October 1, 2020 / 1 Comment

Allow Me to Explain…

 There’s a storytelling idea, sort of a method, I suppose, that I’d been batting around for a while as a possible topic. Something I see crop up enough that it was worth mentioning in that “something else to keep in mind…” way. I decided to add it to my list of topics here and then, in a weird synchronicity, said problem showed up in a TV miniseries I finally got around to watching and a book I was reading (some formats may be changed to protect… you know).

The miniseries I mentioned involved an aggressive computer virus. And it explained how the virus worked. In detail. It used a few specifics and a few generalities, but it spent three whole scenes explaining this virus, the logic behind how it worked and how it selected targets.

The problem was… even as I was watching this, I could see a bunch of holes in the explanation. Holes that were only pulled wider as the story went on. And my computer skills more or less peaked in the very early 00’s. But I still knew enough to know the virus wouldn’t work the way it was described. Couldn’t. If it chose targets this way, why didn’t it go after that or that? If it propagated like that, how had it reached here and here?

For a brief time I was wondering if this was some sort of foreshadowing that there was more to the virus than was being let on. Maybe some sort of AI or a living virus that had been transcribed but then… mutated or something? But no, in the end it was just a computer virus that didn’t make any sense.

Which was doubly annoying because the virus didn’t really need to be explained in this story. The plot was much more about the repercussions of this thing being loose on the web and how it was affecting lives, society, and so on. The explanation slowed things down.

And, yeah, sure—part of this is on me. Any genre story is going to involve a degree of suspension of disbelief. Nobody wants to be the guy picking apart the energy requirements of a lightsaber or arguing how the Hulk can’t be that strong because his muscle/bone density would mean he’d sink into the earth. And as for Mjolnir, look…

Okay, yeah… there are some people out there who love being that guy.

(looking at you, Neil…)

But here’s the thing. I couldn’t’ve picked it apart if the writer hadn’t put so much down in front of me. I wouldn’t’ve had anything to pick apart. I can’t complain about your wardrobe if you never show me your wardrobe. But this writer decided they needed a whole scene (three scenes, really) explaining the computer virus in detail. And the details didn’t match up.

So what does this mean for me if my story needs explanation? I mean, speculative fiction is filled with different forms of technobabble. It’s got FTL drives and magic systems and AI computer viruses and alien life cycles and bringing dinosaurs back with cloning and mutant superheroes and… I mean, I’ve got to explain it all somehow, right?

Maybe? Consider Jurassic Park. How much does Crichton (or Spielberg and Koepp) actually tell us about the process of recreating dinosaurs? No, seriously—what do they tell us? If you look back, it’s actually a pretty bare-bones explanation of what’s a fairly complicated process (especially twenty-five years ago!). In fact, it encourages us to fill in a lot of the blanks ourselves and make it seem more complete.

So here’s a few things to keep in mind as I’m writing out that long explanation…

First, be clear if the story really needs this explanation. Is this what the story’s actually about, or is this a minor element I can handwave away or just skip over? Back to the Future gets away with a ridiculously simple explanation of time travel because it’s not really about the time travel. It’s about actions and consequences, and becoming a better person. Time travel’s just the mechanism that lets it happen. It’s just short of being a MacGuffin. We don’t need that explanation the same way we don’t need to read about someone hitting every step on the staircase, how many keystrokes it took to log into their cloud account, or a list of every item of clothing they put on when they got dressed (in order). The reader will fill it in.

Second, if I decide I really need to explain this at length, it’s got to be solid. I’ve waived the right to say “just trust me, it works” and now I need to make this as rigorous and believable as possible. I need to do my research, double-check my logic, triple-check my numbers, and let it marinate overnight in plain-old common sense. Trust me when I say if I get a fact wrong or use garbage science or make a math mistake… people will let me know. I don’t even have to ask them. Not only that, but…

Third, I need to keep in mind the more something gets explained, the easier it is to punch holes in that explanation. Like in the example I first mentioned. As the characters went into more and more detail about the computer virus, the flaws in that explanation became more and more apparent. How often have we seen the person digging themselves deeper and deeper because they won’t stop talking? It’s soooooo tempting when we’ve done all that sweet, cool research, but I need to figure out how much explanation my story really needs and stop there. I’ve mentioned screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin here onceor thrice, and his idea that we experience stories in our gut, but we analyze them in our head. I never, ever want my explanation to drive people into their heads.

