Thursday, January 26, 2017

What We Can Learn From THE CAR

            So, there was Something Important I wanted to talk about this week.  A style thing I’ve seen a few People do.  It’s not inherently right or Wrong, but I thought it was worth mentioning so it’d (hopefully) be in your mind if you happened to encounter it. Or thought about doing it.
            But first... a story.
            A few months ago I started reading a sci-fi book that kept talking about Enemy Androids. And some people were Cyborgs.  Who reported to their Cyborg Leader. Who operated mostly out of his Headquarters. So this one Cyborg was sent on a secret mission to spy on the Enemy Androids.  Along the way he met a Woman who seemed like a love interest, but in the end she turned out to be one of the Enemy Androids.
            Oh, and they fought an Android Dinosaur, too. Yeah, I’m not exactly sure how that works, either.  Another writer who didn’t understand the terms they were using.
            Or did they?
            Anyway, I’m simplifying the story a lot here. Don’t judge the book on that. But feel free to judge it on that other thing...
            There are certain things we always capitalize—proper nouns, names, or the first letter in a sentence. There’s a reason for this. It’s a form of emphasis. It helps us distinguish the special, specific things from the everyday ones.
            Take, for example, the classic horror movie The Car.  It’s not about any old random vehicle—the Car is a very specific automobile.  And it has to be, not just because it’s pure evil on wheels, but also because there are lots of cars in this movie.  If I was reading the script, or a review, or maybe the novelization (was there one? We’ll say yes for this example...), the reader needs to know the difference between the Car and some of the random cars that appear. The capitals mark it as the definite article.
            The catch is that only the Car is special.  We don’t also have a guy riding a Bike, the police aren’t checking on all of this in Squad Cars, and the many bodies aren’t taken away in Ambulances.  There’s no reason for these other vehicles to be capitalized, because there’s nothing special about them.
            I see writers do this sometimes.  Might be worth noting that it’s almost always either folks who are just writing down their first story, or people writing genre.  Genre attracts capitals for some reason (as in my opening example).
            In the latter case, if I had to guess, I think genre writers lean on capitals because we think it makes things special.  Capitalization does bring a certain cachet with it.  There are lots of empires throughout history, but if I mention the Empire, most of you are going to think of stormtroopers and battle stations.  Sure we’ve seen cyborgs before in tons of stuff, but I’m writing about Cyborgs—capital C.  They’re so much more interesting.  Same with those Enemy Androids.  They’re totes better than those boring old enemy androids everyone else has written about.
            But... remember the catch?  In the same way the Car is different from all other cars, if I’m going to have Cyborgs, there needs to be a reason they’ve got that capital.  They have to earn it somehow.  I can’t have regular old cyborgs with a capital C for the same reason I don’t capitalize every car—there’s nothing special about them.
            Y’see, Timmy, using capitals like this is a lot like using exclamation points, or any sort of gimmick.  The more I use it, the less effective it becomes.  It doesn’t take long for my readers to notice what I’m doing.  And the moment they notice—the moment they start auditing the story over experiencing it—is the moment I’ve lost them. That’s when the gimmick becomes a liability.
            And liabilities get my manuscript dropped onto that pile on the left.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about a series of traps we all fall into at one point or another.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

RIP Screenwriting Tips

            Hey everyone!  We're closing in on February, and you know what that means, right?
            It’s screenwriting contest time!
            If this is all still a bit new to you, screenwriting contests can be a phenomenal way for me to get my foot in Hollywood’s proverbial door.  Winning—even just placing—in the right contest can get me noticed by agents, producers, and directors.  They’re not all that powerful, no, but it’s not hard to figure out which ones are.
            (Hint—it’s not the one shouting “our contest can get you read by hundreds of top people!!”)
            Now, with all that being said...  Here’s why I’m not going to offer any screenwriting advice this year.  Or for the foreseeable future.
            Actually, first let me talk about pagers.
            As some of you know, I worked on set in the film industry for about fifteen years, starting back in the early ’90s.  And back then, if you wanted to keep working, you had to have a pager.  Pagers were vital.  You couldn’t have much of a career without one, because when someone was crewing up they didn't want to wait, and jobs tended to be first-come, first-serve..
