Friday, December 28, 2012

That What Got Done

            Well, it’s the end of the year.  Time to start thinking about New Year’s resolutions and all the things we really want to make sure we do this coming year.  And to celebrate the fact that 2012 was not, in fact, the end of the world.
            However, it’s also a good time to look back and think about what we did this year.  Did last year’s resolutions get met?  Did we get close?
            Did we even really try?
            I started off the year working for Amazon Studios, the film branch of the well-known online media giant.  I had a meeting and did a treatment for a sci-fi film called Original Soldiers they were trying to develop.  It was pretty clear early on that we had different opinions on it, but they decided to see what I did with it anyway (I saw Liam Neeson in a glorious B-action movie and they thought they could get... I don’t know, Schindler’s Robot).  They still went with someone else (or possible, as my girlfriend supects, just canned the project when they didn’t see a potential Oscar anywhere), but they paid very well for the work I did.
            After that it was diving back into Ex-Communication, which I’d only barely started.  That was a good chunk of the year (I think until late August or early September).  The final, sixth draft came in at a little over 100,000 words. And I’ll be doing some more work on it before the Crown release.
           It’s about time to mention Crown, too.  As some of you may have heard, I was offered a four book deal with Crown Publishing, a division of Random House, for the Ex-series just as I was finishing up Ex-Communication.  While it’s great on one front, it did sort of put me on hold for a while as far as “what to write next.”  If the deal happened, Crown was going to want another Ex-book.  If it didn’t happen, well, I usually wrote something non-superhero-and-zombie related between Ex-books as sort of a palate cleanser.  So there was a period of about two months this fall where I wasn’t really sure what to start working on.
            I ended up going back to a sci-fi horror idea I’d started ages ago (before my Crusoe mash-up) and doing a fair amount of work on that.  But then some things shifted, negotiations hit a certain point, and I shelved it again.  Alas, at this point I think I can honestly say Dead Moon has become my booty call idea.  I should keep that in mind next time it’s late at night and I’m feeling the need to poke at something...
            For a couple of reasons, I shifted over to an idea that had been tickling my mind, a concept for a new series.  After a false start, I ended up scribbling out almost 15,000 words of notes and outlines and huge swaths of action and dialogue.  I stopped because I didn’t want to burn out on it, and also because the Crown deal was finalized.
            So, right around Halloween, I started working on the fourth Ex-book.  Still working on a title for it, but the book itself is about 2/3 done by now.  I think I might actually be on schedule for the April 1st deadline.
            I also had to do a bunch of layout stuff and edits for the new editions of the Ex-books.  It wasn’t tough, but it is time-consuming. And there’s more of it coming in January.
            I also managed to squeeze in about ten reviews for Cinema Blend here and there.  I enjoy writing reviews because when they’re done right they’re a good mix of critical analysis, storytelling, and a bit of snark (when deserved).  Which reminds me, I still owe them a review for this box set...
            And of course, here on the ranty blog I scribbled out forty-four articles about writing.  In all fairness, this is one of the weakest years here since I started this.  Plus thirty-three articles on another page I keep up.  And those H.P. Legocraft pages.
            So that’s what I did.
            What did you do?
            Yeah, I know, I’ve got a bit of an advantage.  I don’t have kids.  This is my day job.  So I get to focus a lot more time on this than most people.
            But y’know what?  I had a full-time journalism job when I wrote Ex-Heroes. Almost all of my fellow authors at Permuted Press—Craig DiLouie, C Dulaney, Tony Faville, Jessica Meigs, Thom Brannan, and more—still have full time jobs.  Michael Crichton started writing when he was in medical school.  You don’t get much more full-time than that.  Edgar Rice Burroughs, Maya Angelou, John Grisham, David Wong, Clive Cussler, Stephen King... all these famous writers and many, many more had full-time jobs when they started their writing careers.  Heck, King had a full-time job and two kids.
            So, with that in mind... I ask you again.  What did you do this year?
            As I’ve mentioned before, it all comes down to priorities.  If I want to spend a few hours each day with my (hypothetical) kids or watching Netflix with my lovely lady, that’s my business and my decision.  It says where my priorities are and there's nothing wrong with that.  Likewise, the fact that my lovely lady and I live together, both work out of the home, and only see each other for a total of four or five hours a day on an average day... well, that says something about our priorities, too.
            A fellow I know got the screenplay rights to a fairly well-known book series.  It was at the same time I was starting a novel, so I jokingly said we should make a contest out of it.  He kind of brushed me off, but loudly announced his upcoming adaptation to the Twitterverse.
            The book I was starting was 14.  To the best of my knowledge, he still doesn’t have a first draft of his adaptation.  Granted, he’s trying to start a business and has two kids.  And there were a lot of movies he had to see.  And some opening night parties.  And a bi-weekly poker game he never misses...
            The only way to get ahead is to write.  There is nothing else. There are no tricks or magic bullets.  The work will not get done if you don’t do it.  It doesn’t matter how you spin it, if you’re not writing, you’re not getting any closer to selling something.  And if you’re not selling anything, it’s really hard to make a living at this.
            Which is why you’re here, yes?  To get some tips on making a living at this.
            A page a day.  That’s it. That’s all you need to do.  If you can write a page a day, you’ll have a solid draft of a novel by next New Year’s Eve.  You could have the first draft of that script done by April Fools Day.
            If you write it.
            But if the latest episode of Dexter or Dancing With The Stars deserves your time more than writing... well...
            Next time—or next year, if you prefer—I’d like to go over what this little collection of rants is trying to accomplish.
            Until then, pour yourself a glass of champagne, kiss someone special, and then go write.
            Just write one page.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

From A Certain Point of View...

