Friday, May 26, 2017

Feet of Clay

            Sorry I’m running late again. I seem to do that a lot, don’t I...?
            I was going to do a whole piece on character building this week (since nobody suggested anything else). But it kind of felt wrong.  We talked about characters at the Writers Coffeehouse this month, and we’re going to talk more next month, and I always feel a little odd addressing Coffeehouse topics here on the blog. Especially close to the same time.
            Yeah, not everyone here goes to the Coffeehouse, but still...  One way or another, it feels kinda cheap.  To me, anyway. It’s just how I’m wired. Like I’m re-using material here or there, giving one group minimal effort.
            But while I was writing out the character piece, I thought of a new angle I wanted to explore.  The more I thought about it, the more I was sure it could be a post all on its own.  A new take on character development.
            So, here’s an easy question I should be able to answer about any of my characters.
            What are they not good at?
            Seriously.  This shouldn’t be hard. Can I name five or six things my character isn’t good at?  No, not ridiculous things like “gene splicing” or “space shuttle repair” or “aboriginal dialects.”  Just name a couple basic things your character isn’t good at.
            Let me make it personal. 
            I’m terrible when it comes to pretty much any kind of sports.  I don’t know players, teams, leagues, anything.  I can name a few New England teams, just because I grew up there, but even then I’d be pretty pathetic.
            I wish I was more musical.  I love music, but have never been good at music, if that makes sense.  Horrible at telling music genres/styles apart, can’t play anything more complicated than a triangle.  Hell, in high school I played bass drum in the marching band, and a couple people can vouch for the fact that I screwed that up sometimes.
            I’m really bad at taking compliments, on any level.  People telling me I have nothing to worry about is pretty much guaranteed to freak me out.  I’ve been a full time writer for ten years, my ninth novel is coming out this year (plus the new collection this week) and I still have a ton of career anxiety.
            Anyway, I could go on and on, but you get the idea, right?  I’m not a perfect person (not by a long shot).  Most people aren’t.
            And, if I’m doing it right, my characters are people too. So there should be things they’re not good at.  They should have bad habits that cause problems.  There should be fields of interest they know nothing about.  Blind spots to political/cultural ideas.  Phobias that mess them up.  You’ve probably heard of these referred to as character flaws.  It doesn’t mean there’s anything blatantly wrong with the character.  It just means they’re... well, human.
            If I’m doing this writing thing really well, these areas where my characters have problems are going to cause specific issues in this story.  Maybe even a few plot points will hinge on them. And my characters are going to have to learn and grow and change to get past these problems.  They’ll have to make an effort to overcome fears, work past prejudices, and maybe figure out new ways of doing things.
            That’s a good thing.  It’s called a character arc.  You’ve probably heard of those, too.
            Now, let me address a couple of quick points, if I may...
            There are those folks who believe, well, more is better.  Their characters don’t have a flaw, they have flaws. And they don’t really have flaws, they have faults.  And I use “faults” in the geologic, California-drops-into-the-Pacific sense.  Yawning, bottomless chasms.  Each character generally has six or seven of these.  Maybe a baker’s dozen.  These people don’t just have feet of clay. They have feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs. hips, groins, and lower abs all made of wet, soft clay. 
            Yes, groins.  There’s no way someone this screwed up doesn’t have a ton of sexual issues.  That’ll come up, too.  Or... maybe it won’t. One out of five...
           Again, this isn’t unrealistic.  I’m willing to bet most of us have known one or two really messed up, annoying people in our lives.  I’ve known a couple.
            As I’ve often said, though—reality isn’t our goal as fiction writers. Think of that messed up person from your own life. How much time did you really want to spend with them? Would you want to read a short story about them? A whole novel? Sit through a two hour movie?
            Y’see, Timmy, there’s nothing wrong with an overly-flawed character, but I need to balance that with the realization that my readers need a reason to like this person. A reason to keep reading.  It doesn’t matter how beautiful or artistic my prose is, the majority of people aren’t going to want to read about an awful character who’s a failure on every possible level.  
            If someone’s going to have serious flaws, they need some serious strengths, too, to counterbalance them.  A grocery clerk who gets blackout drunk every weekend to forget her past isn’t that interesting, but a popular billionaire philanthropist who gets blackout drunk every weekend to forget her past... well, that probably got you thinking of story ideas right there, didn’t it?
            Also, to got to the other extreme, nobody likes the flawless character. Seriously.  I’ve talked before about some of the problems with characters who are never caught off guard or never get scared.  What’s the challenge going to be for someone like that?  If Dot is always ready, always prepared, always calm, and always wins (of course she always wins—how could she lose?)... well, that’s going to get boring really quick.  And unbelievable.  When somebody’s ready for absolutely every contingency—especially when there’s no real reason for them to be—it just gets ridiculous.  Plus, there’s no space for character growth. If I’m already at ten in all categories... what kind of arc can I have?  Where can I go?
            There’s a wonderful line in the first Hellboy movie—“We like people for their qualities, but we love them for their defects.” I think that’s extremely true of fictional characters.  The more well-rounded they are—with strengths and weaknesses—the more we’ll be able to identify with them. And care about them.  And want to read the next book about them.
            Which is what we all really want to happen.
            Next time...
            Okay, look, I’ll be honest.  Next week’s my birthday.  There’s a good chance I’ll be drunk the entire day.  Possibly the night before, too.
            But... if I manage to be sober somewhere in there, maybe I’ll talk a bit about shutting up.
            Until then... go write.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dead Men Can't Complain