            Granted, that was then, this is now.  By... what, ’99, everybody had a cell phone. Pagers were obsolete.  Even if they still worked, depending on one kind of implied... well, I may not be the most cutting-edge, up-to-date person to hire. And while the film industry isn’t really like any other business on Earth... it’s tough to find a job when you’re ten or fifteen years out of date
            And honestly, how stupid would I look if I showed up to a film set these days—to any job—wearing a pager?  Oh, sure, it still does what it’s supposed to, still lets people get in touch with me (assuming I live somewhere where that network’s still active) but would anyone take me seriously?  I’m using technology from twenty years ago—and expecting other people to use it, too.
            Heck, how many people here even still remember how to use pagers?  From either end?  I’m not sure I do.  Maybe it would pop back if I was in that position but... well, I don’t want to bet on it.
            See, the need to get a job didn’t change.  The need to communicate didn’t change. But how we do it changed.  A new industry standard developed.
            Which brings us back to screenwriting.
            Screenwriting is kind of a two-part art.  One part is the storytelling aspect of it.  That’s a lot of the same stuff we talk about here all the time.  Good characters.  Good dialogue.  Clever structure.  Exciting action.  Neat twists.
            The other part is format.  This is the delivery mechanism that gets my screenplay in front of contest readers, agents, producers, and hopefully actors and directors.  Format is seriously important in screenwriting. I’d say maybe 30-35% of my final score.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I’m not using the current, up to date format, my screenplay immediately looks dated and wrong.  That first part, my actual story, may work phenomenally well, but if every reader’s going into it thinking “Wow, what is this, twenty years old...?” that’s a big strike against me right up front.  And even just that slight bias can mean the difference between acceptance or... well, ending up in the big pile on the left.
            In the past I’ve offered a lot of tips on basic script formatting. And while a lot of those may still be good, I honestly just don’t know which ones those are.  Assuming any of them are.
            At this point, I haven’t really done any work with scripts in about ten years.  I stopped working on sets in 2006. Stopped writing about screenwriting in 2010.  My last screenwriting-related job was five years ago, and even that was a pitch/synopsis that didn’t involve writing an actual script.  I know enough to say my experience is pretty much out of date.  Maybe not entirely, but mostly.
            If I want to be writing screenplays, I need to be looking at new ones to learn the current accepted format.  Not the classics.  Not my childhood favorites.  They may teach me some storytelling stuff, but if I want to learn formatting... well, I really shouldn’t be looking at anything from before Barack Obama was President.  Doesn’t matter how many Oscars it won, doesn’t matter how much my professor praised it back in film school—I cannot learn formatting from old scripts.
            Because I don’t want to be the person showing off my new pager.
            Next time...
            Okay, look. Here’s one tip, just so we can end a bit more positive.  You know what other season this is?  Oscar season.  A lot of the studios are releasing the scripts for their “Best Screenplay” hopefuls.  Not all of them, but a couple of them. That means those new, very current scripts can be picked up easily and legally (no piracy!) for perusal.  Hit Google and see what you can find. I bet The Arrival’s out there.  Maybe Deadpool, too.
            See. Positive ending.
            Next time, I have a few Capital Ideas to share.
            Until then... go write.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Time for Torches and Pitchforks

            So sorry this is a bit late.  Deadlines. They can suck, but they pay the bills.
            Anyway, with some of the awful changes we’re already seeing this year, I thought it’d be good to try some positive changes.  In the next few weeks I’m hoping to do much more regular (and frequent) posts and also address a few different topics people have tossed my way.  And maybe even a big overhaul of this whole page.
            But first, I wanted to talk to you about the little European country of Switzerland.
            I’m guessing everyone reading this has seen some version of Frankenstein, yes?  Maybe the iconic Universal film or one of its many sequels.  Or the Abbot & Costello movie.  Or even the comedy remake Mel Brooks did.
            (For the record Frankenstein here is the name of the movie, not the monster...)
            One standard in all of these is the little nearby village.  It shows up in every version of the story I just mentioned, plus a few dozen more.  And yeah, in the movies it’s in Switzerland.  Weird, I know.
            Anyway, I’m sure most of you reading this can picture it in your minds, yes?  The wall with the big gate.  The houses with the exposed timbers and big fireplaces.
            Okay, got all that in mind?
            When is that small town?
            No, no, don’t try to reason it out. Just answer the question.  In what time frame is that little town set?
