Thursday, June 24, 2021

Two Days Earlier...

A couple weeks ago I talked about a certain kind of opening that shows up in a lot of books and movies. It’s when that prologue or first chapter or first scene has some stuff happen (computer virus is stolen, monster lands on earth, vampire comes out of the earth, etc) and then it jumps forward in time four day, five weeks, six months, or more. It can be a problematic opening, and the fact that I feel the need to point out that time gap—how separated these events are—should usually be a sign to take a serious look at how important that opening chapter or scene really is.

Today I wanted to talk about the reverse of that opening. It’s another one you’re probably familiar with, and I’d guess it should probably be an even bigger red flag. It’s not always a sign I’m doing something wrong... but I think it’s really leaning that way.

What I’m talking about, of course, is the infamous opening scene of high action, desperate people, severe crisis, screams, shouts, gunfire, exclamations, and then—

Thirty Six Hours Earlier...

You’ve seen this, yes?

Now, on a casual first glance, this opening seems great, right? We’re diving right into the action at the start. We’ve got tension. Strong character moments. And then—usually—a following scene that shows these characters in very different circumstances, leaving us with the mystery of “how do they end up there?”

Thing is, the more we look at it, the more this opening tends to falls apart.

First, it’s dropping us deep into the action. Sounds good on the surface, but as we’ve talked about before, a lot of folks who do this misunderstand what “starting with action”  really means. By its very nature this opening is out of context, and there’s a good chance I don’t know any of the characters involved, so this “action” opening has superficial stakes at best.

Think about it. Me telling you Wakko has a knife to Dot’s throat is... bad? Good? Bad for Wakko?  Without context, there’s a drastically different way to view almost any scene any of us can imagine. Seriously. Kids on the playground, people fooling around on the couch, someone reading a book in the library—in the right context, any one of these can be funny, sexy, sinister, or right out creepy.

Ah-hah! Says random internet guy #108. That’s the whole point! Like you said above, it’s creating a sense of mystery!

Funny you should mention that...

Second, this opening’s trying to build mystery by showing me an out of context piece of my story. But, a lot like the straight action, this opening mystery is a mystery without any stakes. If I need another six or seven scenes to establish “no, it’s really weird that Wakko would have Dot at knifepoint,” well... doesn’t needing another seven scenes to explain it kind of hint my opening isn’t that powerful?

Plus... this isn’t really a mystery. It’s just withheld information. We expect things are going to be different at the end of my story. The tension level should be higher. My characters should be in a different place, on several levels. It’s sort of like if I said “Wait, he’s Spider-Man at the end of the movie, but he’s just Miles Morales at the beginning?? Whoa! How could that possibly happen?”

The point of the story, quite literally, is to tell us how we get to the end of the story.

Third, it sucks a lot of tension out of my story. One way or another, I’m telling people who makes it to the end. Nothing that happens to Wakko until then is going to be a real threat, because I know he needs to be there at the end to hold a knife to Dot’s throat. Likewise, Dot’s got to be there to be knife-helden. Anyone standing around watching this? Well, we know they’re going to make it, too. This may sound silly, but if I tell people what happens at the end of my story... they’re going to know what happens at the end of my story.

Small note—if I’m gambling on my readers/audience forgetting that opening bit and being surprised when the plot guides us back to it, well... does that sound like a great opening? One I’m hoping my readers forget?

Fourth and finally, I think when I use this kind of beginning, it’s me admitting I just don’t have a great beginning for my story.

Y’know how I’ve suggested cutting off some prologues and seeing how the story works without them? I’d bet three out of four times, if I cut this “One Week Earlier” opening off my story, I’ll find the one I’m left with is kind of weak. Nothing really happens. The characters aren’t that interesting. It kind of meanders a bit before it gets back to the plot.

Y’see, Timmy, if I’ve started my story at the wrong point, the “Two Days Earlier” opening can seem like a quick fix. It’s me pasting on a more interesting beginning. But odds are it hits a lot of those problems I just mentioned. That’s why I think it’s such a big red flag.