            Yep, it’s another shameless self-promotion post.  Two in three weeks.  I’m very sorry.
            Today my first short story collection is out exclusively from  Dead Men Can’t Complain is a bunch of short stories I’ve had published in various places over the years, plus three all-new ones that have never been seen (or heard) before. Most of them are stand-alones, although you may find hints to a few things I’ve written in the past (or may be planning for the future).  It’s got zombies, ancient horrors, modern comedy, time travel, some more zombies, lizard men, superheroes, and even a romantic ending or two!
            You can pick it up using your Audible credits (if you’re a member) or straight through Amazon.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Mystery vs. Mystery

           I was talking with someone a few weeks back about mysteries.  To be honest, she talked. I just got kind of confused.  In fact the more she talked, the more I was baffled.  Her thoughts on mystery were just... well, I couldn’t figure out where she’d gotten them from.
            And then I realized the problem was that she wasn’t talking about mysteries.  Well, she was.  She’d just confused mystery with mystery, and then mixed them up a bit.  It’s a completely understandable mistake.
            It isn’t?
            Okay, then...
            I’ve talked here a few times about mystery, suspense, romance, and comedy.  I’ve also done a few posts about mystery, suspense, romance, and comedy.  And maybe it’s worth clarifying that, because it’d be bad if someone was working on a mystery and tried to follow all the guidelines I’ve tossed down about mysteries.
            Totally confused yet?
            When I’m talking about mystery versus mystery, I’m talking about a genre versus a literary device.  If it helps, think of sci-fi versus a twist.  It’s a lot clearer that way, yes?
            When I talk about mystery and mystery, I’m talking about two things with very different rules.  We have mystery, the genre, which has some solid guidelines about word count, page length, setting, and so on.  Then there’s mystery, the device I use within my story, where one or more characters are searching for information that’s been hidden from them.  The rules for one aren’t the rules for the other, and if I get them confused, it’s going to cause problems.
             Consider romance. I’ve talked about my world-famous, patent-pending Rules of Love (TM) a few times here, and also about avoiding the common traps of romantic triangles.  My book, The Fold, has a definite romance element that follows these guidelines.
            But... it isn’t a romance novel.  That’s a very different animal.
            Let’s go a little bigger.  I’m going to guess a fair number of you reading this saw Doctor Strange, yes?  Maybe in theaters, maybe through Netflix, maybe you splurged for the 3-D collector's edition BluRay or something.  There were some funny moments in that movie, right?  Usually pertaining to Strange’s complete fish-out-of-water situation when he starts learning sorcery.  There was also that sort of unrequited love angle between him and Christine, never lining up in quite the right way even though it’s clear they both care about each other.
            So... is Doctor Strange a rom-com?  It’s got romance.  It’s got comedy.  That’s pretty much the definition of a rom-com, right?
            No, of course not.
            Y’see, Timmy, we recognize there’s more to a genre than just containing a literary device of the same name.  Suspense does not equal suspense, some comedy does not make this a comedy, and the presence of a mystery doesn’t mean my story’s a mystery. And if I get confused about this—if I start mistaking the rules of one for the rules of another (or maybe even mixing and matching like those last few socks on laundry day)—then this is going to cause problems on the writing side and on the business side.
            Now, sure—you wouldn’t make that mistake. You’re clever and you’ve been at this a while now.  But I see this kind of thing happen a lot, especially when people are trying to force a story into a genre where it doesn’t really belong.  A lot of folks do it in an attempt to get someone to read their work. “Someone” might be an agent, an editor, or even just a general audience.  If mysteries are really hot right now, I might be tempted to fudge the description of my story a bit and play up that element—even if said story is nothing like a mystery.
            I believe I’ve mentioned how rarely it goes well when I tell someone they’re getting X and they end up with a few hundred pages of Y, right?
            Genre. Devices. I need to remember which is which. Cause if I don’t, I’m either going to mess up my story... or I’m going to mess up selling my story.
            Speaking of selling stories—another shameless moment. Dead Men Can’t Complain, my first short story collection, comes out as an Audible exclusive next week.  It’s got creepy stuff, exciting stuff, funny stuff, and some never seen (or heard) before stuff.  Check it out.
            Next time, I think I may talk a little bit about dialogue. Or maybe character-building.  If you have a preference—or a different request—let me know.
            For now... go write.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

It Cuts! It Edits!

            It slices! It dices!  It makes julienne fries!  Plus, just add salt, pop the tray into the oven, and look—perfect hash browns, a great addition to any breakfast!
            Okay, I may have watched too many infomercials lately.  There’s been a channel issue with the television.  Don’t judge me.
            Over the past few months I’ve talked with a few folks about editing.  They’re almost always interesting conversations, but I noticed a while back they tend to skew in random directions. Well, not really random.  The questions cover a large range.
            One thing that catches some folks off guard is that there are different kinds of editing. They think of it as a general term, but it’s more of an umbrella that covers a lot of things.  Like how an oil change, brake work, and a car wash can all fall under “basic maintenance,” even though I’d probably have different people do them—and may even do some of them myself.
            For example, I have a regular editor I work with, Julian, and he helps me edit my story.  We dig through and find weak motivations, unclear dialogue, and the thing that doesn’t really match, tone-wise,for one reason or another.  His edits help improve the story.  When someone panics about “an editor making them change their story,” this is usually what they’re talking about.
            For the record, in almost ten years of doing this writing thing, and personally knowing close to a hundred professional writers with careers spanning most of that time, I’ve only ever heard of this happening once.  One time where the editor insisted on a major change that the author disagreed with.  And, no, it didn’t involve me or my editor.
             I also work with a copyeditor.  This is the person who finds spelling and grammar mistakes, inconsistencies that have slipped past everyone, and in some cases even a bit of fact-checking. The copyeditor help me improve the manuscript.
            And of course, neither of these are like the edits that I do myself before the manuscript goes to my editor.  Or even my beta readers. That’s when I’m trimming words, tightening the story, and trying to smooth out rough spots.
            Today I wanted to babble on (probably too much) about those easy edits.  The type of stuff that we all let slip though while we’re writing (and the experienced folks know to then get rid of in their first round of revisions).  I’ve mentioned some of them before in a broad strokes sort of way, but it struck me that maybe I could even boil this down further.
            So here are some words and phrases I can cut from my manuscript.  Not all the time, but a fair amount of it.  A lot of them lead to other words, too—they’re indicating a larger problem—so once I get rid of these it’ll probably mean a few others on either side go away, too.  Which means I’ll end up with a leaner, stronger story.
            One proviso before we dive in.  When I’m talking about these cuts, I’m talking about prose, not dialogue.  Dialogue gets a pass on a lot of this, because people have lots of odd tics and habits when they talk, and all my characters are people, right? Don’t worry about these suggested cuts too much, except maybe where they overlap with basic dialogue tips.
             This would apply to first person stories, too. They’re effectively dialogue—stories being told in a strong, specific character voice.  Just remember, characters and artful dialogue are fantastic, but it all needs to serve the story.  I don’t want my narration to collapse because of an all-too realistic narrator.
            Okay, so...  Ready?

