December 30, 2020

The Tally of the Plague Year

Well, here we are. The last post of the year. Finally.

Normally, when I get to the end of the year, it’s a chance to sit down and list off all the stuff I got done over the past twelve months. But wow… here in the USnine of these past twelve months have been pretty awful. Made even worse by the fact that it feels like certain parties/persons in the government really don’t even care if Americans live or die. I understand the UKisn’t much better. Hell, is it even still the UK?

It all combined to make a pretty rough year.

If you didn’t get a lot done this year as a creative person, you’re not alone. We all had a big shift in priorities and schedules, not to mention financial shifts. And just lots and lots of stress. If you weren’t worried about things this year… honestly, I don’t know what to say. For the rest of us, it was just brutal.

I know I got waaaaaaaay less done than I’d wanted this year. Pretty sure I lost the back half of March through early May to doomscrolling as the pandemic found its legs and took off. And then, just as I was getting back on my creative feet, the summer protests kicked into gear—some of them very close to me. And it’s tough to work on weird, entertaining stories when you know just a few miles away people are risking their lives trying to end… well, pretty much a reign of terror.

Okay, this is spiraling into despair, so let’s talk about good things. Because there were some good things. There’s no way you can tell me you didn’t have brief moments of creativity this year.

The big thing for me was The Broken Room. Still not sure about the title, but I’m very happy with the book itself. I started it last year, got the first draft done before, y’know, everything, and then spent the summer cutting and editing. And then my agent had some good thoughts (a few of which had already been gnawing at me) which I’m in the process of implementing now (not right now obviously, but for the past few weeks). If all goes well, you might get to read it next year.

I also wrote a massive outline for what will hopefully be a six book series. Not an ongoing universe or anything, but a large story told, beginning to end, across six books. A hexalogy or sextet, depending on your preference. This is something I wouldn’t’ve even thought about a couple years ago, for a few reasons, and even as it is my agent’s warned me it might be a tough sell. But I’ve been playing with this for a while and it’s finally all come together and… well, hopefully I’ll get to tell you more about the Creatureverse in the near future.

Speaking of things I’ve been playing with for a while… There’s an idea I bounced off an editor about six or seven years ago (over whiskey and apple pie late one night at San Diego Comic-Con), and he pointed out I basically had a well-thought out idea, but not much of a plot, really. Well, about two weeks ago that whole knot just unsnarled in my head. Or got cut in half, depending on how you like to picture tough knots getting dealt with. I ran to my computer and typed out a little over three pages of notes for that. Who knows when I’ll get to it, but when I get the chance I know I can write it.

I also pitched a dream project to a comics editor. I think I’ve got a solid take, but I can also admit (in retrospect) my pitch was pretty weak. I should’ve done a better job figuring out how to pitch things for this particular format and for that particular editor. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll get to try again in a year or four, when the shame of this bad attempt has faded from both our memories.

Oh, and there’s the ranty writing blog itself. Seventy-three posts here, although probably a dozen of those were cartoons or quick notices about new books or something. And a quarter of it past that was all the A2Q series, which hopefully one or two of you found semi-useful.

I also managed to read thirty-one books this year, despite all the doomscrolling. Nowhere near my usual amount but… hey, doomscrolling. As it is, most of these were either for the Last Bookstore’s dystopian book club or blurb books for friends/editors/ my agent. But I might get one more done before New Year’s! Which is also a blurb book.

I read a lot of comics for fun. Shadow Road. Transformers. GI Joe. Vampirella/Red Sonja(which is amazingly good). There’s also a Transformers/Terminatorcrossover book which I’m only two issues into but it’s very clever.

And that’s what I got done this year. A lot of time lost, but I think I used the remainder pretty well. I’m happy with how it all turned out, anyway…

How about you? I don’t think any of us got as much done as we’d wanted, for a bunch of reasons. but hopefully you got something down you’re happy with. A few chapters, a couple of pages, or maybe some notes to work with once everything’s just a little calmer. The important thing isn’t how much you did—it’s that you did it.

Seriously, if you managed to get stuff done in 2020, think what you’ll be able to do when the world’s not on fire.

And hey, speaking of things not being on fire—sorry, quick segue—Georgia residents, I know you’ve been battered with this but please vote in your Senate runoff next week, and please vote for Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. The simplest way to get the government working for you again is simply to remove Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader. And voting for Warnock and Ossoff will do that. Plus, added bonus, it’ll get rid of two incredibly corrupt members of the Senate who’ve blatantly used their positions to enrich themselves. So really it’s a win-win.

I hope all of you have the absolute best New Year’s you can with the state of things right now, and that 2021 brings all of us peace, relief, and maybe a few clever plot lines.

See you again in the future.

Until then, go write.

