Thursday, December 5, 2019

NaNoWriMo Aftermath

And now we rejoin our ranty writing blog, already in progress.

Hey, everyone. Thanks for sticking with me through the Black Friday stuff and the Cyber Monday stuff and then even more good book stuff on top of that. Hopefully it’s all helped you a little bit with the holidays.

I don’t know about you, but NaNoWriMo is still kinda fresh in my mind. With Thanksgiving right there at the very end of the month, it left me feeling like I’d been kinda cheated out of a week, y’know? More of a NaNoWriThreeWeeks.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t hit my word count goals for the month. By a long shot. I ended up hosting/moderating two Coffeehouses last month and the dystopian book club. Plus a day doing some promo stuff for an upcoming project. Plus my parents came out for Thanksgiving so, y’know, an extra level of cleaning and neatening. All in all... I think I lost close to two weeks. You probably needed to focus on some of them, too, right? I mean, I’m not the only one who had to do work stuffOr holiday stuff.

But I’m okay with it. I still got a lot done, even if not as much as I’d hoped. Also figured out a major narrative issue that’d been nagging at me for ages.

And that’s kinda what I wanted to talk about. Before the month started, I mentioned that “NaNoWriMo” is deceptive because we’re not really trying to write a novel in a month. We’re trying to write a first draft in a month. A rushed, hurried, often truncated first draft.

Thing is... even that’s a bit misleading. Because if the ultimate goal was to get an even slightly passable first draft this month, pretty much everybody would fail. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I’m willing to bet the majority of people who do NaNoWriMo don’t complete a draft. And I’ll go a little further out on this limb (and even hand you a saw) and say I wouldn’t be surprised if half of the folks who do finish have drafts that... well, let’s politely say they’re drafts need SO much work they’re effectively going to be rewriting the whole thing in their next draft. 

And hopefully they at least realize they need another draft.

So here’s my take for you. First, stop thinking about “winning” NaNoWriMo. This was a marathon, and most people don’t run marathons with the sole goal of winning them. Because if that’s my only goal, I’m going to be disappointed. A lot.

Most of us run marathons just to see if we can do them. The goal isn’t to be first—to win—it’s just to see if we can actually make it to the finish line. I don’t know about you, but I’d be friggin' thrilled to finish a marathon, even if it took me three or four hours. Hell, if I could do a half marathon in that time I’d be kinda proud.

That said... point the second. What did I get done during NaNoWriMo? How much did I write? How many words got put down

Y’see, Timmy, the real goal here shouldn’t be winning, it’s just getting to the finish line. Sometimes—for most people—that takes a little longer. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s totally fine.

What I should’ve gotten out of this was how many words I can write in a month. because now I know how many words I can write in a month. Which means I can do it again this month. And next month? Hell, January’s clear sailing. No holidays, nothing to slow me down. Now I know exactly how long it’s going to take for me to finish that 90,000 word first draft. I have a solid, very attainable goal because I just showed myself how much I can write in a month.

So celebrate finishing NaNoWriMo. Even if you didn’t “win.” Because you won in the way that really matters.

Next time... I’d like to talk about writing as art.

Until then, go write.

And congrats again on NaNoWriMo.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Other Fantastic Books for You

Okay, I did the Cyber-Monday marketing thing the other day. Now let me tell you about a bunch of other amazing books you could—nay, should pick up as gifts for your loved ones.

These are all some things I read this year (or I read earlier, but they came out this year). Nobody pushed for these, they’re in no particular order or anything, they’re just books I really enjoyed. And I’m betting you’ll enjoy some of  them too.

Well, I’m starting this list with a lie, which isn’t great. I read this book before it came out, and it was so freakin’ good I put it on last year’s list anyway, even though it didn’t come out until this year. Imagine if your strange mutant ability was bringing out the absolute best, self-actualized version of people, and you activated this gift with... sex. It’s thought-provoking, a bit naughty, and does some wonderful things with the ideas of what it means to be your best and the responsibility of having such a gift.
This story about two new workers at the local distribution center of a *cough* large internet merchant has tons to say about relationships, technology, business practices, and just morality in general. I guess it’s technically sci-fi because it’s in the not-too-distant-future, and some of the tech is slightly advanced, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a far-out, stretching-things-too-much element. It’s a fast, easy, and wonderfully disturbing read. 

Lady from the Black Lagoon by Mallory O’Meara
How have you not heard about his book already? It’s fantastic. It’s the true story of the woman who designed the legendary Creature from the Black Lagoon and then got pretty much erased from history by her jealous boss. It’s a brutally honest look inside Hollywood then and now that still manages to be upbeat and positive.

The Fat Lady Sings by Sean Patrick Traver
Okay, this one’s more of a novella but it’s part of Traver’s absolutely wonderful Temple, Tree, and Tower universe (world?) that’s appeared on lists here in the past. A centuries old wizard, currently inhabiting the body of a black cat, takes on a new apprentice to help him protect Los Angeles. It’s ridiculous fun with just the right amount of creepy.
This book has one of the creepiest beginnings I’ve read in a while (serious Event Horizon vibes) and then it brings in... okay, I don’t want to ruin it. But this is a wonderful story of guilt and love and it’s kind of a gothic romance in space but with more infectious spores.
I’ve pushed the Eric Carter books on some of you before, about a necromancer in modern, Aztec-magic-influenced Los Angeles. With this latest one, book four in the series, Stephen moves his noir urban fantasy into a whole new level of amazing. These books have always been really good but this one was just fantastic. I think I shrieked with glee three or four times while reading it. Seriously.

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
Okay, look. To be shamefully honest, I picked this up because I saw it on a couple lists and I thought the cover was pretty cool. And y’know what? Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover because this book is freakin’ magnificent. It’s about Maggie, a professional monster hunter on a post-apocalyptic Navajo reservation. And if that doesn’t get you excited, I really don’t know why we’re even friends. Seriously. Stop texting me.

Our War by Craig diLouie
Full disclosure, I’ve known Craig years longer than any other author on this list, but he honestly still astounds me with the level of emotional gut-punching he manages to bring to everything he writes. This is the story of an all-too plausible second American civil war and the brother and sister child soldiers who find themselves on opposite sides.

