Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Bully Balance

            Hey, everyone.  Hope you’re all doing well after the brutal temporal shift out of Daylight Saving time.  It can be pretty rough.
            Speaking of being rough... I wanted to babble on for a couple moments about some rough types we’ve all probably run into at one point or another. And maybe even written about.
            Lots of people—including fictional people—have dealt with bullies.  They are, unfortunately, a constant across all ages, cultures, genders, sexualities, and industries.  There’s a wonderful line in Paranorman--“If you were bigger and more stupid, you’d probably be a bully too.”
            Bullies are kind of common in fiction for two reasons.  The first, the easy one, is because it’s a type of person we can all relate to.  We’ve all had to deal with  that jerk at school, at work, online, or somewhere in our lives.  And every now and then, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not, maybe we’ve even been that person.  It’s an archetype we all know.
            The second reason is that bullies make a great low level antagonist for my protagonist to deal with.  They can drive a subplot or even just be a warm-up for the main plot.  While investigating drug smugglers or human traffickers, it’s not unusual for Jack Reacher to run into an obnoxiously stubborn town sheriff wholikes to throw his weight around.  Countless villains have their lieutenants or top henchmen.  Steve Rogers had an actual bully that followed him from civilian life to boot camp... where said bully got punched out by Agent Carter.
            And that’s kind of what I wanted to talk about.  We all kind of giggle and maybe even cheer a bit when Peggy decks Hodge.  It’s a nice moment, because Hodge is an ass and flat out misogynist. 
            But what if it had gone a little differently...?
            What if Peggy decked him, and then kicked him a few more times in the ribs while he was on the ground?  Then maybe stomped on his hand to break some fingers.  Hell, maybe she stomps on his head.  Kicks him in the teeth.  Breaks his nose or maybe the orbit around his eye.
            This just became a very different scene, didn’t it?  Hodge isn’t getting his just deserts, he’s suddenly become the victim in this scenario.  He punched Steve in an alley, made some crass and sexist remarks... and so Carter mauls him, possibly leaving him crippled?  Heck, does she even know he punched Steve at this point?  She just put this guy in the hospital for being obnoxious to her.
            What if she’d shot him?  One round to the head, right between the eyes.  He smirks and then he’s dead, his brains sprayed out behind him.  Or maybe she goes big—grabs a rifle from a nearby soldier and shreds Hodge’s chest with a dozen bullets.  That’s an ugly way to go, isn’t it?  Broken ribs, punctured organs, equal chance of bleeding out or drowning as your lungs fill up with your own blood...
            We can all agree this is kind of an extreme response. Hodge is an asshat, absolutely, but he doesn’t deserve this level of punishment.  Hell, if anything, we feel a twinge or two of sympathy for him.
            I’ve talked about this effect a few times before.  Something extreme happening to a character can help shape how we feel about them.  If it’s extreme enough, it might even override how we felt about them before.
            For example (flipping things again), what if Hodge was an utterly reprehensible person?  Physically and emotionally abusive to men, women, children, and animals.  Now what’s supposed to be horrible can suddenly becomes great because it’s happening to such a completely sadistic person.
            Seriously, think about it?  How often have you watched a scene of nightmarish violence in a movie and cheered—out loud or internally—because of who it’s happening to?  This isn’t horror, it’s justice.  This person deserves what’s happening to them, and we’re glad we get to read about it (or watch it).
            I’ve talked about this before, too, in regards to killing people, because this is a really common mistake I see in low-end B-movies.  As audience members (or readers), we don’t care when unlikable people die.  In fact, if someone’s aggressively unlikable (sexist, misogynist, racist, alcoholic, hypocritical, deliberately ignorant)...  we may even be kinda happy when they get killed off.  No amount of patting the dog will change our view on this.  And suddenly this death means something very different.  It’s not building tension in the story—it’s releasing it.
            There’s a careful balance that needs to be struck in these situations.  My bully needs to have enough unsavory traits and moments to make them a good antagonist. But if they have too many, it’ll affect how that bad scene gets received by my readers.  Likewise, if the bully isn’t that bad and catches the bad end of some truly horrific things, it’s going to make my readers empathize with them,
            Y’see, Timmy, I need to be aware of what I’m trying to accomplish with moments like this.  It can’t just be violence and/or death—there needs to be a greater purpose to it in my story.  When Carter lashes out at Hodge, do I want the audience to be rooting for Hodge or for Carter?  When Freddy Kruger murders another child, am I going for scares or for laughs?  When Jason Bourne tortures someone for information, should I be cringing or cheering?
            Because what I’m trying to achieve is going to depend on more than just that one moment.
            There’s a bully in my new book, Paradox Bound. His name’s Zeke.  He starts off as a childhood bully, ends up being an adult bully—a bad cop who abuses his position.  Alas, it happens sometimes.  We’ve all seen it, or at least heard of it.  Zeke does a lot of bad things and... well... no spoilers in case you haven’t read it, but bad things end up happening to him.
            This was a really tricky balance to achieve, though.  Y’see, in an earlier draft, we actually see Zeke violently beat a woman.  And my editor’s assistant, pointed out this made it really hard for us to have any sympathy for Zeke.  And because of this, when the bad things happened to him, what I’d hoped would be a very creepy, cringe-worthy moment actually became... well, more of a “serves him right” moment.
            But Zeke needed to be a serious bully in order for other aspects of the story to work.  More than just an annoyance, we needed to believe Zeke could potentially be—on some level—an actual threat.  So there was a lot of back and forth as I tried (with some help from my editor and his assistant) to find a point where Zeke would be unlikable and dangerous... while still not coming across as so unlikable that we’d automatically cheer when something awful happened to him.
            And we found that balance.
            Find your own balance point. Make sure that when that character gets punched or tortured or killed, I’m feeling exactly what you want me to feel.
            And not... something else
            Next time...
            Y’know, nobody’s left a comment here in a while. What should I talk about next time?  Somebody offer a suggestion, just so I know I’m not ranting into the void.
            Until then... go write.

