Thursday, February 11, 2016

Ignorance Is Bliss

            I just realized that Valentine’s Day is this weekend. If I’d remembered earlier, I wouldn’t‘ve spent the time on this post, I would’ve done my traditional love and/or sex themed post.  And while surprise sex usually goes over well with everyone, I’m afraid I don’t have the time for it right now. Maybe next year.
            Wow.
            It sounds pretty grim when I say it like that.
            Anyway, I wanted to go over something one more time.  Because a couple of you still seem to be baffled by this for some reason...
            Take the Blu-ray case off the shelf.  Use your thumb on the right-hand edge to open the case.  Locate the Blu-ray disc inside the case.  Note that if this is a multi-disc set, you’ll need to select the specific disc you want to watch.  They’re usually numbered.  The number will correspond to a guide of some sort, usually located on the opposing panel of the cover or on the back of the case.  Look for the specific material you want to watch, then find the disc with the same number.  Remove the disc from its bracket.  Hold it by the edges (you don’t need to do this, but it’s easier in the long run).  Set the case back down.  Press power on your television controls.  Press power on your Blu-ray player, and then open.  A small tray will extend out from the player.  Set the disc on the tray with the picture/logo side up and the shiny side down.  Let go of the disc.  Press play and the tray should retract.  Go sit on the couch.  Pick up the remote control for the Blu-ray player.  If you are given the option to skip over all of the previews, do this.  Watch the movie or television episode you have selected. Do not talk during the movie or television episode.  If you have seen the movie or television episode before, do not spoil plot points or character moments for other viewers..
            Now, let's stop and consider the previous paragraph.
            How many of you started skimming halfway through that?
            It's okay.  It was kind of mind-numbing for me to write, so I can't imagine reading it was any better.  As it happens, though, pretty much every reason why exposition tends to suck is in that fascinating explanation of how to watch a Blu-ray. 
            Allow me to explain. 
            First, that paragraph is something we know.  I know it, you know it.  I know you know it. You know that I know you know it.  
            Exposition is boring and pointless if we know the information being presented to us.   It's just wasting time while we wait for something to happen.  Plus, none of us enjoys sitting through a lecture on something we already know, right?  The more detailed (read—unnecessary) it is, the less interested we are.  So we just zone out and start skimming.
            Damon Knight pointed out that a fact we don't know is information, but a fact we do know is just noise.  No one wants to read a story full of noise.  As writers, we need to know what our audience knows and work our story around that.  I don’t want to waste time telling people how to open a Blu-ray case.  It’s just a given.  All those words are better spent on something useful.
            The Second  thing to consider is that a lengthy explanation about how a Blu-ray player works serves no purpose here.  None.  This is a blog about writing tips, so a paragraph about electronics is a waste of space.  Nobody came here looking for that information, and the people who are looking for it won't be looking here.  You’ll notice that those instructions don’t tell you the best way to kill a Deathclaw in Fallout 4—even though Fallout is a really cool game which (like Blu-rays) can be played on a PS4.  The instructions also don’t mention that I don’t even own a Blu-ray player. Or a PS4.  Mildly interesting facts, sure, but even less relevant than the bit about killing a Deathclaw.
            These two points are, on a guess, about 83% of the reason most exposition sucks.  Find any book or story  with exposition that gnaws at you, and I’ll bet it falls into one of those two categories.
            So, how do we get around that?
            I've mentioned something called the ignorant stranger  a few times.  It’s my own term, one which I came up with while writing a review of Shogun years ago.  It's a simple way to use as much exposition as I want in a short story, screenplay, or novel.    
            Just have a source of information explain something to someone who doesn’t know these facts.
             Easy, right?  Just remember these three things...
            First, my ignorant stranger has to be on the same level as my readers.  I don’t want to confuse ignorant with stupid.  It’s only this particular situation that has put him or her at a disadvantage.  The reader or audience is learning alongside my character, so we don’t want to wait while the stranger’s educated on how Amazon works, where Antarctica is on a map, and why people eat food.  Again, my ignorant stranger can’t actually be stupid
            Second, the person explaining things, the source of knowledge, has to be smarter than the stranger on this topic, and thus, smarter than my audience.  If what’s being explained is something my readers can figure out on their own then the Source is wasting everyone's time (and my page count) by explaining it.  Remember, I want information, not noise.  Yeah, maybe this particular Source doesn’t know much about baseball, Star Wars, or the eternal mystery that is love, but on the topic they’re explaining this character needs to be an authority.  It needs to be clear the Source’s knowledge dwarfs the ignorant stranger’s on this topic.
            Finally (or third, if you like), there needs to be a pressing need for the Source to explain this.  There may be lots of things our stranger (and the reader) is ignorant about, so why are they talking about this fact right now?
            Shogun gets away with tons of exposition because Blackthorne—an English sailor trapped in feudal Japan—is a perfect ignorant stranger.  He’s a smart man, a man we can relate to, but he’s in a  country where he doesn’t know the language, the customs, the culture, anything.  So even as his situation forces him to interact with people, they’re forced to explain pretty much everything to him.
            So there it is.  If anyone tries to tell you only bad writers use exposition in a story, tell them it's only the bad writers who don't know how to use exposition.  Then explain the ignorant stranger to them.  And then look smug while you pop in a Blu-ray and watch Star Wars
            Next time, I’d like to tell you about my perfect woman.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Pod Six Was Jerks!