Magic For Liars by Sarah Gailey
Odds are this one’s crossed your radar screen sometime this year. A fantastic story about what it’s like to be the sister who isn’t chosen to go to Hogwarts (so to speak). There’s a lot of emotions in this book, and that’s without the murder mystery aspect of it.

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
Goddamm I loved this book. It has so many things I love. Fantastic characters. A good mystery. Some great twists. Cutting edge science. And considering how long he spent writing it (it’s a monster of a book) it’s ended up being eerily prescient in a lot of political/societal ways.

Holy sweet craptacular jeebus. A bunch of people told me I would love this book but I really didn’t expect to LOVE this book as much as I did. In a super-simplified nutshell, the foundling squire of a royal household of necromancers has to pose as their most decorated knight and serve as bodyguard to the adopted “sister” who’s made her life hell for years. Plus there’s some murders, tons of skeletons, and some wonderfully filthy humor. It’s just so much fun.
It’s been a looooong time since I’ve enjoyed a straight fantasy series this much. Although I guess this is technically a steampunk fantasy? The Sacred Throne series is the story of (again, quick version) Heloise a peasant girl who hides in a suit of steampunk armor, ends up fighting a demon, and is now lauded as a saint by all her fellow villagers and expected to lead them against the tyrannical church that rules over them. The characters are fantastic. The battle scenes are amazing. 

And as a last note, I’m only about thirty pages into Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James but holy crap. If the whole book's this good it might just be my favorite of the year.

There you have it. Some of my favorite reads of the year. If you check back in a week, there maybe more added to this list. And I think you can find almost all of them at your favorite local bookstore so... get going. You’re going to have to mail stuff next week if you want it to get there in time for the holidays.

Also, please please please let me know if you’re someone who might benefit from my Black Friday offer. I’ve been there and I know what it’s like. It's not much, but if you need a hand, just say so.

Anyway... tomorrow let’s talk about writing.

Yeah, tomorrow. Let’s get back to it.

Until then, go write.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Cyber Monday VIII: The Capitalisming

Well, it’s that time of year where ugly truths must be addressed. Artists get paid when people buy their art, which gives them the freedom to make more art.

So I’m going to ask you to buy some books.

I know, it’s weird and kinda awkward for all of us, but this is the season for giving and if you wanted to give somebody one of my books (even if that somebody is YOU) I’d really appreciate it. They might too, if my stories are there sorta thing. So here’s a list of my books and a few anthologies and collections I’ve got stories in.  Put them on your wish list or get them as gifts for friends and family members.

Also, I’ve sprinkled a few Amazon links in here for the books that aren’t available anywhere else, but really you should just be going to your local bookstore and asking for a copy. They’re very cool, they could use the business, and this way you’re not one of those conformists sheeple falling for that Cyber Monday capitalist nonsense. You’ll get to brag about that until Valentine’s Day, easy.

Anyway...

Dead Moon came out back in February as an Audible exclusive (read by the always-fantastic Ray Porter) and now it’s available as an ebook as well. Alas, there is no paper version at the moment. Sorry. It’s about a woman who runs away to the Moon and finds... well, zombies on the Moon. And some other things, too. It’s spooky and fun and I’m quite proud of it.

Paradox Bound is my New York Times-bestselling story about infatuation, road trips, American history, a pretty cool train and some pretty creepy antagonists. F.Paul Wilson said it was like Doctor Who crossed with National Treasure, and if that doesn’t get you interested I don’t know what will. There’s an audiobook, ebook, paperbacks, and you might even find a hardcover here or there if you’re lucky.

At least a third of you have probably found your way here because of my odd little Lovecraftian-sci-fi-urban-horror-mystery novel--14. Alas, the paperback has gone out of print, but there’s still an ebook and a phenomenal audiobook narrated by Ray Porter. And there might be more versions in the year to come, but we’ll talk about those when we can...

Somebody once described The Fold as a horror-suspense novel disguised as a sci-fi-mystery, and I’ve always liked that. It’s available in pretty much every format you can imagine, and it’s also part of my “unconnected series” of Threshold books.

Another big bunch of you are here because of the Ex-Heroes series. Superheroes fighting zombies in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (and a few other places).  Ex-Heroes, Ex-Patriots, Ex-Communication, Ex-Purgatory, and Ex-Isle. All of these are available in a number of formats and a number of languages.

Good news! My weird-but-fantastic mashup novel, The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe, is finally available as an audiobook. Bad news... at the moment it’s only available as an audiobook. Sorry. Hoping to fix that soon, but I really think the audiobook might be a better format for this one.If you really want paper, call around to your local bookstore and you might find one still hanging our on a shelf somewhere.

You can pick up The Junkie Quatrain as either an ebook or an audiobook (still no paper, sorry).  It’s my attempt at a “fast zombies” tale, a series of interconnected stories I’ve described as Rashomon meets 28 Days Later.  It also features a recurring character of mine, Quilt, who keeps showing up in different stories in one way or another... 

I also have a short story collection called Dead Men Can’t Complain.  It’s got a bunch of stories I’ve had published over the years in various anthologies and journals, plus a few original ones. Some are scar, some are kinda funny, one or two of them might even be called heartwarming.  It’s an Audible exclusive, and it’s read by Ray Porter and Ralph Lister.

Past that... okay, look. There’s a ton of anthologies out there but because some of them have limited print runs or licensing deals I’m not sure what is or isn’t available at the moment. The best I can do at this point is give you a quick list and when you’re in your friendly local bookstore... browse around for a minute or three. They might have a copy of something.

X-Files: Trust No One

Naughty or Nice

Bless Your Mechanical Heart

The World is Dead

Kaiju Rising

Mech: Age of Steel

Worth mentioning—please check those last two if you stumble across them. The books went into reprints with some contractural changes I couldn’t agree to, so my stories aren’t in the new editions. Only the older ones. So make sure you get those at a store where you can look at them.

Thus ends my shameless Cyber Monday appeal to you.  Again, so very sorry we had to do this, but it really does make the marketing folks happy and they’ve always been really good to me. Also, like I have in the past, in the next day or two I’ll also do another list with some of the great books I’ve read by other, much better authors, so please check back. And please don’t forget my Black Friday offer if you happen to be one of the folks who might need it.