            I bet that made your brain seize up for a moment.  Y’see Frankenstein was written back in the early 19th Century, and is actually set in the back half of the 18th.  It’s a contemporary of Ben Franklin and his lightning experiments.
            (For the record, Frankenstein here is the name of the book, not the monster...)
            And yet...
            The films kind of updated the story and gave it a slightly more “modern” setting.  The clothes and some of the doctor’s technology hint at a story set closer to the Victorian era.  There’s mention of trains in some of them.  The Abbot and Costello movie is set in “modern” times.  There are cars, planes, telephones--they’re full-on into the 20th century at that point.
            And yet... the little hamlet below the castle looks exactly the same in every movie.
            It’s not impossible.  There are lots of villages in Europe that still look a lot like they did two or three centuries ago.  Even here in the US we’ve got towns that haven’t changed much since the fifties.  Or the twenties.
            What’s my point in this?
            I read a book recently that was set in a village a lot like the one in Frankenstein.  There were even a couple of castles.  And one of the annoying things was I couldn’t tell when this story was supposed to be taking place.  No mention of electricity, radio, or cellphones, but also no mention of horses, woodpiles, or outhouses.
            The author described the clothes on a few characters, but these days having an eccentric, oddly-dressed character is kind of commonplace.  So maybe that woman’s clothing is a hint as to what era the story’s set in... or maybe she’s just really into steampunk or some kind of retro cosplay.  One guy carried a crossbow but... well, kind of the same thing, right?  These days crossbows, longbows, swords—they’re not that unusual in stories from any time period.  Look at The Walking Dead.  Heck, Warhammer 40,000 is set... well, about 38,000 years from now, and people are still using swords in that.
            Yeah, there’s always going to be that time where I want to misdirect my reader into thinking it’s 1944, but Cap really just woke up in 2012.  Or that the high-tech lair is in the future, not inside an Egyptian tomb in 1250 BC.  The thing I need to keep in mind is that these aren’t cases where I’ve just forgotten to mention the time—it’s being deliberately withheld to create an effect later.
            Y’see, Timmy, knowing the when of a setting is just as important as the where.  It’s one of the things we use as writers to help the readers relate to elements of the story. And it helps to define the world I’m creating.  Without knowing when my story’s set, it’s tough to tell when something’s exceptional or important in that world.  A soldier talking on a walkie-talkie isn’t exactly earth-shattering stuff, but if I tell you this soldier’s with George Washington in 1776, that walkie-talkie conversation becomes interesting on many more levels. And it immediately tells my readers what kind of story they’re reading.
            So remember the when along with the where.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about something I’m not going to talk about anymore.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Here We Go Again...

            Hope you had a fantastic New Year, everyone.  Welcome to 2017.  Or, as history will probably call it, America’s make-or-break year.
            As I often do at the start of each year, I wanted to blab on for a minute or three about what I hope to accomplish with this little collection of rants and ravings.  And I think one of the best ways to accomplish that is to start off by telling a quick story...
            Another friend of mine—a very accomplished professional writer—talks about some advice he got once from Richard Matheson.  To paraphrase, writing is an art.  Publishing is the business of selling as many copies of that art as possible.  If I want to be a successful writer, I need to understand that difference.
            What does that have to do with my rants?
            This page isn’t about “when you’re done.”  I’m always coming across pages and groups where people want to know what to do with their finished manuscript.  How do I get an agent?  How do I promote myself?  How do I get a publisher?  Should I self-publish?  Should I be networking more?  How do I get blurbs?
            None of that here.  That’s all publishing stuff.
            Not to sound harsh, but this page also isn’t for inspirational ideas, mindless encouragement, or a joyous celebration of art.  I’m not really big on the we-can-all-succeed mindset (I used to say “special snowflake,” but that’s become a stupider, crueler term lately, so I don’t feel very comfortable with it anymore).  I’m also not a fan of those folks who see writing as some bohemian form of expression where there are no wrong answers or directions.  If that’s the kind of “advice” you’re looking for... wow, this is so not the place you want to be.
            And, I also don’t use this page for self-promotion.  I may mention stuff that’s new or noteworthy, but that’s about it.  No sales or contests or interviews (well, not with me, anyway).  There’s some links on the side, yeah, but those are almost more for credentials purposes than sales.
