Thursday, July 31, 2014

So Very Tired...

            Sorry for missing last week.  When I should’ve been posting this, I was at the San Diego Comic-Con, hanging out in the Geek & Sundry lounge and watching the Welcome to Night Vale panel (I even got to ask a question about writing).  And the G&S folks gave me a free copy of the Zombies: Keep Out! board game and a card game called Love Letters.   And Felicia Day smiled at me once as she walked past.
            Y’know, in retrospect, I’m not really sorry I missed last week.
            But I am finally caught up on my sleep. I was exhausted for a while there.
            Speaking of which...
            I write a series set in a post-apocalyptic world.  It was first put out by a small press that specializes in end-of-the-world fiction, and I’ve met a bunch of authors who work in that genre and related ones.  Needless to say, I’ve read a lot of these books and stories.  I’d have to guess close to a hundred in the past five years.
            I have seen a lot of people die on the page.
            I’ve characters die of disease or injury.  Seen them shot or stabbed.  Some have been crushed.  Many have been torn apart by zombies—both classic slow ones and the runners.  A few people have gone peacefully and with no pain... but not a lot of them. 
            On a semi-related note, for a long time there was a joke in comic circles that no one stayed dead except Bucky and Gwen Stacy (who’ve both been resurrected in recent years).  It’s one of the things that made some folks point to comics as low-brow, pulpy writing, because villains and heroes would always return with elaborate tales of how they’d avoided death... again.  The new term tossed about is death fatigue.  Readers are just plain bored with overhyped “deaths” that are reversed in twelve issues or less.
            What I’d like to blab on about this week is sympathy fatigue, also sometimes called compassion fatigue.  It’s a medical term that refers to when doctors, nurses, and caregivers have become so drained by the death and suffering they see that they just... well, can’t feel sympathetic anymore.  Constant exposure has desensitized them.  I had the (very awful) experience once of visiting the “death row” of an animal shelter, and the woman who mass-euthanised the cats and dogs admitted she didn’t even look at them anymore.
            Readers and audience members can feel sympathy fatigue, too.  After watching countless people die, the carnage just fades into a background hum.   It no longer carries any emotional weight.  How often have you watched a horror film with an audience and, after a certain point, people just start laughing? Characters on screen are stabbed, tortured, crushed, and decapitated, and you and your friends are giggling.  Maybe even cheering.
            How do I keep people from laughing?
            Let me get to that in a kind of roundabout way...
            A bad habit I’ve mentioned before is naming every character.  I think some time in the past an MFA professor or writing coach offered some advice about names and it went through a dozen iterations of the telephone game.  Now there’s a (thankfully small) school of thought that says every character should have a name.  That guy at the bus stop.  The cook behind the counter.  The woman in the leather jacket.
            When I give a character a name, I’m telling the reader that all these people are important.  There’s a reason she’s Phoebe and not “the blonde” or “the woman in the leather jacket.”  A name tells the reader to take note of this person because they’re going to affect the story.  If it turns out Phoebe has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot, it means I’ve distracted the reader.  And distractions kill the flow of my story.
            When this idea gets mixed with death, it creates a pattern you’ve probably seen before in stories.  We’ll get introduced to a random person, be told a bunch of character stuff about them, and then, eight or nine pages later... they’ll die.  Usually their death will be connected to the larger threat, if not the larger story.  Giant ants, Ebola, vampires, terrorists--whatever the actual protagonists are dealing with, these poor folks will stumble across it and be wiped out.  In some books, this can happen four or five times.  Introduce a character, kill ‘em.  Introduce a character, kill ‘em.  Introduce a character, kill ‘em.  Introduce a character... well, you get the point.
            The idea here is that I’m showing my readers the widespread nature of the threat, or perhaps the ruthlessness of the killers.  And it should carry emotional weight because I spent a couple of pages making Phoebe or Wakko or Dot feel like real people.  From a mathematical, by-the-numbers viewpoint, this is all good, right?
            Catch is, though, my readers are going to notice this pattern really quick.  Just like they’ll notice that I’m naming background characters who have nothing to do with the plot, most readers will realize I’m just introducing characters to kill them off.  So they’ll stop investing in these characters as a way to save time and effort.  It’s a defense mechanism.  They just stop caring.
            And once the reader stops caring, well...
            Perhaps the worst thing this means is that once my readers have been conditioned by all the meaningless deaths, they’re going to be numb to the important ones.  One of my leads will make a heroic sacrifice or that jerk supporting character will finally get what’s coming to her, and my readers will gloss over it the same way they barely registered the last six or seven deaths.  My whole story gets lessened because I’ve lessened the impact of death.
            Don’t get me wrong.  It’s okay to have people die.  I’m a big fan of it.  But I can’t use cheap tricks to give these deaths weight.  I need to be aware of who my characters are and what their deaths are accomplishing within my story structure.  If I just need someone to die gruesomely to set the mood or tone, I don’t need to make them a major character—or to convince my readers he or she is a major character.  And if I’m going to kill off one of my major characters, her death shouldn’t read just like the nineteen deaths that came before it.
            Because when I kill off someone important, I want you to care.
            Next time, I’d like to offer you all a simple choice.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

How I Learned to Stop Worrying...