And now, please resume your internet shopping. Browse responsibly. Clear your history on a regular basis. Especially you, Doug. No, sweet jeebus, don’t click on that—that’s not really from PayPal.

And we’ll be back to regular writing stuff on Thursday.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Black Friday VII—Elf on the Shelf in the Hood

So, hey, now I’d like to alter the mood a little. Let’s talk about this whole Black Friday thing and the holidays and being poor for a couple of minutes.

Because being poor at the holidays absolutely, completely sucks.

Being poor’s just a constant feeling of tension.  Of being painfully aware of what you don’t have and what you can’t do.  And for the past ten or fifteen years, a lot of folks have made it painfully clear that they judge you because of that. They find you lacking as a person because of your poverty.

And it’s even worse at the holidays. So much of the holidays is about giving, and when you’re poor you just... you’ve got nothing to give. It doesn’t matter how much you care about that person, it doesn’t matter how much you want to.  It doesn’t matter because you’ve got nothing.

And again... you can feel people judging you over it.  At every office party or gathering of friends or family dinner.  You get judged for being trapped and powerless. Hell, you end up judging yourself, and it just becomes this endless cycle of guilt and resentment and desperation.

It sucks.

And, yeah, as some of you know, I’m speaking from experience. I’d saved a little money before I became a full-time writer, but two or three random-but-normal problems—car repairs, a sick cat, a pay cut at the magazine I wrote for—and wham I was poor. I mean... nothing. Cards maxed out. Stretching every paycheck until it was tissue thin. The phone got shut off. My partner and I didn’t turn the heat on for three winters in a row. We stole toilet paper from the library. Pretty much everything we ate came from the 99 Cent Store. Frikkin’ Shane Black offered to sit down and talk with me over coffee for an article I was working on. And I had to turn him down ‘cause I couldn’t afford the gas to get me across the city to where he was. Hell, I didn’t have enough money to buy a coffee.

Look, some folks just love to snort and blabber about “entitlements” and “nanny states,” but the simple truth is that the vast majority of poor people don’t abuse the system. They’re way too busy just trying to survive with their health and maybe just a shred of dignity. And I say that as someone who spent three years constantly on the edge of panic and feeling sick with despair.

And holy hell I hope that none of you reading this are there right now, feeling helpless and sick with despair. Because like I said before, it seriously sucks to be in that position.


But if this is where you are right now—if you’re in that same crappy place I had to be in for three Christmases in a row—maybe I can help.

If you  can’t afford gifts for your friends or family, get in touch with me at my old business email--PeterClines101@yahoo.com. I’ve got about two dozen books here, I think, that I’ll autograph to whoever you want and mail out to you. Or to someone else, if you need it shipped. I can even gift wrap if you need it (seriously, I am a fantastic gift wrapper). Most of these are paperbacks of Paradox Bound, but there’s six or seven other things in here, too. Think I might still have two or three of those big audiobook CD sets, too. If audiobooks work better for your special someone, just say so. You can request a specific book but I can’t promise anything.

Past that, though... I’ll send them out for as long as the books last. If you need some help this season, just ask

Again, this is only for those of you who need some help getting gifts for others. The people who are pulling unemployment, cutting back on everything, and feeling like trapped because they can’t afford gifts for family or friends.  It’s not so you can recommend someone who might like a free book.  You could do that for them, too—go get them a book. They’ll love you for it.

Speaking of which—look, whenever I do this folks offer to chip in and help out. Like I just said, you don’t need me to do that. You can go be fantastic people all on your own. Seriously, I’m willing to bet cash money there’s a toy bank or a food bank or some kind of program within ten or fifteen miles of you right now.  You could help out with that.

Also, I’m also doing this on the honor system, so if you’re just trying to save yourself some money or score an autographed book... well, I can’t stop you. But let’s be clear—if you do, you suck. You’re a deplorable person who’s taking a moment of peace and relief away from someone who really needs it this holiday season. Don’t act surprised when karma kicks you hard in the ass over New Year’s.

Anyway, Happy Holidays. Let me know if I can help out

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Word. By. Word.

Thursday’s Thanksgiving and my parents are coming into town tomorrow, so I've got a lot of cleaning to do. No post on Thursday. But I had a simple idea I’d been meaning to toss out to you for a while now and this seemed like a good time.

Random theory of mine, probably not all that original. I think we tend to batch-read words. We tend to look at larger text elements—the clauses and phrases and sentences, rather than the individual words that make up those elements. I mean, you’re doing it right now. You’re not picking out the individual words, you’re reading this as a whole. And that’s a good thing. It’s what we want readers to do. It means my writing has a great flow to it.

But...

By the same token, this can make us kind of blind to things in our own work. Once we’ve written a sentence, we tend to gloss over it. Especially after reading it three or four times. We get overly-familiar with it. Even when we’re re-reading it in an edit draft, a lot of the time we’re just taking in the big picture and not looking at what’s actually there on the page.  It’s how we can read a sentence a dozen times and never notice that glaring typo in the middle of it. Or not notice there’s a word missing altogether.  Or that twice on this page we refer to Stu as Ted, but we don’t think about it because we know Stu was called Ted in an earlier draft and so they’re the same person in our heads.

That kinda thing.

So here’s my quick tip for you.  Do at least one pass where you  don’t read your story. Read the words on the page. Actually look at each individual word there on your screen  and. Read. Each. One. Of. Them.

Yeah, it’s slow. And it's tough. That sounds silly, I know, but it is super-tough to go through a story this way. Especially a story we know. You need a ton of patience and focus. But I guarantee you’ll find dozens of things that were missed on earlier passes.

In fact, here’s a tip for that tip. Before you do this pass, change the font on your whole document. If you normally write in Times, switch it over to Courier. If you normally write in Courier, switch it over to Times. If you normally write in Wingdings, what the hell’s wrong with you? Seriously, nobody’s going to be able to read that. Put it in Times, make everybody’s life easer.

Anyway... remember what I said about how we get overly-familiar with things? Well y’see Timmy, by changing the font, I’ve just made the whole document unfamiliar to me. The spacing’s different. Things will sit on each page in new ways. Which means I’ll be looking at it with fresh eyes, and things will be a little easier to catch.

And there you go. This writing tip has been brought to you by cranberry sauce. And by Nana’s special holiday rolls.

