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...?
            Now...
            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.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Instructional Promotional Spectacular Spectacular!!

            Okay, so...
            One of the marketing folks at Crown, Roxanne,  just set up a sweepstakes for my new book, Paradox Bound  (out in hardcover just four weeks from today).  I happen to think it’s a pretty cool book, and it’s gotten starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, sooooo...  Who knows.
            Anyway, go over to the PRH website before Thursday, August 31st and enter your info and you’re now in the hat to be selected for one of a hundred bound galleys of Paradox Bound.  Totally free.  No surveys or mailing lists. Unless you want to be on the mailing list.  There’s a tab for that.
            Now, what does this mean for you, occasional browser of the ranty blog?
            Well, you may remember we did something similar about two years ago with The Fold.  This is a chance to see an earlier draft (the first layout, essentially) and the final draft side by side.  You can read the book, then go through the earlier version and find all the places my editor and I changed things.   Every tweak and adjustment as we prepared the book to go to the printer.  And there’s a fair amount of them, so it’s a worthwhile exercise. And all it costs you is...
            Well, nothing.
            Just go sign up before Thursday.  Granted, there’s only a hundred copies to be won, yeah.  But let’s be realistic—I’m not J. K. Rowling.  I can’t picture your odds getting any lower that a 1 in 3 chance of winning. Really, I’ll be thrilled if it reaches a  50-50 situation.
            Also worth mentioning that I’ll be doing a ton of signings that release week.  Borderlands in San Francisco, Books Inc. in Mountain View, Pages in Manhattan Beach, Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego.  Please preorder a hardcover from them and then come by so I can scribble in it for you.
            Go sign up!
            And go write!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Genre-Device Mnemonic Caper

             Middleman reference.
            Very sorry I missed the last two weeks. Lots going on, which I’ll get to in a minute 
            I wanted to toss out a couple of quick, easy genre/device mnemonics for you.  These are a couple of things I’ve heard over the years.  Sometimes—when I’m struggling with something in a story—I’ve found them helpful for getting my head wrapped around things.
            So, what is it you’re working on right now. Maybe keep in mind...

            Suspense is about what’s going to happen
            A thriller’s about what is happening
            A mystery is about something that already happened

            Granted, these are kind of broad definitions, and there’s always going to be an exception or two. But I’ve mentioned once or thrice before the problems that can crop up when I try to push this kind of story into that framework.  And if I’m trying to write a thriller that’s about events that already happened... well, there’s probably a reason I’m having problems with it.  Or maybe my readers are having problems with it.
            It’s not a bad thing to double check what I’m writing about and what I think I’m writing about.
            Now, let’s flip this and talk about devices.

            A mystery is when my characters are actively searching for a piece of information they don’t know.
            Suspense is when my readers—or the audience, in a larger sense—knows a piece of information that my characters need to know but don’t.
            A twist, is when we’re talking about a piece of information that nobody even suspects exists (readers or characters), but once we learn it, it’ll change how we view a lot of what’s already happened in the story.
                       
            I think we all mess these up a lot when we’re starting out. We’re trying to use a device or write in a specific genre, but we fall into the patterns of another one.  Or we’re so focused on having, for example, a cool mystery that we don’t realize we’ve actually set up a twist.  And it’s kind of a weak twist because... well, we’re still trying for a mystery.
            Worse yet, sometimes we learn these mistakes.  They become that thing we’re convinced is right because we never learned anything different. And so we stick with these mistakes for years, focusing on other things instead fo the one clearly-wrong thing.
            Make sense?
            That’s why I like a lot of these little mnemonics.  They’re easy things to keep in the back of my mind and check my work, so to speak, every now and then. Good for starting out, good for later on, too.
            Next time...
            Okay, truth is, I had surgery last Tuesday.  Nothing super-serious, don’t worry, but it was pretty intense and the painkillers have really knocked me for a loop (and really messed with my sleep). Heck, this post was mostly done last week and I couldn’t pull it together long enough to get this up on the site.  Barely got that cartoon up the other day.
            Long story short—no idea if I’ll have a coherent post done for next week.  August might be my lame month.
            At the least, I’ll put up another cartoon. At the best... well, we’ll see how close I am to reality at the given moment.
            As always, please feel free to toss any requests or suggestions in the comments below. Or any handy mnemonics of your own.
            Until then, no matter what... go write.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Stop Hitting Yourself...

