June 11, 2009 / 2 Comments

Dodging Bullets

Check it out. Fifty posts and people are still paying attention to me for some reason. Or at least they’re keeping their laughter to themselves…

As I’ve mentioned a few times, there is no trick to writing. No one expects to sit down at the piano and play a concerto, or to jog out on the field and do a five-minute mile. In the same way, writing—not basic middle school literacy, mind you, but the ability to write— is a skill which needs to be learned like any other.

Like most skills, some folks have the knack for writing, some don’t. There are a lucky few who have natural talent and those who have to struggle to produce every line. I can do a few laps in the pool, but no matter how much mom pushed me at a young age I was never, ever going to pose a risk to Michael Phelps. Likewise, I love music and can sound out a few things on a piano, but I just never put the effort into learning an instrument (although I’ve been toying with the idea of taking up the violin)

Y’see, Timmy, there are those folks willing to put in the time and effort to become better at something… and those who aren’t. If anything I’ve said here impresses anyone, keep in mind there’s about thirty years of literary roadkill stretched out in the road behind me. Cliché-filled fanfic, some God-awful sci-fi and fantasy tinged with high school angst and college melodrama, plus at least three versions of that long-lost American classic Lizard Men From the Center of the Earth.

So, with all that being said, I’d like to take a few paragraphs and talk to you about the Warren Commission report.

In 1963, a week after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the newly sworn-in President Johnson ordered Chief Justice Earl Warren to investigate the killings. Warren assembled a group of congressmen and specialists (including future president Gerald Ford) to assemble all the evidence and quash the numerous “conspiracy theories” that were growing.

When the Commission finally delivered their report, it was like throwing gasoline on a fire. One of the most amazing (and still controversial) declarations it made was that a single shot caused all of the non-fatal wounds to President Kennedy and Texas Governor Connally. Critics swiftly pointed out this one bullet would need to change directions numerous times during its flight. Even more amazing, the bullet was miraculously found on the floor in Connally’s emergency room, having supposedly fallen out of his thigh, undeformed and completely clean of all blood and human tissue.

The popular term which developed from this, which you’ve probably heard before, was the magic bullet. A small, simple thing which could defy every bit of common sense yet still somehow produce all-but-impossible, borderline miraculous results.

Many people think to be a successful writer, it’s just a matter of finding a magic bullet. I mean, it can’t actually be that difficult, right? Surely there’s just an idea so clever nothing else will matter and Hollywood will buy it. There must be a certain type of novel that’s selling better than anything else, so then it’s just about doing a tween urban fantasy story over a dark techno-thriller. Some folks believe finding the right tone—perhaps a somber introspective or something in an off-the-cuff conversational—guarantees people will fight for their manuscript.

Alas, there is no such thing.

So, here are a few beliefs you should be actively avoiding…

The special word—Ready to hear an amazing true fact? You can get a Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting just for including the word “mellonballer” in your script. Seriously. It’s an unwritten rule Don and Gee Nicholl set down as a condition of the fellowship because of a high rated episode of All in the Family which revolved around a mellonballer joke. Many people who’ve gotten the fellowship don’t even realize this is how they got it. Honest. I’ve spoken to the fellowship’s director, Greg Beal, twice in person and interviewed him once on the phone. Contact him yourself if you don’t believe me, but expect him to be a bit coy about it. Do you really think I could make up something like this?

Oh come on!!! Of course I made it up. How gullible are you?

The people who read for the Nicholl—just like the readers of any competition, production company, or publication—aren’t looking for some magic word. There is no clever bit of vocabulary that’s going to give you an in, although I can probably guarantee if you use any words incorrectly it will keep you out. The only “right” word you need to worry about is the one that’s right for your story. Don’t worry about anything else.

And please don’t bother Greg Beal by checking on the mellonballer thing. The man’s got enough to do this time of year without fielding any more nonsense emails than he already gets.

The special genre—With the desire to make a sale, it’s not unusual seeing people leaping to follow the “hot” markets. Right now sparkly teenage vampires are hot, yet it seems like only yesterday everyone wanted nubile teenage vampire slayers. When Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code took off, publishers started looking at every other quasi-religious manuscript on their desk.

The problem here is timing. Even if you lunge at that new hot genre, there’s simply no way to get a comedy/ sci-fi/ historical manuscript done, polished, and in front of someone before the trend has passed. None. And if you think you can, you’re probably doing something wrong. So catching this bullet in the shoulder just guarantees a manuscript will either be weak or hit the appropriate desk about eight months after the trend has been declared dead.

Don’t try to follow a market trend. Try to set one. Write the horror/ romance/ faith-based/ mystery story you want to tell and make sure it’s the absolute best one anyone’s ever read. That’s what will catch someone’s attention and make hundreds of others rush to hop on your bandwagon.