Monday, November 6, 2017

NaNoWriMo Tip

            Hey, y’know what I realized over the weekend?  It’s NaNoWriMo!  Who’s trying it this year?
            I’ll be honest. I’ve never tried it myself.  By the time I first heard of it, as it was just starting to gain popularity, I’d already been writing professionally for a year or two.  Might’ve even already been writing full time (non-fiction, but still).  For the past eleven years... well, every month’s been about word count for me.
            That doesn’t mean I don’t have some ideas and thoughts on NaNoWriMo.  In fact, a lot.  At this early point in the month, I have one very firm reassurance, and one solid tip.
            Which I shall share with you now.
            First piece of reassurance.  No matter who you are, I can tell you with absolute certainty, you are not going to sell the manuscript you write this month.  No agent will consider it.  No editor will look at it.  It’s just not going to happen.
             HANG ON!  This isn’t a kick-in-the-gut thing.  This is liberating.  It’s freeing.
            I’m not saying nobody will ever buy this book.  But what we’re doing during this month is a first draft.  A rushed first draft at that.  It’s going to have plot holes and factual errors and typos.  It will, trust me.  It’s a fantastic starting point, but it’s going to need more work after November 30th. No question about it.
            Again, this is a good thing.  Stop worrying about if an agent or editor or your significant other is going to like this. They’re never going to see it.  This draft is for you and you alone. Be selfish.  Go crazy.  This is the “dance like nobody’s watching” part of the process.  Let your creativity run wild, eat nothing but chips, drink nothing but whiskey, run naked in the coffeeshop, and don’t worry about anyone else and what they may think.  They can see the second or third draft, maybe, but not this one. Do what you want to do with it.  Do anything.  Because this is just the first draft.
            Okay, don’t actually run naked in the coffeeshop.  Yeah, I know they smile at you a lot there, but they’re paid to be nice to you.  They don’t want to see that. Especially not in a place that sells food.
            Second thing—the solid tip.
            That’s it. Just write.
            I know that sounds kind of flip and arrogant, but stop and think for a moment.  Like we just said, this draft isn’t for anyone else.  We’re not going to worry about spelling, research, current hot genres, book advances, any of that. All that matters for this month is getting words on the page.
            Sooooo... get the words on the page.
            In my first drafts, I change character names halfway through.  I snip off plot threads and remind myself to pull them out later. I snip off some characters halfway through, and then jump to the alternate timeline version of the book where I killed them sixty pages ago (like I now know I should’ve done in the first place).  And I can do all this because this is going to get another draft.
            For now, the most important thing is to just write.  Put words on paper or on the screen or on your arm or your friend’s shirt or whatever medium you’ve decided to work in. Stop trying to filter or rein in your creativity and get it all out.
            So for now...
            Go write.

Thursday, November 2, 2017


            No, we’re not talking about an M-F-K type game.
            I don’t know. Some of you are very clever and inventive.  Maybe we are...
            Big surprise, I know a lot of writers.  Honestly, I’m still surprised to be accepted into their ranks.  Any time I’m at a signing or a con party, I kind of feel like Jane Goodall quietly being accepted by the gorillas...
            (by which I mean I’m quietly waiting to be mauled)
            However, there’s one writer I don’t have that problem with, and that’s the ever-wonderful Elena Hartwell, author of the Eddie Shoes mystery series.  Elena and I have, we recently realized, known each other for almost a quarter-century.  We met back in our early twenties when we were freelance electricians for various San Diego theaters, and we’ve been friends ever since.
            Yeah, I’m not sure how the math works, either. Met in our early twenties, pretty sure we’re both in our mid-thirties now... Maybe it’s like Reaganomics. In that it doesn't really work.
            I got to attend a signing event Elena did recently in my neighborhood, and during the talk she mentioned a wonderful rule of thumb when it comes to research.  More to the point, when it comes time to start incorporating that research into my writing.  Tattoo this one on your arm.  Or commit it to memory.  Or maybe just bookmark it...
            For her books, Elena’s talked to a lot of professionals in various branches of law enforcement and other public servants.  And she noticed a lot of their answer to her questions tended to fall into certain groups...

            “We always do this.  No matter what, this is a priority.”
            “Well, you think it’d go that way, but the truth is... well, it’s a little more flexible than a lot of people realize.”
            “That never happens.  There’s a couple different reasons why, but... it just doesn’t.”

            This didn’t really surprise me.  As someone who worked in the film industry for many years, I was very aware of those kind of divisions.  Usually when dealing with people who had a lot of textbook ideas about how the industry worked.  And then having to explain to them, “yeah, here’s how that actually goes.”  Or, far more often, “ha ha ha, no, that never happens...”
            I think most jobs work that way.  There’s stuff that always happens, stuff that never happens, and then there’s that gray area where things aren’t well defined or nobody generally talks about it. The stuff that usually happens or, y’know... it’s not unheard of.
            I talked to a scientist a while back about lab equipment.  What happens to stuff from old experiments or discontinued projects?  And I wanted to hear it from her because—like in the film industry—I was willing to bet there was the official, rulebook way that everyone gets taught, and then there’s... well, the simple reality of it.  And she laughed and told me, yeah, there’s the expected rules, and for some things you follow the rules to the letter with no deviations. But for a lot of stuff... turns out people are a bit less concerned with what happens to that case of old test tubes or the laptop from 2006.
            So, what does all this mean to you, fearless writer?
            When we’re doing research, it’s really tempting to bend the facts to fit the story we want to tell.  We have something we like, reality goes against it... so we just choose to ignore reality.  I mean, that’s what fiction is, right? Just ignoring reality to tell a good story.
            Not exactly.
            When I sit down to do my research—be it books, bugging professionals, or even risking the internet—I should put all the answers into one of three categories.  Always.  Maybe.  Never.

