality.

Then, just after this, they'll tell you all the things that are wrong with Hollywood. That there aren't enough musicals/ torture porn/ funny animal movies being made. Why scripts need to be put on the screen in their pristine, untouched form. How they need to let people walk in and pitch ideas without all these hoops to jump through like a resume or a list of credits.

Or maybe they'll tell you how biased the publishing industry is. How publishers need to give as much time and interest to new writers as they do to Stephen King or Dan Brown. That they should be accepting all submissions, agented or not. And how books that aren't interesting and would be hard to market need to get a fair shake from these publishers.

Don't even get these folks started on agents. Agents of all types need to be a lot more open. They need to read everything that gets sent to them, and offer feedback if they don't like it. All seven of the agents in the world need to start accepting more clients and getting more stuff sold to the top studios and publishers.

And as a finale, they'll tell you all the things they'd change about the industry. The policies that make it so reprehensible. All the things they're going to change once they're in that position of power. In fact, the industry's changing now and they'd better watch out and grab these would be-writers and their golden manuscripts before they all change their minds and become house painters or accountants, thus depriving the world of their genius.

By what I'm sure is a complete coincidence, none of these people have ever sold a book, or a screenplay, or even a short story. Which, they'll hurry to tell you, only shows how corrupt and broken the system is and why it needs to be fixed.

Then they'll continue to work on their epic nine-movie saga about cyborg ninjas from the future who've come back to our time to deal with their father issues.

Y'see, Timmy, you can’t go into any sort of relationship thinking I’ll be the one to change her! Or him. Or them, if you live on the wild side. Relationships like that are doomed to failure of one sort or another. Either they collapse altogehter or they "succeed" with one person or the other becomes a twisted, compromised version of themself (and probably hating the other person for it).

Likewise, you can't expect to have any sort of success in the publishing world or in Hollywood if you're starting from the mindset of "they're all wrong." It's no different than my mad pursuit of Phoebe just so I can change everything about her. You either have to love it for what it is or... well, find something else to love.
I can sense a rising argument already, though. "Ahhhhh," says Yakko, "but what if I don't want to go with a traditional publisher? What if I just want to self-publish, or shoot my script myself with my friends?" And honestly, I see no problem with this. None at all.

IF...'ve gone over your manuscript five or six times; listened to impartial feedback; gone through line by line looking for spelling, grammar, and consistency errors; sent it out to dozens of publishers or producers; sent it out to dozens of agents; and made necessary changes and edits and sent it out to all those people again.

Wash, rinse, repeat. You notice that Johnson & Johnson doesn't tell you when to stop that process. They figure you're right there in the shower, you'll know when your hair's clean without further instruction from them. What's implied, though, is that you have to go through the process at least once before you can claim your hair is clean.

Maybe perfect Phoebe really is the girl for you. You got yourself cleaned up, best clothes, fresh flowers, and she still turned you down. Then maybe you should take a second look at Denise. Because there's a good chance she'll recognize all those good qualities Phoebe somehow missed, and the two of you will be happy together.

Some of those folks I mentioned above, though, like to skip the shampoo process and just announce their hair is clean. They declare themselves worthy of Phoebe and then say a lot of nasty things about her because she turns them down. In fact, what they tend to say is "I wanted to be with Denise, anyway. She's way better than that #%@$ Phoebe!"

In the romance world they call this settling. It's what you do when you don't want to make an effort, or when you've already given up.

Hopefully, that's not where you're headed with your writing.

Next Thursday's kind of a big day for everyone, so I probably won't post anything. Perhaps a little something quick on Wednesday for the holidays.

Until then you've got a week. Go write!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

I Put The Poison In Both Cups

Easy geek reference up there for you.

So, this week's little rant is sliding in under the wire. To be honest, I've been buried under a ton of last-minute stuff for work. Plus the holidays. Plus some family stuff. I can't be expected to keep up on all of it.

Well, that's not true. It's a bit of a cop-out, really. If I'd managed my time a bit better a lot of this would've been done on time. There were even two or three times this week I remember thinking "I need to start working on this week's ranty blog post."

Cop-outs suck, don't they? You've made an investment in some piece of writing and then wham! Out of nowhere the writer just does something lame. They'll change the rules or deliberately ignore continuity and just try to bluff their way through. Epic stories that don't deliver. Mysteries that aren't explained. Ominous foreshadowing that never pays off. All of these are cop-outs.

The very first story I can ever remember telling had a cop-out ending. I was about eight years old, it was summer, and Mom had taken us to the beach even though I wasn't feeling well. Somehow I ended up sitting with the father of my friend Todd, while everyone else played in the water, and I spent the time regaling him with the epic tale of G.I. Joe fighting off the Intruders.