            Classic movie reference.  Come on, broaden your horizons.  Watch something made before 1976.
           Anyway, I’d like to start today by telling a story or two.  They’re examples of a problem I see crop up now and then, and one I just finished wrestling with myself.  It’s one of those issues where it’s easy to either write myself into a corner or (worse yet) write something where characters are acting in an unbelievable way.
            Oh, and by the way, before I forget, there’s a thermonuclear warhead in the apartment next door.  Something like ten megatons, if I read the specs right.  Armed and everything.  Just thought you should know.
            Anyway, let me tell you the first story.
            In my often-referenced novel The Suffering Map (unpublished, for good reason), one of the main antagonists is Uncle Louis.  Louis is an old-school mobster with a legendary temper, and he’s rather upset that someone (we’ll call him Rob) threatened his niece (who’s in her late fifties).  He sends a man to rough Rob up a bit, and that man ends up dead with his body horribly mutilated.  So Louis sends two men to kill Rob.  They both end up dead and mutilated.  And when this news reaches Louis he decides...
            Well, actually, he decided to wait for three days and then go after Rob.
            See, I had this whole structure of days worked out, and it turned into kind of a vicious circle.  I needed three days to pass, so Louis had to wait.  Which meant I needed to come up with stuff for everyone else to be doing.  By the time I abandoned that structure, though, I’d grown kind of fond of the reveals and character moments I’d created.  Now Louis had to wait so I’d have room for those bits, no matter how strange and out of character it seemed.  It wasn’t until my fifth draft that I realized this was just dragging things and creating a huge lag in the plot.
            Though not as huge as that bomb sitting next door.  I looked it up.  That’s almost fifty times the size of the bomb they dropped on Nagasaki.  Think about that.  I mean, I think it’s small compared to some missiles and such, but right here in the middle of Los Angeles that could still kill a lot of people.  Millions, easy.
            Anyway, back on track.
            Here’s another example of what I wanted to talk about today.
            A few years back a woman I knew wrote an urban fantasy story and asked me to look at it.  A single mom activates a portal and she and her kids are transferred to a mystical realm.  There’s some magic, some disobeyed instructions, and all three kids vanish.  Invisible?  Teleported?  Dead?  We don’t know, and Phoebe, our heroine, was desperate to find out.
            Well... until she ran into the handsome barbarian chieftain, anyway.  Then Phoebe became aware of just how shredded and torn her clothes were after coming through the portal... and how much skin they exposed... and how much skin the chieftain was showing.  Tight, tanned, well-muscled skin, and Phoebe started wondering if there was a Mrs. Chieftain, and if not... just how prudish were people in this semi-medieval world?
            Speaking of kids...  Hmmmm.  Sounds like one of the little kids next door is hitting the warhead with something.  Maybe a hammer.  Yeah, there are kids next door, too.  Didn’t I mention that before?  I guess one’s technically an infant and the little girl’s a toddler, but they third one is seven or eight.  He’s hammer-competent.
            Well, probably can’t do anything about it.  At best, he might turn on the timer.  If he hasn’t already.
            But I’m wandering away from the point again...
            Or am I...?
            Y’see, Timmy, there are some threats that are just too huge for me to ignore.  Either as physical threats or emotional ones.  One of my children vanishing.  A man in a hockey mask stalking toward me through the forest.  An armed nuclear bomb. 
            Once I know about these things... that’s that.  I can’t establish a huge threat and then ignore it.  If I tell you there’s a nuclear bomb next door, that has to be the priority.  Not being polite.  Not property laws.  Not getting a good night’s sleep and dealing with it in the morning. 
            In my new book, the characters found out about an immediate global threat.  Not a ten years down the road thing—this time tomorrow half the planet will be dead and by the weekend all of it will be.  And it put me in an awkward spot when they did, because at that point nothing else could matter.  Nothing.  Once they realized how big that threat was, they couldn’t be thinking about anything except taking care of it.  Yeah, they could have little asides or chuckles, but nothing that distracted them. 
            It forced me to restructure the end of my story.  But it also made the end much stronger.  And nobody’s standing around wondering about that bomb next door.
            Alas, I’m going to miss next week because of the San Diego ComicCon.  Please swing by the Random House area (technically the Crown/Broadway booth) on Friday after 2:00, say “hullo,” and call me a talentless hack in front of important people.
            When I come back, odds are I’m going to be very fatigued.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Reverse Engineering

