Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Eight Worst Words You Can Hear

            Many thanks for all your patience while I was busy having my teeth drilled out .  Hope you enjoyed Thom’s rant last week and he didn't hurt your feelings too much.  No matter how you felt it about, rest assured... you were having more fun.
            But enough of my whining...
            ...whining like a high speed drill on enamel...
            This week I said we’d talk about Robocop.  The original, not the remake.  I haven’t seen the remake yet, so I can’t comment on it.  Well, not in a non-nerdy, non-whiny way...
            And we said enough whining...
            I wanted to talk to you about a common problem that can lead to a lot of issues in a story, no matter what the story is.  It doesn’t matter if I’m writing sci-fi (like Robocop), romance, horror, fantasy, or an intense little character piece—this can kill my story.  And, in a way, it’s something I’ve talked about here before.
            As it happens, this issue’s been summed up by a few people in one simple sentence.  These are the eight worst words a writer can hear.  There’s no way to put a positive spin on them.
            What are these deadly words...?
            I don’t care what happens to these people.
            You’ve probably heard that old chestnut about the tree falling in the forest.  If there’s no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound?  Let me ask you this—is Jason Voorhees still scary if no one’s in the forest for him to kill?  Is that candlelit dinner on the rooftop still romantic when it’s just sitting there?  Are explosions that action-packed if there’s no one running away from them?
            I’ve said many, many, many times that my story depends on my characters.  A good character has to be relatable, believable, and (on some level) likeable.  If my characters are just thin, undeveloped stereotypes, they’re just empty placeholders.  If spies are hunting Man #3, it doesn’t mean anything.  If I tell you they’re after Bob, it’s a little better, but not much.  Once you hear they’re after Jason Bourne, though, now this suddenly means something.
            This is the big problem with “starting with action.”  That was a storytelling mantra for years.  “Start with action—don’t make us wait to be interested.”  It didn’t help that some people misunderstood “action” to mean explosions rather than just “something happening”.  Thing is, like I was just saying, action is meaningless if I don’t know the stakes and I don’t care about the characters.  It might grab me for a moment, but I need someone to latch on to, to identify with, to care about. 
            Consider this.  I’m betting you’ve seen a commercial or headline for the news sometime in the past couple of days.  Odds are, with the extent of news coverage and the way it leans toward the sensationalist—you’ve probably seen something along the lines of “five dead in a house fire” or “two killed in shooting” or something like that.   Sound familiar?  You’ve probably seen at least a dozen variations on this  since  New Year’s, yes?
            How many of these stories stuck with you?  Can you name any specifics from any of them?  Can you even remember when you saw them?
            Odds are, the reason you can’t is because you weren’t connected to them in any way.  The news was starting with the events—the action—not with the people.  And it bored you. 
            It’s okay to admit it’s boring.  We can all be awful people together.
            There is no way I can make a story work if the reader doesn’t care about the characters.  None.  It doesn’t matter how amazing my futuristic predictions are, how clever my zombie origin is, how fantastic my descriptions are.  If there aren’t any fleshed-out characters, it’s just trees falling in the forest.
            Now, there are a few exceptions to this, but they’re finesse things.
            Many years back, I read an interview with Paul Verhoeven about the original Robocop (see, I told you we’d get back to it).  The journalist was questioning him about the extreme (at the time) levels of violence in the film—most notably when Murphy is blown apart little by little with shotguns until Clarence Boddiker gets bored and puts a bullet in his head.  How could Verhoeven justify this?
            It was pretty easy, actually.  As the director explained, he only had two scenes with Murphy to establish him as a character before killing him.  Not much at all.  And while he did good things with these scenes, he realized that the death scene could be used, too, to trick his audience a bit.  By giving Murphy a brutal, utterly nightmarish murder—the kind of death any decent person wouldn’t wish on anyone—he immediately built sympathy for him.  We don’t know much about Murphy when he dies, but we know he sure as hell didn’t deserve that.  It’s the same technique used by a lot of horror stories, especially slashers and torture porn.  We might not care about the specific character, but we can identify on a basic human level and know this is an awful thing.
            Again, though... it does take a little finesse.  I can maybe do this once or twice, tops. After that, my readers are going to be numbed to that shock
            And then they’re not going to care anymore.
            So remember to build great characters that your readers care about.
            And then do awful things to them.
            Next time, speaking of awful words... I wanted to rattle off a few more.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Noxious Phrasing

            As you probably noticed, there was no ranty blog last week.  All the publicity stuff for Ex-Purgatory ate up a ton of my time.  And this week is fallout from that plus a bunch of dental issues I won’t bore (or horrify) you with.
            Thankfully, Thom offered to dive in and make some helpful tips for editors, and for writers who might be suffering from poor editor-ship.
            And maybe next week I’ll be back on the ball and we can talk about Robocop or something...