For those of you born after 1980, G.I. Joe used to be just shy of a foot tall and had fuzzy hair. You could even shave him. He was also firmly grounded in the real-world military. When Star Wars shifted the toy paradigm to science fiction, GI Joe suddenly gained a bunch of new friends, like the superhero Bulletman and the cyborg Mike Power. And enemies called the Intruders which were a race of alien bodybuilder midgets who wore metal leotards... sort of...

Anyway, on with the story.

You see, the Intruders came down in asteroids. And they all crash-landed at GI Joe's secret base. There were lots and lots and lots of them. In fact, there were a million of them. So GI Joe was shooting at them with his gun and he shot ten of them, and Mike Power was kicking with his bionic leg--

(Mike Power had one bionic leg. Just one. Even at the age of eight, I could see the gigantic flaws in this bit of cybernetic engineering.)

--and Bulletman used his ray to lift a bunch of them into the air and send them away. This pattern of violence was repeated enthusiastically twice or thrice before I declared all the Intruders defeated.

Not so, Todd's father told me. A million is a lot.

I conceded this, and explained that the above mentioned pattern of gun-kick-ray happened again. So now they were all gone.

No, he said with a smile and a shake of his head, a million means there's a lot more left.

I nodded, then said that Bulletman had used his ray to scoop up everyone who was left and send them away.

It seemed like a very solid ending at the time.

Granted, it's easy to excuse an ending like that from an eight year old, but far too many adults use them, too. Except for poor spelling, there isn't a much more glaring sign of poor writing than a plot thread that winds up with a cop-out. It shows the writer didn't think things out, or just couldn't be bothered to.

A few common types of cop-outs.

Changing the rules--While it completely fits the story it's told in, the title reference of this little rant is a perfect example of changing the rules. In the midst of this serious contest of life and death, we find out it wasn't a fair contest. We've been told within the story that X + Y = Z, but the writer suddenly announces X + Y can also equal Q. This usually comes about because the story has been written into a corner and the writer won't take the time to go back and change things (when the ancient Greeks did this, they called their cop-out deus ex machina). As Billy Wilder once observed, a problem in your third act is really a problem in your first act.

Changing the rules is inconsistent and it breaks the flow. William Goldman used it for comedic effect in The Princess Bride, but it's doomed to almost certain failure in anything except a comedy. Heck, thanks to Goldman it's going to look pretty tired in a comedy, too...

The so-called twist--This is a more specific type of changing the rules. I've set out the rules for a good twist before, and they're pretty simple for anyone to figure out. That's why it's so frustrating when a writer has Debbie pull off her wig and announce "Hah!! I'm really Larry's second-cousin!!!" This is often followed by flipping through pages to figure out who Larry is and why his second cousin would have it in for everybody.

Usually a poor twist tries to solve one problem in the story at the expense of the story itself. A weak twist isn't just a cop-out for a plot thread, it's almost a guarantee the manuscript will end up in the large pile on the left.

No payoff --Few things are as annoying then to go through a story waiting to see the two enemies clash or to learn the answer to the mysterious puzzle that's plagued out heroes... only to not get it. The enemy gets away. The mystery gets skirted over. It just leaves the reader feeling cheated.

Sometimes it's not even a question that's not answered, it's just a payoff that never happens. When the climactic, world-altering final battle occurs off-camera and we just see the characters talking afterward about how amazing it was, that's a cop-out.

Just plain weak-- Sometimes when a writer uses a cop-out, they're just choosing the path of least resistance. It's quick and easy and wraps stuff up. Oh, he was dreaming and she was insane. Sometimes an ending can seem solid, but it's still weak because of the promise of something bigger. A worldwide alien invasion is awesome. A worldwide invasion where the aliens can be defeated by tap water... not so much. Remember, a story can be weak by inclusion just as much as by omission.

And there you have it. I'd put more, but, as I mentioned before, I have a lot of work to do still.

Plus, I'm really Larry's third cousin.

Still open to suggestions as we head into the holidays. If not, next time I'll end up blathering about women I've dated or something.

Until then, go write. At least your Christmas cards.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Return of The 3-D Man!!

I'd love to say there's more to this pop-culture reference than just the number three, but I'd be lying.


So, it struck me a while back that I haven't really prattled on about characters in quite a while. I've brought them up as kind of a sideline thing while talking about other story elements, but I haven't focused on characters specifically. So I started thinking about them and why some come across so well on the page while others leave a reader cringing.

That got me thinking about Bob. To be honest, first it got me thinking about Yakko Warner, my usual example, but Yakko's a pretty well-established character already. So I ended up with Bob, and wondering what could make him a good leading man for my action-adventure story about cyber-ninjas from the future.

If we want to make Bob the best character he can be, I think there are three key traits he needs to have.

First and foremost, a good character has to be believable. It doesn't matter if said character is man, woman, child, cocker spaniel, Thark warrior, or protocol droid. If the reader or audience can't believe in them within the established setting, the story's facing an almost impossible challenge right from page one.

