January 26, 2012 / 2 Comments

Feels Like The First Time

            Okay, first off, a bit of shameless self-promotion that also pushes my street cred, as the kids say.  Amazon Studios is developing a film with the working title of Original Soldiers.  It’s a sci-fi tale about human soldiers leaping into action when America’s droid army is shut down by an opponent.  I’m one of five folks (well, four folks and a writing team) who were hired by Amazon to expand my simple pitch off their logline into a full treatment.

            So, between that and Ex-Communication, things might slow down a bit in the month of February.  Just letting you all know now.
            Oh, and check it out.  You can still pick up The Junkie Quatrain.  It’s very cheap for your Kindle or Kindle app of choice.  Just saying…
            I’d like to begin this week, if you don’t mind, with a personal question or two.  You don’t have to answer them, but I want you to keep the answers in mind.
            Your current significant other—girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband—do you remember the first time you saw them naked?
            Not just the date or time, mind you.  Do you remember how you felt when you saw them like that?  What thoughts were going through your mind?  What emotions?  What your pulse and breathing were like?
            Follow up question—do you remember the most recent time you saw them naked?  How did you feel then?  What thoughts were going through your mind?
            Next question—do you remember your first day at your current job?  Do you remember looking at things, meeting people, learning the ropes?  Can you recall any thoughts that went through your mind?
            Follow up question—what was today like at your current job?  What did you think about?  Who did you see?
            Some of you may have picked up on the point I’m trying to make here.  There’s a big difference between the first time something happens and the fiftieth or hundredth or five-hundredth.  My first day on a film set was exciting as hell, but at the six year mark even the days with naked women on set were pretty dull, and at twelve years I was generally known as one of the cynical people on any given set.
            Now, I make that point so I can make this one…
            One mistake I see a lot in stories and screenplays is when writers can’t make the distinction between the first time your readers or audience are seeing something and the first time the characters are seeing it.  Characters go to work, have dinner with family, or teleport to their secret lair and express confusion or wide-eyed amazement at these things.  It knocks a reader out of the story because it’s immediately apparent this is something the characters should be familiar with.
            It sounds silly to say it so blatantly, but if I’ve been living in New England my whole life, a brutally cold winter shouldn’t come as a real shock.  If I’ve worked for Discorp for over a decade, their business practices shouldn’t catch me off guard.  If I’ve been with Phoebe for eight or nine years, the odds are we’ve seen each other many, many times and had many, many conversations about many, many things.
            The thing is, many storytellers become focused on the fact that this is the first time the readers have seen Wakko in action or me and Phoebe together.  So these folks tweak dialogue and reactions to play to the audience, rather than the genuine responses of the characters.  It seems correct from a mechanical point of view, but once you really study the moments this sort of thing falls apart.
            Here’s an example of doing it right that ties back to my opening questions–Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  When the film begins, the title characters have been married for several years and… well, things are getting a bit stale between them.  They’ve had all their conversations.  This is why Mr. Smith doesn’t really react much when Mrs. Smith—played by Angelina Jolie—is walking around their bedroom in her underwear.
            Let me repeat that last bit—Angelina Jolie is walking around their bedroom in her underwear.
           While this would be an absolutely amazing moment for about half of the folks reading this, Mr. Smith barely notices it.  He’s been seeing her in her underwear for years, after all.  It may be the first time all of us have seen her dressed (or undressed) like that, but for him this is just like every other day.
            This is closely related to another problem I’ve brought up once or thrice before, the dreaded  “As you know…”  When one of my characters says “as you know,” they’re admitting right up front that they and the person (or people) they’re speaking to already know the facts that are about to be spoken.  It’s clumsy, it’s wasted space, and it’s unnatural because it sounds like these folks are having a conversation for the first time when common sense tells us this has to have come up a dozen times before.  My girlfriend and I have been together for over seven years now, so we don’t need to talk about when our birthdays or anniversaries are.  I helped my best friend move into his house, so I don’t need to ask him where he keeps the rum or how to get to the bathroom.  My dad’s been an expert in his field for decades, so I don’t think he’d be stunned to learn working on reactors involves potential exposure to radiation.
            This is why the ignorant stranger is a great story device.  When I’ve got a character who’s new to the world of the story it gives me someone who can experience things for the first time while my other characters can be well-established sources of knowledge.  Yeah, I know where the rum’s kept in the house, but Yakko doesn’t, so my readers will accept it if Yakko and I talk about where to find the booze or the bathroom.
            Another great example if this is—
            Men In Black .For James Edwards, the police officer who becomes Agent J, the MIB is an intergalactic wonderland of non-stop discovery.  He’s the ignorant stranger.  Alien life forms, alien customs, alien technology—it’s all new to him.  But consider Agent K.  Everything that excites or stuns J makes him yawn.  Invading battle fleets, extraterrestial assassins, talking dogs, rocket cars, a warp-drive powered superball… these things all bore the hellout of him.  In fact, as the story progresses it becomes clear that K is at a disadvantage because he’s become so jaded by the world he lives in.
            One of the worst things I can do as a writer is confuse the first time the audience sees something with the first time the characters do.  It’ll come across as false and it’s one of those clumsy mistakes that’s hard to recover from.  So just remember… the first time for you might not be the first time for me.  And it’s almost definitely not the first time for him.
            Next week, as we’re close to opening day for a lot of the big screenplay contests, I thought I’d talk about a lot of common screenplay mistakes I’ve seen.
            Until then, go write.
March 19, 2010 / 3 Comments