The special aesthetic—More than a few folks think the secret is to create “art.” Stories which will be recognized immediately as classics and counted as such for the ages. That deep, over-educated, overwritten sort of art that makes college literary students swoon in the middle of intellectual discussions.

This one’s a double edged sword, though, because a lot of the folks going for this bullet end up taking it in the chest (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?). Often, attempts to create art lead to forced scenes, painful dialogue, and unbelievable characters. Plus, that same art then becomes a blanket excuse to let the writer brush off any comment or criticism their work may get. After all, only the sophisticated and intelligent people are going to understand art. If they don’t understand, it just proves they’re not intelligent and thus not qualified to judge it, right?

As I’ve said many times before– don’t try to create art. Try to tell the best story you can the best way it can be told. Let other people worry about if it’s high art or if it’s going to be the next summer popcorn movie/ bestselling beach book

The special message—Close behind the above bullet (someone’s shooting on full-auto) is the belief a story has to have a deep, powerful meaning. Every element of it should be loaded with subtext. Each line should make the audience rethink their lives. I made a joke a while back about using Jason Voorhees to represent Hamas, and also talked about having very fitting names for characters.

While it’s great to have subtext, though, a writer shouldn’t be fighting to force it in. Likewise, if you’ve come up with a clever metaphor which applies to the catchphrase/ scandal/ fashion of the moment, much like the special genre above, odds are that ship will have sailed long before anyone ever sees your work.

If you feel your work must have a greater meaning, ask yourself a few questions. Do you think it does, or are you trying to live up to someone else’s expectations? Will it still be relevant six months from now, or six years from now? Most importantly, does this greater meaning serve your writing? Or is your writing bending to this greater meaning?

The special people—One of the most common magic bullets you’ll see these days is networking. The belief your writing is irrelevant compared to knowing the right people who have the right jobs. Some would-be-writers spend more time hunting folks down on the internet than they do working on their writing.

Alas, networking is dead. To be blunt, it was stillborn. Any cocktail party, message board, or newsletter which promises you tons of networking opportunities will not offer you a single useful one. It’s one of those things that can only happen by accident, and trying to do it defeats it immediately.

The people you really need to make connections with are the ones who will help you perfect your writing. They’re always out there and you’ll always need them. One person’s honest opinion about your writing is worth more in the long run than twenty forced, tenuous “contacts” made by deliberate networking.

So, there you have it. A handful of things you shouldn’t be spending time looking for. I mean, really, who spends their time trying to get hit by bullets?

Next time (assuming you survive that shootout) let’s take a look at where we are. Or more importantly, where your characters are.

Until then, go write.

Go! There are bullets everywhere!! Go!!!

May 15, 2009 / 2 Comments

Geek Stuff

Okay, time for a personal confession.

I am a geek. Long time nerd. I was one of those sci-fi/ fantasy/ comic-book weirdoes long before most of you reading this were born. An outcast all through grade school and high school with only a few equally geeky friends.

I saw Star Wars in the movie theater when it was just Star Wars. None of this tacked-on- “Well, I always planned a trilogy of trilogies”- A New Hope nonsense. I remember when the Doctor turned into a tall guy with curly hair and a scarf, back at a time when you knew Daleks were supposed to be scary but couldn’t quite figure out why. I devoured the tales of Hawk the Slayer, Rom the Spaceknight, and John Carter, the Warlord of Mars. I remember the X-Men when they weren’t cool and Wolverine dressed in bright yellow spandex. Heck, when I learned how to play Dungeons & Dragons it was just two magazine-sized paperbacks with red and blue covers. It was a proud, thrilling moment for me when I first found out I was going to work on a Beastmaster movie (the shame came later).

Alas, sci-fi and fantasy get a bum rap from most folks, and those two genre tags are often seen as a kiss of death by agents, publishers, and studios. Heck, producer Ron Moore went out of his way to keep people from calling Battlestar Galactica sci-fi, despite that glaring network label. Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park was almost never shelved in the sci-fi/ fantasy section. Same with his Eaters of the Dead and all those Harry Potter books.

What years of digesting this stuff have shown me, though, is a lot of bad genre stuff tends to be bad for all the same reasons. Oh, there are some films and books that have found bold and daring ways to be awful no one could’ve possibly thought of (for examples of this, I recommend the novel Einstein’s Bridge and/or the film Women of the Prehistoric Planet), and there are a lot of the same basic problems you’ll see in any story or script, but overall the lethal genre flaws tend to fall into three categories.