            I'm still not Peter Clines, and even though it is something of a crippling disability, I will strive to fulfill your sense of... of... I don't know, whatever it is you're looking for when you stop by this here blog. My name, if you're the type what needs one, is Thom Brannan. (O hai, Thom.) I've appeared in this blog a couple of times, filling space when Pete was super-busy with his writerly duties. If you're reading this, this is one of those times.
            Usually, Pete tries to talk about the craft of writing, and the many, many pitfalls he's seen as both a casual reader and as a judge for some hifalutin' screenwriting business. One of the things he's asked for is a continuance of this tradition, but this blog will be a little different. If you're reading this, Pete wasn't only busy, but has allowed it.
            I'm talking to the readers today. Not your everyday, run of the mill readers, but participants in writer's circles and beta readers instead. If you take time out of your busy, busy schedule to read for content and to provide meaningful critiques, I'm talking to you. If you're receiving these critiques, I might be talking to you, too.
            During the course of these readings and critting, there are some phrases which make the rounds I wish to all that everybody, everywhere holds holy I could remove. They're next to useless, and sometimes, downright insulting. If you use these phrases, but not in the way I'm about to mention, relax. Down, Simba. I'm not talking to you.
            You may have to forgive me if I become... animated during the writing of this blog. These things tend to get my hackles up.

Show, Don't Tell
            If this is the limit of your advice for any bit of a critique, you're doing it wrong. Please, readers, if you feel the urge to spout this piece of... advice, attach an example of what you mean. Or at the very least, be specific about what it is you wish to see and not be told.
            For instance, if the writer has written "John felt nervous," and your reply is SDT, throw your writer friend (or circle-mate) a bone and give some examples. Don't you think if the author in question had thought of a way to show it, he or she would have?
            It's so bad that in my capacity as editor, I find myself cringing when I come to an instance where I want the author to show something. Somehow I power through, but always, always leave an example.

This Would Work If You Were Author X
            Yes. This one kind of sets my blood aflame. That was in an early critique I'd gotten; I disremember the reason. It might have been opening with a dream sequence. But the least helpful thing I read that day was, "This would work if you were Harlan Ellison, but you're not." You know what, you silly bitch? Before Harlan Ellison was Harlan Ellison, he wasn't. The same holds true for Stephen King, for Clive Barker, for Cormac McCarthy, for goddamn anybody else. We all start small.
            I guarantee you, the guy up the street who has a woodworking shop wasn't... uh, insert famous carpenter who isn't Jesus here... the first time he picked up a hammer and saw. He was clumsy with his tools, and maybe if you look close, you'll see he's missing part of one of his fingers where he learned a bloody lesson. But now he has his own place, doing what he loves for a living, and fashioning memories for other people using those same tools he was clumsy with on day one.

That's Cliché/ Been Done Before
            You don't say. Man has only been telling stories for thousands of years. I would never have thought the same thing might pop up in more than one story.
            Clichés exist for a reason. They work. The work involves taking a pile of clichés and using them in a way that turns them on their heads, if need be, or exactly as they were intended. What? Yes. Sometimes it is a dark and goddamn stormy night. Don't tell me that doesn't happen, I've lived in Seattle. There most definitely is a calm before the storm. People don't realize they're holding their breath until whatever they're holding it for is over. This really happens. And while some of these things are over-represented in fiction, that's no reason to shun them.
            The same holds for monsters. As I've said before, not every instance of a monster needs to be a stunning new breakthrough in horror technology. Dracula hasn't lost a scary step in 116 years; the vampire was done right the first time. (Yes, I know Dracula wasn't the first. If you have to keep telling people this, maybe it's because he was the first done really well.) The same holds for zombies and werewolves and man-made creatures of doooooom.
            For my money, the last worthwhile advance in horror technology came with "The Call of Cthulhu" and the idea of an uncaring, inhuman universe where we're not the apex predator.
            But I digress. Things have been done before. If that's your beef, maybe suggest ways the author could keep his or her cliché but use it in a better way.

