Friday, June 30, 2017

Puppy Monkey Baby

            Pushing this one up to the wire, but it’s technically still Thursday.
            Somewhere...
            So, there’s an author I follow on Twitter (she wrote one of my favorite books I read last year), and she was recently grumbling about something she’d run across.  “I'm tired of the ‘everything sucks’ genre of fiction. We're all corporate drones and suckers for advertisements - I get it.”
            I remember sighing, because I knew just what she was talking about. I think we’ve all run into this sort of writing.  The big-idea, big-character moment stories.  Often—not always, but often—they’re stories that are so beautifully “real.”
            A standard element in this type of writing is when a character has an epiphany—either on their own or pushed on them.  A supposedly world-altering revelation about their life.  About life in general—everyone’s life.
            I say “supposedly” because most of them are the sort of simple life lessons most people have figured out by... I don’t know, the time we turn twenty?  Somewhere around there?  That it's better to be healthy and loved than to be cool or rich.  That sometimes we have to compromise our beliefs to achieve certain goals.  That big multinational corporations may have an agenda that doesn’t involve my personal health or financial prosperity.  That advertising is trying to get us to buy stuff.  Y’know, those sort of things.
            Minor aside.  Can you imagine if I was bragging to someone about having cereal for breakfast?  And—not to overlook this point—I prepared it!  With no help from anyone.  I didn’t even watch any YouTube instructional videos. I just grabbed that box, shook some Captain Crunch into the bowl, and poured on the milk.
            I even fed myself. With a spoon and everything.  I’m just that good.
            Let's stop and consider for a moment.  Is this really an accomplishment I should be boasting about?  That I should be particularly proud of?  It's like congratulating someone for having a stripper at their Las Vegas bachelor/ette party--so many people do it, it's almost taken as a given.
            And if this was the “big thing” you’d been going through two hundred pages to find out...?
            I can't help but think a lot of these moments get put in for one of two reasons.  Well, really the same reason, just approached from two different points of view.
            One is the kind of innocent one,  The writer’s including this amazing revelation because they don't grasp that everybody has these moments.  The vast majority of people assume they’re “normal.”  That everyone thinks the same way I do and knows the same stuff I know.  So if I make a sudden discovery about the world, it kinda stands to reason that nobody else knew about this.  Even if it’s something like “Whoa—did you know Stan Lee is in every one of the Marvel movies?”
            The other one is... okay, it’s the same one, but with a lot more attitude.  Now the writer assumes that nobody has ever known this.  They—and they alone—had the brilliance to spot this, and they’ve graciously decided to share their brilliant insight into the world with all those folks of lesser intelligence.  This is when it’s suddenly “Most people don’t catch it, but Stan Lee is the bartender in Ant Man and  also the delivery man in Civil War.”
            Of course, as I said before, normally they’re not talking about Stan Lee cameos.  We’re talking about priorities.  We’re talking about the industrial complex.  We’re talking about multimedia, like advertising and Twitter and random blog posts!
            *ahem*
            In a way, this is the flipside of an empathy issue I’ve mentioned here a few times.  I even mentioned it up above.  Sometimes, as a writer, I make the mistake of assuming that everyone knows all the same things I do—that they’ll get all my jokes and references. In this case, I’m assuming I found something all-new that nobody’s ever seen before.
            My lovely lady friend came up with a term for this a while back, developed after many years of reading for screenplay contests.  Simply put-- it's the moment when a baby discovers their own feet.  It may be the coolest thing that’s ever happened in the life of the baby, but for the rest of us... well, it's not quite as exciting.
            Yeah, sure it is for the parents.  But for everyone else?  Can you imagine having your friends call you over to sit and watch their baby giggle at his or her toes for two hours?
            When a character figures out it's more important to spend time with their loved ones than at work, they're discovering their own feet.  If someone comes to the jaw-dropping conclusion that they've messed up a life that was clearly messed up on page one, it's their own toes they're staring at.  When someone realizes that bad things happen to good people and most other people don’t even care--OH MY GOD!  The toes wiggle when I think about wiggling them!!!!
            This is one of the reasons I’m always encouraging people to read. I need to read in my genre, yeah, but outside it, too.  All those best sellers and the bad stuff.  I need to know what stories have been told, how they were told, and I need to have a good grasp of how well they’re know.  This isn’t the 1820s anymore—it’s tough to be a writer and be disconnected from the world.
            Because I really don’t want my big reveal to be that Ford’s top priority is selling trucks...
            Next week, I’d like to give a belated sendoff to my favorite stewardess.
            No, not a flight attendant.  Back then, alas, she was considered a stewardess.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

