Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Talk

           I’m posting this one a bit early because... well, hopefully you’ve all got other plans for tomorrow.  I know I do.  Alita: Battle Angel is finally out.  And also some book about zombies on the moon...
            Oh, yeah, and it’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow.  With all the fun activities we associate with said holiday.  And that’s kinda what I wanted to talk to you about...
            Look, you’re getting to that certain point in your writing career.  Your voice is developing.  Your body is changing.  Your facial hair is growing out nice and thick, which is probably a big change for most of you women.
            Anyway, I figured it’s time we sat down and talk about... well...
            Writing sex scenes.
            Yeah, this is going to be a little awkward for all of us.
            Like sex itself, a lot of this is going to come down to our own personal preferences, comfort zones, and what works in a given situation.  As such, it’s going to be really tough to offer any specific advice about when and where and how these moments should happen in your book.  I’ve tossed out some general suggestions in the past if you really want them.
            What I wanted to talk about here is more of the act itself, so to speak.  Writing sex scenes is a tricky skill to master.  It’s a constant balancing act of too much and too little, exciting the reader or maybe horrifying them, and it’s ridiculously easy to make people roll their eyes (not in the good way).
            So here are three big things I think should be in mind when writing a sex scene.
            First is that we don’t always need to show sex happening in order for sex to have happened.  Subtlety and nuance are a huge part of sexiness—on the page and in real life.  If we know Wakko and Phoebe sneak off to the supply closet for half an hour during the office party, we can make an educated guess what they’re probably doing in there.  Especially with the appropriate context around them sneaking off and how they sound/look/act when they come back. 
            So depending on the overall tone of my story, maybe I don’t actually need to write out my sex scene—I can just let my reader fill in the blanks themselves.  And again, like so many well-done subtle things, this can end up being much, much sexier than actually showing stuff.  As an artist friend of mine once pointed out, “nudity isn’t sexy.  It’s what you don’t see that gets you turned on.”
            There is one small pitfall to doing things this way.  If I’m too subtle, people might not get what I’m implying.  Their assumptions may go much too far, not far enough, or maybe end up on that awkward balancing point where they try to figure out what just happened.  Or if anything happened.  I don’t want to knock my readers out of the story with a confusing “did they or didn’t they”—unless that was the whole point of my fade to black.
            Second, if I’m definitely going to show my sex scene, I need to remember that sex is... well, action.  I don’t mean it needs to be wildly enthusiastic, just that this is a case of actual, physical things happening.  And any sort of action can get boring fast if it’s written poorly.
            I'm a big believer that most action shouldn't take longer to read then it would take to happen, especially when we're in the moment.  A punch shouldn’t take three paragraphs to describe.  A car crash probably shouldn’t take two pages unless it’s some massive, seventeen-car pileup
            Likewise, if I’m telling you these two people are ripping each others clothes off, but it's over six pages of description...  you’re probably going to start skimming.  And that’s never good.  I don’t want to slow down action—any kind of action—by stretching it out with too much description.
            And talking about describing all that action...
            Third, if we’re going to be writing things out, brings us back to personal taste.  I think the catch with explicit sex scenes is they essentially become porn.  Porn, as a friend from work once pointed out, is when we see everything.  And after a certain point, that’s pretty much exactly what we’re talking about with any written-out sex scene.
            And some people like porn, some don't.  No judgment either way.  That’s just a simple truth.
            But there’s more to it than that.  Even the people who do like porn don't all like the same kind of porn.  This particular act really turns me on, but you find it kind of quaint and almost routine.  That might weird me out, this might be a complete non-starter for you, and that... okay, that seriously disturbs both of us on a number of levels.  So it’s a pretty safe bet that the more explicit/niche my sex scene becomes, the less  people it’s going to appeal to.  And the more people it’s going to repulse.
            Y’see Timmy, this is where empathy is going to be really important, and also a very clear, honest sense of who my audience is.  The people who pick up a thriller aren’t expecting the same kind of sex scenes as the folks who buy romance novels, and I’m thinking neither of them are expecting five pages of hardcore, strap-on orgy action.
            And if that last sentence made you a bit squeamish... you get my point.
            So go forth and write your sexy moments.  But think about if you really need them.  And how they’re paced.  And who you’re writing them for.    
            Hey, speaking of sexy things, I’ve got a new book out tomorrow, exclusively through Audible.  Have I mentioned that recently?  Dead Moon is a fun little zombie story set... well, you can guess where.  And it’s also set in the Threshold universe, so there may be some other things in there that appeal to a few of you.  Please check it out so I can keep buying cat food and rum.
            Next time...
