Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016 Is Over. Finally.

            I don’t know about you, but this year has been kind of brutal on me.  We don’t even need to bring up politics or innumerable dead entertainment icons.  It’s sucked.  I lost my grandma.  Two friends.  One of my cats.  Hell, even the car I’ve had since I was twenty-seven and working on Silk Stalkings.  
           All dead.
           Screw this year.  Screw 2016.  And I’m only saying “screw” so this page doesn’t get banned from your work server.  I’ve been a lot more emphatic in real life.
            But, anyway... let’s talk about writing.
            At the beginning of every year I toss out some encouragement and ideas about writing. And throughout the year, I jab you pretty much every post with a gentle reminder to go write.  Because that’s the only way this happens. We sit down and we write.
            So... what did you write this year?
            I’ll go first.
            Well, let’s be honest.  The vast majority of this year was spent on Paradox Bound (which most of you will get to read in about... seven months?). I turned in a really wild, scattered draft to my editor (I can admit it), and he politely handed it back and said “try harder.”  Which made me take a long, hard look at a lot of it, rip out a large part of the ending and restructure it, which also meant going back and reworking a fair amount of the beginning.
            But in the end... I’m really proud of how this has turned out. I think you’re going to like it a lot.
            Between drafts, I also finally finished (and submitted) a little story called “Projekt: Maria” for an anthology titled Mech.  That should be out early next year, I believe.  If you read Kaiju Rising a while back, this story is another World War II adventure with Kraft and Carter trying to counter the latest weird and unusual Nazi plot.
            Plus, I’ve done a bunch of work on my next big project (no real title yet—well, not one I’m up for sharing).  And a lot of notes and bits on the next Ex-Heroes book (currently called Ex-Tension).  And I scribbled some notes and pitches for some things... well, that I can’t really talk about quite yet.
            And, hey, this is the 46th ranty blog post this year.  Granted, a handful of those were photo tips, but still... that’s a fairly regular output there. I mean, I’m no Chuck Wendig or Scalzi, but I think that’s a respectable number.  I even managed a couple over on my geeky blog, too... although nowhere near as many as I'd wanted to.
            What else did I do with my time?
            Well, if I’m counting right, I read about thirty-eight new books this year. By which I mean, books I’d never read before.  About half a dozen of them non-fiction. 
            There were also another twenty or so books I re-read, either for reference or enjoyment.  Plus a big pile of comic books and graphic novels—the IDW Revolution event (featuring GI Joe, Rom, Transformers, and Micronauts) was magnificent, as was the conclusion to The Sixth Gun. If you added all of those, I’m probably somewhere in the low sixties.
            Not an ugly score.  Essentially a book a week. I’m huge believer that reading is essential if I want to be a decent writer.  I have to take in material if I want to create material.  I can’t be a filmmaker without watching lots of films. I can’t be a bodybuilder without taking in food.  I can’t be a teacher without learning.  And I sure as hell can’t be a writer if I never read.
            So that’s what I accomplished.  How about you?
            Granted, I’m in the fortunate position where I get to do this full time.  On average, I’m probably going to write more, revise more, and read more than most of you reading this.  It’s not a slam, that’s just basic scheduling.  There’s only so many hours in the day, and I get to spend most of them in this area.  We all have different amounts of time we can put toward these things.  People have kids, jobs, other priorities.
            This also isn’t a contest.  I’m not going to berate you because you only read twenty books this year. I wouldn’t feel extra-special if I read a hundred.  We all read and absorb and work at our own rates
           The key thing is that I can see honest, real forward motion.  I started here and I ended with all of this done.  I can’t be telling myself “well, this counts as getting stuff done” or “I meant to do that.”  I should be able to point at things I wrote.
            I mean, that’s what we’re all trying to do, yes?
            I’d like to thank you all for reading this collection of random thoughts and lessons as we head into (holy crap) the ranty blog’s tenth year.  I’ll try my very best to stay entertaining, educational, and semi-relevant.
            Next time, as I usually do, I’d like to start the year by setting down a couple ground rules—for myself and the ranty blog and the rest of you.
            Until then... go write.
            Have a fantastic New Year’s.  May 2017 be better for all of us.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Time to Pay Up...

            Okay, we’ve all got better things to do right now, so this is going to be a quickie...
            This is another one of those spelling-vocabulary things that shows up way too often.  I saw it misused the other day in someone’s internet press release—the third or fourth time I’ve seen it in recent memory—and it made me grind my teeth.
            Not good, since I got these crowns.
            Anyway...
            Easy question for you. Do you want to pay your dues and become a writer?  Or would you rather pay your dos?
            Are you worried things might be past do?  Or that you haven’t gotten what you’re do?  Either way, have you considered heading do south?
            We’re not even going to talk about the people who bring dew into it.
            Really, the more important question is—are you grinding your own teeth after some of these?
            Do vs. due is one of those... okay, seriously, I don’t know what to say about this.  If I’m going to call myself a writer—any kind of writer—and I’m messing this up, well, it’s not a good sign. 
            It’s ridiculous that I have to bring this up, right?  And yet...
            Journalist, fiction writer, editorials, non-fiction... there really isn’t a type of writing where this kind of mistake is okay.  Because this is a bare-bones basic mistake.  From a writing point of view, this is a flat Earth/Moon-is-made-of-green-cheese-level mistake.  Like so many word choice/use issues, this is a do diligence thing, where I deserve to get smacked down if I can’t due it right.
            One simple, but not perfect, tip—if I’m talking about someone getting something, I probably need due.
            Another simple-but-not-perfect tip—if I’m talking about some form of action, I probably need do.
            Direction is usually going to be due.
            Parties or hairstyles, I would most likely need do.
            The one perfect tip—I should actually learn what words mean before I use them.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I’m messing up something as simple as due and do, it means I’m failing on a bunch of levels.  I’m using phrases I’ve heard but I don’t really understand.  I’m not bothering to look up words I don’t know in a certain context.  I’m just going with what sounds right and not bothering to check if it is right.
            And if that’s how I’m doing things... well, I can’t be surprised if nobody wants to pay me for my writing.
            If you’re reading this, I hope you have a Happy Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, or just a peaceful weekend. Regardless, I’m sure I’ll see you all one more time before the end of the year.
            And if you have some free time in there... go write.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Plot vs. Story: Ultimate Crossover Event

