Thursday, September 23, 2021

Just Accept It

Oh, hi there. It’s been a while. Sorry about that. Piles of stuff going on. I won’t bore you with it all now. Not when I can save some of it for later ranty blog posts...

I have, as some of you know, gotten back to my Saturday geekery. And a while back, during one particularly clumsy movie, I tried to explain a few thoughts about basic storytelling. Twitter’s not always great for nuance, though (sorry you had to find out this way), and I realized pretty quick I wouldn’t be able to talk about this in a way that did it justice. Or didn’t invite a few dozen people to leap in and say “Well, actually...

So let’s go through this real quick.

I’m sure most of you have heard the whole “there are only seven basic plots” thing. Or maybe it’s nine. Depends on who you ask. Thing is, when we really get down to the bones of it, there’s only one plot. Ultimately, it all comes down to something makes today different from every other day. Something happens to make today noteworthy and forces my hero to do something different than usual.

I’ve talked about this here on the ranty blog before, and from a few different directions, so I won’t get into it too much. It’s pretty straightforward though. Something happens = story. Nothing happens = no story.

If I’m writing a longer-form thing—maybe a book or a feature-length screenplay—I’m probably going to have more than one moment like this. My hero’s day will be different and just as they’re adjusting, getting used to things again... something else happens. Like, we found out what was really going on, but then later we found out what's REALLY going on.

Believe it or not, I just slipped a really important thing in there. And it’s the thing I was trying to talk about on Twitter, but knew I wouldn’t be able to without someone jumping in before it was fully explained. And probably accusing me of hating art or loving Hitler in the process. Because Twitter is also very impatient.

Anyway...

The really important thing is that once the thing happens (however many things I have), my hero needs to accept it. They can have a few scenes, maybe a chapter or three of shaking their head and denying things, but ultimately they need to admit this is the new normal. It’s really important they move on, for a number of reasons...

First, if my characters never adjust to the new normal, they get annoying. Fast. Heck, the real world’s spent a year and a half now showing us how much people in denial can get on your nerves. We’ve all seen films where the vampire drops out of the sky, kills somebody, drinks their blood in front of their group of friends, explodes into a cloud of bats... and yet there’s still that one guy insisting vampires aren’t real. Can’t be real. Nope. What, Yakko’s dead too? Still not vampires! Nineteen people killed in front of us one by one? This isn’t happening. Not happening and definitely not vampires.

I’m betting you started to skim that, right? Because that character’s a bit eye-rolling. And this was just a couple of lines. Imagine three hundred pages of that guy. Yeah, there are times I may want an annoying character in the mix, but there’s usually not more than one and it’s very rarely my protagonist.

Second, if my characters don’t adjust and get accustomed to the “new normal,” my increasing challenges are going to be more and more difficult (because my challenges are increasing, yes?) If my character’s not growing and changing, they’re quickly going to be outmatched by the world around them. I’m going to find myself writing things that just aren’t believable. Sure, Dot took out one hitman by sheer luck, but if she never accepts she’s now part of the assassins’ union and develops past that, how are my readers supposed to accept her lasting ten seconds against the Grand Emperor of Death? One of the reasons challenges grow and increase in stories is because my characters are growing and becoming more capable of dealing with things.

Third, is that we all instinctively feel this progression of story and plot. We’ve been trained by years of reading and watching stories. So if my character doesn’t change and grow and adjust to this new view of the world... their story kind of stalls out. And that throws my whole structure off balance. We can’t always identify it, but we can feel it. Something in this book or movie has dragged to a halt. At the very least it hasn’t progressed as far as it should’ve. You may remember we talked about when this happens in television shows--they call it the Moonlighting curse.

So...

Hopefully it’s clear why this moving on is important, but let me toss one more thing into the mix for you to mull over. Why this is so very important in longer works. And to do this... I’m afraid I’m going to have to use some terms that may make some of you uncomfortable.

I’ve talked before about three act structure. We establish the norm, we introduce conflict, and we have a resolution. You remember all that, right?

Okay, well that moment we introduce conflict? More-or-less the start of Act Two? Guess what? That’s when something makes today different than every other day. We could even call it... the inciting incident.

Sorry if that made your skin crawl a bit.

And remember how I said longer-form stories generally have another moment like this? A second time my protagonist gets their legs kicked out from under them? What to guess when that happens?

That’s right! It’s usually as we transition to act three. It’s the sudden shift, the last-minute twist, that makes bringing this to a close so much harder than my hero thought it was going to be. And they already thought it was going to be pretty tough.

But if my protagonist isn’t accepting the thing that happened, if they spend all of act two in denial... well, that gets messy. Because there’s going to be that annoyance factor, yeah. But also we’re going to hit act three and, well... out hero’s not really ready for it. They’re still shaking their heads and refusing to believe that inciting incident stuff (again, sorry).  The bulldozers are out front and heading for the barn, but my protagonist is still insisting there’s no way Jerry from the bank would’ve foreclosed on our farm...

When this happens... well, it usually means one of two things. Either I’ve picked the wrong character to be the hero of my story... or I don’t really have a story. I mean, that growth and progression is pretty much the defining aspect of a character’s story, so if my hero’s spent the last hundred pages with their head in the sand, it’s probably a warning sign something’s gone really wrong.

It’s pretty hard to deny that.

Next time, I’d like to address another geekery issue and talk about really stupid attempts to save the cat.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

FAQ XVI – The Sweet Sixteenening

In the before times I tried to update the frequently asked questions every six months or so. Last year kinda blew that habit out of the water. A lot of this year, too. With all the disruption to, y’know, everything. Some things slowed to a crawl. Others came to a grinding halt.

And that meant I had a lot less news to share and/or questions to update.

Folks are finally getting used to this new normal, though, and enough things are getting back in motion that I figured it was finally worth updating this.

So here’s fresh answers to some of the most common questions I get. So now when people ask me those questions (again!)—or when their teacher says “Hey, hunt down an author on social media and ask them a bunch of questions”—I can just point you at this document, most likely pinned near the top of my social media pages and this blog (look, there it is in the right-hand-column). Which means the answers are all right here.

Or in the books. There’s lots of answers in the books. Really.

1) When are we going to see something new?
Next up for me is going to be The Broken Room, coming out in early March 2022—about six months from now! We technically have an exact date, but I want to hold off sharing that just in case things go wonky sometime between now and then. As a lot of things are right now. I wrote The Broken Room over lockdown last year and it’s a bit different for me. After a couple phone calls and discussions, my agent pitched it to publishers as “Jack Reacher meets Stranger Things.” And it turns out, hey, that sounded interesting to some folks.

After that—possibly before depending on how a few things go—I’m going to (finally) put out my short story collection as an ebook. Yeah, just an ebook, sorry. Dead Men Can’t Complain + Other Stories has been an audio collection for a while, but it really needs to get out more. And (if I can pull this off) there may be some cool bonuses for this version.

And, after some strategizing, my agent and I are talking about two more ideas you might like and he may be talking to certain folks about over the holidays...

2) Why did you do all these “Audible exclusives” for the past few years ?
First off, I only did two. Well, okay, four, since they offered to release some previously-published, out-of-print stuff nobody else was interested in anymore—The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope RobinsonCrusoe and a bunch of short stories we combined into Dead Men Can’t Complain, but those two weren’t even exclusives.

Second, there’s a solid argument to be made that the majority of my fan base is audiobook listeners. Audible knows this, too, so when they heard about Dead Moon and Terminus they made me an extremely generous offer for exclusive rights, meaning both of them would be audiobook only for the first six months they were out. Then I’d be free to do what I want with them.

