December 30, 2008 / 6 Comments

The Year in Review

So, we’ve all been at this for… what, a couple months now? Well over a year since I made that very first post, by my count. Of course, I took some time off so I can hardly point the finger if you did, too.

Anyway, let’s not nitpick. There’s not much time before the New Year and we’ve got important stuff to discuss.

What have you written so far?

I don’t want you to talk about what you’ve planned. Not interested in any great ideas you’ve had. Don’t care who you had lunch with, what clever software you bought, or what fascinating research you’ve done.

The question is, what have you written?

Easy question, right? How many words have you set down on paper? How many new Word documents or Final Draft files have been created on your computer since you first looked at this half-witted, rambling set of rants I call a blog?

At the end of the day, this is the first marker you have to pass if you want to be a writer. You have to write.

If you’re still getting around to it, playing with a few things, or trying to find the right time when you’re in the right mood—you’re not a writer. You’re one of those folks in the coffee shop who wears a beret, puts on a fake accent, and loves to tell anyone who’ll listen about how everything put out by Hollywood and the big publishers is complete crap and, oh, the fantastic work you would share with the world except there’s no one else as brilliant you to understand it.

Okay, you’re probably not that bad…

Stop and ask yourself, though. If you keep looking here and you haven’t written anything… why not? What’s been holding you back? What are you waiting for? Because believe me, it never gets any easier. If you can’t find the resolve to even get started, do you really think you’re going to be able to keep at it long enough to finish a novel? Or a screenplay? Heck, even just a short story?

Again, what it all comes down to is the writing. If you want to call yourself a writer, you have to write. That’s it. Not just talk about it. Not buy books or software to help you do it. It doesn’t even count if you read ranty blogs about writing.

The joy of this little failing, though, is it’s easy to fix. Just go sit down at your desk and write. That’s all it takes.

In the past year or so since I started taking this collection of rants somewhat seriously, I’ve paid the rent by writing a few dozen articles for Creative Screenwriting (including one about comic book movies I was pretty happy with). I got to interview a bunch of heavyweight filmmakers like David Goyer, Kevin Smith, and Zack Snyder. I also did a bunch of film and DVD reviews (and let me save you the trouble—Scorpion King 2 is just not worth it. Don’t sink to that level. You deserve better, seriously).

I’ve also written four short stories, two of which are being published next year in two separate anthologies. At the moment I’m working on two more which are both past the halfway mark.

I placed in three different screenwriting contests with my script Reality Check. It’s sort of a sci-fi, metafiction, comedy film. With giant monsters and spaceships. And enough genre references to make a geek’s head explode.

And there was the novel, Ex-Heroes, which was written in its entirety this year. It started out as a mild rant to a friend and then mixed with a few superheroes I’d made up back in high school. I got the contract from the publisher today, and if all goes well it’ll be on book shelves, Amazon, and Oprah’s reading list sometime next year.

Oh. And I managed to post here two or three times a month pretty faithfully. Well, until the eggnog showed up and productivity dropped to a crawl.

Now, granted, I’m in that lucky small percentage of folks who does this full time, but really there’s no real excuse for not writing. Stephen King wrote Carrie while he was teaching high school. David Goyer wrote his first screenplay while he was fetching coffee and making copies as an office PA. Clive Cussler started his long-running Dirk Pitt series (Raise the Titanic ring a bell?) while he was doing ad copy.

We must write.

Make that your New Year’s resolution. A page a day. Just one page. A mere two hundred and fifty words if you double-space. If you can write one page a day, you’ll have a short story by the end of January, a screenplay by the time May rolls around, or a solid novel this time next year. All that, out of just one measly page a day.

Happy New Year to all nine of you reading this.

Now go write that page.

December 16, 2008 / 2 Comments

It’s Mister Haversham, the Carnival Owner!!!

Most everyone loves a good mystery. Some people like having the puzzle to solve as the clues are doled out one by one, or perhaps as it becomes apparent they were sitting out in the open all along. Other folks love getting the big twist they should’ve seen coming, but the writer managed to slip it past them. Solving mysteries makes people feel clever, a good part of the reason this storytelling form has survived for well over a century.

A great example of the mystery story and structure is Scooby-Doo. No, seriously. In the classic series, it wasn’t unusual for Scooby, Shaggy and their pals (anyone mentioning a much later “puppy power” add-on to the cast will be banned from this blog) to go off somewhere and encounter a ghost, a haunted deep-sea diving suit, or even a reanimated mummy seeking its magical coin. However, as the story progressed, clues would be found, motives revealed, and what seemed eerie and impossible at first began to look more mundane and plausible. In the end, it wasn’t too much of a surprise to finally find out the reanimated mummy was really Doctor Najib in a costume, trying to steal the coin so he could sell it to a collector.

