February 17, 2018

Getting Our Story Straight

            Running a little late this week.  Again.  Crazy busy these past few days.  Craig DiLouie was here in southern California, so we hung out for a day. Then there was Valentine’s Day.  And if you haven’t seen Black Pantheryet I highly recommend it.  Fantastic movie.
            Oh, plus a couple of outlines for new projects, too…
            This past week at the Writers Coffeehouse I babbled on about different forms of structure and how they work together.  I haven’t really gone into that here in a couple of years, so I figured now might be a good time.  While it’s all fresh in my mind.
            Fair warning—this is kind of a sprawling topic so it’s going to spread out over the next two posts as well as this one.  I also may use a few terms in ways of which your MFA writing professor would not approve.  But I’ll do my best to be clear, despite all that.
            Speaking of professors…
            Structureis one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot when we’re talking about writing.  Sometimes in a generic sense, like that last sentence, other times in much more specific ways. You may have heard gurus talk about narrative structure, dramatic structure, three-act structure, or maybe even four- and five-act structure (if you’ve been dabbling with screenwriting a bit).
            An important thing to be clear about before we go too far—all of these are very different things.  I think this is why people get confused about structure sometimes.  A lot of things fall into this general category, and while some of them are vital to the storytelling process… some aren’t.  And it doesn’t help when “expert” gurus try to conflate them.  I read an article once where one guy was trying to use the five-act structure of television shows to demonstrate that three-act structure was an obsolete form (ProTip–it’s not).
            When we talk about structure, we’re talking about the underlying framework of a story.  The skeletal system, or maybe the nervous system, depending on how you want to look at it.  And, just like with anatomy (or architecture or programming) there can be more than one underlying system. And they all work together to make a functioning person. Or house.  Or story.
            It’s key to note that all these systems (or structures) are not the same. Sometimes things will overlap and serve multiple purposes. Sometimes they won’t. And, as I mentioned above, just because something worked in that story doesn’t mean it’ll work in my story.
            Okay.  Got all that?
            Good.  Get ready to take a few notes
           The three main structures in a story, for our purposes these next few weeks, are linearstructure, narrative structure, and dramatic structure.  They all interact and work with each other.  Just like with anatomy, if two elements are strong and one is weak, a story won’t be able to support itself.  So it’s important that I have a good grasp of all three and understand how they work.
            The one we’re going to deal with this week is linear structure.  Simply put, it’s how my characters experience the story.  There’s a Russian literary term for this called fabula.  Another term you may have heard for this is continuity.  Thursday leads to Friday which leads to Saturday.  Breakfast, coffee break, lunch, dinner.  Birth, childhood, college years, adulthood, middle age, old age, death.
            There’s a simple reason linear structure is so important.  Almost all of us are experts with it.  That’s because linear order is how we experience things all the time, every day.  We notice when effect comes before cause, even if the story gives them to us out of order.  A good way to think of linear structure, as I mentioned above, is a timeline.  When detectives break down the clues of a crime, them may discover them out of order, but it doesn’t change the order the events actually happened in.  If I’m writing a story—even if I’m telling the story in a non-linear fashion—there still needs to be a linear structure. 
            A good way to test the linear structure of my story (a method I’ve mentioned before) is to arrange all the flashbacks, flash-forwards, recollections, frames, and other devices in chronological order.  My story should still make logical sense like this, even if it’s lost some dramatic weight this way (more on that later).  If my story elements don’t work like this (if effect comes before cause, or if people know things before they learn them), it means I’ve messed up my linear structure.
            Now, I want to mention a specific example where linear structure gets messed up a lot– time travel.
            In a time travel story, it’s very likely there’ll be multiple linear structures.  My time traveler might be experiencing Thursday, Friday, then Wednesday, and then Thursday again.  They’re still experiencing four days in a row, though—even if their friends and coworkers are only having three. And their three are Wednesday-Thursday-Friday.