Yeah, I know it made some of you grind your teeth. Sorry if you weren’t an audiobook listener (for whatever reason) and it left you out of the loop for a bit. My agent and I talked a lot about the pros and cons of doing of those deals. In the end, I really wanted to tell those stories and that was the overall best way to do it. Again, I’m sorry if it put you in a bad spot.

3) Do you make more money if I buy your books in a certain format?
This sounds like an easy question, I know, but there’s a bunch of conditionals to any answer I give. A huge chunk of each and every book contract is just all the different terms and conditions for when and if and how people get paid. Lots of “ifs” and “excepts” and “unlesses.”

For example... format matters, sure, but so does where you bought the book. And when. And how many people bought it before you. And if it was on sale. And who actually had the sale (publisher or distributor).  And all of this changes in every contract.  What’s true for, say, Paradox Bound isn’t true for Terminus. In some situations. Usually.

TL;DR—just buy the format you like. It'll all work out fine.

4) So still no paper version of Terminus or Dead Moon?
No, sorry. There’s a couple of different reasons for it involving different business and PR things. If you’re really interested, I went over all of it about a year or so back. There’s still a chance both books may still become available if there’s a big demand for them (feel free to tell Crown Publishing you want to read them in print and would buy half a dozen copies), but for the moment these (and a few of my other older books) are only going to be ebook and audio. Sorry.

5) When are we going to see a movie/ TV series/ graphic novel/ video game of your books?

Well, first off, I hope you understand I have pretty much zero influence on Netflix making a Threshold series or Disney+ doing a Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe movie. When we see a TV series or film adaptation, it means the filmmakers went to the writer, not the other way around. Think about it. If the writers just had to say “hey, make this into a movie,” wouldn’t most books be adapted by now? Everybody’d be doing it.

That said... yes, there’s a potentially big thing going on right now. But like so many Hollywood things, it’s moving along at its own pace and hasn’t quite hit the point where I feel good talking about it yet in anything more than vague terms like this. Once there’s something solid to tell you, I’ll tell you.

Really, you’ll probably hear me shrieking from wherever you are on Earth.

6) Well, is there anything we can do to help?
Buying books is always the best step. Talking about them is a close second. Hollywood likes to see big sales numbers and interest. Producers/ directors/ actors all hear about this stuff the same way you do—online reviews, bestseller lists, and social media. If #ParadoxBound started trending on Twitter tomorrow, there’d probably be a film in pre-production by the end of the year. Really.

So talk about books you like (anyone’s books, not just mine). Mention them to friends, write reviews (always good), tag online streaming channels if you want to talk about how this or that should be a movie. Word of mouth is the best (and easiest) thing to do.

7) I thought you don’t like people talking about your books. Now I'm confused.
I’m always thrilled and amazed people talk about anything I wrote. Seriously. I think most writers are. What I can’t stand, personally, are people who blurt out spoilers that ruin these stories for other people. It’s why I avoid those questions in interviews, ignore them on Twitter, and why—where I can—I delete (or block) posts that reveal things from a book.

And not just my stories! You shouldn’t mess up other stories, either. Movies, TV—I’m just saying, if you enjoyed it spoiler-free, why not try to give other people a chance to enjoy it the same way? Especially these days when release dates/airdates aren’t the ironclad things they used to be. Even if you didn't enjoy it, they might.

8) Do you have any plans to attend ########-Con?
I’ve been doing a lot of virtual stuff, but I’m hoping the world will be in a place where I can get back out there next spring and say “Hi” to folks. Really, I’d love to do a lot of stuff in February-through-May to help promote The Broken Room. So if you want to see me at your local con, let them know. Email them, tweet them, post on their Instagram account. Reach out, vote, and let your voice be heard.

Also, generally this is a sooner-is-better type thing. If you’ve got a convention near you that plans to go ahead in February, there’s a good chance they’re putting together a guest list now. So don’t wait—let them know right now that you want K. Arsenault Rivera there!

And me. Let them know you want to see me. Y’know... if you do.

9) Could you explain the whole “Threshold” series?
Threshold is the umbrella label for the shared “cosmic horror” universe I unknowingly began a little over nine years ago with 14. It refers both to doorways and also things reaching a critical point--common themes in many of the stories. There are some books that form a more linear story, a “series” if you will, and some that stand alone. Which. in all fairness, makes things a bit awkward sometimes. I know the marketing folks sometimes pushed Threshold as a pure, straightforward series even though I’ve said many, many times that it's just a shared universe. I know at times this gave some readers false expectations for some books, and I apologize if that was you.

10) Is Ex-Isle the last Ex book?
Yeah, Ex-Tension is on the back burner for the foreseeable future.  Sorry.

The truth is, every series has a limited life. Book one always sells best, not as many people show up for book two, even less show up for book three, and so on. Not a lot of folks leap in on book five, y’know? Something may happen to give the first book a boost (and all the other books after it) but they’re always going to be on a near-constant downward slope heading for that big red line where things aren’t profitable. None of the Ex-Heroes books ever lost money (thank you all for that), but when the publisher looked ahead to book six... well, hitting said line was pretty much unavoidable.

11) Have you considered a Kickstarter or a GoFundme?
Yeah, sorry, the answer’s still no. I love these books and had tons of fun writing them. I’m still amazed there are so many fans who love them so much. But the math is pretty simple—if enough people were willing to pay for another book, the publisher would be willing to put out another book. And all the numbers say that’s just not the case.

Yeah, I know some of you might be willing to pay twice as much to see one more book, but I think we can all agree there’s at least as many people (probably more) who wouldn’t pay anything. And that’s the math again—it just doesn’t work out for this.

Another point to consider. I’ve usually got a good sense of what I’m working on for at least the next year, sometimes even longer. If I do a crowdfunded project, I have to schedule my time under the assumption it’s going to succeed, which means telling my publishers any other projects need to be put off and scheduled accordingly. And that leaves a six or seven month hole in my schedule when the Kickstarter flops. Which—again—all the math says is what’ll happen.

So again, no. Sorry.

12) Will you read my story and tell me what you think?
Short answer... no

Long answer... look, if I said yes to even a third of the requests I got, I’d be spending most of my time reading and doing critiques instead of writing. I don’t mean to sound mercenary, but... writing is how I pay my mortgage. And buy food and booze. And I really like food and booze. And my house. So when someone asks me to read stuff, they’re asking me to give up a few hours of work. Would you want to give up a few hours of work? Plus, I do have this ranty writing blog sitting right, y’know, here with over a decade of advice and tips.

Also, sad truth is some folks are not too bright and lawsuit-crazy, and they ruin it for everyone else. Somebody shows me a piece of bland, generic fanfic, then a few years from now they sue me for stealing their ideas. Yeah, I know how stupid that sounds, but I’ve actually been subpoenaed and deposed for lawsuits with less behind them than that. It’s why I’m verrrry leery when I get a long message along the lines of “You know what you should really do next with the people from 14...”  Heck, some writers respond with cease & desist orders when they get sent stuff like this.  

So the long answer also boils down to “no.” And if you send stuff without asking, I’ll delete it unread, just like spam mail. And probably block you.

13) What’s up with your Facebook page?
Ahhhhh, Facebook. Where we’re the product and the target audience. Just like Soylent Green.