I should consider starting my story now instead of at the end. I'm not saying this never, ever works, but if now feels like such a lousy place to start my story... well, that might be my subconscious telling me something.

And maybe I should listen to it.

Next time, I’d like to tell you why you should delete all your dating apps and meet someone the old fashioned way.

Oh! And a shameless self-plug. NPR is doing their summer reading lists and is looking for sci-fi and fantasy books that you loved from the past ten years. And while I’d never stoop so low as telling you how to vote on such a thing, I’m not above reminding you how much you liked Paradox Bound and how it’s a wonderful stand-alone novel that would appeal to most anyone. Just something to have in mind. While you vote.

Anyway, until next time, go write...

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Experience Points

I’ve mentioned experience once or thrice over the past few posts, and I figured it might not be a bad thing to blather on about. It’s one of those things we all talk about and acknowledge, but also all like to believe we’ve got enough and don’t need any more. Mostly because... well, how much is enough? How do you even measure experience? Are there real-world units of experience?

Anyway, let me toss out a few things we can all think about. Like this story you may remember. It’s funny and I’ve told it before.

As it says in the little bio over on the right, I’ve got really old New England roots. I mostly grew up in Maine, but I spent my high school years down in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Yes, with the Rock and the Mayflower and all that. One of the big tourist attractions there is Plimoth Plantation, a sort of ongoing LARP museum/interactive show of the original colony in the year 1627. Likewise, all the actors there are playing specific, actual historical figures from that year. You can walk in, talk to the different “residents,” and they’ll answer questions about what they’re doing at the moment or “current events.” Sometimes, depending, they’ll also ask about your odd and extremely improper clothing (young lady, are you showing your shoulders?!? In public?!?)

(weird fun fact—if you’ve ever seen that late ‘80s movie Warlock, the whole “Boston Colony” sequence they show at the beginning with the little town is actually Plimoth Plantation)

Anyway... a friend of mine from high school worked at the Plantation. They assigned her an age-appropriate historical role, and part of that role was getting married at the end of the summer to another character, Experience Mitchell (ahhh, Puritan names). The thing was, my friend kinda had a behind-the-scenes thing for another Pilgrim. So on the big day, she told me one of her co-workers gave her a “wedding gift” in the changing room, a t-shirt that said...

            Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.

It was a clever pun, yeah, but the phrase stuck with me because... well, it’s true.  If you talk to anyone who’s considered experienced, it’s because they failed or screwed up. Probably a lot.

Now—somewhat back on track—in one of the Sandman books, I remember someone (I think it was Eve?) told Matthew the Raven that everyone has at least three great stories in them. This is true, but I think there’s also an unspoken corollary there which is just as important. And it gets ignored a lot.

Yes, we all have at least three great stories in us, but we also have all have lots and lots of bad stories in us. Dozens of them. Maybe even hundreds. We have awful characters, contrived plots, cringe-worthy dialogue, and some incomprehensible structure. We’re not even going to talk about those horrible twists or the very awkward sex scene.

Yes, I’m saying we. I’ve written sooooooo much bad stuff none of you are ever going to see. My third grade attempt at a novel, Lizard Men From the Center of the Earth.  My middle-school sci-fi novel.  My Boba Fett and Doctor Who fan-fiction. My junior high fantasy novel.  My high school werewolf-detective novel.  My college novel, The Trinity.  My after-college-moved-to-California novel, The Suffering Map. And mixed in there are a ton of comic scripts, short stories, screenplays, and I think even one solid attempts at a stage play. Thousands of pages.  Thousands of hours of work.

And pretty much across the board, all that work sucks.

It sucks on different levels, for different reasons, but don’t doubt that most of it sucks hard. I spent weeks and months and years in one case writing stuff that should never again see the light of day. I’ve got no problem admitting it. In fact, being able to admit it let me move from being a random dabbler to a serious writer. I spent about twenty years digging through all those bad stories and found the good ones underneath.  Maybe even one or two great ones.

