Thursday, February 18, 2016

My Dream Woman

            First, before I forge...  Folks in the Los Angeles area, this weekend is the Writers Coffeehouse.  Sunday, noon to three, at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. It’s free and it’s open to writers of all levels—from bare-bones beginners to seasoned professionals, and even a few mid-list hacks like myself.  Stop by, ask questions, have fun.
            Speaking of writing advice...
            This week I wanted to prattle on for a moment about one of those off-topics I tend not to talk about much.  It's more of a mindset, and it applies to writers of prose and scripts alike.  I’ll give you a hint—it’s not a good mindset to have.
            Let me toss out a hypothetical situation for you.  More exact, a hypothetical person.  I'll call her Phoebe.  If you want to substitute a different name or gender, please go right ahead.
            Just for the record, I have never known a Phoebe. I know two or three folks who’ve changed their names, and they weren’t a Phoebe before or after.  That’s why it’s one of my four fallback names I use here all the time (the other three belonging to the Animaniacs).  If I randomly referred to a woman in one of these examples as Colleen, Becky, Jennifer, or Katie, for example... I would get many calls/messages from people I know asking “is this supposed to be me?” 
            So... Phoebe.
            Phoebe is, for the record, my dream woman.  She's what every man aspires to in a significant other.  Smart.  Funny.  Kind.  Sexy.  Gorgeous.  I can't think of anything I've wanted more than to be with Phoebe. Feel free to take "be with" any way you like--you'll be right.  She is, in all ways, perfect.
            Well, perfect might be overstating it. 
            Just a bit.
            To be honest, she could use one tiny improvement in the facial region.  Her chin is kind of sharp.  Makes her face a bit too triangular and pointy.  A rounded chin would bring out her cheeks and her smile more.
            Also... slight overbite.  You can't really notice it until you're close to her.  That's when you can also see one of her incisors has this little twist to it.  Nothing braces couldn't fix, though.  Maybe those transparent ones.  Invisalign?  Something like that.
            Plus, she'd be much hotter if her hair was a bit lighter.  And not so long.  If she was more of a platinum blonde, Phoebe would be unbelievably hot.  So really she's just a haircut and a box of dye away from being my perfect woman.
            Speaking of which—please don't judge me for this—Phoebe is a touch on the small side.  Not flat, by any means, and they're nicely formed.  Really nice.  I'm not talking about anything grotesque, mind you, but something in a B-cup would give her an absolutely killer figure. 
            Again, though, that's minor.  Really minor.  Heck, I think it's just outpatient surgery these days.
           Y'know, thinking about it, if she wore some nicer clothes, it'd help show off that figure, too.  Everything Phoebe owns is that kind of frumpy-baggy look.  It was kind of cute in college, but come on.  Dress up a bit now and then.  Would it be so wrong to wear something eye-catching?  Once we're together, I’ll take her on a nice shopping spree before we go out anywhere.
            Although I don't know where we'll go out.  We don't have many of the same interests. She can’t stand superhero movies.  Or shows.  Or books (which is a bit of a sore spot).  I'll work on that, get her to watch something better and stop subjecting me to that crap stuff she likes to watch.
            And, I mean... I sit in a chair nine hours a day and she makes me look kind of athletic. She’s still got that young metabolism, lets her eat half a pizza before bed and she actually wakes up weighing less than she did the night before.  That’s not going to last forever.
            At least, with that body—well, the potential body we’re talking about—the sex will be worth it. 
            As long as she doesn't make that same weird noise she makes when she's excited.  That sound creeps me out.
            Still my dream girl, though, and I'd love to be with her—in any sense of the phrase.
            So, at this point I can guess what a lot of you are thinking.  Why the hell is Phoebe my dream girl?  She sounds like a good, solid person as she is, but it's pretty apparent she's not what I'm looking for, despite my insistence that I want to be with her.  I mean, why would anyone want to be involved with someone just to change everything about them?
            Which... is the point I wanted to make.
            Between this ranty blog, conventions, signings, Twitter, Facebook, the Coffeehouse I mentioned up above... I meet a lot of writers.  Several of them are so far past me I’m astonished when they strike up a conversation.  A couple...I think it’s safe for me to say I’m on the same level as them.