            An easy pop culture reference for you in the title.  Especially because I explained it last week.  My apologies this is running a bit late.  Glad to see you all made it through the Mayan Doomsday with no problem, though.
            This week’s topic is kind of timely because I just got notes back from my editor and he’s called me on this in a few places.  I’ve also recently read two books by other people that suffered a lot on this front, and it kept good stories from being really great stories. 
            So let’s see if we can work through this together.
            You might remember when your junior high school teacher would talk about  first person and third person.  And third person would get divided up, too, with phrases like omniscient or objective or limited.  If you’re anything like me, you probably erased most of that from your internal hard drive as soon as the quiz was over.  
            If we’re going to take this whole being-a-writer thing seriously, though, it means going back and re-learning this stuff and knowing how these rules work.  More to the point, we need to understand how they work so we can use them without confusing or frustrating our readers.  A lot of otherwise good stories I see get ruined by an erratic, irregular point of view... or by a complete lack of one.  They jump from character X to character Y to an omniscient point of view to Z’s first person point of view and then back to X’s journal. 
            For a reader, this is a lot like trying to watch a movie while riding a Tilt-A-Whirl.
            For those poor folks who didn’t get that last reference, a Tilt-A-Whirl is a carnival ride that spins the riders in one direction while moving them up and down on a circular track that’s spinning in the other direction.
            Let’s do a quick recap.
            First person is when the narrator is a character in the story, usually (but not always) the main character.  Everything I see or read in this story is filtered through that character.  I see what she sees, hear what she hears, feel what she feels, know what she knows.  That knowing bit’s important—in a first person story I’m getting access to all the narrator’s thoughts as well.  This can be very freeing, but very limiting and challenging as well.
            I’ve mentioned epistolary style here a few times.  It’s a form of first person where the writer tells the story through letters, journals, and other “existing” material produced by the narrator (or narrators).  Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an epistolary novel, and so are Tony Faville’s Kings of the Dead and Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. 
            Second person is very, very rarely used, but I’ve seen it done a few times so I thought it was worth mentioning.  It’s when the main character is you and the writer projects all the action and emotion onto you.  “You walk down the hall and a feeling of unease begins to creep up your spine.”  Second person is tough to work in because I’m forcing my reader into the story and taking away all their control.  It’s not my story or Wakko’s story—it’s your story, and you’re going to do these things and feel like this and react like this.  That tends to be kind of awkward. 
            If you remember the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, those were usually done in second person.  And you may remember that they were a bit odd to read, especially if you picked one up later in life.  If you’re a bit geeky, second person is like having a dungeon master who takes control of the whole game.
            Third person is still the most common point of view for fiction, even with the rise of first person stories in the past decade or so.  It’s an independent, non-involved narration of the events of the story.  In a third person story, the reader is just a spectator.  There’s still a question of how much they see, though...
            In a third person omniscient story, the reader gets access to everything.  I see Yakko, Wakko, and Dot’s actions—no matter where they are—and I also see inside their heads.  I know what they’re thinking and how they’re reacting to things, even when they don’t show it.  I don’t have numbers to back it up, but off my own experience I’d guess most stories get written this way.
            A third person limited story keeps the reader as a spectator but limits how much they see.  I may decide we’re only going to focus on Wakko and not wander away to see what other characters are doing.  Or perhaps I’ll only let the reader see actions and not get access to what the characters are thinking.
            The trick with limited is that it’s like looking through a telescope or a pair of binoculars.  I can see certain things very clearly, but not other things—even if they’re very close.  And if I try to switch targets abruptly, it gets very confusing.
            So, it’s clear that a big part of storytelling is the point of view.  It affects how the narrative unfolds.  It also determines what kind of things the writer can tell you or explain during the course of the story. If I have an inconsistent point of view, it’s going to be jarring and break the flow of my story.  If I’ve chosen the wrong point of view, things may come crashing down around me right from the start.
            Now, I’m sure some of you are wondering how can there be a wrong point of view?  Sure, it may change the story a bit one way or another, but how can the point of view be wrong?  It’s just an arbitrary decision, right?
            Consider this example...
            Let’s say I’ve decide to write a mystery novel in third person omniscient.  I start off with my detective (let’s make her a female).  So for the first few chapters I’ve got access to what’s going on around her, what she thinks of the various people she meets, what they think of her, and so on.  Then we get to the crime scene and... well, hang on.  Maybe the murderer’s here.  If she is (yep, the killer’s female, too) the reader will know instantly because we’re seeing what’s going on inside her head.  I mean, it’s kind of a cheat  if the murderer’s here at the scene of the crime and not thinking about the murder, right?
            So maybe it’s better if we just never peek inside her head.  Of course, any savvy mystery fan is going to wonder why we’re seeing inside everyone’s head except Phoebe’s (yep, it was Phoebe all along), and they’re probably going to assume it’s because she’s the killer.  And they’ll be right.  In which case this isn’t a mystery anymore, it’s just withheld information... and poorly withheld at that.
            Of course, I could just decide to see inside Phoebe’s head from the start, but now this isn’t a mystery.  If we know she’s the killer from the start, this is more of a suspense-thriller.  And it’s a tricky one, because now the detective is going to be playing catch-up with the readers for the whole book.
            It’s worth mentioning that Alfred Bester pulls off a wonderful third-person omniscient mystery in his book The Demolished Man.  But it’s kind of a trick. The mystery in his story isn’t who the murderer is, but how he managed to pull off his crime in a world where all police are telepaths.
            So, choosing the right point of view is important in a story.  At best, the wrong one can mean a lot of extra work.  At worst, it means I might find I’ve written myself into a corner.
            Another important thing to remember is that my point of view needs to be consistent.  If ninety-five percent of my book is focused on Phoebe and her thoughts and her actions and what she sees, it’s going to be very jarring on page 324 when the narrative suddenly jumps into Wakko’s head for a few paragraphs.  If I switch viewpoints five or six times in the same chapter, it can get confusing real fast.  If I’ve been doing an epistolary novel for the first three-quarters of my manuscript, switching to third person omniscient for the last quarter is going to take some adjustment.  And as I’ve pointed out many times, odds are the way readers will probably deal with this is deciding to put the book down and get caught up on all those Person of Interest episodes on their DVR.
            If you want to switch points of view in your story, here’s a couple of tips that might help...

