December 31, 2015 / 3 Comments

Last Year’s Resolution

            One last post squeezed in before I head out to play games and drink with friends.  Hopefully you’ve got some wonderful plans for closing out the year as well.  But first…
            Let’s talk about what we got done this year.
            My big goal for this year, like it has been for two or three years now, was to get two novels done.  It’s a goal I keep stretching for and always fall short.  I’m not sure if I can reach it or not, but I keep trying.
            How’d I do?
            Well, a good chunk of this year was taken up by Ex-Isle.  I struggled with this one a lot, for a few reasons, and a good chunk of that was my own fault.  I’d done a fair amount of work on it last year and then even more this year.  My editor looked at what I handed in and… well, he knew I could do better.  So I went back, hacked, slashed, and came up with a much nicer, cleaner book.  It’s the longest Ex book to date, word-count wise.  Tweaks and layouts on this carried us right into October, and I ended up adding a new chapter at… well, not the eleventh hour, but pretty close to 10:30.
            You’ll get to see if that was all worth it in just five weeks…
            When The Fold came out in June I did a bunch of promo stuff for it, including interviews and a half dozen or so original articles for a few different sites.
            For the past few months I’ve been working on my new project which is, as yet, untitled.  I’ve mentioned it here a few times, and I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about it next year.  I’m about 2/3 in at this point, and if all goes well I’m hoping my beta readers will be seeing it in late February or so.
            I also polished up a short-short story for the Naughty or Nice holiday anthology.  It was an idea I’d had a while back and getting invited to the anthology was just the kick in the pants I needed to make it worthwhile.  Plus, it’s for charity, so you score actual karma points when you buy a copy.
            Counting this one, I’ve done 42 posts for the ranty blog here, plus another 34 for the geeky hobby-based blog I keep up elsewhere.
            That’s what I wrote this year.
            What did you get done?
            To be honest… I’m a little upset with myself.  I was really ashamed of that first Ex-Isle draft my editor saw.  I’d also really hoped to have the new project out to beta readers by now, so I’m a solid two months behind where I’d planned to be.  I would’ve felt justified, at that point, in saying I had two novels finished.
            Yeah, maybe this sounds a little shallow to some of you.  I mean, I get to make my own schedule, write for a living, and here I am complaining about how much more I wanted to do.  Sounds pretty damned good as is, doesn’t it?
            Thing is, as we’ve discussed here many times before, good enough is never enough.  Good enough will never get a career going, and it won’t keep one going.  We have to be willing to push ourselves to be better, and to keep pushing ourselves.  We all need to set new, higher goals.
            One could even call them resolutions, if they were so inclined.
            With that in mind… what do you want to do next year?
            I hope you all have a peaceful and safe New Year.  Don’t drink and drive, be good to people, and kiss someone you love at midnight.
            We’ll talk again in 2016.
            Until then… go party responsibly.
            And then come home and write.
December 24, 2015

Happy Holidays!