Oh, The Humanity!

Historical reference, just to be different. Although awful things with zeppelins isn’t the greatest parallel for what I wanted to talk about. Plus I understand that airship pilots (of which there are ten in the whole world) get really testy if you bring up the Hindenberg…

Anyway, what I’d like to prattle on about this week is balloons. Y’know… those things that get bigger and bigger and finally explode.

It’s not uncommon for a writer to want to take an idea a little further. To turn that short story into a novella, that novella into a full-fledged book, or those two or three clever scenes into a feature-length screenplay. We’re all creative people. It’s what we do.

Plus, let’s be honest. Sometimes it just needs to be longer. We need another 5,000 words to hit a publisher’s minimum or maybe ten more pages to get this producer interested.

Now, the way most people try to expand their stories is by adding words. Sounds kind of obvious, I know, but there’s a catch. These folks mistake adding words for adding substance. Often, the words being added bulk up the manuscript but don’t actually add anything to it. They’re just putting back in all that stuff that was already edited out for being unnecessary.

It’s easy to explain this with a visual aid. Ready?

Picture a large balloon. A good-sized one. Pretend I wrote a short story on this balloon. Got that? Now it’s easy to make the story bigger, yes? Just inflate the balloon until it’s twice as big. We’ve all done something like this at some point, so it’s still easy to picture, yes?

Have I actually made the story bigger, though? It’s just the same ink forming the same story, now spread thin. In fact, since I filled it with… well, hot air, the story’s gotten a bit insubstantial for its size. It’s tough to read because it covers so much space and we can actually see through it at points.

If you’ve got a solid, edited story, you’ve already let all that hot air out. The story on the balloon is compact and dark, if you get my meaning.

Here’s a few quick, easy ways to spot a balloon…

Giving more description is a typical way of ballooning a manuscript. You throw in a few more adjectives or adverbs or a few more clever metaphors about how Phoebe looks like Angelina Jolie’s hot little blonde sister or something. What’s going on here, though, is all those cuts the writer made during editing are being reversed, just like I mentioned above. The unnecessary stuff is getting added back in and… well, that just doesn’t make sense.

Close to this is when the story’s revisiting the same idea again and again. Let’s have another example in the story of how clueless Yakko can be. Or perhaps yet another scene of slackjawed, stammering men which shows us how stunning Dot is. Maybe one more sequence where Wakko demonstrates how awesomely powerful and badass he is. Besides being a variation of the description problem above, belaboring a point like this gets dull fast. Anyone who wants a dull story, raise your hand now.