            Okay, it’s been a while since we had some solid, deep, digging-in-the-gross-stuff discussion about writing. So let’s get back to basics, shall we...?
            A couple years back I had the fantastic opportunity to spend about an hour on the phone with Shane Black.  If you don’t know his name off the top of your head, he’s the writer-director behind (among othersLethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, and just recently The Nice Guys.  He knows a lot about storytelling, and during our talk he tossed out a dozen or so useful lessons, one of which I’d like to share with you.
            Yeah, I’ve talked about this before, but I came up with some new ways to talk about it, and I figured it’s a good refresher...
            Pretty much any book, movie, television episode, or short story can be broken down into two parts—the plot and the story.  The plot is the events and moments going on outside my characters.  The story is all the events and moments that are going on inside my character.
            Here’s another way to look at it—plot can affect lots of people, but the story is mostly going to affect my character.  A bomb going off is going to affect hundreds of people.  Phoebe marrying Wakko instead of me is mostly going to affect... me.
            Let’s go into some more detail.
            Plot is the external threats and goals in my book.  Most books tend to have the plot scribbled out on the inside flap (the jacket copy, they like to call it).  If I pick up a BluRay, they’ve usually got the plot of the movie or show on the back.  For example (using a book I’ve mentioned recently), the plot of Anamnesis is about a bottom-tier drug dealer, Ethan, who tries to learn more about a custom drug that’s appearing on the streets, and then has to try to save himself when he discovers some of the people behind this drug.
            After looking at a lot of books or movies from the storytelling point of view, one thing I noticed is that the plot is almost always an attempt to do something.  Win the big race, get the guy, stop the villain, save the orphanage, save the world.  As I mentioned above, the plot involves a goal, and any decent goal in my story is going to take some effort to achieve.
            Another thing I’ve noticed is that plot tends to get a bad rap.  A lot of artsy folks will scoff at the idea of “plot,” like it’s some crude tool that only hack writers use.  Which is just wrong--plot's an essential part of storytelling--all storytelling.
            Now, in all fairness, there are a decent number of “plot-heavy” films and books out there.  The characters are kind of... well, irrelevant.  And these tales might be great to kill an afternoon with, but that’s all they’re ever going to be.  To anyone.
            As it happens, though, a lot of those artistic “character based” works of film and literature tend to meander and not really, y’know, go anywhere.  I think that’s because of the refusal to have a plot.  As I mentioned above, plot  means the characters are trying to do something, so “no plot” means the characters are... well... not doing anything.
            That brings us, nicely, to story.  Story is the flipside of plot. It’s all the internal desires and needs and struggles of my characters.  It’s a big part of the character arc and the reasons behind that arc.  Story tends to be what we tell our friends about when we explain why we like a character.  We enjoy the plot, but what we get invested in is the story. 
            To use Anamnesis again, Ethan’s story is that he suffers from severe retrograde amnesia—for all purposes his life began just a few years ago when he woke up on a beach.  So the memory-erasing drug that appears on the street—and the people suffering from its effects—strikes a chord.  He feels compelled to help them, even though it’s really not in his best interests.
            Every now and then, you might hear someone say there’s really only seven plots (or six or nine or something) and there’s a bit of truth to that.  The reason there are millions of different books, though, is because of story.  If I drop two different characters into the same situation, I’m going to get radically different results, because they’re going to approach things... well, differently.  If Peggy Carter had gotten the super soldier formula instead of Steve Rogers, Captain America would’ve been a radically different movie, on a bunch of levels.  An example I’ve used before is Never Let Me Go and The Island, two movies with almost exactly the same plot but very different stories. End result--two very different movies.
            I’ve talked a few times about working on Ex-Isle, which came out back in February.  One thing I realized as I started the second draft was that I had a plot, but no real story.  What was going on inside St. George, one of my main characters, while the plot progressed around him?  And figuring out his story (his ongoing need to help people vs. how his position and purpose at the Mount was changing) helped solve some knots and eventually even changed the ending of the book.
            Now, let’s play with this a bit...
            Who’s heard of the Moonlighting curse?  It’s the idea that if you have a TV show with a strong “will they or won’t they” element, it’ll collapse as soon as they do. It happened famously with Moonlighting and more recently, alas, with my beloved Castle.
            But we’re talking about this as writers.  So... why do these shows collapse at this point?
            The plot of Castle is that a wildly popular crime novelist (Richard Castle) ends up working with the homicide department of New York’s 5th precinct.  His personality grates on them a lot, but they can’t deny he has a quick mind and some amazing insights into human psychology and criminal motives.  Plus, he’s friends with the mayor... so they’re kinda stuck with him as long as he wants to be there.
            The story of Castle is about the developing relationship between many-times-married Castle and married-to-her-job homicide detective, Kate Beckett.  They each have a lot of baggage, but they also have a lot of chemistry.  And the chemistry kept growing even as they came to accept (and even admire) each other’s quirks and hangups.
            All sounds great, right?  But does anyone see the problem?  It’s something we’ve talked about before...
            See, the basic plot of Castle is pretty much infinite.  I think we can all agree there’s no foreseeable future where New York City is going to have a drastic shortage of homicides.  So that part of the series can keep going forever.
            But... the story of Castle pretty much ends once Castle and Beckett become a couple.  Our whole story was “will they or won’t they,” so once they do... that’s it.  Done.  My story’s over. Sure, in some cases we can stretch things out a bit with all the usual new-relationship stuff (early riser vs. late, snoring, family and friend approval, toothbrushes, how far is this going, etc.), but the longer a series runs, odds are a lot of that will already be established and resolved.  Hell, before the two of them ever kissed, I think Becket had celebrated three or four Christmases with Castle, his daughter, and his mom. 
            Y’see, Timmy, the plot of Castle was still going, but the story’d come to an end.  Which means the series either stumbled into that plot-heavy area I talked about up above... or it came up with a reason to extend the story. And as we’ve talked about in the past, that kind of artificial extension usually doesn’t go over well.
            So, plot and story.  Every good tale should have both.  They can overlap.  They can intertwine.  But if I’m missing one or the other, no matter how many excuses I want to make... my work’s going to be lacking.  And my audience is going to be able to tell.
            Next time...
            Well, next time is going to be a few days before Christmas.  And Hanukkah.  We’ll all have things to do, so I’ll try to do something brief.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Yelling vs. Screaming