             Hey, there!  Thanks for checking in on Christmas Eve!  Or Krampusnacht, which is a lot more dangerous, depending on some of the choices you made this past year…
            Speaking of choices, I thought I’d toss out something real quick, just in case the holiday season had sparked a story idea or two in your mind.  I wanted to give you a quick warning about Christmas.
            No, not in a “Krampus is coming” sort of way…
            Writing stories that revolve around Christmas, or any holiday, is tempting.  They’re very relatable.  A lot of the groundwork is already done for us (there’s no need to explain the plump guy in the red suit sliding down the chimney). It can be a great contrasting background for some stories.
            Plus, let’s be honest. Christmas stories are lucrative.  There’s a fair argument to be made they’re consistently one of the best-selling genres out there, especially if you write screenplays.  Think of all those cable channels that are just brimming with original movies.  Heck, I had a short story in a holiday-themed anthology this year, and I know of two or three other anthologies that were open for submissions, too.
            Not to sound all capitalist, but… there’s a lot of money to be made off Christmas.
            Now, that being said…
            If I’m thinking about a clever idea for a holiday story I need to be careful.  The ugly truth is, it’s all been done before.  All of it.  No matter how clever or original I think my take is, there’s a good chance someone’s done it before.  Because, as I mentioned above, this is a huge market and lots of folks have written lots of stories.
            Look at it this way.  How many holiday specials are a tradition in your household?  My lovely lady and I enjoy all the classics, but we also dig out the Christmas episodes from some of our favorite shows.  And we have a big stack of about a dozen movies we watch every year about this time.  So, without even trying, there’s over two dozen Christmas stories.  Comedies. Action flicks.  Superhero movies.  Message movies.  Even a few horror stories. 
            And that’s just a little bit of peeking in the closets.  Think of all the different Santa Claus stories out there.  Good Santa. Evil Santa.  Naughty Santa.  Robot Santa.  Accidental Santa.  New Santa.  Temp Santa.  Kidnapped Santa.  Arrested Santa. Hell, I’ve now seen multiple stories where Santa is an action star defending his workshop from invading forces.
            How about A Christmas Carol?  Personally, I’ve seen the Dickens classic done many times in the past and present, and even once with time travel on an alien planet.  There’ve been versions that leaned toward comedy, toward drama, toward horror.  Heck, I remember a bionic version on The Six Million Dollar Man when I was a kid.  No, I’m dead serious.  Steve Austin in a Santa suit leaping around and convincing a stingy businessman he was a spirit.
            Ahhh, says me. But I’m not really doing a classic Christmas story.  I’m being clever and going back to the old country.  I’m writing a Krampus story.  How many people have ever heard of Krampus?
            Well, you may have heard of a Finnish film called Rare Exports from a few years back.  That’s pretty much a Krampus story.  Grimm did a great Krampus holiday episode last year.  There was a Krampusmovie this year.  He also shows up in that anthology I mentioned up above, and in an anthology movie I just watched the other night with friends. 
            Again, all done many times, and in many ways.
            I’m not saying these stories can’t be done, but I need to be aware that this is a fruitcake that’s been regifted a lot.  So if I’m going to try passing it along, too, I should have a good idea how many hands it’s already passed through.  I don’t want to be giving it to someone who just saw it a few hours ago.
            How’s that for one last awful holiday metaphor?
            So think about stories this holiday season.  But if you’re thinking about holiday stories… put in a little extra thought.
            Next time, let’s review a few things.
            Until then… Merry Christmas.
            Joyous Kwanzaa.
            Happy Holidays.
            Glorious Ascension of Tzeentch.
            Now go write.
December 19, 2015 / 2 Comments