Next time... well, look. Black Friday’s coming up, and if you’ve been here for any amount of time you know what I’ll be talking about. And then there’s Cyber Monday, plus NaNoWriMo will’ve been wrapped up for a couple of days. I’m going to be blabbing about a lot of stuff for the next week or so. Check back often.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Do You Think I’m An Idiot?

No, no... don’t rush to answer that. I’m pretty sure I can guess how most of the comments section would go.

However...it is an important question, whether I’m writing books or screenplays. The folks who just bought my new Lovecraftian techno-thriller aren’t expecting a long lesson about how memes work. If I’m billing myself as the next Dan Brown, the clue “man’s best friend” better not leave half a dozen codebreakers baffled as to what the three letter password is for the doomsday device. Heck, even if I’m hired to pen the next Pokemon movie, I probably shouldn’t spend a lot of screen time explaining all the medical reasons why little kids shouldn’t drink paint.

Cause let’s face it—nobody likes to be called stupid.  Not even kids.  Heck, especially not stupid people.  We all hate being condescended to and having things spoon-fed to us at a crawl. We get angry about it. At best we get frustrated with the person throttling the speed we can absorb things at.

So, having established that nobody likes being considered an idiot, it stands to reason most people like to feel smart, right? And that includes my readers. I want them to like my stories, not feel angry or frustrated because of them.

But a lot of stories assume readers are stupid. They spell everything out in painful detail. They drag things out. They repeat things again and again and again. These authors think their readers won’t know or understand or remember anything, and they write their stories accordingly.

So here’s a few easy things I try to do so my readers feel smart and they’ll love my stories...

I know what my audience knows
I’ve talked a couple times here about empathy and common knowledge. It’s stuff I can feel safe assuming everyone knows. Grass needs water and sunlight to grow. Captain America is a superhero. Nazis are still the bad guys. Maybe you noticed that a few paragraphs back I rattled off Lovecraftian, Dan Brown, and Pokemon without bothering to explain any of them. I know the folks reading this would have—at the very least—an awareness of these words and names. Knowing what my specific audience knows is an important part of making them feel smart, because this is what lets me judge what they’ll be able to figure out on their own.

This goes for things within my story, too. Yeah, odds are nobody’s ever heard the term Caretaker used precisely the way I use it in Dead Moon, but I don’t have to keep explaining it. I can make a couple references at the start and then just trust that my readers will remember things as the story goes on. It’s a completely made up word, but I bet most of you know what a Horcurx is. Or a TARDIS. Or a Mandalorian. They don’t need to be explained to you again and again.

I try to be smarter than my audience
There’s an agent I’ve referenced here, once or thrice, Esmund Harmsworth. I got to hear him speak at a writing conference years ago and he pointed out most editors will toss a mystery manuscript if they can figure out who the murderer is before the hero does.

Really, though, this is how it works for any sort of puzzle or intellectual challenge in a piece of writing. If I’ve dumbed things down to the point of simplicity—or further—who’d have the patience to read it? It’ll grate on their nerves, and it makes us impatient when we have to wait for characters to figure out what we knew twenty minutes ago.

I don’t state the obvious
Michael Crichton got a very early piece of writing advice that he shared in one of his books. “Be very careful using the word obvious. If something really is obvious, you don’t need to use it.  If it isn’t obvious, than you’re being condescending to the reader by using it.”

Of course, this goes beyond just the word obvious. Revisiting that first tip up above, should I be wasting half a page telling my readers Nazis were bad? When Yakko staggers into a room with three knives in his back just before collapsing into a puddle of his own blood, do I need to tell anyone that’s he’s seriously hurt? I mean, you all got that, right?

I take a step back 
When something does need to be described or explained, I think our first instinct is to scribble out all of it. We want to show that we thought this out all the way.  So we put down every fact and detail and nuance.

I usually don’t have to, though. I tend to look at most of those explanatory scenes and cut it back 15 or 20%. I know if I take my audience most of the way there, they’ll probably be able to go the rest of the way on their own. People tend to fill in a lot of blanks and create their own images anyway, so getting excessive with this sort of thing rarely helps.

I give them the benefit of the doubt
This is the above tip, but the gap’s just a little bigger. Three-time Academy-Award-winning screenwriter Billy Wilder said if you let the audience add 2+2 for themselves now and then, they’ll love you forever. That’s true for writers of all forms. Every now and then, just trust they’ll get it. Not all the time, but every now and then I just make a leap of faith my audience can make a connection with almost no help whatsoever from me. Odds are that leap isn’t as big as you think it is. 

Y’see, Timmy, when I spell out everything for my audience, what I’m really telling them is “I know you won’t be able to figure this out on your own.”  My characters might not be saying it out loud, but the message is there.  You’re too stupid for this—let me explain.

And that’s not going to win me a lot of return readers.

Hey, next week is Thanksgiving here in the U.S. and my parents are coming  to visit for the holidays and hahhaaaha I’m not stressing about it YOU’RE STRESSING HOW IS IT THE END OF NOVEMBER ALREADY OH CRAP

...sorry, that was a typo. What I meant to say was it’s Thanksgiving so I’ll probably just do something quick on Tuesday or Wednesday. And after that... well, if you’ve been following the ranty blog for any amount of time you know what I’ll be talking about on the day after Thanksgiving.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Big Lead-Up To...

Hahahhaaa... okay, so I had this post that I’d been working on for a while, but I never got it quite right and I kept pushing it back and pushing it back. And it just posted because, jeeez, mid-November? I won’t have to worry about that for a while.

Time is funny. Anyway... what I wanted to talk to you about.

A little earlier this year, I set down a book without finishing it. Might not sound big to you, but it’s big for me. It’s really rare for me to pick a book up and not finish it.  Don’t think it’s happened in over a year, easy, and I read around forty or fifty books a year, on average.

One of the big reasons I put it down is... well, to be honest, I’ve got no idea what’s going on. I’m more than halfway through and the plot in the book bears no resemblance to the one described on the back of the book.  Or anything  else really. When I set it down the other night, I described it to my partner as “watching a crime scene investigation where I don’t know who any of the people are, what their jobs are, what crime was committed, or what sort of legal system this is.”  There were things happening, but I had no idea what any of it meant or implied. It was just... stuff happening

Okay, I’m lying, I did finish the book. I have a problem,okay? I went back and read the last 117 pages and it went... I mean, pretty much just like I thought. We finally had the big reveal (which was the story described on the back of the book) and then had a minor twist to add a tiny bit more flavor.