            Hey, everybody. Many thanks for your patience while I sorted out family crisis stuff.
            And, jeeez... now it’s three weeks until Christmas.  What the hell...?
            Anyway, I wanted to take a quick minute to talk about something I used to screw up a lot—word choice.
            I know I go on and on about spelling and vocabulary a lot.  To be honest, I make a point of working it into the schedule every four or five months.  I’ve mentioned before how many editors, script readers, and contest directors mention spelling as one of the main problems in a manuscript.
            Thing is, if I want to be taken seriously as a writer, I need to know my vocabulary.  Not guess or generally understand or depend on my spellcheckerknow.  Because there are lots of subtleties to any language –especially a crazy, messed up one like English.  One word can have a slightly different meaning than another, and that difference can have a huge impact on how that sentence or paragraph is understood by the reader.
            In my current project, there’s a big gun fight in a barn.  Between three different groups.  And did I mention that the barn’s on fire?  There’s a lot of stuff going on, and it’s a big, loud moment.
            And it made me look at my “loud” dialogue descriptors, because I realized the tone of the fight didn’t feel consistent.  Some people sounded angry, others scared, and a few almost seemed... well, bored.
            Check it out.  Here’s the same line of dialogue a few times with a different “loud” descriptor on it.  Take your time, pause between each one, and read through them...

            “Dot,” he shouted, “look behind you.”
            “Dot,” he screamed, “look behind you.”
            “Dot,” he called out, “look behind you.”
            “Dot,” he shrieked, “look behind you.”
            “Dot,” he yelled, “look behind you.”
            “Dot,” he bellowed, “look behind you.”

            D’you notice how they all have a slightly different feel?  Shouted and called out feel kind of low-energy with screamed between them.  It just seems a bit more urgent.  Shrieked gives the line a bit of desperation, whereas bellowed makes it sound kind of like a demand or order.
            Y’see, Timmy, this is that subtlety I was just talking about.  I’ve seen these words used lots of different places, lots of different times, so I’ve picked up on the distinct use.  And I’ve taken the extra step of looking them up—I want to know what the words mean, not just have some vague idea.
            Because if I only have a vague idea what words mean, I’m only going to be able to create vague scenes with vague emotions.
            And nobody’s going to connect to that.
            Next time, I’d like to reminisce about a wonderful talk I once had with one of my favorite screenwriters.
            Until then, go write.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Better Books by Better Authors

            Hey, folks.  Sorry about last week—I had, alas, a family emergency I had to fly back east for, and there just wasn’t time to get a ranty blog post put together.  So, now that I’m back, I thought I’d give you this for now and return to our usual semi-useful writing stuff on Thursday...
            As I have in the past, it’s time for me to toss out a few more titles and names for you.  Essentially, these are a bunch of books I really wish I could say I wrote.  They’re not in any order, and I don’t even think they all came out this year, but if you’re looking for something new and different for somebody (or for yourself), it’s going to be tough to go wrong with any of these. In fact, you may have heard me mention some of them before...
            As before,  I’ve put links to a few of them, but you can also just go to your local bookstore.  You may spend an extra buck or two, but you’ll feel better about yourself in the long run...

The Unnoticeables/The Empty Ones by Robert Brockway– This is a fantastic, twisted little series about punk rock and stuntwomen and angels.  It manages to swing back and forth between damned funny and seriously unnerving, sometimes on the same page.  The first book works as a stand-alone, which is why I was stunned when he pulled off the second one.

Experimental Film by Gemma Files—If someone you know is a horror fan, they’re going to love this book.  If they also happen to be a film fan (as in, the process of filmmaking), this is going to be their new favorite book.  It’s about a film student who starts researching one of the early pioneers of filmmaking in Canada, a woman who had some very eerie subject matter.  This is one of the very few books I’ve read in recent years that  freaked me out and actually made me feel nervous about shutting lights off at night. Seriously.

Rise of Io by Wesley Chu—If you know his Tao books, this is the first of a new series set in the same universe.  Although now things are flipped—Ella is a smart, savvy street-urchin in a future-shantytown who finds herself sharing headspace with one of the most incompetent Quaslings on Earth.  It’s got action, humor, a touch of romance, some political intrigue—it’s just fantastic and a beautifully smooth read.

