Friday, December 27, 2013

That What Got Done, 2013 Edition

            Well, here we are yet again.  Another year gone by.  Time to look back and see how well we stuck to our resolutions.
            If you bother to stop in here and read these little rants, I’m guessing you’ve thought about being a writer.  Not a weekend dabbler, not an incorruptible artiste, but someone who wants to make some sales and write for a living.  And the only way to do that is to write.  Not to plan, not to research, but to sit down at the keyboard and start typing out my story one word at a time.  There’s no other way to get something done and no other way to get something sold.  If I’m not writing... it’s just not going to happen.
            So, all that being said... what did you get done this year?
            Me?  I started 2013 already waist-deep in Ex-Purgatory, which was due at the end of April.  Of course, before I could finish that my editor at Broadway had some notes for me on Ex-CommunicationReally good notes, for the record.  There were only one or two things we argued over, and even on those we found a solid middle ground that made us both happy.
            But before I did those, I had to go over the copyeditor’s notes on Ex-Patriots.  They were doing a quick run through it before the re-release in April.  So I spent a day or three on that.
            At least, I would’ve, but first I had to go over the new layout proof for Ex-Heroes.  It was coming out in February, after all.  So that got priority.  Then Ex-Patriots, then Ex-Communication notes, and then back to working on Ex-Purgatory.
            Of course, by that point, I now had copyedits on Ex-Communication.  And a layout proof for Ex-Patriots.  And even some very last minute input on the Ex-Heroes cover.  And after all that, I could get back to Ex-Purgatory.
            Until... well, I’m sure you can see the pattern at this point.
            Despite all this, I still managed to get Ex-Purgatory done on time.  It went long, and then I cut it way back, and then my editor suggested a few other cuts and some other additions.  We did a bunch of work on it, and in the end it went from a book I was kind of worried about to one that I’m almost proud of.  And it’ll be in stores in less than three weeks.
            That was the first eight months of 2013.
            Somewhere in there, between rewrites and layouts for Ex-Communication, I started a new book.  Something kind of urban-fantasy-ish, but a lot darker.  I was about 15,000 words into it when I went to Comic Con.  Alas, after talking with my agent and my editor, it’s going on the back burner for a little bit.  Hopefully it won’t end up being my new Dead Moon...
            There was also another idea I worked with for a while.  I pitched this one to my editor as “Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere crossed with Cannonball Run.”  Which, if nothing else, caught his attention.  For the double-handful of you who were at Booktopia this summer, it’s the story I mentioned about the Model T Ford. I was about 19,000 words in when new deals were finalized with Broadway.  This one’s still going to happen, but it’s been pushed a bit further down the line.
            I wrote a handful of short stories, too.  “Flesh Trade,” alas, didn’t make it into Clive Barker’s upcoming Midian Unbound anthology (I only cried a little bit at that).  But the guys at Kaiju Unbound really liked “Banner of the Bent Cross” and the folks at Evil Girlfriend Media said yes to another story (which I can’t talk about quite yet).  I also polished up an old tale, “Contraption,” for an upcoming collection of short stories from Permuted Press.
            And since then I’ve been working on my current book, The Albuquerque Door.  Well, there’s been some concern about the title, but I’m hanging onto it as long as possible.  I’m about 25,000 words into it so far. 
            Plus there were also thirty-eight posts here (to be honest, one of my worst years since I started the ranty blog).  And another thirty posts on other pages I keep.  Plus a dozen or so promo articles for different books (including a handful of titles from Broadway’s new Doctor Who line).
            Thing is... I feel like I slacked off a lot this year.  There were a few times when I was waiting to hear back on deals or between drafts or just feeling burned out by that glut of work at the start of the year... and I took a day off.  In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with it, and I didn’t miss any deadlines, but the truth is I took off a couple of days I really had no business taking off.  Days I should’ve been writing.  I look back at this past year and I think that I really should be further along in that urban fantasy story.  The Model T story should have a lot more to it, too.  I look at this list and think I didn’t write enough this year.
            How about you? How much did you write...?
            Next time—next year, really—I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about what I talk about here.  A mission statement, if you will.
            Until then... Happy New Year.
            And go write.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Black Christmas