Anyway, I thought it might be worth addressing this—the book’s problem, not my own compulsive need to consume bad things—because it’s something I’ve seen before. It’s an unusual issue because it’s a story problem I can only fully identify in retrospect.

So, quick recap on reveals and twists. I’ve talked about them here before a few times, so I don’t think we need more than that. I want to get to the heart of this particular issue.

The reveal is pretty much the standard way we get information across to our readers. New facts are presented to them, and depending on exactly what it is and what kind of ramifications it could have, these facts can have different levels of impact. We might just nod and accept it, or maybe it’ll have a ton of weight and impact.

A twist is a very specific type of reveal. Again, talked about them at length before, but the short form is that twists are information that the characters and the reader didn’t know was out there, and (importantly) this information forces us to look at a lot of previous facts in a new light. It’s also worth noting that twists almost always come later in my story because I need to establish those facts that need twisting. Make sense?

It’s the “later in the story” aspect of this I wanted to talk about. The issue I’ve been seeing is that a story will have a later twist, but it doesn’t establish any of the things its (hypothetically) twisting. I just tell you “Yakko is a redhead!” and expect that to have some kind of emotional or narrative weight. These stories try to tell us X is the really important thing, but they’d never really gone out of their way to convince anything else was important.

This is even worse in longer-form stories like novels or movies. We essentially go through two thirds or more of the story to get to “the good stuff,” but there’s nothing supporting it. There’s just been a lot of stalling and not talking about things until we get to that point.

Like... okay, imagine an old Twilight Zone episode where we see a spaceship land on a planet and they get out, wander around, and then maybe find a sign that basically says “hey, losers, you’ve been on Earth this whole time.” You know this episode, right? Is it even an actual episode? You know this archetypal story, right?

But here’s the thing—these stories have a lot more than that. They have assumptions and discussions about which planet this is and what did or didn’t happen here. Maybe even about who the astronauts are. We need to have strong reason to think this isn’t Earth for that twist to have any impact. Make sense? Up until that reveal everyone should be acting like it’s an alien world. Yeah, we’re going to find out the thing scratching at the door’s  just a beagle. But for now, before we get to that reveal... it’s a hideous alien monster. No, it can’t really hurt my characters, but they don’t know that. And they need to act accordingly.

I think a lot of this tends to come down to... well, not having an actual story. There’s nothing going on except that big reveal, so all my characters just sort of stand around twiddling their thumbs until we get to it. I’ve been so focused on what happens after the reveal that I haven’t considered what everyone’s supposed to be thinking or doing before that moment.

Just to be clear—I’m not saying mid-book twists aren’t cool. They’re super-cool.  They’re fantastic and I love ‘em. But y’see Timmy, there has to be a story before we get there.  Even if it’s all a bunch of misconceptions or faulty beliefs—my characters have to be doing something somewhat motivated in a world we can at least vaguely understand.

Have you read (or maybe seen) Wayward Pines? It was a fun series by Blake Crouch that became a pretty good television series. And it had a pretty solid quite a ways into it. A really perfect, made-you-reconsider-everything twist. But the main character, Ethan, is still doing stuff before then. He makes his own assessments of the small town he finds himself in, based off all the information he has, and he acts. He does things. Ethan treats the world he’s in like... well, the world he’s in, and not just a glorified waiting room until the “real” story begins.

I can have the cool twist. I can have a great reveal. But these things don’t stand alone. They need to be carefully woven into my story. There needs to be elements supporting them and guiding my readers to them.

Because nobody wants to read about a bunch of people standing around waiting for the big reveal.

Next time... well, we haven’t talked about how stupid I am for a while now.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Initial Incisions

Hey, so I know last time I said I was going to talk about twists, but...

This past weekend I subbed in for Jonathan Maberry at the San Diego Writers Coffeehouse and we talked about... well, all sorts of stuff. NaNoWriMo. Agents. Editing. One interesting question that came up was how do you edit? Which is a fair point. I’ve talked about editing here a bunch of times, but not anywhere near as much about what it is or how we do it.

First off, we need to be clear that there are different types of editing. There’s the type we’re going to talk about now (which I’m just going to call initial editing) but there’s also story editing and copyediting. I’ve talked about those a bit before, so I won’t go into them two much now. I will note that they exist and that all of these are very different things. So when we talk about editing—if we’re offering it, asking for it, or just doing it ourselves--it’s kind of important we’re clear what we mean.

What we were talking about at the Coffeehouse, and what I shall blather on about here, is what I’m going to call initial editing. There may be a better, more generally-recognized term for it, but that’s what I’m going with here. Really, I should’ve been calling it something like this for ages now because, like I said, they’re all different and I should’ve been as clear as possible.

Anyway...

This is the first real attempt at trimming and tightening my manuscript. If I was cooking, this would be the trimming the fat stage. Like, literally, trimming the fat. I can have a nice cut of meat (or a good head of cabbage, if you prefer) but that still doesn’t mean I’m going to use 100% of it when I cook. I’ll cut off that layer of fat and maybe that piece of gristle. I’ll peel off those outer, kinda banged up leaves of cabbage, but also trim them away from the really hard, solid stem at the core of the head. This is when I take thing that’s good or nice and make it into something great—something I want to impress other people with.

For our manuscripts, right off the bat this is going to mean having an open mind and a willingness to accept some possibly uncomfortable facts. If I refuse to believe there’s anything wrong, it’s really tough to fix anything. When I finally get to that first solid draft—usually the second draft, for me—it means things are very likely a little bloated with excess words Things that aren’t necessarily wrong, but my manuscript will almost definitely be stronger and cleaner without them.

I’m just going to list some words and phrases to keep an eye out for. To be very clear, this list isn’t complete and it definitely isn’t the end-all-be-all of things you should absolutely always delete from your manuscript. But I think it’s a good starting point, and as we go through maybe you’ll start to feel a pattern, a sense of the kind of stuff you should be looking for when you pull out the knives and start cutting. So fire up your word processor (or your blue pencil, if you’re hardcore old-school), find your Find function, and start looking for...