In This Club We Have One Rule...

            I wanted to talk about writing advice a bit.  The good stuff and the bad stuff.  I just did a few months ago, yeah, but this is a little different. 
            This time, I want to talk with you about taking those words to heart... or not.
            Here’s an ugly truth about writing advice. 
            I’d guess a good 40% of it is just people telling you what worked for them.  Here’s how I do characters, here’s how I do dialogue, here’s how I plot, here’s how I write fifty pages a week.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with this advice—it clearly worked for that particular professional.  It’s just a presentation problem.  It assumes every writer and project is like every other writer and project.
            Still, that’s better than the 50% of people who are bellowing advice that hasn’t worked for them.  The only thing sketchier than someone  with a lot of credits insisting “this is how it’s done” is somebody with no credits insisting “this is how it’s done.”  Or somebody who had a credit twenty-five years ago.
            What? A twenty-five year old credit should still count?  I mean, on one level I agree with you—it’s a credit.  But it’s a credit from another era.  Seriously.  Johannes Guttenberg may be the father of printing, but he’s not going to be much help if my Brother 5-in-1 gets a paper jam.
            Let me put it in these terms.  Let’s say we were talking about computers. Let’s say I knew someone who’d been a kinda-known name in computers twenty-five years ago. And hadn’t really done anything since.  How seriously would you take their advice about computer engineering?  Or programming?  Or breaking into the industry?
            Actually, I take it back. There’s one thing worse than somebody with no credits insisting “this is how it’s done.”   It’s when somebody with no credit wants money to tell you “this is how it’s done.”
            Anyway, that leaves us with, what... 10%, roughly?  Math isn’t my thing.  What’s that last ten percent of advice?
            You’ve probably seen it. It’s the folks saying “try this.”  Or maybe they’re a couple of provisos before or after their statements.  I’ve mentioned the idea of this here a few times.  It’s called the Golden Rule.
            No, not that Golden Rule. I made this one up.  The Golden Rule is one of the core things I try to put out with all the writing advice I offer here.  It goes something like this.

What works for me probably won't work for you.
And it definitely won't work for that guy.

            You see, writing is a very personal thing.  In the same way I can’t say “urban fantasy is the best genre,” I also can’t say “writing 500 words before lunch every day and another 500 words after is the key to success.”  Because it’s not. 
            Oh, it might be for some people, sure, but it isn’t for everybody.  There are people who write in the afternoon.  There are people who only write in the morning.  Some like massive outlines, some like very minimal ones.  If you ask a dozen different writers how to do something—anything—you’re going to get a dozen different answers.  Because we’ve all found what works for us.  That's the golden rule.
            There’s a joke I’ve used  a couple times to explain this.  If the only time you can write is Sunday afternoons, and the only way you can write is standing on your head, wearing that “enhancing” corset you bought at the Ren Faire last summer, using voice-recognition software, but doing this lets you write 15,000 words...
            Well, that’s fantastic.  Seriously.  I know professional, full-time writers who don’t always get 15,000 words down a week.  I can maybe hit those numbers once a month.  If that’s what it takes for you to do it, and you can do it consistently—power to you!
            See, at the end of the day, how I write my book doesn’t matter.  Perhaps I write first thing in the morning or maybe late into the night.  I could work exclusively on a laptop, on my phone, on a typewriter, or on yellow legal pads with a #2 pencil.  Maybe I reward myself after every thousand words with half an hour of reading, a video game, twenty minutes of exercise, booze, sex, whatever.  Do I do one long, constantly reworked draft or two dozen drafts each with a few minute, specific changes?
            However I do it, that part of writing doesn’t matter.  As long as I’m working, I’m doing fine.  People can insist whatever they want, but at the end of the day it always comes down to the golden rule.

