November 14, 2014

Introduction to Orientation

            Running a tiny bit late.  Trying to get a bunch of stuff done before the weekend and dealing with many disruptions and distractions.
            I’d like to start this week by talking about  college.  It’s something I bet most of us here experienced, so it’s a great analogy for my real topic.  I’m sneaky like that.  Sometimes.
            If you’ve been reading these rants for a while, you know I grew up in a very small town in Maine.  For high school, my dad got a new job and we moved to a somewhat large town (arguably a small city) in southern Massachusetts for four years.  And then I went to a giant state school for college.  No joke, my freshman dorm almost had more students in it than the entire school system I attended in Maine.  And I wasn’t even living in one of the larger dorms.  The college had a larger population than my hometown.
            It was, needless to say, a bit overwhelming.
            There were lots of orientations, of course.  Then I was introduced to tons of people in my dorm, and then people on my hall (we won’t even get into classes).  We all talked about ourselves a bit.  I think so, anyway.  It was all a bit of a blur.  For a while there were just the two skinny guys across the hall,  the woman with the short hair who smiled a lot, the big guy with the glasses further down the hall. But after a while details and names accumulated, these people became clear in my mind, and they became Mike, Jon, Karen, Henry, and so on. 
            Most of us can relate to something like this, yes?
            When I’m introducing characters in my story, it’s a lot like this.  Sometimes things are a whirl of action.  Other times, everyone’s just sitting around studying each other.  Some people stand out—either on their own or because of my own interests—and other people just warrant rough placeholder descriptions for now.
            Context is everything when I introduce a character.  In the middle of a firefight, Wakko may not notice much about the person who dives in to join him behind the barricade.  They’re wearing body armor and they have a rifle—score!  If he’s dealing with a job applicant, though, he’s got time to notice how sharp the creases are in the slacks, how the tie is knotted and the hair is combed, not to mention the smell of shampoo and the state of fingernails.
            Likewise, during that firefight, there’s not much personal info Wakko needs to know past “you’re on my side, right?”  In the middle of the interview, he can ask “what are the three worst jobs you’ve ever had?”
            And in either case, he might not learn about that tattoo or the special shirt or the naughty story behind her nickname.  Some things are only seen or discussed in more intimate situations.  These are all details that come out with booze or debriefing or sex or some combination of all three. 
            Y’see, Timmy, there isn’t a certain way or time to introduce characters.  It’s all a matter of context.  Context, and a bit of relevance.  I need to think of it in terms of my narrative and my main character (or the character I’m focused on at the moment). 
            At this point in the story, is there time to notice more than a few basic physical attributes about this new character?  Is there any one or two things about him or her that my point-of-view character might focus on for the moment?  Is there even time to trade names?  If there’s a lot going on, I don’t want to bring things to a crashing halt with a page of description or exposition.
            I think one of the problems some writers have is they keep seeing examples of bad storytelling and character introductions in television and movies.  There’s an all-too common belief that things need to be frontloaded, that the audience needs to know everything about someone up front.  How many stories have you seen that begin with the “let’s all introduce ourselves” scene?  We learn their names and how they talk and their likes and dislikes and usually some clumsy anecdote about them or a blatant example of I’M THE UNSTABLE ONE!!!  GAHHHHH!!!  
            These scenes almost always feel unnatural because this isn’t how we meet people in real life.  Most of the time, we learn things about them in bits and pieces.  A little here, a little there.  Sometimes we never learn a character’s name, sometimes it’s the first thing we learn.  Some characters are willing to spill everything about themselves, others don’t want to know anything about you because it makes the job simpler.
            Now, I mentioned relevance up above.  It’s a close companion to context.  My story may end up in a place where we can take the time to get to know someone, but that doesn’t mean I need to say everything there is to be said about them.  Yes, everything in a character’s life helps define them, rich tapestry, all that, but if it really isn’t relevant to the moment at hand, or the story as a whole, there’s a good chance it doesn’t need to be there.  Bob explaining that he had to slit the throats of sheep growing up on a farm is important when we’re choosing who has to fight in the wolverine pit, not so cool during speed dating.  And someone telling you their sexual fantasies might be very exciting on a third date, but it can be a bit creepy during a job interview (no matter who’s talking).  When someone does this in real life, it’s called oversharing, and it tends to make us uncomfortable because… well, we don’t need to know these things in this particular situation.
            This can also help me weed out characters that… well, might not need to be characters.  If their introduction doesn’t fit in context, and the facts about them aren’t relevant… maybe I should question why they’re in my story here and now.  Maybe their introduction—or the full extent of it—should be pushed back or pulled forward.  Or maybe they’re just delivering the pizza and don’t have anything to do with the story at all.
            It all depends on context.  And relevance.
            And speaking of introductions, next time I’d like to go one step further and talk about dating.
            Until then, go write.
November 7, 2014 / 2 Comments

