December 15, 2016 / 2 Comments

Plot vs. Story: Ultimate Crossover Event

            Okay, it’s been a while since we had some solid, deep, digging-in-the-gross-stuff discussion about writing. So let’s get back to basics, shall we…?
            A couple years back I had the fantastic opportunity to spend about an hour on the phone with Shane Black.  If you don’t know his name off the top of your head, he’s the writer-director behind (among othersLethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, and just recently The Nice Guys.  He knows a lot about storytelling, and during our talk he tossed out a dozen or so useful lessons, one of which I’d like to share with you.
            Yeah, I’ve talked about this before, but I came up with some new ways to talk about it, and I figured it’s a good refresher…
            Pretty much any book, movie, television episode, or short story can be broken down into two parts—the plot and the story.  The plotis the events and moments going on outside my characters.  The story is all the events and moments that are going on inside my character.
            Here’s another way to look at it—plot can affect lots of people, but the story is mostly going to affect my character.  A bomb going off is going to affect hundreds of people.  Phoebe marrying Wakko instead of me is mostly going to affect… me.
            Let’s go into some more detail.
            Plotis the external threats and goals in my book.  Most books tend to have the plot scribbled out on the inside flap (the jacket copy, they like to call it).  If I pick up a BluRay, they’ve usually got the plot of the movie or show on the back.  For example (using a book I’ve mentioned recently), the plot of Anamnesis is about a bottom-tier drug dealer, Ethan, who tries to learn more about a custom drug that’s appearing on the streets, and then has to try to save himself when he discovers some of the people behind this drug.
            After looking at a lot of books or movies from the storytelling point of view, one thing I noticed is that the plot is almost always an attempt to do something.  Win the big race, get the guy, stop the villain, save the orphanage, save the world.  As I mentioned above, the plot involves a goal, and any decent goal in my story is going to take some effort to achieve.
            Another thing I’ve noticed is that plot tends to get a bad rap.  A lot of artsy folks will scoff at the idea of “plot,” like it’s some crude tool that only hack writers use.  Which is just wrong–plot’s an essential part of storytelling–all storytelling.
            Now, in all fairness, there are a decent number of “plot-heavy” films and books out there.  The characters are kind of… well, irrelevant.  And these tales might be great to kill an afternoon with, but that’s all they’re ever going to be.  To anyone.
            As it happens, though, a lot of those artistic “character based” works of film and literature tend to meander and not really, y’know, go anywhere.  I think that’s because of the refusal to have a plot.  As I mentioned above, plot  means the characters are trying to do something, so “no plot” means the characters are… well… not doing anything.
            That brings us, nicely, to story.  Story is the flipside of plot. It’s all the internal desires and needs and struggles of my characters.  It’s a big part of the character arcand the reasons behind that arc.  Story tends to be what we tell our friends about when we explain why we like a character.  We enjoy the plot, but what we get invested in is the story. 
            To use Anamnesisagain, Ethan’s story is that he suffers from severe retrograde amnesia—for all purposes his life began just a few years ago when he woke up on a beach.  So the memory-erasing drug that appears on the street—and the people suffering from its effects—strikes a chord.  He feels compelled to help them, even though it’s really not in his best interests.
            Every now and then, you might hear someone say there’s really only seven plots (or six or nine or something) and there’s a bit of truth to that.  The reason there are millions of different books, though, is because of story.  If I drop two different characters into the same situation, I’m going to get radically different results, because they’re going to approach things… well, differently.  If Peggy Carter had gotten the super soldier formula instead of Steve Rogers, Captain Americawould’ve been a radically different movie, on a bunch of levels.  An example I’ve used before is Never Let Me Go and The Island, two movies with almost exactly the same plot but very different stories. End result–two very different movies.
            I’ve talked a few times about working on Ex-Isle, which came out back in February.  One thing I realized as I started the second draft was that I had a plot, but no real story.  What was going on inside St. George, one of my main characters, while the plot progressed around him?  And figuring out his story (his ongoing need to help people vs. how his position and purpose at the Mount was changing) helped solve some knots and eventually even changed the ending of the book.
            Now, let’s play with this a bit…
            Who’s heard of the Moonlighting curse?  It’s the idea that if you have a TV show with a strong “will they or won’t they” element, it’ll collapse as soon as they do. It happened famously with Moonlighting and more recently, alas, with my beloved Castle.
            But we’re talking about this as writers.  So… whydo these shows collapse at this point?
            The plot of Castle is that a wildly popular crime novelist (Richard Castle) ends up working with the homicide department of New York’s 5th precinct.  His personality grates on them a lot, but they can’t deny he has a quick mind and some amazing insights into human psychology and criminal motives.  Plus, he’s friends with the mayor… so they’re kinda stuck with him as long as he wants to be there.
            The story of Castle is about the developing relationship between many-times-married Castle and married-to-her-job homicide detective, Kate Beckett.  They each have a lot of baggage, but they also have a lot of chemistry.  And the chemistry kept growing even as they came to accept (and even admire) each other’s quirks and hangups.
            All sounds great, right?  But does anyone see the problem?  It’s something we’ve talked about before…
            See, the basic plot of Castle is pretty much infinite.  I think we can all agree there’s no foreseeable future where New York City is going to have a drastic shortage of homicides.  So that part of the series can keep going forever.
            But… the story of Castle pretty much ends once Castle and Beckett become a couple.  Our whole story was “will they or won’t they,” so once they do… that’s it.  Done.  My story’s over. Sure, in some cases we can stretch things out a bit with all the usual new-relationship stuff (early riser vs. late, snoring, family and friend approval, toothbrushes, how far is this going, etc.), but the longer a series runs, odds are a lot of that will already be established and resolved.  Hell, before the two of them ever kissed, I think Becket had celebrated three or four Christmases with Castle, his daughter, and his mom. 
            Y’see, Timmy, the plot of Castle was still going, but the story’d come to an end.  Which means the series either stumbled into that plot-heavy area I talked about up above… or it came up with a reason to extend the story. And as we’ve talked about in the past, that kind of artificial extension usually doesn’t go over well.
            So, plot and story.  Every good tale should have both.  They can overlap.  They can intertwine.  But if I’m missing one or the other, no matter how many excuses I want to make… my work’s going to be lacking.  And my audience is going to be able to tell.
            Next time…
            Well, next time is going to be a few days before Christmas.  And Hanukkah.  We’ll all have things to do, so I’ll try to do something brief.
            Until then… go write.
November 28, 2016 / 2 Comments