Adverbs and Adjectives
Let’s just start with the big ones. A lot of folks have very strong opinions on adjectives, and especially on adverbs. Man, they hate adverbs. Some people think all adverbs should be ripped out of your manuscript while other people think all adverbs should be burned alive in your manuscript. And some people say adverbs are wonderful things and we should cultivate them like clover on a low-water front lawn.

I’m not a fan of adverbs. They have their uses, absolutely, and I'm not saying I never use them, but I also know a lot of the time they’re something I stick in quick to modify a verb rather than spending a few seconds to find the right verb. It’s an easy habit to get into, because pretty much every sentence is going to have a verb and I can pause for five seconds here, ten seconds there, and suddenly that’s an extra minute I spent on that paragraph. Five or six minutes on this page. It’s a drag we can feel, so it’s not uncommon to fall back on our first choice. Which is why people slowly run or quickly run or clumsily run when they could be ambling, dashing, or stumbling. A good rule of thumb I got years back that I try to follow is four adjectives per page, one adverb.

That—
That can be a killer. There are times when it’s necessary for comprehension, or maybe even grammatically required depending on how I’ve structured things, but on a guess I’d say 75-80% of them are unnecessary in a story. It’s not uncommon for me to delete around 200 thats during my initial editing, if not more. Think about it. That’s almost an entire, actual page cut from my manuscript just by focusing on one word.

Somewhat Syndrome—
An editor friend of mine came up with this a while back. It’s from a bad habit I had of modifying, well, everything. Even in a loose third person POV, it’d seem odd for someone to look across a room and say “Yakko was six-foot-two and weighed one hundred-ninety-five pounds.” It just feels unnaturally accurate, doesn’t it? Sure, some characters might have that sort of precision, but not many. So I’d soften it up a bit. “Yakko was somewhere around six-foot-two and weighed maybe one-hundred-ninety-five pounds or so.”

Over the years I’ve come to add a few other words to this list, but for starters just try looking for things like somewhat, about, around, maybe, might, sort of, a bit, and kind of.  I’ll also toss out that I saw a similar list from Benjamin Dryer recently and he suggested cutting very, rather, really, quite, so, of course, and in fact.

Heck, while we’re at it, let’s mention appeared to be and its evil step-siblings seemed to be and looked like. The thing is, these phrases aren’t supposed to be used alone. They’re almost always part of a literary construction where the second half of that structure is either an implied or actual contradiction.  So when I’m saying “Yakko seemed to be six-foot-two,” what I’m really saying is “Yakko seemed to be six-foot-two but really he was barely five eleven.  And what I meant to say all along was just “Yakko was six-foot-two.”  So I should probably triple-check these and make sure I’m not accidentally establishing a contradiction I don’t mean to be (and wasting a bunch of words in the process).

Looking back over this list, it’s probably worth mentioning that, yeah, when I delete some of these words and phrases it might mean I need to spend more time rewriting other things so my dialogue or narration still makes sense. Sorry. It happens. Probably want to make sure I also don’t just repeat the problem. It’s all part of the normal editing process.

And again, I want to stress--these words aren’t always wrong. I can use multiple adverbs on the same page. I can say someone’s around six-foot-two. There are totally valid reasons for these things to happen. But the whole point of this initial editing is to look at how often I’m using these words and patterns. And to figure out if they’re really necessary.

Now, these aren’t the only things I tend to look for in this initial editing pass. There might be (will probably be) plot threads, descriptions, characters, and more that can use a little trimming. If any of you like, I could talk about editing those, too. But I think for now, this is long enough. We’ve all got things to do.

Speaking of which, to bring things full circle, this Sunday at noon is the Los Angeles Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. Come on by and talk with us about writing and publishing and all that sort of stuff. Or just lurk in the background and browse the store while you listen in. Either was, I’m bringing little danishes.

And next time, yes, twists. Finally. After that it’s up to you.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Ultimate NaNoWriMo Tip

Hey! I know it’s the day of costumes and candy, scary movies and fun photos, and all that sort of stuff. Writing’s probably the last thing on your mind right now. Heck, it might be sometime Friday afternoon when you read this.

Which, oddly enough, is what I wanted to talk about real quick.

As some of you are probably aware, Friday’s also the first day of November, which means it’s the first day of National Novel Writing Month.  People sit down at their keyboard, scoop up a legal pad, put a new sheet of paper in their old vintage typewriter, jam that USB16 plug into the hexadecimal cerebral port behind your left ear, and try to get an entire novel written—start to finish—in just 30 days.

Are you one of said people? Maybe you have been in the past. Maybe this is your first time. It’s my first time. Yeah, I’m going to try to get my current work in progress finished this month. Granted, I’m about 25K into it already, but my hope is to hit at least 100K this month. Yeah, even with the parents coming out for Thanksgiving.

(this will also be my convenient excuse later)

Anyway, lots of people are tossing out NaNoWriMo tips right now and I wanted to offer my own good news/bad news advice for you. More of  a mindset thing. I know it helped me a lot when I finally figured it out.

The bad news is this isn’t going to be a book. Not even close. See, the name NaNoWriMo is kinda deceptive, because we’re not really going to be writing a novel this month. We’re writing the first draft of a novel. Just a first draft. And, as we’ve discussed here a few times, there’s a big difference between a first draft and a polished, completed manuscript. 

And really, we’re writing a rushed first draft.  It’s going to have plot holes and dropped threads and factual errors and punctuation mistakes and typos.  Sooooooo many typos.  Incredibly embarrassing ones. It absolutely will, trust me.  Having a finished first draft is a fantastic starting point, but it’s going to need a lot more work after December first. No question about it.

Very sorry if you had any great plans about this finding an agent before Christmas. I’ve actually heard stories about agents who... well, I shouldn’t say they dread the first weeks of December. Or that they all physically cringe when they see “NaNoWriMo” in the introductory paragraph of the cover letter. But I think it’s fair to say they go into these things with a few strong opinions already formed.

