Tuesday, December 28, 2021

2021: The Accounting

Well, it’s that time again. Last few days of the year, holidays have flown past, the new year is looming and we’re all looking back on the past twelve months and figuring out what we got done. Was it a productive year? Was it good creatively? Mentally?

I think it’s good to do this sort of thing, personally. It’s hard to tell if I’m improving at something if I don’t keep records and establish some sort of baseline, even if it’s just being able to compare this year to last year. So I like adding all this stuff up so I can remind myself that, yeah, I really do work at this a lot. It’ a nice reminder when the imposter syndrome kicks in late at night.

Plus, let’s face it. This year, like 2020, was rough on productivity. In a lot of ways, it was much better than last year. At the same time... wow, 2021 started rough and felt like it never really got its footing. We all tried to go back to normal and for so many reasons... we couldn’t. There’s just been this lurking unease all year, about so many things—covid, politics, the supply chain. It’s like we know the killer’s somewhere in the house with us, but we’re not sure if we should bolt for the door or just stay quietly hidden here in the living room. I mean, nothing bad’s happened to us but there was some shouting and then a scream from upstairs where Randi was but she’s probably okay?  And maybe we could try opening the window and getting out that way but is it worth the risk? That window really squeaks sometimes. Maybe we’d get out, yeah, but maybe it’d be one of those things where we’ve got one leg and an arm and our head out the window and then something YANKS us back inside.

It’s been like that. For me, anyway. Maybe it wasn’t as bad for you. But if it was, you weren’t alone. This is my full time job and for the past two years... it’s been tough to focus on being creative.

Anyway... what did I do this year?

Right off the bat, it just struck me that I didn’t have a single thing come out in 2021. No novels or short stories or anything. Been a couple years since that happened.

I finished The Broken Room in January, then ended up doing another pass on it based off some talks with my agent (which actually led to a whole new chapter and some big tweaks to a few others). Then there were all the story edits and copyedits with Blackstone. Maybe worth adding in that I chipped in some creative thoughts on the marketing and cover art, even if all of those thoughts were wisely ignored. I mean, I still did that work, so we should count it. And this is the point where I shamelessly say, hey, you can preorder The Broken Room right now from your favorite local bookstore, Indiebound, or any monolithic online superstore named after a South American river.

I also did a massive outline for a six book series I’ve wanted to do for a while now. Like, a whole beginning-to-end hexalogy. Some of you may have heard me talk about it  here or there. The entire combined thing was just shy of 44K words. I also used that to make a trimmed down, 10K word pitch document for my agent, who I’d also been talking about this with for a few years.

And, hey, then I sat down and wrote the first draft of book one of said series, which came in at a terse 73K words. Like a lot of my first drafts, it had some holes and some bits I skimmed over. I just wanted to finish it because...

(dramatic break)

While my agent really liked the six book series, he also admitted it’d be a tough sell at this point. Just because of the state of the industry, the point my own career is at, and so on. We had a couple conversation about it—the kind of conversations the artistic side doesn’t’ like, but the business side knows you need to have—and, well, after finishing that first draft of Book One, I sat down and worked out  pair of outlines for two different, stand-alone books that had been tickling my brain for a while. So that was another 17k words scribbled out.

And after we talked about those two outlines, David pretty enthusiastically said I should focus on one of them. And I’m currently about 35K words into that as we speak. Hoping to have a first draft done by Valentine’s Day, maybe?

And on top of all that...

I scribbled up 52 blog posts this year, counting this one. Granted, three or four of those were cartoons, so I didn’t have to put much effort in past, y’know, posting them. But hopefully still enough that one or two of you found something useful here. Seriously, I’m never sure if this is more useful for you or therapeutic for me...

Speaking of therapy, so many Saturday geekery threads. At least forty. A lot of B-movies dissected in real time. Most bad, but some good ones, too.

I also jotted a few thousand words (maybe eight or nine) down for a geekery side project I’ll probably be launching this year. Nothing spectacular, don’t get too excited. Well, some of you may end up very excited, some will be willing to try it, and a few of you will greet this with a resounding “huh.”

And I read a lot, too. Nowhere near as much as I would’ve liked (never as much as I would’ve liked). I think I’m looking at ending the year with twenty-six novels under my belt, plus one or two non-fiction books and a ton of articles (an actual metric ton). Weirdly enough, very few comics this past year. Covid isolated me from my regular shop in LA (The House of Secrets) for most of last year, and this year I was hesitant about going to find a new place because, y’know, the killer’s somewhere here in the house.

So that’s more or less where I am.

How about you? Did you get some cool stuff done this year? Don’t worry about how much—did you get anything done? Did you carve out a little time and manage to  do something in your chosen field of creativity?

Again, don’t beat yourself up over what you didn’t do. There’s a lot of stuff we all didn’t do. This is about celebrating what we did. Taking note of it. Figuring out what we need to do so we can improve next time.

And speaking of next time...

When next we meet it’ll be 2022. I’ve got a couple topics I plan to blather on about. Was going to talk about plot and character a bit, perhaps touch on how long things can take to write (or how long it can take to get a career going), maybe talk a bit about making things up. And maybe some of that will sound interesting to you. Or maybe you’ve got something that’s been gnawing at you and you’d like to hear me blather on about. If that’s the case, drop a comment down below or over on Twitter or Instagram.

So until next time, please have a safe and happy New Year, please get your shots if you haven’t already, and please please please...

Go write.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Going With It

Holy crap how is this year almost over? Why is time moving so fast? What did all of you do? Who touched the red button?!?!

So, not to keep mining the past, but I wanted to talk about one more thing that came up at the SDCC Writers Coffeehouse. During the Q & A someone asked what I generally think of as an “impossible” question—although just looking at that written out I really should find a better term. See, it’s not so much that these questions are impossible to answer, it’s that there’s really only one person who can give a definitive answer. And it’s usually the person asking the question.

Y’see, there are questions that are very specific to my story, and the “correct” answer for me probably isn’t going to be the same correct answer for you. Things like, how many characters should I have in an ensemble? What’s the correct point of view to use? How much sex is too much? How much detail do I really need? See what I mean? There’s no real way to answer that unless I know the whole story, how it’s written, the context things are happening in...

Somebody at the Coffeehouse asked (paraphrasing from memory here) “how many made up words can you have in your first couple pages before an editor stops reading?” And my immediate answer was, well, I couldn’t really answer that. Again, the right answer for me won’t be the right answer for you, and said answer’s going to change from book to book.

