Thursday, May 30, 2019

Who’s the REAL Monster...?

Tomorrow’s my birthday. One of those big landmark/milestone birthdays. Which seems impossible because I don’t feel a day over 200 most of the time.

Anyway... to celebrate my final day as a young man, a couple of us are going to go see the new Godzilla movie tonight (I’ll be watching it at midnight when I become old), and that got me thinking about monsters. 

Monster stories are one of those sub-genres of horror I think get glossed over a lot. I’ve mentioned them in passing before, but it’s worth taking a closer look. Just because I have a monster in my story doesn’t automatically make it a monster story. And it’s my birthday so screw you all, we’re going to talk about monsters.

Horror is, simply put, the scary genre, so it’s not shocking to say that monster stories almost always involve some element of fear. It’s worth noting this fear should involve the characters and the audience. If only the audience is scared, this is more of a suspense situation.  If only the characters are scared... well, that could mean a lot of things.

The big thing that sets monster stories apart, I think, making them their own little sub-niche-genre, is that they’re about unstoppable things.  Go back to Frankenstein.  No matter what happens, the creature always breaks free, always survives. I’d tie this all the way back to the original novel, where even in the end the monster can’t be defeated—he just wanders away on his own terms to die. Except even in Shelly’s original book, we don’t know he dies. Even she left this window of “maybe he’s still out there.” Heck, go all the way back to Greek myths—we can cut off Medusa’s head and she’s still the most dangerous thing in a ten mile radius.

Because of this, a major element in pretty much every monster story is “getting the hell away from it.” Maybe it’s just the two of us running through the forest, trying to catch up with that bastard Wakko who left us behind (he’ll get his, don’t worry...). It might be a full scale evacuation of a city. There may be other elements, maybe even more dominant ones, but trying to get away is pretty much always going to be a big part of a monster story.

Another thing most good monster stories involve is a degree of self-reflection and sympathy. We’re scared by the monster but we also tend to feel a bit of pity for it. Every version of Frankenstein (well, okay, every good version) recognizes that the monster is horribly lonely, desperate to find any sort of companionship. The original Rodan has a complete gut-punch of an ending (I rewatched it recently and holy crap I did not register so much of it when I was a kid). Yeah, the monster in Super 8 is killing people, but it’s also been imprisoned and tortured by humans for the past twenty years or so.

This ties back to a common character trait I’ve mentioned one or ten times—relatability. We feel sympathy for monsters—even if it’s just for a few moments—because they reflect some basic truth about us, or humanity in general.  We all know what it’s like to be lonely. We’ve all lashed out. We’ve all growled at people and waved our arms and retreated up to the old windmill to fight off the villagers.

Anyway...

That leads to another point. Monsters tend to be characters in their own right. They aren’t nameless, unknown, unseen threats. They have personalities and motivations. They often have names. Like, actual, personal names, not just vague titles or pronouns. We all understand the difference between it and It, right...?

And one last thing. This one’s less of an absolute, but I think you’d find it to be a very common element. Comedy. Most of the best monster stories have some kind of comedy element. At the very least, they’re not dry and humorless. Partly because comedy is just unavoidable, and it naturally comes out at the most bizarre times.  But also because it lets us hang a lantern on the inherent absurdity of a lot of monster stories. Yeah, come on.  Be honest. I mean, seriously—how does a 350 foot tall lizard go unnoticed for so long? He’s five times bigger than a blue whale. Think how much it’d need to eat.

I mention all this because monsters are cool.  And because knowing my genre is important. All genres come with expectations, and the more often my genre story deviates from those expectations, the better the chances are it’s going to fall flat with my chosen audience.  If an anthology editor is looking for monster stories and I send in a piece of torture porn... that’s not going to work out well for me.  If I’ve led my agent to expect a monster story and instead I give him a fantasy romp with dragons, he’s probably going to start over from square one in a lot of ways. And if every movie in a franchise has been a slasher film and I suddenly decide to make a sci-fi monster movie...

Well, I’ve just made Jason X. Which isn’t a bad movie at all (I kinda love it), but it went against a lot of people’s expectations and stumbled hard because of that. It’s a monster movie in the middle of a slasher series.

Anyway, there’s some thoughts on monsters. Ponder them while you cheer on your favorite kaiju this weekend.

