Thursday, January 18, 2018

Down to Basics

            It’s come up once or thrice that I’m a lover of bad movies.  Partly for the laughing aspect, partly because I think you can learn as much from bad storytelling as you can from good.  Partly because I need to justify my drinking, and some of these movies make it reeeeeally easy.
            A while back I tossed out a list of really basic things a lot of these movies messed up.  Film school 101-level stuff that people were getting wrong.  Even though some of them went to film school.  And I wondered if it might be possible to do something with stories in general.
            Kristi Charish (of the fantastic Kincaid Strange series—book two coming soon) recently mentioned this idea (for a different topic) in a much better way—the invisible handshake.  It’s sort of an unofficial, unspoken contract between the author and the reader. If you’re picking up my book, there are certain automatic assumptions you’re making about what I’ll be providing you with, and I should be meeting these assumptions.  Basic things about plot and structure and character that are just... well, basic.
            At the end of last year I read a book that fumbled that handshake.   Fumbled it bad.  It was like that awkward moment with someone at the end of the night where you’re not sure how to say goodbye, so the two of you make a bunch of half-moves toward different things.  Do we hug?  Shake hands?  Peck on the cheek?  Write an awful book? 
            We’ve all been there, right?
            I ranted a bit about said book on Twitter, but even then I was thinking I should revisit a lot of those issues here.  And while said book was very rant-worthy, I’ve been .trying to keep things a bit more on the positive side here.
            So, a few general things I need to keep in mind when I’m writing.  I’ve mentioned most of them before, but I thought a general, all–at-once
            First, I need to be clear who my main character is.  If I spend the first four chapters of my book with Yakko... everyone’s going to assume Yakko’s the main character.  This book’s clearly about him, right?  So when he vanishes for the next seven chapters... well, people are going to keep wondering when we’re getting back to him.  Because he’s the main character.
            Now, a lot of books have a big cast of characters.  An ensemble, as some might say.  That’s cool.  But if my book’s going to be spending time between a bunch of characters, I need to establish that as soon as possible.  If the first three or four chapters are all the same character, it’s only natural my readers will assume that’s going to be the norm in this book.
            Second is that I need to keep my point of view consistent.  This kinda goes with the first point—being clear who my main character is.  Even with a third person POV, we’re usually looking over a specific person’s shoulder, so to speak. Which means that character can’t walk away and leave us behind.  Likewise, we can’t start over Wakko’s shoulder and then driiiiiiiiiiiiiift over so we’re suddenly looking over Dot’s.
            Again, it’s cool to switch POV and there’s nothing wrong with it, but I need to make it clear to my readers that I’m doing it. If they start seeing things from new angles or hearing new pronouns, it’s going to knock them out of the story and break the flow.  That’s never a good thing.
            Third thing I need to do is be clear who my actual characters are.  Who’s part of the story and who’s just... well, window dressing.  If my two protagonists go out to dinner, there’s going to be other people in the restaurant.  But I shouldn’t describe them all. Or name them all
            Names and descriptions are how I tell my reader a character’s going to be important and worth remembering.  Three paragraphs of character details means “Pay attention to this one.”  So if I’m telling the reader to keep track of people for no reason, I’m wasting their time and my word count.