But about a week later it struck me there is a way that we, as writers, can at least get a sense of if something’s disruptive or not. And that’s by being aware of the flow of our work. So let’s talk about that a little bit.

I think we’re all aware of flow on one level or another. I first heard the term from a writing coach named Drusilla Campbell, but I knew what she was talking about as she explained it. Paraphrasing a bit more, she described it as why some books you can’t put down and other books make you think about how  the laundry needs folding.

I’d say flow is equal parts pacing, tone, and empathy. It’s about me understanding what’s going to jar my reader, either by nature of structure or material or vocabulary. What’s going to make them pause to remember these are just words on a page and not actual events. It’s about me stepping out of the way and not trying to be seen as the author. Letting people read my story rather than analyzing it. Really simply put, flow is what keeps people in my story instead of, well, knocking them out of it.

And that brings us to using words we’ve made up. Could be a simple portmanteau or clever bit of wordplay. Maybe terms from a technology we made up. Or a secret dark order. Maybe even a whole language. But I have to be careful, because  there’s a good chance I could kawonk someone right out of the story if I’m using a lot of words I’ve made up.

You all see what I did there, right? Or maybe you didn’t. Kawonk is a nonsense pile of letters I threw together, but in context you kind of understood what I was saying with it almost immediately. Some of you may not even have really registered it as a made up word and just read it as a funny onomatopoeic sound effect or something.

But something can only work in context when I understand the context. So the more words I swap out with made up ones, the less chance there is of my readers understanding what I’m trying to say. Like if I told you we needed to kawonk this dreeenil ptoob before we niknik ptar the cheegles. I mean, if we hit a sentence like that we’re going to instinctively stop and start parsing the structure to figure out what this whoa I just broke the flow, didn’t I?

And even if there is plenty of context, it can get annoying to read something where I’ve decided to substitute existing words with made up ones for no real reason. Say, for example, people in my fantasy world all duel with scheevs. Some are cheap and crudely made, some are works of art, but most people have one. You see, a scheev is a narrow, double-edged blade about 24 to 30 inches long (originally iron or bronze, but mostly steel now), with a strong grip, some sort of protective guard or crosspiece between the blade and the grip, and often a small counterweight at the base that also locks the blade in place. And if you’re thinking, wait, did I just spend a whole paragraph describing a sword you are correct.

Except here they’re called scheevs. For... reasons.

And again, imagine how frustrating that paragraph would be if instead of bronze and steel it talked about droker and ogyed, flokks instead of inches, and an oppomass instead of a counterweight. Hopefully I didn’t make up my own numerical system, Think about pausing to dig through all of that and try to glean a meaning out of it and realizing we’re just talking about goddamn swords.

I don’t know about you, but that’d bring things to dead halt for me as I groan and rub my eyes.

‘Cause here’s the thing we always to remember. Weird as it may sound, the words I use don’t really matter. I mean, of course they’re important and they’ll bring nuance to the story. But that’s my point—the story is what matters. The characters matter. The plot matters. The actual words are just a delivery device. They’re the corn chip getting all that delicious salsa and guacamole into or mouths. And if I’m focusing a lot of my time and energy on coming up with a new way to say corn chip, that’s a good sign something’s probably going wrong in my writing.

I’m not saying don’t make up words. I mean, I put squale out there into the world. But there should be a reason for them being in my story, and the reason should be better than “I wanted to make things sound different.” Ultimately, they should be adding to my story, not distracting from it. Definitely not knocking me out of it to diagram sentences, glean meaning, or just grind my teeth in frustration.

Next time...

Okay, this was super late, so next time will be in three days. And I’ll probably be talking about the holidays.

Until then, go write.

Let’s be honest, we’re not going to get a lot more in before 2022, so try to make it count.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Two Rights Don't Make...

Jeeez, it’s been so long. You’ve both been very patient.

I got a question a few weeks back about using the world of my books in a game setting. Not, like, a question from Blizzard or Bethesda or something. Just someone running a tabletop campaign who (very graciously) asked my permission to use a bunch of these elements I’ve created in the game they were playing.

And this put me in such an odd spot I didn’t respond to it for a while. The more I thought about the answer, the bigger and more sprawling (and apologetic) it became. And then there was a semi-related question that came up while I was blathering away at the Writer’s Coffeehouse for SDCC, which reminded me I’d never answered it here.

So... let’s talk about rights a little bit. This is one of those terms that doesn’t get discussed a lot. Well, not in the correct way, I think. I’ve seen a couple people get screwed over because they didn’t realize what they were giving up and/or who they were giving it up to.

Also, to be clear, I’m just going to talk about what rights are. If any of you want to talk about how much rights cost or how long they should be held, that’s a different conversation, and not quite relevant to all this. For now, just defining rights and a little bit on how they move around

The easiest way to think of rights is that they’re legal permissions. I’ve created something (for our purposes, a long story of characters and events) and I can give, sell, or rent out (so to speak) all the assorted rights to this story. You’ve probably heard of some like First North American Publishing Rights. This means the person who has those rights is (surprise) the person who gets to legally publish the story for the first time in North America. My agent likes to talk about foreign-language rights a lot—German rights, Spanish rights, Thai rights. That means who gets to tell my story in those languages. And we all love to talk about movie rights, television rights, and action figure rights.

You might’ve chuckled at that last bit, but it’s worth mentioning. The number of rights is pretty much infinite, because there’s a near-infinite number of things that can be done with my story. It can be turned into a hardcover book or a Portuguese eBook. It can be a French stage play or a Russian movie or an episodic Korean podcast with a dozen voice actors. It can be adapted into a comic book or a video game or a line of collectible stickers. It’s sort of like, well, Rule 34. If I can imagine a right, that right exists. Because I own ALL the rights to my work, no matter how bizarre or absurd they are. I still hold all the collectible blind bag phone charm rights to the Ex-Heroes series and you’d better believe nobody’s getting those cheap.

Also, remember when I mentioned renting some of my rights up above? That’s what an option is. If someone can’t afford to buy the rights (or maybe doesn’t want to commit that much at the moment), they may option them. It means they get to act like they own the rights, but there are certain limitations and a very strict time limit.

This is one of the reasons contracts tend to be long. We want to be very specific about what rights the writer’s giving up and what the other party’s getting (and for how long). F’r example, let’s say I’m making a deal with a company for the audiobook rights to a book. If I just say they get all audio rights, there’s a strong argument that I’ve also just included podcasts and live audio streams and maybe even recordings of performances. Yeah, if someone finally decided to make that stage musical of The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe, a good lawyer could argue that those folks couldn’t release an album because this other company has all the audio rights.