            I mentioned this diagram at the Coffeehouse on Sunday. It’s a pair of timelines featuring two characters from Doctor Who—Jack Harkness and the Doctor himself.  I’ve marked a few key, mutual events in their lives.
            Jack’s life is pretty straightforward, for our purposes here.  A is when young Jack first meets the Ninth Doctor and decides to travel with him for a while.  B is when he later encounters the Tenth Doctor and Martha.  C is when they all briefly meet again a year or so later to stop Davros and the Daleks.  They meet again (D) much, much later in Jack’s life.  And Eis when the Doctor’s there for Jack’s death at the ripe old age of twenty billion or so (mild spoilers, sorry). 
            That’s a pretty normal, linear timeline.  Young to old.  The one most of us have (just slightly exaggerated in his case).
            Now… look at the Doctor’s.  This is the linear structure of the show because we (the audience) are following the Doctor around (more on this next week).  He travels in time, though, so he meets Jack in kind of an odd order.  First time for him isn’t the first time for Jack, and vice-versa.  But it’s still a logical, linear order for the Doctor—he’s living his own timeline, A-B-C-D-E, just like Jack.  A and B are the Ninth Doctor, C through E are the Tenth.
            Make sense?
           Y’see, Timmy, no matter what order I decide to tell things in, the characters are experiencing the story in linear order.  If halfway through my book one of my character flashes back to what happened a week ago, this isn’t new information for him or her—it happened a week ago.  So all of their actions and reactions up until that flashback should take that information into account.
            It sounds pretty straightforward and it really is.  Linear structure is going to be the easiest of the three forms I blab about over the next few weeks because it’s logical and objective.  But, alas, people still mess it up all the time.  And the mistakes are usually because of… narrative structure.
            But we’ll talk about that next week.
            Until then, go write.
March 16, 2017 / 4 Comments

Our Aluminum Anniversary Post

            So very sorry I missed last week.  There were copyedits.  I got about 3/4 of a post done in my spare time, but I was never quite happy with it, and then last Thursday was here and gone.
            And now here’s Thursday again.
            As it turns out, though, this turned out to be a fantastic bit of lucky timing.
            This, my friends-students-lurkers-haters-et al, is the 400th post here on the ranty blog.  Yep.  Four.  Hundred.  I know that doesn’t really mean much, in the big scheme of things.  There are some folks who post way, way more frequently than I ever will.
            Still, though… that’s a lot of random writing rules and advice I’ve been spouting out over the years.  Granted, there were a couple of amusing pictures mixed in there, plus I’ve revisited the same topic a few times, but…c’mon, it’s a pretty cool milestone.
            Okay, fine. You’re not impressed.  How about this, then…
            Sunday, it’ll be ten years since I first started said ranty blog.
            TEN. YEARS.
            To put that in perspective, the first Iron Man movie, the one that kicked off the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe?  That was nine years ago.  Ten years ago nobody’d heard of Breaking Bad or Fifty Shades of Grey.  Hell, ten years ago nobody’d ever heard of Sarah Palin.
            To be honest, nobody’d ever heard of me, either.
            Probably also worth mentioning there’ve been a little over 770 comments posted here in that time. So many thanks to all of you who’ve stumbled across this pile of rants. It’s always nice to know I’m not shouting into the void.
            Ten years.
            This revamp’s long overdue, yes?  Blogger’s overhauled many of its formats. A lot more of you are reading this on tablets or smartphones (something else that would’ve been a mystery ten years ago).  This whole page could be a lot more mobile-friendly.
            Plus, let’s be honest. I’m ten years older. Some of you are, too.  Most of you are going to be.  The white-text-on-black setup wasn’t helping anyone.
            Soooooooo… Whadda you think?