Bob has to have natural dialogue. It can't be stilted or forced, and it can't feel like he's just the author's mouthpiece, spouting out opinions or political views or whatever. The words have to flow naturally and they have to be the kind of words this person would use. I saw a story once where one high school jock said in amazement to another "You broke up with her via text?" Via? Is that even remotely the type of word or phrasing that would come out of a teenage football player's mouth?

On a similar note, the same goes for Bob's motives and actions. There has to be a believable reason he does the things he does. A real reason, one that makes sense with everything we know (or will come to know) about him. It's immediately apparent, just like with dialogue, when a character's motivations are really just a veiled version of the writer's.

Also, please note that just because a character is based on a real person who went through true events does not automatically make said character believable. I've tossed out a few thoughts here about the difference between real-real and fiction-real, and it's where many would-be writers stumble. They think because the amazing story they're telling about Bob is true, it's somehow valid. He really did this, therefore the reader must accept it. Alas, it just doesn't work that way. Remember, there is no such thing as an "unbelievable true story," only an unbelievable story.

Second, tied very closely to the first, is that a good character needs to be relatable. As readers, we get absorbed in a character's life when we can tie it to elements of our own lives. We like to see similarities between them and us, so we can make extended parallels with what happens in their lives and what we'd like to happen in our lives. Luke Skywalker is a boy from a small town with big dreams (just like me) who goes off to join a sacred order of super powered knights (still waiting for that--but it might happen). There's a reason so many novels and movies revolve around the idea of ordinary people caught up in amazing situations. Heck, Stephen King has made a pretty sizeable fortune off that basic premise.

Some of this goes back to the idea of being on the same terms as your audience and also of having a general idea of that audience's common knowledge. There needs to be something they can connect with. Many of us have been the victims of a bad break up or two. Very, very few of us (hopefully) have hunted down said ex for a prolonged revenge-torture sequence in a backwoods cabin. The less common a character element is, the less likely it is your readers will be able to identify with it. If your character has nothing but uncommon or rare traits, they're unrelatable. If Bob is a billionaire alien with cosmic-level consciousness who sees all of time and space at once and only speaks backwards in metaphor... how the heck does anyone identify with that?

Oh, but wait! I see a hand shooting up in the back. Watchmen has the all-powerful Doctor Manhattan, doesn't it? Ahhhh, but y'see Timmy, one of the primary character traits we remember about him isn't his omnipotence. It's his awkward fumbling when he tries to interact with the people in his life. He's the ultimate social outcast--trying to fit into a clique (humanity) he's grown out of, and aware that every day he's a little less a part of that group. He even acknowledges that losing his girlfriend--his last real connection with the clique--means he probably won't even try to fit in anymore. If that's not universally relatable, what is?

If readers can't identify with Bob, they can't be affected by what happens to him. Which brings us to our final point...

Third, a good character needs to be likeable. As readers and/or audience members, we have to want to follow this character through the story. Just as there needs to be some elements to Bob we can relate to, there also have to be elements we admire and maybe even envy a bit. If he's morally reprehensible, a drunken jackass, or just plain uninteresting, no one's going to want to go through a few hundred pages of his exploits... or lack thereof.

Keep in mind, this doesn't mean a good character has to be a saint, or even a good person. The lead character of The Count of Monte Cristo is an escaped prisoner driven all-but-mad with thoughts of revenge who spends most of the book destroying the lives of several men and their loved ones. In Pitch Black, Riddick is a convicted mass-murderer who likes mocking all the people around him. Hannibal Lecter is a compelling, fascinating character on page and on the screen, but no one would ever mistake him for a role model. Yet in all these cases, we're still interested in them as characters and are willing to follow them through the story.

A good character should be someone we'd like to be, at least for a little while. That's what great fiction is, after all. It's when we let ourselves get immersed in someone else's life. So it has to be a person--and a life-- we want to sink into.

Now, I'm sure anyone reading this can list off a few dozen examples from books and movies of characters that only have one or two of these traits. It'd be silly for me to deny this. I think you'll find, however, the people that don't have all three of these traits are usually secondary characters. Often they're also stereotypes, too. The creepy neighbor, the gruff boss, the funny best friend, the scheming villain. They don't need all three traits-- three dimensions, if you will--because they aren't the focus of our attention. They're the bit players, so to speak, and a good writer isn't going to waste his or her time pouring tons of energy into a minor character who has no real bearing on the story.

Yeah, up top when I said I was lying about the 3-D thing, I was lying. I do that.

So there you have it. Three steps to stronger, three-dimensional characters.

Next time... well, I'm running short of ideas again, so unless someone suggests a good topic, next week might be a bit of a cop-out.

Before I forget, a quick shout out to Brave Blue Mice, a fun little fiction 'zine which asked to publish the RSS feed for the ranty blog on their site. For the record, no, I didn't know what that meant when they asked, but Greg explained it to me in simple terms even a caveman could understand. Go visit, read some stories, and send him a few of your own.

And go write.