November 22, 2013 / 3 Comments

The Four Step Program

            Probably not the one you think of when you think of professional writers…
            I’m a bit pressed for time this week, so I wanted to revisit an idea from a few weeks ago.  Hopefully in a way that may resonate with a few of you.
            There are, in my experience, four stages of being a professional.
1) Not knowing what you’re doing
2) Thinking you know what you’re doing 
3) Realizing you don’t know what you’re doing
4) Knowing what you’re doing
           I first came up with this rule set after about eight or nine years in the film industry.  I can’t remember how I came to it, but when I did I realized it mirrored my career.  As I looked around, I realized it was possible to place almost everyone on set in one of these categories.
            To explain…
            I ended up in the film industry by chance.  A guy I knew needed grunt labor and I was thrilled with the idea of working on a movie.  There was an immediate culture shock, believe me.  Different terms, different hierarchies, different expectations.  I spent my first month on set trying to soak up everything I could, because it was clear I didn’t know anything.
            Of course, by a week or two into my third project, I felt like I had it down.  I knew all this stuff, and I made sure that everyone knew I knew how to do it.  There was no doubt in my mind that I could do my boss’s job at least as well as him, if not better.   
            It was another year or so before I had the chance to be the boss… and learned how unprepared I was.  There were tons of basic things I didn’t know.  My assistant (a friend of a friend who’d offered to help) knew far more than me, and it was a minor miracle she didn’t smack me three or four times a week.  And I deserved to be smacked, believe me.  Then my next job went the same way (although I still hold that one was a 40-60 share with very unrealistic producers).
            So in the end, I sat down and decided to see what I had to do to be better at my job.  I took a good look at the tools and equipment I was going to need.  I paid attention to everything, not just the stuff that interested me.  I planned ahead.  I was more careful with the projects I chose, and the people I chose to work with.
            At which point I noticed other people were telling me I was good at my job.  I didn’t need to tell them.  It was apparent in the work I was doing.
            A while after this, I noticed this pattern applied to almost everything.  Almost any job you could name.  I saw it in many other jobs on film sets past mine.  I had a friend who was a cop, and he agreed a lot of police officers followed the same pattern.  So do programmers.  Watch a show like Kitchen Nightmaresand you’ll get to see some restaurateurs go from step two to step three and head toward four.
            Because that was the other thing I noticed.  There were some folks who weren’t that good at their job but were convinced they were.  They were stuck at step two because they never had (or never acknowledged) that slap down moment.  So they never bothered to improve.  They just stayed at those early, flawed levels.
            So why am I bringing up the film industry and cooking shows here?
            As I’m sure many of you have realized, being a writer follows this path, too.  Not knowing what you’re doing. Thinking you know what you’re doing.  Realizing you don’t know what you’re doing.  And then knowing what you’re doing.
            When I first sat down to write a story, every aspect of it was a mystery to me.  How to structure my plot, how to reveal character, how to describe action.  Hell, I barely understood what plot, character, and action meant.  But I waded in and tried to put my own twist on other stories.  And at some point I decided I was at least as good as half of these people writing for Marvel or DC or Del Rey.  And my mom agreed that I was very talented for an eleven year old.  So I started submitting stuff.  And I got rejected for some reason.  And I submitted other stuff.  And that got rejected, too.
            After many years and even more rejections, I was struck with the wild idea that maybe the problem wasn’t all those editors.  Maybe it was me.  Maybe my stories just weren’t good enough yet. 
            I went back over some of the things I’d sent out in earlier years and realized they were… well, pretty awful.  Some of the basic ideas were neat, but the stories were clumsy, my dialogue was awful, and my vocabulary was grade school level at best.
            So I decided to improve.  To write stronger stories, better characters, more believable dialogue.  I read everything I could in several genres and tried to figure out what worked and what didn’t.  And did it really not work, or did it just not work for me?
            And, well, years after that… here I am today.
            Some people never get past that second step.  Most people don’t, to be honest.  Especially these days when its easier to skip past possible rejection and claim almost anything as “success.”  These folks don’t need—or don’t want—to admit they need to improve, so they never do.
            How many steps are you down the path?
            Next week…. well, next week’s Thanksgiving, so I’ll be watching The Day The Earth Stood Still, Casablanca, and The Maltese Falcon while I make eggplant parmigiana from scratch for the vegetarians in the home, and some turkey for the rest of us. 
            But the week after that, I’d like to talk about that fantasy world you’re living in.
            Until then, go write.
September 7, 2013

