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.
            I wanted to prattle on a bit about character development.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and the way it can sometimes be a stumbling block.  And I think I’ve got my thoughts in an order where they’d make a semi-coherent post.
            So, first, a little story.
            A friend of mine has a semi-popular travel show on PBS.  She’s also been working on a book about how she ended up travelling and one of her first big solo trips (that’s her thing).  She’d been working on it for a while and asked if I’d be willing to take a look at it and maybe offer some thoughts.  Maybe help her think of a title for it.
            I’ll be honest.  There’s always a bit of nervousness when a friend asks for your opinion on something.  I bet most of you can relate.  But I said yes.
            Turned out, no big worry. It was a fun book about her trek through Italy.  No nightmarish spelling or grammar mistakes.  Great voice.  Good description.
            There was one issue I noticed though—it just took a little while to pin down.
            (no, don’t worry,  She and I have talked about this.  And she knows I’m mentioning her book this week)
            Y’see, the book had tons of good elements.  Travel.  History.  Comedy.  Some soul searching.  A little romance.  A touch of sex.  Even a kind of creepy night in a haunted building.
            Thing is, none of these was a dominant element.  They were all more or less equal.  A little more of this here, a little less of that there.  Okay, the creepy factor only lasted four or five pages, but past that… it’d be really tough to pin down the main theme of the book.  An informative travelogue?  An introspective journey to sort out a life?  A passionate summer in Europe?
            Yeah, lots of stories have multiple elements like this.  My own book, The Fold, has sci-fi and horror elements, but also mystery, some action-adventure, a bit of comedy, some sexy romance, and even a touch of political stuff.  At the end of the day, though… it’s pretty much sci-fi and horror.  The other things were side dishes, so to speak.  They were fun and flavorful, but they weren’t the main course.
            See, without that main course, the meal is nothing but side dishes.  And while there’s nothing wrong with that, it becomes very difficult to answer the simple question of “what did I have for dinner?”  Sure, I can say, “side dishes,” but that doesn’t really answer the question, does it?  It’s like asking what I’m wearing and I say “not a green shirt.”  It’s an answer and it’s true, but I haven’t really told you anything useful.
            I need to have some kind of answer to the genre question, because people are going to ask it. People like readers. And agents.  And editors.  And if I can’t give them a real answer, it’s going to be really hard for me to get anyone interested.  If you’ve been reading the ranty blog for a while, you may remember a little tidbit I once heard from an agent named Esmond Harmsworth—“It’s not like anything else is very hard to sell.”
            This brings me to the second half of this little rant…
            I’ve mentioned before that you can follow me on Twitter.  If you do, you get to watch every weekend as I rant about sci-fi and horror B-movies in real time.  Over the years—watching them and working on some of them—I’ve developed a theory about why they turn out so bad.  Not all of them, granted, but a good number of them.
            Genre comes with expectations.  Science fiction and fantasy each have their own standards, benchmarks, and tropes.  These are radically different from the ones we hold for horror, or for mystery stories, or for romances.  Seems straightforward, yes?
            When these expectations aren’t met, or when my story departs radically from them, things begin to stumble. Maybe my story recovers, but sometimes that stumble ends with a full-on faceplant.  I’m willing to bet most of us have read a book or seen a movie where we discover the big twist is aliens did it or angels did it or Bob was a deranged serial killer all this time.  And this made us roll our eyes and find something else to do.
            So, here’s my theory.
            I think sometimes, at one stage or another, a story gets tagged with the wrong genre.  And this creates problems.  Sometimes I look at one of those B-movies I mentioned and I see what may have started out as—for example—a really fine sci-fi movie.  But someone decided it was a horror movie, and they filmed it as a horror movie. And now the sci-fi story has horror timing and emphasis and angles—all those standards we expect from those films.  But they don’t really fit this story. And that awkwardness is why the movie never really hits its stride.
            A great example of this was the latest Fantastic Four movie.  Director Josh Trank has done Chronicle, an indie movie widely hailed as a superhero story. But if we take a good look at it, it was really a superpowers movie.  Then Fox gave him the FF franchise and, well, Trank made another superpowers movie.  He forced the FF out of their natural genre and into a different one. 
            And we all know how that went.
            I’ve seen the flipside of this, too. When something gets made as, say, a sci-fi movie, but we’re told it’s a horror movie, by the advertising or the interviews or whatever.  So we walk in with those standard expectations, and suddenly the movie is “wrong” because it’s failing as a horror movie—which it was never intended to be.  I’ve seen books that were marketed as dark fantasy that were supernatural romance. Movies marketed as horror that were pretty straightforward sci-fi or fantasy.  Or even blog posts that were marked as character development when they’re all about genre…
            From our point of view as writers, this can be deadly.  If I’ve got an agent who wants to see sci-fi, I say my book is sci-fi, and then I send her or him literary horror…  Well, that’s going to get rejected really quick.  Yeah, even if it’s a fantastic horror story. 
            Heck, even if said agent reps horror as well, they can get soured just by those failed expectations.  They can go into it expecting sci-fi, like they were told, and maybe they’ll eventually self-correct.  But even then…  I may have lost those two or three vital ticks off their mental scorecard.
            And those two or three ticks can mean the difference between ending up in the big pile of the left or the very small pile on the right.
            Y’see, Timmy, I need to be sure what my genre is.  And I need to be honest about it, no matter how popular some other genre might be right now.  Because I want to score all the points I can with editors.  And agents.
            And especially with readers.
            Next time I want to talk about one of my favorite topics.  And a little bit about numbers.
            Until then, go write.
            Oh, and if you wanted to toss a buck or two at my friend’s travel show, public television needs all the help it can get.  Thanks.