That’s the point of a good mystery. When all the pieces fall into place and everything makes sense. Readers (and agents and editors) love that beautiful moment when all the clues line up and they can look back over the story and say “Ahhhhhhh… I see.”

Now, here’s the one real catch, in case you missed it. Just having someone speak cryptically doesn’t cut it. Neither does deliberately withholding a ton of information from the audience. Nor do piles of weird occurrences or clues which don’t seem to mean anything but your characters treat like the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. If you want your story to have that cool, odd air of mystery that makes people wonder and question and remember your story…

Well, you need to actually have a mystery.

A fairly common flaw I see is writers trying to convince readers there’s a mystery going on in their story. They don’t actually have one, mind you, but they know Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie became famous with them, plus shows like LOST and movies like The Prestige got people talking. So these writers will have an aloof man in a trench coat who drops one-line, indecipherable comments. An unusual reference that keeps cropping up again and again throughout the story. Sometimes (wooden as it sounds) just a character who keeps repeating lines like “What does that mean?” or “Who are you?” or “I don’t understand!”

Again, there’s no actual puzzle, just the implication there’s one the reader can’t see. The best sign of this is that nothing is ever solved or revealed—the story is just an ongoing series of empty, random events attempting to evoke a sense of mystery.

There needs to be something behind the words on the page, even if it’s something your readers don’t immediately get to see. When Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby find that smear of white paint on the wall, they and the audience all need to believe this is something important and not just a randomly inserted MacGuffin the writer stuck in to fill a few script pages. As the writer, you need to know what that smear of white paint means long before those meddling kids even see it.

In my oft-referred-to work The Suffering Map, the character of Bareback often talks in a deliberately vague, roundabout way. He also subtly displays a knowledge of future events. When the full workings and history of the Polynecronious Transporter are explained, Bareback’s prescience suddenly has an eerie logic behind it, and his earlier, obtuse way of speaking now makes sense. It’s a mystery, but it’s a real mystery.

What you want, as a writer, is to be a magician rather than a con artist. The magician shows you empty boxes and hats, a cage full of rabbits and a deck of cards. Then he or she does something amazing with it and you know they’ve done something amazing. Maybe you even have a vague sense of how it was done, even if not a complete understanding. You’re left feeling thrilled and excited.

The con artist, though… when he or she shows you those empty boxes it’s for a very different reason. It’s because they don’t really have a trick, and they’re hoping they’ll never have to show you something in the box. They’ll just take your money and you’ll be left standing there waiting for something to happen. They’re the ones who know the truth of what’s going on will just annoy their audience.

It sounds silly, but if you want your story to have a mystery, then it needs to have a mystery. It has to be smart. It has to be hidden for a reason within the story. It actually has to mean something.

If it isn’t… you’re just another con artist.

And we all knew what happened to the con artist at the end of Scooby-Doo.

December 10, 2008 / 1 Comment

A Scary Observation

Sorry for all the time off. Holidays, work, all that.

Where did we leave off…?

Oh, that was it. Writing.

So, Clive Barker once noted (in the beginning of Weaveworld) that stories can only ever have an arbitrary beginning. We may chose, as storytellers, to pick up the threads at a given point, but all the elements had a history long before then. Our characters had childhoods and went to school (or maybe were grown in a lab and computer-educated). The locations had previous tenants. The objects passed through dozens of hands before they got to the ones we’re focused on. No story ever truly begins right where we start telling it.

In a similar way, very few stories end at the point we stop telling them. The Hardy Boys grow up and possibly die, as do Nancy Drew, the Three Musketeers, Hannibal Lecter, and Sherlock Holmes. John Carter of Mars doesn’t, but that’s a story all in itself. That house is still up on Haunted Hill, there’s at least two videotapes floating around of that girl in the well, and the Lost Ark is just tucked away in a warehouse somewhere (in Arizona, if you believe that last movie).

The point that I’m getting to (in my all-too-often rambling way) is that this observation relates to horror, and types of horror. And you could probably apply it to other types of stories as well.

Consider the Japanese horror story (sometimes called J-horror or Ju-On horror). It’s been noted by many folks that in a Japanese horror movie… you’re pretty much just screwed. There’s no way out, no escape, no way to avoid it. That hunchbacked, gray-skinned little girl or boy is going to crawl out of something, somewhere and kill you. Horribly. There is nothing you can do, no ancient rite or exorcism or magic crystal that will save you. In Japan, once you step in the haunted house you’re as good as dead. And the moral lesson there is… well, don’t go in haunted houses.

In American horror, however, you can get away. Go ahead and step into the old house. Spend the night. Have sex there as a teenager, with multiple partners. Smoke some weed and get drunk. Heck, pee in the corner and desecrate those Native American remains you found in the closet. In the United States, there’s almost always a priest or rabbi or librarian or somebody who knows what happened there and what needs to be done to stop it. And in the end, they’ll save you, probably halting the unspeakable evil from the dawn of time while they do.