Take It From The Top…

            Musical reference.  If you were ever in band class, you already have an idea what I’m talking about.
            Here’s a quick tip I wanted to toss out for a common problem…
            I think most of us have some project—a novel, a screenplay, a short story—that we really loved at one point, but had to put down.  Maybe it was because of work.  Family stuff could’ve cropped up.  Perhaps circumstances forced us to move on to other things.  It happens.
            Then we go back to it.  Not just to dabble with it over a weekend, but to pick up things where we left off.  And—no surprise—it’s tough to make things work the way they did before the break.
            If you’ve been reading this little pile of rants for a while, you may remember me referencing a novel I started about zombies on the Moon.  I began work on it back in late 2009, but put it aside after a few months because my publisher at the time wanted me to try a mash-up novel.  When I tried to go back to the zombie idea, he’d just bought another “zombies in space” novel and warned me he probably wouldn’t want another one (I ended up writing a book about a creepy apartment building instead).  I even tried to go back to Dead Moon again two years ago, and… well, it was a struggle.  I couldn’t remember how the characters sounded in my head, or where some of the plot points were leading.  I banged my head against it for about three months and then, well, circumstances required I move on again.
            My lovely lady recently had a similar problem.  She tried to finish a first person manuscript that was about 4/5 done, but she hadn’t touched it in about a decade and it was very, very voice-heavy with a very tricky plot.  That last 20% took her months.
            And I made the same mistake again, even after my attempts to get back to the Moon.  One of my most recent books began as a different novel back in 2007.  It was set aside twice (much like Dead Moon), and I’d kind of given up on it.  But then I realized I could salvage a lot of the plot and characters and use them as kind of a spin-off-side-quelto that creepy-apartment story.  Which sounded great on a bunch of levels.
            Except what really happened was that I tried to pick up right where I left off.  I fumbled with it for a long time before I realized I needed to forget X and start writing Y.  And I was 2/3 through Y before it hit me that the whole thing was really just clinging to X again.  I pulled it apart (now with a deadline creeping close) and finally got Z put together.
            Which my editor looked at and immediately caught a bunch of Y stuff.
            Y’see, Timmy, if we’re doing things right, we all keep growing as writers.  We gain experience (some good, some bad).  We learn new things.  We swear never to do certain things ever again. 
            And because of this, we stumble when we try to go back.  It’s kind of like bumping into an old ex and pretending nothing’s changed when… well, a lot has changed.  There’s skewed memories, things we know that we don’t want to, and experiences that make casual conversations kind of awkward.  Because we’ve grown and moved on.  There can still be something there, sure, but it’ll never be what it was back then.
            Final anecdote.  A month or two back I was offered a spot in a high-profile anthology.  My first thought for a story that fit was actually an unproduced script I’d written for a television show back in 2001.  But this was a themed anthology—my story had to fit this theme and these characters.
            So I read through the old script twice to get the story and the beats back in my head.  Then I put it aside.  Didn’t look at it again.  I wrote my first draft in a week (about 12,000 words) and had three more drafts done in the next two and a half weeks.  The editor loved it.
            So, here’s my tip. 
            If I’m going to go back to a half-done project that I haven’t done anything with for a significant amount of time, I might be better off just starting from scratch. Don’t try to save or salvage or repurpose.  Just start over.  This way I’m not fighting with present vs. past experience or voices or plotlines.  I’m just writing
            Sometimes it’s faster to start over on a project than to pick it up after a long time away from it.
            Next time, I’m going to introduce a reader request about characters.
            Until then, go write.
November 1, 2014 / 2 Comments