            Adverbs--  As mentioned above, most of us get caught up in the flow of words, and what usually slips in is adverbs.  We try to pretend they're important—they spent valuable school-hours on them, after all, and school would never waste our time—but the sad truth is they can almost always be replaced.  I’d guess that three out of five times if I’m using an adverb, I just don’t need it.  The fourth time odds are I’m probably using the wrong verb, and once I find the right one, again, I won’t need the adverb.  If I’m using my vocabulary well, there aren’t many times I need one.
            While I was editing Paradox Bound I cut around 170 adverbs and adverbial phrases    in my first editing pass.  That’s almost a solid page of adverbs, gone.  Search your manuscript for LY and see how many you find.

            Adjectives—Some folks use a lot of adjectives to make normal, average things sound interesting.  Coincidentally, these folks tend to have a poor vocabulary.  So when I don’t know multiple words for, say, sword, I’ll just use multiple adjectives instead of blade, claymore, rapier, saber, foil, or falchion.
            Of course, we all go a little overboard now and then  (anyone who says they don't is lying to you) because we’re convinced this person, this place, this thing needs extra description.  Yet we all know too much description brings things too a grinding halt.
            There’s an odd habit I’ve seen among fantasy writers—not only them, and not all of them by a long shot, but enough to make it worth mentioning.  They use dozens of adjectives per page, if not per sentence.  Often redundant ones like “gleaming chrome sword of pure silver.” 
            I was at a writing conference a few years back where writer/ editor Pat LaBrutto tossed put a pretty solid rule of thumb.  One adverb per page, four adjectives per page.  It’s only a guideline, yeah, but if I’m averaging fifteen to twenty adjectives per page... maybe I should give them all a second look.

            That—People tend to drop that into their writing a lot, and a good three out of four times their writing would be tighter without it.  I used to be a that junkie until someone pointed out how unnecessary it often is. Look at these sentences—it doesn’t add anything to them.
            Phoebe could see that the two of them were meant to be together.        
            He punched her in the same arm that she had been shot in.
            She knew that the Terminator would not stop—ever—until it had killed her.
            Use the Find feature, search for uses of that in your writing, and see how many of them are necessary.  Odds are you’ll find more than half of them aren’t. I cut 132 that's from Paradox Bound—just over half a page. 
            (I’ve gotten better about adding them in to start with...) 

            Useless Modifiers -- I've called this Somewhat Syndrome a few times in the past.  This is another one I wrestle with a lot, although I like to tell myself I've gotten better about it.  It's when I pepper my writing with somewhat.., sort of..., a bit..., kind of..., and other such modifiers. I’d guess nine times out of ten they're not doing anything except adding to my word count (not in the good way) and slowing my story (also not in the good way).  Use the Find feature again and see how much tighter and stronger your story is without these. 
            I cut over two hundred of these from that first draft of Paradox Bound.  That’s another full page gone.

            Decided—This word’s almost always filler.  Maybe not conscious filler, but it’s almost always filler that can be cut.  If Wakko decides to do something and then he does it, I’m just eating up words again.  We all make hundreds of decisions and choices every day, but readers want to hear about the action, not the decision to take an action.  The action itself implies the decision was made. 

            Listen/ Look—If I start a line of dialogue with look or listen I’d bet that almost 80% of the time it’s either an infodump or it’s stating something plainly apparent.  Which means this dialogue is adding something that could be expressed through actions or subtext or any number of ways.  Or it isn’t adding anything.

            Obvious—If something isn’t obvious, it comes across as arrogant to say it is.  So I shouldn’t use the word obvious, because the character (or writer) in question is going to look like a jerk. Which, granted, might be the point...
            On the flipside, if something is obvious, then I still don’t need the word.  Things that are obvious are... well, obvious, so it’s just wasted words for me to tell the readers about it.