What works for me probably won't work for you.
And it definitely won't work for that guy.

             I don’t write books the way Victoria Schwab does.  She doesn’t write books the way Andy Weir does.  Andy doesn’t write like Sarah Kuhn.  Sarah doesn’t write like Chuck Wendig.  He doesn’t write the same way as Kristi Charish.  And she doesn’t write like me.
            And none of us write like you. We don’t have your habits, your preferences, your thoughts, your goals.  We’re not telling your story your way.
            Which is why you shouldn’t worry about writing like us. Sift through all the hints and tips.   Learn which ones do and don’t work for you.  Don't worry if four of the six people above do X, find out if X works for you.  Find your way to write.
            And if your way happens to involve a corset... hey, who am I to judge?
            Next time... I want to talk about babies.  I hate those guys.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Basic Geometry

            I wanted to blather on about challenges  today. Simple, basic challenges.  Well, a type that should be simple, but still gets messed up sometimes.             
            That challenge is called choice.
            We’ve all used or come across choice.  As I said, it’s probably one of the easiest challenges a writer can create.  Character A has to decide between two options (B and C).  It’s s triangle.
            Sometimes these choices are tough. Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes A is pursuing B, but it’s clear C should be the priority.  Making the decision between B and C provides the conflict, the drama, and maybe even some comedy depending on how it’s done.  There can also be an opportunity for some character growth in there.
            You’ve probably heard of romantic triangles.  It’s one of the most common ones out there.  A is dating B, but then comes to realize C is their real soul mate.  Maybe Dot is engaged to an antagonistic jock, but can’t help falling for the free-spirited caterer.  The standard in most romantic triangles is that B is very clearly not the right person for A, while C is so blatantly right it’s almost frustrating.
            Another common one is “work vs. family.”  Will Wakko choose to spend the weekend with his family or working on the MacGuffin account?  There are a few versions of this.  Sometimes it’s family instead of friends.  It’s usually work on the other leg, but it could be any sort of mild obsession or compulsion.  Am I choosing my best friend or this treasure map?  My pets or my new apartment?
             Triangles are fantastic because they’re a very simple plot and framework that we can all immediately relate to and understand.  They make for easy subplots in novels, and in short stories or screenplays they can almost be the entire story.  This is one of the reasons we keep seeing them again and again and again.
            However...
            Simple as they are, there are still a few basic rules to a triangle.
            Actually, that’s a lie. There’s only one rule.  Triangles are so simple there’s just one rule to making them work.
            We have a triangle because there’s A, B, and C.  Three points.  If I toss out one of these—let’s say B—then I’ve only got two points. That’s a line.  Our structure is just A to C now.   
            Let me expand on the examples above...
            Wakko is so obsessed with landing the MacGuffin account that he misses his daughter’s karate tournament, his son’s piano recital, and the anniversary party his husband arranged for their best friends.  But Wakko keeps at it because this promotion will put him in a key position for the next account, and that’s the big one that’s going to put him in the corner office and change their lives. 
            The stress of all this is too much, though, and Wakko snaps.  He screams at a client.  When he’s called on it, he even yells at his boss and gets fired.  But after a week at home with his kids and husband, he realizes this is where he was supposed to be all along, with his family.  They may not be filthy rich, but the film ends with all of them happy together.
            Or what about this one.  Dot’s a painter-turned-graphic designer engaged to a square-jawed former quarterback turned TV producer. He’s crass, he’s mean to every waiter, and he undresses every woman he meets with his eyes—even when Dot’s right there with him.
            Then she meets their potential caterer, a free spirit who does watercolors and incorporates his talents into his food.  They talk art.  They talk careers.  They have a casual lunch and talk more art.  When Dot comes home early one night and catches her fiancĂ© with his secretary (who he’s decided to marry instead for... reasons), she finds herself calling the caterer.  And suddenly, Dot’s heart is fluttering like it hasn’t in years as she realizes this is the person she’s supposed to be with.
            Do both of those examples feel a little... lacking?
            Y’see, Timmy, what happened in both of them was that character A never really did anything.  Once B was eliminated, there wasn’t anywhere to go, story-wise, except with C.   Character A didn’t make a choice, they just went with what was left. 
            Make sense?
             B and C both have to remain valid choices.  My story has to maintain that triangle up until the moment of choice.  B can still be a bad choice, but A has to actively realize that and then decide to go with C instead.  Once that’s happened, I can get B out of the picture, but not until then.
            If not, ending up with C isn’t a triumph.  It’s a consolation prize.  Which I’d guess isn’t terribly satisfying for C.
            Or for the readers.
            Next time....  Next time’s going to be golden, that I can promise you.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

