Thursday, February 16, 2017

My Latest Brilliant Idea

            So, a few weeks ago I got to witness an all-too common event.  The person whining about how “they stole my idea!”  Who they were isn’t important.  Sad truth is, it was a nonsense claim, one we’ve all seen more than a few times.
            Here’s an ugly truth that all half-decent writers know.  Ideas are cheap.  They’re cheap, borderline worthless, because they’re common.  Ridiculously common.  I can say with absolute certainty that I have more ideas for books than I am ever going to be able to write.  Seriously, even if I live to be a hundred, I’m pretty full up.  And know what? I’m going to have more ideas tomorrow. And the day after that.
            Not only that, but a lot of time my ideas will line up with the ideas other people have.  This is called parallel creation, and it happens a lot.  Especially when you consider how many folks come up with ideas they never do anything with.
            Here’s an absolutely true story.  Throughout 2008 and 2009, I placed in a few screenplay contests with a script I wrote called Reality Check.  It was about the crew of a retro-style spaceship who slowly come to realize they’re actually characters in a 1950s serial. Eventually, they figure out how to escape into the real world—which turns out to be a far more terrifying and dangerous place than they’re prepared to deal with. Especially when one of their mortal enemies follows them through.
            If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should.  It’s got a lot of the same elements as John Scalzi’s Redshirts, a ridiculously fun book that came out about two years after I won my last contest with Reality Check (if memory serves, I got a free copy of Final Draft for that one). 
            Now, I’m sure some people would go nuts and start shrieking about plagiarism and lawsuits.  Heck, I was dragged into a court case a few years back which was pretty clearly just weak parallel creation, but someone decided to sue over it anyway.  And lost.
            Simple truth is, Scalzi and I have never met (I think we were rushed past each other once at NYCC, but I’m not even sure of that). To the best of my knowledge he’s never been a judge or reader for a screenwriting contest.  I have absolutely no reason to think he ever saw my story.  We’re just two guys about the same age with similar educations, backgrounds, and interests who happened to look at something the same way and both decided to do something with it.  I wrote a screenplay, he wrote a novel.  That’s parallel creation.
            There’s also a funny rule of thumb I heard a while back that I think is, alas, horribly true.  The level of worry someone has about their idea being stolen is usually an inverse ratio to how good that idea actually is.  In other words, people tend to get really paranoid about their bad clichés and tropes being stolen.  That court case I mentioned before?  It was based off some ridiculously common clichés.  I mean, embarrassingly common.  I actually laughed out loud when the lawyer told me they were part of the core basis of the lawsuit.
            Y’see, Timmy, we all have ideas.  And the simple truth is, there’s somebody out there with the same influences, the same education, the same resources as me who’s having the same idea.  Maybe even ten or twenty people.
            Now, let me bring up a related point to keep in mind about ideas. In fact, here’s another story.  Genders, genres, and other facts have been changed (or maybe not) to protect the semi-innocent...
            I was at a convention a while back and one of the other attending authors offered me a copy of her book.  My to-read list is so huge I generally don’t accept such offers, but she was insistent so I said sure.  And then it slowly worked its way through my to-read pile until it was at the top.
            Said book was a fantasy novel that was aiming for a Game of Thrones-type feel.  It was very big on swordfighting.  Sword vs. sword, sword vs. axe,  sword vs. two swords, sword vs. sword and a dagger... 
            It just went on and on like this.  Every fifth or sixth page had a sword fight. Or a flashback to a sword fight.  Or someone talking about what they were going to do to someone else in an upcoming sword fight.
            And every battle ended bloody.  No mercy in this world.  Everyone either loses a head or an arm or gets impaled.  Sometimes all three.  Blood and guts sprayed everywhere and got on everyone.  House of a 1000 Corpses looked clean and sanitized compared to this book.
            Needless to say... it wasn’t that good.  There were several places where the book bordered on awful.  I read about fifty pages and skimmed the rest.  More sword fights.  More blood.  A few beatings.  The non-stop action wasn’t the only issue, alas, but it was the one that matters for today.
            Y’see, some of these battles were actually kind of clever.  They did things I hadn’t seen before in books or on screen. The way they approached a character or their training.  Some of the ways the fights went.  How some of them were described.
            But it’s not enough just to be original.  My book needs to be coherent, both in plot and in structure.  It needs to have flow.  These are the things that tie my ideas together and turn them into a story.
            I’ve mentioned before that ideas are rarely more than plot points, and a pile of plot points is not the same thing as a plot.  No matter how clever my idea is, it’s not going to automatically make my story into a good story.  Especially if... well, I don’t have a story.  And an idea without a story is...
            Well, it’s borderline worthless.
            Next time, I’d like to put a few thoughts on the block.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Love Is All You Need

             Yes, it’s that time of year again.  The time when a young writer’s fancy turn to thoughts of...
            Well, getting published, usually.
            But, that aside, there’s romance in the air this weekend.  And everyone loves a good romance because, pretty much across the board, we’ve all either been in love, are in love, or want to be in love. It’s a wonderful feeling.  Heck those first few months of giddy romance are just fantastic, aren’t they?
            Love is great because we can relate to it.  We believe in it.  For the most part, we enjoy seeing other people in love.
             (except when Wakko started dating Phoebe... those jerks... hate them so much...)
            If those three traits sound familiar—relatable, believable, likable—it’s because I’ve mentioned them two or six times as the traits of good characters.  So a good romance can be a powerful tool in a story, because it immediately grounds one or two of my characters.
            However...
            Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where, with no warning, two characters start professing their mad love for each other?  No preamble, no chemistry, they just suddenly  start flirting and making long-term plans.  None of us likes emotional fakery, and few things can sink a story faster than a pasted-on love interest.  It makes us roll our eyes while reading books and laugh while we’re watching movie.
            So, let’s revisit a few simple rules that can help craft a love story for the ages...