So rights get divided up and different groups get permission to do different things with my story. For example (again), right now there’s at least eight entities (probably closer to a dozen, but eight off the top of my head) who all legally have different rights to my book 14. Some have them for a few more months, some have them for years, one has them for more than a decade. And it takes my agent a bit of work to make sure there are no overlaps, or that things are very specific when there are.

Make sense so far?

This brings us back around to that original tabletop game question. Which was, if you remember, about getting permissions. Sound familiar? So this moves us into tricksy legal grounds. Because this is a discussion about gaming rights and also (looking at the original question) streaming rights. And there’s a good chance (in this specific case, a really solid chance) these rights are already tied up. Someone else has them, which means I legally cannot say “yeah, sure, go for it,” because I’m not the person who can give those permissions anymore.

And I know some of you might say “No, no, Pete, this is just a casual game between friends. We don’t need to be this serious about it.” Which I absolutely get. Seriously, I do. Believe me, I used to work stuff from books into my games all the time. But this is one of the weird downsides of our modern world. It’s fairly easy to reach me (or any other creative person you admire), but it puts us in the weird position of having to respond in writing. And we all know what it means when something’s in writing.

Which is why some writers often don’t answer or give a very definitive no when someone asks about things like this. It puts us in a potentially bad position. There’s a lot of deals and contracts out there, lots of rights changing hands, and me (or someone else) putting something in writing that contradicts any of that long contract could be a real headache for me. Or for you. Or maybe for that new deal my agent’s been trying to put together that was going to cover my mortgage this spring. Somebody stumbles across that Twitch channel or YouTube video and suddenly, hey, why are these people saying they’ve got permission to do this? I thought these rights were available?

Which is why a lot of folks—including me—tend to be a bit cold when people message us about this stuff. Because there’s business stuff going on that we might not be able to talk about, but we legally need to respect.

And two quick notes—first, don’t take this to mean you can do whatever you want with someone else’s material as long as you don’t ask. Not what I’m saying here and you know it, so don’t try to use that as justification—to someone else or to yourself.

Second—the simple truth is almost every writer I know loves to hear they inspired people this way. That people want to play in their worlds, literally or figuratively. They’d want you to have that fun. Just because you can’t say anything in writing doesn’t mean you can’t tell them in person (as we creep closer to having public events again).

And that’s some quick facts and thoughts about rights.

Oh, shameless plus in case you missed it. Yesterday we had a cover reveal for my new book, The Broken Room. Out everywhere in just a little over two months, and I'd really appreciate it if you stopped by your friendly local bookstore and pre-ordered a copy. They'd appreciate it too.

Next time... well, there was another question I got at the Coffeehouse that I’d like to answer a little better than I did there.

Until then, go write.

Seriously, the holidays are coming up and you know you’re probably not getting any writing done then. So write now.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Cyber Monday IX: The Consumering

I’m not that big on Cyber Monday anymore because it really tends to just direct a lot of traffic toward Amazon. But it’s that time of year where people have too much eggnog and all the skeletons come out of the closet. Uncle Jack hates to admit it, but artists only get to make art because they get paid.  Artists get paid when people buy their art.

So I’m going to ask you to buy some books. And for two or three of them, I may have to direct you to Amazon. For everything else, 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.

So here’s a list of my books and a few short story collections. Please put them on your wish list or get them as gifts for friends and family members.

First up, you could pre-order The Broken Room at your favorite local bookstore, in hardcover or paperback. It comes out in early March, so really this is a gift for yourself. And kind of for me, because those preorders really impress publishers and help out a lot. I think we’re going to be having a cover reveal any day now...

Terminus is part of the Threshold universe of stories. It’s about a bunch of people who end up at a strange, uncharted island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Chase is running away from things, Anne is running towards them, and Murdoch is slowly coming to realize he probably shouldn’t’ve stopped running. They all start to explore said strange island, their paths begin to cross, and the end of the world begins to unfold around them. It’s currently available in ebook and audiobook (read by the always-fantastic Ray Porter). No paper, I’m afraid, but I may have news about this next year...

Dead Moon is 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. It’s another one that’s in ebook and audio, but no paper (sorry)

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. Call your local bookstore and ask if they’ve got one.

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 the unconnected "series” of Threshold books.

Several of you found your way here because of my odd little sci-fi-urban-horror-mystery novel--14. Alas, the paperback has lone since gone out of print, but there’s still an ebook and a phenomenal audiobook narrated by Ray Porter (the first project we did together). And there might be more versions in the year to come, but we’ll talk about those when we can... 

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.

My mashup novel, The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe, is finally available as an audiobook. Bad news... it also only has audio and ebook versions at the moment. Sorry. Hoping to fix that soon, but I really think the audiobook might be a better format for this one.

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.  It’s an Audible exclusive, and it’s read by Ray Porter and Ralph Lister.

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 short 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... 

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, please check out this year's list of some of the great books I’ve read by other, much better authors.

And please don’t forget my Black Friday offer if you happen to be one of the folks who may need it.

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

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

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Small Business Saturday

Hey there! As I have several times in the past, I thought I’d take a moment at the holidays to mention some of the books I’ve read and enjoyed this year by much more talented authors. If you’re still wondering about what to get that certain someone, you could go hit your local bookstore, browse around a bit, and maybe find a few things from this list they might enjoy.

Or maybe you’ll just find something on your own. That’s the fun of browsing in real-world bookstores.

So, in no real order...

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir – we’ll start with an easy one. If you haven’t somehow heard, Andy’s latest is (surprise) just fantastic. The tale of an (accidentally) lone astronaut’s desperate attempt to save the Earth. It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s incredibly smart while being ridiculously accessible. Absolutely anyone will enjoy it. Yeah, even that grouchy uncle who doesn' tlike sci-fi stuff.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab—I’m a sucker for stories about memory and identity, and this book approaches it from the opposite side. What if it wasn't your memory but everyone else's. What if no one could ever remember you? What if they forgot you the moment they couldn’t see you? What kind of life would this be? And what if that life never, ever ended... ?

Bottle Demon by Stephen Blackmoore---every year Stephen writes a new book about necromancer Eric Carter and every year it ends up on this list. This most recent one is, hands down, his most amazing, and probably the most emotional, too, as Carter deals with an army of golems, an irate djinn, and the completely mysterious and unexpected resurrection of... well, himself.

