December 29, 2016 / 4 Comments

2016 Is Over. Finally.

            I don’t know about you, but this year has been kind of brutal on me.  We don’t even need to bring up politics or innumerable dead entertainment icons.  It’s sucked.  I lost my grandma.  Two friends.  One of my cats.  Hell, even the car I’ve had since I was twenty-seven and working on Silk Stalkings.  
           All dead.
           Screw this year.  Screw 2016.  And I’m only saying “screw” so this page doesn’t get banned from your work server.  I’ve been a lot more emphatic in real life.
            But, anyway… let’s talk about writing.
            At the beginning of every year I toss out some encouragement and ideas about writing. And throughout the year, I jab you pretty much every post with a gentle reminder to go write.  Because that’s the only way this happens. We sit down and we write.
            So… what did you write this year?
            I’ll go first.
            Well, let’s be honest.  The vast majority of this year was spent on Paradox Bound (which most of you will get to read in about… seven months?). I turned in a really wild, scattered draft to my editor (I can admit it), and he politely handed it back and said “try harder.”  Which made me take a long, hard look at a lot of it, rip out a large part of the ending and restructure it, which also meant going back and reworking a fair amount of the beginning.
            But in the end… I’m really proud of how this has turned out. I think you’re going to like it a lot.
            Between drafts, I also finally finished (and submitted) a little story called “Projekt: Maria” for an anthology titled Mech.  That should be out early next year, I believe.  If you read Kaiju Rising a while back, this story is another World War II adventure with Kraft and Carter trying to counter the latest weird and unusual Nazi plot.
            Plus, I’ve done a bunch of work on my next big project (no real title yet—well, not one I’m up for sharing).  And a lot of notes and bits on the next Ex-Heroes book (currently called Ex-Tension).  And I scribbled some notes and pitches for some things… well, that I can’t really talk about quite yet.
            And, hey, this is the 46th ranty blog post this year.  Granted, a handful of those were photo tips, but still… that’s a fairly regular output there. I mean, I’m no Chuck Wendig or Scalzi, but I think that’s a respectable number.  I even managed a couple over on my geeky blog, too… although nowhere near as many as I’d wanted to.
            What else did I do with my time?
            Well, if I’m counting right, I read about thirty-eight new books this year. By which I mean, books I’d never read before.  About half a dozen of them non-fiction. 
            There were also another twenty or so books I re-read, either for reference or enjoyment.  Plus a big pile of comic books and graphic novels—the IDW Revolution event (featuring GI Joe, Rom, Transformers, and Micronauts) was magnificent, as was the conclusion to The Sixth Gun. If you added all of those, I’m probably somewhere in the low sixties.
            Not an ugly score.  Essentially a book a week. I’m huge believer that reading is essential if I want to be a decent writer.  I have to take in material if I want to create material.  I can’t be a filmmaker without watching lots of films. I can’t be a bodybuilder without taking in food.  I can’t be a teacher without learning.  And I sure as hell can’t be a writer if I never read.
            So that’s what I accomplished.  How about you?
            Granted, I’m in the fortunate position where I get to do this full time.  On average, I’m probably going to write more, revise more, and read more than most of you reading this.  It’s not a slam, that’s just basic scheduling.  There’s only so many hours in the day, and I get to spend most of them in this area.  We all have different amounts of time we can put toward these things.  People have kids, jobs, other priorities.
            This also isn’t a contest.  I’m not going to berate you because you only read twenty books this year. I wouldn’t feel extra-special if I read a hundred.  We all read and absorb and work at our own rates
           The key thing is that I can see honest, real forward motion.  I started here and I ended with all of thisdone.  I can’t be telling myself “well, this counts as getting stuff done” or “I meant to do that.”  I should be able to point at things I wrote.
            I mean, that’s what we’re all trying to do, yes?
            I’d like to thank you all for reading this collection of random thoughts and lessons as we head into (holy crap) the ranty blog’s tenth year.  I’ll try my very best to stay entertaining, educational, and semi-relevant.
            Next time, as I usually do, I’d like to start the year by setting down a couple ground rules—for myself and the ranty blog and the rest of you.
            Until then… go write.
            Have a fantastic New Year’s.  May 2017 be better for all of us.
December 22, 2016 / 1 Comment