Cyber Monday IV: The Von Trappening

            If you’ve been following this page for any amount of time, you know I hate pimping my own work, but we’re officially in the Christmas season now.  And in theory this is the big internet shopping day.  And the marketing people—who are seriously wonderful folks—have dropped certain hints.  Sooooooo…
            I have to ask you all to buy stuff.
            I’m so very, very sorry.  I’ll try to be quick.
            Here’s a list of my books and also a few anthologies I’ve got stories in.  Put them on your holiday wish list or get them as gifts for friends and family members. I’ll put links to most of them, but you can also scroll down through that sidebar on the right and find links to pretty much every version at every store you could ever want.
            Also, there’s still about a week to place orders with Dark Delicacies in Burbank.  You can order a book through them, leave instructions for an autograph, and I’ll swing by there to scribble in said book.  Again, do it in the next week and you should have said book in your hands in time for the holidays.
            Really, either way, just go to your local bookstore.  They’re cool and they could use the business, and then you’re not one of those conformists falling for that Cyber Monday capitalist nonsense.

            Many of you are probably here because of the Ex-Heroes series.  Ex-Heroes, Ex-Patriots, Ex-Communication, Ex-Purgatory, and as of this spring Ex-Isle! All of these are available in a number of formats and a number of languages.  Also, Audible’s included the first two books in a fantastic sale today soooooo… move quick if audiobooks are your thing.
            The Fold came out in paperback this year, but I think there are still some hardcovers kicking around if you know where to look  Early on someone described it as something like a horror-suspense novel disguised as a sci-fi-mystery, and I’ve been using that ever since.  The audiobook’s narrated by the always-amazing Ray Porter.  It’s also loosely connected to another semi-popular book I wrote…
            At least a third of you have probably found your way here because of –14— my odd little Lovecraftian-sci-fi-urban-horror-mystery novel.  There’s a paperback, an ebook, and another audiobook narrated by the amazing Ray Porter (it’s part of that big Audible sale, too).  And, if things progress as planned, Team Downey’s finally shooting the pilot this spring.