Yes, Virginia… There Is A Santa Claus

            December has gone by way too fast for my liking.
            Anyway, before we all head off to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens and get some final holiday shopping done, I though I’d talk about something completely unbelievable.
            No, seriously.
            There’s a phrase you may have heard called willing suspension of disbelief.  Simply put, it’s when a reader is willing to ignore or forgive obviously false things for the sake of enjoying a story.  They deliberately choose to ignore the impossible.  It’s why we can enjoy Lord of the Rings when we know there’s no such thing as elves, dwarves, or invisibility rings.  It’s also why we can enjoy Star Wars when our adult minds realize the Force, lightsabers, and hyperdrive are all a little questionable, logically.  And if there really was a hockey-masked serial killer taking out a dozen kids per summer up at the same lake… seriously, shouldn’t someone have caught on by now?
            Fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers, a lot of horror—the genre stories are the ones that we immediately think of when it comes to willing suspension of disbelief.  But the ugly truth is that any story can make a reader shake their head and toss it aside.  There is no genre, no point of view, no style of writing that is immune.  Sometimes a writer asks us to make a leap and… we just can’t.
            Why is that, y’think?  When was the last time you shook your head at something you were reading?  Has something ever happened in a movie or television show that just made you decide you couldn’t take it seriously any longer?  Or maybe you just shut it off?
            I have a few thoughts on this topic…
            One of the biggest things that’ll make a story believable—any story—is the characters.  I may have mentioned once or twice or thrice that good characters make for good stories.  I can’t have a believable story without believable characters.  It’s just not possible.
            Yeah, even if I slap “based on a true story” or “inspired by real events” under the title.  Once it’s on the page or on the screen, all anyone cares about is if it’s a good story about believable characters.  This is a common mistake—one I’ve made myself.  Whether or not they’re real is completely irrelevant.  If that’s my only selling point… I’m in trouble.
            If my characters are going to be believable, they’ve got to be consistent—or at least consistently inconsistent.  I can’t have them acting and reacting in whatever random way happens to move my plot along.  My readers need to see motives they can understand.  Natural-sounding dialogue.  Relationships that are somehow relatable to the average person.
            This is important because once my readers believe in my characters, they’ll believe in what happens to my characters.  If I believe in Phoebe and Phoebe ends up meeting Santa, then—by extension—I have to believe in Santa.  Stephen King is a master at this.  He gives us very normal, relatable folks, lets us get to know them, and then plunges them into nightmarish circumstances with inhuman, otherworldly threats. We believe there’s a weird clown-spider-elder god thing living under this small Maine town because we believe in the kids-who-become-adults who encounter it and decide to fight against it.  Just saying that up above—clown-spider-elder god thing—makes it sound kind of goofy and silly.  But millions of people were terrified by ITand completely believed in that creature… because they believed in the characters Pennywise the clown was terrorizing.
            Now, something I haven’t touched on yet.  How can I make someone believable in a completely fictional worldStar Wars is set on other planets centuries ahead of our own, technology-wise (don’t be that person arguing about “a long time ago…”).  The Game of Thrones books are set on another world that’s arguably thousands of years behind us.  The Harry Dresden series by Steve Butcher is set on a different version of Earth.  The whole Marvel Universe (comic book and cinematic) may have been vaguely close to ours once, but is far off into sci-fi at this point, even right in the middle of Manhattan.
            A lot of this will depend on how foreign I make my world.  The more difficult it is for a reader to find relatable ground, the harder it’ll be to find something relatable in the characters.  And as I mentioned last week, being relatable is a key to good characters.
            Let’s consider Star Wars (no, don’t worry, no spoilers).  The first movie (episode IV if you want to be pedantic) starts with a battle between massive starships, but quickly shifts to a boarding party—one on one action where we see people being killed and captured.  And then it’s revealed this is a spy mission and the Empire is looking for some sort of stolen plans. Good so far—all of this is very understandable stuff.
            Our hero, Luke, works on his uncle’s moisture farm where he drinks blue milk and is expected to work on droids who will work on the vaparators.  This is all vaguely understandable, yes.  But, as quickly becomes apparent, Luke doesn’t want to work on the farm his whole life.  He’s suffocating here.  He wants to go off and do big, exciting things. And that’s something we’ve all heard before. Hell, a lot of us have probably felt that before, right?  So even though it’s set on spaceships and desert planets, Star Warsimmediately grounds us with familiar, believable characters and situations.
            Okay, so once I’ve got good characters, that whole disbelief thing is taken care of, right?
            Well… not exactly.
            Another thing that can mess up willing suspension of disbelief is if I get my facts wrong.  If I tell my readers there are only six countries in Africa, that the human heart is made up of just one cell, that Ronald Reagan was the 25th President of the United States, or that Hitler died in 1958… well, most people are going to see the mistakes there.  Even if they don’t know the right answer, they’ll know I got these wrong.  And that knowledge is going to jar them out of the story for a minute.  It moves us from experiencing the story to analyzing it.  We start lookingfor wrong things, and that pokes holes in our suspension of disbelief. 
            Again, the world of my story will have some say in this.  What we consider a fact in one story might not hold true in another.  There’ve been one or two successful stories where Santa Claus was a main character.  A fairly successful movie actually made the claim that Hitler died in 1958.  By the time it made this claim, though, it had already introduced average, relatable guy John Myers (and us) to the hidden supernatural world of the story.
            There’s also a flipside to this, one that takes a bit of empathy.  I can also blow the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief by using completely true facts that are unbelievable.  There are lots of things that are statistically possible, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually going to happen, or happen that often.  Likewise, there are tons of late night cable shows that will tell you about amazing true coincidences or billion-to-one events that actually happened.  If I’m basing a whole chapter—or a whole story—around these things, it could cause problems.
            I spoke with a documentary filmmaker years ago.  He’d just finished a film about the botched invasion of Iraq and the even bigger mess that came after it.  One of the most amazing things he told me, though, was how much he had to cut out of the film.  There were points of such complete incompetence in the year after the invasion that—if he had left them in the film—nobody would’ve believed them.  And he was telling me this three years later, when it was becoming pretty clear to everyone how poorly things had been thought out over there.  Even then, he had to cut some things so his documentary wouldn’t get dismissed as a hatchet job.
             If I present something that’s too hard to believe, even if it’s true, it’s still going to make the reader pause and shake their head.  As I mentioned above, nobody cares if it’s true or not.  There’s a phrase you may have heard that started with Lord Byron, passed through Mark Twain, and has even been used by Tom Clancy—the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.  And when it doesn’t make sense, it’s going to knock people out of the story and chip away at their disbelief some more.
            Y’see, Timmy, this is the big thing.  When our suspension of disbelief is broken, even for a moment, it breaks the flow of the story.  The more often the flow is broken, the harder it becomes for my readers to be invested in the story.  And soon they’re setting it aside to do something more exciting… like the dishes or thank-you cards.
            So keep it believable.
            Next time… Heck, next time is Christmas Eve.  Wow.  I may try to jot down something really quick for that morning, but I’ll understand if you have other plans.
            Until then… go write.
December 11, 2015