Bloodsoaked Carnage and Horror 101

            Running late, as usual. In more ways than one.  I was looking back and realized I haven’t done a solid Halloween-related post in ages.  So this is doubly long-overdue.
            I wanted to revisit something I blabbed on about once a few years back.  I figured it was worth going over again for the holidays and for general purposes.
            When I sit down to write something scary, it helps to know just what I’m trying to accomplish.  “Scary” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and some of that depends on context.  Do I want to make hearts race or blood run cold?  Am I trying to make sure someone never walks down a dark hall again, or that from this point on they can never eat chicken and rice without thinking of… well, other things?
            Someone with a sheet draped over them can be funny, creepy, or plain terrifying, but if I don’t know which one I’m aiming for, it’s much harder to accomplish anything.  I mean, I can’t get the desired effect if I don’t know which effect I desire, right?  It’s like playing pool (or billiards, for you continental types).  I can call my shots or I can smash the cue ball into anything on the table.  Either way, there’s a chance of getting a ball in a pocket, but one’s got a much better chance of doing something impressive.
            With that in mind… what kind of scares am I going for?
            There’s a bunch of arguments to be made in several directions, but I think fear, as a storytelling device, generally breaks down into three basic categories.  Stephen King’s said something similar a few times, and I’m kind of expanding on that in my own way.  There’s a couple different names people use for them, but for our purposes today, let’s call them the shocker,the gross out, and dread.  These three form the core elements of most scary stories.  They’re the base ingredients, as it were.
            Let’s review…
            The Shocker This is when something unexpected happens and makes the reader or audience jump.  It’s an immediate fear caused by something happening right at this moment.   When that bear trap snaps shut on someone’s leg or they get a machete in the head, that’s a shock.  Ever seen someone’s eyes bug while they’re reading?  They probably just found a shocker.   A lot of the deaths on Game of Thrones tend to be shockers because—as violent as that world is—we don’t expect to see people we like bite it on such a regular basis.  Individual shocks can be stretched out a bit with chaos and shouting to keep it going—especially on film—but a shocker is really a short-lived thing.
            The shocker is a powerful storytelling tool, don’t get me wrong, but it’s important to remember that it can’t stand on its own for long.  By it’s very nature it’s quick and done.  There can be fallout and aftershocks, but they’re always going to be weaker. I also can’t use shocks one after another.  Repetition bleeds their strength and can even make them lean into comedy or (worse yet)boredom. 
            The Gross-Out As King himself names it.  This is when things are just disgusting.  It’s when I tap into the reader’s sense of revulsion and maybe even induce some nausea.  It’s when we spend six paragraphs going over the exquisite sensation of lifting someone’s still-attached eyeball out of their socket, maybe turning it around to get a view of the room, and then sliding sewing needles into it (maybe even throughit) again and again until it bursts and the warm liquid runs down the optic nerve and drips into the empty socket.  Which then gets packed with salt.  Or maybe it’s just about running a lawnmower over a zombie and describing every color and texture as the half-rotted body sprays out across the grass.

            One of the big differences between the gross out and the shocker is duration.  While a shock loses power the longer I try to prolong it, a gross out can gain strength as it goes on and on (and thus, torture porn was born).  Still, like anything, if it goes on too long or happens too often, my readers will get bored with the gross out, too.