Sad fact is, Facebook made it pretty much pointless for me to have a fan page there.  They altered their algorithms over the years so my posts went from 70-85% engagement to barely scraping 10-15% most of the time. All to make me pay to reach people who were already following me. Which I won’t do for a few reasons, a big one being folks pretty solidly showed years ago that paying for views on Facebook actually decreases your reach. Seriously.

Sure--it’s their site, they can run it however they like. And yeah they absolutely deserve to make money off it. I’m a progressive, but I still believe in (regulated) capitalism. But part of capitalism is you have to make something I want. I don’t have to use your product.

Plus there’s all of Facebook’s side ventures. Collecting countless amounts of personal data. Deliberately spreading misinformation. Malicious social engineering. If you think I’m exaggerating, look up articles about how Facebook shaped perceptions or spread propaganda in Myanmar or Sri Lanka. Or, y’know, the USA. And these aren’t fringe articles—they’re from major news sites.

So, yeah,  I deleted my Facebook account almost two years ago (long overdue). There’s still a fan page there, but it’s just sort of a zombie page (zing) with no administrator.

14) What about Twitter or Instagram?
I’m @PeterClines on both.  Fair warning--as I mentioned above, I’m progressive and I’m a bit more political on Twitter. Most Saturdays I also drink and live-tweet bad B-movies while building little toy soldiers so...  look, don’t say you didn’t know what you were getting into.

Instagram is probably the geekier of  my social medias.  How is that possible, you ask?  Well, there’s lots of toys and LEGO and model robots. And cats. Can’t have an Instagram account without cats. Sometimes there are overlaps in these things.

Yeah, I know Instagram’s also owned by Facebook, but (for the moment) they’re not being quite so reprehensible and algorithm-manipulative on Instagram. So (also for the moment) I’ll still be there.

 

And I think that should answer about 83% of your questions, yes...?

Thursday, August 26, 2021

When I SAY You Can Know It

Despite the pandemic, there’s still been a lot of fantastic storytelling going on. Books. Movies. TV shows. Some of it’s been fun, some of it nostalgic, some of it... well, let’s be honest, some of it was greatly delayed because of said pandemic. Regardless there’s been a lot of enjoyable stuff.

BUT...

As Uncle Ben taught us, with great storytelling comes great spoilers.

As I’m sure you know, spoilers are a matter of great contention. Is it my fault or your fault if I post spoilers to something and you see them? How much time has to pass before spoilers are acceptable? Does getting them really affect my enjoyment of the story? Do spoilers even matter?

I’ve talked about (and in some cases, argued about) all these before, here and on the wider internet. But it’s that last one I wanted to blather on about today. Specifically, a certain angle some folks take with it you may have seen. It goes something like this...

”If knowing a spoiler ruins your story... maybe your story’s not that good.”

This one always makes me grind my teeth. Partly because it’s kind of an inherently smug thing to say, but also because it shows a basic misunderstanding of storytelling. Which is why it’s doubly annoying when I see it from... well, storytellers.

So let’s talk about narrative structure for a few minutes.

I’ve talked about this before at length, so I won’t do too much here (hit that link if you want a lot more). For our immediate purposes, narrative structure’s the order I’ve decided my plot points and character elements need to follow. It’s the sequence I want my audience to receive information in so they’ll get a certain dramatic effect. Simply put, narrative structure is the way I’ve chosen to tell my story.

If I want to tell my story in a straight A-to-Z fashion, that’s my narrative choice. If I want to use a bunch of flashbacks, that’s also up to me as the storyteller. Heck, if I decide to go completely nonlinear and change timeframes every other page without any apparent rhyme or reason... I mean, that’s my call. I’m the one telling the story and I (hopefully) have solid reasons for why I’m telling it in this specific way.

But whichever way I do it—assuming I do have a reason and I’m not just skipping around wildly because I thought it’d be cool—I’ve made a specific choice for my audience to get this piece of information first, this one second, this one third, and so on and so forth up to my five hundred and fortieth piece of information.

Yes, all real novels contain exactly five hundred and forty elements. No more, no less, just as Plato said in his many treatise on storytelling.

Anyway...

Now, that order’s important because my narrative structure is one of the thing that defines my story. If I put them in a different order, it’s a different story. That makes sense, right? An example I’ve used before is The Sixth Sense. If you’ve never seen it before and somehow avoided hearing about it... well, first off, seriously, good for you. Go see it right now. Go! Now! I can’t believe you’ve made it this long. And I’m about to spoil it, so please don’t keep reading.

Did you go away?

Okay, spoiler-filled explanation...

The Sixth Sense is the skin-crawling story of child psychologist named Malcolm who's trying to treat a little boy named Cole. Cole’s haunted by ghosts that only he can see, which leaves him constantly traumatized and in shock. Malcolm helps Cole realize the ghosts are, in their own way, equally scared and asking for help. And as Cole begins to understand that his powers are a gift, not a curse, Malcolm comes to realize that he’s a ghost—that he died over a year ago in an encounter we saw at the start of the movie.

What’s great, though, is that—like I said up above—if you watch the movie a second time (or if someone spoils the twist for you), it becomes a very different story. In fact, knowing the truth about Malcolm and the other ghosts, the story becomes less scary and much more tragic. Almost goofy at points. Now it’s a story about a kid and his ghost friends solving mysteries. It’s pretty much Paranorman.

That’s the key thing here—The Sixth Sense becomes a different story. Not the one Shyamalan intended for us to see. Definitely not the one he narratively structured. The audience learning the truth about Malcolm is intended to be element five hundred and nine, not element one that we knew before we even sat down. Knowing the big twist changes it into a different story.

So the whole “...maybe your story’s not that good” argument doesn’t make a lot of sense, because if I see a bunch of spoilers it means I haven’t seen your story. I saw a different story that had all the same elements, but in a different order and thus with different dramatic weights. It had a completely different narrative structure. I got Paranorman, not The Sixth Sense. Not that there's anything wrong with Paranorman (I love it) but... it's not the initial experience Shyamalan was trying to create for us.

Now, there’s another, related point we can make here. By their nature, spoilers tend to be some kind of reveal. It’s a piece of unknown or unexpected information. Maybe it’s a cool twist. Maybe it’s the identity of the murderer. Maybe it’s just a little cameo/ crossover beat. And sometimes, once that information’s been revealed, we realize this story didn’t have much else going for it. Once we know who the murderer is, we realize it was our own desire to know the answer carrying us through the story, not really the story itself. The story’s not flawed, it’s just... well, also not that great in any way.

Or maybe the answer just wasn’t quite worth the build up. Maybe the murderer turns out to be... well, exactly who we thought it was. Or someone we absolutely never could have considered (“Chris? Who the hell is Chris?”). Maybe the big twist happens and it... doesn’t make a lot of sense? Maybe it doesn’t change anything or doesn’t mean anything (“Chris is actually Pat’s long lost cousin? Well who the hell is Pat?”). In these cases the story beat might land with some impact in the moment, but not so much after the fact.

And, yeah, these stories have problems. I mean, a twist by its very nature should sort of retroactively rewrite large swaths of my story. If it doesn’t do that... well, that means I screwed up. If my flashback doesn’t make linear sense within my story, then I’ve done something wrong. My reveals aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do.

But problems with something flawed doesn’t mean the principle is flawed. I can’t say narrative structure doesn’t matter because a couple stories have crappy narrative structure. That’s like saying all sushi is bad because I bought sushi at a gas station once and it made me sick. Or, y’know, that Sharknado5: Global Swarming has a dumb twist that doesn’t change anything, therefore I can give away a bunch of stuff from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

I mean, maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense...