If it’s always true, I need to get it right.
If it’s never true, I shouldn’t have it happen in my story.
If it’s maybe true, in certain cases...  now I can tweak according to what my story needs.

           That’s it.  Simple and quick.
           Y’see, Timmy, doing this will make my story so much stronger, especially if I’m trying to set it in the real world.  Because by doing this, I'm enforcing those real-world rules.  Heck, even if my story’s set in the kaiju-infested dystopia that is 2217, I should be doing this with my facts.  It’s just me staying true to the rules of that world.
            Always. Maybe.  Never.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about bullies.
            Until then... go write.
            Always go write.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Metaphorically Speaking

            It’s the Halloween season, so I thought this’d be a good time to tell you about this nightmarish thing I saw once. 
            I mean, it was just hideous.  This thing was like Lucifer and the heat death of the universe had a child together.  And not a wanted child. One of those “we got seriously drunk and shouldn’t’ve done this and it wasn’t even that fun but now I guess we’re parent together” children.  Yeah, there’s no question this thing knew its parents didn’t love each other and only stayed together for it.  You could see it in the eyes.  It had eyes like those island wells Conan used to find in all the old Robert E. Howard adventures.  Conan finds a lost city at the center of the island’s jungle (or at the top of a hill or plateau) and there’s always a big stone plaza with some kind of pool or well, swirling with water or blood or eternal, stygian darkness.  One of those sort of wells
            Its whole body was like that, really.  It was the kind of thing you’d read about in pulp supernatural stories or old horror comics, where the writers would throw together a few adjectives to create something that was just visually repellent on one level or another.  They’d exaggerate this limb or that feature to the point your mind just couldn’t help but register it as unnatural.  Alien, even.
            And the smell!  If you left someone to die alone of exposure on a mountainside, with just enough food and firewood to give them faint hope but not enough to actually keep them alive—the few minutes before life left their body, that’s just what it smelled like.
            Okay, there’s more (believe me, I’ll never forget this thing) but if I don’t stop now we’ll never get to the actual point I wanted to make.
            Every now and then I see a writer so desperate to be artsy, to write “literature,” that they load their work with metaphors and similes.  I mean dozens and dozens and dozens of them.  Why just call something red when we can describe it as the color of blood and roses and UMass sweatshirts, right?
            That last item is kind of a hint where this is going.
            Of course, blood and roses are the obvious choices if I’m going to describe something as red without... y’know, actually saying red.  So some writers feel the need to come up with seriously obscure visuals or tortured similes in order to not go the "obvious" route.  Yeah, you can all guess what color a UMass sweatshirt is because I just lined it up with blood and roses.  But if I told you the sky was the color of a UCLA sweatshirt is that... good?  Bad?  Unnatural?
            This is really similar to—a natural outgrowth of, really—an issue I’ve brought up a few times before.  Some writers go out of their way to find rarely-used, little-known words they can use in their manuscripts.  A few of them go one step further and use these words to create their metaphors.  Or they’ll use such obscure or personal references that the description means nothing.  Telling you the beast had fur the color of my first childhood cat doesn’t really tell you what color its fur is.
            I can still do worse, though.  Remember that nightmarish thing I saw, the one I described up above?  Let me ask you a question.
            Do you have any idea what this thing looks like? 
            Can you describe it at all?  Any specific aspect of it?  Height?  Weight?  Color?  Heck, do you even know if it’s alive or dead? Am I describing a creature or a statue or a really poorly-designed rocking chair?
            Sometimes we get so caught up in evoking a certain image or mood or sensation that we... well, we never actually describe anything.  Our attempt to viscerally describe the horror actually leaves us with a horror-shaped hole on the page.  It’s scary for half a beat, but then we realize there’s not anything there.  It breaks the flow as we have to stop and figure out what something
            In screenwriting, this kind of thing is even more deadly.  Screenwriting’s a really precise form where I need to correctly convey a message to multiple people.  The director, the actors, the prop people, the wardrobe folks. the makeup artists, maybe even a special effects team.  We need to all be on the same page regarding what the demon prince Ognaron looks like.  Because if we’re not, well... our shooting day is going to have a lot of delays.
            Back when I used to do interviews, David S. Goyer told me he got (playfully) chewed out once by Guillermo del Toro for a weak bit of metaphorical description he’d used in a script they were working on.  And then Goyer admitted he was telling me this because he’d done the same thing again—to himself—when he got to direct his own screenplay.
            Now, don’t get me wrong—I freakin’ love a good metaphor.  A clever, descriptive turn of phrase is like a shot of good whiskey. It’s a hard kick that makes me feel all warm and soft in the gut.  It’s not unusual to hear me make a small gasp or sigh after one.
            Y’know what happens if someone does shot after shot after shot after shot?  I’ll give you a hint—it’s not pleasant.  Yeah, some folks have more tolerance than others, but by the twelfth or thirteenth, well, most people are in a bad place.  Especially if they’ve been doing them one after another.  Too many in a row without something solid in there... that’s a recipe for disaster.
            Y’see, Timmy, like whiskey shots, I don't want to have nothing but metaphors.  They’re fantastic and lovely, but for them to really work I need some solid stuff, too.  Hell, there’s a reason people say to have a lot of bread before a night of drinking.  It’s plain and kinda boring... but it’s a solid foundation that makes the other stuff a lot easier to swallow
            So get out there and celebrate the wild, crazy horror that is Halloween.
            But, y’know, don’t be scared to actually describe it now and then.
            Next time, I’d like to share a bit of advice about something you should always never do.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Center of Attention