Time to Pay Up…

            Okay, we’ve all got better things to do right now, so this is going to be a quickie…
            This is another one of those spelling-vocabulary things that shows up way too often.  I saw it misused the other day in someone’s internet press release—the third or fourth time I’ve seen it in recent memory—and it made me grind my teeth.
            Not good, since I got these crowns.
            Easy question for you. Do you want to pay your dues and become a writer?  Or would you rather pay your dos?
            Are you worried things might be past do?  Or that you haven’t gotten what you’re do?  Either way, have you considered heading do south?
            We’re not even going to talk about the people who bring dew into it.
            Really, the more important question is—are you grinding your own teeth after some of these?
            Do vs. due is one of those… okay, seriously, I don’t know what to say about this.  If I’m going to call myself a writer—any kind of writer—and I’m messing this up, well, it’s not a good sign. 
            It’s ridiculous that I have to bring this up, right?  And yet…
            Journalist, fiction writer, editorials, non-fiction… there really isn’t a type of writing where this kind of mistake is okay.  Because this is a bare-bones basic mistake.  From a writing point of view, this is a flat Earth/Moon-is-made-of-green-cheese-level mistake.  Like so many word choice/use issues, this is a do diligence thing, where I deserve to get smacked down if I can’t due it right.
            One simple, but not perfect, tip—if I’m talking about someone getting something, I probably need due.
            Another simple-but-not-perfect tip—if I’m talking about some form of action, I probably need do.
            Direction is usually going to be due.
            Parties or hairstyles, I would most likely need do.
            The one perfect tip—I should actually learn what words mean before I use them.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I’m messing up something as simple as due and do, it means I’m failing on a bunch of levels.  I’m using phrases I’ve heard but I don’t really understand.  I’m not bothering to look up words I don’t know in a certain context.  I’m just going with what sounds right and not bothering to check if it is right.
            And if that’s how I’m doing things… well, I can’t be surprised if nobody wants to pay me for my writing.
            If you’re reading this, I hope you have a Happy Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, or just a peaceful weekend. Regardless, I’m sure I’ll see you all one more time before the end of the year.
            And if you have some free time in there… go write.
December 15, 2016 / 2 Comments

Plot vs. Story: Ultimate Crossover Event

            Okay, it’s been a while since we had some solid, deep, digging-in-the-gross-stuff discussion about writing. So let’s get back to basics, shall we…?
            A couple years back I had the fantastic opportunity to spend about an hour on the phone with Shane Black.  If you don’t know his name off the top of your head, he’s the writer-director behind (among othersLethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, and just recently The Nice Guys.  He knows a lot about storytelling, and during our talk he tossed out a dozen or so useful lessons, one of which I’d like to share with you.
            Yeah, I’ve talked about this before, but I came up with some new ways to talk about it, and I figured it’s a good refresher…
            Pretty much any book, movie, television episode, or short story can be broken down into two parts—the plot and the story.  The plotis the events and moments going on outside my characters.  The story is all the events and moments that are going on inside my character.
            Here’s another way to look at it—plot can affect lots of people, but the story is mostly going to affect my character.  A bomb going off is going to affect hundreds of people.  Phoebe marrying Wakko instead of me is mostly going to affect… me.
            Let’s go into some more detail.
            Plotis the external threats and goals in my book.  Most books tend to have the plot scribbled out on the inside flap (the jacket copy, they like to call it).  If I pick up a BluRay, they’ve usually got the plot of the movie or show on the back.  For example (using a book I’ve mentioned recently), the plot of Anamnesis is about a bottom-tier drug dealer, Ethan, who tries to learn more about a custom drug that’s appearing on the streets, and then has to try to save himself when he discovers some of the people behind this drug.
            After looking at a lot of books or movies from the storytelling point of view, one thing I noticed is that the plot is almost always an attempt to do something.  Win the big race, get the guy, stop the villain, save the orphanage, save the world.  As I mentioned above, the plot involves a goal, and any decent goal in my story is going to take some effort to achieve.
            Another thing I’ve noticed is that plot tends to get a bad rap.  A lot of artsy folks will scoff at the idea of “plot,” like it’s some crude tool that only hack writers use.  Which is just wrong–plot’s an essential part of storytelling–all storytelling.
            Now, in all fairness, there are a decent number of “plot-heavy” films and books out there.  The characters are kind of… well, irrelevant.  And these tales might be great to kill an afternoon with, but that’s all they’re ever going to be.  To anyone.
            As it happens, though, a lot of those artistic “character based” works of film and literature tend to meander and not really, y’know, go anywhere.  I think that’s because of the refusal to have a plot.  As I mentioned above, plot  means the characters are trying to do something, so “no plot” means the characters are… well… not doing anything.
            That brings us, nicely, to story.  Story is the flipside of plot. It’s all the internal desires and needs and struggles of my characters.  It’s a big part of the character arcand the reasons behind that arc.  Story tends to be what we tell our friends about when we explain why we like a character.  We enjoy the plot, but what we get invested in is the story. 
            To use Anamnesisagain, Ethan’s story is that he suffers from severe retrograde amnesia—for all purposes his life began just a few years ago when he woke up on a beach.  So the memory-erasing drug that appears on the street—and the people suffering from its effects—strikes a chord.  He feels compelled to help them, even though it’s really not in his best interests.
            Every now and then, you might hear someone say there’s really only seven plots (or six or nine or something) and there’s a bit of truth to that.  The reason there are millions of different books, though, is because of story.  If I drop two different characters into the same situation, I’m going to get radically different results, because they’re going to approach things… well, differently.  If Peggy Carter had gotten the super soldier formula instead of Steve Rogers, Captain Americawould’ve been a radically different movie, on a bunch of levels.  An example I’ve used before is Never Let Me Go and The Island, two movies with almost exactly the same plot but very different stories. End result–two very different movies.
            I’ve talked a few times about working on Ex-Isle, which came out back in February.  One thing I realized as I started the second draft was that I had a plot, but no real story.  What was going on inside St. George, one of my main characters, while the plot progressed around him?  And figuring out his story (his ongoing need to help people vs. how his position and purpose at the Mount was changing) helped solve some knots and eventually even changed the ending of the book.
            Now, let’s play with this a bit…
            Who’s heard of the Moonlighting curse?  It’s the idea that if you have a TV show with a strong “will they or won’t they” element, it’ll collapse as soon as they do. It happened famously with Moonlighting and more recently, alas, with my beloved Castle.
            But we’re talking about this as writers.  So… whydo these shows collapse at this point?
            The plot of Castle is that a wildly popular crime novelist (Richard Castle) ends up working with the homicide department of New York’s 5th precinct.  His personality grates on them a lot, but they can’t deny he has a quick mind and some amazing insights into human psychology and criminal motives.  Plus, he’s friends with the mayor… so they’re kinda stuck with him as long as he wants to be there.
            The story of Castle is about the developing relationship between many-times-married Castle and married-to-her-job homicide detective, Kate Beckett.  They each have a lot of baggage, but they also have a lot of chemistry.  And the chemistry kept growing even as they came to accept (and even admire) each other’s quirks and hangups.
            All sounds great, right?  But does anyone see the problem?  It’s something we’ve talked about before…
            See, the basic plot of Castle is pretty much infinite.  I think we can all agree there’s no foreseeable future where New York City is going to have a drastic shortage of homicides.  So that part of the series can keep going forever.
            But… the story of Castle pretty much ends once Castle and Beckett become a couple.  Our whole story was “will they or won’t they,” so once they do… that’s it.  Done.  My story’s over. Sure, in some cases we can stretch things out a bit with all the usual new-relationship stuff (early riser vs. late, snoring, family and friend approval, toothbrushes, how far is this going, etc.), but the longer a series runs, odds are a lot of that will already be established and resolved.  Hell, before the two of them ever kissed, I think Becket had celebrated three or four Christmases with Castle, his daughter, and his mom. 
            Y’see, Timmy, the plot of Castle was still going, but the story’d come to an end.  Which means the series either stumbled into that plot-heavy area I talked about up above… or it came up with a reason to extend the story. And as we’ve talked about in the past, that kind of artificial extension usually doesn’t go over well.
            So, plot and story.  Every good tale should have both.  They can overlap.  They can intertwine.  But if I’m missing one or the other, no matter how many excuses I want to make… my work’s going to be lacking.  And my audience is going to be able to tell.
            Next time…
            Well, next time is going to be a few days before Christmas.  And Hanukkah.  We’ll all have things to do, so I’ll try to do something brief.
            Until then… go write.
December 8, 2016