            If you've been following this ranty blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard me mention Shane Black once or thrice.  For those who came in late, he's one of the men behind the million-dollar spec-script boom 20 years ago.  You might know him as the writer of films like The Monster SquadLethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight
(Supposedly, an unwritten part of his deal for Lethal Weapon was getting to be in an action film, so the studio stuck him in some stupid alien-fighting-bodybuilders-in-the-jungle movie that no one was going to see--never expecting that Black would rewrite all his dialogue to become one of the most memorable characters in the film...) 
            He took some time off from Hollywood and then returned a few years back as the writer-director of the award-winning Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, which propelled Robert Downey Jr. back into the public eye.  Then the two of them got together again for this summer’s Iron Man 3, which Black directed and co-wrote.
            Anyway, back when I used to write for Creative Screenwriting, Black was kind of a Hollywood legend as a person and as a writer.  So when the editor of CS Weekly asked us for December article ideas, I tossed out doing a general interview with Black.  After all, the man’s set almost every movie he’s written at Christmastime—he had to have something to say about it.  My editor agreed it would be a neat thing and put out some feelers, and we both kind of forgot about it.  We were a very small, niche film magazine, and he was... well, he was Shane Black.
            So when Black wrote back in less than a week and said “Sure, let’s grab a coffee or something,” you can imagine the girlish squeals of glee.
            Alas, reality hit just as quick.  At this point the magazine was starting to struggle financially and my first novel, Ex-Heroes, wasn’t going to see print for another three months.  The squeals of glee faded and I suddenly realized I couldn’t afford to grab a coffee.  Hell, I wasn’t sure I could afford gas to drive to a Starbucks to meet him.  After the shame faded, I wrote back with some lame excuses about sound quality and not wanting to waste his time.  We set up a phone interview and I missed my big chance to hang out with Shane Black for an hour.
            Fortunately, he was very pleasant and gracious on the phone, and it was one of those conversations where I felt like I learned more about storytelling in forty-odd minutes than I had in some college classes.
            A few of the usual points...  I’m in bold, asking the questions.  Keep in mind a lot of these aren’t the exact, word-for-word questions I asked (which tended to be a bit more organic and conversational), so if the answer seems a bit off, don’t stress out over it.   Any links are entirely mine and aren’t meant to imply Mr. Black was specifically endorsing any of the ideas I’ve brought up here on the ranty blog—it’s just me linking from something he's said to something similar that I’ve said (some of it inspired by this conversation). 
            By the very nature of this discussion, there will probably be a few small spoilers in here, though not many.  Check out some of his movies if you haven’t already seen them.  They’re damned fun and filled with fantastic characters.
            Material from this interview was originally used for a “From The Trenches” article that appeared in the December 18th, 2009 issue of CS Weekly.
            So, anyway, here’s me talking with Shane Black  about Santa, Christmas, storytelling, and Frankenstein in the Wild West.
            Happy Holidays.

Were you a big fan of Christmas specials and movies growing up?  What are some of your favorites?
            Well, it's interesting.  I watch all the old Christmas movies and I like them for odd reasons.  Like It's A Wonderful Life.  It's a Christmas movie, but within it they have a lot of bizarre, Capra-esque touches that are more indicative of just life.  The scene where the gym starts to open--the floor starts to pull back and there's a swimming pool underneath.  Someone falls in and then everyone just jumps in the pool.  That moment is as fresh today as it was back then.  That kind of crazy improv moment where everyone starts laughing and jumping in. Even as a kid I was struck by that.  "Wow, that's a different kind of moment than most movies.  That feels like it just happened almost by accident."
            My favorite Christmas film is probably this Spanish Santa Claus movie.. It's called Santa Claus and I even used a bit of it in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.  Basically, Santa Claus fights the Devil.  The Devil tries to stop Christmas.  There's this one scene where he just runs around the room doing gymnastics.  You've got to see it.  You've got to pick it up and look at it--- The Devil's this really athletic, slightly gay-looking guy who can blow flames through a phone line.  If he calls you on the phone, flames come out the receiver and they singe your ear.  That's probably my favorite.  Santa's really lame and the effects are terrible.
            My other favorite was called Santa Claus and the Ice Cream Bunny.  There's no snow.  It was filmed in Florida in broad daylight.  Santa's sled is stuck because there's no snow, and they're all waiting for the Ice Cream Bunny.  While they're waiting Santa tells all the kids the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, which takes roughly 50 -75 minutes.  At the end of which the Ice Cream Bunny shows up and everyone says "now we're safe."  I can't believe some of the frauds--even as a child--that were perpetrated on me (chuckles).    It's pretty amazing.