Then please leave.

Extending action sequences is another way writers sometimes balloon a story. I mentioned a while back that action (in my opinion) shouldn’t take much longer to read than it would take to do or watch. But an easy way to fill space is to decribe the history behind that perfect jodan zuki the ninja throws which connects with Yakko’s jaw. Then I can describe the excruciating pain as one of Yakko’s molars (which he got two fillings in as a boy and almost had pulled but his father insisted he had to keep his teeth as long as possible) gets smashed loose and the coppery taste of blood fills his mouth even as the impact of the strike twists his head around and… well, you get the idea. Does it really take that long to hit someone in the face? Can you imagine if every punch, strike, kick, or gunshot took that long? Dear God, the elevator scene in The Matrix would be longer than Atlas Shrugged.

So, that’s a few easy ways not to expand your story. But how should you?

Well, like so many things in this field, that’s a bit harder to say. A key thing to remember is expanding something often involves changing it. If your 7,500 word story is structured a certain way, the structure will probably have to alter when the story becomes 10,000 words. If it becomes 35,000 words it’ll have to change a lot. If you’re determined to keep the structure exactly the same, you’re probably going to have a lot of trouble making your manuscript bigger.

Another easy rule of thumb– you shouldn’t be adding things that don’t need to be there. So if you want to add a quirky conversation about “the first time,” angel hair pasta, or who got beat up more as a kid, there needs to be a reason for this conversation to take place.

Just to be clear, “boosting the word count” is not a viable reason.

Y’see, Timmy, if you want to expand a story you can’t add hot air–you need to add actual material. You want a bigger balloon, not the same balloon puffed up to look bigger.

Some quick examples…

–Throw an additional character into the mix. It could change relationships, action, pacing, all sorts of stuff. And add to all of these as well.

–Change someone’s motivation. Not everyone walks to the grocery store for the same reason after all. Yeah, maybe Wakko is helping out because he’s a decent guy, but maybe he’s doing it to try to make up for something he did years ago. This could change how he reacts to things, his exact actions, and maybe what’s a desirable ending for him.

–Make a new goal. A short story is generally A to B, maybe even C. So stop trying to cram in A 1/2 or B 3/4. Have your story go on to D, E, and maybe all the way to X.

And then, when you’ve made this change (or these changes), go over your new, larger story and polish it again.

There’s a chance I might miss next week as I rush to meet a bunch of deadlines for Creative Screenwriting. But please check in and perhaps we’ll talk for a spell, as they used to say.

Until then, go write.

April 16, 2009 / 4 Comments

How Not To Be Seen

Know what would be nice after the brutal tax season? Well, pretty much anything…

So, what’s the easiest way not to be seen?

Not to stand up.

If you get that joke, points to you. If not… Seriously, expand your horizons…

Anyway, if you’ve been following this rambling, ranty blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably figured out writing is almost never easy (despite what you may see on Castle). It takes a lot of work, and it kind of sucks that when you’re doing your best work as a writer no one’s going to notice.

Allow me to explain.

The best compliment you can ever hope for is someone forgets they’re reading your story. Not in the sense they stop reading for lunch and forget to pick it back up, but in the sense they honestly forget they’re reading a story.

Back when I was playing with my first real attempt at a novel, The Suffering Map, I handed it off to a few folks who I knew could be brutally honest about it. One of these people was my best friend, Marcus. Yes, he’s a friend, but we’ve been friends so long we both have no trouble telling each other when one of has screwed up. Sometimes there’s even some glee to it. And, yes, I freely admit nine times out of ten it’s him pointing out how I’ve screwed up.

Marcus took longer than anyone to get back to me with notes on The Suffering Map, and he finally admitted it was because he kept forgetting he was supposed to be making them. He’d go for dozens of pages without noting any mistakes or jotting down comments.