            Okay, talk about that down in the comments. Since we’re looking at a big momentous anniversary (and did anyone get me an aluminum ring?  No!) and I’ve been doing the Writers Coffeehouse for over a year now, I wanted to be clear on something.  I’ve kind of talked about this on and off, but it struck me it might be worth saying in really clear, absolute terms.
            I am not a writing guru. 
            Hell, forget guru, I’m not much of a writing teacher.  I’m barely a writing adviser.  Most of the Coffeehouse folks can vouch for this.  At best, I’m kind of the old writing hermit up in the hills.  You can ask me questions and I’ll shake my fist and shout some kind of answer, but I’d guess at least half the time my answer won’t work for you.  Probably closer to 2/3 of the time.
            That’s the Golden Rule I’ve mentioned here once or thrice.  Writing is a very individual, very personal process. What works for me might not work for you. It definitely won’t work for him.
            So… how is that different from being a guru?
            Well, because I’m admitting it might not work.  Not for everyone.  I’m telling you that up front.  There is no “right” way to do this.  At best, we can pin down some methods that work better than others and a few more that are more likely to hinder than help.  But past that…
          Okay, I’m going to tell you a really old, really stupid joke.  I apologize in advance, but it’s kind of important.  Ready?
            A man goes to the doctor’s office.  He holds his arm out, rotates it counter-clockwise at the shoulder, and says “Doc, it hurts like hell whenever I do this.” 
            The doctor looks at him, shrugs, and says “Don’t do that.  That’ll be twenty dollars.”
            Yep, twenty dollars for a doctor’s visit.  Told you it was an old joke.

           Now, on a basic level, the doctor has taken care of the patient’s problem.  And it’s kind of a win-win for the doctor.  If the man keeps doing it and the pain persists, he’s going against the doctor’s orders and the doc was right telling him to stop.  If he doesn’t do it and there’s no pain, then the doctor was right telling him to stop.

            The catch here, of course, is that the doctor hasn’t actually done anything.  And that’s how a lot of gurus operate.  They know how tough it can be to succeed in this business, so they charge a lot of money and offer foolproof advice.  Foolproof in the sense of it can’t fail, because the advice is not to do anything.
            I used to see this mentality in the film industry a lot.  A script will normally go through what they call “clearance.”  It’s when a lawyer or legal assistant goes through the screenplay looking for possible legal issues, usually with names, addresses, and prominently mentioned items.  Is this character name common, or is there only one person with this namein that city?  Should someone bitch and complain about Microsoft products by name on screen?  The clearance people are supposed to do some research and then give everything a thumbs down (because you might get sued) or a thumbs up (you’re in the clear).
            Guess what, though?  About nineteen times out of twenty, they just say don’t do it.  Don’t use that name, don’t mention that product, don’t refer to that person.  No matter what it is, you might get sued, so don’t use it. 
            Y’see, Timmy, if I tell you not to do something and you don’t, there’s no problem—I was right.  If I tell you not to do it, you do anyway, and nothing happens, then you were lucky—and I was right.  If I tell you not to do it, you do anyway, and  you get sued… well, I told you not to do it.  It’s not my fault.  No matter what the actual outcome is, by saying no, I’m always correct. 
            This is what I see overwhelmingly from gurus (both prose and screenwriting).  Rather than actually teach anything, far too many of them just give lists of what not to do.  Don’t do flashbacks. Don’t use passive voice.  Don’t take too long to introduce characters.   Don’t have your inciting incident any later than page nineteen.  Don’t use “we see.” Don’t use “said.”  Don’t do voiceover in scripts.
            And, again, they’re never wrong, because saying no is always correct.
            On the other hand, I try to explain how these things work. Of course you can use flashbacksIntroduce characterswhenever it’s appropriate for your individual story.  And please, please, please try to use “said” morethan any other dialogue descriptor. These devices wouldn’t exist if they didn’t work—they would’ve died out centuries ago. Actual centuries.  It’s just easier and quicker to say “don’t use them” then it is to explain how to use them correctly.