            Well, okay, look.  I’m in the last few weeks of finishing up another Threshold book, so I don’t have a lot of time.  Truth is, I’m probably going to take the next week or two off to focus on that.  If you want to use this time to toss out a few suggestions for thing you’d like me to rant about, that’d be fantastic (thanks in advance).
            And one way or another sometime very soon, I’ll be revisiting the whole outlining thing.
            Until then, go write.
            Happy Valentine’s Day.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

In Context

            I’m writing up this post as I levitate upside down in my office.  Which—cool thing about this new house—exists in an orbiting satellite that’s only accessible through a teleport array we found in the attic.  Really cuts down on the commute to work, let me tell you...
            Okay, we’ll get back to that.
            I wanted to expand a little bit off something I touched on last week, and that’s the idea of context within a story.  When we talked about it before, I was using it to show how I can’t pull random elements from that story, copy them into my story, and expect them to work the same way
            Quick semi-related question.  What does it mean if I walk up and smack someone?  Full on, five fingers, hard across the face.
            Well, it could mean any number of things.  It could mean they’re a complete jackass.  Or maybe I am.  Maybe they deserved it.  Maybe they're in shock and I'm trying to bring them around.  We don’t know enough about the circumstances, the background, the existing relationships between me and the person I smacked.
            What if I just walked up and kissed them?  Or slapped their ass.?  Kinda the same thing, right?  We don’t know enough.  Maybe I’m a complete sleaze.  Maybe this is my partner of several years.  Hell, this could mean different things depending on where it happens. Doing it at the office could be extremely inappropriate, but in the locker room this could be a congratulations, and in the bedroom it might be foreplay.
            All of this additional information—the stuff we don’t know in these situations—is the context.  It what makes actions creepy or exciting or exciting in that other way.  As I’ve said before, there can be many different interpretations of the same thing depending on all the other things around it. 
            This becomes extremely important in genre fiction, because one of the big aspects of genre is that we tend to tweak the world a bit.  Maybe superheroes are real.  Or dragons. Or cybernetic implants.  Maybe they’re not just real, they’re common.  Boring, almost.
            For example, take my opening paragraph.  It probably made you smile, because it’s absurd in two or three different ways, right?  Complete nonsense, because we all know how the real world works and I am, no matter how many times I’ve wished otherwise, part of said real world.
            In a genre story, though, all of that could easily be true.  Then it isn’t laughable—it’s setting.  Possibly important plot elements. 
            Charlie Jane Anders made a wonderful observation a while back about how some of her least favorite stories were the ones that got pitched as something like “it’s a world just like ours, except everyone can turn invisible.”  The problem with these stories is that if everyone could turn invisible... well, the world would be completely different.  Views on privacy would’ve changed massively, possibly in different directions depending on how long this power’s been available.  Social views would be different, because anyone might be listening.  Heck, traffic laws would need to be adjusted because what if an invisible three year old wandered into the street?  Technology would be different, because there’d be whole-new priorities in this world.
            And if none of these things have changed... well, that just doesn’t make sense, does it?  Try to think of an aspect of your life that wouldn’t be different if there could be two or three invisible people in the room with you.  Any room.  At any time.
            Context lets me know what is and isn’t possible in this world.  By extension, it lets me know when people’s reactions are appropriate or wildly inappropriate.  If my story doesn’t explain what the limits of my world or characters are–or if I don’t give my readers enough to figure it out—it’s going to limit their investment and immersion in the story.
            For example...
            I watched this movie a while back where a guy hires a live-in maid (occupations and genders may be changed to protect... I don’t know, surely somebody deserves it).  Nothing weird or unusual there, right?  Except when the maid shows up, she’s kind of... well, unnatural.  Pallid, almost gray skin.  Dark circles under the eyes.  Blank stare.  Never speaks.  Tends to move in a kind of slow, lurching way.
            You can kinda see where this is going, right?  Zombie maid.  Clearly.
            But here’s the thing.  Our protagonist and his roommate don’t notice anything unusual about her.  They act like she’s totally normal.  One of them even thinks she’s kinda hot.  Same with other people who stop by.  They all just treat her like... well, the maid.  Or, at the very least, the woman staying at Yakko and Wakko’s place.
            And let me save you an assumption.  This wasn’t a comedy movie.  It bordered on melodramatic horror, really.  Except... nobody was horrified. 
            Well, maybe me...
            So what was going on?
            I watched the whole damned movie and I still don’t know.  Was she a normal woman who just happened to look and act like a zombie for some reason?  Maybe?  But if that was the case, wouldn’t people comment on it?  Since nobody in the movie ever mentions that the new housekeeper looks like one of the walking dead, it seems like this might be, well, a common thing.  In fact, there are two or three scenes where the characters pretty much treat her like an appliance, even putting her in a storeroom at one point.
