Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Pace Car

            Okay, first off, I’m afraid I need to have a shameful self-promotional moment. The Ex-Heroes series is Amazon’s Kindle deal of the month.  You can pick up digital copies of all four books for less than ten dollars.  So... there’s that.
            And now, moving on to our actual topic of the week...
            Last week I gave some more-or-less quick answers to a couple questions and requests folks had left here on the ranty blog.  This week I wanted to address one in particular that was worth a little more space.
            So... here we go.
            I'd love to hear your thoughts on plotting and pacing. I'm struggling with knowing when to do what plot elements so things don't drag and so they seem natural, and don't feel like the story is on rails.
            Okay, this is another tough one because every story is going to have its own specific pace. 
            One of the reasons a lot of folks end up worrying about this, in my opinion, is because of an often misunderstood writing rule that gets thrown at them all the time—start with action!  There’s a bunch of problems with this statement, many of which I’ve talked about before, but one key one is that it gives people a very skewed view of pacing.  If my story starts cranked up to eleven, it’s hard to make anything feel urgent after that point.  And if it doesn’t start at eleven, well, why is anyone going to keep reading, right?
            Part of this is about dramatic structure, knowing where things should happen in my story for maximum impact.  It’s also about compressing time so things don’t sprawl.  Yeah, maybe four hours passed while Wakko was pulling his turn standing watch, but do I really need eight pages of him standing around doing... well, nothing?
            I think that’s one of the biggest problems when people have “pacing issues.”  It’s not whether or not my chapter is slow or fast, if it’s filled with action or dialogue or inner monologues. It’s about whether or not anything’s actually happening.  When my story come to a grinding halt, it’s not because I’ve got characters doing research instead of kung-fu... it’s because the story’s come to a grinding halt.  It’s stopped moving forward
            A good way to check pacing is to go through my story and ask myself this—what purpose does this element/ scene/ chapter have in the overall story?  Is it forwarding the plot?  Is it forwarding a character’s story?  If it doesn’t do either of these things... why am I spending time on it?  As William Goldman said in The Princess Bride, “What with one thing and another, three years passed.”
            Speaking of famous screenwriters, Shane Black once made a great observation about what he called “shoe leather” scenes in scripts.  If I have a scene where two guys are having a conversation and another scene where there’s a key news story on the television... why aren’t they the same scene?  A good part of storytelling is trying to accomplish two things at once rather than spreading things so thin they’re see-through.  It’s great to have a character scene, sure, but maybe those character moments could also advance the plot somehow.  I really want to use a lot of this research material, but could it advance someone’s story?
            Y’see, Timmy, if I’m lucky and somewhat skilled, my audience might let me have one scene that doesn’t really do anything.  Maybe two.  But pushing it to a third means my story is dragging, and four is going to get eyerolls.
            Now, all that being said (yep, there’s always a however), there is still one thing to keep in mind for pacing.  Every story is going to start slow and pick up speed, yes.  And all those stories are going to be moving at their own pace. I need to be careful, though, when I try to slow things down, for whatever reason.  If you’ve ever driven a car with a manual transmission (or know of such things), you’ve probably heard the term downshifting.  It’s when I shift into a lower gear to help with slowing down (you’ve probably seen James Bond do it a few times).  It’s one thing to go from fifth gear to fourth, it’s something else entirely to go from fifth down to second.  Odds are that’ll going to leave parts of my transmission  (read—story) scattered behind me, possibly on fire.
            So if my story involves a lot of zero-to-sixty-to-ten-to ninety-to-fifteen pacing—yes, even though it’s still technically moving forward—I may want to rethink a few things.  And if it doesn’t involve any forward motion...
            Well, I may need to rethink a lot of things.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about how Darth Vader killed Luke Skywalker’s father.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Q-n-A Bonanza Extravaganza

            Spectacular spectacular!
            What I’m going to do this week is run through a few questions and requests that have shown up here this summer.  A few of them I can do a full post on, but some of them are things I’ve touched on before (or, at least, I think I have) so I think I can answer them with a few paragraphs and links.
            So... let’s get to it.

How similar are your drafts in terms of character arcs and overall plot? 
            Tricky question that’s going to be a little different for every writer and for every project.  For me, once I get a pretty solid draft, it’s really rare for things to change that much.  It happens sometimes, but not often.  I think once the plot and story are solid, for most writers, there won’t be any real changes to them.
            Please note, though, that I didn’t say no changes.  Every draft is going to be a little different as I tweak and cut and make other adjustments.  But all of these adjustments serve the plot and the characters.  Things are just getting tighter and clearer.  Maybe it means omitting a few story beats or changing someone’s second language from French to Spanish.  But these changes aren’t changing the bigger picture, they’re enhancing it.
           It’s probably worth mentioning that if I’m making changes that do radically alter my plot or characters, what it really means is that I don’t have a solid draft yet.  Yeah, even if I’ve done six drafts before this.  If I suddenly realize Yakko should be my main character while Dot’s the supporting character who dies in the second act... that’s a big change.  That’s a lot of changes.  It means different interactions between different characters, new motivations, possibly a whole new linear structure.  And it also means I’m kind of going back to square one.  Now I need to tweak and cut and make adjustments to this plot and story.