            You can pick up all of The Junkie Quatrain as either an ebook or an audiobook (no paper, sorry).  It’s my attemptat a “fast zombies” tale, a series of interconnected stories I’ve sometimes described as Rashomon meets 28 Days Later.  It also features a recurring character of mine, Quilt, who keeps showing up in different stories in one way or another… 
            The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe also got a brand new edition this year, with a damned fantatic new layout. It’s the more-or-less true story of how the legendary castaway ended up on that strange island, some of the things he found there, and some of the things that found him.  I admit it’s a bit of work to read, but I still love it. 
            I also have a ton of short stories out in anthologies right now.  The big one is The X-Files: Trust No One, edited by the wonderful-in-so-many-ways Jonathan Maberry and with stories from Gini Koch, Tim Lebbon, Heather Graham, Brian Keene, and more.  My story here is “The Beast of Little Hill,” a classic Muder and Scully tale about roadside attractions and fake aliens.  Supposedly Chris Carter really enjoyed it, which is… well, cool.
            Naughty or Nice is a collection of fun, twisted holiday stories which run… well, the full gamut.  Don’t get it for your nine year old, let’s say that.  Or your less-than-open-minded mother-in-law…
            Corrupts Absolutely is a collection about superheroes gone wrong.  Mine’s a little standalone called “Bedtime Story,” about a hero called Omnes and some parents trying to explain to their little boy why the way the world is the way it is.
            You can pick up Kaiju Rising, which contains “Banner of the Bent Cross,”my WWII pulp adventure featuring the first team up of mercenary Dar Carter and history professor Ken Kraft  It also has a fantastically funny story by Peter Stenson (author of Fiend).
            There’s also “The Apocrypha of Gamma-202, ” a story about robots and religion, which appeared in Bless Your Mechanical Heart.  You’ll also get some great stories from Seanan McGuire, Ken Scholes, and Lucy Snyder.
            And thus ends my shameless Cyber Monday appeal to capitalism.  Again, so very sorry, but please tell the marketing folks you read it.  I’ll also do another list later this week with some great books I’ve read by other, much better authors.  And please don’t forget my Black Friday offer if you happen to be someone who needs it.
            Please feel free to resume your internet shopping.   Browse responsibly.  Clear your history on a regular basis. 
            No, don’t click on that—that isn’t really from PayPal.
February 4, 2016 / 1 Comment

Pod Six Was Jerks!