            Just want to thank you all for your patience while I was off at (and recovering from) SDCC.
            Now, back to our usual rants about storytelling...
            I’ve mentioned once or thrice before that I like watching (and commenting on) bad movies.  Sometimes I find a hidden gem.  Most of the time, though, they’re just fodder for these little rants. Much like when I used to read scripts for screenplay contests, if I watch three or four bad movies in a row I almost always find some common flaws and teachable moments.
            So I saw a Dracula movie recently... 
            He’s arguably the most commonly-filmed fictional character on Earth.  It’s not that big a surprise I stumbled across one.  Actually, it was a three-Dracula geekery day, if memory serves.
            Anyway, this one was set back in the 16th Century and went the ancient-noble-prince route.  It’s a not-uncommon take on the character (Fred Saberhagen wrote a whole series that used it). Dracula used his supernatural powers to protect Transylvania and had this whole warrior code and all that.  And I’m kind of guessing 16th century.  Vlad Tepes lived in the 15th, but these people were actually dressed in a more medieval-fantasy style.
            Except... we also had Jonathan Harker and Mina and Lucy and Van Helsing.  Medieval versions of all of them.  Again, not terribly uncommon.  We’ve seen lots of interpretations of these characters (looking at you, Hugh Jackman).  So Mina and Lucy being kickass demonhunters isn’t that odd.
            Except... we also had this huge biblical subplot, where vampires are all descended from Cain and can only be truly killed by descendants of Abel.  Which, I mean, I’ve heard stories that tied vampires to the bible before.  So it wasn’t really an outlandish, crazy thing.
            Except... we also had the romance.  You know the one.  Mina is a near double/reincarnation of Dracula’s long-dead princess.  Long scenes of wistful staring and passionate confusion ensue.
            Man, that’s kind of a lot for a ninety-odd minute movie, isn’t it?
            I think one or two Saturday geekeries later I ended up watching this twisty-turvy thing about dead children and stalkers and swapped identities and second marriages with creepy undertones.  That could all balance out kinda cool, right?  But there was also this whole parallel plot about guardian angels and angel sex (no, seriously) and sin and redemption.  And the plots didn’t so much as dovetail together as butt heads for a while and then have a high-speed impact (which also involved some fatalities...)
            What’s my point here?  Well, I have two, believe it or not.  They’re kinda related, but still—bonus tips for you.
           First, in both of these movies, the plot kept getting in its own way.  There were so many clever ideas that none of them really got developed to a satisfying degree.  We’d start dealing with one and then have to rush off to deal with another one before people forgot about it.  Or the ideas would collide head on, which led to analyzing the story instead of... y’know, enjoying it.
            I’ve talked about this problem a few times before—where a plot or story is just overpacked with ideas.  And what tends to happen is the plot will overwhelm the story, the story will smother the plot, or sometimes they’ll just collapse into this mess of well... random plot and story points.
            This is a really tough idea for new writers to grasp, because it feels counterintuitive to everything we’ve been led to believe as storytellers. If the idea’s good, how can it be wrong for a story?  Thing is, sometimes a really good idea just doesn’t work in the story I’m telling.  If it’s not driving the plot or motivating the characters, if it’s pulling us too far off course or just filling space that could be used for something else... it probably doesn’t belong there. 
            I got to interview Kevin Smith a few years back, and we talked for a few minutes about his legendary hatred of ad-libs. He was quick to point out that he didn’t hate ad-libs. His problem was that ad-libs rarely fit into the final story. Sure, they might be hysterically funny at the moment while filming on set, but then you’d get to the editing room. Now they had to fit in with the tone and pacing of the overall movie.  And more often than not... they didn’t.  It’s not that they weren’t funny or clever, they just didn’t fit. And then Smith even made a point of praising his then-leading man, Seth Rogen, for the ability to fire off lots of funny lines that were, as he put it “very germane to the discussion.”