            Pop culture reference.  Long overdue, and to bring even more shame on my household, it’s kind of a repeat.  Sorry.
            Before I dive into things, I must shamefully point out that the latest book in my Ex-Heroes series got released this week.  The marketing folks are lovely people, but they’ll be upset if I don’t mention it.  Ex-Isle is book #5 and it’s now on sale everywhere.  Check it out.
            And now, back to this week’s rant...
            This is something I’ve been meaning to talk about again for a while now.  As I mentioned, I’m kind of in a rush this week (even more on that below), so I thought this would be a good time to add in what’s more-or-less a repeat post.  At least, it is if you’ve been here since 2008...
            That being said, let’s talk about “Darmok.”
            “Darmok” was one of the first episodes of Star Trek:The Next Generation‘s fifth season.   The Enterprise visits an alien race, the Children of Tama, which has repeatedly brought first contact attempts to a grinding halt because the universal translator can’t make sense of their language.  The Tama language can be rendered in Federation English, yes, but the words and sentence structure make no sense.  Sensing the problem that needs to be overcome, Dathon--the Tama commander—kidnaps Captain Picard to a hostile world where the two must fight together to survive.  Through their trials together, Picard comes to realize that the Tama language is not based on ideas and concepts, but on stories and metaphors.  They wouldn’t say “I’m happy,” they’d say something like “Scrooge, on Christmas morning.”  They don’t say they’re relieved to see you, they’d say “Indy, finding Marion in the tent.”  It’s been impossible to translate the Tama language literally because the Federation doesn’t share their history and folklore.
            In a way, all of us do this every day. We reference movies, TV shows, pop culture events, and then we stack and combine them. Heck, that’s pretty much what memes are.
            We also do it on a smaller scale, though.  All of us have jokes that are only understood by our family or certain circles of friends or coworkers.  Some folks crack jokes from Playboy, others from Welcome to Night Vale.  These folks obsess over Scandal and these folks watch iZombie whenever they happen to catch it.  Some people like sports, others like science.  And all of us talk about what we know and what we like.
            I worked on a set once where people commonly asked “Where’s Waldo?”  A lot of my college friends understood when you talked about Virpi Zuckk, the third Pete, and nice shoes.  Some of my best friends and I make frequent references to Pod Six,  killing Jeff, and “the girl’s evil cheater magic.”    
            Heck, even this title is an in-joke.  It’s a reference to one of the first Adult Swim cartoons, Sealab 2021. But also, when two of my friends bought a house and decided to use their sunroom as a dedicated gaming room, we all sort of universally decided to call it Pod Six.  Because it’s where we all hang out and talk in weird references that only we’re going to understand.
            See where I’m going with this?
            A common problem I see again and again in stories is oblique references and figures of speech that the reader can’t understand.  It might make sense within the writer’s personal circle or clique, but outside readers end up scratching their heads.  Several of the writers responsible for this sort of mistake will try to justify their words in a number of ways...
            First is that my friends are real people.  Therefore, people really talk this way, and there’s nothing wrong with it.  Alas, as I’ve mentioned here many times before, “real” rarely translates to “good.”  Pointing to a few of my like-minded friends and saying “well, they got it,” isn’t going to win me points with an editor.
            Second is that I’ll argue common knowledge.  I’ll try to say this material is generally known-- universally known, even-- and it’s the reader who is in the feeble minority by not being aware of it.  This is probably the hardest to contradict, because if somebody honestly believes that everyone should know who the U.S. Secretary of State was in 1969, there’s not much you or I can do to convince them otherwise.  It’s much more likely, in the writer’s mind, that the readers are just uneducated simpletons who never learned the ten forms of Arabic verbs, don’t collect Magic cards, and couldn’t tell you the obvious differences between Iron Man and War Machine if their lives depended on it.
            Third, usually reserved for screenplays, is the auteur excuse.  I plan on directing this script, so it doesn’t matter if no one else can understand the writing (or if there are tons of inappropriate camera angles, staging instructions, and notes for actors).  The flaw here is that my screenplay will invariably end up getting shown to someone else.   A contest reader.  A producer.  An investor.  Someone out of that inner circle of friends who needs to look at my script and understand the writing.
            Y’see, Timmy, I can’t be writing just for my five closest friends.  Not if I want to succeed as a writer.  I’m not saying my writing has to appeal to everyone and be understood by everyone, but it can’t be so loaded with in-jokes and obscure references that nobody knows what I’m talking about.
            This is one of those inherent writer skills.  Something I just need to figure out how to do on my own, mostly by reading everything I can get your hands on.  I need to know words and phrases.  I have to know them and I have to be honestly aware of who else knows them.  Using extremely uncommon terms or words may show off my bachelor’s degree and vocabulary, but the moment a reader has to stop and think about what a word or phrase means, they’ve been taken out of my story
            And knocking people out of my story is one of the certain ways to make sure the reader puts my manuscript down and goes off to fold laundry.
            On an unrelated note... if you’re in San Diego and happen to be reading this just as it went up, I’m going to be at Mysterious Galaxy tonight (Thursday) talking and signing copies of Ex-Isle.  And on Saturday I’ll be at Dark Delicacies in Burbank doing more of the same.  Hope to see some of you there (and if not, you can call them and order books, too).
            Next time, I’d like to talk about how ignorant some of your characters are.
            Until then... go write.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Annnnnnd... ACTION!