Yes, a really good story will still work once you know the big reveal. That’s why there are books we like to re-read and movies we watch three or four times. The storytellers were very careful to make sure  their narrative would still work even when it was forced to switch tracks because we knew things. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t want us to see the original story they planned out.

I know in my own writing I love having a good twists and reveals. Things that’ll make people sit up and go “WhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAATTT???” or maybe even shriek a favorite curse word or two. And I try very, very hard to make sure my books hold up on a second reading, that you’ll catch the little clues and maybe even realize I left some things sitting out in plain sight for you to catch on your second or third read, so that other story is still a fun one for you.

(like page 115 of Paradox Bound, for example. I don’t think anyone’s caught that. Not many people, anyway)

But that’s not the story I want you to read first. There’s a reason I put these things on page one and not page fifty, those things on page one hundred and not on page one, and why I was slightly vague about that so it’d be right where it was supposed to be... but you wouldn’t register what it was until a second or third time through.  Because this is the effect I’m trying to create, not that.

And the awful thing about spoilers is they make sure someone can never read this story. It’s almost impossible to unlearn something, so that experience gets lost forever. They never get to read this story... only that one.

And that’s a shame.

Again, as I mentioned above, still many issues about spoilers past this one. But hopefully—for now, at least—we’ve put the “do they even matter” question to rest. And also the “maybe your story’s not that good” defense of them.

Also-also, that Plato thing about halfway through was a joke. Please put that to rest too. In fact, forget it, just to be safe. Wipe it from your mental hard drive.

Next time...

I’ve got to be honest, I’m juggling four different projects right now and (at the moment) none of them have inspired a ranty blog post. So next week may just be some random cartoons or something unless any of you has a pressing question you’d like me to blather on about.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Non-Standard Cake

At this point I’ve blabbed on about my weekend movie/Twitter habits more than a few times. I won’t bore you with them again. Just wanted to say that’s what inspired this week’s blathering.

I’ve mentioned once or twice before that there are some very standard shots in filmmaking. Decades—almost a century, really—of natural selection in the editing bay has established these as the solid basics. The foundation of a visual storytelling language we've all picked up on. Once you know these shots, you’ll spot them again and again and again in every show or movie you watch.

Of course, they’re not the only shots used in filmmaking. Some clever filmmakers figure out how to combine these basics with a push in or some other camera move, making what would be a static shot a little more dynamic at a key moment. Others may skip over one type of shot in a certain scene to heighten tension, or maybe to decrease it. And some figure out how to toss all of those shots and create something new that does the job they need done better than anything else could.

Which brings us, naturally, to cake.

I’ve mentioned growing up poor here once or thrice before. One aspect of this is we didn’t have treats in the house that much when I was a kid (or, y’know, food in general sometimes). So my mom was always looking for ways to save money and cut corners—a lot of stuff we’d call lifehacks today. One she stumbled across one time was a magazine article suggesting (you may have heard this one) mayonnaise in cake recipes instead of eggs and cooking oil. I mean, that’s what mayo is, right? Eggs and oil. My brother and I were highly skeptical and voiced our well-thought-out concerns (“Eeewwwwwwwww!”), but my mom tried it anyway.

Much to everyone’s surprise, it worked fine. The cake looked and tasted like... well, cake. We couldn’t even tell the difference. Granted, my palate was a little less refined back then, but to a generally picky kid who wanted chocolate cake... it was chocolate cake.

Here’s another fun cake story. I’m a big fan of German oatmeal cake. When I (finally) grew out of little kid basic-chocolate love, German oatmeal became my new favorite. And still is. My partner’s made it several times for my birthday, even when we were dirt poor and the whole thing was 99¢ Store mix and frosting. Since then she’s made it from scratch a few times, too.

But... it was never quite right. It wasn’t bad, by any means (and I always ate way more than I should’ve) but something about it didn’t quite line up with how I remembered it as a kid. And then this year she stumbled across a version of the recipe saying to broil the cake for a few minutes once it had been frosted, which would let the frosting melt, sink in, and even caramelize a tiny bit. And it was fantastic. It wasn’t bad before, but this alteration to the recipe made it so much better.

Of course, we all understand that these aren’t random choices. There’s a reason that mayo substitution trick works, but we couldn’t do the same thing with any condiment and expect the same results. Horseradish mustard in cake mix? I feel safe saying it’s not going to be all that tasty. Likewise, there’s a big difference between tweaking the recipe to broil the cake as opposed to, say, grilling it over an open flame. We definitely won’t get the same results.

And just because these results worked in cake doesn’t mean they’ll work anywhere else. This mayonnaise-for-eggs trick isn’t going to work if I’m trying to make an omelet. Definitely won’t work for steak tartar. Heck, I might not even be able to make it work in pancakes and they’re pretty close to being... well, cake.

Also worth noting.. the mayo cake wasn’t really any better. It wasn’t suddenly the best cake I’d ever had. As I mentioned, one of my few solid memories of this is all of us talking about how you couldn’t notice the difference at all. It just tasted like... cake. So –barring some weird dietary restrictions—it’s not really worth a new recipe. It’s just a good trick to remember if I happen to run out of eggs.

I’ve used cooking a few times before as a metaphor for writing, so hopefully at this point you’ve got a vague sense where I’m going with this.

There’s nothing wrong with trying new and different things. Really, it’s what we’re all trying to do, right? To find a new way of telling an old story, or a completely unexpected way to tell a new story. To solve those storytelling problems in a way nobody’s ever solved them before.

But the key point here is I want my new and different solutions to be better than the standard way of solving these problems. If I figure out a way to do something in my story—a trick with the structure, maybe a clever way of phrasing things, perhaps a very cool way to have a big reveal—and it works so much better than the standard way of doing it... I mean, that’s fantastic. I’ve improved on the original recipe, so to speak, and my end result is even better because of it

If I decide to do things in a new way and it works just the same as the old way, no better no worse, well... personally, I’m a little torn. I mean, it’s not like my new idea’s failing in any way, as far as the story itself is concerned. But I think—and this might just be me—that it’s distracting. Now I’m doing something different and there’s no real point to it except... to be different. I’m doing it just to do it, not to actually make the story better. And that seems—to me, anyway—like I’m trying to draw attention to myself (the author) rather than to my story.

And if my new way of doing things works worse than the old way... well, why would I do that? Why would I want a structure that makes the story much harder to follow? Why would I use phrases or formats that knock my readers out of the story? I mean, it’s (sort of) understandable I might be tempted to try chocolate-and-horseradish mustard cake, but hopefully I can be honest with myself about what came out of that oven and just, y’know, destroy it, rather than forcing the members of the culinary school admissions board to each try a slice.

Y’see, Timmy, people talk about how change is good, but there are times this phrase gets used as more of a defense than a reassurance. Yeah, it’s absolutely okay to try to change things and I shouldn’t worry about trying. But something isn’t automatically good just because it’s a change. Sometimes I’m changing things just to change them, and the only thing different about the final work is me yelling “I changed things!” And other times... well, it’s just bad. I’ve done something that didn’t work and didn’t get the response I wanted. I’ve pushed my reader away rather than drawn them in.

And that’s not going to get me any cake.

Next time... I don’t know. If nobody’s got any questions, maybe I’ll talk about spoilers or something.

Until then, go write. 

Thursday, August 12, 2021

The Great Migration

A week or so back on Twitter I was asked to comment on a question that needed a little more response than 280 characters allowed. I tried to give a quick, simple answer, but it gnawed at me for a bit, ‘cause I’ve seen this question many times before (from several angles), and it always feels like the answers it gets are very simplified. So a few days later I added it to my list of topics for here.