Easter Eggs

            Months early for Easter, I know.  But, as some of you may have guessed, I’m not really talking about those Paas coloring kits.  Or the Cadbury Bunny.
            For those few of you who are still waiting to see if Betamax is going to win the format wars, an Easter egg is a hidden bonus on a DVD or Blu-ray.  As of late, the term’s been broadened to include any little onscreen reference or in-joke. 
            A lot of superhero movies tend to have “Easter eggs,” in this broad sense.  Captain America’s shield (or a version of it) showing up in Tony Stark’s workshop.  Superman and General Zod crashing into a Wayne Industries satellite while they fight.  Agent Coulson stopping at a Roxxon gas station on the way out to New Mexico.  Professor Horton’s synthetic man at the WWII Stark Expo (a two-for-one Easter egg, really).  Heck, I remember giggling with geeky joy when Val Kilmer’s Bruce Wayne made an offhand comment about some people being “halfway to Metropolis by now.”
            I think most writers do this on one level or another.  We put in little in-jokes and references.  Sometimes they’re ten percenters, others they’re so small and private maybe only a dozen people in the world are going to get them.  I know I’ve done a bunch of them in different books and short stories.
            Now…a few weeks back I read an interview with Joss Whedon about the new Agents of SHIELD show.  The interviewer wanted to know if we’d be seeing lots of guest spots from some of the movie characters like Nick Fury or Cap or maybe Dr. Banner.  Whedon kind of shrugged it off and said while he wasn’t against it, the show wouldn’t last long if it was all about waiting for the next guest star or movie reference.  It needed to stand on its own feet, without support from the films.
            See, that’s the catch with these sort of in jokes and clever references.  My story needs to work despite these ten percenters, not because of them. If all I’ve got is a few clever nods to other things, I don’t have a real story—no matter how clever those nods are.
            This is also relates to a common prequel problem.  In prequel stories, there are often Easter eggs to all the stuff the audience knows is in the future.  Smallville would often dress teenage Clark Kent in blue t-shirts with a red jacket, or have numerous guest stars who would be important later in his life (like ace reporter Perry White).  Hannibal Rising had the titular character learning to cook and trying on samurai half-masks that hinted at the signature muzzle he’d wear later.  The Star Wars prequels showed us glimpses of the Death Star and hints of the Empire.  As I write this, there’s a pair of shows on the air, each about a famous fictional serial killer at an earlier part of their life.  And each show relies heavily on the fact that we, the audience, knows who this character is going to become.  There are constant winks and nods and references to things in their respective futures.
            In most of these cases, though, when you strip away all the references to “the future,” it becomes clear there’s very little going on in the now.
            There’s a similar problem you’ll see a lot in bad comedies.  It’s when the plot grinds to a halt to show us a painfully long setup for a joke that does nothing except get a quick laugh.  It’s not humor advancing the story, it’s just humor for the sake of humor.  And that gets old real quick, no matter how funny the gag might be on its own.
            I’ve mentioned seeing this in a fair number of genre stories.  A writer comes up with a really cool and new (or what they think is really cool and new) idea about zombie origins or time travel mechanics or vampire biology or cyborg implants or something.  But they don’t actually have a story.  They just have this one cool idea trying to carry everything. 
            All of these examples tie back to something I’ve brought up before.  One cool idea isn’t a story.  It’s just a story point.  And one story point—or even a dozen of them—does not make a book.  Or a movie.  Or even a short story.
            Easter eggs are cool and fun, no question about it.  But you can’t live off them. And a story can’t survive on nothing but sly winks.
            Next week, I think it’s time for that long overdue lecture on structure that I’ve been promising for months.
            Until then, go write.
November 25, 2010 / 3 Comments

Naming Your Heroes

I thank all of you who dragged yourselves either out of a triptophan-induced coma to read this right after I posted it or for taking the time to check in while you’re in line for a Black Friday sale.