Simply put, Japanese horror takes place in the middle of the bigger story. These are the folks who die gruesome deaths so, years later, the Americans can come along and solve the problem at the end of the story. The Americans look back at the awful things that happened to the Japanese, don’t repeat the same mistakes (well, most of them don’t), and then bring the ancient (or relatively old) evil to an end.

So, fascinating as these ruminations are, I’m sure some of you are wondering… What’s the point of all this film-school level hypothesizing?

The point is simply this. If you know where your story fits in the bigger framework—the bigger story—it’s much easier to work out what does and doesn’t need to happen in it. It’s simpler to figure out rough character arcs or general motivations, and you’ve got a better idea of what kind of ending you should be aiming at.

Now, I’d never suggest plotting all this out. It does work for some people, I don’t happen to be one of them. Maybe you are. Maybe you aren’t. However, just knowing the general area you’re aiming for—the specific kind of story you’re trying to write—is a huge step in the right direction. It keeps you from flailing around and wasting time with that Jesuit priest, or retrieving that exorcism book, or even doing major character development on someone who… well, who’s just screwed because they had the bad luck of stepping into that haunted house. Probably while having sex and wearing a red shirt or something equally dumb…

There’s nothing wrong with just sitting down and starting to write. Heck, several times here I’ve encouraged it. But when you do, in the back of your mind, just try to keep track of what happened before the events you’re telling, and what may happen after them. It can only make things stronger.

So, with that in mind, get back to writing.

And for God’s sake, do not step in that haunted house…

November 19, 2008 / 3 Comments

Staying Focused

One of the contests I was reading for recently is not anonymous. That means quite often I could see the screenwriter’s name on the script he or she had submitted. And the next script they submitted. And the one after that. And the one after that.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with multiple submissions, but what struck me was how many of these people were consistently just above average. Not enough so that they’d make the next cut, but enough that you could see a seed of actual talent. Alas, none of them bothered to focus or polish that talent—they just pounded out a screenplay and then moved on to their next idea.

On a similar note, I visit a few message boards run by different publishers. It’s not unusual to see people talking about their latest trilogy or the epic series of novels they’ve written over the past year. They haven’t even sold their first book, mind you, but they’re already working on the fourth or fifth sequel.

Now, logic and statistics would seem to tell you that multiple manuscripts means multiple chances to advance. Which would be true if getting a screenplay or story selected was just random chance. Granted, with some of the stuff in theaters and on shelves these days, it’s understandable that people would think random chance was a major factor…

The reality is, out of more than a dozen screenwriters I saw who submitted more than one script to the above-mentioned contest, only one went forward to the next round. And did so with both of his scripts.

One writer out of fourteen (to make it simple) is a little over 7%.

Those are not great odds.

There’s a publishing fact I mentioned a while back, and I personally think it holds with screenwriting as well. Only one out of 100 people who call themselves writers ever finish something. Yep, out of all those folks who are working on a novel or beating out a screenplay on the weekends, only 1% of them will actually produce a completed manuscript.

So if you’ve got the enthusiasm and ability to write over 2000 pages of anything a year, you have a better-than-average shot at making it as a writer. Probably not a Stephen King/ William Goldman/ David Koepp level writer (there’s only room for so many of them), but there’s a definite chance of you being published or produced.

So, here’s a suggestion. Next time you’re thinking of multiple submissions to a magazine, a screenplay contest, or an anthology, stop and count them up. For every additional submission you plan on making, put your favorite manuscript through another draft. Don’t just run it through the spellchecker and call it a draft. Take your time and do it right. Then submit it, move on to the next one, and repeat.

For example, if you were planning to submit four screenplays to a contest (not as unusual as you’d think) take the main one and take it through three more drafts. Look at some of the random hints and tips I’ve posted here over the past few months. Go through your manuscript and tighten up dialogue. Then get some feedback, go through it again, and cut a bunch of those excess words. Maybe triple-check all your spelling line by line or polish your characters on the third time through.

Once you’ve done all that, submit it. Then look at the second script. Well, there are still two more past that, so this one has to go through two more drafts. Tighten. Polish. Feedback. Cut. Check. Submit. Repeat.

Now, I can already hear the low rumble of complaint. How’s the writer supposed to get all this done in time for the contest? Script number four’s never going to make it in time. Heck, there’s a chance script number two won’t even be done in time. Following this advice means most of the other scripts won’t make it into the contest.

That’s right. They probably won’t.

The point here is to focus your efforts. You don’t want to submit a double- handful of rough drafts. Quantity is not the key here, quality is. You want to put out a single, polished, meticulousy-revised manuscript that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt cannot be improved. If you had the time to submit four mediocre, second-draft scripts, what you’re really saying is you have time to submit one phenomenal one.

So go write. Write a lot. Just try to focus some of that writing.