Anamnesis by Eloise Knapp—This overlooked gem is half identity crisis, half biomedical thriller.  Ethan’s a low-level drug dealer whose life began a few years ago when he woke up on a beach with full amnesia.  He stumbles across the new thing hitting the streets—a drug that erases recent memories—and feels compelled to help people affected by it.  Now imagine every creepy thing you could do with that drug... Wonderful character stuff with a creepy-as-hell plot

Invasive by Chuck Wendig—I’m sure you’ve heard about Wendig’s Star Wars books, and if that’s your thing you should definitely check those out (they’re fantastic).  Invasive is for everyone, though.  Unless you have a thing about bugs.  And if you don’t now, you will by the end of this.  Hannah’s a brilliant character, and the premise is skin-crawling.

The Voodoo Killings by Kristi Charish—This is another one I got an early peek at, and then I was kind of annoyed because I couldn’t talk to anybody about it for another four or five months (and now I’m waiting for her to finish book two so I can whine and plead to see that one early).  This book takes zombies back to their voodoo roots, and imagines a world where the supernatural is real, publicly known, and so heavily regulated that our main-character, sorceress Kincaid Strange, has to pay the bills by summoning up dead rock stars for frat parties.  And then an illegal zombie shows up in her neighborhood...

Panacea by F. Paul Wilson—If all goes well, this book is the start of a fantastic ‘80s homage series.  This one starts with a simple premise—what if there was a substance that could cure anything?  And then think of all the different reasons people might be searching for it. It also has, hands down, one of the most horrific death scenes I’ve read in years.  So there’s that...

The Crooked God Machine by Autumn Christian– Do you like Ray Bradbury?  The Addams Family?  Small town America?  Dystopia?  If you can answer yes to any of these, you’ll love this story of the life of Charles, his family, friends, and the girls he falls in love with. It’s dark and beautiful and one of my absolute favorite things I read this year.

Made To Kill by Adam Christopher—This is a noir detective novel about a robot assassin, Ray Electromatic, in 1960s Hollywood.  And if I need to say any more than that to make you pick up this book, you are dead to me.  Seriously.

Breaking Cat News
by Georgia Dunn—If you or someone you know is a cat lover, you’ll love this little comic strip about a cat news team as they report on the odd happenings around their home and the bizarre behavior of “the people.”  Plus, Georgia just got the strip syndicated—she’ll be in your local paper soon, so buy the book now so you can look all in-the-know and cool before everyone else jumps on the bandwagon...

The Last Adventure of Constance Verity by A. Lee Martinez—I just finished this one a few days ago on a plane (it had been on my Kindle for a while) and I absolutely love it.  A young child, Constance was blessed (or cursed) to have a life of action and adventure.  Now, after over two decades of fighting monsters, cults, ninjas, clones, and killer robots—having stopped wars and saved the world countless times—she just really, desperately wants to have a normal, boring life.  This book is to the action/adventure genre what Shaun of the Dead was to zombies.

            And there you have it.  Eleven books I’ve really loved.  Please check ‘em out, or feel free to mention anything I’ve overlooked down below.
            Next time, long overdue... I’ll be shouting at you.
            Until then, go write.
            And maybe do some Christmas shopping and pick up a few books.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Cyber Monday IV: The Von Trappening

            If you’ve been following this page for any amount of time, you know I hate pimping my own work, but we’re officially in the Christmas season now.  And in theory this is the big internet shopping day.  And the marketing people—who are seriously wonderful folks—have dropped certain hints.  Sooooooo...
            I have to ask you all to buy stuff.
            I’m so very, very sorry.  I'll try to be quick.
            Here’s a list of my books and also a few anthologies I’ve got stories in.  Put them on your holiday wish list or get them as gifts for friends and family members. I’ll put links to most of them, but you can also scroll down through that sidebar on the right and find links to pretty much every version at every store you could ever want.
            Also, there’s still about a week to place orders with Dark Delicacies in Burbank.  You can order a book through them, leave instructions for an autograph, and I’ll swing by there to scribble in said book.  Again, do it in the next week and you should have said book in your hands in time for the holidays.
            Really, either way, just go to your local bookstore.  They’re cool and they could use the business, and then you’re not one of those conformists falling for that Cyber Monday capitalist nonsense.
            Anyway...

            Many of you are probably here because of the Ex-Heroes series.  Ex-Heroes, Ex-Patriots, Ex-Communication, Ex-Purgatory, and as of this spring Ex-Isle! All of these are available in a number of formats and a number of languages.  Also, Audible's included the first two books in a fantastic sale today soooooo... move quick if audiobooks are your thing.

            The Fold came out in paperback this year, but I think there are still some hardcovers kicking around if you know where to look  Early on someone described it as something like a horror-suspense novel disguised as a sci-fi-mystery, and I’ve been using that ever since.  The audiobook’s narrated by the always-amazing Ray Porter.  It’s also loosely connected to another semi-popular book I wrote...

            At least a third of you have probably found your way here because of –14— my odd little Lovecraftian-sci-fi-urban-horror-mystery novel.  There’s a paperback, an ebook, and another audiobook narrated by the amazing Ray Porter (it's part of that big Audible sale, too).  And, if things progress as planned, Team Downey’s finally shooting the pilot this spring.

            You can pick up all of The Junkie Quatrain as either an ebook or an audiobook (no paper, sorry).  It’s my attemptat a “fast zombies” tale, a series of interconnected stories I’ve sometimes described as Rashomon meets 28 Days Later.  It also features a recurring character of mine, Quilt, who keeps showing up in different stories in one way or another... 

            The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe also got a brand new edition this year, with a damned fantatic new layout. It’s the more-or-less true story of how the legendary castaway ended up on that strange island, some of the things he found there, and some of the things that found him.  I admit it’s a bit of work to read, but I still love it. 