May 16, 2019 / 2 Comments

…Could Cut Diamonds

At the Writers Coffeehouse this past weekend we talked a little bit about starting a book, which is something I blabbed on about here just a few weeks back.  I thought it might be worth going over one particular aspect of both discussions.
There’s one thing any writer needs to understand if they want to be successful. It took me  a while to get it.  Really get it. 

Ideas are cheap.  Ridiculously cheap.  They’re a dime a dozen.  I’d guess on an average day I have at least a dozen random ideas for books, short stories, screenplays, or television episodes. 

Now, in my experience, beginning writers tend to hit one of two problems when it comes to ideas, and they’re really two flipsides of the same issue. 
One type of writer laments that they never have good ideas.  Yeah, I might have a couple clever thoughts, but they’re not, y’know… book-worthy.  Not like some of the stuff out there. Wanderersor  Middlegame or Black Leopard, Red Wolf or… I mean, all that stuff is so good.  On so many levels.  The ideas I come up with all feel kinda average.  They’re not worth writing about, so I don’t write. I wait for the good ideas to strike.
If I’m the second type, I have too many ideas.  I’ve barely finished writing my third screenplay this month but I’ve already got an idea for a series of epic novels.  Which leads me to a comic book series.  And a podcast.  And a collection of linked short stories. I can barely keep up with all the ideas I have.

In either case, I’m probably suffering from a misconception.  The same one, really. I think anything that goes on the page has to be pure, award-winning gold.  The difference is that the first type of writer won’t put anything down because they know it isn’t  gold, whereas the other folks are assuming it must be gold because they put it down on the page.

Make sense?

The catch, of course, is that most of the stuff that I put down isn’t going to be gold.  It’s going to be rewritten and edited down and polished.  I shouldn’t be thinking of story ideas as gold, but more like diamonds.  When I find a diamond in the wild, it’s a crusty black lump.  They’re not sparkly or faceted, and they definitely don’t look like they’re worth six or eight thousand dollars per carat.  Diamonds need to be cut and recut, measured and examined, cut again, and then polished some more.  That’s how they get ready to be placed in a setting and shown off to the world.
So that first group of writers is tossing out all those black, coarse stones because none of them look like engagement rings.  The second group‘s busy sticking the crusty lumps on gold bands and asking you to pay three months salary for them. 
Hopefully it’s easy to see why neither of these is the right approach.
What’s the trick, then? Is there a way to know which ideas are the good ones to spend time cutting and polishing?  How can I tell if it’s an idea with potential or a bad idea or maybe a good idea but just one idea too many?

Well, y’see Timmy, the ugly truth is… a lot of the time, I can’t tell.  I just need to do the work.  I might go through a hundred pages or a solid week or three of outlining and realize there’s not really anything there.  A fairly successful friend of mine spent months working on a novel.  He got almost 70,000 words into it before he realized… it just wasn’t working.  So he stopped and moved on.

Sure, yeah, he probably could’ve cheated a bit.  Tweaked a few things, maybe tossed out a deus ex machina or two, but in the end it didn’t work because it didn’t work.  No clever phrase or substituted word or literary sleight of hand was going to change that.

I know a lot of folks have trouble accepting this, even though we all understand this sort of thing happens in a lot of other jobs. Chefs come up with cool recipes they never get to use.  Engineers design things that never get built.  Hell, do you have any idea how many unproduced scripts there are floating around Hollywoodthat have Oscar-winning screenwriters behind them?  Every creative person puts out a lot of material that never gets seen by anyone.  We do a lot of work and it gets cut or replaced or just… not used.

Don’t get paralyzed wondering if your ideas are gold.  Odds are they aren’t.  But you’ll find some diamonds in the rough, and once you know how to spot them it’ll be an easier (and quicker) process to find them next time.  For now, take what you’ve got and work with that.  There’s a chance there’s a shiny diamond or two in there somewhere.  If you put the work into them.

Speaking of cutting out excess material, next week I wanted to talk to you about recycling.
Until then… go write.
March 13, 2018