King Bullet by Richard Kadrey—if you’re one of those people who waits for the end of a series to start reading, well, I guess this is a good day. Kadrey brings the Sandman Slim books to a close with one last Stark adventure and a truly magnificent ending that feels perfectly fitting while also being somehow completely unexpected.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland—I’ve read a lot of zombie books out of a very broad genre, but this book manages to be fresh and very fun, picturing an alternate world where the American Civil War is disrupted by a mass zombie outbreak, and young women of color are trained to be bodyguards against the undead for “proper” women. I liked it so much I recommended this one for our Last Bookstore dystopian book club.

The History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel—a wonderful tale about aliens and their very long-game plan to shape the Earth’s assorted space programs to prepare us for... something. It’s one of those books that’ll teach you a lot of history even as it entertains you.

Madi by Duncan Jones, Alex deCampi, and too many fantastic artists to list here—this graphic novel is set in the same world as Jones’s films Moon and Mute, and asks what happens when a government super-cyborg decides to retire, especially when their body’s loaded up with proprietary software and hardware that requires ongoing maintenance and updates. It’s kind of like the weirdly fun baby that came out of a threeway between The Transporter, Crank, and The Bionic Woman.

Hard Reboot by Django Wexler—it’s a love story about a pair of women trying to rebuild a giant robot so it can compete on the giant robot pit-fighting circuit. Seriously, what more do you need to know?

Reclaimed by Madeleine Roux—remember what I said about memory and identity? Seriously, it’s like Madeleine wrote this book just for me. A group of people agree to be test subjects for a procedure that can erase traumatic experiences from your memory. But how much of who you are is defined by those experiences? What kind of person are you changed into once they’re gone? And how would you go about fixing that change...?

The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig—this is a beautiful, brutal book, and it’s almost tough to recommend because it hit a lot of nerves for me, personally, that are probably going to be raw forever. That said, it’s a wonderful book about choices and consequences and how they make us who we are.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells– people have been telling me about the Murderbot books for ages, so I’m really late to this party. You may already know this but if you somehow didn’t... wow, what a fun read. The story of a security android that figures out how to hack its own code, inadvertently becoming an independent being and now stuck guarding a group of scientists on a survey mission.

Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle –another one I’m really late on but goddamn. This was one of the first books I read in 2021 and it’s still hands down the best. There just aren’t enough adjectives to describe how fantastic this book is and on how many levels. Lovecraftian horror grounded in real-world horror and it’s just brutally beautiful.

And those are my personal favorites for the year. I may add to this list over the next week or two, depending on how my current reads go. Please feel free to add any of your own must-reads down in the comments. I’d also shamelessly remind you that you can find a lot of my own books at your favorite local bookstore, like The Fold, Paradox Bound, or the Ex-Heroes books.

I’ll also take this moment to remind you of my Black Friday offer, just in case you missed it earlier. Please feel free to get in touch if you think it might help you out. And please—it’s not about if someone needs it more than you. It’s just about if you need some help.

Oh, and if you happen to be at SDCC Special Edition this weekend, I’m going to be hosting the Writer’s Coffeehouse on Sunday at 11:30, room 32AB. Ninety minutes of random tips and facts from me as I try to answer all your questions about publishing, writing, and anywhere those two might overlap.

Happy holidays. Probably back to all our usual stuff next week.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Black Friday XIV — Santa Takes Manhattan

I know I said I wasn’t going to post much this month, but late November is when I do all my books o' the year posts. Plus, it struck me it might not be a bad thing to do my annual Black Friday offer a little early, what with DeJoy stil in office and all that...

So, what’s the Black Friday offer about, ask all the folks who never click links?

It’s about how being poor at the holidays completely, absolutely sucks.

As some of you know, I’d saved up a little film-industry money before I became a full-time writer. Even so, two or three random-but-normal problems—a sick cat, car repairs, a pay cut at the magazine I wrote for—and wham I was poor. I mean... nothing. Below the poverty line, credit cards maxed out, every paycheck stretched until it was less than gauze.

The phone got shut off. No internet. 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. I was working on an article and frikkin’ Shane Black offered to meet up to talk over coffee and I had to turn him down because 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. We went through three years of feeling constantly sick with despair, just waiting for the inevitable bill or emergency that’d destroy us.

On a normal day, being poor’s a constant, gut-churning feeling of tension.  Of being painfully aware of what you don’t have and what you can’t do. There are some messed up folks who love to bellow about “nanny states” and “entitlements” 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 home, their health, and maybe just a shred of dignity.

This deep-in-your-gut feeling’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 just feel normal and give them something—anything—to express that.  It doesn’t matter because you’ve got nothing.

And again... you can feel people judging you over it.  At every party or gathering or dinner.  You get judged for being trapped and powerless. Hell, even if they're not judging you, you end up judging yourself, and it just becomes this endless cycle of guilt and resentment and desperation. 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're at right now—maybe I can help.

If you can’t afford gifts for your friends or family, shoot me a note at ye olde PeterClines101@yahoo.com. I’ve got a little over a dozen books here that I’ll autograph to whoever you want and mail out to you. Or to someone else, if you need it shipped. Most of these are paperbacks of Paradox Bound, but there’s a few Ex-Purgatory and Ex-Isle, too. Think I might even have a few audiobook sets (those big cases of CDs) of different things.  If audiobooks would work better, just say so. You can request a specific book, but I can’t promise anything—it’s just what I’ve got saved up here. I can even gift wrap if you need it (I'm fantastic at wrapping presents, really). 

I’ll send them out to whoever needs them for as long as the books last. Or probably until the 15th, just to make sure you get them on time and have something to give.

So if you need some help this season, please just ask

Again, this is for those of you who need some help getting gifts for others. The people who are pulling unemployment, cutting back on everything, and feeling trapped because they can’t afford gifts.  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.

On a related note... whenever I do this folks offer to chip in and help out. I’m good, but I’m willing to bet there’s a toy bank or a gift 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. You can go be fantastic people all on your own. You don’t need me.

Finally, I’m also doing this on the honor system, so if you’re just trying to score a  free autographed book... well, I can’t stop you. But let’s be clear—if you do this, 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 all surprised when karma kicks you hard in the ass over New Year’s.

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

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Ready... Set... NaNoWriMo!

Spooky season is among us! Ghosts! Vampires! Nightmares! Panic!—no wait, we’re talking about NaNoWriMo this time.

Or are we?!?