            Especially if said guru doesn’t know how to use them correctly.
            There’s another way I’m different from a guru.  I have actual, recent experience.  Not references or testimonials—experience.  I honestly can’t tell you the number of self-proclaimed experts I’ve seen who haven’t had a single sale in their chosen industry in years.  Assuming they’ve ever even had a sale.  One of my favorites was a “script doctor” I’d never, ever heard of (keeping in mind, I worked in the film industry for fifteen years and then reported on it for another five) who assured would-be clients that he’d worked on lots and lots of big box office films… none of which he was allowed to name for confidentiality reasons. 
            Remember, real professionals don’t have testimonials—they have credits. Recent credits.  Every industry changes over time.  Publishing, filmmaking, programming, farming—all of them.  The longer it’s been since I’ve done something, the less likely it is that my knowledge of said industry is any good.  You might remember a couple weeks back I mentioned I wasn’t going to offer screenplay advice anymore because it’d been a while since I actively did anything in the film industry.  I don’t want to mislead anyone with out-of-date advice about how to put a screenplay together. 
            Yeah, there are still format posts here if anyone wanted to go digging (look, here’s one), but it’s also clear these aren’t current.  So I’m going off the basic assumption that if someone finds their way here, they’re smart enough to think twice before blindly following something from a year ago.
            I mean, let’s just approach this logically.  If Wakko really knows how to write a novel that publishers will pay half a million for… why is he nickel-and diming you and me? Why are we paying him $500 for a three-day weekend course when a film studio might give him $750,000—plus residuals?
            Don’t get me wrong.  There are a bunch of very talented, very experienced people out there offering writing advice and asking for a couple of bucks.  I personally know at least half a dozen writers who’ve put out books of writing tips and advice.  I’ve toyed with the idea myself.  But, again, they’re all professionals.  Offering writing advice is a side business, not their primary one. 
            Which is, y’know… writing.
            And that brings me to my last point.  It’s not a hard fast rule, but I’d say it’s a pretty solid rule of thumb.  Most of the professionals who offer writing advice… just offer it.  They don’t want a huge amount of cash up front. They’re not asking $85 for a self-published textbook.
            The reason for this is pretty simple.  The vast majority of us who’ve made it up here to the top half of the ladder only got here because we got help and encouragement from other professionals along the way.  I can look back and know I only made it here because of advice and tips I got from several writing professionals along the way, almost all of whom gave me that advice for free (one was a college professor—and a two-time Pen/Faulkner winner with nine books to his name at that point).
            The question I need to ask myself is… is that big pile of don’ts from somebody with no experience worth $650?  Or maybe a grand?  Hell, is it even worth fifty bucks?
            And that’s why I’m not a guru.
            And it’s part of the reason I’ve been writing out suggestions and tips and not-so-gentle nudges here for the past ten years.
            Again, thanks for being here.
            Next time, I’ll probably prattle about words, like I said I was going to do last week. Or maybe I’ll talk about this really cute foreign exchange student I knew in college. One of those things.
            Until then… go write.
September 5, 2016

Writers Coffeehouse

            Hey, everybody…
            Hope you’re enjoying your Labor Day, even if you’re not in southern Califonia.  And if you do happen to be a SoCal resident, I wanted to remind you that this coming Sunday, the 11th, is the second Sunday of the month—which means it’s time for Los Angeles Writer’s Coffeehouse. 
            We’re going to be at Dark Delicacies in Burbank from noon to three (as always).  It’s completely free and it’s open to everyone—writers of all ages and skill levels.  You can be just starting out, halfway through your first project, a seasoned pro, or a complete hack like me. 
            This time around we’re going to be talking about drafts and editing, and also about working with editors in general.  Please feel free to show up with your questions, your own thoughts, and your clever ideas and tips.
            I’m moderating, so it’ll be highly adequate, as always.
            Hope to see you there.