            The First Rule--  Okay, like I was just saying, love needs real emotions, and I can’t have real emotions without real people.  And real people, oddly enough, act in realistic ways.  Note that I said realistic—not rational.  Love is one of the most bizarre, irrational things most of us will ever encounter in our lives. 
            If my characters are real, though, they’re going to have needs, desires, plans, and tastes.  And it’ll stand out if they make choices that go against those traits.  Yes, opposites attract—they even have a lot of fun together—but if we’re talking about real emotions, odds are these two are going to have more in common than not.  To put it another way, the career-minded Army officer probably isn’t going to make serious long term plans with the quirky socialist musician.  Although... maybe she used to play guitar or violin, and he reminds her of another path she could’ve taken.  Having past conflicts and secrets can make a character seem real, too.
            Even then, how far and how fast they take things should be consistent.  Some folks schedule every hour of every day, others live in the moment.  People can be confident or nervous, experienced or awkward.  For some folks it’s a huge moment to have that first cautious, fleeting kiss on the third date, and other folks are in the parking lot tearing each others clothes off half an hour after they meet.
           Simply put, my characters need to be believable if their relationship is going to be believable.

            The Second Rule--  Quick show of hands.  Who’s ever been in a situation where someone’s been trying to push you into a relationship?  Maybe it’s friends or coworkers.  Could be the person you’ve been on one date with.  Hopefully it’s not relatives, because that’s always kinda... weird.
            Regardless, the result is it makes us want to get away from the object of our potential affection.  Nobody likes feeling forced into something, and so we don’t enjoy seeing other people forced into things.  That’s just human nature.
            Now, for the record, “someone” includes me, the writer.  Characters need their own motivations to get into a relationship.  I can’t just have them do things for the convenience of the plot.  If I’ve based my whole story around the folklorist and the soldier saving the villagers because of their mutual respect for each other, then I need a real reason for them to get together, because they’re real people (as mentioned in the First Rule). 
            And no, the reason can’t be something like “because they need to face Demosthenes the Elder-Lich in the third act.”  It also can’t be “I need a sex scene to hold people’s attention.”  If this is the basis of Wakko and Phoebe’s relationship... well, they probably won’t be celebrating any major anniversaries.  Not with each other, anyway.
            People get together because they want to get together, not because other folks think they should be together.

            The Third Rule – This one could actually count as real-world advice.  Don’t confuse sex with love.  There are lots of points in a story where it might be completely acceptable for two characters to have sex.  We’re all mature adults here (well, most of us) and I’m willing to bet most of us have had sex with someone we weren’t madly in love with at that moment.  Or at any point later.  Simple fact—sex is fun.  It’s a stress-reliever.  It lets us avoid thinking about other things.  Heck, it can even keep you warm.
            However... sex doesn’t always translate to love.  In stories or in the real world.  If my two characters fall into bed (or onto a couch, up against a tree, on a kitchen counter, etc), I need to make sure I’m clear what it means for both of them.  Forcing something casual into something serious will just read as forced (refer back to the Second Rule).
            So... sex and love are not the same thing.  Don't forget it.

            The Fourth Rule-- This is a tough one, because Hollywood keeps trying to tell us otherwise.  How often in movies can you immediately spot “the love interest” as soon as s/he is introduced?  It doesn’t matter what kind of film it is or what’s going on, it’s easy to pick out him/ her the first time we see them.  You may have heard this moment called the “meet-cute,” usually in screenwriting circles.
            Y’see, Timmy, the simple truth is...  romance doesn’t always fit in a story.   Someone could be fighting for their life, painfully wounded, or so scared they’re a moment away from a heart attack.  Maybe they’re already in a relationship with someone else.  Maybe they just have no interest in a relationship—emotional or physical.
            Forcing a relationship in these situations also risks making one or both characters seem very unlikable.  There was a television show a few years back where a police officer was presumed dead and in hiding, but kept sneaking off (in his new identity) to check on his wife and son.  Thing is, he was also spending a lot of time with this sexy blonde contortionist (no, seriously) and there was a lot of, shall we say, tension between them.  And chemistry.
            Thing is, this made the officer a very hard-to-like character.  Is he cheating on his wife?  Or has he moved on and found something new?  Is he sympathetic or a heel?
            Similarly, I read a screenplay once where the two protagonists start feeling strong urges toward each other while they’re searching for the woman’s abducted daughter.  Not years-back abducted, mind you—four hours ago abducted.  But, wow, doesn’t this private detective have great arms and his eyes are so blue...
            In ten words or less—sometimes it’s just not going to happen.

            So there are the rules.  Now go forth and spread the love.
            Where appropriate.  Don’t be that guy.  Or woman.
            Oh, and before I forget, this Sunday is the Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies in Burbank.  If you happen to be in the Los Angeles area, please swing by and join us as we talk about writing, publishing, and all the different areas they overlap.
            Next time we’re back here, I’d like to talk to you about a couple of ideas I’ve had.
            Until then, go write.