            This week I wanted to blather for a minute about an unusual character/structure issue that I see come up now and then.  It’s one of those kinda basic ideas that can actually be difficult to spot.  Or explain.  And, to be honest, it’s something I’m dealing with a bit in my current book.
            I’ve talked before about protagonists.  How my main character should be the main focus of the story, the ones we’re spending the most time with.  Secondary characters should be secondary.  Background characters should kinda blur into the background. This all sounds straightforward, right?  I think we all understand this.
            A mistake I sometimes see is when every other character in the story immediately recognizes this character as the protagonist.  They all stop doing their own, natural thing and start treating the main character as... well, the center of things.  The character stops moving through the plot, and instead the plot begins to revolve around them.
            Let me give you an example...
            A few weekends back, one of my random movies was about a guy (we’ll call him Yakko) who wanted to propose to his girlfriend.  Had the ring and everything.  Thing was, said girlfriend got roped into being in charge of some office team-building thing up in the mountains. She had to cancel their plans for the weekend, unless...  He was an experienced camper/hiker and he had a big SUV—if he wanted to drive they could still kinda spend the weekend together.  Yakko thinks about it, decides sure, he can propose up by the lake, and agrees to help out.
            Thing was... as soon as their group got together and started driving up into the mountains, everyone started to defer to Yakko.  All the office folk who’d never met him before.  That jerk Evan from accounting.  Even his girlfriend, the one who was supposed to be in charge.  Suddenly the protagonist was the boss and nobody questioned it... or even mentioned it.
            This isn’t really surprising, on one level, that writers end up doing this.  If I want my character to be active and do things, they need to be in a position to do things, right?  Their decisions need to count and have an effect on the plot.  There’s a reason most of the Star Trek shows are about command officers and not the enlisted crew.  It’s tough to be active when everything about my position requires me to defer to someone else.
            Of course, the answer to this isn’t for me to have the unconnected boyfriend suddenly become the key figure on the teambuilding trip.  Or for the junior crewman to take command of Deep Space Nine.  Just because someone’s the center of attention in my story doesn’t make them the center of attention in their story.  There’s other stuff going on in the world and structures in place.  The wheels are in motion, as some folks like to say.  I may focus my story on an Army private, but that doesn’t mean suddenly everyone in the military should defer to that private just because she’s the protagonist.  The Army has a whole chain of command that would... well, kinda stop that from happening.
            How often in your own life have you had something to do, something important to say, and people just brushed you off or ignored you or talked over you?  It’s happened to me countless times.  Hell, it just happened yesterday on the phone with the bank.  It’s my life, but for some reason everyone else refuses to treat me as the most important person in it.
            Now, I can already hear people typing frantically in the comments, ready to explain three or seven ways that everyone in the US Armed Forces could end up deferring to a private.  And sure, it could happen.  Anything could happen. That’s the joy of fiction.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I’m going to do it, that explanation has to be part of my story.  It can’t be something that just happens, that I gloss over.  That’s lazy writing. That’s me writing myself into a corner and then smashing a hole in the wall rather than figuring a way out.
            I’ve talked about a similar idea before—the idea that I’m telling the right story.  It’s a weird idea, I know, but if I’ve set up a situation that requires a lot of stretching of conventional norms... well, I have to explain that stretching.  Why are we all deferring to the boss’s boyfriend?  Who put that crewman in charge of the Defiant?  Why is the general insisting everyone follow the private’s orders?
             Is my main character someone who’s going to be able to navigate my plot?  Is their social status, financial status, employment, or health going to be an unbelievable (or maybe flat up impossible) hindrance to the story I’m trying to tell?  If they aren’t, I’m probably going to need to explain or justify a lot of things.
            Or maybe I’m just focusing on the wrong person.
            In my current project, the main character is the fish out of water.  My ignorant stranger.  She’s the new kid on the job, and this means she’s pretty far down the totem pole.  So... why does she end up in the important meetings once the crisis occurs?  How is she an active person, making decisions that affect the story when there are so many people above her making their own decisions?
            It’s taking a bit of work.  But I’m making it happen.  Hopefully in a believable way.
            Next time, I wanted to talk about the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Time For A Break