Speaking of this weekend—even though it’s my birthday, I’m helping out Jonathan Maberry by taking over the San Diego Writers Coffeehouse on Sunday.  So swing by Mysterious Galaxy between noon and three as we talk about writing, publishing, and all that.

And next time, maybe we’ll talk about worldbuilding a bit.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Recycling

So, I wanted to blather on about something that seems to come up now and then.  I’m guessing for at least three out of four of you, this is going to seem kinda obvious.  But for that other person... you may really need to hear this.  No matter which direction you’re approaching it from.

I’m a big fan of recycling. Fan’s probably not even the right word. It just seems like a no brainer to me. Why wouldn’t you do it? Why would someone be against it? We recycle our glass and plastic. We compost a lot of our food waste and cardboard and even some old clothes. Yeah, you can compost old clothes.  Weird, I know.

We reuse and repurpose a lot of stuff, too. That comes out of, well, being poor.  Even though I’m on a much better footing these days, financially, I still try to reuse things. We never broke the habit of using those spaghetti sauce mason jars as glasses. Half our Tupperware is take-out containers. And I still look at frozen pizza boxes as potential tanks.

What’s odd, though, is a certain subset of folks who’ll mock you for doing this with your writing.

I’ve brought up many, many times the need to cut manuscripts.  We write so much stuff that gets trimmed away.  Clever bits of descriptions.  Cool dialogue.  Sometimes whole scenes, subplots, or even whole characters. When it comes time to hone and focus that first draft, all these things can fall under the editorial knife.

Now, weird as this may sound—like I said, for most of you this is going to sound bizarre, but—some people think this cut material’s gone for good. It’s been deleted. Even if some record still exists, it’s unusable now. Toxic. Radioactive. It’s somehow been tainted forever.

I think a lot of this comes from people who lean a little too heavily on the art side of writing. Oddly enough... the ones who don’t write that much.  They get a little too focused on the idea and the craft and the ART of it. I put these words together in this way for this story.  I didn’t use them like that or like that, and so pulling them out and putting them somewhere else would just be wrong.  It’s not what I first intended.  It’s not what those phrases were created to do.

If I listen to those folks too much... or maybe if I am one of those folks (it’s okay, admitting it is the first step)... I probably have a somewhat shallow view of recycled material.  Those dialogue exchanges that I cut, or that subplot or character... they’re not going to work anywhere else.  I’m not being artistically honest or something like that.  How could a character crafted for story A possibly work in story B? Dialogue that I’d intended for X just shouldn’t work coming out of Y’s mouth, especially if Y’s in a completely different book.

And if I do try it and it does work... well, that just says something about me, doesn’t it?  I probably don’t know what I’m doing. My writing must be pretty thin and generic if I can just pluck some material from here and drop it in over there.  I’m probably lazy as hell in other aspects of my life, too.

If you happen to be the one out of four who thinks this... sorry.  It just isn’t true.  In any way.  Just in case my tone wasn’t carrying through.

Of course I can repurpose material. Artists have done it throughout history.  We jot down notes for one thing and end up using them for another.  We cut from that and then repurpose it for this.  Exchanges of dialogue. Neat ways to describe something.  Maybe a whole scene of morning-after awkwardness or a supporting character who got nixed for space.

Granted, none of this is going to slide right in without a bit of work and some tweaks.  I’m probably going to have to change a few proper nouns, and possibly a few personal pronouns, too.  Maybe an adjective or three.  That’s just the nature of such things. But it’s still absolutely fine to use it.

And honestly, because it’s older stuff I didn’t use before... I may have improved since I first wrote it (hopefully I have). That was a great bit back then, but y’know, if I just did this it’d be fantastic.  Or maybe he seemed like a good character for back then, but now I realize this should all really be centered around her.

I’ve got a book coming out later this summer/early fall called Terminus (that’s probably what we’re calling it), and it’s got a discussion between two characters I’ve been trying to use for almost eight years now. Seriously. I had to cut it from another book, but it’s got some great character stuff and I’ve always wanted to use it. Terminus finally gave me a great place where it could fit. And, yeah, it needed some adjustment to fit in this story with these characters at this point in the overall story. But it’s still 80-85% the same and I think folks are going to love it when they read it.

Still not convinced? Are you one of those one out of four who’s ready to pop down to the comments and point out I'm one of those lazy hacks who barely qualifies as a real writer?