Writing Lessons from ROM

Eight-year old me learned a big lesson about storytelling from this one panel…

September 24, 2016

Re- Formatting

            Not so much a pop culture reference as a tech reference.  Came up with that title and then remembered working with my first computer when I was… nine?  I remember having to format floppy discs before you could use them.  Anyone else remember that?
            Very sorry I missed last week.  Deadline crunch. Which I’m still in, really, but I didn’t want to miss two solid weeks in a row.
            I was rewatching some episodes of an old show recently, and it struck me that it had a major format problem.  And as I mulled on it, it struck me I’ve seen this problem a few times before. Sometimes firsthand, happening right in front of me.
            I want to point out something… well, I’d say it’s obvious, but I don’t think it always is. I think it’s been muddled by a lot of would-be gurus and experts spreading bad information.  And since that’s what led to the ranty blog in the first place, well…
            Anyway, let me throw some wisdom at you.
            Novels are not comic books.
            Comic books are not television scripts.
            Television scripts are not movie scripts.
            Movie scripts are not stage plays.
            Stage plays are not novels.
            As I said, should be obvious, right?
            Thing is, each of those storytelling formats is unique unto itself.  Seriously. I can rattle off at least half a dozen inherent differences between any of them.
            We always hear people complain about changes when something is adapted from a book into a movie, but the simple fact is things have to change.  I cannot tell a story in a screenplay the same way I’d tell it in a book.  And I can’t tell a story in a motion picture script the same way it’d be told in an episodic television script.
            Let me give you some examples.
            Based off my own experience—as a crew person, a contest reader, and a screenwriter–I’d guess that 99.9% of all film, television, and stage work is done from the audience point of view.  The only parts that aren’t are the very limited POV shots that sometimes crop up in horror movies or thrillers(usually outside windows, inside closets, or across parking lots) and the rare experimental film like Hardcore Henry that was funded entirely by the powerful carsickness/nausea lobby.
            Contrast that with a book, where the author, with full control, can shift to any point of view they want. I can make the reader see, hear, and experience everything through one character’s senses, knowledge, and memories… and then shift to a different character.  There’s no real way to do that on film.
            However… a book is, for a lack of a better term, a one-source format.  I have to write things out.  There’s no way for the reader to know George has blond-brown hair without me putting “George has blond-brown hair” down on the page.  I might be able to get a little subtle with it, maybe pull some literary sleight-of-hand, but at the end of the day all I can do is put words on the page.  That’s it.  I can’t slip in some details in the background, because everything in a book is presented in the foreground—right there in front of my reader on the page.
            If I’m writing for television, I also need to be aware of the very specific format that most television writing requires.  Episodic shows are usually done with a four or five act structure (not to be confused with three act structure, which is kinda-sorta something else) which requires my story to have a series of mini-cliffhangers where the commercial breaks will be.  If it’s a show with an arc, it also needs to address that a week’s passed since the last episode, and some story points may need to be repeated or re-addressed to cut down on audience confusion.

            Of course, if I’m writing for, say HBO or Netflix, then that doesn’t apply and I have a bit more freedom, structure-wise.  These episodes are almost more like mini-movies.  Except that now I need to be clear people may be binging these stories, watching them back-to-back-to-back, and take that into account.

            Stage writing is also unique because it’s happening right in front of us. There’s an inherent storytelling conceit that we’ll accept these actors don’t see us.  Or that they’re not actually in a forest.  Or they can’t hear that guy behind the tree bellowing his lines out to the back of the theater. This is a different kind of storytelling mechanic, and that’ll be reflected in my writing.
            And none of these are like comic books. Comics are this fantastic medium where we can have an active, flowing story that’s being told completely through static images.  So my comic script has to reflect this. Each panel has to be a single moment, and it has to be the right moment to convey the most impact and information while still flowing smoothly into the next moment I choose to continue the narrative.
            You’re wondering why I’m talking about all this, yes?
            These days it’s not uncommon for a story—or a storyteller—to jump mediums. As I mentioned above, we’ve all seen a ton of books and comics adapted for the movies.  I know several novelists and screenwriters who’ve worked in comics.  I’ve worked with theater directors and playwrights on film projects.
            Thing is, a story can’t go directly from one format to another.  The devices and mechanisms I use here won’t always work here.  Usually won’t, in fact. And I need to be able to make those adjustments.  A really common mistake I’ve seen is when people just yank a story from one format to another with no changes.  Or when they start using the conventions of one format in another
            That show I mentioned up at the top?  In one episode it had three reveals. Thing is, each one was essentially revealing the same thing.  But the filmmakers had assumed since Yakko was the main character for that scene, and Dot was the central figure in that scene, and Wakko was the focus of the final scene… well, they could do the dramatic, big music reveal for each of them.  Alas, it just doesn’t work that way, because—as I mentioned above—we can focus on different characters but it’s all really audience POV.  So the second time around it was more eye-rolling than dramatic and the third time was… well, laughable.
            Last year I had a chance to be in an X-Files anthology.  Truth is, though, the main spine of my short story actually came from a spec script I’d written for an old TV show called The Chronicle.  And I had to make adjustments for that.  Most notably, all those mini-cliffhangers in the story had to be smoothed out.  Some things had to be described much more than they were in the script, because now all those details actually had to be on the page.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I want to shift a story from one format to another, I better understand the conventions and limitations of each one.  And if I want to write in a different format. I need to learn that format as well as I know my current one.  I can’t just go in assuming it won’t matter, or that I’ll be the exception who gets to slide.
            So know what you’re writing.  And how you’re writing.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about some artsy character stuff.
            Until then, go write.