I’ve talked once before about names for characters and ways to come up with them and how much meaning needs (or doesn’t need) to be given to them. I thought it would be a good time to revisit that train of thought, especially since I’ve had two books come out since then. One of which has become unexpectedly popular.
If you’ve listened to or read any of the different interviews I’ve done over the past year, you know a lot of the characters in Ex-Heroes first came to be back during my grade school years. At the time, my big goal in life was to make comic books, even though I didn’t know the art and the story were done by two different people. I made up tons and tons of characters when I was supposed to be diagramming sentences, and I’d sketch them out in one of the art notebooks my mom would get me. In all fairness, about 70% of them were either crap or completely derivative of existing Marvel or DC characters.
A few had solid ideas behind them, though. So here’s how some of their names developed (or just fell) on the page. And because I’m not above self-depricating humor, here are some of the sketches of the characters that eventually, well, grew up into the ones in the book.
By the way, a little warning right up front– all the images you’re about to see are close to twenty-five years old. They were so faint I had to use my camera because the scanner couldn’t pick up the images. The artwork is not spectacular. Neither is the sense of proportions. The sense of light and shadow is non-existent. God forgive me, much of it is influenced by mid-late ‘80s fashion.
All that being said, unnecessary cruelty will not be tolerated and shall be stomped out post-haste.

St. George got his name a bit circularly. I knew early on I was going to be using a lot of the old characters I’d made up in middle school and junior high, and one of these was the Dragon (originally created as a fresh teenage recruit for Marvel’s New Mutants). I also knew I wanted the post-apocalyptic heroes and civilians to be on a more casual, even level with each other. I figured it wouldn’t be uncommon for many of the heroes to have given up their secret identities. The catch here was that I still felt the Mighty Dragon, as my ‘alpha’ hero, would be a person of great respect in the community.
As it happens, I’ve loved the story of St. George and the Dragon since I was a kid, and this solved a number of issues in one fell swoop. It also didn’t take long to go from there to making his real name George Bailey, just like the lovable martyr Jimmy Stewart played in It’s A Wonderful Life. This helped give St. George a bit more of a “Superman” feel to him (the phenomenally powerful hero with the goofy, clumsy secret identity) and humanized him as a guy trying to deal with the very-recognizable name his parents hung on him. It also immediately tied him to a figure with a solid moral code and strong ethics.
Here’s a fun fact. Stealth was originally a man. He was one of my oldest characters, originally called Night Stalker, first made up in Mr. Berenson’s fifth grade class at York Middle School. That’s kind of an overused name, though, so I played around and came up with Stealth, which is kind of self-explanatory.  At the same time, I was noticing the rarity of female characters in my early oeuvre, and I liked the idea of a woman as the uber badass of the Mount.
I didn’t want to give Stealth’s real name for a few reasons. Her backstory was actually the second one I wrote for the novel, and as I polished it over four or five more drafts it became apparent she was the most obsessed and driven of all of them. She holds herself to such an impossibly high standard and feels like she has to prove something. Considering how she decided to become a hero, it made no sense for her to give up her secret identity, despite the conditions they were all living under. This also firmed up her character even more, because what kind of woman refuses to remove her mask when there’s such a small number of people left in the world?
Zzzap is, by far, the most powerful being in the story, and it’s only his own personal limitations which hold him back. He gets queasy and his mental reactions are a lot slower than what he’s physically capable of doing. I wanted a very plain, average name. Dare I say it, a Joe Six-Pack name.
I also admit I wanted to evoke the sense of a classic comic book secret identity with at least one of my characters. So many of those heroes have alliterative names. Peter Parker. Wally West. Reed Richards. Susan Storm. Bruce Banner. Matt Murdock. Stephen Strange. Heck, people have written essays on Superman’s LL fixation with his supporting cast. So Zzzap became Barry Burke.
For the record, the actual name Zzzap, with three Z’s, was inspired by an old Hulk villain called Zzzax. I read somewhere that writer Steve Englehart wanted someone who’d always come last in any alphabetical listing. So I followed in his footsteps with Zzzap.
Actually, one more fun fact. I was digging through the old sketchbooks for pictures to go with this post and came across this one here with the very tiny picture of “Zap” amidst a swarm of heroes. I seem to remember this as a very early experiment in starting a picture with stick-figures (which I think I learned from Draw Comics The Marvel Way or some such book). If the date on the cover of the sketchbook is to be believed, it means this is probably one of the oldest pictures of any of these heroes, from 1982. So Zzzap predates Return of the Jedi.
When I first came up with the idea for Gorgon, I freely admit it was a prepubescent idea for a character who could touch Rogue from the X-Men without getting zapped. I made him an energy-vampire off the rationale that similar powers would cancel each other out, and once it was optic-based (he hid his eyes behind sunglasses) Gorgon seemed like a pretty straightforward name to use. His vague backstory was created just for the novel, as was the idea of his custom, camera-iris goggles.
For the record, this was long before most people pictured Rogue as Anna Paquin, and even longer before Anna Paquin was getting in on with vampires on a regular basis. That was all just a bit of serendipity.
His real name of Nikolai Bartamian came from a desire to show off a bit of LA’s melting pot. There’s just a ton of different populations here. Mexican. Korean. Armenian. Chinese. Japanese. I didn’t want it to feel like a pile of male white Anglo-Saxon heroes. And Bartamian is the last name of a friend of mine.
In my original collection of sketches and index cards, Cerberus wasn’t so much a suit of armor as a technological weapons array you wore with regular clothes (kind of like Whiplash in Iron Man 2). It even had a cape and flared gloves. The name came from its ability to throw three types of energy beams. And he was a villain (yep, another he-becomes-she), or at least such a dark, zero-tolerance anti-hero/ mercenary-for-hire that he served as a villain in all respects.
For Ex-Heroes, since Cerberus is this huge, powerful, armored machine, the person inside had to be contrasted as much as possible to stand out. Danielle is a great name which even looks feminine on the page. I also liked the idea of a woman who wants to be feminine, for the guys to look at her, but really has no idea how to make that happen. And it doesn’t help that she’s usually wearing this monstrous battlesuit and has a code-name which makes people mistake her for a man. Morris, in all honesty, I just picked out of the air because it sounded good with Danielle.