About half your films have been set at Christmas.  I know your first script, Shadow Company, was originally set at Halloween, and then you rewrote it as Christmas in a later draft.  Why?
            Yeah.  Christmas for some reason...  Even though it's a worldwide phenomenon I always associate it with a certain kind of American way of life.  It's also sort of a hushed period, during which, for a period of time, we agree to suspend hostility.  I'm always fascinated by the almost palpable sense in the air that something's different at Christmas.
            If you look at a tipping point scenario-- how many people does it take to start a standing ovation?  Just one.  And then in five seconds two other people, then three, then four, then 75,000 are clapping.  Because the tipping point is as simple as one person pushing in that direction.  And it can go ugly just as easily.  It can go the other direction.  One person starts to get out of hand and then everyone's out of hand. 
            So Christmas to me represented the best we have in terms of keeping things on that side of the dial.  A period in which, for whatever reason, the tipping point was more likely to bump into someone on the street and have them say "Oh, hey man, my bad," then to have him say "Fuck you, buddy!  Watch where you're going!"  That was remarkable to me.
            Also in California, Christmas, if you look at it as a substance almost, as a thing more than an idea, Christmas exists out here in California but in these indescribably beautiful ways to me.  You have to dig for it.  It's not a 40 foot Christmas tree on the White House lawn, it's a little broken, plastic Madonna with a flash bulb inside hanging off a Mexican lunch wagon.  It's a little strand of colored light in some cheap trailer in the blinding sunlight, but it's still protesting its Christmas-ness.  I adore little touches of Christmas that indicate subtly...  It's like talismans.  You walk around and these are the magic.  These are your touchstones. Little bits of Christmas that remind us that this doesn't have to be a blinded, blighted, sun-washed, hostile place to live.  Christmas has always had that magic ability to me, to exist almost like a magic substance that you find little bit of if you dig carefully enough for it.  I know that sounds kind of crazy.

No, I'm actually intrigued.  When did you develop this view?  Was Lethal Weapon set at Christmas because of this or did the... the philosophy of Christmas develop along the way?
            Along the way. Well, Lethal Weapon is a Frankenstein story to me.  It's a guy who's a monster of sorts, who sits in his trailer and watches TV.  People despise him, they revile him, because... it's like a western.  They think the west is tame.  They think they're safe and secure in this sedentary little suburbia.  This sort of lulling effect that whatever violence and terror are in the world, we've managed to secure ourselves from it.  But he knows different.  Frankenstein in his trailer, he's been with violence, he's lived violence.  He knows that its still there.  The west is not tame, it is not gentrified.  When violence, in Lethal Weapon, comes to the suburbs and takes this guy's daughter and kills cops, they go to Frankenstein and say "Look, we hate you for what we do.  We think you're an anomaly at best and a monster at worst, but now we need you because you're the only one who understands this.  We've gotten hypnotized by tranquility.  We forgot that violence is still there, and you're the one who can deal with that, so now we need to let you out of your cage."  That was the idea.  Christmas, it seemed to me, was the most pleasant, lulling, hypnotizing atmosphere in which to forget that violence can be so sudden and swift and just invade our private lives.

Did you actually study screenwriting?
            Nah.  I took theater classes at UCLA.  I was studying stagecraft and acting.  It was a Mickey Mouse major.  My finals often were painting sets, y'know?  It was kind of a cakewalk though college.  I took all the requirements-- I liked theater, I liked movies, but I'd never seen a screenplay and I thought they were impossibly difficult.  Coming from back east I just assumed  movies were something that floated through the ether and appeared on your TV screen and some magician wrote them, but there was certainly no way I could.  Then I read a script and it was so easy.  I read another one and said "I can do this.  This is really rather simple."  So I never took classes, I just read scripts I loved.
            My style, such as it is, that sometime people comment on, is really cribbed from two sources.  One is William Goldman, who has a kind of chummy, folksy, storytelling style.  It's almost as though a guy in a bar is talking to you from his bar stool.  And then Walter Hill, who is just completely terse and sparing and has this real spartan prose that's just punchy and has this wonderful effect of just gut-punching you.  I took those two and I slammed them together, and that's what I use.  People say it's interesting.  Mostly it's a rip-off. It's Goldman meets Walter Hill.