Silly as it may sound, this was one of the best compliments I’d ever received. It meant Marcus had forgotten he was reading my book and was just getting caught up in the story. The author and the medium fell off to the side and he just got absorbed into the tale of Rob, Sondra, Gulliver, and the Polynecros Transporter. The fact it was his friend’s story became inconsequential.

This is what we should all be shooting for. Our audience would forget they’re reading the latest John or Jane Smith novel or screenplay, perhaps even forget they’re reading a written work altogether, and just let themselves sink into the story. This happens when the audience forgets they’re reading, and the easiest way for that to happen is for them not to see your writing.

It always feels satisfying to avail oneself of an exuberant flourish of words and demonstrate not just the verbosity and vocabulary we’re capable of as proficient wordsmiths (and thesaurus owners), but also the clever intricacies we can interweave between character, plot, and theme. The problem is, every time we make the reader hesitate or pause just for a second, we’re breaking the flow of the story. Whenever the audience becomes overly aware of us, the writer, leaning over their shoulder and saying “hey, check out what I did there,” they’re going to pull back the same way anyone would. If you don’t mind the touchy-feely analogy, it’s an invasion of their personal space.

Think of some of the times you’ve been painfully aware of the author you’re reading. Ahhhh, Stephen King is doing that down-home-folksy-supernatural thing again. Look, Anne Rice is drifting back to her softcore porn roots again. Oh, that’s the same twist Harper Lee used in her last book. Sometimes this works, but more often than not if the audience is pausing to be aware of the author it’s just a chance for them to become aware of the world around them, to register they’re just holding a manuscript and not experiencing a story.

As writers, we should aspire to being invisible. Oh, we want our characters to be seen. We want our dialogue to be heard. We want our action and passion and suspense to leave people breathless. But we are just distractions. Less of us is more of the story.

By the way… if you are actually in possession of any other book by Harper Lee besides To Kill A Mockingbird, you are sitting on a gold mine.

Just saying.

So… some ways not to be seen.

Names. If used in moderation, names are invisible. They’re just shorthand for the mental images we’ve all formed in our heads. If I say Angelina, there’s an immediate link to the actress, just like saying Bob will make your audience think of your character Bob. It’s also worth mentioning that simpler, more common names blend easier than rare or unnatural ones. Tony doesn’t stand out as much as Antonio, Edward is easier on the frontal lobe than Ezekiel, and all they’re nothing compared to Bannakaffalatta.

Moderation is the key, though. If names repeat too often, they start to get cumbersome. Even if the name is something short and simple like Bob, when I see a paragraph about Bob reading Bob’s book shortly before Bob decided it was too hot outside and so Bob went in where it was air conditioned… well, personally at that point I start counting them, which means I’m not reading the story I’m auditing it. This is why we have…

Pronouns. When names start to get too noticeable, we call in the almighty pronoun. Just like names are shorthand for story elements, pronouns are shorthand for those names. When names start to clutter up your writing, they’re there to leap in and shoulder the weight. It’s how Bannakaffalatta becomes he, that mysterious island becomes there, and the Maltese Falcon becomes it.

The catch here is to make sure your pronouns are clear, because the moment someone gets confused about who she is, they’ve just stopped being part of your story and started studying the page. A good rule of thumb—after you’ve referred to Angelina as she six or seven times, drop her proper name back in once. It’s been long enough it won’t look repetitive, and it’s a gentle reminder of who she is.

Said. We talked about this just last week, but it’s worth saying again. Said is invisible. No one’s going to count up how many times you use said (except maybe my friend Meredith), but people will start noticing if you constantly respond, retort, or exclaim. If you plan on having several characters pontificate, depose, or ejaculate, don’t be surprised when your audience stops reading to scratch their collective heads or giggle. Usually while they’re pointing right at you.

Vocabulary. We all know what red means, but viridian can make us pause for a moment. Some things glow and some are effulgent. That guy can be hairy or he can be hirsute, which means you might also think of referring to him as an ape or perhaps an anthropoid.