            Well, this is overdue.
            So sorry for the long delay.  I’d hoped to get this up before I left for NYCC, but that day turned into the usual rush of dealing with this and that and more of this.  I don’t know why it’s always so frantic. It’s not like I was going to be there for a week or something.  Two nights, but I always pack as if I’m gone for a week anyway. I’ve got stuff for different weather conditions.
            Stuff for downtime.  Some stuff for fans. I’m ridiculously overprepared.
            But let’s take a brief break from that and talk about paragraph breaks.
            Like that weird one I just did up there.
            I’ve mentioned paragraphs here once or twice before.  If sentences are taking a nice bite of the story, paragraphs are three or mouthfuls before having a taste of something else.  I eat some spaghetti, then I have a sip of wine or maybe nibble some garlic bread.  The different tastes and textures work together to make the meal more enjoyable.  If I just had to sit and eat a bowl of spaghetti with nothing to break it up, it’d get kind of monotonous. No matter how much I like spaghetti.
            Hell, at some point, depending on the size of the bowl, I’d probably even start dreading the stuff.
            And that’s what I’m trying to avoid with paragraphs.  I don’t want readers to get bored or intimidated by what they see on the page. I want to break up the text in a way that furthers the story.
            For example, when two people are talking, my attention goes back and forth between them.  Yakko to Wakko.  Someone new talks, and my attention shifts to them.  Perhaps it’s going back and forth, or it could be bouncing between three or four people.
            Think of paragraphs as those moments of attention.  If something shifts my attention away, I should have a new paragraph.  And then maybe it’ll shift back. or perhaps shift to something new, and my attention will follow it there.
            Even if the same character keeps talking, it can get broken into two or more paragraphs. In any long monologue, I should be able to sense the pauses and shifts, the places where our attention moves on to a slightly different aspect of the topic.  Maybe I’m going on about death, with a slight shift into funeral arrangements, my time in Kazakhstan, maybe even thinking ahead to my own end.  Perhaps we’re talking about relationships, and being in love vs. young love vs. older love, and maybe those few times we mistook sex for love, or knew it wasn’t love and didn’t really care at the moment.  In each of these long discussions, it’s easy to see where it could—and should—spin off into a separate paragraph.
            Y’see, Timmy, when I don’t break things up, I end up with a paragraph where it jumps around a lot, nothing’s really described, and it covers a lot of ground.  Sometimes I may do that for a certain effect, yeah, but most of the time... that’s not great storytelling. Of course, the flipside to this is breaking something in the wrong place.
            When I do that, the flow stumbles, because it means I’ve probably broken a point of focus.  Like up at the top, when I broke the second paragraph in the middle of describing the items I was packing.  Or just two sentences back.  I should’ve started the new paragraph on “Of course,” because where I did break it cut off this whole idea I’m trying to explain.
            Which, granted, helped to explain it.
            See—new idea, new break, great flow.
            Breaks also alter the pacing.  Have you ever noticed in a lot of movies and television shows, we get more cuts (jumping from one camera angle to another) as action and tension build?  We jump from Arya to Brienne, back to Arya, to a wide shot, to Sansa watching them duel, then back to Brienne and Arya for that dagger flip... 
            You can feel the energy and the pace right there, just seeing it written out, can’t you?  We understand there’s a lot going on and that all these people are—in their own way—involved in making this complete scene.  Our attention jumps around in one paragraph, but it does it fast because this is a fast-paced scene. 
            See, in prose (unlike film), those breaks would slow down the action.  Notice how the whole Arya--Brienne fight, almost two minutes on film, gets summed up really nicely in there?  When an action scene moves into several paragraphs, it tends to make things drag.  If I take six or seven lines to describe something that happens in one or two seconds, I’m altering the flow and forcing the action to that pace. 
            There may be reasons to do that, sure... but I’d better have a reason if I’m doing it that way.
            There’s also another issue at work here.  As readers, we kind of expect these breaks.  How often have you seen a wall of text in a book or online and just groaned a bit (out loud or internally).  They make that TL;DR reflex twitch in the back of our brains.  It’s because we understand information doesn’t come in giant slabs like that.  A wall of text is someone going on way more than necessary about a single topic. 
           The breaks help us keep things organized, too.  Remember I mentioned the back and forth aspect of watching a conversation?  We tend to follow that in prose, too.  If I have dialogue between Yakko and Dot, we don’t expect that dialogue to share a paragraph.  The breaks help us set the back and forth rhythm in our minds.  And when something disrupts that rhythm, it also breaks the flow.
            And, as I’ve mentioned many times before, breaking the flow of my story can be fatal.
            Because that’s my ultimate goal.  To have my story be smooth and readable. For it to draw people in, not push them away.  You’ll find people who try to tell you the punctuation and formatting of a story don’t matter, that a good story will stand on its own despite those things.  The truth is, though, the way it’s set out is going to have a huge impact on how it’s interpreted by readers.  How easily it flows.  How fast it feels. How accessible it looks. 
            So break things up. Y’know before your readers decide they need a break...
            Next time, I’d like to talk a little more about the center of our attention.
            Until then, go write.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

NYCC Schedule

            Hey, okay, absolutely the last reminder.  Honest and for true.  Here's a few places you can find me over the weekend at NYCC...

Friday, September 22, 2017

Hitting The Fan

            Running a little late this week. Sorry.
            Truth be told, I don’t have a ton of time so this is going to be a bit short. So’s next week, honestly. Right now I’m trying to do a bunch of pre-publicity stuff for the release of Paradox Bound next week, and next week is... well, four signing events with about five hundred miles between them, plus some other stuff, plus getting ready to go to New York Comic Con..
            I’m going to be busy, okay?
            Plus, I have a bad habit of over-preparing for things. A holdover from being dirt poor.  I just assume everything bad is going to happen and try to cover all my bases.
           Of course, inevitably, the bad thing is something I didn’t plan for. I mean, if I’d planned for it, it wouldn’t be that bad, right?  It might be annoying, a minor obstacle at best, but it’d be tough to think of it as some kind of crisis.
            I wanted to talk today about the moment in a story when things go wrong and our characters suddenly have to depend on their wits to make it through.  They’re in a position they didn’t intend to be in.  I’m a big believer in that moment.  I think it’s what seperates a lot of average-to-good stories from great ones.
           Let’s use a heist as an example.  We’ve all read a good heist story (or at least seen one of the Ocean’s Eleven movies).  In a heist, we usually see our heroes and/or heroines go through lots and lots of planning, working out every detail. They know when the guards change shift, how long the elevators take, how much weight sets off the pressure plates, and more.
            But then—always—something goes wrong.  There’s a new alarm system.  They’ve changed the guard rotation.  There’s a power outage before our power outage—one we’re not in control of!—and Jake doesn’t know!  How’s he going to get out of there?!
            This is the moment we grow to love characters. When they have to think fast to get themselves out of a tricky situation.  When they’ve got to do something they weren’t prepared to do.
            Now, on the flipside of this... there’s a show I’ve been watching, and I really want to like it. It’s got a lot of elements I usually enjoy.  But nothing ever goes wrong for them.  I mean, they’ll hit problems.  Have thing they need to deal with.  Sometimes major adversaries to overcome.
            But again and again, they’d hit a problem, figure out what they needed to do in order to beat it... and that would work.  I need to do this.  I did this.  The end.
            Sounds kind of unsatisfying, doesn’t it?
            Spoilers—it was.
            This all ties back to something I’ve mentioned here before.  When someone’s so over-prepared that nothing’s a challenge, my story is boring.  My characters aren’t being pushed in any way, so it diminishes whatever’s driving the plot.
            Likewise, if my characters barely even need to be prepared and nothing’s a challenge... well, then my story’s still boring,  It might even be more boring.  Because now, no matter what this week’s crisis was, it’s clearly something that takes minimal effort to deal with.
            And let me take a quick minute to clarify something about effort.  Effort doesn’t just mean gritting my teeth and sweating.  If we know the hatch Wakko needs to open weighs three hundred pounds and he heeeeeeeaaaaaves it open, that’s just planning to do something strenuous.  What we’re talking about is when Wakko goes to heave open that three hundred pound hatch... and somebody padlocked it since yesterday when he scouted the place.  And he’s still only got ninety seconds to get it open before the zombie horde reaches us.
            That’s going to take some effort.
            And impress the hell out of my readers when Wakko does it.
            Speaking of readers, hopefully I’ll see some of you next week during my crazy California signing tour.  Or next weekend at NYCC.
            Until then... go write.
            And put some effort into it.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