Chapters – Writing different chapters from different points of view has been a standard for centuries.  Mary Shelly did it in Frankenstein.  Faulkner did it.  Heck, even William Shakespeare did it.  It was fairly common for different scenes of Will’s plays to jump to different locations and focus on different characters.  If it was good enough for him... well, who am I to say that doesn’t work?
            In the Ex-Heroes series I switch from third person to first-person every third or fourth chapter.  That first person point of view is entirely contained within the chapter, though.

Markers – This is like the chapter method but on a smaller scale.  Stephen King uses this one a lot.  He’ll be writing from one character’s point of view and then use a set of markers or flags to make it clear a shift has happened. 
# # #
            The readers continued to scroll down through the page, gleaning small clues and hints.  Some of the tips were subtle, other direct, and everyone took a little something different.  A few of the readers shook their heads and scoffed at the ideas being presented, convinced that they had a better grasp of what writing really involved and how it should be treated.  They mocked the idea of limiting creativity with rules or even loose guidelines.  But most of the readers saw the simple truths the blogger was trying to get across, and they got some useful tips from the post.
# # #
            See how the narrative shifted there?  But you accepted it—both times—because of the markers.  They let you know what was coming next was different from what you were just reading.
            In a way, this is one of the oldest methods.  Lots of old novels were done in the epistolary style, and this gave the reader an automatic, familiar marker for the start and close of each viewpoint.  I try to use this method in the non-flashback chapters of the Ex-Heroes series.

Do It As Little As Possible—Some people think switching viewpoints is hip and edgy, so they do it as often as possible, in as many ways as possible.  There’s nothing wrong with this in theory, but—like flashbacks—there needs to be a real reason for it.  If I’m just switching viewpoints to switch viewpoints... well...  that’s going to get old really quick.
            Lots of books have three main characters and spend alternating chapters with each one.  As mentioned above, though, these characters rarely come in halfway through the manuscript.  It’s clear from the beginning that these are the points of view the book will use and it sticks to them.

Don’t Do It At All- this is a bit challenging, but if you can pull it off your readers will love you for it.  Just stay in one voice—one viewpoint—for the entire story.  No cutaways or cheats.
            There are certain drawbacks to this method.  If I never switch viewpoints everything has to come from the same direction.  If I’ve chosen to tell the entire story from Yakko’s first-person point of view, then everything that happens has to meet Yakko’s language, his experiences, his knowledge base.  But this can make for a very, very powerful story if done right.

            And there you have it.  A quick (well, not that quick) overview of different viewpoints, and a few tips on how to use them in your stories. 
            Next week... well, later this week, really... it’s Christmas.  I’m enjoying some time off, to be honest.  But maybe I’ll put up something about the year in review and we can all see how well my time was spent.  And maybe talk about yours, too.
            Until then, have some eggnog.  And try to write a little bit.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

I Win. I Always Win.

             Minor pop-culture reference for those of you who are good with movie quotes.  And if you are, you’ll see the conflict with today’s little rant...
            Also, a shameless plug.  My book 14 was chosen as best sci-fi novel of the year by, and the publisher’s got the Kindle version on sale right now for just $2.99.  Please check it out and then come back to tell me I’m a talentless hack.
            Speaking of which...
            This is going to be one of those divisive posts, but I think it fits the nature of what I try to do here.  This is one of those perhaps painfully obvious tips a writer needs to follow if they want any measure of success.  And when I say “success” I refer to the age-old definitions of selling your stuff and making money.
            If you want that kind of success, your hero has to win.
           I’m using hero in the gender-blind sense.  If it makes you feel better, feel free to substitute in heroine or protagonist.  I’m not against any of these terms or the characters they attach to, I just think hero is short, quick, and to the point.
            And the hero wins.
            Pretty much always.
            A couple spoilers coming up, too.  Nature of the beast for this kind of rant, sorry.  You may want to stop here if you’re way behind in your required reading or viewing.
           There’s a belief in some circles that having the hero of the story fail and die somehow improves the story.  This usually ties back to the twin ideas of art and realism which... well, which I mock here on a regular basis.  It’s the belief that inserting something random and depressing into my story is more “honest” because life is often random and depressing. 
            And as we all know, art imitates life.  Therefore, if I’m imitating life, I must be making art, right?  That’s just simple math.
            As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, this ending sucks.  It sucks because we all inherently know the hero is supposed to win.  The hero is supposed to win because we identify with the hero.  If the hero loses, it means we lost.  We’re losers. 
            Believe it or not, this sort of statement doesn’t go over well with most people.
            Now, before people start scribbling the angry comments (although I’m sure at least one person already has), let me finish.  I’m not saying that every book has to end with happy smiles and people rolling around on piles of money in their new castle.  My hero does not need to defeat the lizard men ninjas, save the world, and end up with nymphomaniac/ heiress Reiko Aylesworth in a flying car.
            Keep in mind, the hero doesn’t necessarily need to enjoy winning.  I just said they need to win.  They may be crippled or scarred—physically, emotionally, or both.  If the hero ends up wounded or broken after all they’ve done, really that just makes us identify with them a little more, doesn’t it?  I know if I had to fight a dozen terrorists in the Nakatomi Building in my bare feet, I’d get the crap kicked out of me.
            But I’d still win, of course...
            Heck, it may only be a moral or spiritual victory.  Atticus Finch loses his court case in To Kill A Mockingbird.  At the end of Rocky, our title hero’s battered, bruised, and can barely stand.  And Rocky loses the fight.  The refs rule for Apollo Creed.
            And yet, we all understand that he’s won in the way that really matters.  He's proven he's not a loser.  He's shown that he can go the distance.
            The hero doesn’t even need to survive the story.  There are plenty of characters in books and film who didn’t live to enjoy their victories.  Let me give a few quick examples... 
            If you’ve seen The Professional, you know the end is a fiery bloodbath.  Only one person walks away, and it definitely isn’t Leon.  Stephen King has killed off his heroes in The Dead Zone, The Stand, IT, Desperation, and more.  Reese dies at the end of Terminator, and when Arnold plays a good Terminator in the next two movies he always gets destroyed.  J.K. Rowling has a lot of bodies at her feet by the end of the Harry Potter series, enough so that she almost seems as kill-happy as Joss Whedon, and he’s just legendary for killing his heroes in brutal ways—in comics, television, and film.
            And yet, in all of these examples, the hero wins.  No question about it.  Anyone who’s read or seen any of these stories will tell you the good guys won and the bad guys lost.
            So if I’m going to kill off my hero or if my plot resolves with a massive failure... maybe it’s worth rethinking that.
            Especially if I want to win.
            Next time, I’d like to discuss a common writing problem and the wisdom of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, December 7, 2012

That’s Crossing The Line!