            Do you have any thoughts on working on multiple projects at once? Like editing one, drafting another, plotting a third? Is that something you do?
            Yeah, I do this, but in a bit more limited sense.  When I’m working on a first draft of something, I focus pretty much exclusively on that.  Once I’m out of that, though, and into the editing, I’m always jotting down character ideas, lines, beats—all sorts of elements—for whatever I’m going to be working on next.  So while I’m doing drafts on one I’m setting all the groundwork for another.  I’ve also  found this helps me as far as any kind of block goes—being able to dip my toes into something else helps keep my brain from getting stuck on a project.
            Overall, though, this is one of those things that’s definitely more advice than rules, because it’s all going to come down to the individual.  Am I someone who can split their attention or not?  And to what extent?  Some folks can do it (to different degrees), some folks can’t.  Unfortunately, the only way to find out is to try it once or thrice.  I’m comfortable at the level I just described.  You might be able to do two or three  things side by side.  Someone else might need to focus on one thing at a time.   
            I do think it’s worth noting that “another project” can easily be a distraction, too.  Sort of like eating when you’re bored.  I’ve also seen some folks use multiple projects (consciously or not) as an excuse to never finish anything. Sooooo... something to keep in mind.

I'm still struggling with how writers develop an interesting narrative voice - character voice I think I'm getting the hang of, but the narrative bits still sound like me reading a grocery list. 
            Narrative voice can be tough.  Part of it depends on how much I want to insert myself as the author. Some folks do this extremely well, others... not so much.
            As far developing a narrative voice goes, think of it like a narrator. Who’s actually telling this story to the reader?  I’m not saying my book or short story has to be in first person, or that a narrator even has to exist, but in my perfect world, who’s reading this aloud?  Christopher Lee?  Felicia Day?  Doug, the guy down at the garage?  Ms. Phoebe, my college English professor?  Knowing the narrator tells me how they talk and what kind of words my narrative voice will use. 
            So, from a certain point of view, the narrative voice is another character. Even if it’s me, it’s the version of me I’m choosing to project through my writing (a friendly me who wants you to enjoy the story and is going to tell it in fun, simple terms, and who also has much better abs...).  So narrative voice is a lot like character voice, which is something I mentioned here just a few months back.  Well, okay, a year and a half ago...
            It’s probably worth mentioning that if there isn’t some kind of narrative voice in my head to start with, that might be a sign of a bigger problem.  If I have no sense of how my story should be told—how my audience should be hearing the words in their heads—I may need to stop and think about things some more.   Maybe the plot or the story aren’t as solid as I thought, and if they’re not clicking with me, there’s a good chance they won’t click with anyone else.

            Do you feel  an author should stick to one genre for the most part?  I want to go write something as far from my current genre as possible. Will that throw my fans for a loop?  I notice that you and most other authors pretty much stick to one thing.
            Well, I’d argue not much of my work falls in the same genre, unless we’re talking in broad, sweeping terms.  I’ve got a superheroes vs. zombies series (sci-fi fantasy with some soft horror), a suspense-mystery-horror novel, a sci-fi thriller, a classic mash-up where I share credit with Daniel Defoe, and I just started work on a historical time-travel road trip story.  I’ve also got some short stories out there that are straight horror, some that are straight sci-fi, and even a pulp action war story.
            And I’m not alone.  The majority of writers work in a bunch of genres.  They may be known for one thing, but they’ve usually got a lot of other stuff past that.  Jonathan Maberry, Seanan McGuire, Scott Sigler, Craig DiLouie, Eloise Knapp, Timothy Long—and these are just the ones I know personally. All of them have written in at least two or three genres.
            Heck, look at Stephen King.  He’s known as a horror writer, but Firestarter and The Dead Zone, two of his earliest works, are pretty much straight sci-fi when you really look at them (there’s a post in that alone).  Under the Dome and 11/22/63 are both pretty solidly sci-fi, too.  The Dark Tower series is an epic fantasy.  Eyes of the Dragon is a young adult novel.  And then there’s “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” a  prison drama/character study that was adapted into a wildly popular film by Frank Darabont.
            So, no.  I don’t think an author needs to stick to one genre.  Yeah, there are some fans who might get upset I’ve moved away from their particular interest, but there’ll be just as many who’ll be intrigued to see how I deal with something else, and new ones who’ll come to me because of that something else.  And it’s my opinion that flexing those other muscles, so to speak, usually makes someone a better writer overall.
            I will say, though (there’s a “however...” on almost all of these, isn’t there?), that I don’t recommend chasing the popular trend.  It’s tempting to jump on the nymphomaniac-android-biker-school-romance bandwagon, I know.  But it rarely works out well in the long run.