            Seemed/Appeared/ Looked – I’ve talked about these words a few times before.  They show up in phrases like “appeared to be,” “seemed to be,” “looked like,” and so on. The catch is,  seemed to be and its siblings don’t get used alone.  They’re part of a literary construction where the second half of that structure is either an implied or actual contradiction to the appearance.  So when I’m saying “Yakko seemed like the kind of man you didn’t want to mess with,” what I’m really saying is “Yakko seemed like the kind of man you didn’t want to mess with but really he was a pushover who fainted at the sight of blood.”  And what I meant to say all along was just “Yakko was the kind of man you didn’t want to mess with.”
           If I’m not trying to establish a contradiction, using appeared to be and the others isn't just wasted words-- it's wrong.  So cut them

            As you know—I’ve talked about these three words a few times before.  They’re awful.  Just awful.  I won’t say this is the worst way to get the facts out to my readers—I have full confidence there’s someone out there now working on a worse way—but I’d put this in the 99-out-of-100 category. 
            If I’m saying “as you know” to you, it means you already know what I’m telling you... so why am I saying it?  Why waste words blatantly stating something that you and I both know?  Yeah, maybe you've got amnesia, but if you do then you don’t know... so why am I saying “as you know” to you?
            If these three words pop up together more than once in my manuscript, odds are I’m doing something horribly wrong.

            Was – I always search for was, because it tends to point at weak verb structures.  It’s when I’ve got “Phoebe was running” instead of just “Phoebe ran.”  It’s a small tweak, but it’s one that gives my writing punch because it makes all my actions read just a bit faster.

            The Word—This is a tough one, because it’s going to depend on experience and spending time going through my manuscript.  I’ve found that a lot of times I’ll inadvertently reuse a word or simple phrase again and again and again.  It’s not really that odd—in the rush to get that first draft out, there are a lot of places I’m going to pick the first word that comes to mind.  Might be a certain verb, might be a noun, might be an adjective.  In Paradox Bound it was glared.  Lots of people glared in the early drafts of that book.  At each other.  At objects.  Out at the uncaring universe...
            Keep an eye out for your word.

            And there’s eleven things I always search for and slice away.  Editing made simple.  Well, some of the editing. 
            One type of editing.
            And this was so much longer than I'd planned.  So sorry.
            By the way, if you're in the SoCal area, this Sunday is the Writers Coffeehouse.  We'll be meeting noon to 3:00 at our usual hangout, Dark Delicacies in Burbank.  Swing by, hang out and join us as we talk (this month) about creating great characters.  Or just lurk.
            Next time... I had a few thoughts about genre and devices and structures you might find kind of interesting.
            Until then, go write.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Moment of Shameful Self-Promotion

            Hey, so sorry.  I need to take a minute to make a sales pitch.
            In two weeks, I’ve got a short story collection coming out from—Dead Men Can’t Complain.  It’s a bunch of short stories that I’ve had published in various places over the years, plus a trio of all new ones that have never been seen (or heard) before. Most of them are stand-alones, although you may find hints to a few things I’ve written in the past (or may be planning for the future)
            This is an Audible exclusive—no print, no ebook, no special kanji edition—it’s audiobook only.  Because they wanted to publish it and they do fantastic work, that’s why!  You can pick it up using your Audible credits (if you’re a member) or straight through Amazon.

            Shameful moment over.  Next up—editing tips.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Top Ten B-Movie Mistakes

            A full day late. So very sorry.  I could make excuses about surgery and blood and all that sort of stuff but... well... No, actually that's a great excuse. And it's the truth.  So there--I regret nothing!
            Okay, I’ve brought up a few times my Saturday viewing habits and why I do it.  After a few awful flicks last weekend, though, it struck me that a ton of B-movies tend to make the same mistakes. I mean, they all usually have a unique way of doing it, but they all tend to go wrong in a lot of the same ways.
            And I say a lot of this as a guy who hasn’t just watched a lot of B-movies (and read a lot of scripts), but worked on many as well.  I saw a lot of these mistakes happen in real time.  Sometimes inherent flaws or technical issues, but many other times it was story elements that could’ve been fixed with very little work.
            No, nobody listened to me then, either.
            Of course, this is also true of a lot of stories in general.  They all tend to go wrong in similar ways.  That’s kinda how this big pile of rants got started.
            So, even if you’re not interested in screenwriting, there’s probably a helpful thought or two in here somewhere for you.
            Okay, top ten B-movie mistakes starts with...

# 10-- Bad directing
            Let’s just get this one out of the way, because it’s the easy one.  This’ll be a horrible blow to anyone who likes auteur theory, but the simple truth is there are a lot of professional directors out there who have no clue what they’re doing.  None.  Yes, even some directors you’ve heard of.  They have no business sitting in a director’s chair.  Even one they bought at Target and keep on their back porch.  They have no concept of narrative, continuity, pacing, anything. 
            And I’m not just pulling this opinion out of my butt.  I worked with a lot of truly fantastic, brilliant directors during my time in the industry, but I also worked with some really awful ones.  And friends shared stories of awful ones they’d worked with.  It’s a lot more common (and widely known in the industry) than most film professors would like their students to believe.
            My point is, the director’s the one determining how the story is being told. Their job is to interpret the story on the page into a visual story on the screen, and the best story can be ruined by a bad storyteller.  How often have we seen a book or movie that had such a cool idea or interesting character... and it was just wasted?

# 9-- Looking down on genre stories
           Lots of B-movies have kind of an ugly cynicism to them.  I’ve seen this on a few projects—directors, writers, or producers (or some mix thereof) who think they’re too good for the story they’re working on at the moment.  I was on a sci-fi project where the production designer wanted to do something glaringly inaccurate because he felt it looked better.  His justification?  “Who’ll know?”
            I’ve heard people say they might try writing romance because it’s “so easy,” or fantasy because “you can just make it all up.”  These are simplistic, demeaning ways to look at these genres, and that sort of scorn’s always going to show in the storytelling. It doesn’t matter if it’s the latest hot thing—if I don’t like it, don’t have a background in it, don’t really want to do it... it’s probably not going to turn out that great.