Did you always write like this or are there some older Shane Black scripts that will never see the light of day?
            No, the first scripts I wrote were scripts I wrote after I decided to go out and see what they look like.  So I picked up William Goldman,  I picked up Walter Hill, and then I wrote Shadow Company, which even on the page, the '84 version, looks exactly like a Goldman script.  Lethal Weapon, it's pretty much in the style of those two writers.  Material aside.  Material is different, I'm talking solely about the style on the page and learning the logistics of how to do it.  Those two were my mentors.  Later mentors were people like James L. Brooks, who taught me an amazing amount, and Joel Silver, of all people, qualifies as a mentor.

How do you generally write?  Do you use outlines or notecards or just start cranking it out from page one?
            I don't really use notecards.  What I do is I try to figure out what the piece is about and link that to the story arc or the character arc.  I always think there's two things going on in any script--there's the story and then there's the plot.  The plot is the events.  If it's a heist film, it's how they get in and out.  But the story is why we're there, why we're watching the events.  It's what's going on with the characters.  And theme above that.  Once I get those things, once I know what the theme is and what it's about, I can start trying on story beats and plot beats to see if they feel like they're moving, but they have to relate to the overall theme.  If you look at The Dark Knight, you'll find before those guys wrote a word of script, they knew exactly what their movie was about.  All the themes were in place.  Sometimes they has to bend the scenes in The Dark Knight to fit the theme they were trying to get across.  It's clear they didn't write the scenes and then look for what they were about, they clearly knew where they were headed.  So thematically I get a sense of what the movie's gotta be, but I don't use notecards.
            I can juggle a lot in my head.  I can't get more than say, twenty pages, without planning ahead.

How long does it normally take you to get a first draft of something?
            I try to keep by studio standards, which is three months.  They give you three months from commencement pay to final payment, and I think that's enough time if you really work at it.  We did a draft that I really loved, and it did not make the screen, of Last Action Hero, my partner and I.  We did that in six weeks and I was very proud of that.  From sitting down with this original screenplay and completely rewriting and retooling it. We were good, we were fast.

You mentioned your partner.  I know you worked with Fred Dekker for a while--have you gone back to writing with a partner?
            Lately just to facilitate things.  It takes me so long to think of ideas and so long to convince myself to get to work, and there's so much fear involved.  Writing to me is a process of just desperately trying, on a daily basis, to concentrate until something becomes more interesting than my fear.  Then you're sucked in and you start doing the work, but up 'till then it's just horrifying to me.  So if I can have help, if someone's in the sinking boat with me, even if we're both going to drown, at least there's a comfort to not being alone.  I'll write the next one solo.

Now, you took time off, came back with a new script you shopped around, and nobody knew who you were.  That was Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, right?
            It was.  Most people would have nothing to do with it.

Did planning to direct it change how you approached writing it?
            No, I thought about that.  That was when I was dealing with Jim Brooks.  He basically said "You don't need to worry because you direct on paper.  You don't call shots, but you call mood and you call progression and pace and emphasis and just about everything else."  So I may have even done a little more of that on Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

Now that you've sat in the director's chair, has it changed how you approach a script?
            No, except I'm even more conscious of what will later be shoe leather.  The greatest shoemakers in the world supposedly can make a pair of shoes and leave no [extra] leather.  They didn't waste any.  I'm very conscious now as a director.  If you've got two scenes, like a newscaster and a scene before that of a conversation, can't you have the conversation with the newscaster in the background and do it in one?  It's just shoe leather.  No shoe leather.

It's probably safe to say a lot of people have offbeat movies they watch this time of year, and a bunch of them are probably your movies.  Is there anything unusual you like to watch at the holidays?
Oddly enough, every year about this time, for no reason I can fathom, I watch The Exorcist, my favorite movie [chuckles].  Every year I'm reminded of how it doesn't age, not one single day. It's as riveting as it ever has been.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Voodoo Zombie vs Biochem Zombie