            I want to note a specific way people do this, too.  I’m calling it “describe and die” (trademark 2018).  This is when the author introduces a character, spends five or six pages describing them, their history, their goals, their loves, their life—and then kills them.  We’ve all seen this, yes?  Here’s Yakkoshiro, a twenty-nine year-old salaryman who spends all his free income on Gundam models and always wears long sleeves to the office because he’ll stop wearing his fathers watch, even though nobody wears watches anymore and looking behind the times like that could hurt his chances at a promotion so... long sleeves, never rolled up, even when the air conditioner dies (which happens a lot). And tonight he has a date with the beautiful woman from the Gundam store, who he’s exchanged nervous banter with for months now and oh he’s dead.  A kaiju stepped on him.  Back to our heroes now...
            Don’t do that.
            Fourth is that I need to have an actual plot before I start focusing on subplots.  What’s the big, overall story of my book?  If it’s about Wakko trying to save the family car wash, I should probably get that out to my readers before I start the romance subplot or the backstabbing partner subplot or the Uncle Gus has cancer and wants to travel around the world before he dies subplot.  After all, they picked up my book because the back cover said it was about saving the family car wash or escaping that Egyptian tomb.  I should be working toward that first—meeting those expectations.
            If I’m spending more time on a subplot than the actual plot, maybe I need to revisit what my story’s actually about.
            Fifth, closely related to four, is that my subplots should relate to the main story somehow.  They should loop around, tie back in to the main plot, or at least have similar themes so we see the parallels.  If I can pull out a subplot out of my story and it doesn’t change the main story in the slightest... I probably need to reconsider it.
            And if it’s an unrelated subplot to an unrelated subplot... okay, seriously, I’m wasting pages at that point.  Not to mention this all starts getting, well, distracting.  I don’t want to kill whatever tension I’m building in my main plot by putting it on hold for eight or nine pages while I deal with... well, something completely unrelated.  It’s like switching channels in the middle of a television show. Nobody’s saying what’s on the other channel is bad, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the show we’re trying to watch.
            Sixth...
            Okay, this is an odd one.
            Remember how much fun it is when you meet someone you’re interested in and there’s all these fascinating little mysteries about them?  We want to learn all their tics and hidden secrets.  Where are they from?  What’d they study in school?  What movies do they like?  How’d they develop a taste for that?  Why do they have that accent?  Where’d they get that scar?  Just how big is that tattoo?
            But... we don’t want to learn those secrets from a book report.  We want to hang out with these people, talk over drinks, go on road trips, maybe stay up all night on the phone or on the couch.  It’s how we get to know real people... and it’s how we want to learn about characters, too. Pages and pages of backstory often makes characters less interesting because it leaves me with nothing to reveal about them.  It kills that sense of mystery, because there’s nothing left to learn about them.
            There’s nothing wrong with me having all that backstory, but I don’t need to use it all in book.
            And I definitely don’t need to reveal it all in the first two or three chapters.
            Seventh and last is flashbacks.  Flashbacks are a fantastic narrative device, but they get used wrong a lot.  And when they’re wrong... they’re brutal. A clumsy flashback can kill a story really fast.
            A flashback needs to be advancing the plot.  Or increasing tension. Or giving my readers new information.  In a great story, it’s doing more than one of these things. Maybe even all of them.
            But a flashback that doesn’t do any of these things... that’s not a good flashback.  That’s wrong.  And it’ll bring things to a grinding halt and break the flow.