            I’ve been asked about a dozen times lately to take part in “The Next Big Thing.”  If you’re not familiar with it, it’s sort of a self-promotional blog tour that a lot of authors are passing around.  I passed on it because that’s not the kind of thing I use this page for.  Oh, sure, I’ll mention it if I have a new release or maybe if something of mine goes on sale, but I don't want to go much further than that.  This page is more about hints and instruction than anything else.
            And I suck at self-promotion.
            But that’s all a bit besides the point.  I didn’t want to blather on about crossing that line this week.  I wanted to talk about crossing lines.
            Some people think a genre story has to be pure.  A horror story should be nothing but suspense and scares and gore.  Every moment of a drama should be serious and weighty.  Comedies should be non-stop laughs—there shouldn’t be a moment where something inherently funny isn’t happening on the page or the screen..
            The thing is, those "pure" stories are all boring as hell.  The horror ones stop being scary.  The drama becomes melodrama.  The comedy becomes painful. 
            The reason for this is a lack of variety.  An idea I’ve mentioned before is that the tension levels in a story should rise as the story progresses.  It’s great to begin my story with the action dialed up to nine, but it doesn’t really leave me anywhere to go.  If my novel or screenplay has everything dialed up to nine, what I’ve really got is a monotone story.
            Likewise, if every point on my story graph is the same point—say unspeakable horror or maybe uber-cool action—then what I now have is a homogenous script.  Flipping pages is like cutting into a block of cheese.  Every part is just like every other part.  Case in point...
            unspeakable horror
            Unspeakable Horror
            Unspeakable Horror
            Even when I’m escalating things, getting the same point over and over and over again becomes silly pretty quick. 
            Consider most of the good stories you’ve read or seen.  There’s a lot of comedy in Jaws.  Ernie Cline’s cyber-fantasy tale Ready Player One has some moments of serious suspense.  Raiders of the Lost Ark has a wonderful love story in it.  Dan Abnett’s sci-fi action novel Embedded has a pretty enthusiastic sex scene.  Ghostbusters actually gets a bit scary at points.  The characters in the new Hobbit movie break out into song.  Twice.
            That being said, I don’t think any of us would call Jaws a comedy, and Embedded is hardly a porno.  Raiders has that love story and a couple really good laughs, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind would call it a romantic comedy.  And The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is definitely not a musical.  We all realize that little dips and swings into what would qualify as another genre doesn’t invalidate a story.
            If anything, they usually strengthen it.
            The secret to all storytelling is characters, and the best characters are going to act like real people.  They’ll tell jokes at the wrong time.  Some of them will think about love and sex when they should be paying attention in board meetings, and others will fret about those board meetings at moments they should be thinking about love and sex.  A few of them might even be stressed about scratching the paint on Dad’s car when they should really be worried about the axe murderer lumbering up behind them.  
            One of the most dramatic moments in The Empire Strikes Back is when they're about to test the carbon-freezing on Han Solo.  For all intents, he's walking to his execution.  He knows it, his friends know it, we know it.  Even if he survives-- he's gone.  Leia knows this and finally admits her true feelings... and Han responds with a wiseass comment.  We all giggle and then there’s a horrible blast of steam as Han’s turned into a piece of collectible wall art.
            Y’see, Timmy, if my stories and characters lack this kind of range they’re going to come across as very flat and tedious.  If I can’t have a moment of laughter, a bit of flirting, or a non-sequitor distracted thought, my characters are going to feel like puppets rather than people.  Much like a chef uses a few different flavors to bring out the main tastes of a meal, a writer wants to sprinkle in a few moments that step out of the genre to make the characters and the material much more powerful.
            So don’t be scared to stretch a toe over those lines now and then.
            I know I said I was going to talk about structure, but that’s kind of a huge set of post so I think I might save it until the new year and take a bit of stress out of my holidays.  So next time, I’m  probably just going to say something quick about heroes.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

What I Really Meant Was...

            I touched on the idea of subtext a few months back, but I realize I didn’t give any real suggestions or examples of ways to improve things in this area.  So I wanted to revisit this and maybe make the post a bit more useful.  Well, as useful as anything I post here is...
            I don’t have cable, as I’ve mentioned here and a few other places.  When everything went digital it was a big thing for my lovely lady and I because we suddenly had about two dozen more channels and access to a lot more programming.  Granted, this is exactly why we didn’t want cable, but... well, I’ve become a big fan of Svengoolie.
            One of our channels shows lots of old movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and I happened to catch the opening of a little film called Chain Gang.  It’s from 1950, written by the very prolific Howard Green.  That date’s important because it’s the height of the Hays Code, a very restrictive set of guidelines that prohibited showing—or even discussing—a number of things on film.  Sex, violence, language, pretty much anything that could be considered immoral by somebody.  All the stuff  Family Guy takes for granted today.  Because of this, screenwriters of this era had to either write the blandest material possible or become masters of subtext.
            Early in Chain Gang, two reporters—a man and a woman—are having lunch at a burger shack across from the courthouse.  Since they’re from rival papers, they’re not actually talking to one another, they just keep asking rhetorical questions to the cook which are intended for each other.  And the clever subtext of the very quick and witty conversation—or set of conversations--goes something like this...

Him:  Well we can see where the trial’s going.  Let’s blow this off and go back to my place for a few hours.

Her:  I don’t think it’s so open and shut.  And besides, I’ve got a job to do.

Him:  I’ve got a job for you.

Her:  And I’d be more than willing to do it for you if I didn’t have this one already.