Now, the good news is... well, it’s a first draft. We can stop worrying if an agent or an editor is going to like it because they’re never going to see it.  This draft is just for us to do whatever we want with.  I shouldn’t spend a minute second-guessing what those other people will want to see.  They may see later drafts, sure, but what we’re doing right now? This is just a big bowl full of cake batter. It’s got potential, sure, and it’s kinda yummy as is, but the truth is this isn’t even halfway through the process. There’s so much more that needs to happen before it’s ready to serve to anyone.

So forget ‘em.  Right now we can crank up the music and let our imaginations run wild.  We can do whatever we want.  We can tell our story.  We can drop all expectations and inhibitions and just write. Feel free to mess up, to use the wrong word, to make drastic changes, to leave things blank or marked [FIX THIS LATER]. Don’t worry about critics or agents or book covers or any of that

Seriously. NaNoWriMo is about the first draft so be selfish. Make it all about you and what you want to do. This is, as the youths say, the “dance like nobody’s watching” part of the process, so dance your ass off.  Hemingway said write drunk, edit sober, and well... we shouldn’t be doing a lot of editing this month. Let your creativity off the leash, eat nothing but corn chips, drink nothing but whiskey, run naked in the park, and don’t worry about anyone else and what they may think.  Do what you want to do with this one.  Do anything, free of worry or expectation.  Because this is just a first draft.

Also, don’t actually run naked in the park. You’ll probably get arrested, and that’s going to eat up a big chunk of your writing time.  Plus it’ll end up on YouTube and let’s be honest... unless you’re in really good shape that’s not going to help your career, either.

Although these days, who knows. Dad bod is kinda in with some folks.

You know what? If running naked in the park is part of your process, go for it. You do you. Tell the police I said it was okay.

Anyway, that’s my big NaNoWriMo tip for you.

Next time, I’d like to talk about twists. Really, about what happens before them.

Until then, go write.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Zombie Love

Hey, look! It’s even more bonus content! What the hell? This is turning into one of those blogs where there are semi-regular posts.

Hahahaa no it’s not. I’m just going to be really busy in November (for a couple of reasons) so I wanted to give you some extra stuff now while I had time. Plus, hey, it’s Halloween and I can always blather on about this sort of stuff a bit more. So everybody wins.

As a lot of you know, I worked on film crews for a lot of years, and then I wrote about filmmaking for another five or six years after that (there was a bit of overlap). This meant I got to interview a lot of screenwriters and writer-directors about their different projects, and some of them leaned into the spirit of this particular holiday season. And I still had some more of those sitting around so I figured, hey, why not share another one.

Some of you may be familiar with Fido, a wonderfully heartwarming (no, seriously) zombie story about a boy and his... well, pet zombie.  It was also a nearly fifteen year labor of love for Andrew Currie, Robert Chomiak , and Dennis Heaton, taking them from film school to Lionsgate Pictures, where the movie finally came to be with a very impressive cast. I got to speak with Andrew back then, and we talked a lot about his creative process and how the story evolved going from an elaborate novella to a screenplay to a finished movie.

A few of my standard points before we dive in.  I’m in bold, asking the questions.  Please keep in mind a lot of these aren’t the exact, word-for-word questions I asked (which tended to be a bit more organic and conversational), so if the answer seems a bit off, don’t stress out over it.  Any links are entirely mine and aren’t meant to imply Andrew’s specifically endorsing any of the ideas I’ve brought up here on the ranty blog—it’s just me linking from something he said to something similar that I’ve said.
By the nature of this discussion, there are going to be a few small spoilers in here, though not many.  Check out the movie if you haven’t seen it yet. It really is wonderful. I mean, it’s a feel-good zombie movie about families. What more could you want?

Material from this interview was originally used for an article that appeared in the CS Weekly online newsletter.

What got you into filmmaking and screenwriting?
I guess just, from a really young age, being a fan of movies.  I remember I was six years old and my dad took me to 2001: A Space Odyssey in the theatre.  And I still remember just being completely blown away by the movie—obviously not understanding it, but the visceral impact of the images.  And really being a life long film buff, a film geek I guess you’d say, staying up late watching horror films once everyone else went to bed.  The standard path (laughs).

You’ve written a lot of the stuff you’ve directed.  Do you think of yourself as a writer or director more? 
I think of myself as a writer-director.  I generally write on most of the things I direct.  I certainly have directed stuff I didn’t write.  I just find that, to me, there’s that idea that there are three films; there’s the film that you write, there’s the film that you shoot, and there’s the film you complete in post-production.  Those three phases to me are so fluid that they tend to all become one.  The writing process for me is directing on the page quite a bit.  I guess I find that being involved in the writing is fairly critical.

D’you think you’d ever write a screenplay without wanting to direct it?
Oh, I’d love to. (laughs)  But God knows who would want to direct it.  

Yeah, I’m not the fastest writer, and that’s another wonderful thing about collaborating.  What’s exciting for me about film is that it’s collaborative, it’s bouncing ideas off other creative people.  When we wrote Fido--Robert, Dennis, and I--we spent a lot of time in the story room together just bouncing around ideas.  I think often that’s the most fulfilling way of working, because you become so much more inspired by working with collaborators.

You’ve worked with Robert a few times, yes?
Yeah, Robert and I have co-written a couple things.  He’s wonderful, and he’s got that combination of having a wonderfully bizarre take on the world but also being a very pragmatic writer as well.  He’s great.

Now, Fido was originally a short story by Dennis, yes?
Well, Dennis had written this... it was somewhere between a short story and a script.  It was seventy or eighty pages, it was pretty long.  It was about a little boy in a small town who had a pet zombie.  The boy just fed him raw meat so he wouldn’t eat people.  We all went to Simon Fraser University together for film school.  Dennis and Robert did two years of the program, and I went for the whole four years, and when I graduated we all decided we wanted to write something together.  It was one of those things where everyone brings five ideas to the table, and Dennis brought Fido.  We just all immediately got excited by it and the potential for it.  We actually wrote the first draft really quickly.  A lot of the basics came really quick, but it really was nothing more than a world with zombies and Leave It To Beaver, cardboard cut-out characters.  There was a lot of fun, but we also didn’t have much to say about the world.  