# 8-- Too Much Stuff
            D’you ever play Dungeons & Dragons when you were young?  Remember that one kid (we all knew this kid) who got so excited to be Dungeon Master, and made that awesome dungeon with five liches and ten silver dragons and twenty gold dragons and thirty minotaurs all wearing +3 plate armor and using +5 flaming axes and a hundred zombies and Orcus and half the Norse gods and...
            You remember that, right?
            Some B-movies get like that.  The filmmakers have too many ideas—way more than their budget or schedule allows—and they try to stick them all into the story.  Every cool idea from every other cool story, sure to be just as cool here, right?
            Truth is, they almost never are.  All these extra ideas just end up being under-developed distractions at best.  And at the worst, well...

# 7-- Wasting Time
            Okay, this is kinda related to the last  point.  The flipside of it, really.
            There are a couple shortcuts people use in storytelling to make us like characters.  There’s one called “saving the cat” that you’ve probably heard of.  There’s also giving someone a backstory that connects them to another character.  And there’s banter and bickering and all sorts of little dialogue tricks.
             Thing is, in the limited space of a movie script, all these things need to be serving a purpose.  If that touching backstory doesn’t come into play somehow, it’s just five minutes of filler I could’ve spent on something else... like the plot.  Maybe ten or fifteen minutes when we add up everyone’s touching backstories.  There’s nothing wrong with a well-rounded character, but we want those curves to go with the flow of the story, not against it.

#6-- Bad action
            We’ve all seen this one, right?  The awkwardly-slow fight scenes.  The medium-speed chase that drags on waaaaaay too long.  The melodramatic challenge that clearly didn’t need to happen.  Or just shouldn’t’ve happened.
            Action gets seen as filler a lot, and it doesn’t help that a lot of gurus teach it that way.  “Hit page 23, action beat. Hit page 42, action beat.”  There’s nothing wrong with action, but bad action hits worse than just about anything, especially in the visual storytelling format of movies.  If it drags on the page, it’s not going to be better when we film it.
            Think of scale, too.  It’s always better to have a small, well-done action scene than a sprawling, poorly-executed one.  I can relate to two people fighting so much better that two gangs of sixty people each slamming together.

#5-- Not knowing what genre my story is
            I worked on a B-level sex-revenge-thriller once, and the director was convinced he was making a noir mystery.  I’ve seen sci-fi and fantasy movies that were done as horror films, and vice versa.  Heck, I’ve written stories where I’d planned it as one thing, and realized halfway through it was something very different.
            I just talked about this a few weeks ago, so I won’t go into it too much here. To sum up quick if you don’t want to hit the link, all genres have certain expectations when it comes to tone, pacing, and even structure.  If I’ve got a story in one genre that I’m telling with the expectations of another, there’s going to be a clash. And that clash probably won’t help my storytelling.

#4-- Killing the wrong people
            Okay, so there’s always going to be collateral damage in stories—especially action stories. The nameless bystander who catches a bullet.  The dozens of office workers crushed when a giant monster slams into their building.  The person who dies in the early weeks of the epidemic.
            Thing is, by nature of being collateral damage, the story doesn’t focus on these people and their deaths don’t really register with the audience or within the plot.  And they shouldn’t. That’s what collateral means after all—they’re secondary. Not as important.
           I’ve mentioned before the awful habit of introducing characters for no purpose except to kill them.  We meet Phoebe, get five minutes of backstory and –bang- dead without moving the plot forward an inch.  Because Phoebe was never part of the plot, she was just there to wear a bikini top and let the FX crew show off.  That kind of thing is wasting time, as I just mentioned above.
            The only thing worse than this is when it’s time for the heroic sacrifice... and my hero doesn’t make it.  A minor character steps forward to leap into the monster’s mouth or climb up to connect that last cable to the junction box, even though the power flowing through it could kill him.  So the "hero" sits and watches while someone else saves the day.
            Why are they the hero...?

#3-- Showing the wrong thing
            This comes up so often it’s sad.  It kinda falls under bad directing, but I’ve  seen it many times where it was clearly a problem inherent in the story.  Sometimes a story keeps pushing X in our face when we really want to see Y.  Or Z.  Sometimes the story calls for Y to be the center of focus, but we still keep seeing X.
            I saw a B-movie recently that didn’t show the love interest’s face until almost twenty minutes into the film.  The movie kept having clever angles and shots... but it didn’t show her face.  Watched another one where the monster was revealed in a horrible panning shot that racked to it in the background.  In both of these cases, we were seeing the wrong thing—or the right thing the wrong way.
            I’ve talked about subtlety, using the scalpel vs. the sledgehammer.  That’s part of this, too.  Sometimes there’s a reason we’re seeing a swirling mass of blood and gore, but all too often... it’s just because the storyteller doesn’t know what else to show us.

#2-- Horrible dialogue
           In any storytelling medium, bad dialogue makes for unbelievable characters.  If I can’t believe in the characters, I can’t believe in the story.  If I can’t believe in the story... well, that’s kind of it, isn’t it.
            So many movies have painfully bad dialogue.  Arguments for no reason. Awful technobabble.  Annoying characters who won’t stop talking. And sometimes—too much of the time—it’s just bad.  It’s awkward, clumsy dialogue that sounds more like people reciting prepared statements than, well, talking.
            Bad dialogue always drives me nuts because it means the storytellers have no idea how human beings talk or sound. It’s a massive failure of empathy, and that empathy almost always shows up elsewhere.  I’ve never, ever seen a story with bad dialogue that excelled everywhere else. This almost took the #1 slot.
            But, the number one thing B-movies tend to screw up...