            And I think that’s everything for now, yes?  Okay, I went over three or four paragraphs for some of them, but if you’re going to complain about that... Also, if I misread your question somehow, or if my answer just wasn’t complete enough, please say so down in the comments and I’ll try to answer there.  Or maybe bump it up to a full post.
            Next time, I’m going to answer one of those larger questions I mentioned up at the top. 
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Earlier In Our Story...

            Lots of requests from last week, thanks to you who've answered so far.  However. I’m still gathering my thoughts on how to answer some of them.  Plus, I’d already finished most of this, sooooo...
            I wanted to take this week to go back to something I’ve talked about before.  Flashbacks. I’ve encountered a few books recently that lean heavily on this device and... well, most of them weren’t good.  One of them was good to a point, but after that point it quickly tipped into frustrating, and from there to just plain bad.
            Well, let me bring up a more important question for us all to ponder while I babble on.  Why does my story use flashbacks?  What purpose do they serve within the story?
            Let me give an example.
            I read a novel recently about a Black Widow-esque assassin who’d gone through a nightmarish bout of training and indoctrination before being set loose on the world and her assorted targets.   Its chapters alternated between present day and the past.  The “now” of the story was her carrying out a series of missions while the “then” was how she was recruited and trained.
            The two plot lines didn’t make linear sense.  Y’see, for the first two-thirds of the book, our assassin (let’s call her Phoebe) was hunting down one target, finishing her assignment, and moving onto the next one.  It was kind of a Bond movie setup.  But she was paranoid-nervous the whole time. Was someone watching her?  Hunting her while she hunted down her targets?  She’d built up a lot of enemies over the years. Was one of them lining up on the base of her skull right now?
            Meanwhile, in the parallel past plotline (say that four times fast...), we saw how she was recruited out of the foster system after a series of schoolyard fights.  Her brutal apprenticeship.  Her first kill.  Her early missions.
            And then, the last third of the book rolled around...
            In the final “then” sections, Phoebe met Nadia, one of her peers (and, it’s vaguely hinted, maybe even a long-ago love interest or at least regular friend-with-benefits).  And it turns out Nadia is a traitor, a double agent who Phoebe exposes and they end up in a huge battle that rages through a shopping mall (again, really cool).  In the end Nadia gets away, but swears to return and kill Phoebe for exposing her. And from this page on, in the “now” sections, Phoebe wonders if it’s Nadia out there waiting to kill her.  Maybe Nadia has a rifle aimed at her head.  Nadia, the only one she ever let get away, could be right around that corner.
            See the problem here?
            As the “then” storyline progressed, it became clear that the “now” timeline was cheating and tweaking things to create dramatic moments that wouldn’t exist if the two lines were being honest.  The author forgot that all of “then” happens before every minute of “now”—the order they were telling the story in didn’t matter.  The author tried to set this up as paranoia in the “now” sections, except it turns out Phoebe was completely justified in feeling this way.  She knew all along someone was actually hunting her.  Hell, for the first two-thirds of the book she knew the name of the person hunting her, a person it’s strongly implied she’d been intimate with, and she never thought of Nadia once—even though most of the story is from her point of view. She just had vague thoughts about “a possible threat” or “maybe another operative” until this convenient point in the story.
            This is the type of thing people are talking about when they say flashbacks don’t work.  Well, okay, those people are kind of stupid.  Flashbacks do work and you should use them... if they make sense within the story’s structure.
            From a linear point of view, does my story still make sense with this flashback?  Or flashbacks, as the case may be.  What happens if I rearrange everything so all the chapters are in linear order?
            If a lot of my character motivations or behaviors become murky, it means I’ve got a problem.  I don’t have a good thread for my character, and their reactions are based off my narrative, not their linear experiences.
            If large parts of my story now drag, that’s a sign I’ve got a structure problem.  The flashbacks were the only thing creating tension.  It means my story is really either in the past or the present.  I’m just killing time and eating up word count in the other setting.
            If I put everything in order and my story works better—it reads smoother, its easier to follow, and the plot moves faster—then that takes me back to those early questions.  Why does my story use flashbacks?  What purpose do they serve?
            Don’t laugh at that last one.  I’ve seen people who turned their stories into a mess of non-linear flashbacks that served no purpose whatsoever, and they ruined an interesting story by doing it.  It happens more often than you’d think.
            Like any element in my story, I can’t be throwing in flashbacks for no reason. Just because something worked in that story doesn’t mean it’s going to work in my story—especially if I don’t understand why it worked.
            Do cool stuff in your stories.  But have a reason for doing it.  A real, honest reason that doesn’t cheat or frustrate your readers
            Next time...
            Well, I actually got a fair number of requests and questions last time, so here’s what I was thinking.  I’m going to pluck out the one or two that would work as full posts and we’ll probably see them in the next three or four weeks.  But next time I’m going to do a whole post of quick topics that I can address in four or five paragraphs (and maybe a link or three).  So if you have something writing-related you’d like me to address, mention it down in the comments and it’ll end up on one list or the other.
            And until then... go write.