"Anyone know whether publishers will pick up a book that's
already been self-published for a new edition?"

Like so many things in this industry, this is one of those questions that sounds really simple, but there’s actually a lot more to it. I think this is really a few questions that've been Voltroned together and then demanding a single, comprehensive answer. Which is why the answers it gets tend to always feel a bit over-simplified and off. To me, anyway.

For example, even if we’re just asking how many self-pubbed books get picked up by traditional presses, this is a loaded question. Because most people don’t consider smaller traditional presses in that—they’re really just interested in the big ones. And small presses are, generally speaking, more open to picking up a formerly self-pubbed book. So viewing things this way already skews my answer.

Plus, it depends on just how we’re phrasing things—slightly different questions can get very different answers. If I’m asking how many Big Five books started off a self published works... the odds aren’t horrible. I mean, just personally, I know enough people it’s happened to, and I have a good enough sense of how many books get published, so I feel comfortable saying yeah, there’s passable odds it can happen. It’s not exactly common, but I’d be willing to bet out of the thousands of books the big presses put out each year, more than a couple were previously self-published. And, as I just said, the odds get even better if we bring in smaller presses.

However... if my question is what are the odds of a self published book getting picked up by a big traditional press... well, those numbers plummet. Because now we’re talking about hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of self published books each year and (as I said above) maaaaybe a dozen of them get picked up. So I can end up with a very different picture of things depending on what I ask. And, to be honest, how people want to answer. There’s a lot of wiggle room here to make the answers fit what somebody wants to believe. Or wants you to believe.

All that in mind... why don’t we try to break this Voltron-question down into its three (or maybe four) component lion-questions and answer each of those.

First off is the big one. Is my book something a traditional publisher would even want? Let’s be honest—anything can be self-published. Absolutely anything. The most illiterate, nonsensical garbage can be self-published. So right off the bat, I need to have actually written a good book. Something a publisher might’ve picked up if they’d originally seen it. Something with a very solid structure, good characters, and strong dialogue. In this aspect, it’s just like any other book they’d be looking at, and they’re probably going to have much higher standards than... well KDP.

Not only that, but odds are they’re going to be looking at my actual self-published book. I mean, I’m now a small press trying to convince a big press to take on one of my titles, so is it shocking to think they might look at it? Is it edited and copyedited? Does it have a nice layout? Awful as it sounds, does it have a halfway decent cover? They’re not going to judge on any one of these things, but they’re all going to have a degree of influence. I’m asking them to pick up this book, and if it looks like a crap book... well, they’re going to notice that.

Second is the money side of things. Is it worth it for a traditional publisher to pick up my book and republish it? Again, one aspect of this is going to be like any other book—is this the kind of thing the publisher usually sells? Not a lot of historical romances coming out of Tor, and Ballantine isn’t picking up a ton of splatterpunk. And even if I’ve written a straight sci-fi book, is it so sub-sub-niche that Tor might only sell a few hundred copies altogether?

That’s actually a good place to bring up a sort of second-and-a-half point. There’s also some math at work here. See, if my self-published book’s only sold sixty or seventy copies, it means it’s not getting any interest or word of mouth... which means it’s probably not worth it for a big press to republish it. But if the book’s sold too many copies, that means I’ve actually eaten into the potential audience. Every book realistically is only going to sell so many copies, so if all the market research says my book might appeal to an audience of ten thousand and I’m telling them it’s already sold eight thousand self published... that also means it's probably not worth it to them to pick it up.

Also (what are we up to, my second and three-quarters point?) right now, as I’m writing this and you’re reading it—okay, maybe not as you’re reading it, depending—publishers are actually having meetings about what’s going to be on sale for Christmas 2022 and even talking a bit about spring of 2023. Seriously. They’re working that far ahead. Which means, on a lot of levels, they’re not as interested in what’s going on right now. So I might think this is a fantastic time for my book to go big, but as far as they’re concerned... that time was fifteen months ago.

Third is what am I expecting to get out of this? Mass distribution? Book signing tours? A futon stuffed with twenty dollar bills?  Welllll... remember that math I mentioned above? How much they think they can make off my republished book is going to affect how much they’re going to pay me. I can’t expect to get a huge advance off something that’s been out there selling copies for a year or two now, so if I’m demanding a six or seven figure check out of this... get used to disappointment.

And them paying less money means they need to make less of an effort to recoup that money. So no book tours. Not on their dime, anyway. I’m probably still going to be pushing this a lot myself. It’ll be more available, and it’ll have a little more weight behind it, but I’ll still probably be doing the same level of self-promotion I was doing when it was self-pubbed.

Also worth noting that the days of piecemeal rights deals are pretty much long over. I can’t be thinking I’ll ask the traditional publisher to take over just print and audio rights, but I’ll still get to put out the ebook. Doesn’t matter if it’s my choice or because things are locked up in some previous deal. It’s extremely unlikely someone’s going to accept very limited rights for the book, especially a big publisher. I might be able to make it happen with a smaller press, but even they’re going to be a bit leery about it.

And all that’s kind of a broader answer to “will traditional publishers pick up a book that’s been self published.” There’s lots of ifs and buts in there, and I need to figure out where my book (and where I ) sit with all of them to get a real sense of an answer. And again, that’s just to get us to whether or not it’ll happen. Y’see Timmy, ultimately—like any other publishing venture—my journey of getting a self-published book picked up is going to be different than your journey, and odds are neither of us are going to get a deal like she did.

So... very long answer to a deceptively short question.

Next time, I want to talk about cake.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Shhhhhh! Say Nothing!

Let’s have a little moment of truth between us. At some point or another, for any number of possible reasons, most of us have been in a position where it’s in our best interest not to answer a question.  Or, at the very least, to take as long as possible to answer it.  A few such questions might be....

— “Hey, what’s in the bag?”
— “Do these jeans make me look fat?”
— “Are you actually claiming this as a deduction?”
— “Did you eat the last piece of cheesecake?”
— “So, where were you last night?”

Now, by the same token, there are questions that should take no time at all to answer. Things where, if someone asks us and we know the answer, there are very few situations where it makes any sense for us to delay or be evasive. These are the ones where I have to seriously wonder why someone isn’t answering--and they’d better have a damn good reason for their lack of response. A few examples of that would be things like

— “Do you love me?”
— “How the hell do we get out of here?”
— “What are tonight’s specials?”
— “Which one of these is the antidote?”
— “WTF is that thing and how do we kill it?”

I mean, why would you hesitate on any of these? If we need the antidote and I know which vial it is, that's a no-brainer, right? Grab the yellow vial marked #23 and pour it down his throat.

For example, I loved LOST.  Yeah, sorry, absolutely loved it. Even the questionable third season. Yes, I will fight you if you say foolish things about the ending.

But... I can admit LOST suffered a bit when Benjamin Linus became a regular member of the cast. And a big part of that was because we all knew there was a lot of stuff he wasn’t telling anyone. There were still lots of cool mysteries on the island and Michael Emerson is a wonderful actor... but there were also lots of times where the “mystery” was just Ben sitting there... not talking.

A concept I’ve brought up here a bunch of times is withheld information. I’ve mentioned it a couple times recently, but it occurred to me I haven’t’ really explained it in... wow, ten years? Seriously? Okay, so this is long overdue.