            Keep in mind, they weren’t saying any of this.  They were asking the cook about the time, relationships, work, and numerous other unrelated topics.  And after three or four minutes the cook asks “Look, are you two going to order or not?”
            The male reporter looks at his counterpart in a happy, slightly naughty way and says “I’ll have a burger—hold the onions.”
            The woman chuckles, shakes her head, and says, “Make that two burgers, Joe—and you can put onions on them.”
            Any question who won that unspoken discussion?
            Subtext is the art of the conversation beneath the one your characters are having out loud.  It's the flipside of on-the-nose dialogue.  That hidden meaning doesn’t have to be miles beneath the spoken one.  It also doesn’t have to be rich and elaborate and layered with exquisite meaning.  But in good dialogue, it’s almost always there.
            Here’s a couple of suggestions for some methods that can bring your dialogue up to the level of an sixty year old movie...

The Reverse—One of the simplest ways to use subtext is for a character to declare the exact opposite of what they really mean.  I’ve mentioned the show Keen Eddie a few times, where the two main characters would constantly yell “I hate you!” back and forth at each other.  At one point or another, we’ve all probably been in the position of saying something along the lines of “It’s okay, I really didn’t want the promotion.  It was too much work, anyway.”
            A lot of times the reverse is just sarcasm, because sarcasm is all about subtext. Odds are all of us have made a suggestion where one of our friends has rolled their eyes and said “Oh, yeah, I’d love to do that.”  There’s a bit at the start of Roxanne (a movie loaded with subtext) where Daryl Hannah’s titular character is locked outside of her house wearing... well, nothing, and has to sneak her way to the nearby fire station for help.  When fire chief Charlie (Steve Martin) asks if she wants a coat or a blanket, she gives a nervous laugh and says “No, I really wanted to hang out nude in this bush in the freezing cold.”

The Friend— How many times have you read a story or seen a show where someone goes to the doctor and talks about the embarrassing problem “their friend” has.  Or maybe my character knows a guy who got really confused by how to install that Space Marine videogame patch, and was wondering if you could explain it in simple terms he could tell this guy next time they hang out.  This is another easy form of subtext, because I’m pushing all the emotions and thoughts onto another character altogether—even if it’s a nonexistent character.

The Blank—Kind of like the reverse method, the blank is a slightly trickier way of doing subtext.  It’s when a character demonstrates their opinion on something by offering no opinion.  Sometimes they do it by ignoring the topic, like when Yakko asks his brother Wakko’s opinion on Phoebe and Wakko instead wonders aloud how much the DJ gets paid at this club.  Other times Wakko might just dance around it, saying he doesn’t know Phoebe that well or giving a very vague non-answer (“Well, how well can you really know anyone, right?”)

The Next Step—If you’ve ever read about someone ordering a double or triple drink before they break some bad news to their tense friend, you know this method.  It’s when a character shows they’re one or two steps ahead.  I’m not thinking about now, I’m thinking about fifteen minutes from now.  Through their words or actions, the character’s saying “I know where this is going and I know how it’s going to end, even if no one else does.”  If you’re a Doctor Who fan, you might recall that in the Eleventh Doctor’s premiere episode writer Stephen Moffat packed an incredible amount of subtext into the single word, “run.”

The Metaphor—All of us have been in a conversation where what we’re talking about is not what we’re really talking about.  This method of using subtext is a huge part of flirting.  If you ever watched Seinfeld, you probably remember the time George misread a woman’s invitation to come up for coffee at the end of their date, said goodnight, and drove happily away (and then spent days on the phone leaving messages explaining that he thought she was talking about coffee, not coffee, because he would’ve loved to have coffee with her).  Eddie Izzard played with this one, too, and explained that “do you want to come up for coffee” is essentially the universal code for “sex is on!”  You’ve probably seen this method used in organized crime stories, too.  Characters in these tales will discuss “disposing of assets” and “making a definitive statement” or “preparing a welcome home party.”  I bet just by tying these statements to crime, the implied subtext has sparked a predictable set of images in all of your minds.

            And there’s five ways to create subtext.
            It’s worth mentioning that all of these methods need a bit of skill and practice, because sometimes people yell “I hate you” because... well, they hate you (sorry).  Every now and then we really do have a friend who needs help with something.  And if the Minister of Burundi asks if you want coffee, well... don’t start unbuttoning your shirt. 
            The trick with subtext is making sure it’s clear what I really mean.  So I can’t be so blunt that I’m not really hiding anything, but I also can’t be so subtle that people think my characters are just saying what they mean with no subtext at all.  It’s a fine balancing act, and it’ll take a few tries to get it right.
            Heck, I know this one guy who couldn’t pull off good subtext for years.
            Next time, I’m thinking about doing a big piece on structure again, because I got a nice bit of praise recently for the last time I did it.  But I might have something quick to say before that about crossing genre lines.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The B Story