Fourth, closely related to the last one, is that this sort of explanation is almost always going to be exposition. Yes, even if I try to work it into a conversation or presentation or something like that. As we’ve talked about here a bunch of times, exposition gets boring really fast because so much of it is either things we already know or things we don’t need to know. For our purposes here, there’s a chance the reader doesn’t even want to know. So if I decide I need this explanation in my story, I need to make sure it’s going to be clever and engaging for the reader.

And that’s me explaining how to explain things.

Next time, I’d like to talk about if you should be reading next week’s post.

Until then, go write.

November 21, 2019

Do You Think I’m An Idiot?

No, no… don’t rush to answer that. I’m pretty sure I can guess how most of the comments section would go.
However…it is an important question, whether I’m writing books or screenplays. The folks who just bought my new Lovecraftian techno-thriller aren’t expecting a long lesson about how memes work. If I’m billing myself as the next Dan Brown, the clue “man’s best friend” better not leave half a dozen codebreakers baffled as to what the three letter password is for the doomsday device. Heck, even if I’m hired to pen the next Pokemon movie, I probably shouldn’t spend a lot of screen time explaining all the medical reasons why little kids shouldn’t drink paint.
Cause let’s face it—nobody likes to be called stupid.  Not even kids.  Heck, especially not stupid people.  We all hate being condescended to and having things spoon-fed to us at a crawl. We get angry about it. At best we get frustrated with the person throttling the speed we can absorb things at.
So, having established that nobody likes being considered an idiot, it stands to reason most people like to feel smart, right? And that includes my readers. I want them to like my stories, not feel angry or frustrated because of them.
But a lot of stories assume readers are stupid. They spell everything out in painful detail. They drag things out. They repeat things again and again and again. These authors think their readers won’t know or understand or remember anything, and they write their stories accordingly.
So here’s a few easy things I try to do so my readers feel smart and they’ll love my stories…
I know what my audience knows
I’ve talked a couple times here about empathy and common knowledge. It’s stuff I can feel safe assuming everyone knows. Grass needs water and sunlight to grow. Captain Americais a superhero. Nazis are still the bad guys. Maybe you noticed that a few paragraphs back I rattled off Lovecraftian, Dan Brown, and Pokemonwithout bothering to explain any of them. I know the folks reading this would have—at the very least—an awareness of these words and names. Knowing what my specific audience knows is an important part of making them feel smart, because this is what lets me judge what they’ll be able to figure out on their own.
This goes for things within my story, too. Yeah, odds are nobody’s ever heard the term Caretaker used precisely the way I use it in Dead Moon, but I don’t have to keep explaining it. I can make a couple references at the start and then just trust that my readers will remember things as the story goes on. It’s a completely made up word, but I bet most of you know what a Horcurx is. Or a TARDIS. Or a Mandalorian. They don’t need to be explained to you again and again.
I try to be smarter than my audience
There’s an agent I’ve referenced here, once or thrice, Esmund Harmsworth. I got to hear him speak at a writing conference years ago and he pointed out most editors will toss a mystery manuscript if they can figure out who the murderer is before the hero does.
Really, though, this is how it works for any sort of puzzle or intellectual challenge in a piece of writing. If I’ve dumbed things down to the point of simplicity—or further—who’d have the patience to read it? It’ll grate on their nerves, and it makes us impatient when we have to wait for characters to figure out what we knew twenty minutes ago.
I don’t state the obvious
Michael Crichton got a very early piece of writing advice that he shared in one of his books. “Be very careful using the word obvious. If something really isobvious, you don’t need to use it.  If it isn’t obvious, than you’re being condescending to the reader by using it.”
Of course, this goes beyond just the word obvious. Revisiting that first tip up above, should I be wasting half a page telling my readers Nazis were bad? When Yakko staggers into a room with three knives in his back just before collapsing into a puddle of his own blood, do I need to tell anyone that’s he’s seriously hurt? I mean, you all got that, right?
I take a step back 
When something does need to be described or explained, I think our first instinct is to scribble out all of it. We want to show that we thought this out all the way.  So we put down every fact and detail and nuance.
I usually don’t have to, though. I tend to look at most of those explanatory scenes and cut it back 15 or 20%. I know if I take my audience most of the way there, they’ll probably be able to go the rest of the way on their own. People tend to fill in a lot of blanks and create their own images anyway, so getting excessive with this sort of thing rarely helps.
I give them the benefit of the doubt