Withheld information is when the characters (or really, the writer) hold back information from the audience for no other reason than to drive the plot forward. Characters just don’t talk about things, even though it’d be very natural for them to. Or they make vague statements when they could just as easily make clear ones. We’ve all seen things like this, yes? Where the only reason there are conflicts or challenges is because characters just aren’t saying what they know.

Withheld information’s the clumsy, unskilled version of mystery and suspense. It’s what I fall back on when my story doesn’t actually have a mystery but I’m trying to create the illusion of one. Because there’s more to a mystery—or suspense, or a twist—than me just not telling my readers stuff.

The thing is, withholding information is really just me and my characters... not doing anything. The plot may keep advancing in a clumsy way, but it’s almost always going to end up falling flat. Because information in a story tends to hit a tipping point. There comes a time when that knowledge has to come out because it just makes absolutely no logical sense for it not to. And when it doesn’t...

Y’see, Timmy, the one thing withheld information definitely creates is frustration with my reader. If Wakko’s been poisoned, Phoebe knows which one of the vials is the antidote, and she’s just not telling anyone—that’s just going to annoy the hell out of my reader. I mean, yeah, it makes the scene more tense, but why wouldn’t Phoebe save her friend? Why wouldn’t she help? If she’s the villain, sure, but other than that...?

And, wow, if we get to the end of the story and that’s when we find out Phoebe knew which one was the antidote and didn’t say anything? I mean, I need to have some ironclad reasons for her silence then. That’s when my readers are going to be looking to punch holes in things, so I need things to be sooooo solid if I’m going to go this way.

Now, all of this doesn’t mean I need to tell my readers everything. But what I don’t tell them depends on what kind of effect I’m trying to create in my story. If I withhold (or give out) information at the wrong points, my story’s going to trip over its own feet. So to speak.

So here are three story elements and how they use information.

A mystery is when the main character and the audience are aware a piece of information has been hidden from them, and my story usually involves a search for that unknown fact. At it’s simplest, a mystery is a question someone in my story is asking and trying to find the answer to.

Suspense is when there’s an important piece of information the audience knows and the characters don’t. The key here is that the characters don’t know that they need to know this vital fact. ussually as soon as possible. Like that Phoebe (who Wakko’s taking back to his hotel room) is the murderer. Or there’s a bomb under the table. These are common suspense situations we've all been in, right?

A twist is when a piece of information is revealed that my characters and my readers didn’t know was being kept from them. They didn’t even suspect those facts were out there, waiting to affect the story. A twist comes from out of nowhere and changes a lot of perceptions for the reader and probably the characters. We’ve all been assuming <<SPOILERS>> Luke Skywalker’s father is dead, so when we learn that Vader is his father, it’s a twist that alters our view of several things we’ve been told up until now.

Yeah, sorry. Blew the big Skywalker family secret there.

If I’m trying to use one of these devices, I want to make sure I’m using them correctly. I don’t want to just withhold information. My characters should be just as smart and clever as my audience, and if they aren’t talking... well, I should be sure there’s a solid reason why.

Next time, I’m going to try to answer another question that got tossed my way.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Gauld

Yeah, still trying to catch up on real work after last week's massive two-parter about building a better B-movie.

For now, have a Tom Gauld cartoon. Next time... well, I probably won't tell you anything.






Thursday, July 22, 2021

Building A Better B-Movie, Pt 2

Last time we talked about how to write a good script for a B-movie. Something cheap but still solid and clever. Something we can shoot ourselves.

Well, now that the script is written—

(you did write it all out, yes? That was one of the tips!)

—we can move on to the next fun phase. The one we’re all more interested in. Yeah, be honest. What we really want to do is direct. But I think first we need to talk a little bit about what directing involves. Yeah, even on this level.

Y’see, Timmy, making a movie is a lot like being in the military. When you think of the Army, most people tend to think of big battles, shooting rifles, driving in tanks, and stuff like that. But if you talk to anyone in the military (and if you’ve been in, you already know this), there’s a huge amount of logistical work. Planning. Scheduling. Inventories. Duty rosters. It’s all that advance work that makes the shooting rifles/ driving tanks moments go off without a problem.

Well, with significantly fewer problems. We’ll talk about that, too...

Filmmaking’s the same way. So much of it gets done before everyone shows up to set on that first day of shooting, and a huge amount of that work is done by the director. Even with numerous department heads doing lots of work for them, the director’s the one making most of the decisions. And at the budget level we’re talking about, I’m probably going to be doing even more as the director.

This isn’t meant to scare or discourage anyone. I’m just trying to make it clear that a lot of what makes a good director isn’t just the flashy stuff on set when I frame shots with my hands and yell “cut!” And if I want to make a good B-movie, I need to be a good director. Some of the stuff I’m going to talk about is going to sound really boring, and more than half of it’s going to happen before the first time I get to yell “action!” Yay! Welcome to filmmaking!

So here’s a few things I should probably have if I want to do a better-than adequate job of directing. Especially at our B-movie budget level.

1) Have Some Experience
This is the easiest one. Not saying I should’ve already shot another movie or some shorts or anything like that. But before I get a dozen of my friends together... I should just play around with the camera a bit. Even if I’m just planning on shooting this on my phone, go spend some time with the phone. Figure out what it can do. Believe me, it’s a lot better to figure it now than when all your friends are standing around ready to shoot a scene.

Easy thing to do? I should think of shots I like in movies, shots I’ve imagined for my movie, and just try to do them. No pressure, no requirements, just see if I can make my camera do the thing I’m picturing in my head. Maybe use action figures or get a friend who’s willing to be my living mannequin for the day and try a bunch of different shots with different angles/ lighting/ costumes. Then look at these shots and try to figure out what needs improvement. Spend lots of time doing this.

Seriously, start doing it tonight. Start doing it right now. Point the camera at the cat and give me a serial killer POV shot—go!

You’ve done that already? For real, you’re not just saying it so you can rush to the next step? Well, okay than...

2) Have the basics down
Okay, in the past I’ve talked about some standard film shots, so here’s a link for those. I want to start thinking of the script in these terms. Visually, what each scene’s going to look like and which shots I’ll need to construct that scene.

I’ll also point you at Krishna Rao’s unwritten rule of thumb—one pretty shot a day. Maybe I want to do a neat POV shot on a slide or outside someone’s window. Maybe I’m going to use a bicycle to keep up with somebody running down the street. Maybe my friends and I figured out how to do a real cool overhead spinning shot. These are all fantastic, but I don’t want to get bogged down in dozens and dozens of them on the same shooting day (I’ll explain why in a bit).

Let me hit you with two more good things to know. There’s a term you may have heard called screen direction. It’s really important, and it’s one of those things we all instinctively notice when its done wrong. Really simply put, pretend there’s a line down the center of the camera frame. Everything has to stay on its side of the frame, unless we see it switch sides on camera. Things on the left stay on the left, things on the right stay on the right. If you’re on the left and I’m on the right, I should be looking left (at you) when we’re talking in close ups and you should be looking right (at me). If we’re both looking the same way it looks.. weird. It goes against the cinematic language we’ve all picked up over the years.

Now, there’s another aspect to this and it’s called crossing the line. Here’s how it usually gets explained. Natasha and Yelena are sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast and the box of cereal's on the table with them. When we shoot our master shot, these things are going to be on one side or the other—some people say it’s with her or with her For example, Yelena's bowl of cereal would clearly be with her, Natasha's bowl is with her. But the box... who’s the box with? Because if we try to shoot it with both of them, it’s going to jump back and forth on screen as it crosses the line. If the camera’s facing Yelena, it’ll be on the left, but if it’s facing Natasha now it’ll be on the right. Make sense? Look, I even included helpful visuals. So we need to make a decision and stick with it (I’m saying the cereal is with Natasha).