            Pop culture reference.  Long overdue, and to bring even more shame on my household, it’s kind of a repeat.  Sorry.
            Before I dive into things, I must shamefully point out that the latest book in my Ex-Heroesseries got released this week.  The marketing folks are lovely people, but they’ll be upset if I don’t mention it.  Ex-Isle is book #5 and it’s now on sale everywhere.  Check it out.
            And now, back to this week’s rant…
            This is something I’ve been meaning to talk about again for a while now.  As I mentioned, I’m kind of in a rush this week (even more on that below), so I thought this would be a good time to add in what’s more-or-less a repeat post.  At least, it is if you’ve been here since 2008…
            That being said, let’s talk about “Darmok.”
            “Darmok” was one of the first episodes of Star Trek:The Next Generation‘s fifth season.   The Enterprisevisits an alien race, the Children of Tama, which has repeatedly brought first contact attempts to a grinding halt because the universal translator can’t make sense of their language.  The Tama language can be rendered in Federation English, yes, but the words and sentence structure make no sense.  Sensing the problem that needs to be overcome, Dathon–the Tama commander—kidnaps Captain Picard to a hostile world where the two must fight together to survive.  Through their trials together, Picard comes to realize that the Tama language is not based on ideas and concepts, but on stories and metaphors.  They wouldn’t say “I’m happy,” they’d say something like “Scrooge, on Christmas morning.”  They don’t say they’re relieved to see you, they’d say “Indy, finding Marion in the tent.”  It’s been impossible to translate the Tama language literally because the Federation doesn’t share their history and folklore.
            In a way, all of us do this every day. We reference movies, TV shows, pop culture events, and then we stack and combine them. Heck, that’s pretty much what memes are.
            We also do it on a smaller scale, though.  All of us have jokes that are only understood by our family or certain circles of friends or coworkers.  Some folks crack jokes from Playboy, others from Welcome to Night Vale.  These folks obsess over Scandal and these folks watch iZombie whenever they happen to catch it.  Some people like sports, others like science.  And all of us talk about what we know and what we like.
            I worked on a set once where people commonly asked “Where’s Waldo?”  A lot of my college friends understood when you talked about Virpi Zuckk, the third Pete, and nice shoes.  Some of my best friends and I make frequent references to Pod Six,  killing Jeff, and “the girl’s evil cheater magic.”    
            Heck, even this title is an in-joke.  It’s a reference to one of the first Adult Swim cartoons, Sealab 2021. But also, when two of my friends bought a house and decided to use their sunroom as a dedicated gaming room, we all sort of universally decided to call it Pod Six.  Because it’s where we all hang out and talk in weird references that only we’re going to understand.
            See where I’m going with this?
            A common problem I see again and again in stories is oblique references and figures of speech that the reader can’t understand.  It might make sense within the writer’s personal circle or clique, but outside readers end up scratching their heads.  Several of the writers responsible for this sort of mistake will try to justify their words in a number of ways…
            First is that my friends are real people.  Therefore, people really talk this way, and there’s nothing wrong with it.  Alas, as I’ve mentioned here many times before, “real” rarely translates to “good.”  Pointing to a few of my like-minded friends and saying “well, they got it,” isn’t going to win me points with an editor.
            Second is that I’ll argue common knowledge.  I’ll try to say this material is generally known– universally known, even– and it’s the reader who is in the feeble minority by not being aware of it.  This is probably the hardest to contradict, because if somebody honestly believes that everyone should know who the U.S. Secretary of State was in 1969, there’s not much you or I can do to convince them otherwise.  It’s much more likely, in the writer’s mind, that the readers are just uneducated simpletons who never learned the ten forms of Arabic verbs, don’t collect Magic cards, and couldn’t tell you the obvious differences between Iron Man and War Machine if their lives depended on it.
            Third, usually reserved for screenplays, is the auteur excuse.  I plan on directing this script, so it doesn’t matter if no one else can understand the writing (or if there are tons of inappropriate camera angles, staging instructions, and notes for actors).  The flaw here is that my screenplay will invariably end up getting shown to someone else.   A contest reader.  A producer.  An investor.  Someone out of that inner circle of friends who needs to look at my script and understand the writing.
            Y’see, Timmy, I can’t be writing just for my five closest friends.  Not if I want to succeed as a writer.  I’m not saying my writing has to appeal to everyone and be understood by everyone, but it can’t be so loaded with in-jokes and obscure references that nobody knows what I’m talking about.
            This is one of those inherent writer skills.  Something I just need to figure out how to do on my own, mostly by reading everything I can get your hands on.  I need to know words and phrases.  I have to know them and I have to be honestly aware of who else knows them.  Using extremely uncommon terms or words may show off my bachelor’s degree and vocabulary, but the moment a reader has to stop and think about what a word or phrase means, they’ve been taken out of my story
            And knocking people out of my story is one of the certain ways to make sure the reader puts my manuscript down and goes off to fold laundry.
            On an unrelated note… if you’re in San Diego and happen to be reading this just as it went up, I’m going to be at Mysterious Galaxy tonight (Thursday) talking and signing copies of Ex-Isle.  And on Saturday I’ll be at Dark Delicacies in Burbank doing more of the same.  Hope to see some of you there (and if not, you can call them and order books, too).
            Next time, I’d like to talk about how ignorant some of your characters are.
            Until then… go write.
January 30, 2016

Annnnnnd… ACTION!