            I also have a ton of short stories out in anthologies right now.  The big one is The X-Files: Trust No One, edited by the wonderful-in-so-many-ways Jonathan Maberry and with stories from Gini Koch, Tim Lebbon, Heather Graham, Brian Keene, and more.  My story here is “The Beast of Little Hill,” a classic Muder and Scully tale about roadside attractions and fake aliens.  Supposedly Chris Carter really enjoyed it, which is... well, cool.

            Naughty or Nice is a collection of fun, twisted holiday stories which run... well, the full gamut.  Don’t get it for your nine year old, let’s say that.  Or your less-than-open-minded mother-in-law...

            Corrupts Absolutely is a collection about superheroes gone wrong.  Mine’s a little standalone called “Bedtime Story,” about a hero called Omnes and some parents trying to explain to their little boy why the way the world is the way it is.

            You can pick up Kaiju Rising, which contains “Banner of the Bent Cross,”my WWII pulp adventure featuring the first team up of mercenary Dar Carter and history professor Ken Kraft  It also has a fantastically funny story by Peter Stenson (author of Fiend).

            There’s also “The Apocrypha of Gamma-202, ” a story about robots and religion, which appeared in Bless Your Mechanical Heart.  You’ll also get some great stories from Seanan McGuire, Ken Scholes, and Lucy Snyder.

            And thus ends my shameless Cyber Monday appeal to capitalism.  Again, so very sorry, but please tell the marketing folks you read it.  I’ll also do another list later this week with some great books I’ve read by other, much better authors.  And please don’t forget my Black Friday offer if you happen to be someone who needs it.
            Please feel free to resume your internet shopping.   Browse responsibly.  Clear your history on a regular basis. 
            No, don’t click on that—that isn’t really from PayPal.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Imposter!

            Look!  We’re a day early because tomorrow I’m going to be cooking and watching a lot of my favorite black-and-white movies.  Joy!
            Well, not all joy...
            I need to get something off my chest.
            I’m a fraud.
            Seriously.
            I would guess, on an average week, this idea runs through my head five or six times (by odd coincidence, I tend to work five or six days a week).  The notion that I’m a complete fake who’s kind of stumbled into this life off sheer luck more than ability.  I re-read my new projects and wonder if they’re good or if I’m just deluding myself.  Maybe I don’t know a tenth of what I think I know—a textbook case of the Dunning-Kruger effect. 
            I sometimes wonder if the next book is going to be the one where my small fanbase gives a big shrug and says “ehhhhh... I guess he’s burned out.  Time to move on.” 
            I fret a lot about whether or not my publisher’s going to dump me as a writer, too. Well, not dump me, but just decide this latest contact will be... well, the last one.  Same with my agent.  He has some much, much bigger clients than me, and it’s not irrational to think he might decide his time and efforts are better spent focused on them.
            You may have heard of people feeling this way before.  It’s called imposter syndrome, and it’s really common.  I get it all the time.  Chuck Wendig gets it.  Victoria Schwab gets it.  Pretty much every writer I’ve ever talked to at length has copped to it. They’re plagued with self-doubt. They question most everything they write.
            (You didn’t think Hemingway drank that much because it was fashionable at the time, did you...?)
            I’m not saying this to freak you out or feed your insecurities.  I’m hoping it reassures you a bit.  We all feel this way sometimes.  Yeah, even those of us so-called-pros who are doing this full time.
            There are two reasons people get hit with imposter syndrome, in my so-called expert opinion.  For what it’s worth.  And they’re kinda related.  It’s almost the same thing, really.
            First is that, once I hit a certain stage in my writing, I start to see certain things.  I can admit to flaws in my work.  Of course, once I admit problems might be there, that also opens me up to imagining and creating problems. 
            As it happens, imagining and creating is what most writers do.  We’re good at it. Sometimes we do it even when we don’t want to...
            Second is fear.  I think imposter syndrome is a lot like writers block.  The act of creation—of pulling something out of my head and setting it down on paper—can be terrifying.  If you think about, it’s really common for people to talk themselves out of doing scary things.  Think of a couple times in your life when you had to do something that scared you.  How often did you end up thinking something along the lines of “ I can’t do this! What was I thinking?  I shouldn’t be here!”
            I can think of three or four times that sort of mantra ran through my head, all long before I became a full time writer.
            There’s a flipside to this, too.  The folks who are utterly, 110% confident their work is perfect, and that they absolutely should be professionals.  The ones who have no doubts at all.
            And yet, for some reason... they’re not.  They don’t make sales. They don’t get deals.  Usually because of gatekeepers or antiquated systems or something.  Definitely not because of them.
            I’ve run into a few folks like this. You probably have, too.
            Y’see, Timmy, I shouldn’t look at imposter syndrome as a problem.  Oh, it sucks, yeah, and it can lead to one or three stressful days or nights. But really it’s a sign of my maturity as a writer. It shows that I’m open to the possibility my work isn’t perfect, which means I’m open to improving it.
            And improving it is the big goal for all of us.
            Next time I might shout at you real quick.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

That Cool Moment When...

            Hey, folks. So very sorry I missed last week.  I had this thing all plotted out and then I somehow ended up in the Mirror Universe. And not the cool part of the Mirror Universe... the bad part.
            Hey, speaking of cool stuff...
            I read a book recently where the characters spent most of their time trying to verbally one-up each other. Every line of dialogue was a cool, badass line.
            Which still wasn’t quite as exhausting as a couple books I’ve read that were just non-stop super-cool action and conflict from page one.
            Although, that was better than the folks who tried to do an uber-cool plot structure of a cool flashback within a cool story within a really cool flashback.
            Saying “cool” that many times is kinda... uncool, isn’t it?
            Now, with that in mind...  I’d like to repeat a little experiment I did for some of you a few years back.  Please pay close attention to the following paragraph.  Don't write anything down, but try to keep a lot of it in mind.  There’ll be questions afterwards.

            LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA!!

            So...
            What parts of that stood out to you?  What was the high point?  Did the paragraph hold you from beginning to end?
            Odds are none of it stood out for you.  And the high point was probably when it ended, right?  In fact, I’m willing to bet you got halfway through the first line and just probably skimmed down to the end. 
            Nah, don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you.  Any sane person would’ve done the same thing.  It was just a bunch of LAs.
            Here’s another example. A variation on the theme, you might say.  Have you ever heard a tuning fork?  Tuning forks are perfect, y’know.  If you have a middle-C tuning fork it will hit that note and hold it for ages. 
            That said... have you ever felt compelled to listen to a tuning fork for hours?  No? Why wouldn’t you want to listen to constant perfection?
            Because it’s boring!
            A tuning fork plays one note.  That’s it.  It’s the musical equivalent of LA LA LA LA.  Middle C is great, and any musician from Bach to Pharrell will tell you it’s all but impossible to work without it--but it can’t be the only note.  It’s part of a system of highs and lows that we call music.
            Storytelling works the same way.  A story that’s just all the same thing is the literary equivalent of a tuning fork.  It’s neat for a minute or two... and then it starts to wear on your nerves. 
            I’ve mentioned this idea before, because it applies to several aspects of writing.  Structure.  Dialogue.  Action.  I can’t have a story that’s all action.  I can’t have a script that’s nothing but Oscar moments.  Every line can’t be a cool line.  Because if it’s all at the same level—if it’s all cool—then it’s all monotone.
            Look at Doctor Strange.  Big popular Marvel movie right now, yes?  And, yeah—no spoilers—it has scenes of magical combat and all that skyline-bending we saw in the commercials.  Lots of other cool stuff, too.  But it also has quite a few scenes where Strange just reads medical reports and books.  He listens to music.  At one point he has a conversation with a guy on  basketball court.  He even writes a few emails.
            Y’see, Timmy, it’s the up-and-down, back-and-forth nature that makes for interesting stories.  If you look at any good story, you’ll see that most of its elements swing back and forth between extremes.  Lows and highs.  Calm and frenetic.  Average and unforgettable.
            Because, again, if my story elements don’t have this up and down nature, if it’s all the same, then it’s just a line.  It doesn’t matter how high the line is, even if every point on it scores a perfect ten, even if it all goes to eleven...it’s still just a flat line.
            And you know what “flatline” is another term for, right?
            Dead.
            Next time... well, next Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the states.  But I owe you all one from last week, so I’ll try to get something up the night before.  That way I won’t feel like a total fraud.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Democracy In Action!

            On this particular Thursday, it seemed like talking about voting could be an interesting idea.
            One thing I did all the time when I was starting out—well, once I’d become brave enough to show my writing to anyone past my mom—was to get as many opinions as possible.  If I had enough, I’d count them up like votes.  And I would do whatever they said.  If someone—anyone—wanted this line or that element changed, I’d change it.  Or remove it.  Or add in something new.  Anyone else’s thoughts were just as valid as mine.
            This happened to me again about thirteen years ago, just before I started doing this full time.  Slightly different direction, though.  Believe it or not, I ghost-wrote an exercise book.  This woman was very smart and savvy about exercise and the specialized niche she wanted to write toward... not so much about writing and publishing. So she hired me to help her out.  Alas, she kept talking about the book with her friends and fellow fitness professionals, showing them half-finished drafts, and taking everyone’s opinion as scientific fact.  So we rewrote the book again.  And again.  And again.  Not drafts, mind you.  Complete, start-from-scratch rewrites.  I think it went through six or seven major revisions before I had to bow out just for time reasons. And she still didn’t have much more than a first draft of her book.
            It was frustrating, but I couldn’t really fault her.  Like I said, I used to do it, too.  I think most people do when we’re starting out and looking for assurance.
            Really, it makes sense to do it that way. It’s what we’ve all been taught, right?  Democracy in action.  Let people vote on something, go with the majority.
            Except...
            Writing is not a democracy.  I’m a benevolent dictator at best.  An angry god at worst.
            Now, before anyone gets too excited about being a dictator...
            I’m not saying I’ll never, ever listen to other opinions.  I have some great beta readers I really trust.  I have a seriously fantastic editor who’s much, much better at spotting flaws than I am.  It doesn’t mean their opinions or suggestions are always right, but I’d be foolish not to at least look at them and consider them.
            At the end of the day, though... what my story needs is up to me.  I’m the one crafting and telling it. Every line of dialogue, every subtle character nuance, every beautiful piece of imagery, every clever plot twist.  It all comes from me.  If a dozen people think I need to get rid of the wine bottle scene but I think it’s vital and memorable, I get the last say.
            And I need to make that decision.  Opinions are great, but as the dictator the final decision is nobody’s but mine.  If I’m going to put things on hold waiting for a consensus or a clear majority... that just makes me a figurehead.
            This also holds for what I’m writing about.  If I just want to write to entertain myself—that’s great.  If I want to fill my story with in-jokes that only ten people on Earth are going to get, that’s also my choice.  I can deliberately focus my book on neo-con, government-hating survivalists or tree-hugging, socialist liberals—and absolutely nobody can say I’m wrong!  This is my story.  Mine.
            However...
            This doesn’t mean anyone will want to read my story.  Or buy it.  Just because I’m staying true to myself and my vision--only bending where I feel I absolutely must—doesn’t mean my story is going to appeal to anyone else.  And some of those people it may not appeal to are editors.  Under other circumstances, they might be interested and willing to work with me, but if I’m not going to bend at all on that wine bottle scene...  Well, it’s not going to be their fault I didn’t make a sale.
            Plus... Let’s face it, I’m not going to please everyone, no matter what choice I make.  I’ve mentioned before that every story has a limited audience.   Sometimes a very limited one.  That’s the problem with leading—even as a benevolent dictator—the best you can ever hope for is a “greater good” situation.  There will always be people with no interest in the topic or genre, readers who just don’t like it.  Hop over to Amazon and check out well-established American classics like East of Eden or To Kill A Mockingbird.  Look at something newer like The Martian.  Heck, pick your favorite Harry Potter book.  All of these are unquestionably critical and financial successes with, I feel safe saying, hundreds of millions of fans each... but look how many one-star reviews they have.
            Y’see, Timmy, at the end of the day, nobody knows what my story needs but me.  It’s all mine. That’s the art part of it.  There is no democracy.  That’s where I get to be a dictator.
            But once I decide I want to put my writing out there, that I want an audience, that I’d like to get paid... Well, we’re not talking about being a dictator anymore. Now we’re talking about politics. We’re talking about compromises. We’re talking about tweaking my vision to appeal to a greater audience, even when it doesn’t appeal to me quite as much anymore.  Maybe not quite as great a good, but still a “very good” that reaches a lot more people.
            That’s the balancing act.
            Real quick before I wrap up, I’m going to be up in Tacoma, Washington this weekend for the Jet City Comic Show.  If you’re in the area, please stop by, say hi, and tell me how this blog is just a huge waste of time for everyone involved.
            Next time, I want to talk about something cool.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is...