#1-- Who am I rooting for?
            This is the killer. This one brings so many B-movies to a grinding halt. 
            I’ve seen sooooooo many movies with absolutely no likable characters.  Everyone’s self-centered or obnoxious, idiot or arrogant.  They’re just awful, sometimes disgusting people. All of them.  The bad guys and the good guys.  People start dying and I’m honestly not sure if I’m supposed to be sad or cheer.
            If I’m going to sit here for ninety minutes—and remember the story afterwards--I need a reason to follow someone besides “they’re the main character.”  I need to like them and I need to be able to identify with some aspect of their personality.  The story needs to have someone I actually care about, because if it doesn’t I just won’t care if they win or lose. And if I don’t care about that... well...
            Game over, man.

           So there you have it. My top ten B-movie flaws, based on years of awful movie watching. And reading. And making.
            Feel free to offer one or two of your own.
            And then go write.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Read it ALL! Every Page!

            Okay, not going to talk about editing.  For a couple reasons I decided to push that back a bit. If anyone really wants it sooner rather than later, please feel free to say something down below.  I’m flexible.
            Anyway, new topic.
            Bad movies.
            I’ve mentioned once or thrice before that I tend to do long Twitter rants most Saturdays about whatever (anonymous) bad movie I’ve dug up on Netflix, SyFy, Comet, or... well, sometimes from my own collection.  Terrible characters, wince-inducing dialogue,  eye-rolling motivations, bad pacing, awful reveals or twists.  Sometimes the movies are fun-bad, and other times...
            Look, on Saturdays my liver earns its keep.  Let’s just say that.
            A lot of folks follow along, and at least every other week somebody’ll make a comment about my masochistic tendencies.  Or my willingness to suffer.  Or ask why I don’t just watch something, y’know, good.
            Here’s the thing, though.  I kind of like the bad movies.  Yeah, they’re kind of painful sometimes, but they’re always at least mildly entertaining.  Even if it’s in a Mystery Science Theater sort of way.
            Plus, they’re kind of educational.  And a great exercise for the imagination.  Yeah, I know that sounds bizarre, but... it’s the truth.
            Let’s be honest.  We probably all know somebody who refuses to watch bad stuff, right?  Or to read it.  They’ll shut it off half an hour in or toss the book across the room, usually with a snide comment or three about how bad it was.
            Quick test, though... can they say why it’s bad?  Can they cite specific examples?  Anyone can say “this sucks,” but it’s a lot harder to explain why something sucks.
            Better yet... can they suggest ways to fix it?  How would I go about improving the plot structure?  The dialogue? The motivations of the hero and the villain?
            These aren’t ridiculous tasks.  As writers, we run up against them all the time.  There are scenes I’ve rewritten a dozen or more times because the dialogue just didn’t ring true.  There are times I’ve gotten halfway through something and realized it would be a lot better if I structured it a different way.  There are times I’ve guided everything towards Yakko doing something and then realized “wait a minute... why the heck would he do this?”
            Then I solve these problems. Because that’s my job.  I’m a writer.
            So in that sense, every bad movie or patience-testing novel is a chance to flex those muscles.  They’re exercise that I can do while I’m geeking out a bit.  Sometimes they even inspire a rant or three.
            That’s kind of important.  The exercise bit.  We all need to exercise.  No, not just because we sit in a chair for a good part of the day.  Well, yes, because of the chair, but also because exercise is how I get better... stronger... faster. 
            That holds for physical and mental exercise. I have to do it.  I have to do it regularly.  And I need to challenge myself with it.  If I’m following the same workout routine now that I was a year ago, it means I haven’t moved forward at all.  I’m going easy on myself.
            I know a lot of folks who pride themselves on not reading bad books.  “There’s no time for that,” they say.  “Why would I waste a day reading something awful?”  They’ll proudly tell me how they’re re-reading something by Neil Gaiman or Margaret Atwood or Michael Chabon or some obscure piece by Gertrude Stein or Faulkner.
            And there’s nothing wrong with reading any of these writers. They’re all just fantastic.  Their words are wonderful to read, and it’s almost frustrating how easy they can make it look.
            But this shouldn’t be easy.  If it’s easy... I’m probably doing something wrong.
            Y’see, Timmy, there’s only so much I can learn from the good stuff.  If it’s the only thing I take in, then I’m kinda limiting myself.  I’m not giving my brain a chance to exercise--to stretch and flex and try to do its own thing.  Following a perfect, well-laid path is great, but if it’s all I ever do, it’s all I’ll know how to do.  And if it’s a path that 90% of all English majors and would-be writers have followed at one point or another...  I'm not going to find anything new or surprising at the end of it.
            It’s like if I said I wanted to explore the whole world, but I never wanted to go off a paved road. Paved roads are great, yeah, but the way I’ll find stuff—especially new stuff most people haven’t seen before—is by traveling down the dirt roads and off road.  And sometimes getting out and wading through thigh-deep muddy water.
            ...oh, man, I hope that’s mud...
            I’d never say avoid the good stuff, because we want to surround ourselves with great material.  To bathe in it. Take long moonlight swims in it.  But... we all know what happens if you stay in the pool too long.
            Don’t be scared of reading something bad.  Or watching it.  Have fun with it. Force your way through.  And figure out why it’s bad. Where did it go wrong?  What does it need?  How could it be fixed?
            And then... go write.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Amazon Review Revisited