            Okay, one day late.  But I can blame it on a food coma...
            So, true story.  I watched the season three premiere of The X-Files with Rick Springfield.  Yep, that Rick Springfield.  He of “Jessie’s Girl.”
            I was dayplaying on a show called High Tide, and for that day’s filming the production had rented two big hotel suites in downtown San Diego.  My friend Alice worked on the show, and she and I were debating if we’d finish filming in time to catch the premiere of The X-Files that night.  We were huge fans, after all, and there was no Tivo or DVR at this point in ancient history.  I’m not even sure I owned a working VCR at the time.
            Then the locations manager pointed out the obvious—we were in a hotel suite that had three televisions in it.  Big televisions!  If we promised to keep a low profile, we could just stay late and watch in style.
            No, you perverts.  We were just friends.  In fact, I was friends with her boyfriend.
            Anyway, after wrap we flopped down on the king-sized bed, turned on the television, and prepared to find out what happened to Mulder in that half-buried train car that had been set on fire by the Cigarette-Smoking Man (remember that cliffhanger?).  And while we were waiting for the show to begin, Rick Springfield wandered in.  Yeah, that sounds crazy, but he was the star of High Tide, so the chances of him showing up weren’t that unlikely.  Rick climbed onto the bed between me and Alice and asked what was on.  We explained the X-Files premiere was about to start.  Rick confessed he hadn’t seen any episodes. 
            Now, in all fairness to him, it wasn’t THE X-FILES yet, it was still that geeky cult show on Fox.  Another thing Rick didn’t realize was that Alice and I were those cult geeks and we took The X-Files very seriously.  Very, very seriously.  It wasn’t uncommon for her and her boyfriend Greg to have folks over to watch episodes.  And one firm rule was that you did not talk during the show, because nobody wanted to miss anything.
            Needless to say, less than a minute into the episode Rick turned to Alice and asked who the Cigarette-Smoking Man was.  Alice shhhhushhed him.  Another minute passed before he asked about the setting.  She shhhhushhed him again and gave him a little slap on the arm.  Agent Scully showed up and he asked something else.  This is when I first backhanded him on the arm.  Not hard, but enough to emphasize Alice’s shhhhushhing.  She smacked him again at his next question.  I hit him on the one after that and we shhhhushhed him at the same time.
            So, aside from shameless name-dropping, what’s the point of this story?
            The point is that it’s very hard for someone to get into any tale that’s focusing more on the B story than the A story.
            As the name implies, the A story is the priority.  The A-Team.  Section A seating.  Getting an A on a paper.  The A story is the main focus of my particular tale, be it novel or screenplay.   If I pick up a copy of  The Hunger Games, the back cover’s going to tell me it’s about a girl fighting for her life in an arena as part of a decades-old tribute.  The A story is what should be most important, and it’s where I want the reader’s attention focused most of the time.
            The B story, of course, is secondary.  It’s the subplot or maybe a parallel story that just doesn’t have the weight or repercussions of the main story.  Maybe the supporting characters are dealing with something.  Perhaps it’s the main characters dealing with a less-important or less-pressing issue.  Or it might even be a bit more important than what they’re dealing with right now, but they still have to finish dealing with this issue right now.  Again, in The Hunger Games books, Katniss is torn between two boys she has strong feelings for.  But this doesn’t override the fact that she’s fighting for her life in a deathmatch.  There’s also a strong political element to the story, but this also lurks in the background rather than demanding attention.
            All seems pretty straightforward, yes?
            Now, I mentioned up above that the A story is where I want my readers to be focused.  It’s where I should be focusing, too.  However, in a lot of genre stuff—books, television, comics—the B story can get too powerful.  As the writers, sometimes we get too concerned with this big universe we’re building and all the back story and set ups and reveals that are going to come somewhere down the line.  And when we do this, we start to forget the A story—what’s going on right now.
            Now, we all understand that eventually the B story catches up with the A story and overwhelms it.  It becomes the A story, and probably a few new B stories have developed in the meantime.  This is the point where people start telling you “Well, you’ve got to watch it from the beginning if you want to understand what’s going on.” With an ongoing series—books or television—this almost becomes unavoidable.  Many long-running series eventually hit the point where people can no longer jump in, because all those setups are paying off and questions are being answered.  If you pick up the third book in the Hunger Games series, it’s pretty much all about the politics... and I can pretty much guarantee you won’t understand any of it if you haven’t read the first two books.  LOST didn’t pick up a lot of new viewers in season five.   Neither did Supernatural in season nine.  Not many people decided to start reading Game of Thrones with the fourth book.
            The question is, why would I want to start a story at this point?  Why begin at a place where most people are going to immediately feel alienated?  What benefit do I get by structuring a story in such a way that people immediately think it should be structured another way?
            This is a recurring problem I see again and again.  Some writers get so involved with their elaborate B stories that they forget they need to be telling an A story.  There’s tons of flashbacks to cool stuff that happened months ago or mysterious hints about things to come... but nothing’s going on in the here and now.  I’ve seen stories that focus on people who are essentially supporting characters in the story.  Not in a clever, Mary Reilly way—where Dr. Jekyll’s housemaid is the main character and the events in his home are the backdrop—but in a very boring way where the focus of our attention isn’t doing anything while other folks do all the cool stuff.
           That’s a good analogy, actually.  My A story is to my B story as my main characters are to my supporting characters.  In the same way that any character needs a real reason to be part of your story, a plot line needs a reason to exist, too.  If my A story serves no purpose except to be what I’m referencing the B story from... well, I really don’t need an A story, do I?  I should just be telling the B story as the A story.
            Y’see, Timmy, your A story should always be what’s going on right now.  Your B story, as the name implies, is secondary.  It hangs out in the background.  It doesn’t do as much.  It’s not as important, because it’s the B story.  If it was important, it would be the A story.
            So figure out which story you’re telling.  And tell it.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about subtlety and a very obscure old movie called Chain Gang.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Mona Lisa

            Dear God, I’m running behind here.  So very sorry.  There was Halloween (which I got kind of drunk during) and an election (which I got kind of drunk during) and then an old friend was in town (you’re sensing the pattern, I’m sure)...
            Anyway, I don’t have much time, but I didn’t want to neglect the blog any longer.  Mostly because I’m sick of Thom mocking me in the comments.  So here’s a quick note from playwright, screenwriter, and Nicholl Fellowship recipient Arthur Jolly.  Arthur made a brilliant observation about the Mona Lisa a few months back, and--being a lazy bastard--I saved it for an occasion just like this...
            “If the Mona Lisa had a clumsy red brush stroke, a glob of scarlet somehow left unfixed on the side of her head, people seeing the painting would hardly notice that the rest of it is a masterpiece, they'd say ‘Why is that brushstroke there?’
            “When people read your script, that one line that's wrong - they'll notice it. Fix it.”