Hopefully you’re not really panicking about NaNoWriMo. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s a bragging rights contest, something to make us focus on actually doing this for thirty days rather than saying “someday I’ll write it all down” for another month.

Wait, does everyone know what I’m talking about? In case you’re new to the ranty writing blog, we’re talking about National Novel Writing Month (Na-No-Wri-Mo). It’s a completely free, no strings, no requirements writing contest where you try to write, well, a whole novel in a month. Really, as much of the first draft of a novel as possible. There’s also no prizes, no trophies, no real prestige. As I mentioned above, I basically just get to say I did it. To someone else and to myself. Most importantly, to myself.

There’s a good chance this sounds a little intimidating. Don’t let it be. This is the writing equivalent of a fun run. It’s got a starting date and a goal, but past that it’s just you. Whatever pace you want to go at, however far you want to go with it. No pressure at all.

In fact, here a tip for you. Use that knowledge. Focus on it. Don’t worry about anyone else. Don’t think about your friends or the people in your writing group or that guy on Twitter bragging about his daily word count. Don’t consider what a future agent or editor might want. Toss all of that away. Forget all of it. Take a deep breath. Breathe in. Breathe out.

And now just write.

Seriously. Just write. Nothing else. For the next thirty days, forward motion only. No re-reading. No editing. No corrections at all. Don’t look back. Under no circumstances hit the up arrow or page up or push the scroll bar. None of that. Not even to go up to the last paragraph. We’re moving in one direction and we don’t stop moving in that direction. Making myself to only go forward means I’m making myself write. I’m not spending time rethinking yesterday’s work or tweaking that first encounter or double checking my spelling. I’m just writing.

And, yeah, this means things are going to be a little... well, very messy. Lots of typos. Dangling plot threads. Characters who suddenly change names/ hair color/ genders halfway through. Or are just suddenly dead because they really should’ve died back at the bank ambush and I’m only realizing that now and we’re only moving forward, right?

And that’s totally fine. Seriously. Remember, NaNoWriMo is just a first draft. It’s not going to be the thing we sell or the thing that gets us an agent. It’s the thing that’ll need some more time and some more work. Because a month isn’t that much time. Really. Even for pros.

Like I mentioned above, the goal here is to get as much work done on a first draft as possible. And first drafts are almost always messy things. In fact, I became a much more productive writer once I accepted that first drafts were messy things. It freed me up to and let me focus on getting things down on the page rather than getting them perfect the first time.

And getting things down on the page is what NaNoWriMo is all about.

So, as I often say... go write.

No, wait. A few other things before we all get on with the writing.

First, if you happen to be in the SoCal area and have a lot of free time at the end of the month, I’m going to be at SDCC Special Edition over Thanksgiving weekend. Sunday, to be exact. I’m doing the con edition of the Writers Coffeehouse, talking about writing, publishing, the state of the industry, and whatever other questions you might have. No idea what size crowd to expect, so we’ll see what happens there.

Also, I may be taking a little bit of a break here for a week or three. I’m feeling a touch overworked/stressed with said con, the holidays, the new book, and, y’know, the world in general. So I just want to take some pressure off and try to get to a place where I feel a little more caught up on things. Plus, to be honest, I feel like I’m just rehashing a lot of stuff here, and I’d love to be able to give you something new and, y’know, actually useful.

Anyway, that’s where things are at. Now fuel up on some Halloween candy and go wild with NaNoWriMo.

Now go write.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Scary But Funny

I wanted to talk a little bit about horror today, as I tend to do around this time of year. More I thought about it, though, I was having trouble thinking of an aspect or angle of horror I haven’t done before. Sometimes more than once. I’ve talked about sub-genres of horror. Talked about monsters. Talked about the victims.

So then I thought I’d talk about the mechanics of horror. But even that’s tough because of the wide and varied sub-genres. I’ve mentioned this before. The horror of Frankenstein is not the horror of, say. Experimental Film by Gemma Files which is not the same as Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and none of those are The Devil's Rejects. Depending on what kind of horror I’m aiming for, I could be trying to do some very different things. Which means different rules and guidelines and expectations.

And this made me think, of course, about comedy.

Structure-wise, comedy’s a lot like horror. It’s got many levels and subgenres. It can be subtle and nuanced or in-your-face blatant and over the top. It’s really common for people to like one form of it but not another. I  also think they’re both something that’s kind of ever-present in our lives, on some level or another. There’s a lurking dread or a potential for laughs in almost any situation.

I made what I thought was a semi-clever observation about comedy a while back, and I think the same parallel holds for horror as well—scary is to horror the same way notes are to music. One is made up of the other, but just having a bunch of those components doesn’t automatically make the bigger thing. Just taking a big pile of “scary things” and dumping them on the page doesn’t mean I wrote a horror story, in the same way that, well, having a big pile of meat and bones doesn’t automatically give me a person.

See? That was kind of creepy, right? So is this post a horror story now? No, of course not. No, not even if I add a jump scare. Or is it? Maybe as we keep going you’ll realize how I’ve lulled you into this false sense of security and then maybe you realize... you’ve been in this horror story all along.

Also, it kind of matters what’s in that pile. I can’t just have a big pile of bones, especially the same kind of bones. A big pile of skulls definitely isn’t the same thing as a person. I also can’t mix in random horse bones or gorilla muscles or insect DNA. I can’t just shove anything in there and expect to end up with a working person (or horse, or insect). And even when I get all those components right, they can only go together a certain way. These bones go here, those muscles connect there, that part... okay, look, that’s kind of optional. You can put it in or leave it out at your discretion, just remember what you did with it.

This might seem kind of boring, just putting together a person. Makes it sound like every person we make is going to be like every other person. And on some level... yeah, they are. There are a lot of basic similarities between people, but there are a lot of differences, too. Yeah, even on this basic constructional level. And even more so once we get to know them.

Also, quick pause before we move on. Please don’t get confused by my use of a body as a metaphor for a story. If I’m writing horror, yeah, obviously mixing horse parts with human parts can be an element in a great story. Mixing in some insect DNA has been the basis of several great horror stories. But that’s talking about things in the story, not the structure of the story itself. To fall back on said metaphor, that’s me focusing on an individual bone and saying there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it while ignoring the fact said bone is in a pile of meat that used to be a person.

Or that I’m trying to tell you is still a person...

So, anyway, how do I do this? How do I figure out which parts I’m going to sew together into this new person a.k.a. story? Which ones do I want in there, which ones need to be in there, and which ones... okay, look, the antlers are cool, yes, but people don’t have antlers. No antlers!