            Y’see, Timmy, when we come up with these really cool ideas for a new take on werewolves, some really hot and sexy dialogue, or an incredibly cool way to describe the feeling of a knife piercing the flesh... well, we want to use them.  That’s our job, after all.  To take cool ideas and make cool stories out of them.  But sometimes—a lot of the time—our job is really knowing when to take the cool ideas out.  It’s being able to cut away the excess, to figure out what our story’s about and what parts are just wasting time and space.
            Which brings us to my second clever point...
            There’s a general idea  I see crop up a lot that stories can be any length.  Any length at all.  I can make the story whatever it needs to be—fifty pages long to five hundred pages long.
            And while, in a general sense, there’s some truth to this, the stark reality is that there are a lot of limits on how long a story can be.
            Look at screenwriting. We all acknowledge that movies are generally ninety minutes to a little over two hours.  It’s just how it is.  When a movie’s only seventy-plus minutes... we feel kinda cheated.  It can be really good, but almost always there’s a response of “That’s it?  Only seventy-one minutes?”  Likewise, when a film stretches out over two and a half hours, it usually feels pretty excessive.  There are a few really great just-shy-of-three-hour movies, but there are a lot of really bloated, desperately-in-need-of-editing ones.  So if my screenplay doesn’t fall in the 90-130 page range... I might get some folks to look at it, but not many professionals are going to take me seriously.
            And if I’m publishing... well, paper costs money.  And shelf space in book stores is precious.  Most publishers don’t want to see a massive, beef-slab of a book unless they know they’re going to sell a lot of copies of it.
            Ahhh, I say, well I’ll just publish it myself, then nobody can turn it down for financial reasons.  True, but a lot of the POD sources still work off page length to calculate costs, and they’ve got much more hard ranges. Just a few pages this way or that can mean a price jump of three or four dollars per copy. And somebody’s got to eat that cost.  It’s not going to be them, so it’s either them or my readers.  This is why I had to cut almost 30,000 words out of my book 14 --the small publisher couldn’t afford to have it stretch into the next page-range.
            Heck, even if I just give up on print altogether and go with epublishing only—check the numbers. Shorter books do better as ebooks, especially from self publishers.  The vast number of folks who’ve had any degree of success with ebooks are doing it with books under 100,000 words.  I think many of them are under 70,000. The “why” of this is a whole ‘nother discussion we could debate for a while, but for now we just need the simple numbers. Ebooks tend to do better as shorter books.
            Y’see, Timmy (yep, a double Y’see Timmy—haven’t had one of those in a while) what all this adds up to is limited space.  Those pages are precious.  My words are precious. I don’t want to waste them on irrelevant things.  I want them to be moving things along for the plot and for my characters.  I want the ideas to work for the story, not to be flexing and contorting my story to accommodate some ideas.
            A while back a friend of mine was working on a Frankenstein-esque story, and he had this super-cool idea for a detail about the monster’s origins.  And it really was a cool idea.  Thing is... his story was all structured around the idea that we never really learn much about where the monster came from or how it was built.  That was part of the mystery.  There wasn’t anywhere to use this idea, but he was soooo determined.  Even when it made no logical sense for this detail to be revealed, he kept trying to force it into different chapters. Because it was too cool an idea not to use... even though the rest of his story was suffering because of it.
            You may have heard that old chestnut—kill your darlings. This is kinda like that.  I may have the coolest line of dialogue, the neatest way to explain something, or the most fantastic description of a giant robot ever, but if it doesn’t work in my story...
            Well, then it doesn’t work.
            And if it doesn’t work—if it’s not adding to my story—then it shouldn’t be there.
            Next time, unless someone has some other ideas, I was going to toss out a few quick little tips about genre and devices.
            Until then... go write.