            Seven basic things to keep in mind while I’m writing my story.
            Now, as always, none of these are hard-fast, absolute rules.  If I hire a pastry chef for my bakery, there’s always a possibility this particular one doesn’t use a whisk.  There can always be an exception.  But I should be striving to be the exception, not just assuming everyone will be okay with me not following all the standards. My readers are going in with certain expectations, and I need to be doing honestly amazing things to go against them.  
            Because if that same pastry chef also doesn’t use a spatula...  Or butter... Or flour...
            Again—the invisible handshake (trademark K. Charish, 2018). 
            It’s a legally binding contract in forty-two states and four Canadian provinces.
            Next time, I’d like to tell you about something that happened off-camera on a TV show I worked on years ago.
            Until then, go write   

Thursday, January 11, 2018

What They Know

            There’s an empathy issue I see crop up a fair amount of time, and I ran into it a few times back in my film days, too.  I just hit a big patch of it recently, and it was while I was working on a pitch/outline that also kind of skirted around it.  So I figured it was worth talking about a bit here.
            That big patch I mentioned was a werewolf anthology I read (some monster names may have been changed to protect the innocent).  One of the things that amazed me was how many of the stories had a “big twist” which turned out to be—ready for it?—this is a werewolf story!  Some of these were pretty good... but I still ended up twiddling my fingers once it became apparent where things were heading and I had to wait for the narrative to get there.
            Now, granted, in this particular case a fair share of the blame for that falls on the editor.  Why would I accept a story for my anthology that’s undercut by... well, the very nature of the anthology?  That just seems like a bad idea.
            But why submit such a story, either? Shouldn’t I, the writer, immediately realize that anyone who picks up the anthology is already going to be clued in to my big reveal?  And shouldn’t I be aware of the failings that creates in my story?
            Either way you look at it, nobody’s thinking about what the readers are going to know when they sit down with this story.
            Simple truth is, what my audience knows affects what kind of story I can tell.  It’s going to affect my structure. Maybe even my genre.
            No, seriously.  Imagine trying to write a mystery story where we all know who the murderer is from the very start.  Before we even pick up the book.  If I try to tell that story in a normal mystery format with normal mystery tropes, it’s going to collapse really fast.  The whole structure of mysteries is based around the audience not knowing certain things, so if they already know them... well, that’s going to be a tough sell.
            Remember that pitch/ outline I mentioned?  It’s loosely inspired by an old ‘50s sci-fi movie.  But one of the big issues is that the “science” that drives most of the story in that movie is just awful.  Oh, it might’ve been borderline acceptable back in the day, but these days my niece could poke a dozen holes in.  And she’s a high school freshman. In Texas!
            That’s how weak the science is.
            So if I want to tell that story now, I’ll need to change a lot of things.  Those rationales and explanations just won’t hold with modern readers because they know better.  It’ll kill their suspension of disbelief almost immediately and they’ll give up on my story before they get to chapter five.
            And I don’t write big chapters.
            As I mentioned above, both of these examples deal with an empathy issue.  I have to be aware of what my audience knows.  What’s common knowledge, what’s obvious, and what sort of thing they’re already aware of.  And I need to understand how that knowledge is going to affect the reception and dramatic structure of my story.  Something they already know can’t be a surprise, and something they know is wrong can’t support a string of plot points.
            Please note an important difference here. Wrong doesn’t mean not real.  I can propose tons of alternate histories or secret societies or fringe science breakthroughs. I’d love to give you guidelines for making up planets or technologies or imaginary animals.  But the simple truth is... it’s an empathy thing.  Every thread in every story is going to be unique and different in how I present it and how you receive it.
            Semi-related---this is also why spoilers suck so much.  They literally change the story I’m telling (or reading) because they change what the reader knows. 
            For example...
            I’m going to spoil The Sixth Sense, so if you haven’t seen it, stop reading now and go watch it. No, seriously, go.  The whole point of this is how knowing things can mess up how you receive a story, so if you keep reading you’ll never be able to watch The Sixth Sense the way you’re supposed to.  NEVER.  If you’ve somehow managed to avoid it until now, I don’t want to be the one to take it away from you, so stop reading.
            STOP!
            NOW!!
            Okay, now that those folks are gone...
            That big reveal at the end of The Sixth Sense is a jaw-dropping moment when we hit it for the first time.   But if we go in already knowing Bruce Willis has been dead all along, this is a very different story.  It’s almost an afterschool special.  “The Boy and his Phantom Psychologist,” Thursday at four on ABC.
            More to the point, that ending doesn’t have the dramatic weight it would without that knowledge. And it never can.  We can’t unlearn things, much as we’d like to.
            Once something’s been spoiled... that’s it.  No takebacks.  No mulligans.
            I’ll even toss this out.  The ending of The Sixth Sense was such a powerful moment that it got copied many times--often by people who didn’t really understand it.  But this often-copied ending still ended up out there.  It became common.  And because it was common knowledge, so to speak, it changed how writers can tell that sort of story.  These days, most readers know to look for that sort of twist.  And they’ll pick up on the subtlest of clues or hints.  And I need to be aware of that if I want to tell one of those stories—that people will almost be expecting it.
            Because if I don’t, I should know I’m about to make some clumsy mistakes.
            Next time, I want to talk about some more basics.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Why Do I Do This, Anyway...?