When Will This Pay Off?
            Not everything mentioned in a novel will be essential to the plot, or to the overall story, or to character development. While it's true that a lot of the bestest books and movies tie everything together in a neat little bow, some of them do not.
            Look at The Blues Brothers. Everybody loves that movie. Don't they? Well. I do, and that's enough for me. Where was I?
            Right. Take The Blue Brothers, if you will. That movie is just full of so much win, and there are parts in the beginning that link to parts at the end, and little bits in-between that talk to you when you see them reappear. "They broke my watch," I laugh and laugh every time I hear that.
            But there are unrelated things. “Did you get my Cheeze-Wiz, boy?” What the hell is that? Is it important? Does it shed some light on Elwood's character that, yes, he did in fact bring the Cheez-Whiz? No. No, it doesn't. “Orange whip?  Orange whip?  Three orange whips?”  Does it matter what he ordered? No, it only mattered that the VP of the company asked to be included, and John Candy is a funny, funny man.  “Fix the cigarette lighter.”  Did that ever come back to haunt them? Hells, no, it didn't. “Breaks my heart to see a boy that young goin’ bad.” Did that kid come back and help out? Or hurt the cause? Or was he even in the sequel? It's in this paragraph for a reason.

In Conclusion
            No, that's not one of the phrases, that's just me, trying to figure out how to bring this to a clean-ish close. There are plenty more noxious phrases, but Pete doesn't like these to be too long. Hey, if there's reason, and he says yes, I'll do another one. But for now, let me leave you with this.
            Beat readers and critiquers, you fulfill a vital part of the writing process. All the acknowledgements you read include people just like you, and authors rely on you to be straight with them, and to do what you can to help. From my own experience, the few works I do have out in the world would have been poorer indeed without the input of my beta team and the Permuted Pit and Pendulum critique groups.
            So, yes, you're needed. Try not to be dicks about it.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Lessons of Henry Higgins

             Classic pop culture reference.
            Apologies for this being a bit late.  I’ve been bogged down with a bunch of publicity stuff for the new book.  Ex-Purgatory comes out next week, available at bookstores everywhere.  Check it out.  You can read a (hopefully) fun book and passively support the ranty blog.
            Speaking of which... on with this week’s rant.
            I haven’t talked about dialogue in a long while, and I though (if there’s no real objections) that I’d talk about voices.  If there are any objections... too bad.  You should’ve spoken up last week when I mentioned this was what I was going to talk about.
            A character’s voice is a specific element of their dialogue.  It’s the little tics and subtleties of how someone speaks that makes them unique on the page.  Voice is why we can tell Gandalf from Magneto (even when they’re both played by Sir Ian McKellen) and why Jane Eyre and Katniss Everdeen sound different in our heads.
            Now I thought about how to approach this for a while, and it hit me last night to scrap most of what I had and go back to basics.  So I want to bounce a couple very, very simple characters off you.  As I do, try to imagine a conversation with said man or woman.  You’ve probably had one at some point.

*The Babbler—That person who fills every moment with talking.  She hates silence.

*The Military Guy—He’s been in for four years and is planning on four more, at least.

*The Expert—Pick a topic and they’ll explain it to you... or correct your every statement.

*The Sports Nut—That guy who loves the game. Did you see the game? Go Piggers, right?

*The European—The elegant woman who could be a supermodel... if she wasn’t already an artist.

*The Indirect Person—You know that girl who kind of talks around everything and it takes forever for her to get to the point of, y’know, that thing we’re talking about...