            Next week, even with Thanksgiving, I promise to tell the story of punching Rick Springfield and how it relates to world building.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Why I Will Not Read Your Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

            First off, some amazing news.  I’ve got a four book deal with Crown Publishing, a division of Random House.  Depending on your views and opinions, this may be complete and inarguable validation of everything I’ve said here, or it may be proof that I’m a sellout hack who knows only slightly more about writing than the average chimpanzee.  I leave that decision up to you.
            And now, on with our regularly scheduled rant...
            After hearing a few stories from friends, I thought I’d step away from the how-to aspect of writing for a week and talk about a recurring problem.  I’ve seen it happen to other writers I know.  Over the past couple of years, it’s actually started to happen to me, so I guess there's an argument to be made that on some level this is a bit pre-emptive.
            Anyway, the best way to talk about this is to tell a story...
            About two years ago, screenwriter Josh Olson (who adapted A History of Violence and the new Jack Reacher movie) got a lot of crap for a piece he wrote for the Village Voice, telling would-be screenwriters to... well, to leave him alone, to put it politely.  A few days later David Gerrold (writer of some well-known original Star Trek episodes and the War Against the Chtorr books), chimed in as well, and he was even a little more pointed with his words.  He also added the topic of litigation.  Dozens of aspiring writers called these two men jerks, asses, and threw a lot of other labels out there, too.
            What were they talking about?
            Would-be writers who tried to take advantage of established writers.
            Honestly, it amazes me how many vague acquaintances and complete strangers think if they can dig up your email address or a social networking page that they have now “networked” with you.  Which can really suck if your name and email address was posted in a prominent writing magazine every other month for a few years.
            But that’s a gripe for another time...
            I probably get at least one request every month from complete strangers or vague acquaintances.  People send me requests all the time and almost seem to be proud of the fact that there’s no connection between us.  As a matter of fact, one stranger on Facebook once sent me a stilted letter explaining that we didn’t know each other, then told me about where he grew up, and then asked me to read his screenplay and help him get it in front of producers and agents.
            Y’see, Timmy, one of the rudest things I can do is ask a professional writer—especially one I don’t even know-- to take time out of their workday to work on my project.  It doesn’t matter if I want a co-writer, an editor, or a mentor.  I mean, what do you think would happen if I asked a professional carpenter if he’d like to work with me on building the house I’ve designed (well, sort of designed—I’ve got some cool ideas)?  Should I catch my local mechanic on his lunch break over at Jack in the Box and ask if he’d be interested in helping me fix my car when he gets off work?  What do you think would happen if I bumped into Gordon Ramsay and said, “hey, I offered to cater my friends wedding and I was wondering if you’d be interested in helping me cook the dinner?”
            Seriously, what do you think these people would say?
            Well, we can all guess.  These people do this for a living.  Asking the tech support guy at Buy More for help with my computer is not the same as asking my friend Marcus.  I mean, none of us would show up at the garage out of the blue and ask the mechanic if he could give us a free oil change, right?
            Well, not without hunting him down on Facebook and sending a friend request first...
            Now, this isn’t to say a professional won’t help anybody.  I’ve got several friends who help me with projects and I’d gladly help any of them with theirs.  There are people I’ve known and worked with for years and I often offer them tips or suggestions.  Heck, I’ve got two manuscripts I’m looking at right now for friends even though I’ve got a serious deadline to meet for my new publisher.
            To save everyone some time and effort, here are some of the signs I will gladly look at your writing and offer some form of honest critique.  And while I’m saying this about me in these examples, it really holds for pretty much any professional writer.  For any professional at all, really.

You are literate.
            If, u no, I cant understan half ur mssg to me bcuz its incode or txtspk or u just have now ideal how to spill, there is little chance I’m going to risk my sanity n numerous full pages of such gibberish. LOL THX!!!!
            Think about it.  If I’m trying to convince my mechanic to work with me, what’s he going to think when I tell him the engine’s having trouble because the hobgoblins from the muffler have stolen all the pixie dust?  If I tell Ramsay that my secret burrito ingredient is yellow snow, do you think he’s going to listen to me for much longer?  If you want help from a professional, you’ve got to show you have at least a firm grasp on the basics of your chosen field.  For us, that’s spelling and grammar.

We have known each other for several years 
            Just to be clear, if we shook hands and said hello at a party three years ago, this does not mean we have known each other for three years.  Neither does being part of the same Facebook group.  Same for following the same person on Twitter.

You actually want to hear what I have to say.
            As Olson noted in his editorial, many people send out manuscripts saying they want feedback, but what they’re really looking for is to get back tears of joy, glowing endorsements, and promises they will be passed on and up to producers/publishers/ J.J. Abrams.  In my experience, very few people actually want honest feedback and criticism (even if it’s constructive).  They just want the praise.  I don’t want to waste my time reading a hundred pages and writing up three or four pages of comments, suggestions, and corrections just so you can say I'm a jackass who doesn't understand your writing and judged you unfairly...

We have shared several meals 
            This does not include eating in the same food court while you stalked me in the mall.  This is repeatedly sitting down and talking over drinks and appetizers or even just pizza and a bad Netflix movie.

We communicate with each other (via phone, email, message boards, or chat) on a regular basis
            Note that communication is a two-way street, and spamming me with messages through multiple channels every day does not count as communicating.  Being someone’s friend on Facebook, Google+, or MySpace doesn’t qualify, either.  Check the terms of agreement—these websites do not come with a “guaranteed friends with benefits” clause.  If they did, I would do whatever it took to get a number of women on my friends list.  And I’d feel shortchanged by a few that already are.

We’ve lived together 
            Not in the sense of “on the planet at the same time,” but more in the “sharing rent and chores around the kitchen for several months” way. 

We’ve slept together
            In any sense. Hopefully this is self-explanatory.  If you’re not sure, the answer is no. Unless you have photos to prove otherwise...
            For the record, this is probably the only case where deliberate “networking” is effective.  If there’s a writer you really want an opinion from and if they’re willing to sleep with you, they’d have to be a real jerk not to look at your manuscript afterwards.
            So just be sure your networking target isn’t a jerk...

I’ve offered before you asked. 
            A very, very few people have caught my attention while chatting about their ideas.  They didn’t ask me to look at their writing.  I just read it because I wanted to, and asked later if they wanted comments.  Some did.  Some didn't.

You’re not asking for something you could find out on your own.
            Not to sound old (he said, stroking his long white beard), but when I was starting out as a writer you had to dig through magazines, make phone calls, send request letters, then go dig through more magazines, make different phone calls, and send different letters--and keep track of all of it. 
            These days all of this information is available with a bit of thought and a few keystrokes.  If you’re emailing me, posting here on the ranty blog, or sending social network messages about agents or places to send your manuscript, that means you have access to Google.  Do it yourself.