One Last Reminder

            Hey, so... next week I start touring up and down California, plus a little trip out to the east coast for New York Comic Con.  If I’m going to be near you, please stop by and say hello—there’s still time to reserve a copy at your local book store.
            And if I’m not going to be near you... well, most of these stores take orders and ship. Some of them even ship internationally!  Give them a call, request something for enscribbling, and you can still have a personalized copy in your hands in just a few days.
            And there’ll still be blog posts next week.  They just might be a little shorter, that’s all.
            Hope to see you soon.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Choo-Choo-Choose You II: The Last Starfighter

            I posted a link to last week’s rant over on my Facebook fan page, and somebody asked a question about it.  And I started answering there, but then I realized it’d be better over here. And then (as I was scrawling my response in the comment section) I realized it’d work even better as a quickie Tuesday post.
            So... the question.

            I'm curious how you view Alex Rogan's arc in "The Last Starfighter". It seems to violate your rule about chosen ones not getting invested in the other world. As a character arc, it was pretty believable to me, 

            A fair point.  I tried to make this clear, but I can see where it might not be.  Two points from Ravenclaw for that one.
            Okay, I hate that I have to refer to this but...
            In his various musings on story, Joseph Campbell has a step—“rejecting the call.” At first glance it seems like it’s a rebuttal of my “not getting invested” point, but it's not. Y'see, rejecting the call happens much earlier in the plot. In The Matrix, for example, it's Neo refusing to trust Morpheus when they first talk on the phone (and getting arrested). In The Force Awakens, it's Rey insisting she can't leave Jakku and has to stay behind. And here, in The Last Starfighter, it's Alex learning about aliens, the KoDan Armada, the head-crushing bad guy, and saying “nope, nope, nope—take me home!”
            But really, how long does that refusal last?  In any of these cases? Alex is home for all of... what, an hour?  Two?—before he realizes he has to go back.
            One of the thing about investment is that it takes time. In-story it takes even more time.  When a plot dives head-first into action on page one, it doesn’t mean much because we don’t know who these people are. And how often do we roll our eyes when a story tries to convince us of “love at first sight”...?
            When someone refuses to get invested and walks away, that happens later in the story.  In the particularly bad movie that sparked that rant, the chosen one walked away over an hour into the movie.  Within the movie, weeks had passed, weeks of people training this guy as the chosen one.
            In a way, this is a lot like the difference between saving the cat and patting the dog.  The isolated acts themselves look very much the same, but they’re different because of when they happen in my story and what they’re trying to accomplish.  Refusing the call is a character thing.  It’s a believable response to being shown a bigger world, or a bigger destiny, and it helps ground our suddenly-overwhelmed protagonist and make them more believable.
            But refusing to be invested is just a cheap attempt to build tension.  It undercuts any character growth that’s happened and makes the reader/audience question if this character can really be trusted. Which really sucks if the character is my long-heralded chosen one protagonist.
            In short, it makes my story worse.
            Next time, character stuff. For real.
            And, hey—two weeks from today I’ll be at Borderlands in San Francisco with my brand-shiny-new second hardcover, Paradox Bound. Give ‘em a call, reserve a copy, and come say “hi!”
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

I Choo-Choo-Choose You!

            Pop culture reference. Just a decade or two old.
            Hey, speaking of pop culture, if you’ve lived on the Earth at any point this century, you’ve probably heard of a type of narrative called a chosen one story. They’ve been around in books and movies for, well, many decades, but over the past ten years or so this particular sub-genre has become kinda popular.
            On the off chance you haven’t been on Earth that long (in which case you have a spectacular story of your own to tell), a chosen one story is about a regular—often less-than-regular, somewhat sub-average and  outcast—person who comes to find out they have a grand destiny. Sometimes they’ve been prophesied, other times they just happen to fill a long-unfilled void.  King Arthur was a chosen one, as was Perseus.  On the more modern side , there’s also Neo, Buffy Summers, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Percy Jackson, Beatrice Prior... just to name a few.
            Seriously, just a few.  This has become a ridiculously common thread in books and movies.  Most of them tend to lean toward fantasy and young adult.  Not all, but enough that it’s worth mentioning. 
            And a lot of them, to be blunt, aren’t that good. Oh, there were some amazing ones up front, but as more and more writers dove at this popular sub-genre, we ended up getting more and more folks who... well, just didn’t get it. Nowadays, you’ll see a lot of agents and editors on their homepages or on Twitter, all more or less begging writers not to send them any chosen one stories.
            During a recent bout of Saturday geekery, I stumbled across a chosen one movie.  It had a lot of problems, and almost all of them circled around the idea that our main character was supposed to be some sort of chosen one. I say supposed to because... well, he was kinda awful at it.  On a bunch of levels.
            Let’s talk about a couple of them.
            So, some ways in which my chosen one might kinda suck...