            This week’s blog title is from a future Asylum movie for SyFy.  It’s not in development or anything, as far as I know, but I’m pretty sure just by writing that online I’ve caused it to happen.  It’s the internet butterfly effect.
            And speaking of that geeky reference to a geeky reference...
            What that title really comes from is a note from a friend of mine, the editor at a sci-fi/ science site called Giant Freakin Robot (check it out—it’s fun and educational).  He was explaining what kind of movies and television shows the site covered.  To paraphrase, if the zombies have biochemical or viral origins, GFR will cover them, but not if they’re raised by voodoo spells or curses.
            Over the past few years, a lot of genres have really blended together.  In books and movies, it’s not uncommon to see strong action, drama, or even comedy threads mixing in with sci-fi, fantasy, or horror.  Nowadays it’s just as common for protagonists to fight the undead as it is to run from them, and in doing so writers and readers have created dozens of subgenres.
            Personally, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of this.  I think any story that stays too much in one vein tends to get dry pretty quick.  There’s almost always some humor in every situation, even incredibly dark ones.  It’s not uncommon for men and women to have inappropriate thoughts at really inopportune times (or to act on them).  Hey, I grew up on Doctor Who, so in my mind it makes perfect sense for religion-obsessed barbarian tribes to be descended from intergalactic survey teams or for aliens to be controlling the Loch Ness Monster.
            Now, sad but true, there aren’t a lot of firm rules on mixing these things.  Every story is different, so the way my story blends horror and comedy is going to be different from the way your story blends them.  Ten of us can use the same basic plot, but we’re each going to end up with our own unique story.  My characters won’t react the same way as yours, hers will make different decisions than his.
             As such it’s hard for anyone to say which amount is right or wrong without having all the context.  To use one of my frequent cooking analogies, it’s kind of like if I asked “is this too much sugar?”  It’s an impossible question to answer without knowing what I’m cooking, what are the recipe standards, what are my preferences, and what are the preferences of the people who are going to be eating it.  My own skill level in the kitchen matters, too, on whether I should be trying a fried Alaska, death by chocolate, or maybe just a bowl of Captain Crunch.
            However... all that being said...
            I think when these mixed genre stories go bad, a lot of folks tend to look at the small issues and ignore the big ones.  Something isn’t bad because it mixed androids and artificial intelligence with Arthurian legends, or because it introduced a lot of comedy into the Cthulhu mythos.  Those are just the easiest targets, so they get the criticism first. 
            What I’ve come to realize is that most bad genre stuff tends to be bad for the same three reasons.  Granted, there’s always going to be someone who tries to write a sexy mutant cockroach story (or something worse), and there will always be people who just load up on basic mistakes like spelling or flat characters or incoherent plotting. In my experience, though, most genre stuff goes wrong in three basic ways—whether my story is one pure genre or several overlapping ones.
            The first and often biggest mistake is when authors try to make their stories too fantastic.  If I have an idea, it gets included in the story.  No matter what it is, I’ll cram it in there.  If you’ve ever watched old slasher movies, you know most of them just devolved into creative ways to kill people, and sometimes there are excess characters for no other reason but to allow for more inventive deaths.  Most of us have probably read a sci fi novel that went to great lengths to explain how the weapons, shoes, uniforms, food, transportation, education, and economics are all very different on that other world or in that not-so-distant future.  I read a book recently that had to do with... well, everything.  No, seriously.  Government conspiracies, bio-engineering, super-soldiers, angels and demons, secret identities, zombies, aliens from Neptune, extraterrestrial dragons, thrill-killers, child abuse, sadism, torture porn, regular porn, and lost civilizations in the Amazon.  All of these things were major threads and elements in one average-length novel.  Heck, I’m tempted to say it was even on the shorter side.
            The problem with writing a story like this (book or screenplay) is my audience has nothing to connect with as they’re overwhelmed with all these unfamiliar elements.  The people are different.  The setting is different.  Motivations are different.  I may have created the most amazing post-apocalyptic matriarchal feudal society run by a supercomputer (and its secret android army) that’s ever been seen, but my readers need to be able to understand those characters and that society and relate to it right now while it’s on the page in front of them.
            This is closely related to the second problem—when the writer tries to explain everything.  Bad enough that I felt the need to include the secret android army, but now I’m also going to write about how they were first developed by the Mysteridroid Corporation three hundred years ago, how they see the world, and even how they recharge in various situations.  I think most people reading this have read a story or two that suddenly deviated into exposition like that.  Edgar Rice Burroughs had an awful habit in his Mars books of having his characters stop and explain various aspects of Barsoomian technology (one midnight walk with the Princess famously spun into a discussion of how radium bullets are manufactured and used).  A few recent horror films have gone to great lengths to explain why their antagonist turned out the way he or she did, even though that mystery was part of the character’s strength.
            What this often leads to is stories that feel very exotic and detailed, but very little ever actually happens in them.  Page after page of explanation can add up really fast, and no matter what my chosen format is, there's only going to be so many pages.  Suddenly a third of my book is just... details.  And while I’m going over those details, my characters are just sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for something to happen again.  This can also lead to a bit of resentment from the reader as I’m spoon-feeding them all this information.