One of the biggest mistakes I see in a lot of genre stuff is writers who are trying to make it too amazing. They cram in everything they can think of, every idea they have. It’s a bit like when that one overeager kid got to be the Dungeon Master for the first time and created that dungeon with fifteen platinum dragons and twenty giant purple worms and thirty minotaurs armed with +5 flaming swords and every door had a poison needle trap and… and… and…

I read one sci-fi screenplay a while back that dealt with a character awoken from cryogenic suspension thousands of years in the future, superhuman bio-technology that let people live at an accelerated rate, the different physics reactions this accelerated rate caused, gladiatorial games, social clans, an arms race, interplanetary civil wars, and an ethical debate over cloning. These weren’t just touched on, mind you, but all were essential, key elements in a 100-odd page script.

The problem with writing screenplays or stories like this is your audience has nothing left to latch onto as they’re overwhelmed with everything that’s different. The location is different. The rules are different. The people are different. Motivations are different. The writer may have created the most unique 37th Century world ever, but the audience needs to be able to understand to it now.

This leads us right into problem two—when the writer tries to explain all of it. I think most people reading this have seen a story or script that suddenly deviates into exposition. Characters will suddenly spout out a page or three on what the fabled Amulet of Sativa can do once it’s soaked in the blood of an innocent or how space travel works. Worse yet, sometimes this explanation will just pour out between the dialogue as the writer talks directly to his or her audience.

What this leads to is stories that are phenomenally detailed and exotic, but nothing ever actually happens in them. Five pages explaining why the Cawdor hive-gang has hated the Escher hive-gang for the past twenty years is really just five pages of characters sitting around twiddling their thumbs.

And this leads us to big problem number three—when the writer doesn’t explain any of it. Strangers make ominous proclamations. Disturbing photos arrive in the mail. Eerie carvings of strange, vaguely-familiar symbols are found on the wall. And people don’t address or flat-out ignore all these odd things.

A lot of the time, in my experience, this is a desperate attempt to create an aura of mystery and amazement around the characters or events when there really isn’t anything mysterious or amazing there. The writer just watched a lot of episodes of LOST or Fringe or maybe just the Matrix one too many times.

So, how can you beat these problems? How can you prove to editors, agents, and readers that your genre work is true literature and not at all like the feeble attempts of these other fanboy hacks who’ve been encouraged by their geek friends?

(Apologies to all my geek friends—I wasn’t talking about you.)

For that first problem, have a touchstone. Make sure your story has a main character your audience can immediately relate to. A protagonist who hates their job. Somebody lusting after someone they can’t have. Someone who feels like an outsider. Simply put, a person who has a universal need or desire. I’ve mentioned once or thrice that believable characters make for believable stories, and that’s especially true here in the genres. Luke Skywalker was a small-town boy who didn’t want to go into the family business. John Carter was a Civil War veteran from Virginia trying to find a purpose after the war. Ellen Ripley was the second in command of a mining ship who just wanted to get home to her daughter. Once the reader can believe in your characters, they can believe in what’s happening to your characters. This is a large part of Stephen King’s success, that 95% of his stories involve absolutely ordinary people living absolutely ordinary lives. By the time clowns crawl out of the sewers or a wall of mist rolls across the lake, the reader’s already invested in those folks. We believe in the characters, so we have to believe in what’s happening to the characters.

There are two things you can do for the second problem. One is to trim out anything that doesn’t need to be there. You may have the coolest take on vampires ever, but if you’re only including the vampires because you’ve got this cool take, yank them out and have your characters get attacked by bandits. It’s really cool that you’ve created the entire history and art of the nidhar, an ancient short-range weapon consisting of an array of blades that are held one between each finger before releasing them… but couldn’t your character get by with just a throwing knife?

Here’s a helpful example. Isaac Asimov once wrote a clever short story called “Nightfall,” later expanded to a novel of the same name. In the preface, he explains that he uses miles, hours, and years not because his planet is related to Earth, but because he saw no point in overcomplicating the story. If it works for the master…

The other thing you can do is fall back on the ignorant stranger method I’ve mentioned a few times. It’s nifty that taxicabs and busses are all electric and run by robots at this point in the future—but doesn’t Yakko already know that? I mean, he’s from the future, right? Shouldn’t Lord Murrain already know why he sent his henchman, Wakko, off to search the arctic wastes for a year (to search for the legendary Ice Sword)? Why does Wakko need to explain where he’s been? If this material isn’t vital to your story, trim out that paragraph or three of exposition and just trust that your readers are smart enough to understand future taxis are cool and Wakko found that which he sought.

To solve that third issue, make sure you know what you’re keeping secret, and that it really is a secret. Nothing will frustrate your audience more than to struggle and stumble through a whole story and then realize the writer has no intention of revealing the big mystery, or that there really isn’t one. Figure out what the story’s secret is and work backwards, making sure characters are motivated to hide it and/ or smart enough to uncover it.