            For those who came in late...
            About seven months ago I came up with this idea of running a little experiment with Amazon’s review policy. A new wave of complaints had cropped up about reviews being deleted or blocked, and—as they tended to-there wasn’t a lot to them past “Amazon took down my review of XxX!”  Supposedly, the new rumor at the time was that everyone’s favorite online megastore was surfing social media sites, looking for potential connections between reviewers and reviewees—and using them as a reason to delete reviews.
            It struck me that I’d been hearing about review policies for years, but never seen any hard data on them.  It always came back to he said this, she said that, lots of people had it happen to them. There were never any hard facts.
            So... I decided to find some.
            I reviewed thirty books I’d really loved. One every day for the month of August.  I listed out all the social media connections between me and each author. I even did a handful of control reviews—ones that should get pulled regardless of social media connections.  And I listed all of it out for everyone to see.  And tweeted about it. And talked with folks on Twitter about it.
            A month after my little experiment ended, nothing had happened. No warnings, no deletions, no reprisals... absolutely nothing. Even on the control reviews, which really should’ve been removed under every possible version of the review guidelines. I left it at that and decided to check in six months later.
            Which is... right about now.
            How many control reviews finally got spotted by Amazon’s algorithms?  How many warnings were issued?  Did my account get frozen?
            Pretty much across the board... nothing’s changed.
            All thirty reviews are still up, including all the blatant control reviews.  Heck, two of the control reviews even have “people found this review helpful” checks.  I never heard a peep from Amazon. Even with the tweets.
            Seven months since the first review, Scott Sigler’s Alight (great series, check it out).  Scott and I have known each other for almost four years, if memory serves. We follow each other on Twitter, we’re both with Random House subsidiaries, we’ve done panels together, he even interviewed me last year at WonderCon in front of an audience of about three or four hundred people.  There is absolutely, no question a connection between us.
            That review is still up.
            I feel pretty comfortable saying the social-media scanning algorithm is either a myth or reaaaaaaally poorly written.  If it can’ t find a connection between me and Scott, it’s pretty inept. Same holds for me and the next two authors on the list—Chuck Wendig and Eloise Knapp.  There’s social media connections and shared blurbs galore.  Heck, with both of them I think there are pictures floating around.  Incriminating pictures, for these purposes.
            And yet... the reviews are still there.
            So, yeah, the social media bot probably isn’t real.  I wouldn’t bet anybody’s life on it, but the evidence sure seems to point that way.
            I think there’s another possible conclusion we can draw here, too. I might be stretching here, so bear with me. Feel free to point out flawed logic.
            The control reviews have nothing to do with the social media bot. As I mentioned above, just as they are they violate the basic rules for reviews.  And all six of them are still there.  Yeah, six examples isn’t a great number for a data pool, but considering the 100% survival rate...
            I think getting reviews pulled doesn’t have anything to do with the reviews themselves. I think it has to do with me. Or at least, my account.  Last time, one of the spitball-hypotheses I tossed out was that Amazon only applied its all-seeing eye to accounts based on suspicious activity or complaints about said account.  I’m more inclined to lean that way after six months of no activity.
            So if my review of Yakko’s Yappy Dog Omnibus gets quickly pulled, I think it’s more likely because of something else I did in the past than anything about this particular review.
            But, again, other ideas are always welcome.
            If I happen to notice anything happen with these reviews, I may revisit this again.  Barring that, though, I’m probably done with it.  Feel free to share the data with anyone next time you hear about reviews being pulled. 
            Or, in the spirit of science, repeat the experiment and share your results.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Trick in Three Acts