Writing all those stories was my experience. I had to get them out. Whenever you hear about an overnight success or an amazing “first” novel, odds are that writer’s got a really long string of awful work behind them. Sure, there’s always a chance they really are an overnight success—sometimes those great stories are right on the surface, the way a prospector might kick over a rock and find a gold nugget just sitting there. But for the most part, becoming a good writer means a lot of, well, not getting what you want. Doing the work and then doing... more work.

Y’see, Timmy, there’s an all-too-common belief that just finishing something means it’s good. I mean, I made it all the way through to the end on my first try. That’s a lot of writing. That novel must be worth publishing and being read, right?

But the truth is, the vast majority of first novels are awful. And that's okay. The second ones are pretty bad, too. Ex-Heroes was my first published novel, yeah , but it was my seventh-and-a-half attempt at writing one. And, as I hinted above, I’m really glad it was the first one people saw.

Because that junior high fantasy novel... jeeez, less said about that one the better. So embarrassing. On so many levels.

Sometimes we pour our hearts into something, spend weeks or months or even years on it, and we still don’t get us what we want. But at least we get some experience. If we admit we need it.

Next time, I think I want to talk about what was happening a few days before this.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Five Years Later

So, I talked about prologues recently, and I wanted to toss out one more thought on them. Well, y’know, one more for now. This one’s an easy warning flag to look for as I’m trying to figure out if my prologue is worth saving or not. It’s not a guaranteed catch, but I’d bet at least three out of four times, that flag’s popped up for a good reason.

If you’ve ever followed along with my Saturday geekery, you know a common B-movie complaint I have is the opening where everyone dies. A bunch of people show up, have some bare bones character development, maybe flash some skin... and then die horribly. Usually by monster, but sometimes it’s a serial killer. Or lava.

Anyway, there’s a slight offshoot to this, and I’ve seen it in book manuscripts too. It’s when our main story doesn’t start until

SIX WEEKS LATER

You’ve seen this, yes? I’d guess 83% of the time that opening scene’s about someone dying. Or doing something vague and “mysterious.” Or maybe it’s really clear what’s going on but it just feels irrelevant because, seriously, who are any of these people?

And then we flip the page and see that header right under “Chapter Two.” Or maybe it got a page of its own. In the movie, they probably did a fade-to-black and then maybe a little chyron at the bottom of the next shot—Two Years Later

Like I said, this isn’t a guaranteed problem. Not so much a red flag as maybe a safety orange one.

And also, just to be clear, the problem isn’t the timestamp (so to say) itself. Just like with prologues, the problem doesn’t magically vanish just by saying “Okay, I won’t tell the reader it’s four months later, I’ll just let them figure it out.” This isn’t going to take care of anything and it’s probably going to cause more problems.

Y’see, Timmy, that tag is a warning to my reader—and it should be to me. It’s making it clear just how disconnected this opening is from the actual story on the temporal measuring tape. And if it’s that set apart from my main story... how important is it?

Seriously, look at all the different rules and conditions we’ve talked about before when it comes to prologues. No, go look—I linked to most of them up above. I’d bet you four out of five times, if the story opens with a scene or chapter that gets followed with SIXTEEN DAYS LATER (or something similar, don’t get pedantic), it’s breaking a bunch of those rules. Which means I’ve probably got an unnecessary opening. Heck, my manuscript might be a lot stronger without it.

Sure, this isn’t an absolute. There are lots of examples of stories that start here and then jump days, weeks, or months ahead. But there’s also really solid reasons why those examples work with those stories. We can break down exactly why that separation between then and now is so important for this book or movie.

So if you find out you’ve added that flag, maybe take a moment and give that opening a good look. Does that separated beginning really add anything? What does the big distance between them bring to my story? What does pointing out that distance add to it?

So says the guy who just started a new book, and the only thing on page five is

ONE THOUSAND YEARS LATER 

Next time, there’ll be some more experience to share with you.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Thank Your Rich Uncle...

Happy Birthday to me. Well, belated birthday. Monday was a day of action figures and LEGO sets and many games and drinks with my fully vaxxed friends. It was a wonderful way to turn <<--DC REBOOT-->> years old.

Anyway... now that I am somewhat old and wise, I wanted to take a moment to blather on about something that’s been itching at my brain for a while. And I know it's going to be a touchy subject for some people, so I'll try to tread lightly.