Here’s a fun little tip I once heard from that nice lady over at A Buck A Page. Your main character should mirror your audience. So if your main character is constantly saying “I don’t understand,” or “What does that mean?” it probably means your audience is, too. Or, worse yet, they already hate your main character for being a $#&%ing idiot and threw your work across the room fifteen pages back. This also gives you a great guideline, though, of when stuff should be revealed. If you’re well into the third act of your tale and the main character still doesn’t have a clue what’s going on… well, I’m sure a few of the readers will keep reading to the end. Three or four of them, at least…

And that’s all I’ve got for you, unless anyone wants to debate Shogun Warriors vs. Micronauts. Hopefully this’ll help get some more good genre stuff out there for eager audiences.

Next time, just for fun, let’s kill a few babies.

Until then, get back to writing.

September 3, 2008

Where You Sit on the Shelf

In Hollywood there’s a term called “high-concept.” At its purest, high concept is a film idea that can be boiled down to one sentence or less, and that one sentence will instantly let you know what the film’s about and make you want to see it. Some famous high-concept pitches you’ll probably recognize quickly would include “Aliens blow up the White House” or “Big lizard, Big Apple” (although I hope you didn’t sit though that last one). Steve Alten got quite far with “Jurassic shark” (I never thought the book was that great, but I love that line).

One part of a high concept story is that it’s easy to tell what genre it belongs in. There’s a reason this appeals to executive types. Knowing the genre makes a story—be it a novel or a film—easier to market. If your title cleverly (or not so cleverly) reflects this, all the better. To paraphrase Kevin Smith, no one’s going to walk into Zack and Miri Make A Porno thinking it’s a meditation on the Holocaust. By the same token, if you try to define Batman Begins as a romantic comedy (or market it as one), you’re going to find it misses the mark and fails on pretty much every level.

Story the first…

An acquaintance of mine recently asked me for some feedback on a screenplay she’d written. Her formatting was fine, the dialogue was pretty solid, and she’d come up with a pretty decent core idea. The problem was, I couldn’t figure out what genre the script was. Twenty pages in I couldn’t tell if I was reading a comedy that needed another draft or an action flick that needed three or four. I still couldn’t tell at the fifty page mark. Even when I finished, I was lost as to what kind of story it was. And part of the problem with that was it made the script very hard to interpret. Was this scene going for comedy or high drama? Action or absurdity? Since I couldn’t tell what goals the script was trying to achieve, I couldn’t tell if it reached them or not.

If you were looking for your book at Borders or Barnes & Noble, where would it be? What about the DVD release of your screenplay? Here’s another tidbit of advice from very quotable agent Esmond Harmsworth. It’s not like anything else is very hard to sell.” While everybody wants to be the publisher/ producer behind a groundbreaking new bestseller/ blockbuster, no one actually wants to be the person who takes the risk of something new and untested. It’s always going to be much safer to go with something proven such as an apocalyptic horror novel in the vein of The Stand, a television show that’s like an updated X-Files, or a film that’s like Die Hard but in a building.

(no joke—that last one was an actual Hollywood pitch. Bonus tip—actually know the stories you’re comparing your work to and not just what people say about them on message boards)

Story the second…

In other posts I’ve mentioned my first attempt at a novel, The Suffering Map. With queries and conferences, I’ve had the chance to pitch it to several agents. And one problem I had from the start was… what genre is it? It had lots of horror ideas and beats, without question, but it wasn’t a straight horror novel. By the same token, there were many fantasy elements, but it really wasn’t a fantasy. A fair amount of gore, but not to splatterpunk extremes. It was set in the real world, but I dreaded calling it urban fantasy. You could even argue a sci-fi label because there was a large time travel element, except there was absolutely nothing scientific about it…

So how the heck would I pitch it without making it seem like some horrible everything-but-the-kitchen-sink amalgamation or… well, not like anything else?

In the end… I made up a sub-genre.

Yep, that’s right. I beat the Kobayashi Maru by changing the rules. After much wrangling and about 200 drafts of a query letter, I made up a classification that fit my story and explained its place in the book store.

End result? Requests from three major agencies.

This doesn’t mean a writer who crosses several genres is doomed to difficult sales, mind you. It just means you need to know what you’re crossing. An action-horror screenplay would interest many producers, but they’ll be annoyed if they open it and don’t find any horror elements. Or worse, an abundance of romantic comedy situations. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not what they picked up the script to find. Likewise, if you send your sci-fi western short story to a mystery digest magazine, it’s not really their fault when you get rejected.

If you’re writing a genre, study it. Read four or five different books by different authors. Watch five or six different films by different writers and directors. How does your material stack up with theirs? Do you have the same beats? The same themes? Similar types of characters? Do they get the reactions you want your writing to get? When your work gets listed as one of the top five –insert genre here—books or films, can you name the other four works on that list alongside yours?

If not… get back to your desk.

And no matter what, get back to writing. You’ve wasted enough time on the internet for now.