Okay. maybe very small antlers.

A lot of this is going to depend on two things. Knowing what I want to end up with and general empathy. The first one’s easy. Once I know what kind of horror story I want to tell, it’s easier to choose the parts I need to tell that story. Yeah, there’s some general stuff I’ll need, but after I’ve got the rough framework there I can start fleshing in (so to speak) all the little details and elements that are going to make this story unique. And this can be a multi-step process. I don’t need to get it all right on the first try, I can go back through and shape the story to better be what I want it to be.

The second part, general empathy, is a little tougher. As I’ve said here once or thrice, I can’t tell you how to have empathy. But it’s sooooo important in horror, because I need to know what my audience is expecting and I need to understand how they’re going to receive these elements in my story. Is that person being sprayed with blood and gore and slime supposed to be horrific? Awful-but-funny? Mildly erotic? Am I sure my readers are going to take it the way I intended it? Because having a beat land wrong can really kill the flow of my story.

And that would be... well, horrible.

So there’s some quick thoughts on horror. Should be easy for you to swallow, now that they’ve been deboned and cut into little bite sized chunks. Yeah, some of them are still moving, don’t worry about that...

Narrator: And as they choked down the morsels, they realized... it had been a horror story all along.

Next time, we could probably talk real quick about NaNoWriMo.

Until then... I’m not letting you out of the room until you swallow every last piece of this.

I mean, hahahahaaa, go write. That was it. Go write.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Supporting Spaghetti

Oh, back again so soon? Well, I guess that’s as much on me as it is on you. But I did have another thought I wanted to bounce off you.

This is something I’ve seen several times in books and in bad B-movies, but it only recently struck me what was actually going on. How the storytellers were twisting things in a really unnatural way to solve a problem. So this may make you (and me) look back at some older posts I’ve done in a slightly different light..

But first, let’s talk about pasta.

I got into cooking during the pandemic. Started watching lots of cooking videos. Trying some things that were kind of new and daring for me. Maybe some of you did too. I’ve found all the prep and cooking kept my mind off other things but still working in creative ways. And now I can make really good stir-fried noodles.

Speaking of noodles, you’ve probably heard of the spaghetti test. When it’s cooked properly and ready to eat, you can throw a strand of spaghetti at the wall and the moisture and starches and, I don’t know, pasta epoxy will make it stick. If it isn’t done cooking yet, it just falls off or does a slow downward tumble like one of those Wacky Wall Walkers.

There’s another phrase you may have heard which grew out of this spaghetti test. “Let’s throw it at the wall and see what sticks.” It shows up a lot in the development stages of all sorts of things. We’ve got thirty ideas and we don’t know which one’s going to work? Well, let’s just do all of them. We throw all the spaghetti at the wall—the whole pot—and everything that sticks is good and ready to go and whatever doesn’t... isn’t. Sound familiar?

I think most of us have tried this sort of blunt, brute force approach on something. I know I’ve rewritten conversations severaltimes to see if it works better with Yakko taking the lead, or Dot, or Wakko, or Phoebe, or... who’s that guy? Let’s see what happens if he takes the lead in this. Same thing with names. Holy crap, Murdoch in Terminus went through sooooo many different names. Sometimes for whole drafts, sometimes just for a page or three. But then I found Murdoch and it was perfect.

Thing is, there’s a weird sort of flipside to this. Or maybe an inverse? Freaky mutant bastard offspring? Anyway, I talked a while back about shotgun art, and I think this is what’s going on here.

Sometimes, in books and movies, we’ll see storytellers who just pile on the characters. One after another after another, many of them with only the thinnest connection to the main plot. It’s the cousin of the best friend of a supporting character in one plot thread. Or, y’know, even less than that. I read one story where we spent two whole chapters with a character who’s only purpose was to bump into one of the main characters in a third chapter. That was it. She served no other purpose in the story except to be that two page delay in his day And, y’know, fill out the page count a bit.

What struck me a few weeks back is when storytellers are doing this—layering on dozens of simple, almost stereotypical characters and conflicts—is they’re taking the spaghetti approach and just throwing everything at the wall. Rather than developing any of these characters or elements to any degree, they’re just giving us lots and lots of quick, shallow ones. I mean why spend time making a complex character when I could just create five characters with only one character trait each? It’s so much less effort, right? I mean, ex-wife, former best friend, alcoholic rival, pregnant woman, aggressive military guy—there’s got to be something there that strikes a chord with my reader, right?

That example I gave up above? The woman who served no purpose except to bump into one of the protagonists? She was late for work. That was it. That was her entire character. I mean, she had a name. She had some dialogue. She had a pet in a tank in her apartment (some kind of lizard, I think). But that was it. The only other thing we knew about her—her alarm didn’t go off, she overslept by almost two hours, and she was late for work. We never learned why her alarm didn’t go off (power outage? forgot to set it? sabotaging pet lizard?). We never learned why she was so tired she overslept by two hours (drastically overworked? got blackout drunk? a wild hookup that left her exhausted?).

Heck, weird as it sounds, we never even found out why being late was a bad thing (on the verge of being fired? abusive boss? big presentation?). We just knew she was late, had to get showered and dressed fast, had to get to work, and that was supposed to be enough for us. Anything else would require more thought about who she was, what she wanted out of life, and what she was actually getting.

And this book had over a dozen characters like her. Seriously. It spent a significant amount of time with people who could be 100% completely summed up with things like “Wakko needs some drugs,” “Dot’s worried about her dog,” or “Yakko is a no-nonsense soldier.” That’s it. That’s all of who they were.

One place you may recognize this from (tis the season after all) is old slasher movies. Okay, and some modern ones. Most of the cast is one note characters with just barely enough depth that we can tell the machete went through them. They’re the bulk filler of the plot. The serious woman. The goofball. The jock. The nice girl. The drunk/ stoner. They just exist to be minor obstacles between our killer and the one or two survivors.

Now, again, the idea is that the reader (or the audience, if this is a B-movie) has to find something more-or-less relatable in these broad stereotypes. I mean... you’ve known somebody who’s late for work before, right? Or was a jock? Or a serious woman? Okay, well... I bet you knew someone who was worried about their dog at some point, right?

I think people do this for two reasons. One is that they’re nervous about creating complex characters. Maybe they don’t think they’ve got the skill to do it, or possibly just not the skill to do it in the number of pages allotted to it. Perhaps they think their plot can’t function with only three or four threads. Or possibly they’re worried about having such a limited number of viewpoints.