MFA programs. Why do these things even exist?

See! I told you it'd be touchy! Just to be clear right up front, this is absolutely not a swing at anyone who made it through an MFA program and got a degree. I know MFA writers are popular punching bags for some people, and this is not one of those posts. I’m a huge believer that pretty much all education ends up being useful (even if not always in the way it was intended) and I’ve got massive respect for anyone who actually did it. I enjoyed my four years at UMass, but I also know I wouldn’t’ve had the stamina (or the resources) to make a graduate degree happen. So this is, again, not coming down on anyone who scraped and clawed their way up through a higher level of higher education and came out on top.

You absolutely rock. Seriously. Never doubt it.

The people who gave you that MFA though...

Probably a good point to mention before I get going is none of this has been triple-checked or peer reviewed or anything like that. But within my own experience--including a degree of research specifically about this--I haven't found anything to contradict any of it. Like, a disturbing number of things line up with this half-assed theory I’m about to present to you.

So... one of the main reasons writers and other artists tend to get the liberal/ fruity/ beatnik type labels is because, traditionally, if I wanted to learn one of these fields I just did it. People didn’t go to school to learn how to write, they just wrote. They dropped out of “productive society” and wrote a lot. For the vast majority of folks this meant finding a dirt-cheap apartment in a city close to publishers (to save postage costs), drinking cheap booze, having cheap affairs, and skipping two meals a day to pay for supplies. Eventually (hopefully) I learned from experience, got better, and then people started to pay me. That’s where the stereotype of the starving artist comes from—most of these folks went hungry while they learned their art. I talked about this at length a few birthdays back...

Yeah, if I was really lucky I might find some kind of mentor to show me how to hold a brush, where to hit the marble with the chisel, or to read the first half page of my story and offer a dozen notes right there. But these were kinda few and far-between. I mean, think about it. In terms of any general population (pick your favorite city or state or country) there are only going to be so many successful artists. So out of that limited number, I need to actually find one of them, and it needs to be someone in the field I want to study, and they need to be willing to offer some sort of mentorship, AND they need to have space/ time for me, personally. I mean, there’s probably hundreds of other people looking for mentors too, right? It absolutely happened, no question... but it probably didn’t happen a lot, just applying a little common sense.

Now the reason people had to learn this way is universities and colleges didn’t teach the arts. No painting or dance or acting or writing. Really. They were professional institutions. People went there to learn engineering, medicine, chemistry, law. You know... real jobs.

Worth noting there were a very small number of these schools with writing classes. But even in those cases this wasn't something you got a degree in. It was just a side thing—some exercises to maybe help you write a better closing speech for the jury.

And yes, I know—there were a few specialist art school out there. Very few, comparatively speaking. The odd music academy or dance conservatory. But this wasn’t considered higher education. It was—at best—more like we’d consider a vocational school. And if you think about it, that kind of makes sense. Sure I can teach you how to write notation for sheet music and how to blow on a flute. But I can’t teach you how to compose the song in your head. And as we’ve talked about here many, many times, somebody can’t teach you the “correct” way for you to write. We all need to figure that out for ourselves.

So what changed? How did writing (and the other arts) suddenly become a “teachable” thing? Well, two things happened. Actually, one thing happened, but a second thing had a very powerful impact on that first one.

In reverse order, the second one was Nazis. Hate those guys, right? In case you missed that week of  grade school history, in the mid-late 1930s a right-wing fascist group gained a ton of power in Germany and made life miserable for pretty much everyone in Europe. And a lot of people in Africa. And Asia. Eventually the US joined in the fight (to quote Eddie Izzard, “after a couple of years, we won’t stand for that anymore!”) and sent sixteen million people off to fight.

After WWII, a lot of folks—like with WWI before it—were just left wrecked by the scale of it all. The things they’d done. The things they’d seen. I mean, by the numbers, the odds were you saw someone die every single day. For maybe four years. So when the war ended, most US servicemen got a slow boat home. A deliberately slow boat. So these soldiers had time to breathe, to look at the waves, and to talk. Most importantly, to do it with a bunch of people who’d just gone through the same things they did.

