Thursday, July 17, 2014

How I Learned to Stop Worrying...

            Classic movie reference.  Come on, broaden your horizons.  Watch something made before 1976.
           Anyway, I’d like to start today by telling a story or two.  They’re examples of a problem I see crop up now and then, and one I just finished wrestling with myself.  It’s one of those issues where it’s easy to either write myself into a corner or (worse yet) write something where characters are acting in an unbelievable way.
            Oh, and by the way, before I forget, there’s a thermonuclear warhead in the apartment next door.  Something like ten megatons, if I read the specs right.  Armed and everything.  Just thought you should know.
            Anyway, let me tell you the first story.
            In my often-referenced novel The Suffering Map (unpublished, for good reason), one of the main antagonists is Uncle Louis.  Louis is an old-school mobster with a legendary temper, and he’s rather upset that someone (we’ll call him Rob) threatened his niece (who’s in her late fifties).  He sends a man to rough Rob up a bit, and that man ends up dead with his body horribly mutilated.  So Louis sends two men to kill Rob.  They both end up dead and mutilated.  And when this news reaches Louis he decides...
            Well, actually, he decided to wait for three days and then go after Rob.
            See, I had this whole structure of days worked out, and it turned into kind of a vicious circle.  I needed three days to pass, so Louis had to wait.  Which meant I needed to come up with stuff for everyone else to be doing.  By the time I abandoned that structure, though, I’d grown kind of fond of the reveals and character moments I’d created.  Now Louis had to wait so I’d have room for those bits, no matter how strange and out of character it seemed.  It wasn’t until my fifth draft that I realized this was just dragging things and creating a huge lag in the plot.
            Though not as huge as that bomb sitting next door.  I looked it up.  That’s almost fifty times the size of the bomb they dropped on Nagasaki.  Think about that.  I mean, I think it’s small compared to some missiles and such, but right here in the middle of Los Angeles that could still kill a lot of people.  Millions, easy.
            Anyway, back on track.
            Here’s another example of what I wanted to talk about today.
            A few years back a woman I knew wrote an urban fantasy story and asked me to look at it.  A single mom activates a portal and she and her kids are transferred to a mystical realm.  There’s some magic, some disobeyed instructions, and all three kids vanish.  Invisible?  Teleported?  Dead?  We don’t know, and Phoebe, our heroine, was desperate to find out.
            Well... until she ran into the handsome barbarian chieftain, anyway.  Then Phoebe became aware of just how shredded and torn her clothes were after coming through the portal... and how much skin they exposed... and how much skin the chieftain was showing.  Tight, tanned, well-muscled skin, and Phoebe started wondering if there was a Mrs. Chieftain, and if not... just how prudish were people in this semi-medieval world?
            Speaking of kids...  Hmmmm.  Sounds like one of the little kids next door is hitting the warhead with something.  Maybe a hammer.  Yeah, there are kids next door, too.  Didn’t I mention that before?  I guess one’s technically an infant and the little girl’s a toddler, but they third one is seven or eight.  He’s hammer-competent.
            Well, probably can’t do anything about it.  At best, he might turn on the timer.  If he hasn’t already.
            But I’m wandering away from the point again...
            Or am I...?
            Y’see, Timmy, there are some threats that are just too huge for me to ignore.  Either as physical threats or emotional ones.  One of my children vanishing.  A man in a hockey mask stalking toward me through the forest.  An armed nuclear bomb. 
            Once I know about these things... that’s that.  I can’t establish a huge threat and then ignore it.  If I tell you there’s a nuclear bomb next door, that has to be the priority.  Not being polite.  Not property laws.  Not getting a good night’s sleep and dealing with it in the morning. 
            In my new book, the characters found out about an immediate global threat.  Not a ten years down the road thing—this time tomorrow half the planet will be dead and by the weekend all of it will be.  And it put me in an awkward spot when they did, because at that point nothing else could matter.  Nothing.  Once they realized how big that threat was, they couldn’t be thinking about anything except taking care of it.  Yeah, they could have little asides or chuckles, but nothing that distracted them. 
            It forced me to restructure the end of my story.  But it also made the end much stronger.  And nobody’s standing around wondering about that bomb next door.
            Alas, I’m going to miss next week because of the San Diego ComicCon.  Please swing by the Random House area (technically the Crown/Broadway booth) on Friday after 2:00, say “hullo,” and call me a talentless hack in front of important people.
            When I come back, odds are I’m going to be very fatigued.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Reverse Engineering