            Most of them are beginners, though.   Maybe they’ve got a small sale under their belt, but often not even that much.  You probably know some folks like this, yes?  Maybe you’re one of them.  These folks will talk about how much they want to be writers, how it's been a lifelong dream to see their name on a shelf in a bookstore, or to hear actors reciting their dialogue.  There's nothing they want more, and they'll do whatever it takes, to make that dream become a reality.
            Just after this, some of these folks follow it up by explaining how biased and unfair the publishing industry is.   Or maybe listing off all the things that are wrong with Hollywood.  Don't even get these folks started on agents.  Agents of all types need to be a lot more open, especially considering they usually do nothing and then take a cut of your money.
            Or maybe they swing the other way.  Perhaps they’ll  point out how much self-publishers are screwing things for everybody. It’s not even real publishing, right?  They’re just oversaturating the markets with all their crap and making it harder for good stuff—my stuff—to get noticed.
            As a finale, these people will announce all the things they'd change about the industry.  All the things they're going to change once they're in that position of power.  In fact, the industry's changing now and they'd better watch out!  We don’t need any of those dinosaurs anymore, right?!
            By what I'm sure is a complete coincidence, very, very few of these people have ever sold a book.  Or a screenplay.  Or a short story.  
            Which only shows how corrupt and broken the system is and why it needs to be fixed.  Right?
            Y'see, Timmy, I can’t go into any sort of relationship thinking I’ll be the one to change her!  Or him.  Or them, if I’m feeling adventurous.  Those relationships are always doomed one way or another.  Either they fail horribly or they “succeed” with one person or the other becomes a twisted, compromised version of themselves (and probably hating the other person for it).
            Likewise, I can't expect to have any sort of success in the publishing world or in Hollywood if I’m starting from the mindset of “they're all wrong.”  Definitely not if it’s my main focus.  It's no different than my mad pursuit of Phoebe just so I can change everything about her.  I’m either looking for a relationship or I’m looking for someone to be my Eliza Doolittle-esque test subject.
            My main focus as a writer should be (ready for this?) my writing.  It needs to be my main concern.  It’s very good to know about different forms of publishing, about marketing and networking and social media... but first and foremost, I’m a writer.  Personally, when someone introduces themselves as a writer and the first thing they want to talk about is everything wrong with traditional publishing... I get a little cautious.
            What’s your first concern?  Do you want to date Phoebe... or do you just want everything on your terms? 
            Next time...
            Oh, almost forgot!  This Tuesday, Ex-Isle is finally out on audiobook after delays that are pretty solidly my fault.  And they brought back the whole cast for the production.  Check it out!
            So... next time, if I may, I’d like to talk about your purpose.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Ignorance Is Bliss

            I just realized that Valentine’s Day is this weekend. If I’d remembered earlier, I wouldn’t‘ve spent the time on this post, I would’ve done my traditional love and/or sex themed post.  And while surprise sex usually goes over well with everyone, I’m afraid I don’t have the time for it right now. Maybe next year.
            It sounds pretty grim when I say it like that.
            Anyway, I wanted to go over something one more time.  Because a couple of you still seem to be baffled by this for some reason...
            Take the Blu-ray case off the shelf.  Use your thumb on the right-hand edge to open the case.  Locate the Blu-ray disc inside the case.  Note that if this is a multi-disc set, you’ll need to select the specific disc you want to watch.  They’re usually numbered.  The number will correspond to a guide of some sort, usually located on the opposing panel of the cover or on the back of the case.  Look for the specific material you want to watch, then find the disc with the same number.  Remove the disc from its bracket.  Hold it by the edges (you don’t need to do this, but it’s easier in the long run).  Set the case back down.  Press power on your television controls.  Press power on your Blu-ray player, and then open.  A small tray will extend out from the player.  Set the disc on the tray with the picture/logo side up and the shiny side down.  Let go of the disc.  Press play and the tray should retract.  Go sit on the couch.  Pick up the remote control for the Blu-ray player.  If you are given the option to skip over all of the previews, do this.  Watch the movie or television episode you have selected. Do not talk during the movie or television episode.  If you have seen the movie or television episode before, do not spoil plot points or character moments for other viewers..
            Now, let's stop and consider the previous paragraph.
            How many of you started skimming halfway through that?
            It's okay.  It was kind of mind-numbing for me to write, so I can't imagine reading it was any better.  As it happens, though, pretty much every reason why exposition tends to suck is in that fascinating explanation of how to watch a Blu-ray. 
            Allow me to explain. 
            First, that paragraph is something we know.  I know it, you know it.  I know you know it. You know that I know you know it.  