And when they got home, that first thing I mentioned was waiting for them.

Y’see, the US Government had come up with something called the GI Bill. WWI (and its aftermath) was still fresh in a lot of folks’ minds and everybody wanted to make sure this new wave of veterans were taken care of when they came home. So the government said “When you finish your tour, go to college on us! We'll cover it.” Because it was a win-win for the United States. We’re taking care of veterans and we’re making more doctors, engineers, and scientists. Wooo! Yay us! We rock!

So these guys got home, Big Government pulled out the big checkbook and said “Congrats on surviving--what college do you want to go to? What do you want to study? Law? Medicine? Rocket science? We’re going to need some more rocket scientists pretty soon.”

But a bunch of these guys said “Y'know... I think I might just take a year or three off and process all this some more. Work through it. Maybe write a book or some poetry, put some of this stuff in my head down on the page while I try to figure out what I'm doing next.”

Now this wasn’t the first time Uncle Sam had heard something like this (again, WWI just thirty years earlier). So he shoved the checkbook back in his pocket, put a firm hand on these guys’ collective shoulders and said “Good on you, man. You go do what you need to do to get right.”

And that would’ve been it. Except... suddenly the collective colleges and universities of America said “Whoa, whoa, WHOA! You promised us all this GI Bill money! You said hundreds of thousands of soldiers were going to be signing up for college!”

”Well, yeah,” said Big Government, “but they don't want to be doctors or lawyers now. They just want to write a book about their experiences.”

”Well, let's not be hasty,” said the CEO of All Colleges. “I mean we... we've got writing... programs.”

"You do?”

“Oh, yeah. Yeah. A whole department. Several departments. They could absolutely get a degree in... in the arts. In fine arts, even! You just write those checks, Big Uncle Sammy, we'll have everything ready by September.”

Worth noting my friend M.L. Brennan (college professor and vampire author) heard this line of thought from me a while back and pointed out all of this continued (arguably got a lot worse) in the ‘90s when college loans became a serious for-profit business. Higher education became less about, well, education and more about making money. So it’s not surprising MFA programs multiplied like bunnies shortly after that. You want to go to college for what? Yeah, sure, we’ve got a program for that. Just sign your loan papers...

And that’s how writing became something that's taught. Colleges and universities just wanted the money. Which also meant now they needed to make up rules and guidelines and formulas to try to teach all these things. Because if there weren't any rules, they wouldn’t be able to issue grades and some students couldn’t do better than others. Which would mean this “degree” I got is... well, kinda pointless. Maybe even worthless.

Which brings us to the last thing I'm going to say about MFA programs—their abysmal success rate. Seriously. For most college degrees (of any level), we say “making a living at it” is more or less the end goal of getting the degree. If I go to school to be, say, a high school teacher, and 83% of us in that program become high school teachers, that’s a pretty successful program, right?

With that in mind, as another friend, Kristi Charish, has pointed out... what would you think of a school where less than 5% of education graduates end up making a living as teachers? What could we say about an engineering program where only one or two students out of the entire graduating class actually become engineers?

I mean... seriously, does that sound like a successful program? A terribly useful degree? Especially if there are dozens of other people becoming successful teachers or engineers without that degree? I mean, Kristi told me at her school the science department had produced more successful novelists than the MFA program.

And again, I want to stress, this isn’t about the people who got those degrees. As I said at the start of this, I’m impressed by anyone who makes it through a graduate program. And I absolutely think some useful learning can come out of it.

But if someone’s about to make that choice, I’ve got to be honest... I’d tell them it’s probably not worth it. They might get something out of it, yeah, but odds are they could get that thing somewhere else. Probably a lot easier and definitely a lot cheaper.

Also again... none of this has been rigorously reviewed. There could very well be a dozen facts I missed just sitting out there, ready to tear this whole chain of thought apart brick by brick. And if so, please give me those facts. I’m always glad to know more.

Next time... I want to talk about the story that happens five years later. Or really, the opening that happened five years ago. 

Until then, go write.