--A chosen one who doesn’t do anything
            This is an issue for any main character, but it tends to really stand out with a chosen one.  I’ve seen far too many of these stories (including that recent one) where the chosen one is the least active character—in any sense. The entire supporting cast is doing all the work, making all the decisions, sharing all the information and my chosen one is doing... nothing.
            I’ve mentioned this sort of thing before. If I can swap out a character for a dufflebag full of towels and nothing would change in my story... maybe I don’t need that character. If all they are is something to hand off, protect, give orders to... I probably need to develop them more.  And have them be a little more active.

--A chosen one who doesn’t do anything anyone else couldn’t do
            This is kinda-sorta related to the last one.  I’ve seen more than a couple chosen ones who, when all’s said and done, just aren’t all that special.  It’s like if I said Jeff was the chosen one because he can mix drinks.  Are we living in some horrible mixerless dystopia? Are there no more shot glasses so nobody can measure anything? 
            You laugh, sure, but I’ve seen chosen ones who are “special” for far less then that.
            If my chosen one just needs to put a key in a lock, pick up a stone, or flip a few switches... my readers are going to wonder why nobody else could’ve done this.  If they need to read a page from a book, have blonde hair, steal a coin, or enter a password... there really isn’t anything that special about them.  These are all things anyone can do.  If someone’s been chosen for a great destiny, my readers (or audience) are going to expect that it’s, well... great.  Definitely not mediocre or mundane.

--A chosen one whose “gift” is ridiculously specific to the threat they face
            Okay, this is a tricky one.  Sometimes, in an attempt to make things more believable by having them very toned down, a storyteller end up with a chosen one who has an extremely specific gift or ability. For example, if Dot has a complete immunity to radiation in the 395-405 nanometer wavelengths... which happens to be the exact frequency of the laser weapons used by the alien battle robots.  Or maybe the evil dictator is famous for killing his enemies with a specific variant of cyanide... a specific variant that Yakko’s completely resistant to after a bizarre childhood accident.
            I know, these sound kinda ridiculous.  But this sort of thing crops up again and again.  The writer gives the chosen one a very narrow-focus ability, and that narrow range is exactly what the protagonist needs.
            In a way, it’s kind of like when characters suddenly, for no reason, start preparing for a crisis that doesn't exist.  And now, when a crisis does suddenly happen two months later... Phew, good thing my character spent those two months stockpiling food, weapons, ammunition, batteries, medical supplies, solar cells...
            When I do this, I’ve removed all sense of a challenge and also damaged the willing suspension of disbelief.  Yeah, it would’ve been hard to believe that Yakko is immune to all poisons, but not as hard as it is to believe he happens to be immune to the very specific one he needs to be. It doesn’t feel like destiny, it feels like I created a flimsy coincidence to get myself out of a corner.
            Look at it this way.  If the threat didn’t exist, would this gift make our chosen one special in any way?  Or would it seem like a really weird character trait I added on for no reason?          

--A chosen one who doesn’t become invested in this other world  
            This is a biggie.  It’s rare, but I want to talk about it because it can kill a whole story.  I mean, bang, dead, tossed across the room.
            Most chosen one tales involve the idea of another world or society existing alongside our main one, often in complete secrecy.  Wizarding worlds, cabals of rebel freedom fighters, supernatural beings, and secret conspiracies are all fairly common    Our chosen one often serves as a bridge between these two worlds, both for other characters and for my readers.  And they’re usually the chosen one because they’re either going to save that world or, alternately, bring it down and save ours.
            Another key aspect of these stories is there’s almost always a moment of doubt. Some point where Yakko doesn’t believe he’s the chosen one, or maybe Phoebe just doesn’t believe in him anymore.  It’s when my protagonist suddenly realizes they could just walk away from all this.
            But they don’t.
            The Oracle told Neo he wasn’t the One.  The various ministers, and even Voldemort, give Harry a bunch of chances to just walk away and stop fighting.  How many times did Katniss toy with the idea of just running away to live in the woods?
            And yet... none of them did.
            In the especially bad chosen one story I saw recently, the protagonist was destined to stop a cruel, murderous overlord. But then a few things went wrong. And the love interest said “Maybe you’re not the chosen one after all,” and someone else said “You should just go.”
            So he did.  The chosen one just left and went back to his old life.  Started pulling the nine-to-five again as if nothing had happened.  Never looked back once until the others came looking for him again.
            Does that sound like a hero anyone’s going to root for?
            Y’see, Timmy, one of the key things here is that my character needs to care about this struggle past how it involves them. They need to care about the crisis and the people involved in it. Really, their role as the chosen one needs to be secondary.

            And that’s that.  Four ways my chosen one might not be the best choice for a character.
            Speaking of which, next time I may talk about characters a little more.
            Oh, and this Sunday is the Writers Coffeehouse.  Noon to three at Dark Delicaices in Burbank. Stop by and see how eloquent I sound when I have to talk about this stuff on the fly.
            Until then... go write.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Few Quick Things of Note

            Is one of these near you? You should preorder a copy of Paradox Bound! And then I’ll magically appear and tell funny stories and scribble in it for you.

            No, really...