A huge problem I see is writers who can’t figure out what common knowledge is, and argue adjectives like atrementous or glabrous are valid simply because they’re in the dictionary. Pruinose is a real adjective, too, but there’s a reason it doesn’t come up much over drinks. Any word a writer chooses just to draw attention, to prove they don’t need to use a common word, is the wrong word. And the fact that it’s drawing attention means you’ve just been seen again.

So duck behind the bushes, crouch down inside that water barrel, and prepare to write. Once you’re out of sight, that means the audience can only focus their attention on your characters and your story.

Next week… what should you have in common with the people who built the pyramids and the hanging gardens of Babylon? It’s not the lost continent of Atlantis, I’ll tell you that much.

And don’t let me see you until then.

For now, go write.

This time, let’s talk about her. The hot chick.

Much as I’d like, this does not mean a whole post devoted to Famke Janssen, Hayden Panettiere, Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway, or Allison Mack. Alas, not even some of the hot chicks I’ve actually met and hung out with, like Eliza Dushku, Catherine Bell, or Reiko Aylesworth (who is one vicious pool shark). However, if any of these names conjure appealing images and thoughts, feel free to hang onto them for the upcoming extended analogy. Or pick someone you may remember from high school or college.

(Heterosexual female readers—my apologies. This analogy is also going to be a bit one sided, and may even seem a bit shallow at points…)

I think most of us at one point or another have known one of those incredibly sexy and alluring women and had hopes and dreams (or lurid fantasies) about ending up with her, yes? After all, how could she fail to see all my interesting qualities? My intelligence, sense of humor, self-assured nature, and casual disregard for fashion trends. I mean if Famke / Allison/ Eliza/ Reiko just got to know me, it would all work out.


Well, probably not. Let’s be honest, a woman like that tends to have her pick of mates, so odd are they’re going to lean towards someone… well, a bit more physically attractive. Not always, but that’s the way to hedge your bets. Likewise, they probably want someone with similar fashion and music tastes. Heaven forbid, there are even those females who are a bit shallow and are going to be looking for someone with money to spend on them.

Now… does this mean all and every lust-able woman is out of reach? Not at all. Everyone’s unique, we all have our funny quirks, and there’s a chance that Hayden has been secretly hoping to meet someone just like you. More hopefully, just like me.

If not, though, it might mean you need to make a few changes in your life. That is, if you’re serious about this connection with Anne. Exercise a lot more. Shower a lot more, too. Get a haircut. Stop buying clothes at Wal-Mart. Listen to something that isn’t ’80’s retro soundtracks. Possibly even get a job you hate that brings in more money.

Then you also have to deal with the fact that, well, lots of people are paying attention to a woman that hot. If you’re at a bar, a party, a club—you don’t think you’re going to be the only person who notices Eliza over there, do you? She’s going to be mobbed by people. Dozens, maybe more. Yes, half of them are way out of her league and don’t have a prayer of connecting with her, but they’re still there, in the way between you and her. And by the time you reach her, you’re going to have to try twice as hard to impress her (without looking like you’re trying hard) because she’s so tired of dealing with all these other folks.

And even after all this—after you get your act together, make changes to yourself and your life, and fight your way through the crowd– Angelina might decide to stay with Brad. Maybe not. You never know with these things. But there’s a decent chance she might.

So… ready for the analogy?

Writing professionally is like going after the hot chick. In this case, Famke is the agent or publisher you hope to win over, and you are your writing. Yes, there’s a good chance that there is an agent or publisher out there that will take your work just as it is with no changes whatsoever… but it’s probably not Famke. Or Catherine. Or Reiko. Or…

If you really want to land that dream agent or get that publisher to notice you, odds are you’re going to have to work at it. You need to be willing to make changes—maybe even ones you don’t like—to make your manuscript into something they want to read instead of just something you felt like writing. You need to stand out amidst hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other writers. Yes, half of them probably have no business being there, but the agent or publisher still has to work through all their stuff to get to yours, and will probably be feeling pretty tired and negative by the time they get there.

Despite everything you’ve seen in the movies, nobody ever gets the hot chick without some effort.