That was back in 1994.  We went off and did other projects, and I took the script out to the Canadian Film Center in 1996 and worked on it out there, and then came back.  We started working on it again in 2001, and by then we had all developed more as writers.  We approached it much more from theme and character, and it made such a difference.  The world became much more complex.  And then September 11th happened and that started to affect the story in a political way as well.  It just started getting layers that were really exciting for me as the director.  You’re telling this absurdist comedy and you’ve got these other layers that you’re putting in, and whether people get them or not became an interesting debate for us.  You can lay something in, but if it’s too subtle it just flashes past people.

You mentioned 9/11.  There’s a lot of underlying paranoia and a very us-vs-them mood, even past the usual zombie movie standards.  How much of that was very deliberate?
Oh, it was very specifically an allegory, but it’s quite subtle.  You know, for example, in the beginning of the film Mr. Bottoms comes into the classroom and he tells the kids that he’s building the fences higher and there’s going to be security vans on every corner and he’s going to take everyone’s picture “just in case they get lost.”  And that was very much referencing Homeland Security.  What was really exciting was when we started thinking about the film in that way, it really started to affect the characters, namely Bill, the father.  The idea of ZomCom-- which is sort of the government and a corporation as an amalgamation-- pushing fear within a community as a means of control, which happens (pause) in many, many places in the world.  And Bill ended up becoming the embodiment of fear.  He’s terrified of zombies and his goal in life, really, is to die and not have to come back, and he’s got this slightly absurd childhood trauma of having to shoot his father when his father turned.  And the central irony of the whole movie, for me anyway, is that Fido is this dead creature who comes into the family and is more emotionally engaged in the world than the father.

So the allegory was certainly intentional.  What we really wanted to do was, on the surface, just have fun and play with the idea of Lassie and the “boy and his dog” story, but then on the deeper level have that political resonance and then in terms of the characters, tying to that.  Really, the theme we were writing from was “love, not fear, makes you alive.”  Bill is the embodiment of fear and Fido is the embodiment of love.  He brings this relationship into the family and becomes a catalyst for change within the family.

You did a short about a zombie, Night of the Living, a few years back, yes?  Are you a fan of zombie movies?
Yeah.  I saw a zombie movie, I don’t even know what it was, when I was really little.  I remember being really traumatized by it.  In a good way (laughs).  Y’know, there are so many damned zombie movies out there, it’s a bit of a drag.  When we started Fido in ’94 there weren’t that many around.  Now I have to read some critic going “they’re just taking the end of Shaun of the Dead and turning it into a movie.”  Which is really painful when we wrote it fourteen years ago.

For me, they make such great metaphors.  I think what’s interesting about zombies is that they are so close to us.  They are human in a way, and they tap into some primal fears in a really visceral way.  The idea of death and dying and mortality and disease, they embody all of those things.  A lot of monsters and creatures in horror are of the supernatural variety or completely inhuman, so they’re not as close to us in that respect.  So zombies have a greater sense of dread about them.

There’s a lot of baggage that comes with the word zombie.  Did it make it tough to sell people on this story?
It did.  What was great about it was getting Lionsgate and having such big fans.  They read the script and said they loved it, and let’s shoot it as it is.  They were completely behind it.  There were other distributors and there were concerns about the script.  Those concerns were mainly “what is it?” Is it a family film, a horror film, a zombie movie?    The majority of the people, and very happily all of the actors, got what the world was and the depth of it and the fact that it had this satirical throughline.  But certainly for a percentage of people there was this sense of, how is that mishmash of genres going to work.

There’s a few things that it seems somebody would’ve started pointing at (the killings, Mr. Theopolis, schoolkids with guns, etc).  Did you get a lot of notes from the producers or the studio about the script?
No, that was the great thing.  I don’t think I got a single note.  Everyone who was in on the film, Lionsgate, they were really big supporters.  It was almost odd that people were just so supportive.  I mean, I’d just made one feature before this called Mile Zero, which is a very character-driven drama, completely unlike Fido. 

Did the R rating come as a shock to you?
Absolutely.  I was quite disappointed with the MPAA and I had many conversations with them.  I went into the editing room  and we tried different things.  In the end, what they needed to make it PG-13 just undermined the film in a way that just wasn’t something we wanted or Lionsgate wanted.  So we decided we had to stay with an R.  The thing about the MPAA is that they really got the humor and they said they were real fans of the movie.  I think because children and the elderly get consumed in the movie, I started wondering if there was a moral compass at play.  There’s so little violence, I was really surprised with them being so hard on it, especially in light of so many other films that are PG-13.

Was doing the script as a group, the three of you, was it very different, process-wise, than if you’d just sat down and done it on your own?
The process for Fido was so unique in the sense that it went on for so many years.  When I was out at the Film Center I was working on it for about a year on my own, and then I’d come back and we’d all work on it.  It became a really dragged out process, and we got to a certain point, which was about a year and a half before shooting, where the three of us just did everything we could do and it was time for me to take it and start moving it towards production.  So Dennis and Robert stepped off at that point.  Screenplays can certainly exist just as screenplays, but there’s a point when they have to move towards the reality of being made and things change.  Dennis and Robert were wonderful about it-- I don’t want to sound like I’m insulting them.  They stepped away and then I worked on it, finessing certain things, and moving it towards production in terms of the reality of creating the world and making it happen.

Do you have any solid habits or methods when you write?
I really believe in the outline.  I always work from a beat sheet.  In terms of the scene by scene, I just find it’s such a wonderful focusing tool for me.  The way I write is probably quite a bit with the directing hat on, maybe more so than I should.  I tend to imagine the scene, and then re-imagine it and flip it over and over in my head until it clicks and then put it down on paper.  Even when I direct I work from a beat sheet, in the sense of what the real intent of the scene is and the character beats and the key moments.  I think it’s important to keep those clear and present.

How is it for you when actors start asking for changes?  Either actual rewrites of scenes or just adlibs on set?
I like and encourage improvisation at times, but the truth is sometimes if you allow improv just to start happening in an escalating way, what you can end up with is something that’s not nearly as coherent a story as it should be.  I really believe in getting a script to the place where it really works and then having faith in that structure.  Story structure works.  Character arcs work.  When they’re well written they really do fulfill the promise of the script.  A lot of times actors will bring wonderful moments and wonderful bits into the process, and I completely support that, and love that, as long as the arc and the integrity of the structure is being honored.