You’re willing to pay my hourly rate with a four hour minimum.
            If you’re at all worried about what my hourly rate as a story editor may be, you probably can’t afford it.  I’m a professional writer.  I worked very hard and made a lot of sacrifices to become one.  Like any professional, my time is worth money.

            If you can claim a few of these (or just the last one, really), you’re in.  Feel free to drop me a note.  I’m sure most professionals would feel the same way.
            If not... please reconsider that request you’re about to send out.  Save yourself some time that you could use to polish your writing.  At the very least, don't be surprised or angry when your chosen author doesn't write back.
            Next time... well, I may need to skip next week.  As I mentioned, I’m on a bit of a tight schedule these days.  But next time you check in, I’d like to tell you a fun story about the X-Files and punching Rick Springfield.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Three About Three About Characters

            It's not a pop culture reference, don't worry...
            I haven’t talked about characters for a while, so I figured we were due.
            In my opinion, character can be broken down into two sets of three.  I talked about the first set a while back, and I’ve mentioned the individual elements on and off since then.  The second set is kind of a new idea here at the ranty blog, although you’ll probably see some connections with other things I’ve blathered on about.
            The first set is all about hard facts.  This is character sketch stuff that may or may not come up in my actual story, but it’s still important for me to know as a writer.  If I want Phoebe to be a good character, there are three traits she has to have.
            First and foremost, a character needs to be believable.  It doesn't matter if said character is man, woman, child, lizard man, ninja, superhero, or supervillain.  If my reader can't believe in the character within the established setting, my story's got an uphill battle going right from the start. 
            Phoebe has to have natural dialogue.  It can't be stilted or forced, and it can't feel like she's just spouting out my opinions or beliefs.  The words have to flow naturally and they have to be the kind of words Phoebe would use.  I’ve seen countless stories where soldiers talk like school kids or high school jocks talk like Oxford professors.
            The same goes for Phoebe's actions and motives.  There has to be a believable reason she does the things she does.  A real reason, one that makes sense with everything we know about her, or will come to know.  If a characters motivations are just there to push the plot along, my readers are going to pick up on that really quick. 
            Also, please keep in mind 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 talked here many, many times about the difference between real-real and fiction-real, and it's where many would-be writers stumble.  Remember, there is no such thing as an "unbelievable true story," only an unbelievable story.
            The second trait, tied closely to the first, is that Phoebe needs to be relatable.  As readers, we get absorbed in a character's life when we can tie it to elements of our own.  We enjoy seeing similarities between characters and ourselves so we can make extended parallels with what happens in their lives and what we'd like to happen (or be able to happen) in our own lives.  Taken is about a father trying to reconnect with his somewhat-estranged daughter.  The Harry Potter books are about a kid whose adoptive family dislikes him for being different.  Grimm is about an up-and coming police detective whose getting ready to propose to his girlfriend.  There's a reason so many movies, television shows, and novels are based on the idea of ordinary people caught up in amazing situations.
            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 Phoebe is a billionaire heiress ninja who only speaks in either Cockney rhyming slang or an obscure Croatian dialect and lives by the code of ethics set down by her druidic cult... how the heck does anyone identify with that?  And if readers can't identify with Phoebe, how are they going to be affected by what happens to her?
            That brings us to the third point, a good character needs to be likeable.  Not necessarily pleasant or decent, but as readers we must want to follow this character through the story.  Just as there needs to be some elements to Phoebe we can relate to, there also have to be elements we admire and maybe even envy a bit.  If she's morally reprehensible, a drunken jackass, or just plain uninteresting, no one's going to want to go through a few hundred pages of her exploits... or lack thereof.
            Again, this doesn't mean a good character has to be a saint, or even a good person.  Leon the Professional is a brutal hit man.  Cyrus V. Sinclair aspires to being a sociopath.  Barney Stinson is a shameless womanizer. Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer with some horrific dietary preferences.  Yet in all of 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 supporting characters.  They don't need all three of these traits because they aren't the focus of our attention.  If I’m a halfway decent writer, I’m not going to waste my time and word count on a minor character—I’m going to save them for Phoebe.
            So, that’s the first set of three.
            The second set of three is about putting all that information into my story.  Y’see, Timmy, it’s not enough just to have the above character elements.  They need to be established in the story in a natural, organic way.  
            Let’s talk about the three main ways of doing that.
            First is the easy one—characters establish themselves through their own words and actions.  I’ve mentioned before that how someone talks is very important, as well as what they talk about.  If all Phoebe talks about is work, that tells us something about her.  If every conversation she has leads to talking about sex, that gives us a different bit of insight.  If she speaks with precise grammar it implies something about her, just like it does if she talks like a stoned surfer, or if she rarely talks at all.  If I show Phoebe kicking an alley cat on her way home from work, this says a lot about her character.  On the other hand, if the reader sees her giving the raggedy cat a can of tuna and some attention, it says something else (depending on when it happens in the story). 
            Second is the way other characters talk about them and react to them.  If Phoebe is talking in a calm, measured voice but her employees are nervous—or even terrified—that’s a big clue in to what kind of person they know she is.  Likewise, if she’s trying to ream someone out over their poor job performance and they’re ignoring her, that also tells us something.  A lot of my characters are going to know each other better than the audience does, and their interactions are going to be a big hint to the reader as to what kind of person Phoebe is.
            And third is how their words and actions jibe with the reader’s personal experience.  Remember above how I mentioned Phoebe turning every conversation to sex?  Well if that’s the case, but we also see her go home alone every night, that’s telling us something insightful about her.  If she tells the guy at the bar that she loves animals but then throws something at that cat, it gives us a much better idea about who she is.  And if she absolutely assures somebody that she can be trusted after we’ve seen her screw three other people over, well...  As many folks have said, actions speak louder than words.  So when there’s a contrast or an open contradiction, this can be a great way to get across major character elements.
            Two sets of three.  Look over some of your characters and see where they match up, and with which sets.
            Next time, I’d like to step outside of the usual topics here and talk about why people I’ve slept with generally rate higher than other people.
            Until then, go write.