            Exposition is boring and pointless if we know the information being presented to us.   It's just wasting time while we wait for something to happen.  Plus, none of us enjoys sitting through a lecture on something we already know, right?  The more detailed (read—unnecessary) it is, the less interested we are.  So we just zone out and start skimming.
            Damon Knight pointed out that a fact we don't know is information, but a fact we do know is just noise.  No one wants to read a story full of noise.  As writers, we need to know what our audience knows and work our story around that.  I don’t want to waste time telling people how to open a Blu-ray case.  It’s just a given.  All those words are better spent on something useful.
            The Second  thing to consider is that a lengthy explanation about how a Blu-ray player works serves no purpose here.  None.  This is a blog about writing tips, so a paragraph about electronics is a waste of space.  Nobody came here looking for that information, and the people who are looking for it won't be looking here.  You’ll notice that those instructions don’t tell you the best way to kill a Deathclaw in Fallout 4—even though Fallout is a really cool game which (like Blu-rays) can be played on a PS4.  The instructions also don’t mention that I don’t even own a Blu-ray player. Or a PS4.  Mildly interesting facts, sure, but even less relevant than the bit about killing a Deathclaw.
            These two points are, on a guess, about 83% of the reason most exposition sucks.  Find any book or story  with exposition that gnaws at you, and I’ll bet it falls into one of those two categories.
            So, how do we get around that?
            I've mentioned something called the ignorant stranger  a few times.  It’s my own term, one which I came up with while writing a review of Shogun years ago.  It's a simple way to use as much exposition as I want in a short story, screenplay, or novel.    
            Just have a source of information explain something to someone who doesn’t know these facts.
             Easy, right?  Just remember these three things...
            First, my ignorant stranger has to be on the same level as my readers.  I don’t want to confuse ignorant with stupid.  It’s only this particular situation that has put him or her at a disadvantage.  The reader or audience is learning alongside my character, so we don’t want to wait while the stranger’s educated on how Amazon works, where Antarctica is on a map, and why people eat food.  Again, my ignorant stranger can’t actually be stupid
            Second, the person explaining things, the source of knowledge, has to be smarter than the stranger on this topic, and thus, smarter than my audience.  If what’s being explained is something my readers can figure out on their own then the Source is wasting everyone's time (and my page count) by explaining it.  Remember, I want information, not noise.  Yeah, maybe this particular Source doesn’t know much about baseball, Star Wars, or the eternal mystery that is love, but on the topic they’re explaining this character needs to be an authority.  It needs to be clear the Source’s knowledge dwarfs the ignorant stranger’s on this topic.
            Finally (or third, if you like), there needs to be a pressing need for the Source to explain this.  There may be lots of things our stranger (and the reader) is ignorant about, so why are they talking about this fact right now?
            Shogun gets away with tons of exposition because Blackthorne—an English sailor trapped in feudal Japan—is a perfect ignorant stranger.  He’s a smart man, a man we can relate to, but he’s in a  country where he doesn’t know the language, the customs, the culture, anything.  So even as his situation forces him to interact with people, they’re forced to explain pretty much everything to him.
            So there it is.  If anyone tries to tell you only bad writers use exposition in a story, tell them it's only the bad writers who don't know how to use exposition.  Then explain the ignorant stranger to them.  And then look smug while you pop in a Blu-ray and watch Star Wars
            Next time, I’d like to tell you about my perfect woman.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Pod Six Was Jerks!

            Pop culture reference.  Long overdue, and to bring even more shame on my household, it’s kind of a repeat.  Sorry.
            Before I dive into things, I must shamefully point out that the latest book in my Ex-Heroes series got released this week.  The marketing folks are lovely people, but they’ll be upset if I don’t mention it.  Ex-Isle is book #5 and it’s now on sale everywhere.  Check it out.
            And now, back to this week’s rant...
            This is something I’ve been meaning to talk about again for a while now.  As I mentioned, I’m kind of in a rush this week (even more on that below), so I thought this would be a good time to add in what’s more-or-less a repeat post.  At least, it is if you’ve been here since 2008...
            That being said, let’s talk about “Darmok.”