            Another interesting point.  The audience often (but not always) knows the gross out is coming.   Anticipation is part of it.  We don’t have pages and pages of set-up, but it rarely pops up out of nowhere (because if it did, it’d be a shocker).
            Dread This is when something doesn’t happen, but we know it could.  Or maybe it’s something we know ishappening even if we don’t actually see it.  Dread is fear of potential events, if that makes sense, which puts it very close to suspense.  We know any minute now something’s going to crawl out of the shed or reach out from under the bed, and the fact that it hasn’t yet is what gives us the chills.  Dread needs enough space for my readers to realize things aren’t matching up within the story or within their own experiences.  It works well in larger tales because there’s space for back story, but if I’ve got enough experience I can make it function in tighter spaces
            Now, there’s three catches that come with me using dread.  One is that it relies on me having a very solid grasp of how my readers are going to react and what they’re going to know.  If I say you’ve been invited to the Strexcorp company picnic, most of you are going to shrug, put on some sunscreen, and head down to play volleyball.  I have been known to have a bug thing now and then, but I shouldn’t assume everyone will find the sight of a cockroach to be the most awful thing ever.  If the shocker is a sledgehammer, then suspense is the scalpel of fear.
            The second catch is that dread relies on the audience having… well, not to sound elitist, but it depends on a certain level of intelligence and involvement.  If you try explaining climate change to a chimpanzee, you’ll notice they don’t get too worried about it—assuming they sit there for your whole lecture.  The huge reveal about David Warner’s photographs in The Omen doesn’t pack anywhere near the same punch if I come in when they’re done examining the priest’s apartment (see—you should’ve watched The Omen and then this would make sense).  Dread requires an investment and an attention span. 
            Last but not least, dread needs good characters  more than the other two types of horror mentioned above.  My readers need to be able to identify with what a character’s going through.  If they can’t, this isn’t a story, it’s a news report.
            Now, after all that, here’s one more mouthful for you to digest.  Did you notice that each of these types of horror has a different time investment?  The shocker is quick, the gross out needs a few minutes, and dread really takes its time.  Each one is very distinct.  I can’t expect to stretch a shock over two or three pages and I can’t build a sense of dread in a single paragraph.
            Once I know just what I’m trying to do, it’s easy to see how each type of horror should work on the page and also how they can work with each other.  A lot of old ghost stories are little suspense tales that build to a shock.  A lot of  torture porn films start with a bit of dread, but then dive headfirst into gross-outs punctuated by shocks. 
            Y’see, Timmy, when I’m writing horror I need to be aware of the effect I’m trying to create and how much space I need to accomplish that effect.  If I’m trying to build a sense of dread in less than a page, or if I want to make a shock last for just as long, my story’s doomed.  These are things that are very hard to manipulate.
            Of course, it’s possible to do scary things without any of these core elements, just like it’s possible to bake without using flour or sugar.  But I need to be aware that working around these things means a lot of extra effort.  And maybe some really clever thinking.
            Next time, I want to break this bad habit of running late and start over from scratch.
            Until then, go hand out candy.  Oh, and write.
October 29, 2014