This is the above tip, but the gap’s just a little bigger. Three-time Academy-Award-winning screenwriter Billy Wilder said if you let the audience add 2+2 for themselves now and then, they’ll love you forever. That’s true for writers of all forms. Every now and then, just trust they’ll get it. Not all the time, but every now and then I just make a leap of faith my audience can make a connection with almost no help whatsoever from me. Odds are that leap isn’t as big as you think it is. 

Y’see, Timmy, when I spell out everything for my audience, what I’m really telling them is “I know you won’t be able to figure this out on your own.”  My characters might not be saying it out loud, but the message is there.  You’re too stupid for this—let me explain.
And that’s not going to win me a lot of return readers.

Hey, next week is Thanksgiving here in the U.S. and my parents are coming  to visit for the holidays and hahhaaaha I’m not stressing about it YOU’RE STRESSING HOW IS IT THE END OF NOVEMBER ALREADY OH CRAP

…sorry, that was a typo. What I meant to say was it’s Thanksgiving so I’ll probably just do something quick on Tuesday or Wednesday. And after that… well, if you’ve been following the ranty blog for any amount of time you know what I’ll be talking about on the day after Thanksgiving.

Until then, go write.
June 21, 2018 / 3 Comments

So You Want to be a Writer?

            Okay, so I’m about neck-deep in a draft right now, racing a deadline, and was a little worried I wouldn’t have time for a ranty blog post this week.
            Then, lucky for all of us, I got a message from Kristi Charish.

           I’ve mentioned Kristi twice or thrice here before.  She’s—and I’m not joking—an archeologist turned genetic engineer turned fantasy author.  No, seriously.  She’s pretty much solely responsible for making me like urban fantasy for the first time since college.  The first book in her Kincaid Strange series, The Voodoo Killings, is finally available in the US as a paperback, so you should go grab a copy.