            “Darmok” was one of the first episodes of Star Trek:The Next Generation‘s fifth season.   The Enterprise visits an alien race, the Children of Tama, which has repeatedly brought first contact attempts to a grinding halt because the universal translator can’t make sense of their language.  The Tama language can be rendered in Federation English, yes, but the words and sentence structure make no sense.  Sensing the problem that needs to be overcome, Dathon--the Tama commander—kidnaps Captain Picard to a hostile world where the two must fight together to survive.  Through their trials together, Picard comes to realize that the Tama language is not based on ideas and concepts, but on stories and metaphors.  They wouldn’t say “I’m happy,” they’d say something like “Scrooge, on Christmas morning.”  They don’t say they’re relieved to see you, they’d say “Indy, finding Marion in the tent.”  It’s been impossible to translate the Tama language literally because the Federation doesn’t share their history and folklore.
            In a way, all of us do this every day. We reference movies, TV shows, pop culture events, and then we stack and combine them. Heck, that’s pretty much what memes are.
            We also do it on a smaller scale, though.  All of us have jokes that are only understood by our family or certain circles of friends or coworkers.  Some folks crack jokes from Playboy, others from Welcome to Night Vale.  These folks obsess over Scandal and these folks watch iZombie whenever they happen to catch it.  Some people like sports, others like science.  And all of us talk about what we know and what we like.
            I worked on a set once where people commonly asked “Where’s Waldo?”  A lot of my college friends understood when you talked about Virpi Zuckk, the third Pete, and nice shoes.  Some of my best friends and I make frequent references to Pod Six,  killing Jeff, and “the girl’s evil cheater magic.”    
            Heck, even this title is an in-joke.  It’s a reference to one of the first Adult Swim cartoons, Sealab 2021. But also, when two of my friends bought a house and decided to use their sunroom as a dedicated gaming room, we all sort of universally decided to call it Pod Six.  Because it’s where we all hang out and talk in weird references that only we’re going to understand.
            See where I’m going with this?
            A common problem I see again and again in stories is oblique references and figures of speech that the reader can’t understand.  It might make sense within the writer’s personal circle or clique, but outside readers end up scratching their heads.  Several of the writers responsible for this sort of mistake will try to justify their words in a number of ways...
            First is that my friends are real people.  Therefore, people really talk this way, and there’s nothing wrong with it.  Alas, as I’ve mentioned here many times before, “real” rarely translates to “good.”  Pointing to a few of my like-minded friends and saying “well, they got it,” isn’t going to win me points with an editor.
            Second is that I’ll argue common knowledge.  I’ll try to say this material is generally known-- universally known, even-- and it’s the reader who is in the feeble minority by not being aware of it.  This is probably the hardest to contradict, because if somebody honestly believes that everyone should know who the U.S. Secretary of State was in 1969, there’s not much you or I can do to convince them otherwise.  It’s much more likely, in the writer’s mind, that the readers are just uneducated simpletons who never learned the ten forms of Arabic verbs, don’t collect Magic cards, and couldn’t tell you the obvious differences between Iron Man and War Machine if their lives depended on it.
            Third, usually reserved for screenplays, is the auteur excuse.  I plan on directing this script, so it doesn’t matter if no one else can understand the writing (or if there are tons of inappropriate camera angles, staging instructions, and notes for actors).  The flaw here is that my screenplay will invariably end up getting shown to someone else.   A contest reader.  A producer.  An investor.  Someone out of that inner circle of friends who needs to look at my script and understand the writing.
            Y’see, Timmy, I can’t be writing just for my five closest friends.  Not if I want to succeed as a writer.  I’m not saying my writing has to appeal to everyone and be understood by everyone, but it can’t be so loaded with in-jokes and obscure references that nobody knows what I’m talking about.
            This is one of those inherent writer skills.  Something I just need to figure out how to do on my own, mostly by reading everything I can get your hands on.  I need to know words and phrases.  I have to know them and I have to be honestly aware of who else knows them.  Using extremely uncommon terms or words may show off my bachelor’s degree and vocabulary, but the moment a reader has to stop and think about what a word or phrase means, they’ve been taken out of my story
            And knocking people out of my story is one of the certain ways to make sure the reader puts my manuscript down and goes off to fold laundry.
            On an unrelated note... if you’re in San Diego and happen to be reading this just as it went up, I’m going to be at Mysterious Galaxy tonight (Thursday) talking and signing copies of Ex-Isle.  And on Saturday I’ll be at Dark Delicacies in Burbank doing more of the same.  Hope to see some of you there (and if not, you can call them and order books, too).
            Next time, I’d like to talk about how ignorant some of your characters are.
            Until then... go write.