            But if she was a zombie maid, shouldn’t that come up?  Heck, even if it’s the most normal thing in this world to have undead people cleaning your home, you think someone would mention it.  And plus... the rest of the time they’re talking to her and acting as if she’s a completely normal person.  Hell, like I mentioned before, the roommate’s even mildly obsessed with “how hot she is” and more than once talks about trying to get her in bed.  Which is a bit odd if she’s supposed to be a zombie.  At least worth a small discussion, yes?
            The real problem was that I couldn’t tell how to feel about any of this.  Were the guys being jackasses who objectified their maid—which would imply I shouldn’t like them, right?  Or was this a normal reaction, the way you or I would treat the vacuum cleaner when we weren’t using it?  Was the roommate’s desire to have sex with the maid kinda weird?  Full on creepy?  Hell, maybe even normal?  I don’t understand the world, so I don’t have any context to base these reactions in.
            And just to be utterly, completely clear—there’s nothing wrong with a story about zombie maids.  That’s the basis for a very cool story.  I’d never say otherwise.  Heck, it’s the basis for Fido, a really fun movie.  But if this is the world I’m setting my story in, I need to be clear this is... well, the world my story’s taking place in.
            All that said, it’s really common to start off with a story set in “the real world”  and then it suddenly veers off into the realm of magic, aliens, and/or elder gods.  We’ve all seen it.  If you like hearing about three act structure, this kinda thing is a common way the first act ends.  Again, nothing wrong with this.  Like I said, it’s really common and I bet we’ve all got a favorite story or six that does this.
            Why can they do it?  Well, if you look at these stories, the big reveal that zombie cyborg lizard men are secretly running Wall Street is pretty much always structured as a low-level twist—it doesn’t alter the context, it enhances it.  These reveals force us to look at a lot of earlier story events in a new light.  They don’t actually contradict anything we’ve already seen in those first two or three chapters.  And since they happen early in the story, they’re not asking us to rethink a lot of assumptions or beliefs about these characters or the world they live in.
            There’s also another way to pull off this context shift, and it’s one that you’ve probably seen done a couple times.  I do it in Dead Moon.  Heck, J.K. Rowling copied it from the original Predator.  No seriously.
            Okay, not seriously.
            Just tell them right up front.
            Most people tend to forget, but Predator begins with an alien spaceship doing a fly-by of Earth and launching a landing pod as it zooms past.  That’s the very first shot in the movie.  Seriously.  And then it’s half an hour of Arnold and Shane Black shooting guys in the very real-world jungle before we see another hint of the alien.  Same with Harry Potter.  Sure, there’s all that stuff about Harry’s miserable childhood with the Dursleys, but the first chapter’s all about magic cats and a flying motorcycle.  Rowling all but openly says right up front there’s a magic world the Dursleys are desperately trying to ignore, despite their clear connection to it.
            What this does is establish right up front these are genre worlds, no matter how normal they may seem as we ease into the story.  When they take their sharp turn, it isn’t out of nowhere. It’s just a reminder of what we’ve already been told.
            Y’see, Timmy, without this context, my readers are left in a kind of “anything goes” situation.  Which it makes it really hard to have stakes.  Which means they won’t be able to make any kind of investment in either the plot or the characters.
            And no investment means no reason to keep reading.
            Next week is a double-header for me.  It’s Valentine’s Day and I have a new book coming out.  Have I mentioned Dead Moon?  Two or three times?  Today?  Okay, just checking.
            Anyway, I’m going to be busy on Thursday.  But I’ll probably put something up earlier.  In the spirit of the holiday, I’ve been thinking it’s about time we talked about... you know.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Trying Too Hard

            Running a day late. Sorry about that. 
            So, I kinda wanted to revisit an idea I’ve talked about once or thrice.  But I’m going to come at it from a new angle, so don’t worry—you might still get something out of it.
            I’m guessing four out of five of you reading this probably dabble in what often gets called “genre fiction.”  It’s when we can slap a quick, easy label on a manuscript.  Sci-fi.  Fantasy.  Romance. Horror.  And there’s sub-genres and sub-sub genres and the labels can just get more and more specific.
            I’m also sure everybody here wants to write the best stuff they can.  I hope you do, anyway. The coolest sci-fi, the most heart-warming romance, the creepiest, gnaw-at-your-mind horror.  That’s the goal, right?
            When I started telling longer stories, it was my goal.  I tried to make everything cool.  I tried to have all those moments that made people gasp with excitement and terror.  I tried to make my story like the other stories I’d seen that did these things.
            But I had a couple of invisible issues, so to speak.  Problems I didn’t even know I was dealing with.  And a lot of them burned down to experience.