Protagonist #3

            I can’t believe the year’s almost over.  Where did the past few months go?
            I wanted to get much more done this year.  But we’ll talk about that in a few weeks…
            While posting my last few little rants and adding in links, I realized there’s a lot of basic stuff I haven’t revisited in two or three years now.  I think part of it is because I’ve been doing more conventions and talking about these topics there, so it feels like I’m going over them all the time.
            Anyway, over the next month or two I want to go over some things like dialogue, stakes, action, and a few other random tips and tricks I’ve stumbled across during the many years of mistakes that make up my career.
            Right now, I wanted to talk about some character basics.  Three of them, to be precise.  Put this rant near the top of the advice column.  I’m really, really tempted to call it a rule, but I think that would spark too many comments about various exceptions and distract from the point I’m trying to make.
            Pretty much across the board, my characters need to be believable, relatable, andlikeable.  If my protagonist doesn’t have these three traits, I’m pretty much screwed.  It’s not impossible to have a story where my characters don’t have these traits, but it’s going to be an uphill battle.  Like, rolling-a-boulder-up-a-mountain level uphill battle.
            Allow me to explain by going over each of these. We’ll do that with my frequently-used volunteer character, Dot.  Also, there’s a lot of back and forth between them, so I apologize now if this gets a bit confusing or jumbled at points. 
            First up, Dot has to be believable.  Almost nothing is more important than this.  If my reader can’t believe in the character within the established setting, if they don’t feel like a real person, my story’s got an uphill battle going right from the start.  It doesn’t matter who (or what) Dot is, she must be believable.
           How do I do that?

           Dot’s dialogue should sound natural.  Her words have to flow naturally and they have to be the kind of words Dot would use.  I’ve seen countless stories where four year olds talk like they’re forty and forty year olds talk like robots.  When Dot speaks, it can’t be stilted or forced, and it shouldn’t feel like she’s just spouting out my opinions or political views or whatever.