            A quick tip for this week.
            When I was still a scrabbling writer looking for my first real success, I was sure there was some sort of trick to writing.  That it wasn’t about putting in years of work and getting experience, it was just about finding the right topic or the right genre.   I wrote lots of stories that focused on all the wrong things, because I was convinced it wasn’t how I wrote, it was what I wrote about.
            Needless to say, this wasn’t true.
            It wasn’t just me, though.  Lots of writers think this at some point in their learning curve.  They think success is some wave that all those other people are riding.  They figured out what was going to be hot this year and jumped on that wave.  Young adult stories.  Werewolf stories.  Space opera stories.  Western stories.  All I need to do is aim my story at the next wave and then I’ll be successful, too.
            Again... this isn’t true.
            A while back I saw Joss Whedon’s fun and super-low budget Much Ado About Nothing.  Some of the actors were there and did a little Q & A afterwards.  Someone asked Alexis Deinsof about the wisdom of deciding to do a slightly-updated Shakespeare play as a movie.  He smiled and said “You can’t start at ‘success’ and work backward to ‘What should I write about?’
            When a story finds a home with an editor or a producer or a reader, it’s not because of trickery.  It’s because that writer knew how to tell a story and that story appealed to said reader or editor at that particular time.  That’s all.  So copying a theme or a genre from something successful isn’t going to help me.  Rushing to copy the current “hot thing” isn’t going to help me. 
            The only thing I can do to improve my odds at success is be the best writer possible.
            Next time, because it’s always good to have your website noticed by lots of people in the NSA, let’s talk about nuclear weapons and blowing up cities.  We can watch the hit counter go crazy together.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Road to Redemption

            I went back and forth over the title for this week’s little rant.  It felt too easy to go this way.  Hopefully you’ll find it in your hearts to forgive me.
            I wanted to take a few moments to talk about redemption tales.  Someone asked about this a while back—a long ways back, I believe—and I thought it could make an interesting post.  Redemption is tough to qualify, though, and it took me a while to put my thoughts into some form that, well, anyone else would comprehend.
            That happens to me a lot.
            Which brings us to today.
            One key thing I’ll be bringing up a lot for this is empathy.  A good redemption story relies heavily on me knowing how my readers will respond to various incidents and actions.  If I don’t have a good idea how something will go over, it’ll be easy for either end of my redemption tale to seem pointless, confusing, melodramatic... or all of the above.
            A redemption tale can either be the main thrust of my whole story or it can just be part of a single character’s arc.  Either way my story has to hit a couple of points.  Not in the sense of “introduce the motivating incident by page 17,” but more in a general “let’s talk about the story and the characters” way.  If I don’t have these points in mind, there’s a good chance that my “redemption” story is going to earn some rolling eyes and a hearty laugh or three.
            So... with all that in mind.

1—Does my character need to be redeemed?
            This is one of those “obvious” things that far too many folks mess up.  If I’m going to tell a redemption story about Yakko, he needs to do something that requires redemption.  This is step one, and it’s kind of bothersome how often I see people who miss this point. 
            I’ve seen more than a few folks who try to structure big redemption moments around characters who haven’t done anything wrong.  It’s really great that Yakko wants to sacrifice himself to make up for his past sins, but if he doesn’t have any past sins... well..  That’s not redemption, it’s just a pointless sacrifice.  Yakko needs to have something in his past (or do something early in my story) for which he needs some form of honest redemption.  For most of this post, I’m going to call that the key event.
            That “past” aspect is important, but I’ll get to it in a few minutes...
            This is my first big empathy moment as a writer.  If I can’t predict what actions (or lack of actions) my audience will see as redemption-worthy, this story can get silly pretty quick.  Yakko should not be going on a ten year penitent crusade around the world to make up for feeding his cat tuna instead of chicken.  If he’s really guilt-ridden about that nickel he picked up off the sidewalk when he was six... again, I’d better be writing a comedy.
            What was Yakko’s key event?  Did he sneak a peek at his roommate in the shower?  Write a bad check?  Get someone fired?  Rape or murder someone?  Maybe lots of someones...?
            That brings us to...