If You Can’t Say Something Nice...

            I wanted to prattle on for a minute about a part of dialogue we ignore a lot. The unspoken part, so to speak.  Well, not so to speak.  Literally, the unspoken part.
            Wait... can something be literally unspoken in prose?
            Anyway, as I so often do... I’d like to tell you a little story.
            I was working on a movie once which had a pretty standard romantic subplot. Estranged husband and wife, pushed apart by work (he wants to stay small town, she wants to go national), and now brought back together again during a crisis.  Like so many of the lower-budget things I tended to be on, we ended up running short on time. The place they decided to tighten things up was in the reconciliation/we-still-love-each-other scene.  You know that scene, right? It’s in a bunch of stories and a lot of movies.
            The director and the two actors huddled together and started talking about how they could trim the page and a half scene without, y’know, ruining it. Were there phrases that could be combined? Maybe words that could be swapped out for... shorter words?
            At which point the lead actor suggested... “What if we didn’t say anything?”
            Which is what’s in the final movie.  You can watch it and see the one minute, one-shot scene. The two of the working together in the lab, falling right back into old habits, giving each other little appreciative glances...
            And never saying a word.
            Some folks are intent on picking “better” words and elaborate. meticulous phrasing. That gets spread as kind of a gospel.  We’ve all seen it—the people who’ll never use five words if it can be said in ten.  If there’s a longer, more roundabout way to talk about something, they’ll find it.
            But I don’t need to do this.  I’ve talked about the “less is more” idea a few times here.  A fair amount of the time I can do just as much (or more) with just a few words.  Subtext can get a point across so much stronger than the spoken (or shouted) word, and sometimes that subtext doesn’t even need dialogue.
            I know this sounds kinda weird and contradictory. I think I’ve said here two or three or forty-four times that dialogue is one of the key ways we show character, so it just feels unnatural to have characters not say anything.  Especially when there are so many cool lines and comebacks tingling on our fingertips.
            Let’s consider it, though.  How often can a grim silence have so much more impact than the longest, most detailed monologue?  Think about how flirty someone can be with just the right gesture or look.  There’s whole schools of comedy based around the idea of an awkward silence.
            And this is going to be harder to write.  I won’t lie to you.. Depending on unspoken subtext means I need to have my descriptions perfect—not one extra adverb or adjective cluttering them up and slowing them down.  It means I need to have a great sense of empathy—that I know exactly how this moment will be interpreted by everyone who reads it, and not just by a few of my friends.
            Y’see, Timmy, this kind of subtlety is what makes my writing soar.  It’s how I bring my story to life and raise it up to the next level.  I want to recognize the chance to say nothing--to use that delicate balance of silence and description and subtext--and take advantage of it.
            Or, as K.M.Weiland once put it—“Never miss a good opportunity to shut up.”
            Next time, I wanted to discuss some basic geometry.  We haven’t done that in a while.
            Until then... go write.