Yelling vs. Screaming

            Hey, everybody. Many thanks for your patience while I sorted out family crisis stuff.
            And, jeeez… now it’s three weeks until Christmas.  What the hell…?
            Anyway, I wanted to take a quick minute to talk about something I used to screw up a lot—word choice.
            I know I go on and on about spelling and vocabulary a lot.  To be honest, I make a point of working it into the schedule every four or five months.  I’ve mentioned before how many editors, script readers, and contest directors mention spelling as one of the main problems in a manuscript.
            Thing is, if I want to be taken seriously as a writer, I need to know my vocabulary.  Not guess or generally understand or depend on my spellcheckerknow.  Because there are lots of subtleties to any language –especially a crazy, messed up one like English.  One word can have a slightly different meaning than another, and that difference can have a huge impact on how that sentence or paragraph is understood by the reader.
            In my current project, there’s a big gun fight in a barn.  Between three different groups.  And did I mention that the barn’s on fire?  There’s a lot of stuff going on, and it’s a big, loud moment.
            And it made me look at my “loud” dialogue descriptors, because I realized the tone of the fight didn’t feel consistent.  Some people sounded angry, others scared, and a few almost seemed… well, bored.
            Check it out.  Here’s the same line of dialogue a few times with a different “loud” descriptor on it.  Take your time, pause between each one, and read through them…
            “Dot,” he shouted, “look behind you.”
            “Dot,” he screamed, “look behind you.”
            “Dot,” he called out, “look behind you.”
            “Dot,” he shrieked, “look behind you.”
            “Dot,” he yelled, “look behind you.”
            “Dot,” he bellowed, “look behind you.”
            D’you notice how they all have a slightly different feel?  Shouted and called out feel kind of low-energy with screamed between them.  It just seems a bit more urgent.  Shrieked gives the line a bit of desperation, whereas bellowed makes it sound kind of like a demand or order.
            Y’see, Timmy, this is that subtlety I was just talking about.  I’ve seen these words used lots of different places, lots of different times, so I’ve picked up on the distinct use.  And I’ve taken the extra step of looking them up—I want to knowwhat the words mean, not just have some vague idea.
            Because if I only have a vague idea what words mean, I’m only going to be able to create vague scenes with vague emotions.
            And nobody’s going to connect to that.
            Next time, I’d like to reminisce about a wonderful talk I once had with one of my favorite screenwriters.
            Until then, go write.