2Can they be redeemed?
            Somewhat related to the first point.  There are certain acts that are unforgivable.  That’s true in any society, past, present, or future.  Sometimes people do things that are beyond redemption.  It’s really tough to imagine anything a serial child rapist could do to make up for what they’ve done in the past.
            Yeah, I’m sure some of you are thinking “they could die,” but that’s not redemption, is it? That’s vengeance, and that’s not what we’re talking about.  And I’m going to talk about death in a little bit.
            So when I’m writing Yakko’s redemption tale, I need to really think about what he’s done.  Again, some of this is going to be an empathy issue.  Will my readers think his key event is a redeemable act? 

3Do they want to be redeemed?
            Again, this may sound obvious, but I can’t force redemption on someone.  That’s not how it works.  Yakko needs to want it.
            And maybe he doesn’t.  Maybe Yakko doesn’t feel like he did anything wrong.  Perhaps he paid his fine or wrote his apology letter or served his time and considers the matter closed.  Or maybe he knows it was wrong and just doesn’t care.  Some people are like that.  If Yakko’s one of them, it’s going to be tough for me to write a redemption story about him.

4Why haven’t they done it before?
            Okay, in order to explain this point, I want to toss out what I think is a fairly firm rule of thumb...  Feel free to agree or disagree down below.
            In a good redemption story, a notable amount of time needs to pass between the key event and the redemption for that event. 
            Y’see, Timmy, in my opinion one of the main elements of redemption (from a story point of view) is guilt over the key event.   If I don’t feel guilt, then why would I want redemption (see above)?  And if I’m taking care of things immediately after the key event, this isn’t so much redemption as it is... well, cleaning up.  Yakko may feel horrible about having to do this clean up, but does he really feel guilty?  If I hit someone with my car, it’s the difference between calling 911 and sitting with them until the ambulance comes... or switching my headlights off and speeding away.  I may feel bad in both situations, but they’re two very different situations.
            That being said...  Why didn’t Yakko stop immediately? What made him run from his key event?  What’s kept him from admitting it or doing anything about it until now?  Denial?  Fear? 
            Which brings us to a two-part point...

5AWhy are they doing it now?
            If I accept that Yakko has tried to disavow or hide that key event for weeks or months or years... why is he looking for redemption now?  What’s changed for him as a character that he’s decided to acknowledge this and make amends somehow?
            This is another big empathy moment because this is a big decision for any character, and it goes against what they’ve done up until this point.  If this isn’t a believable change of heart, my whole story’s going to fall apart.

5BWhy are they doing it now?
            From a story structure point ofview, why is this happening now?  Odds are Yakko’s going to start looking for redemption in this story, because I write about active characters who actually do things.  So, as an author, why have I included this?
            Am I just looking to round out Yakko a bit as a person?  Is this the main plot of my whole novel?  Either way, this decision and the repercussions from it need to fit into the structure of my story and into Yakko’s arc as a character.
            Last but not least...

6Does it balance the scales?
            At the end of the day, every redemption story comes down to this.  Does what Yakko did now make up for what he did then?  Does he believe it does?  Do other character think things are even now?  Even more importantly, are my readers going to think this is a fair trade off, or is it going to come across a little thin or forced?
            It’s worth mentioning death.  All too often writers try to use death as the ultimate balancing agent.  It’s seen as the automatic “redemption now” act.  Sure, Yakko raped, killed, and pillaged his way across three continents, leaving thousands physically or emotionally scarred in his wake, but in the end he died saving those two campers from a grizzly bear.  And that makes it all okay, right?
            No, of course not.  In fact, if not handled just right, death can come across as a “he got off easy” situation, cowardice, or even a cop-out on my part.  I don’t have to deal with all these complex emotions and repercussions if Yakko takes a trio of bullets in the chest, but I can still be praised for my artistic handling of the situation.
            That’s the idea, anyway.
            On a related note, a redemption story where the character doesn’t redeem themselves in the end is just... well, kind of pointless.  It may have been very pretty from a vocabulary-metaphor-symbolism point of view, but it isn’t a redemption story.  Or much of any story, to be honest.  I may feel it’s beautifully tragic and ironic, but I think most readers are going to find themselves wondering why they just wasted the past few hours following a guy who doesn’t accomplish anything...

            And there you have it.  A few questions I need to ask myself if I’m trying to do a redemption story.  And if I don’t have some positive answers for most of them, well, maybe I need to look again at how I’ve set up my story.  Or my character. 
            Because there’s a good chance they’re not on the road to redemption.
            Next time I’d like to work backwards a little bit.

            Until then, go write.