            Historical reference! It’s like a pop culture reference, but it lets you pass tests...
            I've talked about different genre issues a few times in the past.  With the upcoming holiday, though, I thought it would be nice to revisit one that's near and dear to me.  To be more specific, I thought we could talk about the different forms of horror. 
            Anyone who's dabbled in horror knows that, when we tell folks this is our chosen genre, our work tends to get lumped into this vague slasher/vampire/Satanist category.  Either that or we’re tagged as someone working through a collection of childhood issues.  Most folks don't realize horror can be broken down into many different sub-genres, just like drama or comedy or war stories.  Just because Resident Evil is under the umbrella (no pun intended) of horror doesn't mean it’s anything like It Follows, and neither of them resembles Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Or Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.  Or Craig DiLouie’s Suffer The Children.
            So, here's a few different panels of that umbrella.  Some of them are established sub-genres which have already been debated to death.  Others are just things I've noticed and named on my own that I feel are worth mentioning.
            Also, you may notice I’m defining a lot of these by how the characters in the story react/interact with the scary things.  That’s deliberate. All stories are about characters, and horror stories hinge on that.  One of the most common complaints we all hear about horror—to the point that it’s almost a joke—is when the characters do something that makes no sense.  So how my characters act and react is going to have a lot of effect on the story I’m telling...

Supernatural stories—This is one of the easiest ones to spot.  It's your classic ghost story.  The phone lines that fall into the cemetery.  The pale girl out hitchhiking alone in the middle of night.  The foul-smelling thing in the lower berth. 
            There are a few key things you'll notice about these.  One of the biggies is that the protagonist rarely comes to harm in a supernatural story.  Their underwear will need to go through the wash three or four times and they may not sleep well for years afterwards, but physically, and even mentally, they tend to come out okay.  If anyone suffers in a supernatural story it's usually the bad guy or some smaller character.  Also, these stories tend not to have explanations-- they just are.  There aren't any cursed objects or ancient histories at play.  Things happen because... well, they happen.
            The Sixth Sense is still a great example of a supernatural story, as is "A Christmas Carol" by that populist hack Charles Dickens.  Even the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is more supernatural stories than anything else.

Giant Evil stories—These are the grim tales when the universe itself is against my characters.  Every person they meet, everything they encounter--it all serves some greater, awful evil.  H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Howard wrote a lot of giant evil storiesThe Omen is another good (so to speak) story of the universe turning against the protagonist.  Any fan of Sutter Cane will of course remember the reality-twisting film In The Mouth of Madness.  In a way, most post-apocalyptic stories fall here, too—the world belongs to radioactive mutants, the killer virus, or the zombie hordes.
            Personally, I’d toss a lot of haunted house stories in here, because the haunted house (or ship, or insane asylum, or spaceship, or whatever) is essentially the universe of the story.  Not all of them, but a decent number.  The reader or audience doesn’t see anything else and the characters don’t get to interact with anything else.  House on Haunted Hill, The Shining, Event Horizon, and most of the Paranormal Activity films could all be seen as supernatural stories, but their settings really elevate them to giant evil stories.

Thrillers—Thrillers also stand a bit away from the pack because they tend to be the most grounded of horror stories.  Few creatures of the night, no dark entities, far fewer axe-wielding psychopaths.  The key thing to remember is that a thriller is all about right now.  It's about the clock counting down in front of my heroine, the killer hiding right there in the closet, or the booby trap that's a razor-width from going off and doing... well, awful things to my characters.  There's a lot of suspense focused on one or two characters and it stays focused on them for the run of my story.  A thriller keeps the characters (and the reader) on edge almost every minute.

Slasher stories—These are really about one thing, and that’s body count.  How many men, women, and fornicating teens can the killer reduce to cold meat?  Note that there’s a few distinctions between a slasher story and a torture porn story (see below), and one of them is usually the sheer number of people killed.  There's also often a degree of creativity and violence to the deaths, although it's important to note it's rarely deliberate or malicious.  Often it's just the killer using the most convenient tools at hand for the job—slasher tales are pretty much a parkour of death.  The original Friday the 13th film series has pretty much become the standard for slasher pics, and it's what most people tend to think of first when you mention the term.
            A lot slasher stories used to have a mystery sub-element to them, and often it was trying to figure out who the killer was.  Then it kind of morphed into being a twist... alas, often not a very well-done one.   Slasher stories also developed a bad habit of falling back on the insanity defense and got stereotyped as "psycho-killer" movies.  Which is a shame because some of them are actually very clever and creepy.