            The same goes for Dot’s actions, reactions, and motives.  There has to be a believable reason she does the things she does.  A reason that makes sense with everything we know about her or will come to know.  If her motivations are erratic and just there to push the plot along, my readers are going to pick up on that really quick.  If I find myself thinking (or shouting) “What are you doing?!” at a character, it’s a good sign their motivation isn’t believable
            Also, please keep in mind that just because Dot is based on a real person who went through true events doesn’t automatically make her believable.  Sometimes, believe it or not, it can make her seem even more contrived.  I’ve talked here several times about the difference between reality and fiction, and it’s where many aspiring writers stumble.  Don’t forget, there’s no such thing as an “unbelievable true story”—only an unbelievable story.
            Speaking of which, this first trait can be an immediate challenge for genre writers, yes?  Werewolves aren’t believable  because they’re not real.  Neither are leprechauns.  Nanotech cyborgs, aliens, ghosts, hive minds, demons, Santa Claus, Elder Gods, barbarians from the Ninth Realm of Shokar—we’ve pretty much proven all of these things are fictional, much as we might want some of them to be real.  But, as I just mentioned, part of this trait is making them believable within the setting of the story.
            Next, Dot needs to be relatable.  As readers, we enjoy seeing similarities between ourselves and the characters we’re reading about. It lets us make extended parallels with what happens in their lives and what we’d like to happen (or be able to happen) in our own lives.  It’s not a coincidence that most stories deal with ordinary people in extraordinary situations.  It’s hard for readers (or an audience) to enjoy a story when they can’t identify with the character on some level.
            Part of this is me being aware how my readers are going to view and react to Dot.  There needs to be something they can connect with. Almost all of us can relate to blue collar, middle class folks easier than multi-millionaire celebrities.  I feel safe saying everyone reading this—or writing it—has been the victim of an awful break up or two.  Very few of us have hunted down said ex for a prolonged revenge-torture sequence in a backwoods cabin.  Hopefully none of us.
            This is also going to tie back to the idea of being believable.  Dot’s actions and reactions, her motives and experiences, are a big part of what’s going to make her relatable.  This is how the readers come to understand her.  By the same token, the less believable or common a character element is, the less likely it is my readers will be able to relate to it.  If I make Dot a reincarnated, retro-futurist one-percenter who eats nothing but snake hearts, speaks only in Babylonian metaphors, and firmly believes the lizard men are going to be returning to claim the world (and welcomes her new reptilian overlords)… well, it’s going to be a real challenge for my readers to identify with that.  And if readers can’t identify with Dot, why will they care what happens to her?
            When Dot doesn’t have any character traits we can relate to, we’re no longer understanding her—we’re observing her.  It’s an immediate wedge between the readers and the character, keeping them at arm’s length.  And that separation is going to keep readers from getting caught up in my story.
            Again, this isn’t to say characters can’t have amazing traits or abilities, but  those can’t be my focus.  The most successful takes on Superman haven’t been the ones that focus on his godlike powers, they’ve been the ones that emphasize he’s still basically a guy who grew up in all-American, small-town Kansas.  Jessica Jones may be able to punch through a wall, but her story is really about how she chooses to deal with her past—therapy groups, lots of drinking, and random sex with guys she barely knows.  Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger is a trained and lethal warrior who still prefers to spend his time playing with his dog, wearing Hawaiian shirts, and enjoying burgers and beer. In my own book, The Fold, Mike may have one of the most amazing minds on the planet but he really just wants to fit in and be like everyone else.
            Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Dot has to be likeable.  There has to be a reason we, as readers, want to follow her story and not his or hers or theirs.  We have to like her.  There should be elements to her we admire and maybe even envy a bit. We have to be somewhat invested in her accomplishing her goals and making it to the end of the story.
            Keep in mind, likable can mean a lot of things.  It can mean adorkable klutz but also fantastic work ethic.  Maybe Dot has impeachable integrity.  Maybe she takes care of every stray she finds.  She could be really funny or perhaps she’s just always there when her friends need her.  Or maybe she’s the one who just says what needs to be said and stands up for the little people, no matter the cost to her.
            On the flipside, if she’s morally reprehensible, a drunken jackass, or just plain boring… well, what’s going to keep people reading?  Nobody likes the person who kills babies or pets.  We’re rarely interested in boring people (because none of us think we’re boring) and we don’t like stupid people(because none of us think we’re stupid).  If this is how I’m characterizing Dot, nobody’s going to read through a few hundred pages of her exploits.  Or lack of exploits.
            Again, this doesn’t mean my character has to be a saint, or even a good person.   In Doctor Sleep, we find out that Danny Torrance grew up to be a major, life-ruining alcoholic. Cat Grant on Supergirl is a ruthless, often cruel boss who can’t even be bothered to get her assistant’s name right.  Sherlock Holmes has often been portrayed as curt and with very little patience for those he thinks are inferior to him (which is most people).  Raymond Reddington is a ruthless “concierge of crime” who doesn’t hesitate to pull a trigger or stab someone in the back (figuratively or literally).  We’re still interested in them as characters, though, either because of underlying codes of honor or because they’re doing things we wish we could get away with.  And because of this, we’re willing to follow them through their stories.
            Now, I’m sure many of you reading this can list off a dozen or so examples from books and movies of characters that only have one or two of these traits (someone probably skipped down to the comments after the first few paragraphs and started typing them up). It’d be silly for me to deny this.  Overall, though, I think you’ll find the people that don’t have all three of these traits are usually supporting characters.  They don’t need all three of these traits because they aren’t the focus of our attention.  If I’m a halfway decent writer, I’m not going to waste my word count or screen time on a minor character—I’m going to save them for Dot.
            So, to sum up, a good character should be someone we’d like to be, at least for a little while.  That’s what great fiction is, after all.  It’s when we let ourselves get immersed in someone else’s life.  So it has to be a person–and a life– we wantto sink into.  One we understand on some level or another.  One we can believe in.
            One we want to read about.
            Next time, it being the season, I’d like to talk about Santa Claus.
            Until then, go write.