            Hey!  Wanted to thank all of you who came out last weekend to the Writers Coffeehouse. Hopefully hearing me talk about writing in the real world was at least as semi-useful as all of this.
            Also—shameful capitalist plug—my new book, Ex-Isle comes out next week from Broadway Paperbacks.  Check out that fantastic cover over there on the right.  It’s book five in the ongoing Ex-Heroes series, and I happen to think it’s pretty cool.  Granted, I might be a bit biased...
            (the audiobook’s still three weeks out but it is coming, I promise)
            Anyway, enough about that. Now... story time.
            About fourteen years ago some friends and I were in a pretty serious car crash.  Someone sideswiped us as we were pulling onto the freeway and then sped off.  My friend’s SUV was slammed into the concrete wall, bounced off, then slammed into the wall again because the wheels had twisted around to send us right back into it.  We skidded ten or twenty feet scraping against the wall.  The first impact was so hard that the passenger side door crumpled in, hit me, and fractured my ribs on that side.  I also caught half the windshield with my face.  I remember clenching my eyes shut on instinct, what felt like gravel hitting my cheeks and mouth and forehead. While part of me knew (in the greater sense) that we were in the middle of a collision of some kind, another part of me was still trying to figure out what the hell was going on.  And there was so much noise.  Screams and hollering from friends, metal on concrete, metal bending, glass breaking, highway noise because the windows were gone.  It wasn’t until everything stopped that I realized how loud it had been.
            Now, I took a while to write that out, and a while for you to read it, but the truth is, it took seconds.  Six or seven seconds, tops. Really, at the moment, it was just a blur of sensations. I didn’t piece together what had happened—and what I’d experienced—until afterwards.
            Action, by its very nature, is fast.  It’s a blur.  If you’ve ever been part of an accident of some kind, a fight, a collision, or any other kind of really dynamic moment, you know what I’m talking about.  A huge amount of action is stuff we figure out after the fact.  In the moment, I’m not quite sure how my shirt got ripped or why my arm’s bleeding or... oh, geez, I think I whacked my head a lot harder that I thought.
            Here are a couple of tips on how I try to make my action scenes seem fun and cool.