When people mess this up, it’s usually because they’re confusing the actual geography of the location—what they’re seeing with their own eyes—with what the audience is seeing through camera. It doesn’t matter where the cereal box actually is in relation to you or me. Even if it’s actually at the middle of the table, on camera, it looks closer to you and that’s how we established it, so that’s how we need to shoot things. As far as the camera’s concerned, it’s on your side, not my side.

A fantastic example of screen direction (done right) is the first swordfight in The Princess Bride. Even with all the leaping around and changing camera angles, Inigo and the Man in Black never switch sides. He’s always on the left, he’s always on the right. The only time it changes is when we actually see them physically switch sides on camera.

Something I touched on above, closely related to crossing the line, is eyelines (this is the second of those two good thing to know). Have you ever watched a movie or TV show and someone seems to be looking off over there somewhere, not at the person they’re talking to? That’s an eyeline issue, and a lot of the time it ties back to crossing the line and/or people thinking more about geography then camerawork. The actors are looking at where their co-star is in the room, not where the camera's told us they are.

ProTip—most of the time if I’m close on Yakko and he’s looking at Phoebe (but we don’t see her), he’s actually just looking an inch or two away from the camera lens. Left or right of the lens depends on which side of the frame Phoebe was on. It seems weird at first, but it looks right when you cut it together.

Yeah, I know. It’s a lot of stuff to keep track of. We should probably be making a list.

Speaking of which...

3) Have a shot list
Okay, up above where I talked about different shots? This is where I need to start figuring out which of them I need for each scene. Seriously—before the first day of filming, I should know every shot I need/want for every scene.

For example... scene one. The walk-and-talk scene outside the office building. Most of it’s just going to be a wide shot of Wakko and Dot walking, but I might want to get some overs for the last third of their conversation. I might not want to go in for coverage yet because (theoretically) tension levels are still low.

But that sword fight in the forest? Well, I’ll probably want masters from both directions, and some overs to get the swords in, plus tight on their faces for a few reaction shots. And this might be a good place for one of those pretty shots—maybe a really big camera move at a good part of the duel.

I need to do this for every scene in the script. Picture all of it in my head—how its going to look on screen—and then figure out what I’m going to need to make that happen. Yeah, it can be a lot of work—I’ve seen directors spend three or four days on a shot list just for a formula television show. I knew one guy who'd block all his shots out with action figures.

Here’s two quick pro tips about making shot lists....

First, I should remember that being in close to someone tends to give us more emotion, so I usually want to start wide to establish things and then go tighter to connect with the characters. There’ll be exceptions sure, but this is a great rule of thumb. It works for scenes and for the movie as a whole. The scenes at the start of my movie should be shot wider and looser, giving me some space to breathe, but they get tighter as the story progresses and tension builds. Seriously—go watch one of your favorite movies and see how many close-ups there are in the first few scenes as opposed to the scenes closer to the climax.

Second, when I print out my script (because I wrote out the whole script, right?), three-hole punch it and put it in a binder. Seriously, movie sets pretty much run off three ring binders. And one of the reasons why is that—if I printed my title page—every page of the script now has a blank page right next to it (the back of the previous page). I can fill that blank space up with the shots for that page, notes to myself, diagrams, all sorts of stuff. Now it’s all right there, right next to the relevant scene.

As sort of a subset to the shot list, I should know how I want every scene to make the audience feel. Is this a scary movie? A funny movie? Should they be thrilled by the action or the romance in this scene? And it doesn’t always have to be big reactions—they can be intrigued or hopeful or kind of sad. But it probably means something if I have a scene and I’ve got no idea how the audience is supposed to feel about it. Or if those feelings don’t really line up with the scenes around them.

4) Have a shooting schedule
So our script has a bunch of locations in it. An office building. A tent. A forest. A meadow. I probably want to make sure I’m listing the inside and outside of places as two different locations, so Interior: Office and Exterior: Office. This can come in handy later.

What I need to do now is figure out the best order to shoot things in that also works with when we can get those locations. Like, I can shoot inside the office during the week after 6:00PM, but it’s a two hour drive to the forest, so we need to that on the weekend. Also, that walk and talk outside the office is during the day, but we can only do that on the weekends, too. Plus, Wakko’s busy on the third weekend of the month, so he can’t be in anything then.

Plus... well, you may remember last time I mentioned a good rule of thumb is that it’s going to take 90 minutes to shoot a properly formatted page. Just to be safe, I should probably double that for pretty shots and/ or stunt stuff. So that page of swordfighting—I should plan on three hours to film that.

What I’m getting at is I also have to factor in how long we need to be shooting at each location. We may need the office for twenty hours altogether. Add in that we can’t get in there until after 6:00... it means we’re probably going to have to spread this over three nights of shooting. But not over the weekend Wakko can’t be there. Unless... we just do the two scenes he’s not in on that weekend.

This is why so many movies shoot stuff out of sequence. Yeah, those four office scenes are all through the script, but it makes a lot more sense to shoot them all at the same time. And the meadow and the exterior tent are almost forty minutes apart in the movie, but... well, is there any reason we couldn’t set up the tent in the meadow once we’ve shot the meadow stuff? We could just turn the camera a bit for a different background and bam exterior tent.

Yeah. It’s a bit of a puzzle figuring out how to make all of this work. It always is. I have friends who are assistant directors and I’ve watched them juggle these things back and forth, trying to make everything line up as best they can. Trying to work this all out will probably be when we’re doing a lot of begging and pleading and desperate promising with various people. Because we’re doing all this super-cheap, mostly off people’s goodwill, so we need to make everyone happy. This is my dream, but it might not be theirs.

Also, now that we’ve got this all these different scenes set down in shooting order, I can see that oh, crap... I’ve got three of my  pretty shots scheduled for Tuesday night. Do I really need all of them? Which one’s going to add the most to the story I’m trying to tell, to give it the most dramatic weight at a key moment? I should probably aim to get that one done and put the others aside for now.

Again, like the shot list, everything will go soooooooooooooo much smoother if we work this stuff out ahead of time. In fact...

5) Have Everything Prepped Beforehand
I’ve really gotten into cooking videos over the pandemic and I’ve basically watched... well, 90% of Binging With Babish at this point. In one of his Basics videos, Andrew talks about having as much prepped beforehand as possible when you’re cooking. Cut all the veggies. Weigh all the ingredients. Make sure all the pots and plates are clean. The less I have to do once the water’s boiling, the less chance there is I’ll mess this up.

I want to be the same with my movie. Know who’s bringing snacks and drinks to set. Know who’s bringing everything to set—if something’s supposed to be there, who’s bringing it? Me? You? Her? Have all the costumes ready to go beforehand—even if they’re wearing their own clothes, know which clothes they’re wearing. Have locations lined up and scouted and confirmed. Have the swords picked out. Any decision I can make before we all get to set is one less decision I have to make there on set.

Because when I’m on set, I want to be focusing on getting this shot from my shot list, not figuring out if Phoebe should be wearing leather armor or chainmail in a scene we're shooting four days from now.

6) Have Lighting and Sound
Okay, so... odds are pretty good we were thinking of spending some money on camera equipment. Maybe the camera itself. Maybe we’re using our iPhone to shoot this and we want to get one of those smartphone steadicam rigs. Or even just some selfie sticks and a few stands to prop it up on.