            As it turns out, problem number three is the flipside of two.  It’s when the writer doesn’t explain anything.  I’ve gone through whole chapters of a book trying to figure out which character was KristoMystery Science Theater 3000 once had a running gag about a mystical object (or maybe it was a person...) called “the Sampo.”  We’ve all seen stories where people ride “twyrfels” and we’re left wondering what the hell a twyrfel is (an animal? a vehicle? some kind of transporter beam?).
            There’s also the folks who hide motives and actions to create a sense of mystery.    Characters will appear, make a mysterious statement or three, and then vanish from the story.  Creepy messages will be found on walls, sidewalks, or computer screens and we never learn how they got there.  Disturbing objects are found in the cellar, but never discussed again.  Ever.
            There are two general causes behind this, in my experience.  In the first case it’s when I’ve sunk so far into my fictional world and spent so much time there that I forget the reader isn’t quite so familiar with it.  I can tell you the whole history of the twyrfel as transportation, so I forget that you don’t even know what one looks like.  In the second case, they’re trying to duplicate the tone of books like House of Leaves or shows in the vein of LOST or Person of Interest, but they don’t really understand how those stories achieved that tone.  This is especially frustrating when there’s clearly no real mystery, just a bunch of withheld information.
            So, there’s three big, common mistakes in genre fiction.  Sci-fi, horror, fantasy—we could probably give an example of each failing for each genre.  We could even make a chart.
            Or we could go over a few simple ways to avoid these issues...
            For that first problem up above, my story needs to have something my audience can immediately relate to in some way, and it’s best if it’s the main character.  Someone who hates their job, who wants something they can’t have, or maybe who just feels like an outsider.  Simply put, a person with a universal need or desire. 
            I’ve mentioned once or thrice that believable characters make for believable stories, and that’s especially true here in the genres.  Seriously, pick a popular genre story and I’ll bet the main character has a very humble, relatable origin.  Dan Torrance is a nursing home orderly before he’s forced to confront the True Knot.  Katniss Everdeen is just trying to put food on the table when she’s forced to fight for her life in an arena.  John Anderson (a.k.a. Neo) was a cubicle drone who was dragged into a war between humanity and sentient machines.  Dana, Marty, Jules, and their friends were regular college students before they decided to spend their vacation at that old cabin in the woods.  Hell, even in Pacific Rim, one of the most over-the-top movies of the year, our hero Raleigh is working a construction job when we catch up to him in the present, still shaking off the death of his brother.
            If a reader believes in my characters, they’ll believe what’s happening to my characters.  It has to do with willing suspension of disbelief—I can’t believe in the big elements of a story if I don’t believe in the basic building blocks of it.  Once I’m invested in Wakko’s life, then I’ll be more willing to go with it when he finds a lost civilization under the bowling alley or when he finds out the crab people have been running his life since he was born.
            I think there’s two ways to deal with the second problem, too much information.  One is a concept I’ve talked about here in the past—the ignorant stranger.  If things are going to be explained, I should have an actual, in-story reason for that explanation.  Yakko may know all about the secret android army, but Dot doesn’t.  This gives him a valid reason to talk about the Mysteridroid Corporation for a page and a half.  I just need to be sure this really is an ignorant stranger situation and I’m not falling back on the dreaded “as you know...” crutch.
           The other way is, well, for me to just get rid of all that excess information.  Cut it.  I can delete anything that isn’t actually necessary to the story.  This can be tough, because genre stuff tends to involve a lot of new spins on pretty mundane things.  Special pistols, close combat weapons, energy sources, transportation, zombie origins... all that stuff I mentioned up above.
            But is it necessary to the story, or is it just there to help push things deeper into my chosen genre?  It’s cool that my hero has an energy sidearm that uses ultrasonic beams focused through a blue quartz crystal to set up a harmonic vibration in the target’s cells which causes extreme pain and eventual molecular disruption, all powered by a cold-fusion microbattery... but in the long run is this any different than just saying he has a blaster?  Or a pistol?  I may have the most inventive take on teleportation ever, but if there’s no point to teleportation technology in my story except to show off this idea... why bother?  If the plot flows along fine without it, why take up space on the page with it?
            The third problem, not explaining anything, is a little tougher.  On one level, it’s just a matter of skill and practice.  I need to be a good enough writer to know how my plot’s shaping up and to empathize with my audience. 
            A friend of mine gave me a great rule of thumb once—my main character should mirror my audience.  If my main character’s angry about something, the reader should be angry about it.  If my protagonist is puzzled, it means the audience should be puzzled. And if my hero is annoyed because he still doesn’t know what’s going on... well, that’s probably a sign I should have a reveal or two in the immediate future.
            The other way to deal with that third problem is to be sure my story actually has a real mystery, not just the sense of one.  Tying in to what I just mentioned, nothing will aggravate my readers more than to stumble through a story alongside my hero and then discover I’m not revealing a single thread of my mystery.  Or, worse yet, they might realize there isn’t a mystery at all—I was just stringing them along with some nonsense clues.  I need to know what the secret is going to be and work backwards, making sure my characters are smart enough to uncover it or honestly motivated to hide it, depending on which side of the mystery they’re on.
            Are these three the only problems that might crop up in my genre writing?  Not by a long shot.  But these are the ones I see cropping up again and again, so they’re worth looking at and considering.  And fixing.
            Next time, the last post before Christmas, I’d like to share a little holiday conversation I had with the writer-director of Iron Man 3, back when he was just the guy who did Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