I think the other reason is they’re worried about having characters with no traits. Like that woman running the register at the gas station. She doesn’t even have a name tag. She’s just there to sell the protagonist gas and a couple snacks. She’s got no arc or backstory or tragic flaw. That doesn’t seem right. We have to give her something, right? Maybe she could be, I don’t know, late for work or something?

Thing is, no matter what my reasoning is for this flood of one-dimensional characters, this always ends up leading to one of two things. Either we mistake their lack of depth for deliberate avoidance (“Hmmmmmm... why isn’t the writer saying why she was up late last night? Is she the murderer???”) and then we get frustrated when this goes nowhere. Or we recognize these characters don’t actually serve a purpose and get frustrated waiting to go back to someone who’s actually going to affect the plot in some way.

I also think it’s worth noting the three traits of good characters I’ve mentioned here a few dozen times—likable, believable, relatable. And yeah, I’ve also mentioned that supporting characters can sometimes get away with only two of these traits. Catch is, when characters are this flat and undeveloped, they almost always end up unbelievable—their actions and reactions just seem ridiculous because there’s no depth to ground them in. So we’re down one good trait already! Then my shotgun approach means they’re going to be randomly relatable at best, and lots of folks fall back on “snarky jerk” as a default personality, soooooooooooooo... Not a lot going for these folks.

Y’see, Timmy, burying my story in simple characters doesn’t work because it’s forgetting a basic truth of the spaghetti test. All those noodles that didn’t stick to the wall? I don’t sweep them up off the floor and put them back in the pot. The whole point of doing it all was to see what did and didn’t work—to figure out what shouldn’t be in my story.

So said noodles definitely shouldn’t be part of my finished entree.

Everyone gets the food-book metaphor here, right?

Anyway... next time...

Wow. Already halfway through October. I guess next time I could do the obligatory horror post. Or maybe talk about NaNoWriMo? Any preferences?

Either way, go write.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Behind the Mask!

Oddly enough, not a Halloween-themed post. Although... maybe it is. It’s all perspective, I guess.

Since I first started taking this whole writing thing seriously, there’s been a general mindset I’ve seen bubble to the surface once a year or so. Maybe more in some places. It’s the idea that I can’t write about X if I haven’t personally experienced X. Can’t write it well, that’s for sure. If X hasn’t been an integral part of my life at some point or another, I’m just wasting everyone’s time by trying to write about it. Definitely by putting that writing out there. It’s a version of the old “write what you know” superball that gets bounced around. If you’ve never known X, you certainly can’t write about X.

Starting out in the horror community, I’d see this again and again. The folks who’d insist it just wasn’t possible to write horror without a horrific, awful background. You want to write horror? Real horror, not this weak “vampires and demons and zombies” crap? Well you better have fought in a war and had several people killed in front of you. Or had a horribly abusive family. All your pets better be dead, and most of your friends too, and if you’re not dealing with it through life-crippling addiction to something, you’re just a goddamn tourist who has no business in this genre.

Because of this, I’d see some folks get scared off from their chosen genre. Have I experienced real, soul-wrenching love? I mean, really experienced it? Maybe I shouldn’t be writing romance. My parents loved me a lot, I get along well with my brother, and I’ve got a bunch of really cool friends. Maybe I don’t have any business writing horror. And, heck, I’ve never even killed a human being before. I guess murder mysteries really aren’t for me.

At least, that’s what notorious serial killer Sue Grafton always said.

And a friend of mine recently pointed out this is such a pervasive idea that even some readers believe it. There’s no way I could write about a character that awful unless I myself am truly that awful, right? I mean, somebody couldn’t just make that stuff up, right? If one of my characters has sex more than twice, I’m clearly a sex addict (and let’s not even talk about what their chosen sex position says about me). Heck, I think I’ve talked before the weirdness that can happen when you name a character after a family member or friend without thinking about it.

Now, before I go any further... as I mentioned above, this has all been proven wrong again and again. Seriously. Yeah, there’s definitely some horror writers out there who’ve seen some awful stuff and I’ve known one or two folks over the years who’ve written intense erotica as an outlet when, y'know, no other outlet was available. There are some action writers out there who have very intense backgrounds in the military or private security, and a few sci-fi writers with pretty solid scientific credentials.

But I also know a ton of horror writers who had really nice childhoods and now live very happy lives, without a single dismemberment or traumatic beating or other ghastly event in their past or present. I know action writers who haven’t been in a single barfight or high speed chase or gun battle. I know people with no military experience  who write very successful military books. There are more than a few sci-fi writers who haven’t traveled in time or even left earth orbit once. And I know people who write sex scenes in their books who have, if I may be so bold, fairly vanilla sex lives. At least, going off all the pictures one of them showed me. Like, insisted on showing me.

That was a really weird brunch.

Anyway...

I think all of this ties back to a few things I’ve talked about here a few times. So I thought  maybe it’d be worth mentioning a few totally valid ways we can write about things we haven’t actually experienced. For example...

Voice—A big step for all of us is the day we realize midwestern grocery store clerks don’t talk the same way as third-generation bio-apocalypse survivors. Dwarven warrior queens have a different vocabulary than techbro CEOs. And fresh-out-of-grad-school schoolteachers don’t sound the same as battle-hardened Army sergeants. And getting that voice right, knowing how she’d say this vs. how he’d say it vs. how I'd say it is a big step in our growth as writers.

Research—seriously, we live in a freakin’ golden age of resources for writers. I’ve been doing this just long enough that I remember ads in the back of magazines for small press books about what it’s really like to be a doctor or a homicide detective . Or I’d spend hours in the library trying to find pictures of Paris that didn’t involve the Eiffel Tower or a museum. These days, if I need to know something I have access to so many sources. I can find research papers or anecdotal accounts or heck, even actual people who will answer my questions or help me find the answers, and usually tell me some other useful things if I’m paying attention.

Extrapolation-- I’ve never been shot in the knee, but I’ve had the meniscus behind my kneecap rupture (and collapse again and again and again). I’ve never done super heavy drugs but I’ve been very drunk a few times. I’ve never been able to fly, but when I was a kid there was a bridge in my hometown we all used to jump off into the river. Yeah, these experiences aren’t the same, but I can use them as building points. If this registers as a six, what would a nine be like? If it felt like this for ten seconds, what would it feel like after twenty? Or thirty? I stayed conscious here but would that much short out my brain for a few seconds (from pain or pleasure or excessive introduced chemicals)? It’s a basic creativity exercise. 