Cairax Murrain was always a monster, always a villain. Originally he was a cape-and-robed sorcerer (named John Carracks) who turned into the demon through a big long ritual (and a sticky, Alien-esque cocoon). The name Cairax was just a bunch of hard syllables, meant to sound a bit alien. Murrain is an archaic word for plague (anyone who’s sat through a full Seder probably knew that already). Together it’s a pretty good name for a demon. The two part name also hints at a certain level of self-awareness and intelligence, because I wanted it clear that the demon itself wasn’t just some slavering beast. Being a little older, I liked the idea of evil slaved to good through this magical “partnership” and then effectively becoming a villain again because of the ex-virus.
His real name of Maxwell Hale came from two places, so to speak. Max ties back to Cariax, sound-wise, and let me hint the demon isn’t entirely responsible for Max coming across as a bit ruthless and self-centered, no matter how noble his motives were. On the flipside, Hale is a very simple name. It may not be common but it sounds common, which helped ground the guy who was supposed to be this amazing sorcerer and make him a bit more relatable.
And that, I think, covers most of the bases for now. I could go into Regenerator, Midknight, Blockbuster, and dear little Banzai, but this is kind of long already and most of the points I wanted to make have been covered.
Next time, I’ll probably go on for a dozen or two paragraphs about something else.
Until then, have a Happy Thanksgiving. And try to do some writing after the pecan pie.
January 29, 2010 / 2 Comments

The Ten Percenters

No, this isn’t something like the Dirty Dozen, the Rogues Gallery, or the Crazy Eights. I’m not being that subtle for once.

So, I’ve tossed around an idea once or thrice here called “common knowledge.” It’s the sort of stuff you can put in your writing without worrying that people won’t know what you’re talking about. Nazis are bad. Puppies are good. Republicans are conservative. Democrats are progressive. Grass is green. The sky is blue. Getting into Harvard, the Major Leagues, or the Navy SEALS is an accomplishment. These are all safe bets in the world of common knowledge.