The Man With No Name

             So very sorry for the long delay.  You’ve all been very patient.  Like, eligible-for-sainthood patient.  
            I could make a bunch of excuses but, well… I’m probably going to bombard you with self-promotional stuff next year.  Let’s just put it that way.
            Anyway… let’s talk about that title.  Pop culture reference from fifty years ago.  In the hit western A Fistful of Dollars (also known as “that old western they’re watching in Back to the Future II”) and its sequels, Clint Eastwood’s character is never named.  Never. 
            Why do I mention this?
            Let me go over a few things first.
            There are three types of characters in any story.  You may have heard a bunch of different literary terms for them, but for our purposes I’m going to break them down to main characters, supporting characters, and background characters.  Every character in my story can fit under one of these three umbrellas.  Or in one of these classes, if you prefer.
            My maincharacters are my heroes, and sometimes my villains, too.  These are the people making things happen in my story, and the ones my narrative will spend most of its time with.  If someone makes a movie out of my book or screenplay, the main characters are going to be the ones on the poster.  There could be six or seven main characters in a good-sized ensemble, but it starts getting hard to balance (or juggle) things when it goes much higher than that.  Not saying it’s impossible, but if my story has fourteen main characters, I might want to rethink some things.
           The supporting characters are the ones around my main characters, usually offering some kind of support (surprise) in either a physical or emotional way.  They appear and disappear from the story as they’re needed.  We don’t focus on them as much because they’re secondary in the story.  They help out, in a variety of ways, but they aren’t the ones who save the day or stop the bad guy.
            Finally, we have the background characters.  They’re just what they sound like.  These are the window dressing people.  The ones who fill tables at a restaurant, bring drinks to our heroes, and stand at the bus stop outside so they can be obstacles when said heroes come racing out at high speed.  In the film industry, they’re actually called “background” or just “extras” (and sometimes less flattering terms depending on who’s listening).  Background characters rarely get more than a line or two of description, and it’s almost always physical.  More than that’s a bad precedent, because I’m setting up the reader to think they’re more important than they are.  When my story’s focusing on the flight attendant, I don’t need tons of history and  psychological background about the rude woman in seat 4C.
            Now, before we get back to Clint Eastwood, let me mention something else that’s come up here once or thrice before.  Names.  Names are important for characters, because a name is great shorthand to my readers for how relevant a character’s going to be to my story.  If I introduce a character with a name, there’s a good chance they’re going to matter so the reader should pay attention to them. 
            (I mean, I’m not just going to name some random guy over at table three in the diner, right?   Can you imagine how much Guardians of the Galaxy would’ve dragged if it started by naming every single person in the hospital room with Peter Quill’s mom?  Or all of the prisoners and guards in the Kyln?  That’d just get silly and confusing, and there’d be no point to it…)
            So, what am I getting at?
            I need to keep track of what class of characters I’m writing about and balance things accordingly.  It’s hard for me to say Bob is one of my main characters if the bus driver gets more description than he does.  If everyone in my script is named, how’s the reader supposed to keep track of the important people?
            A while back I mentioned Theresa Cano, a character in early drafts of my many-times-rightfully-rejected novel The Suffering Map.  Except Theresa wasn’t even a character.  She was a rich and detailed transitional device that filled two pages.  When I cut her out (in the fourth or fifth draft, if memory serves) it didn’t change a single thing in the story.
            So, really, she was a two page distraction that broke the flow.
            In A Fistful of Dollars there’s so much focus on the main character that he doesn’t even need a name.  And it’s not like this complicates things  He’s almost always present  and people rarely use names when they talk to each other.  Cormac McCarthy does the same thing in his novel The Road.  We never learn the father’s name or the son’s.  Same with Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive.  We’re more than halfway through Fight Club before it’s pointed out that Ed Norton’s character has never been named.  Heck, Boba Fett’s name is never spoken in the Star Wars movies until about twenty seconds before he’s knocked to his doom in the third movie.
            Speaking of Star Wars… one of the biggest complaints about all the Special Editions and additional canon is how overcomplicated it’s made things.  The folks at Kenner and LucasArts were looking for more marketable material, but rather than making new things they just inflated what was there.  Think of that famous cantina scene with the band and the alien trying to rough up Luke.  Did you know the band has a name?  All the individual musicians do, actually.  So does the alien smacking Luke around (he’s called Ponda Baba).  And the bartender.  In fact, pretty much every single alien in that scene now has a proper name and a race and a back story.
            Good thing none of it’s actually in the movie.
            When I’m writing, I have to know what’s relevant.  I shouldn’t make extended detours to cover irrelevant characters because a detour, by definition, is off the path.  It’s breaking the flow.  People can argue about art or style or literature all they want, but if my heroine runs into the drugstore for first aid supplies after a vampire attack and I spend the next seven paragraphs talking about the twenty-two year old failed football jock who’s running the night shift register because he tore a ligament in his junior year of college and had nothing to fall back on when he didn’t go pro, and how he got his name from his grandfather and it caused a huge argument between his dad and his mom when he was little which was what drove him to be a super-successful athlete and why the torn ligament was such a dream-killer… wait, why was my heroine coming in here?  Does she know this guy?   Is he secretly a vampire hunter (doubtful, since we just heard his whole history)?  Is he the love interest?  Is he a potential—no, never mind.  Our heroine just ran back out to get on with the story.
            Once I start breaking the flow—going off the path—I risk losing my reader.  I need to stay focused on my main characters and the actions they’re taking, with some help from the supporting characters now and then.  The background characters, by and large, should stay in the background, with maybe an odd line of dialogue or description now and then–giving them a name and a page of description isn’t going to add anything because they’re not supposed to add anything.  And if I really feel compelled to put the best man in every scene of my wedding story, then maybe I need to rethink who the main characters are and restructure things accordingly.
            Because if I’m not sure where my characters belong in my story… well, who will be?
            And there you have it.  Clint Eastwood.  Hope it was worth the wait.
            Next time…
            Y’know what?  This is so ridiculously late, and it’s a holiday week, so in a day or two I might revisit the idea of how to horrify people.
            Until then, go write.