Here’s what I’d do. Right now, I’d think of the number I was willing to spend on the camera and cut it in half. Seriously, whatever I was thinking of getting, odds are I can find a cheaper version of it online. Yeah, we want good equipment, but let’s be brutally honest—at this budget level it’s all going to be kind of the same.

Then I should take the other half of that money I’d budgeted for camera and spend it on lights and sound. Yeah, I’ve mentioned lights a few times. Trust me, it matters. It will make a gigantic difference, just having a few lights I can aim and throw some diffusion over (diffusion in this case is wax paper, unless we've got access to a theater department and their gel cabinet (in which case, I want a few general purpose frosts)).

The only thing that can make a bigger difference than lighting is sound. So many B-movies these days have absolutely awful sound because those filmmakers try to just use the microphone on their camera and nothing else. But we’re smarter than that. We can just put a recording app on everyone’s phone, buy two or three cheap lav mics, and voila we now have better sound than half the indie B-movies out there. Just remember to clap really hard at the beginning of every take—one clap that all the mics can pick up. Now you’ve got something to sync all the different recordings to when you edit.

Yeah, that’s what the little clapper board’s for. It’s usually a digital sync these days, but for our purposes the old ways work just as well.

Told you this’d be educational.

7) Have a production meeting
Another term you’ve probably heard before. Maybe a week or so before we want to start shooting, I want to get everyone who’s going to work on this together. Not the cast members—all the people who are going to be behind the camera helping with costumes, props, lighting, locations, and well... the camera. And, yeah, at this budget level there’s a good chance some of them will also be cast members, but I’m not thinking of them that way today.

What I want to do is go through the entire shooting schedule page by page, with the script right next to it. If the very first thing we shoot is scene 23, then let’s go to scene 23 and make sure we’re all, so to speak, on the same page. We know where it is, who’s in it, what’s in it, if we need anything special for it (is this that running scene we need the bicycle for? Who’s got the bicycle?). We’ll go through the first day of the schedule, the second day, and so on.

Now, in all fairness, I know a few of my friends who are Assistant Directors will roll their eyes at me about this, because there are those folks who prefer to just read straight through the script and do the production meeting that way. This is an option, yeah, but in my experience sooooo many low budget films and shows had problems that tied directly back to people not being clear that A and B were (or weren’t) happening on the same day. Or that we were going to film Y a week before we shot X. And that’s stuff that won’t come out by just reading the script.

We can do it either way but personally... I’d go with the shooting schedule.

Also have snacks and drinks at the production meeting, even if it’s just chips and bottled water. Have something. All these people are here doing me a favor. Thank them for it constantly.

8) Have a read-through
Guess what? Now we’re going to go through the script in order. Maybe a day or three after the production meeting, I want to get my whole cast together, maybe order a pizza or three, and all of us read the script together. They all read their parts, I read everything else. This is when they get to all play off each other, get a sense of timing, get a sense of how they’re going to play their characters. I can get a sense for how the dialogue sounds, maybe tweak a few lines here or there, perhaps even suggest a few things now so –again—I’m not dealing with it on set. This is also a chance for everyone in the cast to just meet each other (assuming they don’t all know each other already) so they’re a little more relaxed on set that first day of shooting.

ProTip—this is a great time to take a couple random photos of people if my movie needs them. If the script calls for a casual picture of Wakko, or maybe a shot of Dot and Phoebe together for their phones, get them now. They’ll be in different clothes in a different setting, so they won’t look staged or photoshopped. Also, this may be the only time you have some people together who never actually share a scene in the movie (so they’d be scheduled for different days).

And now... we finally get started. It’s our first day of shooting, everyone’s together, and I’m about to take my place in the annals of film history as a director. So here’s two last things for me to keep in mind.

9) Have a Plan B!
Look... things are going to go wrong. Sometimes at the last minute. We’re going to lose that location. That actor’s going to get sick. The guy in charge of bringing the sword is going to forget the sword. It’s going to rain on the day of our big sunny scene. And it’ll rain really hard, believe me, because God hates us, and he hates that we’re actually making our movie while his is stuck in development hell.

While it’s good to have everything planned out, like I’ve said a few times above, it’s also good to have a few alternate versions in my head in case something goes wrong. Because things going wrong is really common at this budget level. It’s unavoidable. So I need to be flexible. Do I really need Wakko in this scene? Is there a way to do it without the sword? If I really need the sword, could this scene happen somewhere else, location-wise? Is there something else that could happen here today instead with the actors we have? Like could this office scene somehow happen outside the office building—or outside a different office building??—and maaaaaaybe one of the... meadow scenes could happen here in the office? We’ve got all the actors to do that, right? See, this is another time a shooting schedule will come in handy. Or maybe Wakko’s really sick so we just do the meadow scene now and the office scene will happen much later inside an... elevator? Parking garage?

And hey—sometimes having that flexibility can be for good things. Maybe things are going great and I’m seriously ahead of where I should be right now—we planned on this taking five hours and it only took three—well, maybe I’ve got time to squeeze in another one of those pretty shots after all.

10) Have confidence
Last thing. Be confident. When you’re making a movie, the director is the captain of the ship. We’re the person in charge, the one guiding everything. Nothing’s more demoralizing for the cast or crew than to have someone in charge who doesn’t know what to do. I’ve been on set when a director just sort of shrugs and looks around for someone to solve their problems. Hell, I worked with one guy who routinely admitted he didn’t know how to shoot the day’s scenes. It’s not fun.

I’m betting most of the folks working on this movie, cast and crew, are doing it as a favor to me. Because they believe in me. So the least I can do is convince them they’re right to believe in me. I can be prepared. I can have a vision. I can keep my cool and adapt when things go wrong.

This isn’t to say I should be a raging egomaniac and ignore everyone else’s thought and ideas and opinions. I don’t want to be that kind of confident. Think of it more like Bob Ross. He knew what he was doing, didn’t beat us over the head with it, and if something went wrong or got messed up, well... that’s just a happy little accident. Let’s deal with it and keep moving forward.


And that’s my ten top tips for being a better B-movie director, on top of ten tips for being a better B-movie writer. All of which should help make a much better B-movie. Which I can then sing the praises of during a future Saturday geekery.

I probably could’ve made this a top fifteen or twenty, but this is already so damned long I may need to take a break next week to make up for how much time I spent on this. If there was some question you were really hoping I’d answer or an aspect I’d cover, let me know down below. I’ll try to respond to the best of my abilities/ knowledge/ experience.

Also... this is SDCC weekend! I know the con itself is online, but I hope you’re doing something fun and geek related. If you’re interested, I’m going to be doing a three-movie viewing party/ live tweet instead of my usual, anonymous Saturday geekery. Everything’s going to kick off at noon (Pacific time) with Man-Thing, then at 2:00 I’ll be starting The Incredible Hulk, and we’ll finish it all off at 4:30 with Resident Evil: Apocalypse. And a few other writer friends may join me for different movies, if you want to follow some hashtags.

(Man-Thing’s free to watch on Tubi and RE: Apocalypse is on Hulu. The Incredible Hulk is the troublesome one—not available to stream anywhere, so if you don’t already own it and want to watch along, you may need to rent it. Sorry...)

And next time here... jeeez, like I said, I may take a week off. Put up a Tom Gauld cartoon or two. But next time... I don’t know. I should tell you what I’m thinking about doing, but I’m not going to.

Until then... go write.

Or direct.

I’m not the boss of you. Just go do something creative, dammit.