            A quick tip for this week.
            When I was still a scrabbling writer looking for my first real success, I was sure there was some sort of trick to writing.  That it wasn’t about putting in years of work and getting experience, it was just about finding the right topic or the right genre.   I wrote lots of stories that focused on all the wrong things, because I was convinced it wasn’t how I wrote, it was what I wrote about.
            Needless to say, this wasn’t true.
            It wasn’t just me, though.  Lots of writers think this at some point in their learning curve.  They think success is some wave that all those other people are riding.  They figured out what was going to be hot this year and jumped on that wave.  Young adult stories.  Werewolf stories.  Space opera stories.  Western stories.  All I need to do is aim my story at the next wave and then I’ll be successful, too.
            Again... this isn’t true.
            A while back I saw Joss Whedon’s fun and super-low budget Much Ado About Nothing.  Some of the actors were there and did a little Q & A afterwards.  Someone asked Alexis Deinsof about the wisdom of deciding to do a slightly-updated Shakespeare play as a movie.  He smiled and said “You can’t start at ‘success’ and work backward to ‘What should I write about?’
            When a story finds a home with an editor or a producer or a reader, it’s not because of trickery.  It’s because that writer knew how to tell a story and that story appealed to said reader or editor at that particular time.  That’s all.  So copying a theme or a genre from something successful isn’t going to help me.  Rushing to copy the current “hot thing” isn’t going to help me. 
            The only thing I can do to improve my odds at success is be the best writer possible.
            Next time, because it’s always good to have your website noticed by lots of people in the NSA, let’s talk about nuclear weapons and blowing up cities.  We can watch the hit counter go crazy together.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Road to Redemption

            I went back and forth over the title for this week’s little rant.  It felt too easy to go this way.  Hopefully you’ll find it in your hearts to forgive me.
            I wanted to take a few moments to talk about redemption tales.  Someone asked about this a while back—a long ways back, I believe—and I thought it could make an interesting post.  Redemption is tough to qualify, though, and it took me a while to put my thoughts into some form that, well, anyone else would comprehend.
            That happens to me a lot.
            Which brings us to today.
            One key thing I’ll be bringing up a lot for this is empathy.  A good redemption story relies heavily on me knowing how my readers will respond to various incidents and actions.  If I don’t have a good idea how something will go over, it’ll be easy for either end of my redemption tale to seem pointless, confusing, melodramatic... or all of the above.
            A redemption tale can either be the main thrust of my whole story or it can just be part of a single character’s arc.  Either way my story has to hit a couple of points.  Not in the sense of “introduce the motivating incident by page 17,” but more in a general “let’s talk about the story and the characters” way.  If I don’t have these points in mind, there’s a good chance that my “redemption” story is going to earn some rolling eyes and a hearty laugh or three.
            So... with all that in mind.

1—Does my character need to be redeemed?
            This is one of those “obvious” things that far too many folks mess up.  If I’m going to tell a redemption story about Yakko, he needs to do something that requires redemption.  This is step one, and it’s kind of bothersome how often I see people who miss this point. 
            I’ve seen more than a few folks who try to structure big redemption moments around characters who haven’t done anything wrong.  It’s really great that Yakko wants to sacrifice himself to make up for his past sins, but if he doesn’t have any past sins... well..  That’s not redemption, it’s just a pointless sacrifice.  Yakko needs to have something in his past (or do something early in my story) for which he needs some form of honest redemption.  For most of this post, I’m going to call that the key event.
            That “past” aspect is important, but I’ll get to it in a few minutes...
            This is my first big empathy moment as a writer.  If I can’t predict what actions (or lack of actions) my audience will see as redemption-worthy, this story can get silly pretty quick.  Yakko should not be going on a ten year penitent crusade around the world to make up for feeding his cat tuna instead of chicken.  If he’s really guilt-ridden about that nickel he picked up off the sidewalk when he was six... again, I’d better be writing a comedy.
            What was Yakko’s key event?  Did he sneak a peek at his roommate in the shower?  Write a bad check?  Get someone fired?  Rape or murder someone?  Maybe lots of someones...?
            That brings us to...