            Joyous arbitrary point in the solar orbit!  Or, as some people like to say, Happy New Year!  Hope 2018 hasn’t been too rough on you so far.
            At the start of the year I try to scribble out something about why I keep writing this ranty blog week after week (sometimes twice a week) for year after year (over ten years now).  It’s not like I’ve got thousands of fans checking this page all the time.  Heck, I see the numbers.  The average post here barely gets 200 views, and I’m willing to bet a good handful of those are bots looking to drop some spam links about great opportunities mining bitcoins or something like that...
            Please don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate the eyes I get. I’m honestly amazed by the half-dozen or so of you who’ve reading these rants for years now. Since long before I was considered any kind of pro.
            But let’s be honest.  If you added it all up, I probably put 80-100 hours a year into this blog.  I could write a third of a novel in that time—a novel I’d probably get paid for. Heck, that’s three other books I could’ve written in the years I’ve spent here.
            Hardly the best use of my time.
            Sooooo... why?
            Well, for a long time (and still sometimes) it came from frustration.  It’s annoying to watch a movie or read a book and see people make basic storytelling mistakes.  Not “oh, I didn’t like that choice”—full-on mistakes.
          And I see a lot of them because, in my self-flagellating way (oh, get your mind out of the gutter), I tend to watch a lot of B-movies.  Because I believe people can learn at least as much from the bad stuff as the good stuff.  Possibly more from the bad stuff (think of it as a literary Anna Karenina principle, odd as that sounds).  So I watch the B-movies, break down problems, and then rant about them here when I spot recurring patterns of mistakes.
            Writing these posts also helps me figure out stuff, to some extent.  I’ve approached some problems in my own writing from the angle of “how would I explain this on the ranty blog” (sort of like going to the doctor and saying “I’ve got this friend who’s been having, y’know... problems...”).  And once I’ve figure out a way to avoid a problem, I like to share it with all of you and the bitcoin bots.
            But there’s one simple reason I do it.  The same reason I look forward to doing the Writers Coffeehouse every month over at Dark Delicacies
            I wish there’d been something like this when I started out.
            Seriously, back in those heady days (when half the writers were shrieking about how papyrus was going to mean the death of clay tablets and anyone who didn’t adapt immediately was soooooo Old Kingdom) it was tough to come across decent writing advice.  Of the four fiction-writing instructors I had between high school and college, one was fantastic, two were okay, and one was just bad (as a teacher and especially as a writing teacher).  There were only two writing magazines that were easily accessible (and I say this as a college student whose campus had a huge newsstand).  The internet at this point was pretty much just six trained ravens, at least three of which were out at any give time carrying messages and they always made that horrible screeeeEEEEEEEEEchhhhhhhh...
            Anyway...
            The idea a professional writer would toss out advice at random was just mind boggling to me.  Even when I got in touch with a few, like Ray Bradbury or Lloyd Alexander, the fact that they responded clearly had to be the exception, not the rule.  And I still see that mindset today—that pro writers are these crabby, closed off people who clawed their way to this point in their career and will scare off anyone who tries to take their perch from them.
            That’s nonsense.  To paraphrase a friend of mine “other writers aren’t my competition.”  Writers help other writers.  We offer those little leg-ups we wish we’d gotten from the start and try to steer folks away from the bad advice we followed for too long. 
            So that’s why I do it.  Because I want to help people.  Because there isn’t much solid writing advice out there, and a lot of what there is tends to be about how to make a million dollars by self- publishing your novel about the great Bitcoin heist of 2019.  Because it’s kinda fun.
            Seriously, though... why do you keep showing up?
            Speaking of showing up, next time, I’d like to talk a little bit about them. And what they know.
            You know who I’m talking about.
            Until then, go write.