This Elaborate Fantasy World You’ve Constructed

            Does that title sound a little too familiar?
            Maybe we should talk about that...
            A few months back I read a book that I couldn’t figure out.  It left me completely baffled.  I’m not talking about the plot (granted, I was having trouble with that, too), but the setting. 
            I honestly couldn’t figure out the world.  At times, it seemed like it was the modern world that we all know and love—granted, with some sci-fi/ fantasy stuff going on in the background.  At other times, it seemed to be a sort of alternate history, post-apocalyptic “present.”  It didn’t help that every character was somehow tied directly into that sci-fi/ fantasy thread, because for all of them this was the “normal” world and they didn’t notice anything different about it.
            Why does this matter?
            Well, knowing where a story is set helps me, as a reader, to set my expectations and reactions.  It lets me get a sense of what’s possible, or what might be possible.  The setting is an automatic set of guidelines for the reader, for the characters, and for the writer, too.
            For example...
            A few years back I read an absolutely wonderful essay on Scooby-Doo and secular humanism.  No seriously.  You can read the whole thing here.  The writer made a very interesting point that shows why it’s so key to know what kind of world my story is set in.  He uses it as one link in a larger chain of logic, but for our purposes we can examine it alone.
            In all the classic Scooby-Doo episodes, the supernatural threat is always revealed to be a fake.  It’s someone in a costume (probably Carl the stuntman or Mr. Bascombe) using special effects of one kind or another for an ulterior motive.  It has to be, because in the world of classic Scooby Doo, ghosts and monsters aren’t real.  That’s why it makes sense for Velma, Fred, and Daphne to act rationally and why it’s funny when Shaggy and Scooby get scared and run away—they’re scared of the fake monsters.
            If the supernatural is real (as it is in some of those later stories), suddenly everything shifts.  The rules of the world have changed, so we have to look at the characters in a new light.  Now Velma and the others are foolish for trying to apply logic to inherently illogical creatures and for exposing themselves to life-threatening monsters like werewolves and vampires.  Not only that, Shaggy and Scooby are now the smart ones, because being scared of vampires is a perfectly rational response in a world where vampires are real.
            Here’s another one.
            I recently read a piece by one of the editors at Marvel comics.  He proudly spoke about how their stories are set in “the real world.”  The characters, their reactions, the world around them...
            And I have to admit, my first thought was... what a bunch of nonsense.
            (I may not have used the word nonsense.  I tend to be a bit more emphatic with my internal dialogue...)
             Let’s consider a few details about the Marvel Comics universe.  It is commonly known that some people can fly.  It’s not exactly secret that magic is real and aliens exist.  Super-powered human mutants are also real and receive tons of media attention.  There’s a large, tropical valley in Antarctica where dinosaurs still live, visible on Google Earth and written about in several textbooks.  Energy weapons are commonplace, as is high-tech battle armor.  There are numerous publicly-known artificial intelligences in the world.  Standing next to detonating atomic weapons can give you superpowers.  Hell, in the Marvel Universe, you can jump off the Empire State Building and there’s actually a halfway decent chance someone will catch you on the way down.
            Does this sound remotely like the real world
            Would the people of this world have the same expectations you and I do?  Would they think and react to things the same way?  I live in LA, and when I hear a faint rumble and the building shakes, I normally check Facebook to see if anyone else felt an earthquake.  In the Marvel Universe, I’d probably assume it was superheroes battling a giant monster.  If I got a headache, I’d be checking to see if it was telekinesis or some form of optic blasts.  And then take aspirin.  And then check for telekinesis again, just in case it interacts with drugs somehow. And the thing is, these would be perfectly rational reactions in the Marvel Universe.