            (Although if you want to buy something, I’d never object...)
            So, with all that out of the way... what are all these little rants for?
            Well, it struck me about ten years ago that there weren’t many places online to find actual help with writing.  Not useful help, anyway.  Yeah, all that “when you’re done” stuff I mentioned is important, but the writing is the first big step.  Nothing else matters until that step is done.  If I don’t have a decent piece of art, there’s nothing to do on the publishing half of the equation.  It doesn’t matter how much work I put into self-promotion.
            I look around and I saw—and still see—a lot of folks making mistakes with their writing.  Sometimes it’s from inexperience.  Sometimes it’s wishful thinking.  Sometimes it’s from following bad advice.  And a few times...
            Okay, sometimes I have no clue where some people are getting their information from.
            This is the time when we all make a lot of resolutions.  We’re going to quit smoking, drink less, eat better, exercise more, travel more... and maybe write more.  Maybe finally get that manuscript finished and out to some publishers.
            Now, sadly, we all know the truth behind a lot of these resolutions.  Most people don’t follow through on them.  In fact, a lot of gyms and weight loss programs make a ton of money off people who sign up for a one year membership in January and then more or less give up in... February.
            I’ve already seen a ton of folks making promises to themselves.  To finish a screenplay or a book.  Maybe two books.  That’s mine.  To finally get two books done in one year.
            But why?  Do I just want to write a screenplay because I’ve always wanted to try it?  Or am I hoping this could lead to a career in the film industry?  Am I looking to write a novel just for myself, or am I maybe looking to...well, make some money off of it?  And if so, am I looking at this as a nice hobby that will pay for some LEGO models, or is this something I’m hoping will be a career?  Like a paying-all-the-bills career?
            As I talked about earlier, when I first started this page a good chunk of the actual writing advice I could find was kind of... questionable.  Always follow this structure.  Always write at least 1000 words a day.  Don’t worry about spelling or editing.  Never use common wordsNever use saidName every character.  It all just seemed to be either something people were pulling out of the air or they were repeating something that had gone through twenty rounds of the telephone game.
            So what I’ve been trying to do here is to fill a gap.  To offer some useful help for people who’d like to improve their writing and move it toward something they could actually sell to a much larger audience and maybe not just... well, a hundred people they know between Facebook and Twitter.
            This means there’ll be some harsh facts now and then.  Yeah, facts, not opinions.  Also some very firm rules.  Some people will argue with these (some people always do) because some of those facts and rules are going to go against the way they’ve chosen to see things in the writing-publishing world.  Others will be upset because some of the things I say might indicate they’re not quite as far along their career path as they thought.  Or maybe they’re not on it at all. 
            I apologize in advance if this ends up being you.  It’s nothing personal—it’s just the facts as I see them after almost (gasp) thirty-seven years of trying to do this professionally.  If it makes you feel better, there are very, very few screw-ups you can make that I didn’t beat you to ages ago.  And I learned from them and want to help you get past them.
            I’ll also offer up some much gentler tips and advice.  Some of these suggestions will work for you.  Some won’t.  Part of my job as a professional writer is to figure out what does and doesn’t work for me.  I’ve spent years doing it.  If you want to be a professional, it’s part of your job, too.
            And if writing’s just something you like to dabble with on weeknights because you enjoy it... cool.  Nothing wrong with that.  Maybe you’ll find some stuff here that makes it even more fun for you.  Or maybe you’ll just show up to laugh at those of us in the publishing rat race.  That’s cool, too.
            So...that’s the basic idea behind this page.  There may be two or three deviations over the course of a year, but mostly... that’s it.  And, hey, if there’s something specific you’d like to see me blab on about, please feel free to ask.  I’m always open to suggestions, and I try to get to them within three or four weeks (depending on how many things I’ve already got planned out).
           Oh, and if you’re in Southern California, this weekend is both the Los Angeles and San Diego Writers Coffeehouses.  San Diego is at Mysterious Galaxy and hosted by the amazing Jonathan Maberry.  Los Angeles is at Dark Delicacies and hosted by the not as amazing... well, me.  Both of them are noon to three, open to absolutely anyone of any skill level, and they’re completely free.  No sign ups, no lists, nothing.  Just show up and join in.
            Next time... I'd like to talk to you about that little village near Castle Frankenstein.
            Until then, go write.