Empathy—I’ve talked about empathy here a few times, and I have to say once again it’s the most important trait a writer can have. Seriously. It’s what everything here really boils down to. Being able to put myself in someone else’s shoes. I’ve never had a parent die, but I’ve had friends who did. I’ve never served in the military, but I have family who did. I’ve never been married or had kids or burned dinner when someone’s coming over I really want to impress. But I look at my friends and family, I listen to them, I take note of what they’re saying and what they’re not saying, and I try to relate it to things I’ve gone through. I try to imagine how I’d feel in a similar situation, based off my own experiences. And I use some of that in stories.

In fact, let’s take this one step further and address one of the points that started this off. If I’m going to tell someone they can’t write great horror unless they’ve been through awful stuff (like I have)... well, isn’t that kind of implying I don’t have great empathy? I mean, think about it. I’m saying I can only write this because I experienced it, and I’m also admitting I can’t imagine being a person who can write it without experiencing it.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think that’s something I should be bragging about.

Y’see, Timmy, much like “write what you know,” this mindset assumes people can’t learn or grow or imagine anything. And if I want to be a good writer, I have to be able to do that. I can’t tell myself not to write about bank robbery until I’ve actually tried to rob a bank. Hell, where does that people who write murder mysteries? Or giant robot sci-fi? Or dark period fantasy. I mean, if you haven’t had sex with at least three people from the twelfth century, how do you expect to write medieval romance? I need to understand most writers research things, extrapolate feelings and reactions, get inside their character’s heads, and just try to have an honest sense of what someone else would feel in this situation.

Look, the truth is, if I’m doing my job right, you should feel like all my characters are real people in real situations. The janitor. The nymphomaniac barista. The half-human, reluctant cultist. The little kid with PTSD. The burned-out secret agent trying to forget most of his life. The world-ending cosmic event that they’re all tied up together in. And when we read a description of a real person, when we hear about the believable, relatable aspects of their life, it’s natural for us to assume they’re... well, real.

And the obvious real person is me, the author, telling you this story. So it’s not surprising some people think I must’ve experienced these things firsthand.

But I shouldn’t need to.

Anyway...

Next time, I want to throw a bunch of characters at the wall and see which ones stick.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Saving Dumb Cats

Last week I mentioned an issue I’d seen pop up in the Saturday geekery movies once or thrice. This one also pops up a lot in B-movies, but I’ve seen it more than a few times in books as well. So I thought, hey, here’s another thing to talk about.

So let’s talk about cats and dogs and killing people.

Something I’ve brought up here once or thrice is saving the cat. It’s a screenwriting term, but I think it applies fairly well to all storytelling. Really simply put, it’s when a character does something simple that establishes they’re a good person. Or, at the least, a person we should be rooting for. It tends to come early in the story because saving the cat isn’t about changing our opinion of a character—it’s just about reinforcing it. If we thought they were pretty good... yeah, this just lets us know we had the right idea.

Not, the flipside of this is what I call patting the dog. I’ve talked about this before, too. This is when someone does an equally small, minor thing and it’s supposed to make us look at this character in a whole new light. Saving the cat is about reinforcing an opinion, patting the dog is about completely changing it. Because of this, patting the dog tends to come later in the story—we can’t have new thoughts about a character until we’ve had time to make old thoughts, right?

Now... I mention all that because I wanted to talk about killing supporting or background characters.

How many times in books or movies have we seen the person who stays behind to defuse the bomb? There’s no time and we’ve already admitted it’s next to impossible and everybody else is clear, but god damn it they can do this. Or we know the wendigo is out there and it can mimic human speech and these are its prime hunting hours but god damn it what if that’s really a little kid in the woods? Or we’re sure the whole shelter’s been cleaned out and we can’t contain the fire any longer but god damn it Yakko’s heading back in to make sure we didn’t miss a cat in one of the cages...

And then, y’’know, they die. Doing something brave and noble. But also, like... really, really stupid.

When we see something like this, the storytellers are trying to up the stakes. They know it’s time for someone to die so the audience understands how real the danger/ threat is. But at the same time... I mean, we don’t want to kill one of our main characters, right? And it turns out we haven’t really developed any of our other characters past  “Redhead #2” or “Soldier with Hat” so it won’t mean anything if they die.

Unlessssssssss...

What we’ve all probably tried once or twice is to make the way someone dies get the emotional response. So it’s not so much that we feel for them, it’s that the writer’s created a situation where we’d have an emotional response for anyone who died this way. This is really common in the torture porn subgenre, where it’s not so much about the character as it is what’s being done to the character. No matter who they are, no matter what they’ve done, you have to feel sorry for someone who gets that done to their... well, look, it’s uncomfortable just making this up.

And that’s what a lot of these fake “saving the cat” moments are trying to do. It’s not about creating a character who does something brave or noble or righteous—it’s about creating a situation where anyone would be brave or noble or righteous. If Thanos runs back into that burning building to make sure there weren’t any cats left behind, we’d still go “Wow... almost a complete monster, but at least he tried to save those hypothetical kittens. He didn’t deserve to die like that. Goddamn shame, that’s what it is.”

The big catch, of course, is that these situations still have to make logical sense with everything else going on in my story. Oh, and even a flat stereotype of a character has to behave in ways we understand human beings tend to behave. If “Soldier with Hat” suddenly starts disobeying direct orders, this isn’t a sudden burst of characterization—it’s just someone acting unnaturally. And if they’re doing this in an unnatural situation... well... I can’t be shocked if the whole thing comes across as fake.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with killing characters. I‘ve killed tons of people in my books. Main characters and supporting characters. I don’t know how many background folks who never got a name or more than a word or two of description.

But I have to be honest about the weight these deaths actually bring to my story. Killing “Soldier with Hat” shouldn’t seem inconsequential, but it also shouldn’t be the dramatic linchpin of an entire chapter. The wendigo getting Redhead #2 is bad, yeah, but we can’t pretend it’s as bad as if it got Phoebe. I can’t manipulate deaths into being important or make characters noble and brave after the fact.

If I want these deaths to matter—really matter, in a way that sticks with my readers—I need to actually care about the characters. If I don’t have any investment in them, if I don’t want them to survive, then it doesn’t matter if they survive.

And I’ll look kind of silly for insisting it does.

Next time, I’d like to explain why that guy really doesn’t represent me. Or you.

Until then, go write.