           Now, one more example.  Harry Potter.  In this world there are wizards, giants, dragons, hippogriffs, goblin bankers, house-elves, gnomes, and much, much more (no aliens, though).  But the thing is, it all exists kind of... off to the side.  The average person in the world of Harry Potter has never heard of Hogwarts and can’t find Diagon Alley.  The magical world rarely overlaps with the mundane one, and we learn there are whole government departments charged with making sure they stay separate.  The real world for them is the real world we all know about, one where there’s no such thing as magic.
            Starting to make sense?  If I can’t define my world, I can’t define what is and isn’t possible.  I can’t have characters react appropriately if I don’t know what would be appropriate.
            On the flipside, there’s a period show on right now that kind of gnaws at me.  Mostly because it’s set in Victorian London and one of the supporting characters never wears a hat... but also because of the setting.  The main plot revolves around our protagonist attempting to perfect wireless, broadcasted electricity, something Tesla worked on for decades.  Our hero hopes to destroy the fortunes of a group of wealthy oilmen by rendering their investments worthless.
            Now, here’s the thing.  We know broadcast power wasn’t invented at the turn of the last century, so if the show ends with our hero succeeding, it means the whole story’s been set in an alternate history.  But if his broadcast power fails, it implies the story’s set in the real world.  But until one or the other happens, I can’t tell you the setting.
            Of course some of you may know what program I’m talking about and I’m sure you’re going to bring up the larger point—the vampires.  But here’s the interesting point.  The vampires are irrelevant.  Much like Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, no one knows the vampires exist. 
            But the broadcast power... that’s in the news.  There were press releases and huge parties.  Broadcast power changes everything.  That’s a world where, from the beginning of the electrical age, nothing needs batteries or wall outlets.  There are countless changes and repercussions if broadcast power is real.
            Y’see, Timmy, my fantastic story can still be set in the real world provided the events of my story don’t change the world.  I mean, within the world of the show only a handful of people in London know vampires are real.  It’s not public knowledge.  And today in the modern world we’ve never heard of or seen evidence of vampires in the Victorian era, so that part of the story has an aura of truth and reality to it.    
           If you want to set an amazing story in the real world, you need to use conspiracy theory logic.    I’ve used this analogy before, and bizarre as it may sound it works.  Yep, the same reasoning used by moon-landing deniers, “9-11 was staged” folks, and the birthers is what makes for a good fiction story. No irony there...
            By conspiracy-theory logic, any facts that disprove XYZ are an attempt to hide the truth, thus further proving XYZ is true.  The very lack of evidence is the proof that it’s true.  And if I stumble across a few coincidences that imply XYZ might be true, well, that’s just more evidence XYZ is true.
            Didn’t I just describe the world of Harry Potter?
            The vampires hide all trace of their existence.  There is no evidence that vampires exist.  Ipso facto (fancy Latin words) my story rings true because it lines up with all known facts.  Follow me?
            The world of my story has to have its own consistent logic.  Because if I don’t know my world, I can’t know how characters in my world react to things.  And if I don’t know my characters, well... that’s it.
            Next time... well, is there any topic anyone would like covered?  I can probably ramble on about most anything (as this post shows).  Let me know in the comments if there’s something you’d like me to babble about.
            And if no one does, I’ll come up with something worthwhile.
            Until then, go write.