            Keep it fast--Action can’t drag. If it takes a full page for someone to throw a punch and connect, things are happening in slow motion.  Even a paragraph can seem like a long time, especially once multiple punches are thrown.
            My personal preference is to try to not have action take much longer to read then it would to experience.  I trim fight scenes and action moments down to the bare minimum to give them (pardon the phrase) a lot of punch. One way I do this is to clump some actions together and let the reader figure out what happened on their own
            He slammed three fast punches into the other man’s kidney.
            Karen did something quick with her hands and now she held the pistol and the mugger was wailing and holding his wrist.

            Keep it simple—I practiced martial arts for a while and I also have a lot of experience with  weapons thanks to my time in the film industry.  Even though I know lots and lots of terminology, I try not to use it.  That kind of thing can clutter up an action scene, especially when I’m using a lot of foreign languages or obscure terms.  I want this to move fast, and if my reader has to stop to sound out words and parse meanings from context... that’s breaking the flow.  If they need to figure out if a P-90 TR is a rifle, a pistol, or a fitness program... well, maybe they’ll come back to it after lunch.
            Remember, there’s nothing wrong with terminology, but there’s a time and a place for everything.  That time is rarely when someone’s swinging a baseball bat at your head.

            Keep it sensory—Kind of related to the above, and something I touched on in my story.  Action is instinctive, with a certain subtlety to it. There isn’t a lot of thought involved, definitely not a lot of analysis or pretty imagery.  Keeping in mind the fast, simple nature I’ve been talking about, I try to keep action to sounds, sights, and physical sensations.  I can talk to you about a knife going deep into someone’s arm, severing arteries and veins as it goes... or I can just tell you about the hot, wet smell of blood and the scrape of metal on bone.  Which gets a faster reaction?
            Granted, writing this way does make it hard to describe some things, but a lot of that gets figured out after the fact anyway.  My characters will have a chance to sort things out once things cool down.

            Keep it real—Like so many things in fiction, it all comes down to characters.  There’s a reason we can zone out dozens of attacks on the news but be gripped by a single one in a book.  Action needs to be based in real characters because my readers need to care about the people involved.  A stranger in a car crash is kind of sad in an abstract way, but Wakko in a car crash is a tragedy and we want constant updates.
            This also kind of works against the idea of “always start with action,” which is something I’ve talked about before.  It’s tough for readers to be invested in action when we don’t know the people involved.  If I start with an action scene it has to be twice as big to compensate for the fact that we don’t know the characters, and once it’s that big it’s going to effect the level of everything that comes after it.

            Now, as always, it’s pretty easy to find exceptions to these.  As I said, these are more tips than rules.  But there’s one particular exception I want to talk about.
            A pretty common character is, for lack of a better term, the fighting savant.  Batman, Jack Reacher, Melinda May, Ethan Hunt, Sarah Walker, Joe Ledger, Stealth—characters who’ve taken physical action to an art form through years of study and experience.  For these people to not use precise terminology for weapons or moves could seem a little odd.  It makes sense they’d be able to dissect action, picking out the beats and planning out responses like a painter reviewing their palette.
            But...
            Keep in mind, these characters by their very nature should be rare.  If I have a dozen utterly badass characters who all have badass moves with badass weapons... that’s going to get boring real quick.  It’s monotone.
            Also, keep the point of view in mind while writing.  Stealth may be a trained master of unarmed combat, but St. George gets by with his invulnerability and raw strength.  Whose narrative this is will affect how her actions are seen by the reader.
            And that’s that.  A handful of tips for writing killer action.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about, arguably, one of the finest episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation that was ever produced.
            Oh, and  next Thursday I’ll be at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, blabbing away and signing copies of Ex-Isle.  If you’re in the area, please stop by and say “hullo."
            Until then... go write.