            First off... well, I was really new at this.  In every sense.  Some of you may remember me saying that I got my first rejection when I was eleven.  And at that point about 90% of my intake was comic books and old Doctor Who episodes, with the occasional Star Wars novel here or there.  And, in the big scheme of things, I hadn’t even read a lot of those.  So a lot of the stuff I thought was bold and clever was actually cliché, well used tropes.  It was just that I’d never seen them before.
            For example, one of my favorite comics as a kid was ROM.  But it wasn’t until much later that I realized ROM was pretty much just Bill Mantlo doing his own version of The Invaders, which was really Larry Cohen doing his own version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which was Hollywood doing their own version of the story from same-named novel.  And there’s nothing wrong with any of that... except my assumption that the elements in ROM were completely new and never seen before.
            Second was me trying to do all this cool stuff in my own writing.  There wasn’t anything wrong with the individual ideas, just that I was trying to do them at my clumsy, inexperienced level.  Trying to be cool.  Trying to be scary.
            For example, again, y’know that bit in every other horror movie when something bursts out from around the corner or behind the curtain, and it just turns out to be a cat or Wakko playing a stupid prank?  We generally call that a cheap shot.  Cheap shots aren’t scary—they’re the storyteller trying to be scary.  It’s me ignoring whatever’s going on in the actual story to toss a cat in your lap.   Another one that comes up a lot—especially in films—is nudity  Some people think throwing in random nudity is hot or sexy.  But just as often it can be creepy, demeaning, or just... weird
            When we toss in random, unconnected elements like this, we’re doing it to try and create an effect, not for the sake of the story itself.  It doesn’t matter how the cat got there or why it decided to leap randomly out after sitting quietly or why Phoebe decided walking through a cobweb meant she should take her shirt off while she was exploring the cellar.  It’s all just a storyteller trying to get a reaction, and how they get it is kind of irrelevant.  The ends justifying the means, as some folks might say.
            Which is, in my mind, kinda crappy storytelling.
            Some of you know that I like watching bad movies on the weekend and live-tweeting big (often easily-avoidable) story problems that come up.  A while back I watched one, a horror movie, which had tons of scary elements in it.  Tons of them.  The problem was, it was just tons of scary elements from other stories and movies, all just crammed in an attempt to make things scary without any thought to the characters, the scene, or the story as a whole.  It almost felt like horror movie mad libs, where the filmmakers just said “Okay, we need a scary thing.  And another scary thing.  And another scary thing.  And...”
            There’s two issues with doing this.  One kinda connects to this “trying” aspect and the other is its own thing –I’ll get to it in a moment.  The other one is something I’ve talked about before.  I can’t take something that’s funny/cool/scary/sexy in another story, shove it into mine, and expect it’s automatically going to get the same effect.  Especially when the elements on either side of it are also random things from other sources.  An element can be really disturbing in your story but absurdly funny in mine.  There are tons of YouTube videos that prove this point—splicing together two elements from different films and creating an entirely new, different effect.
            And this brings us to the other aspect of the “many scary things” problem, which is also the third overall issue when I start cramming stuff into my story.  It’s also another one that I’ve mentioned a couple times before.  A bunch of story points is not the same thing as a story.  I can have a hundred cool fantasy elements in my manuscript, but that doesn’t mean I’ve told a cool fantasy story.  A few dozen sexy, romantic moments don’t mean I’ve written a good romance.  And the biggest pile of cheap shots and scary beats don’t add up to a solid horror story.
            When I just start cramming these things in, I’m breaking up whatever coherent story I might actually have.  It’s becoming that random bunch of story points that don’t add up to anything.  I need to be adding things that serve a purpose within the story, not just in what I want the story to do in some vague, overall way.  I want things to be sexy and romantic, sure, but in service to the story, not just to be five seconds of sexy or thirty seconds of romance.
            This is a tough thing to grasp, I know.  How can trying to put more action in an action story not be a good thing?  How can more scary things in a horror story not be good?  But this is one of those little, subtle lessons that lets us go from being adequate writers to really good writers.  Some folks like to fall back on “the end justifies the means,” but this ignores the fact that whatever means I use are going to  determine the kind of ending I actually get.  And if my means are just random, haphazard elements...
            Well, what kind of end will that give me?
            Do I want something that’s trying to be a cool sci-fi novel?  Or do I just want to write a cool sci-fi novel?  Y’see, Timmy, I can incorporate almost anything and everything I want into my story.  But I need to actually incorporate it and not leave it sitting alongside.  Because I don’t want a pile of elements—I want a pyramid.  A perfect structure that’ll awe people for ages after they’ve seen it.
            Here’s a quick reminder that my new book, Dead Moon, is out exclusively from Audible in just two weeks time.  Believe me when I say there will be more reminders in the weeks to come.
            Next time, I think I’d like to expand on something I touched on here today...
            Until then, go write...