Monster stories—The tales in this little sub-genre tend to be about unstoppable, inescapable things that mean the protagonist harm.  They’re rarely secretive or mysterious, but they do have an alarming habit of tending toward nigh-immortality.   The emphasis here is that nothing my heroes (or the villains, police, military, or the innocent bystanders) do can end this thing's rampage, and any worthwhile rampage tends to involve people dying.  There may be blood and death, but the focus with a monster isn’t finding it or learning about it-- it’s stopping it.  Or at least getting as far away from it as possible.  Of course, how far is far enough with something that doesn't stop?
            The original monster story is, of course, FrankensteinGodzilla is a monster, in a very obvious sense, but so are zombies, Samara in The Ring, and even Freddy Kruger.  I still hold that the reason Jason X is so reviled by fans of the franchise is that the filmmakers turned it into a monster movie, not a slasher film like the ones before it.
            My lovely lady also made an interesting observation recently.  In monster stories, you almost always have a moment when the audience feels a twinge of sympathy for the monster.  Look at any of those named above, and you’ll see there’s a point when we empathize with Frankenstein, Godzilla, and yeah... even super-killer cyborg Jason (who seems to settle down once a holodeck dumps him back at a deserted and lonely Camp Crystal Lake and you realize he just wants to be left alone).

Adventure Horror stories—To paraphrase from Hellboy (which would fit quite well in this category), adventure horror is where the good guys bump back.  While they may use a lot of tropes from some of the other subgenres, the key element to these stories is that the heroes are fighting back.  Not in a weak, flailing, shrieking cheerleader way, but in a trained, heavily-armed, we've-got-your-number way.  Oh, it can still go exceptionally bad for them (and often does), but this sub-genre is about protagonists who get to inflict a bit of damage and live to tell the tale.  For a while, anyway.  To quote an even wiser man, even monsters have nightmares.
            The Resident Evil franchise is horror adventure with zombies, just like my own Ex-Heroes.  Jonathan Maberry’s definitely dabbled in it as well, with some of his eerier Joe Ledger books. The Ghostbusters movies could fit here, too.  There’s long-running shows like Grimm and Supernatural, and some of you may have seen a fun little cable series called Ash vs. Evil Dead

Torture porn—Director Paul Verhoven once commented that the reason Murphy is killed so brutally in the beginning of Robocop was because there wasn’t time at the start of the film to develop him as a character.  So they gave him a horribly gruesome death, knowing it would create instant sympathy for him, and then they’d be able to fill in more details about his life later on in the film.  That’s the general idea behind torture porn.  Minus the filling in more details about the characters later.
            I’m not sure if King himself actually coined the term “torture porn” in his Entertainment Weekly column, but that’s the first place I remember seeing it.  At its simplest, torture porn is about making the reader or the audience squirm.  If you can make them physically ill, power to you.  The victims are usually underdeveloped, unmemorable, and doomed from the moment they’re introduced.  It’s not about characters, it’s about the visceral things being done to the characters.  They’re getting skinned, scalped, boiled, slowly impaled, vivisected... and we’re getting every gory detail of it.  A film industry co-worker once told me “porn is when you show everything,” and this sub-genre really is about leaving nothing to the imagination.  They are the anti-thriller, to put it simply.
            A key element to torture porn is the victim is almost always helpless.  They’re bound, drugged, completely alone, or vastly outnumbered.  Unlike a slasher film-- where there's always that sense that Dot might escape if she just ran a little faster or make a bit less noise-- there is no question in these stories that the victim is not going to get away.  That hope isn't here, because that's not what these stories are about.

            So there’s seven subgenres we can break horror down into.  And there’s many more.  All fascinating stuff, right?
            Why are we talking about it?
            Y’see, Timmy, when a lot of us start off  as writers, we flail a bit, usually in the attempt to copy stories we don’t quite understand the mechanics of.  As such, we aren't sure where our own stories fit under the big horror umbrella (or sci-fi, or fantasy, or...).  We'll begin a tale in one sub-genre, then move into a plot more fitting a different one, wrap up with an ending that belongs on a third, and have the tone of yet another through the whole thing. 
            It's important to know what I’m writing for two different reasons.  One is so I’ll be true to it and don't end up with a sprawling story that covers everything and goes nowhere.  I don't want my thriller to degenerate into a slasher, and if I’m aiming for cosmic-level, Lovecraftian evil it'd be depressing to find all the earmarks of a classic supernatural story.  I also want to be able to market my story, which means I need to know what it is.  If I tell an editor it's not torture porn when it plainly is, at the best I’m going to get rejected.  At the worst, they'll remember me as "that idiot" when my next piece crosses their desk.
            In closing, I’ll also toss in the free observation that it’s difficult to merge two of these subgenres because a lot of them contradict each other by their very nature.  Not impossible, mind you, but difficult.  Probably one of the few exceptions I can think of in recent times is The Cabin In The Woods, which does an amazing dancing back and forth between being a monster movie and a giant evil movie.
            So, that's enough of that.  Feel free to dwell on these points over the weekend while you’re drinking, watching some scary movies, and sneaking Kit Kats out of the candy bowl (seriously—feel ashamed about that. Those are for the kids!)
            Next time... I thought we could talk a little bit about democracy.
            Happy Halloween.  Don't forget to get some writing done.