            Hey!  Wanted to thank all of you who came out last weekend to the Writers Coffeehouse. Hopefully hearing me talk about writing in the real world was at least as semi-useful as all of this.
            Also—shameful capitalist plug—my new book, Ex-Isle comes out next week from Broadway Paperbacks.  Check out that fantastic cover over there on the right.  It’s book five in the ongoing Ex-Heroes series, and I happen to think it’s pretty cool.  Granted, I might be a bit biased…
            (the audiobook’s still three weeks out but it is coming, I promise)
            Anyway, enough about that. Now… story time.
            About fourteen years ago some friends and I were in a pretty serious car crash.  Someone sideswiped us as we were pulling onto the freeway and then sped off.  My friend’s SUV was slammed into the concrete wall, bounced off, then slammed into the wall again because the wheels had twisted around to send us right back into it.  We skidded ten or twenty feet scraping against the wall.  The first impact was so hard that the passenger side door crumpled in, hit me, and fractured my ribs on that side.  I also caught half the windshield with my face.  I remember clenching my eyes shut on instinct, what felt like gravel hitting my cheeks and mouth and forehead. While part of me knew (in the greater sense) that we were in the middle of a collision of some kind, another part of me was still trying to figure out what the hell was going on.  And there was so much noise.  Screams and hollering from friends, metal on concrete, metal bending, glass breaking, highway noise because the windows were gone.  It wasn’t until everything stopped that I realized how loud it had been.
            Now, I took a while to write that out, and a while for you to read it, but the truth is, it took seconds.  Six or seven seconds, tops. Really, at the moment, it was just a blur of sensations. I didn’t piece together what had happened—and what I’d experienced—until afterwards.
            Action, by its very nature, is fast.  It’s a blur.  If you’ve ever been part of an accident of some kind, a fight, a collision, or any other kind of really dynamic moment, you know what I’m talking about.  A huge amount of action is stuff we figure out after the fact.  In the moment, I’m not quite sure how my shirt got ripped or why my arm’s bleeding or… oh, geez, I think I whacked my head a lot harder that I thought.
            Here are a couple of tips on how I try to make my action scenes seem fun and cool.
            Keep it fast–Action can’t drag. If it takes a full page for someone to throw a punch and connect, things are happening in slow motion.  Even a paragraph can seem like a long time, especially once multiple punches are thrown.
            My personal preference is to try to not have action take much longer to read then it would to experience.  I trim fight scenes and action moments down to the bare minimum to give them (pardon the phrase) a lot of punch. One way I do this is to clump some actions together and let the reader figure out what happened on their own
            He slammed three fast punches into the other man’s kidney.
            Karen did something quick with her hands, and now she held the pistol while the mugger wailed and held his wrist.
            Keep it simple—I practiced martial arts for a while and I also have a lot of experience with  weapons thanks to my time in the film industry.  Even though I know lots and lots of terminology, I try not to use it.  That kind of thing can clutter up an action scene, especially when I’m using a lot of foreign languages or obscure terms.  I want this to move fast, and if my reader has to stop to sound out words and parse meanings from context… that’s breaking the flow.  If they need to figure out if a P-90 TR is a rifle, a pistol, or a fitness program… well, maybe they’ll come back to it after lunch.
            Remember, there’s nothing wrong with terminology, but there’s a time and a place for everything.  That time is rarely when someone’s swinging a baseball bat at your head.

            Keep it sensory—Kind of related to the above, and something I touched on in my story.  Action is instinctive, with a certain subtlety to it. There isn’t a lot of thought involved, definitely not a lot of analysis or pretty imagery.  Keeping in mind the fast, simple nature I’ve been talking about, I try to keep action to sounds, sights, and physical sensations.  I can talk to you about a knife going deep into someone’s arm, severing arteries and veins as it goes… or I can just tell you about the hot, wet smell of blood and the scrape of metal on bone.  Which gets a faster reaction?
            Granted, writing this way does make it hard to describe some things, but a lot of that gets figured out after the fact anyway.  My characters will have a chance to sort things out once things cool down.

            Keep it real—Like so many things in fiction, it all comes down to characters.  There’s a reason we can zone out dozens of attacks on the news but be gripped by a single one in a book.  Action needs to be based in real characters because my readers need to care about the people involved.  A stranger in a car crash is kind of sad in an abstract way, but Wakko in a car crash is a tragedy and we want constant updates.
            This also kind of works against the idea of “always start with action,” which is something I’ve talked about before.  It’s tough for readers to be invested in action when we don’t know the people involved.  If I start with an action scene it has to be twice as big to compensate for the fact that we don’t know the characters, and once it’s that big it’s going to effect the level of everything that comes after it.
            Now, as always, it’s pretty easy to find exceptions to these.  As I said, these are more tips than rules.  But there’s one particular exception I want to talk about.
            A pretty common character is, for lack of a better term, the fighting savant.  Batman, Jack Reacher, Melinda May, Ethan Hunt, Sarah Walker, Joe Ledger, Stealth—characters who’ve taken physical action to an art form through years of study and experience.  For these people to not use precise terminology for weapons or moves could seem a little odd.  It makes sense they’d be able to dissect action, picking out the beats and planning out responses like a painter reviewing their palette.
            Keep in mind, these characters by their very nature should be rare.  If I have a dozen utterly badass characters who all have badass moves with badass weapons… that’s going to get boring real quick.  It’s monotone.
            Also, keep the point of view in mind while writing.  Stealth may be a trained master of unarmed combat, but St. George gets by with his invulnerability and raw strength.  Whose narrative this is will affect how her actions are seen by the reader.
            And that’s that.  A handful of tips for writing killer action.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about, arguably, one of the finest episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation that was ever produced.
            Oh, and  next Thursday I’ll be at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, blabbing away and signing copies of Ex-Isle.  If you’re in the area, please stop by and say “hullo.”
            Until then… go write.