How about Ray Bradbury? Is he a lazy hack? Most of Fahrenheit 451 is recycled ideas, after all. Bradbury had already used the firemen (the book burning ones) in a bunch of different short stories.  They even show up in The Martian Chronicles.  He'd also done longer stories about book burning and corpse-burning (seriously).  The spider-like Mechanical Hound is from an old short story he’d never finished.  There it‘s a law-enforcement tool used by sheriffs and police. He lifted the entire description, almost word for word, and dropped it into 451, along with some dialogue about it. Heck, the whole book is an expanded version of his short story "The Fireman" which he expanded into a novella and then expanded again into a full book.

And he's not alone. Lots of writers have files of material they had to cut. And they're always trying to find that material a new home.

Y’see, Timmy, yeah, writing is an art. But like every kind of art, the “how I do it” is entirely up to me. My manuscript might be pristine and pure and new. It might make Frankenstein look like somebody with a small appendectomy scar. But honestly, none of that matters. The only thing that matters is the manuscript I have at the end. Does it flow? Are the characters believable?  Is the plot interesting? Does the dialogue ring true?

Then it’s good.  And that’s all that matters.

Next time... okay, to be terribly honest, next time is the day before my birthday. One of those milestone, “we should make note of this” birthdays. What I’m saying is, I’m probably going to be drunk. Which means I’ll end up talking about Godzilla or something.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

...Could Cut Diamonds

At the Writers Coffeehouse this past weekend we talked a little bit about starting a book, which is something I blabbed on about here just a few weeks back.  I thought it might be worth going over one particular aspect of both discussions.

There’s one thing any writer needs to understand if they want to be successful. It took me  a while to get it.  Really get it. 

Ideas are cheap.  Ridiculously cheap.  They’re a dime a dozen.  I’d guess on an average day I have at least a dozen random ideas for books, short stories, screenplays, or television episodes. 

Now, in my experience, beginning writers tend to hit one of two problems when it comes to ideas, and they’re really two flipsides of the same issue. 

One type of writer laments that they never have good ideas.  Yeah, I might have a couple clever thoughts, but they’re not, y’know... book-worthy.  Not like some of the stuff out there. Wanderers or  Middlegame or Black Leopard, Red Wolf or... I mean, all that stuff is so good.  On so many levels.  The ideas I come up with all feel kinda average.  They’re not worth writing about, so I don’t write. I wait for the good ideas to strike.

If I’m the second type, I have too many ideas.  I’ve barely finished writing my third screenplay this month but I’ve already got an idea for a series of epic novels.  Which leads me to a comic book series.  And a podcast.  And a collection of linked short stories. I can barely keep up with all the ideas I have.

In either case, I’m probably suffering from a misconception.  The same one, really. I think anything that goes on the page has to be pure, award-winning gold.  The difference is that the first type of writer won’t put anything down because they know it isn’t  gold, whereas the other folks are assuming it must be gold because they put it down on the page.

Make sense?

The catch, of course, is that most of the stuff that I put down isn’t going to be gold.  It’s going to be rewritten and edited down and polished.  I shouldn’t be thinking of story ideas as gold, but more like diamonds.  When I find a diamond in the wild, it’s a crusty black lump.  They’re not sparkly or faceted, and they definitely don’t look like they’re worth six or eight thousand dollars per carat.  Diamonds need to be cut and recut, measured and examined, cut again, and then polished some more.  That’s how they get ready to be placed in a setting and shown off to the world.

So that first group of writers is tossing out all those black, coarse stones because none of them look like engagement rings.  The second group‘s busy sticking the crusty lumps on gold bands and asking you to pay three months salary for them. 

Hopefully it’s easy to see why neither of these is the right approach.

What’s the trick, then? Is there a way to know which ideas are the good ones to spend time cutting and polishing?  How can I tell if it’s an idea with potential or a bad idea or maybe a good idea but just one idea too many?

Well, y’see Timmy, the ugly truth is... a lot of the time, I can’t tell.  I just need to do the work.  I might go through a hundred pages or a solid week or three of outlining and realize there’s not really anything there.  A fairly successful friend of mine spent months working on a novel.  He got almost 70,000 words into it before he realized... it just wasn’t working.  So he stopped and moved on.

Sure, yeah, he probably could’ve cheated a bit.  Tweaked a few things, maybe tossed out a deus ex machina or two, but in the end it didn’t work because it didn’t work.  No clever phrase or substituted word or literary sleight of hand was going to change that.