The place I see fledgling writers stumble a lot is when they decide since they know something, everyone must know it. They’ll even insist people should know it. And then they’ll use this “common knowledge” in their writing. Which is why a writer can make a joke about Kit Fisto putting his testicles all over Natalie Portman and then can’t figure out why no one laughs hysterically.

For the record, that’s a double-whammy nerd joke, but it depends on you knowing who Kit Fisto was in the Star Wars prequels and knowing what he looked like and remembering a joke from the 1985 film Better Off Dead. If you did have all that at your fingertips while you were reading that last paragraph, you probably got a good chuckle. If not, you’re still wrinkling your brow and trying to figure out what I’m getting at.

Which is what I wanted to get at.

On The Simpsons they have a special kind of joke they call “the ten percenters.” As the name implies, a ten percenter is a gag or a joke they know only ten percent of their audience is going to get. It’s a sly reference to politics or Fox News or Planet of the Apes that will slip by a lot of folks and make them wonder why one or two people keep repeating that line later at work.

(By the way, if any of you can explain the reference behind “I’m the first non-Brazilian person to travel in time!!” I’d love to hear it. Seen that one every Halloween for coming on fifteen years, still don’t get that joke…)

Now, here’s the key point. While they may do three or four of these ten percenters in each episode, The Simpsons does lots and lots of jokes for 99% of their audience. Everybody gets why it’s funny when Homer’s new boss turns out to be a supervillian planning to wipe out France with his doomsday device, and the irony that this is a job Homer’s finally good at. We also understand the joke when Krusty blames his bad behavior on his crippling Percoset addiction, then gets reminded Percoset is one of his show’s sponsors. And it’s hard not to laugh when Homer cheerfully implicates himself as a suspect when the old lady down the street is murdered. The ten percenters are great, but they can’t be the majority of the program. This is when the writers acknowledge that some of the things they find funny might be a bit obscure to some audience members. It also shows they’re aware of what the majority of their audience will find funny.

Want a literary example of a ten-percenter? I’m betting a decent number of you here have read Stephen King’s Under The Dome by now, yes? How many of you caught the reference to Lee Child’s kick-ass military character Jack Reacher? I skimmed right past it, myself, with only a dim thought of Who is this guy he’s talking about? flitting through my mind. It wasn’t a huge, key element of the chapter, though, so it didn’t really disrupt my reading. My girlfriend had to point it out while she was reading it.

Y’see, Timmy, the biggest mistake I can make as a writer is to assume that because I know this, everyone does. Writers are creative folks who read voraciously. We watch the news, we do research. We even watch for details in our own lives. This is especially dangerous for writers coming out of specialized fields where they’ve got a lot of specialized terms and knowledge. If you’re a lawyer, every other lawyer in the office might get your witty reference, but that doesn’t mean your mechanic will. Likewise, the mechanic’s clever transmission joke might make the junior ad executive scratch her head.

Speaking for myself, I could probably name over three hundred Marvel or DC comic characters on sight, or describe what they look like. I’ve got a fairly large background in archaeology and astronomy. From my years in the film industry I can rattle off tons of movie jargon that would leave most of you scratching your heads. I’ve got a higher-than-average knowledge about firearms, and have fired more types than many military weapons experts (the film industry again). I also play a popular miniatures game with tons of backstory, which means I can spew out pages of silly facts about fictional alien life-forms like Tyranids, Kroot, or Necrons.

Yet, I’d never assume everyone else knows this stuff. I sure as hell wouldn’t assume you’d understand some of the jokes that have built up between my friends over the years. They make us laugh, but you’d probably stand there with a blank look on your face.

It’s also worth noting that the reverse of this is true. If I assume my audience isn’t going to know anything I’m talking about, I’m just going to annoy them. If I waste pages explaining that Nazis are bad, people need to breathe oxygen, or that the man who just got his leg torn off might die from blood loss… well, I’m not going to be holding anyone’s interest for long

A writer needs to have a firm grasp of what their intended audience knows. It doesn’t matter if I think everyone should know the genestealer reproductive cycle– most people don’t. If I do this, I’d be confusing my audience at best, talking down to them at worst. And that’s when they put the manuscript down in that big pile on the left.

So now you know. And knowing is half the battle.

Next time, we all need to be punctual. More or less.

Until then, go write.