            Anyway, because we live in different countries with a sizable chunk of North America between us, it was a special treat to get to hang out with Kristi in person at Phoenix Comic Fest last month.  There were many drinks and meals, and much talk about writing and publishing.  Including one very interesting discussion about teaching, fueled by her much more academic viewpoint.
            And then a few days ago, as I was wondering if this’d be a skip week for the ranty blog, Kristi got in touch with me and asked if I’d be interested in that discussion as a guest post…
            So here’s Ms. Charish with her informed thoughts on writing, higher education, and success (with a bunch of random links from me to semi-related posts I’ve made here)
            Maybe you’ve always dreamt of being an author, or perhaps you’ve recently begun to dabble in prose on your off time. Maybe you’ve entertained fantasies of seeing your name on your book as you pass by the window of your favorite bookstore? Or, better yet, coming across the fruit of your imagination while surfing on Netflix.
            Fantastic! We like dreamers. Welcome to a profession that attracts a damnably eccentric mix of eclecticism!
            But you’re new to the game, and like the studious person the western schooling system has honed you to be, you feel compelled to expand your education, broaden that nebulous toolbox of literary-like writing and story-telling skills the critics, pros, and amateur spectators alike keep going on about.
            You’re considering courses, a workshop – maybe even – gasp – an outright, all in, financially crippling, higher degree!
           Do I encourage pursuit of the full-fledged-degree-kind in the pursuit of writerly knowledge? Absolutely. By all means, pursue a higher education. Do a degree, ANY degree.
            …Whatever you do don’t make it an MFA in creative writing, and here’s why. 
The World’s Bestest Heart Surgeon
           Imagine you are the head of a prestigious medical school and you are a great heart surgeon – one of the world’s best. You’re so good at being a heart surgeon, you think you know the secret to training them. So much so you decide that over the next four years, you’re going to concentrate all your resources on proving you can.
            You meet with the rest of the staff (well, mostly the four other heart surgeons…) and all of you agree producing the world’s best heart surgeons is a worthy pursuit. It’s your duty as patrons of the heart surgeon caste to make more heart surgeons. You cut back on all the nonsense and distractions – pediatrics, infectious diseases, family medicine, dermatology – anything that doesn’t pertain to becoming an awesome, world’s bestest heart surgeon until the courses are all about heart health and surgery.
            500 students, a staff on board, a university endowment, plus all that tuition? It’s a bet you can’t lose! Heart Surgeon World Awards, here we come!
            Time travel four years and, low and behold, you have in your graduating class two of the world’s most up and coming heart surgeons! Everyone is gushing over their surgery technique and breathlessly anticipating the next research article. As an institution you have achieved world acclaim – Success!
            …At least until everyone starts asking what happened to the 498 other students…you know, the ones who didn’t make the World’s Best Heart Surgeon cut?
            Six other students had a natural aptitude for heart surgery. Not world’s best, but they go on to productive if not lucrative careers. Another ten aren’t cut out for surgery – the stress, hand eye coordination, can’t stand 7 hours without taking a pee – but they can teach. A couple get jobs at instructors at other universities.
            …that leaves 482 students. Students who were talented, clever, and industrious enough to get into medical school but for one reason or another didn’t make the heart surgeon cut. A lot of them would have made fantastic dermatologists, pediatricians, family physicians, nephrologists, epidemic specialists, etc, but, well, after four years listening to their professors go on about how this was the best medial school because it only trained heart surgeons, and how heart surgery was the only surgery worth performing, any other pursuit of medicine is a waste of time and meant you were second rate…Eventually they drink the Kool-Aid. Most never pick up a medical tool or book ever again, and the few who might have?
            Shame they can’t since they’ve had no other medical training whatsoever.
            But… you know… two World’s Best Heart Surgeons/500 students. Sometimes you need to sacrifice a cow…or was it an army?
            Look, we’re going to need your entire student body. Don’t ask why, just trust us it’s for the greater artistic good…
            If the Greatest Heart Surgeon Medical School was real it would be considered a resounding failure. Any program – history, life science, biology, forestry- run that way would be shut down – fast – because everyone grasps that there is more to medicine and a robust medical community than heart surgery and wasting 80% of your student body trying to mold the best isn’t just wrong, it’s stupid, idiotic, asinine, the work of a delusional heart surgery megalomaniac.
            Yet that’s what the majority of MFA creative writing programs do.
            Writing is an important communication and entertainment medium. It’s a way to discuss ideas, cultural shifts, politics – you name it – in ways that can’t be done with YouTube and FB articles. It’s storytelling. And just as in medicine where many disciplines are necessary to get the full picture, many kinds of writers and media make for a healthy and entertaining writing community. There’s no one right way or right type of novel to produce.
            Yet what I described above for the World’s Best Heart Surgery School isn’t too far off from how the majority of MFA programs are run. Damn the rest of the writing and entertainment world – we produce literary geniuses here! There’s a history there that Peter touched on in a previous post but it boils down to this: The inception of the Creative Writing MFA program wasn’t catalyzed by a desire or need for more novelists. They were invented as a Post-World War 2 tuition grab – a student holding cell. It’s morphed a bit over the last 80 years but the essential building blocks remain.
            Creative Writing Programs claim to be a pursuit of excellence in literature (FYI – probably not the kinds of book I, Peter, or anyone else who’s ever guested on this blog writes). But, funny thing, when you ask how well the writing careers are going for the majority of alumni (not the two or three prodigy examples they trot out), they tend to waffle on about how a degree in creative writing is about personal growth, not vocational training (AKA: tuition/student holding cell). 
           Well, I call bull…