I know a lot of folks have trouble accepting this, even though we all understand this sort of thing happens in a lot of other jobs. Chefs come up with cool recipes they never get to use.  Engineers design things that never get built.  Hell, do you have any idea how many unproduced scripts there are floating around Hollywood that have Oscar-winning screenwriters behind them?  Every creative person puts out a lot of material that never gets seen by anyone.  We do a lot of work and it gets cut or replaced or just... not used.

Don’t get paralyzed wondering if your ideas are gold.  Odds are they aren’t.  But you’ll find some diamonds in the rough, and once you know how to spot them it’ll be an easier (and quicker) process to find them next time.  For now, take what you’ve got and work with that.  There’s a chance there’s a shiny diamond or two in there somewhere.  If you put the work into them.

Speaking of cutting out excess material, next week I wanted to talk to you about recycling.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Expletive Deleted

A few weeks back, a superhero movie kinda came and went in the world. No, not that one. That one’s still doing fine.  The other one, that came out two weeks before it. I admit, I didn’t see the other one. I’m not against reboots or remakes, but it felt like all this had going for it was... it was R-rated.  So the protagonist could swear.  And the filmmakers could show more gore.  And maybe a butt or a boob or something.  Again, didn’t see it.

Thing is “profanity” isn’t really much of a selling point once we’re past... what, ten years old? Blood and gore usually just draws attention to it vanishing between scenes. Seeing a naked butt on screen lost a lot of its appeal once the internet became a thing. I guess you could make an argument for whose butt it is, but even that's only going to get you so far...

We’ve all known for a while now that this sort of stuff doesn’t make a good movie.  It doesn’t automatically mean my movie is bad, but if these are the only elements I’m pushing to say my movie is good... well, I can’t be surprised if I don’t do well at the box office.  As A. Lee Martinez noted a few weeks back, ”I never trust a story that wants to impress me with its gore and vulgarity. I have enjoyed many a story with gore and vulgarity, but never one that was sold to me that way.”

I think this is true of most storytelling. There isn’t much we’d consider taboo in stories anymore.  And there’s an audience for almost everything.  There are sub-genres and sub-sub-genres and when you go deep enough pretty much anything goes.

Because of this, though, I think sometimes writers get caught up in the idea of just showing everything.  All the gore and sex and violence they can manage, all written out in long, elaborate detail.  I mean, it fills up the page and, hey, check it out.  Bet you’ve never pictured someone getting split in half that way before, have you?

We need to understand, though, that these excessive and explicit moments are very rarely part of the story or plot—they’re just descriptions.  If Bob dies, it rarely matters if it took me one sentence or seven pages to kill him.  In the end, Bob is dead and it kinda boils down to how much of this actually advanced the plot, and how much of it my readers could just skip over with a yawn.

And yeah, sure, sometimes there’s a point to it.  There’s a narrative reason I need two pages of gore or three pages of sex or a character who drops an f-bombs in every sentence they speak or think.  Nobody would say otherwise (nobody you should listen to, anyway).  But this is a lot like adverbs, adjectives, or exclamation points.  The more I use them, the weaker they get.  They start to clutter up the page.  So I want to be a little conservative with them.

Here, lemme give you a very non-conservative example....

My friend Autumn Christian wrote a wonderful book called Girl Like A Bomb. The main character (and narrator), Bev, discovers she’s got an unusual superpower. When she has sex with people, they get... better. They clean up. They get focused. They become the best, self-actualized version of themselves.

Now, you might guess sex is a big part of this book, and you’d be right (consider that your warning if you decide to pick it up). The first few times Bev has sex—like any teenager—it’s a wild ride and it’s very explicit. It’s an all-new experience for her, she likes it, and she is, as they say, DTF.

But after those first few encounters—and one much more violent one (consider that your other warning)—Bev becomes all-too-aware of the effect her gift is having on her partners. It’s still fun, but it’s also a responsibility, and this shows in her narration.  Less than halfway through the book, her various encounters becomes a quick sentence or less, sometimes coming across as more of an annoying obligation or burden.  Because while the story involves sex, it’s not really about sex—it’s about what Bev can do with her superpower. So that’s what Christian focuses on.