2Can they be redeemed?
            Somewhat related to the first point.  There are certain acts that are unforgivable.  That’s true in any society, past, present, or future.  Sometimes people do things that are beyond redemption.  It’s really tough to imagine anything a serial child rapist could do to make up for what they’ve done in the past.
            Yeah, I’m sure some of you are thinking “they could die,” but that’s not redemption, is it? That’s vengeance, and that’s not what we’re talking about.  And I’m going to talk about death in a little bit.
            So when I’m writing Yakko’s redemption tale, I need to really think about what he’s done.  Again, some of this is going to be an empathy issue.  Will my readers think his key event is a redeemable act? 

3Do they want to be redeemed?
            Again, this may sound obvious, but I can’t force redemption on someone.  That’s not how it works.  Yakko needs to want it.
            And maybe he doesn’t.  Maybe Yakko doesn’t feel like he did anything wrong.  Perhaps he paid his fine or wrote his apology letter or served his time and considers the matter closed.  Or maybe he knows it was wrong and just doesn’t care.  Some people are like that.  If Yakko’s one of them, it’s going to be tough for me to write a redemption story about him.

4Why haven’t they done it before?
            Okay, in order to explain this point, I want to toss out what I think is a fairly firm rule of thumb...  Feel free to agree or disagree down below.
            In a good redemption story, a notable amount of time needs to pass between the key event and the redemption for that event. 
            Y’see, Timmy, in my opinion one of the main elements of redemption (from a story point of view) is guilt over the key event.   If I don’t feel guilt, then why would I want redemption (see above)?  And if I’m taking care of things immediately after the key event, this isn’t so much redemption as it is... well, cleaning up.  Yakko may feel horrible about having to do this clean up, but does he really feel guilty?  If I hit someone with my car, it’s the difference between calling 911 and sitting with them until the ambulance comes... or switching my headlights off and speeding away.  I may feel bad in both situations, but they’re two very different situations.
            That being said...  Why didn’t Yakko stop immediately? What made him run from his key event?  What’s kept him from admitting it or doing anything about it until now?  Denial?  Fear? 
            Which brings us to a two-part point...

5AWhy are they doing it now?
            If I accept that Yakko has tried to disavow or hide that key event for weeks or months or years... why is he looking for redemption now?  What’s changed for him as a character that he’s decided to acknowledge this and make amends somehow?
            This is another big empathy moment because this is a big decision for any character, and it goes against what they’ve done up until this point.  If this isn’t a believable change of heart, my whole story’s going to fall apart.

5BWhy are they doing it now?
            From a story structure point ofview, why is this happening now?  Odds are Yakko’s going to start looking for redemption in this story, because I write about active characters who actually do things.  So, as an author, why have I included this?
            Am I just looking to round out Yakko a bit as a person?  Is this the main plot of my whole novel?  Either way, this decision and the repercussions from it need to fit into the structure of my story and into Yakko’s arc as a character.
            Last but not least...

6Does it balance the scales?
            At the end of the day, every redemption story comes down to this.  Does what Yakko did now make up for what he did then?  Does he believe it does?  Do other character think things are even now?  Even more importantly, are my readers going to think this is a fair trade off, or is it going to come across a little thin or forced?
            It’s worth mentioning death.  All too often writers try to use death as the ultimate balancing agent.  It’s seen as the automatic “redemption now” act.  Sure, Yakko raped, killed, and pillaged his way across three continents, leaving thousands physically or emotionally scarred in his wake, but in the end he died saving those two campers from a grizzly bear.  And that makes it all okay, right?
            No, of course not.  In fact, if not handled just right, death can come across as a “he got off easy” situation, cowardice, or even a cop-out on my part.  I don’t have to deal with all these complex emotions and repercussions if Yakko takes a trio of bullets in the chest, but I can still be praised for my artistic handling of the situation.
            That’s the idea, anyway.
            On a related note, a redemption story where the character doesn’t redeem themselves in the end is just... well, kind of pointless.  It may have been very pretty from a vocabulary-metaphor-symbolism point of view, but it isn’t a redemption story.  Or much of any story, to be honest.  I may feel it’s beautifully tragic and ironic, but I think most readers are going to find themselves wondering why they just wasted the past few hours following a guy who doesn’t accomplish anything...

            And there you have it.  A few questions I need to ask myself if I’m trying to do a redemption story.  And if I don’t have some positive answers for most of them, well, maybe I need to look again at how I’ve set up my story.  Or my character. 
            Because there’s a good chance they’re not on the road to redemption.
            Next time I’d like to work backwards a little bit.

            Until then, go write.