            Now, granted, each of those characters is a broad stereotype.  We could probably come up with a dozen more, easy, and a dozen past that without much effort.  But here’s the thing—we know exactly how each of these characters speaks, don’t we?  As soon as I described them, you could hear this person in your head.  The military guy speaking with the etiquette and manners drilled into him.  The sports nut using football terminology to explain his day at work.  You knew the kind of words these characters would choose and how they’d use them.
            That’s their voice.
            Again, this is broad.  I like to think of it as the foundation for building the voice I’ll use in the story.  For example, in the Ex-Heroes books, Barry a.k.a. Zzzap is a huge sci-fi fan.  Comic books, space operas, monster movies, Trek, Galactica, you name it, he loves it.  He’s the geek version of a sports nut.  This is the base I used for him as a character and for how he would talk.
           Now the thing is to layer on top of that.  Build up that character from a flat stereotype into someone with some depth.  It’s just like making character sketches, except we want to be aware of how these elements will affect their dialogue.
            For example, what kind of person is this character?  Are they generally positive or negative, and to what degree?  Enough that it spills out into their dialogue? I decided Barry was going to be a very positive, fun guy—someone who’ll crack jokes no matter how inappropriate the timing, and who’ll try to find a bright side even in desperate situations.
            Another layer to add is education.  Is my character well-educated, street smart, or maybe... well, stupid.  There are stupid people in the world, after all, and uneducated folks, too.  When characters make observations, they say things based off their beliefs and understanding of the world.
            Also, where were they born, or where have they spent most of their life?  We all know that people in Great Britain use different names for car parts than folks in the US (boot and bonnet vs. trunk and hood), but did you know that people call soft drinks different things depending on what state they’re from?  Not to mention the whole hoagies-subs-grinders thing.  Does your setting have taxis or cabs?  Fountains or bubblers?  These are great little details which help to build unique voices.
            These are all just suggestions, mind you.  There are tons of details about a person that could affect how they talk.  Social status, financial status, political beliefs, religious beliefs, sexual orientation.  Any one of these could come across in the way someone talks.  How do they say yes (yep, yeah, uh-huh)?  How do they say no (nah, nope, uh-uh)?  How do they swear? 
            I will toss out a warning on the accents, though.  When dealing with people from other countries—or other planets—it’s tempting to  try to phonetically add little differences in their pronunciation.  About twelve years back I wrote a story years with bird-aliens (the Kroot from WarHammer 40K, if you happen to be that kind of geek) and figured their beaks would make them sound a little more grrrowly, so I’d put three R’s instead of one whenever the letter was used.  I also decided their soft S sounds would come out more like a raspy Z.  Two little tweaks like that would give them a very distinct voice, and how distracting could it be, right...?
            “Grrreeeetingz,” the tall creature squawked.  “I am Nirrrok Te, mazter zhaper of the Krrroot of the Plateau Warrrzpherrre.  I have come to offerrr ourrr zerrrvizez az warrrriorz.  My kindrrredz arrre at yourrr dizpozal, forrr the prrroperrr prrrize.”
             For the record, that’s the first line of alien dialogue in the story.  I had, no joke, almost twenty-six pages of this. As you can see from this one paragraph, it gets old really fast.  And I almost did it again with Oskar, the German landlord in 14.  I came up with three verbal tics for him, but realized almost immediately what a mess it would make his dialogue.   So I cut it down to one (using F’s for V’s, so he’d say “What do you haff there?”). 
            If the accent needs to be there, I try to make it as minimal as possible.  Both in use and impact.  Because if a reader has trouble working their way through my dialogue, they’ll find something that’s easier to read.
            And that’s voice in a nutshell.  Well, a coconut shell, maybe.  Just look at the character elements I already have—and I do have them, right?—and use them to give this character a unique voice.
            Next week I’ve got to be in San Diego for a book signing (Mysterious Galaxy—show up and say “hi”), but I’ll try to come up with something quick before I get on the road.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Wherein I Ramble on About What I Ramble on About...