             Very sorry I missed last week.  Last month was copyedits, this time I got layouts back for my next book (Paradox Bound, out this September, available everywhere somewhat-adequate books are sold) and spent my days going through it line by line and making notes.  Far too many notes, if you ask my editor.
            But we’re all here now.  Soooooo... let’s talk about magic tricks.
            Most people tend to think of magic tricks as kind of a bam done thing.  I pull your chosen card out of the deck or out from beneath your drink or out of your own shirt pocket.  I cut the lady in half without killing her.  Then I make the other lady float on air. 
            The truth is, though, well-done magic tricks almost always have a very specific set of steps.  There’s a casual set-up.  There’s a moment of confusion.  And then there’s the big surprise that makes the audience ask “How did you do that?!” 
            Think about it. When I do a card trick, the first part is actually showing you the deck of cards—a totally normal, regular deck of cards, right?  And then, after you pick a card, it vanishes from the deck... waaaaait a minute.  How’d I manage that, right?  And then when I reach over and pull the card out of your sleeve, or point it out sitting face-up under your own drink, right there in front of you the whole time... the crowd goes wild.
            And if you like, you can hear Michael Caine explain all of that in the trailer for a fantastic, underappreciated Christopher Nolan movie.
            So... why are we talking about magic tricks?
            A common term that gets thrown around a lot is three-act structure.  If you’ve been poking at this storytelling thing  for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard it from someone.  Doesn’t matter if you’re working on novels, screenplays, short stories, or even magic tricks—I’d be willing to bet late night Jack-in-the-Box money that you’ve come across this term or had it pushed at you.
            I’m a big believer in three-act structure. I think a good number of flawed stories can tie their problems back to it. Or to a lack of it.
            I also believe three act-structure gets misunderstood a lot.  And I think there are a lot of gurus and producers out there pushing “three act structure” who... well, don’t have any clue what they’re talking about.  We’ll get to that in a little bit.
            Oh, one other thing.  It’s important to note that three-act structure doesn’t really fit in with the other story structures I’ve talked about in the past—linear, dramatic, and narrative.  It’s kind of a different thing in the way a car can be an automatic and a rifle can be an automatic, but they’re not the same kind of automatic.
            Okay, so here we go...
            Any sort of storytelling has a beginning, a middle, and an end. 
            That’s three act structure.
            No, seriously. That’s pretty much it.
            If we want to go into a little more detail... every kind of story needs these three stages.  I’m not talking about page count, but the way my story develops.  If it’s done right, any reader can tell you when these parts begin and end in my story.
            In fiction we can even hang a name on each of these three acts.  We call them establishing the norm, introducing conflict, and then resolution.  You’ve probably heard of these, too.  I’ve talked about them here before, but let’s do a quick sum up.
            Establishing the norm is just that—showing how things normally are.  This is when my characters go to work, pay bills, spend time with their loved ones, and so on. It’s when we often find them at their most relatable.
            Remember that everybody has a “usual day.”  For Rey, a usual day means scavenging parts from middle-of-nowhere wrecks on a middle-of-nowhere planet.   For Steve Rogers, a usual day means going for a morning jog, meeting up with a coworker, and then dealing with some international terrorists who’ve seized a ship on the high seas. If my characters don’t have a normal day, they can’t have an abnormal day, a day when they’re thrown out of their element and have to impress us somehow.
            Introducing conflict means something is knocking my characters out of their comfortable little world and forcing them to take some sort of action.  The new manager says they have to pay all their back rent by the end of the month.  A dying stranger shoves a magic amulet into their hands.  Turns out that one night stand is going to have nine months of consequences followed by eighteen years of repercussions.  Or maybe some little droid shows up claiming it has information it has to get to the resistance, followed by a lot of people with guns who want said droid.
            Note that this can happen more than once in my story.  If my character keeps getting pushed further and further out of his or her comfort zone... that’s great.
            Also worth noting that conflict has to cause, well, conflict.  If I introduce something that doesn’t bother my protagonist, or takes no real effort to deal with... that’s just boring.  If it’s boring to them, it’s going to be boring to my audience.
            Resolution is, big surprise, when things come to an end. Usually because my protagonist has taken some action and made things come to an end.  It’s when answers are made known, hidden things get revealed, and plot threads all come together.
            Word of warning—if I’m submitting to contests or trying to catch the attention of an agent or editor, ending my story with “to be continued” immediately costs me at least twenty points in whatever grading system they’re using (so hope it isn’t a ten-point one).  If I’m doing this, my story doesn’t actually have a resolution.  It might even mean that I—the writer—don’t have a resolution for it.  And since this third step is an important part of the story, well...
            Look if I stop at mixing the cake and don’t take that last step, I can’t be surprised if most people don’t want to eat it, right?
            Or that some of it call it “sludge” instead of “cake”...
            That brings up another point.     Y’see, Timmy, a story that doesn’t have these three parts has a sort of... meandering quality to it.  Characters either do nothing or do tons of stuff without any real motivation to it. 
            This generally comes from writers only having one or two parts of a story.  Maybe they had a great opening and a cool middle, but didn’t quite know how to end it.  Or they came up with a cool opening and a clever end, but never figured out how those two acts would connect.  I’ve even seen a few folks write a very cool opening... and nothing else.  There was a great set up and then the story sort of spiraled off into... nowhere.
            Okay a few last notes. I’ll try to be quick.
            First, there are still a few little caveats to this, of course.   Many stories start in the middle and take a bit before they go back and explain the beginning.  In medias res some folks like to call it.  Other  stories start at the very end, and use the ending as a frame for the whole story. All of this is fine, and I’m sure all of us could list off a ton of great examples of books and movies that do this.
            What we need to remember, though, is all these stories still have a beginning, a middle, and an end, even if they’ve been juggled around a bit in their tellings.  As I’ve mentioned before, the narrative structure of a story doesn’t change the linear structure.  The events have a definitive starting point.  The characters have a baseline the audience sees them at.  There’s a progression brought about by conflict and changes resulting from the conflict.  And it all leads to a definitive conclusion. 
            Like the examples I mentioned above, I’ve seen stories that try to come in on the action, on the conflict. Thing is, they never go back to explain how these events began.  The story’s left flailing without that first act, wondering what set off these events and why the character’s invested in stopping them (or helping them along).
            Second thing, which I promised at the top, is some of the nonsense that gets spread about three act structure.  I see a lot of folks try to argue that all these acts have very specific lengths--you have to be done with this by page sixteen, this must happen by page twenty-three, that must be revealed by page forty-two.  That’s just nonsense, and it’s easy to find hundreds of examples that prove it’s nonsense.
            I think a lot of this comes from people who want to quantify stories somehow.  They want to be able to create a marketable formula of “how to make a bestseller,” and that’s just not possible.  Every story is going to have its own pace, and altering that pace at arbitrary points isn’t going to make it appeal to more people.
            I’ve also seen some people who try to argue for six act structure, seven act structure, or some other number. They justify this by pointing out that television shows often have four or five acts.  Sometimes a teaser and a closing, too.
            I think these arguments come from misunderstanding what three-act structure really is.  These particular gurus are trying to tie it back to those larger, more expansive structures I mentioned earlier.  Television shows do have multiple acts, yes, but that’s structuring for a format, not for a story.  I know a bunch of television writers, and none of them think that their scripts have a beginning, a middle, another middle, one more middle, and then an end.
            Now, all of this leads us to a question some of you have probably been wondering about since I started this little rant.  What’s so important about three-act structure? Why do we need it?
            The big reason is because a beginning, middle, and end in my plot usually means we’ve had character growth in our story.  You may have heard me mention one or thrice that good writing is about good characters.  As readers, we want to see who they start off as, what changes them, and how the change affects them in the long run.  That change is a real response that grew out of his or her experiences. 
            When that happens, readers stop thinking about these creations of mine as characters and start thinking of them as people.
            Next time, since I’ve just waded through a ton of tweaks and edits... I thought we could talk a bit about tweaks and editing.
            Until then, go write.