And this holds for everything.  If I push any story element up to ten for my whole book—sex, action, violence, gore, cool lines—it’s going to get boring fast.  Sure, there’s a small percentage of readers that’ll be thrilled, but it’s reeeeeeeeeeeeeally tough to find any sort of wide appeal that way.

Plus... in a way, all this extensive description is me feeding everything to my reader.  I’m telling them everything instead of showing them everything.  And, yeah, I know that sounds weird but...

Okay, look... I’m going to let you in on a secret.  This is one of the six Great Secrets of storytelling that you can only learn from a crow after they eat 169 peanuts in a row from your hand.  It’s the first and easiest of the secrets to learn, but I’m just going to give it to you for free...

You’ve probably heard people talk about showing vs. telling all the time, but we rarely bring up the obvious.  We have to tell.  That’s all we can do. I’m typing words for you to read, telling you what the characters see, hear, feel, smell, think, whatever. On the surface, telling is pretty much it for us as writers.

When we talk about showing, we’re talking about making images appear in the reader’s mind. And the longer it takes for those images to form, the less effective they are at creating some kind of emotional response. So, to speed things up, we want the reader to do some of the work for us. We want them to tell them just enough—just the right things—and have them fill in the blanks.  They supply the horror or the excitement or the disgust so it’s instantly summoned to their mind, rather than waiting for me to spell it all out. It’s the difference between me telling you a joke that you immediately get and me having to explain the joke to you (“Because, y’see, the last guy was hiding in the refrigerator, so when they threw it over the railing he ended up...”).

That’s what showing is.

See, when I wrote out that little bit of dialogue, you got that.  Even if you didn’t recognize the joke, you understood the situation of having to spell out the punchline for somebody.  You filled in everything around that sentence fragment.

Truth is, the big majority of readers like doing this. They enjoy it when we trust them enough to understand things. When we don’t spell everything out for them.  In graphic detail.  Billy Wilder used to say you could let the audience add 2 + 2 now and then and they’d love you for it. Heck, I’ve got a whole loosely-scientific theory about how this kind of writing sets off the pleasure centers of our brain.  No seriously.

So y’see Timmy, I don’t need to wipe every single one of these excessive, over-described bits from my manuscript.  But, like adverbs, if I’ve got a bunch on every page... ehh, I might want to stop to reconsider some of my choices.

Next time, I’ve got a few more ideas to bounce off you.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

That Figure in Black

Today, I was hoping we could have a quick talk about that mysterious figure across the street.  You know the one.  Over there.  The person in the hat and trenchcoat who’s just standing on the edge of the shadows, watching us as we dig up this old time capsule.  The one who said something cryptic as you walked by.

You know who I mean.

No, seriously.  We all know the character I’m talking about, right?  The one who shows up in the first chapter, spouts a few  statements, and then vanishes for the next three or four hundred pages.  Heck, maybe they don’t come back at all.

Maybe—and let’s be honest here—maybe we’ve even written a character like that.  I know I have.  It’s okay.  Admitting it is the first step to getting better.

Truth is, characters like this are the one of the reasons so many agents and editors say they hate prologues.  So often, these characters don’t do anything except waste our time building a  false sense of mystery, dropping psuedo-hints that rarely, if ever, amount to anything.  They just... they’re awful.

So... how could we make them better?

Let me ask you this.  Forget the aura of mystery. What if they spilled their guts in chapter one instead?  They’re standing there across the street, then they walk over and just start telling us everything.  I mean, almost uncomfortable amounts of personal information.

What would this character say?

Who are they?  No, seriously—who are they?  What’s their actual name?  Who do they work for?  Why are they here?  Why are they dressed all in black?  Why are they saying these words?  What do they know? If they know more, why aren’t they just explaining everything?  Are they on my protagonist’s side?  If they are, why don’t they stick around to help?  If they aren’t, why aren’t they taking more direct action against the protagonist?  Why are they so cryptic?

Now, once I know all that... let's look at my original version of this moment.  Is my mysterious figure acting believably?  Naturally?  This is my chance to make sure everything lines up, so my readers—including agents and editors—won’t feel cheated later on.

I’ve talked about something similar to this before—the detective’s speech.  That sometimes it’s worth writing out a chapter I might never use because it’ll help me figure out exactly how things are working in my story.  Because... well, I should know how things work in my story.  And why they work that way.

And why that guy’s sitting in his car across the street, watching us talk.

Next time... Look, I’ll be honest.  Next time might get a little explicit.

Until then, go write.