Our three secret weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency…

So, a few years back I attended the SDSU Writers’ Conference and got to listen to a gentleman named Esmund Harmsworth. Look him up. Nowadays he’s an agent at ZSH Literary.

He caught my attention one year when I attended a Q&A panel with a bunch of agents. The panel had been running for about half an hour when one fellow stood up and asked a question about his sci-fi novel. One agent immediately told him to throw it away and two others joined in. The trio of battleaxes berated the poor questioner and loudly declared genre as the absolute worst thing to write. Horror, sci-fi, fantasy—it was all garbage. Each of them stressed that they would never, ever look at a genre writer as a potential client.

After a few minutes of them going on and on, Mr. Harmsworth (on the far side of the platform) cleared his throat into his microphone. It tripped them up for a moment, and in the pause he pointed out to the questioner (who had, at this point, shrunk to a height of about two feet and was crying quietly to himself) that if you write something good any agent is going to want to see it. That’s their job, after all, and every agent on the panel was secretly hoping to find the next Stephen King. He sat back in his chair and the battleaxe brigade immediately backpedaled and agreed that quality writing was what mattered over everything else.

Needless to say, when I saw Harmsworth’s name on a seminar list the following year, I made a point of being there. Yeah, it was about mysteries, his chosen field, but I figured there’d be something to glean out of it. And there was, even though Harmsworth admitted halfway through that he’d really only had eight rules but the conference folks said ten looks a lot better on the seminar listings so he made up a couple to round out his list.

That being said—I’m not repeating his entire ten points. If you were in the room that day or have heard him give this little lecture since, don’t try posting an “AHA!!!” because I misnumbered something or left something out. I’m telling you now—things are probably misnumbered and left out.

Also, I can’t understand all the notes I wrote to myself seven years ago…

First Rule – There are no rules. Despite everything I’m about to recount, there is no “A-B-C-Done!” when it comes to writing. I’ve mentioned this here before. You can’t point to any rule of writing without acknowledging there are at least twenty examples of violating that rule. So if people are telling you “you must absolutely, always do this!”—especially when this relates to things like page counts or turning points or redemptive moments– it’s a sure sign they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Now, that being said… Agents sell books (and movies) by comparing them to books that have already sold. Makes sense—that’s how most of us buy books. So saying “it’s not like anything else” makes your manuscript very hard to sell. Your book needs to follow those rules you keep hearing about to some extent.

However… following all of the rules makes you a formula writer. Nothing wrong with that. Lots of people make a decent living writing formula books and formula television shows. Just be clear that no one’s going to sing the praises of such a thing or offer mega-millions for it. Formula manuscripts are the junk food of publishing and Hollywood. They sell steadily, no one pays a lot for them, and most folks forget them half an hour after they’re gone.