You Really Don’t Need an MFA to be a Serious Novelist
            Back to the World’s Bestest Heart Surgery School, the university president has stopped by to scream about the incredibly poor vocational success of, well, most of your graduates. Like always, you hold up your two gifts to heart surgery Godhood (full disclosure: I don’t think the MFA success rate is anywhere near that high)…
            And find out that the History, Biology, and Marine Biology departments have all also produced three equally gifted heart surgeons who are outcompeting yours.
            It’s incredibly unlikely that a History program would produce a heart surgeon– there are very specific things you need to learn like heart anatomy and how to cut someone open without killing them.
            But creative writing is weird. You can learn to write almost anywhere. Law school, journalism, real medical school. Not only can these vocations inspire you, but unlike and MFA, which purports to teach you how to be literary, these other disciplines are trying to teach you something else entirely – they’re trying to teach you how to communicate the ideas you learn to the outside world. That’s priceless. That’s called perspective, and it’s what makes the writer and writing interesting, engaging.
            A great example is Carl Hiaasen, who was a journalist in Florida for many a year before he became a NYTbest-selling satire novelist. What does he write about? Corrupt politicians making scuzzy land deals in Florida, the war being waged on the beautiful everglades, and the very few and far between honest people who are trying to save his beloved state. It’s captivating, its relatable, he knows his material well and he communicates in a way that makes millions of readers care too.
            Much like the World’s Best Heart Surgery School doesn’t see the point in pediatricians, I worry that most MFA programs don’t see the merit and value of a Carl Hiaasen book.
           And he’s not the only example. Would Michael Crichton have written such a captivating novel about a deadly extraterrestrial virus or bringing dinosaurs back to life if he’d done an MFA over medical school? Diana Gabaldon of Outlander fame holds three degrees in science, including marine biology, and it shows in all the science she trickles through her novels.
>            It’s a distinct possibility that my alma matter’s Department of Science has produced more successful novelists in the last ten years than MFA Writing Program…
            Claiming to teach literary artistry is all fine and well but there has to be some kind of tangible real-world, quantifiable measurement of success, otherwise it becomes a nebulous black box, a dark corner…. And nebulous boxes and dark corners are where things from 80s horror movies and Peter’s books hide, so if that’s the only reason you decide to skip the MFA so be it.
            The point is you (and your bank account) really don’t need an MFA to be a great writer. 

But I really want to improve my writing, and, you know…writing rules.
            Sigh. Let it be said that you can teach yourself writing by reading and lots of practice. There is no reason for you to spend money to become an author.
            Disclaimer aside, if you are hell bent on burning money or feel you really need the support, these are some options I can recommend.
            Cheapest/ Best Value: Writing groups/coffee house meet-ups. Free for the price of a coffee. Google your area but I hear The Writer’s Coffeehouse is popular.
            Cheap/ Good Value: Community Centers/Library writing programs. Average 6 weeks to 2 months a couple nights a week and range Free -$100. Often run by a published author vetted by the community center.
            Medium priced/ Still Good Value: Community College Writing Classes. Evening or afternoon classes that run roughly six to eight weeks and cost anywhere from $120-200. Bonus: Instructors often have teaching credentials.

            Expensive/Questionable value/not recommended: All Star/Celebrity/NYT Bestselling/Intensive Author Workshop and/or Cruise. They range from two to six weeks, cost upwards of four grand, and often boast a rotating roster of world class authors as instructors. You do get one on one time with the authors as advertised and that might be incentive enough for the odd superfan. I don’t recommend them. The instructors might be star studded novelists but that doesn’t mean they can teach and their alumni track records leave much to be desired. In comparison, self-driven, free writer’s groups have a staggering publication success rate. A new laptop and a trip to a remote cabin to write is arguably a much better return

on a four thousand dollar investment.