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Virtual Reality

            So, recovery is going nicely, for those who care.  My brain’s been working a lot better. I can actually eat food again (only went seventeen days without). It’s all sorts of fun.
            Also, today's the last day to sign up for a free galley copy of Paradox Bound. Head over to the PRH website and do that.  Only takes a minute.
            Anyway, I haven’t prattled on about characters in a while, so I figure we’re due...
            I may have mentioned once or twice before that characters are key to a successful story.  Non-stop action with flat stereotypes can be diverting in a film for a little while, but in a book (and in a good movie) characters are my bedrock.  If a reader doesn’t have someone they like, someone they can relate to, a story can be dead in the water by page five.
            One of the best ways to deal with this is reality. Let’s be honest, we love characters who feel real, even when they’re Jedi or Hufflepuffs or Inhumans or Amazons. Their dialogue, their reactions, their approach to things.  The goal is to make our characters—and our stories—seem as real as possible.
            Now, there are some common ways we all try to do this when they’re starting out.  I say “try” because all three are based off a simple misunderstanding of why certain aspects of characters work.  Let’s go over what they are, the problems with each one, and how you can work around it.
            The first method is for me to describe these characters in amazing detail.  I’ll introduce you to Wakko and tell you his hair color, eye color, height, and weight.  Then I’ll give you descriptions of his hairstyle, body type, the shape of his face, all his tattoos (even the ones we can’t see).  There’s a list of his measurements and shoe size.  In the next few sentences we get the name of his aftershave, the personal grooming tools he uses, and the make of his watch (yeah, he still wears a watch).  I describe Wakko in such exacting detail there’s no way you can picture him any way except how I envisioned him. And once that picture’s firmly in mind, they’ll seem as real as anyone else you know.
            The second way is for me to give pages and pages of backstory on the character.  I’ll scribble out lengthy flashbacks to Wakko’s first day of high school, his first job, his first fight, the first time he was dumped.  Maybe he’ll randomly start talking to friends, family, or complete strangers about the last time he went to the gym, the last time he had sex (that cute woman from the bar, whatshername with the hair...), the day he finally started working at ConHugeCo International, or the day he realized all he really wanted was to tell stories through interpretive dance.  Heck, sometimes these revelations won’t even be a flashback or dialogue--they’ll just be straight text in the narrative.
            The third way people try to do this is the least common.  But it happens enough I feel the need to mention it...
            Real people have quirks.  We sometimes speak in odd ways, do nonsensical things, and go against our best interests.  We have blind spots.  Sometimes we even up and die in awful, unexpected ways (statistically, most people do at least once in their life).  It’s the way we’re wired.  We’ve all seen people do things like this.  We’ve all been the people doing these things. 
            The logic here is if the writer has the characters act illogically, they’re acting more real.  If Wakko’s a bundle of weird and quirky behaviors, then he has to be believable.  It’s almost like I’m  daring my readers—“Real people do this, so how can you  say Wakko doesn’t seem real when he’s doing it?”
            Heck, if Wakko randomly gets hit by a car in the last few pages, that’s so much like life it almost counts as art, doesn’t it...?
            Let’s talk about why these methods usually don’t work.
            The  problem with the first method, using tons of details to describe my character, is that it breaks the flow of my story.  The story and plot come to a screeching halt while I have this big infodump.  I mean, if you look back up there, I bet you started skimming just while reading the list of potential descriptions of Wakko, didn’t you?  If a list of general examples can’t hold people’s attention, what’s going to happen when it’s a list of specifics two or three times as long?
            The other catch to this method is something I’ve mentioned before.  A lot of the time, readers form their own mental images of what a character looks like.  For example, if you look over the past few paragraphs you’ll see I haven’t actually described Wakko at all, but—even if you don’t get the reference—at this point you’ve probably got some mental image of him when I use his name, don’t you? 
            If you know what this character looks like with no description, then isn’t two pages of description... kinda excessive?
            In a similar vein—when we’re talking about the second method--I can add in a dozen pages of personal trivia and anecdotes and it’s still not going to make a character seem real.  More likely, the story’s going to suffer from the same expositional infodump I mentioned above, and it’s going to come to a crashing halt again.  The problem is relevance.  While there’s no question these past events shaped Wakko’s life and the person he is today, my readers are going to wonder what do they have to do with this story.  No matter how good a particular element might be, if it doesn’t relate to the tale I’m telling it’s just noise.
            The problem with the third method, quirkiness and randomness, is that fiction’s held to a much higher standard than real life.  People do illogical, unbelievable things all the time in real life... but life isn’t scripted.  When I pick up a book, I know there’s a writer behind it.  There shouldn’t be any real randomness, because every word on the page was deliberately chosen.  And that means any apparent randomness has to be serving an actual purpose in the story.  Because if it’s not, well... why is it there?
            So, with all that being said... is there any way to make these three methods work? I mean, yeah, there’s always an exception to everything, but are these methods overall useless or what?
            The big trick to all of these, as I mentioned above, is relevance.  Like adjectives or adverbs, if character elements aren’t serving a purpose they shouldn’t be there.  Strip away all the noise and clutter and just give the reader what they need.
            For example...
            Let me tell you a quick little story...
            Wakko lives in a one room, roach-infested apartment, always buys groceries at the 99 Cent store, and almost all of his wardrobe is meticulously chosen from the racks of the Salvation Army.  He always has the latest iPhone, though, and an immaculate beard.
            And I’ve just told you a lot about him, haven’t I?  More than just the words on the page, too.  You’ve got a sense of who Wakko is and where his priorities are.  Maybe even a mental image of him.  All in just three lines.
            See, I don’t need a lot of details, just the right details.  Did I need to tell you about Wakko’s thigh tattoo or how tall he is for that little character sketch to work?  I just need to pick the right details to create the image and imply the person I wanted you to see.
            Even the randomness issue is easy to deal with when you look at it in this light.  It’s okay for seemingly random things to happen in my story.  Key word—seemingly.  At the end of the day, I’m god in this world, and these events are happening for a reason which benefits my story. 
            My new book, Paradox Bound, recently got a review from Publishers Weekly (a starred review, he said with glee), and one of the thing they specifically mentioned was how great it was that so many seemingly early, minor things I’d added for flavor came around to be important plot points.  They all seem like random details and events at first, but each one ends up driving the plot and character development in a certain way and in a specific direction. 
            That’s the kind of “randomness” we want in our stories—the kind that serves our purpose as writers.  In the same way, we don't want our characters to be "real," but to make them virtually real.
            So make your characters real.  But really make them real
            Next time... well, I’ve chosen something interesting (and a bit frustrating) for next time
            Until then, go write.