Second Rule – Know the difference between mysteries and thrillers. Agents sell your manuscript to publishers and producers, but you need to sell it to an agent. One of the key elements, of course, is to know what you’re selling. It can be a pain in the ass these days with some of the sub-sub-genres out there, but you should have a solid idea which one of them your story fits into. This is when you need be honest with yourself. It doesn’t matter how much you wanted to write a historical drama—if you’ve ended up with a low fantasy story that’s what it is and you need to admit it.

Different genres also tend to have different lengths. You can sell a horror novel that’s 115,000 words, but mystery novels should be topping out around 90,000.

Also, you should know who your audience is. Most mysteries are bought by women (they’re 80% of the sales), most thrillers are bought by men. If you’ve written a kick-ass thriller aimed solidly at a female audience, you’re fighting an uphill battle. Not an impossible one, mind you, but be aware of what you’re up against.

Third Rule – Have a real mystery. One telling thing that came up in this seminar—editors will reject a mystery if they can solve “whodunnit” before the hero does. The story needs to have real clues, red herrings, antagonists, foils—a good mystery isn’t just withheld information. It should involve a lot of thought by the reader—thoughts that a good writer will be guiding down the wrong paths.

As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, mysteries also depend on strong characters. I need to care about Wakko or his finding clues and working out answers isn’t going to mean anything to me. Plus, if you think about it, most mysteries tend to be mystery series, and no one’s going to want to follow multiple adventures of a character who’s just not interesting or likeable.

Fourth Rule – Location is key to mysteries. Harmsworth summed this up in one neat line. Most mysteries take place somewhere people would go on a dream vacation. People read mysteries set in Las Vegas and Hawaii and New Orleans. These are places most people will read about regardless, and will love to see a clever story set there.

Keep in mind this dream setting can be manipulated a bit and can be represented by some industries or careers. Hollywood is a dream job for a lot of people, so it makes a great setting for mysteries. So is Washington, because we’re all curious about those hallways of power.

Make sure your story is set somewhere inherently interesting—and not just interesting to you.

Fifth Rule – The idea is key to thrillers. I’ve mentioned the term “high concept” here before. It’s when you can sum up the whole idea of a story in just one or two sentences. A great high concept idea doesn’t even need that much, which is how you end up with pitches like “big lizard, big apple,” “Jurassic Shark,” or “it’s like Die Hard in a building.”

A good thriller depends on a central idea that can be summed up in one or two lines. If it can’t, then the whole thing needs work. Because of this, thrillers tend to be very linear and don’t rely on a lot of subplots or a vast array of supporting characters. They’re driven by suspense and the mounting threat that was mentioned in that two-line pitch..

Sixth Rule – Be patient. You can write an amazing novel or clever screenplay and still have the bad luck of finishing it just as interest in said topic has dropped to an all-time low. Some people tried to jump on the supernatural romance boat just as Buffy and Angel were coming to a close, and… well, that ship got dry-docked for a couple of years. Then there was Twilight and suddenly that ship wasn’t just crewing up, it was press-ganging people.

If someone tells you that your book won’t sell, just put it away, go work on something else, and try submitting it again in four or five months. If it’s a good book it will sell eventually. Honest.

If it’s a good book.

And there you have it. Ten (more or less) tips on how to write better mysteries, many of which can be applied to almost any manuscript.

Next week, I’d like to tell you about the time I sat around for hours watching the most inefficient bank robbery ever.

Until then, go write.

April 30, 2009 / 1 Comment

How Stupid Do You Think I Am?

A pretty loaded question, I know. And I’m sure I don’t want to hear all the answers you’ve got for me.

It’s an important question, though, whether you’re writing books or screenplays. The folks who just bought your new Harlequin Romance aren’t expecting a long lesson about the way colors mix to form new colors. If you’re billing yourself as the next Tom Clancy, 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 you’re hired to pen the new Yu-Gi-Oh movie, you probably shouldn’t spend a lot of time explaining why kids shouldn’t lick stove burners.

Nobody likes to be called stupid, after all. Not even children. Not even stupid people. We all hate being looked down on, being condescended to, or having things spoon-fed to us.