            Hey, a quick bonus post or Writers Coffeehouse folks.  Or any of you who are interested in such things…
            One of our Coffeehouse topics this past weekend was querying agents, and I told the folks there about how I actually got attention from two fairly well-known, high profile agents because I had a good query letter and could talk like a professional in one-on-one meetings. And I thought it might be useful to some folks to have said letter as a rough template.
            Ironically, the book I was querying with was The Suffering Map, my early novel that I use so often here as an example of how not to do things.  Seriously, I use it so often there’s a tag for it.  A big one.  You could figure out a lot of the book  just by reading about all the elements I screwed up in it.
                                                                          May 15th, 2003
                                                                          My Old Address
                                                                          San Diego CA 92116
New York NY
Ms. ########,
            If you could travel in an instant to anywhere, or any-when, in the world, where would you go?  Now, what if there was a price?  What if each journey submitted you to a nightmare of pain and torture before you arrive, unharmed, without a mark on you, at your destination.  Getting there is not half the fun.  So why would Rob Fable do it a second time?  Or a third?  And what would happen if he got addicted to it?
My novel, THE SUFFERING MAP,  is a suspense/ horror novel that also involves a great deal of mythology, history, and a sprinkling of pop culture.  It’s set in my home city of San Diego, and the title refers to a mysterious device, found (well, stolen) by Rob, which allows him to travel while submitting him to the whims of a being called Bareback.  It also brings him into contact with Sondra, who develops an unusual bond with the Suffering Map, and Gulliver, who has his own plans for the mechanism….
        Rob comes to realize the financial potential of the device and travels with it more and more.  When he discovers some of the historical results of using the Suffering Map, though, he finds it isn’t that easy to stopusing it.  In the end, Rob must come to terms with his addiction to the ancient machine as his friends try to save him and themselves, for Bareback has his own plans, and the power of history is on his side.
            I would like to send you either the full manuscript of The Suffering Map (approximately 120,000 words), or some sample chapters and a synopsis, at your preference.  Please find a SASE enclosed for your convenience.
                                                                          Peter Clines
            So, look at what we’ve got here. First off, it’s short and simple–one page only.  I introduce the four major characters and explain the title.  Also notice that while pretty much the whole thing is talking about the story–this could almost be a back of the book/inside flap description,  I also slip in a bit of humor (okay, maybe he didn’t find the Suffering Map…) and some credentials (I’m not just writing about a city I’ve never been to or visited once).
            I wrap it up with a professional closing.  At the time this particular agent hadn’t set out firm guidelines past “query first,” so I suggested some options, each one showing that I have an understanding of the process.  By offering the full manuscript (with a word count) I’m confirming it’s done, and I have an idea how long such a book should be.  Offering a synopsis implies I either have one ready or know how to prepare one.  And all of that helps show that I’ve got an idea how to use words to convey ideas.  Y’know, like a writer…
            One more thing. The little device of asking questions—good, semi-rhetorical questions—encourages people to consider answers.  So even though I address these questions a bit later (to some degree), I’m still leaving room for the agent to wonder about what the answer is. The Suffering Map, as implied, has a mystery element to it, so questions worked well for me. YMMV.
            However… I hear that “asking rhetorical questions” has been getting used in queries a lot lately, and the device is bordering on gimmicky.  Most agents hate gimmicks, because even though it may be new and clever to me, odds are they’ve seen it a hundred times.  This week.  Some might just roll their eyes and keep reading, for others it may be a dealbreaker.  So be cautious with gimmicks.  Or something that may be bordering on gimmick-hood.
            And, again, please don’t forget—this is an example of what worked for me. Your individual query letter needs to reflect your book and your skills as a writer, so copying this and making minor tweaks won’t really help.  This is just a guide, so when you’re talking about your book you’ll have a sense of what to say.
            On our regularly-scheduled Thursday post, I wanted to talk about sucker punches.
            Until then, go write.
            And if you’re at that stage… query.