            2014!  Welcome to the world of tomorrow!  Just with no flying cars.  Or jetpacks.  And far less moonbases than Space: 1999, Inherit the Stars, or 2001: A Space Odyssey led us to expect.
            Wow.  We’re only two days in and 2014 is kind of a letdown so far.
            Anyway, as I often do at the start of the year, I’d like to take a minute or three to talk about this page and the kind of stuff I babble on about.  And touch on a few of the things I don’t.
            And to do this, I’m going to dip my toe into a potentially controversial subject.  So hopefully I won’t offend anyone too much
            Maybe it’s just the circles I travel in, but I tend to see a lot of “after the fact” material.  It’s on pages I get links to or I get spammed with messages about it.  People with blogs about how to self-publish and why traditional publishers are dinosaurs.  About how to get past those evil “gatekeepers” and why they’re pointless.  Which ebook platform is best.  How to format for said platform.  Where to find a good agent. Where to find a good artist for my cover.  How to network.  Good places for self-promotion.  How much I should self-promote.  How much I should pay for that promotion.
            The reason I call this “after the fact” material is because it skips a major step.  Every one of those issues is about getting my book in front of readers.  None of it addresses the important question...
            Should my book be in front of readers?
            Is my book ready to be published, by me or anyone else?  Does it deserve to make it past those gatekeepers?  Do I have something worth promoting?
            And that’s what I don’t see a lot of out there—help to get past that first step.  Because the best chef in the world can’t do anything with no tools and an empty kitchen.  If I don’t have a full, polished manuscript, all those other tips are kind of useless.
            This is why, in my opinion, self-publishing still has—and probably always will have—a stigma hanging over it.  There are some absolutely phenomenal self published books out there, and some authors who are making great money as self-publishers.  But the ugly truth is that, statistically, most self-published material is bad.  Now that it’s so easy and cheap to self-publish, I’d even say that these days the vast majority of self-published stuff is awful.  There’s a lot more good stuff than a decade ago, absolutely, but by the same token  there’s tons and tons more bad stuff.
            So, that’s what I want to do here.  I try to help with that first step. Every week I toss out some advice, tips, and observations on how to improve a manuscript and turn it into something people want to buy and read.  Things I was told or stumbled across (or learned the hard way) in the thirty or so years that I’ve been stringing words together.
            Now, the two main things you’ll find here is advice on writing and rules on writing.  Yes, there are rules.  No, I don’t care what he said.  No, I don’t care what she said either.  There are rules that have to be followed.  Bear with me.
            Advice is optional.  When to write.  Where to write.  What to write.  How to develop characters.  How to edit.  How many drafts I need to go through.  What kind of structure a particular story should have.  What point of view to use.  I’d say the ranty blog is about 60-65% advice.
            This is the kind of stuff that’s going to be individual to each writer.  I like to write in the afternoon, but you might be more productive in the morning, and she’s more productive after midnight.  I tend to plan a rough outline in my head, but you might need three really detailed pages before you begin, and he might be fine with a dozen notecards taped to the wall.  I might need music to write but you need absolute silence and she can’t write unless she’s outside and wearing a Ren Faire outfit.  The thing about advice is that it’s rarely wrong, it just might not be advice that works for me or you.  That’s one of the main tenets here, my golden rule.
            It drives me nuts when I come across someone insisting advice must be strictly followed.  I think a lot of would-be writers get messed up by this, and these are the folks who end up staring at a blank page every morning in a silent room, wondering why they can’t write the opening of the goth-witch-lit novel they have no interest in but were told is going to be the new big thing.  They often get stuck wearing an itchy corset, too.
            Y’see, Timmy, rules are the real non-optional stuff.  Spelling.  Grammar.  Structure (you have to have some kind of it).  Likable characters (not necessarily good characters, but someone my readers won’t mind following) with believable arcs.  Flow.  Coherency.  This page is maybe 35-40% rules, at any given time.
            Most of us had at least five or six teachers during our lives who tried to teach us the rules of writing—the basic mechanics of how words go together to express ideas.  If I want to make a living at this, I need to know those mechanics.  If I don’t know how to spell, if I don’t understand structure, if commas and apostrophes are baffling to me, if I can’t sense how my readers will react to something... well, it’s going to be very hard for me to have any success as a writer.
            The flipside of what I mentioned above, it’s also very damaging when some folks try to insist that rules are just loose guidelines, that it doesn’t matter if I follow them or not.  I think a lot of that comes out of folks who see the rules broken by an experienced professional and assume they can be ignored from the start.  They point to the exception and use that as their reason to not learn the rules.  This kind of deliberate ignorance leads to poor writing and bad habits, and it means a lot of potentially good writers never improve. 
            Y’see, Timmy, if I don’t understand the rules, I’m not going to know how to break them.  A good writer can break some of the rules, but it’s like playing Jenga.  I can’t pull out all the blocks holding up the stack, and if I’m going to pull out this one I need to make sure that one is rock-solid.  If I don’t understand the basic rules of how the tower stands, I’m going to bring it crashing down on my second turn.  Maybe even my first.
            Actually, that’s an even better analogy.  Breaking rules is like demolishing buildings.  It looks simple, but the folks who do it actually need to know more than the people who built it.  They need to understand which walls are load bearing and which beams are supporting, but they also need to know how the material’s going to break or crumble or shatter and how much explosive is needed for each result without there being so much that the building collapses out rather than in.
            Because it might look really cool and fun when the building collapses out across the city, but it doesn’t get a lot of repeat customers.
            What else, what else, what else...
            Do I repeat myself here?  Well... yeah.  Especially if you’ve been following along for two or three years.  I try to come up with new ways to approach the same problem.  Sometimes I’ll hear something new and clever that I’ll try to share, or maybe even expand on.  At the end of the day, though, this page is more like a mid-level class on writing.  You can take the same class twice and get more out of it, but by the third of fourth time there’s a serious case of diminishing returns.  I’m not saying any of you long-time followers should leave, but don’t be too surprised if I end up talking about dialogue or character voices or something like that.
            Speaking of which, next time I wanted to talk about dialogue and character voices.
            Until then, go write.