This is why so many people fell in love with the television show LOST, yet so many of these same folks despise the “enhanced” version ABC showed for a while. These episodes now had “pop-ups” added in which explained every single thing occurring on screen. Everything. Every name. Every reference. Every way every point tied back to other things. Now, it’s fun trying to figure out all the various, intertwining mysteries and stories on a show like LOST, but the moment there’s someone walking the viewers through every single one of them—even the ones that just got explained to you a few minutes ago—well then the show’s just become insulting.

Y’see, Timmy, when you spell out everything for your audience, what you’re really saying is “I know you won’t be able to figure this out on your own.” Your characters might not be saying it out loud, but the message is there. You’re too stupid for this—let me explain.

So, having established that nobody likes to be thought of as an idiot, it stands to reason everybody likes to feel smart. One of the easiest ways to make your readers feel smart is to let them figure things out on their own. Triple Academy-Award-winning screenwriter Billy Wilder once said if you let the audience add 2+2 for themselves, they’ll love you forever, and that advice holds true for writers of all forms (except maybe journalists, who should probably put a little more effort into spelling things out).

I’m going to fall back on a favorite example, Scott Frank’s amazing screenplay for Dead Again, also one of the best films Kenneth Branaugh ever directed. If you’ve seen it, you doubtlessly remember the scene when detective Mike Church finally gets to interview the old reporter. And as the octogenarian prattles on, he lets drop one word which twists everything we thought we knew about the story.

The real genius of this moment, though, are the two beats between when he says this word and Church realizes what he’s just been told. There’s just a breath of him brushing off the news as insignificant before it sinks in and his eyes open wide. And why are those two beat so important, you ask?

Because that’s when we figure it out.

The audience barely gets a second, but it’s enough. We get to realize the import of that fateful word just a hair ahead of Church. We figure it out on our own, and we figure it out before him. And even then, Church still doesn’t say what he’s just realized—he just runs out of the room.

A few easy ways to let your audience feel smart, so they will love you…

Know what your audience knows. I’ve talked a few times about common knowledge. It’s stuff you can feel safe assuming everyone knows. Nazis are bad. Jesus was good. Dinosaurs are extinct. The sixteenth president was Abraham Lincoln. The Red Sox are a baseball team. For all of you reading this, you’ll notice I rattled off the words Harlequin Romance, Tom Clancy, and Yu-Gi-Oh without bothering to explain any of them—I know for the folks reading the ranty blog these terms are all recognizable. Knowing what your specific audience knows is the most important part of making them feel smart, because this is what lets you judge what they’ll be able to figure out on their own.

Be smarter than your audience. The ever-quotable Esmund Harmsworth once pointed out mystery editors will toss aside a manuscript if they can figure out who the murderer is before the protagonist does. If you think about it, though, this is true of any sort of mystery, puzzle, or intellectual challenge in a piece of writing. If the writer has dumbed things down to the point of simplicity—or further—who would have the patience to read it? It grates on the nerves, and it makes us impatient as we wait for character to figure out what was plainly obvious twenty minutes ago.

Don’t state the obvious. The late Michael Crichton once explained a writing rule he got from his father. “Be very careful using the word obvious. If something really is obvious, 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. Looking at that first tip up above, should you be wasting words to tell your audience Nazis were bad, the sky is blue, or Harvard is a prestigious school? Within your own writing, when Bob finds Cindy clutching a bloody knife with a look of glee on her face, do we need to be told she’s unhinged and dangerous?

Take one step back. When something does need to be explained, we all feel the need to go the distance with it. You don’t always have to, though. Look at some of those explanatory scenes and pull it back to 85-90%. If you take your audience most of the way there, they’ll probably be able to go the rest of the way on their own.

Give them the benefit of the doubt. Every now and then, just trust they’ll get it. Not all the time, but every now and then make a leap of faith your audience can make a connection with almost no help whatsoever from you. Odds are that leap isn’t as big as you think it is. When your audience pulls those slim threads together all on their own, they’re going to love you for it.

So, now that we’ve (hopefully) established I’m not quite as stupid as you all thought I was, perhaps you’d like to stop by next week for a few thoughts on writer’s block.

Provided, of course, that I can just figure out how to get them all down.

Until then, go write.