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.
November 26, 2014 / 3 Comments

More Dating Tips

            Very sorry about missing last week.  Copyedits. And Thanksgiving is this week, so I know nobody’s going to be reading this on Thursday.  So I figured I’d get this up today and hope to break even.  Sort of…
            Anyway, this week I wanted to blab on about dating your work.  And I figured the best way to do that would be to talk about the Cat & Fiddle.
           If you’re not familiar with Los Angeles, the Cat & Fiddle has been a Hollywood landmark for about thirty years now.  It’s a little pub in the middle of Hollywood with a nice outdoor patio.  It’s always been popular, but I think it managed to avoid being hip or trendy in all that time.  Part of Casablanca was filmed on that location.  Seriously.
            Heck, there’s a reference to the Cat & Fiddle about halfway through my book, 14.  It was a landmark, as I said, and my story is very much about Los Angeles.  Why wouldn’t I refer to it?
            Except now it’s closing.  The landlord found someone willing to pay twice as much so, well, the cat’s out in the cold.  No more Cat & Fiddle unless they can find a new place.  Somewhere else.
            What’s my point?
            Just like that, 14 has become dated.
             Still, I’m not as bad off as James P. Hogan.  When he wrote his novel Inherit the Stars (first book in the Giants series) back in 1977, he envisioned the US facing off against the Soviet Union in a race to colonize the solar system (a race that gets interrupted by an amazing discovery, granted…).  Needless to say, the first three books in that series are extremely dated.
            When we say a book is dated, we mean it’s a book someone can look at and say “Ahhh, well this was clearly written back when…”  It’s a book that isn’t about now, it’s about then.  And when my book’s not about now, that’s just another element that’s making it harder for someone to relate to my characters and my story
            Remember in school when you had to read classics?  Some of the hardcore Dickens or Austen or maybe even Steinbeck.  One of the reasons they can be hard to read is because of the references in them.  They talk of events or customs or notable persons that are foreign to us.  Hell, half the time so foreign they’re just gibberish (bundling?  What the heck is bundling..?).
            When we hit these stumbles, it breaks the flow and makes the book harder to enjoy.  A dated book has a shelf life, like milk or crackers.  The moment it gets this label, there’s an end in sight.
            Because of this, there’s a common school of thought that I shouldn’t make any such references in my work.  My story shouldn’t mention current fads or events.  I don’t want to have references to celebrities or television shows or bands or music.  If I want to have my writing to have any sort of extended life—the “long tail” as some folks like to call it—it can’t be dated.
            And there is something to this.  I’ve seen metaphor-stories fall flat with readers less than a year after the events they’re referencing.  It was funny at the time, but if you watch Aladdin today it’s tough to figure out half the stuff the Genie’s riffing on (what the heck’s with the whoop-whoop fist thing…?).
            When the GOP shut down the US government last year, my friend Timothy Long pounded out a longish comedy short story called Congress of the Dead.  And for a few months it sold really, really well.  It’s not doing much these days (it’s still funny but not as topical), but he knew going in that it wasn’t going to be timeless and used that knowledge to his advantage.
            So, which way should I go?
            Well, here’s the catch.  My work is always going to end up dated.  Always.  There’s no avoiding it.  Stories get dated by technology and cars and geography. Things people assume will never change (like the Cat & Fiddle or the U.S.S.R.) end up changing. It happens all the time.  It can’t be helped.
            Consider this…
            Stephen King’s Cujo couldn’t happen today.  Cell phones undermine the entire plot.  Same with Fred Sabehagan’s Old Friend of the Family.  The entire plot of Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher book, Killing Floor, hinges on an idea that was obsolete six months before the book even reached stores.
            Let’s not even talk about speculative fiction.  How many sci-fi shows predicted events we’ve since caught up with and passed?  Buck Rogers left Earth on a deep space probe in 1987, and Thundar the Barbarian saw the world collapse in 1994.  Star Trek told us the Eugenics Wars happened in the 1990s, which was also when Khan and his followers were launched into space in cryogenic suspension (presumably using the technology from the Buck Rogers deep space probes).  According to the Terminator franchise, Judgement Day happened in 1997 (later adjusted to 2004).  Then there’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and it’s sequel 2010.  Heck, even Back to the Future is just a few short weeks away from becoming a silly, dated comedy.  It’s going to be 2015 and there are no self adjusting clothes or flying cars or Jaws XIX (it looks like we did get hoverboards, though…).  And, hell, supposedly in 2015 people are still using faxes as a high-tech method of communication.
            If I really don’t want to date my work, I can’t mention anything.  Cars, music, movies, television shows, networks, books, magazines, sports teams, games, cell phones or providers, Presidents, politicians, political parties, countries, businesses of any kind, actors, actresses… all these things and a few dozen more. All these things change all the time in unpredictable ways.  So if I want to be timeless, I can’t bring up any of them.
            The problem is, though, these are all things that are part of our lives. They come up in conversations.  They shape how we react to other things.  So if I’m writing a realistic character with natural dialogue… these things will be there.
            So what’s this all mean?
            In the big scheme of things… don’t worry about it.
            That being said, I  probably shouldn’t base my entire plot around readers knowing the lyrics to Taylor Swift’s latest single, and (much as I love it) I might not want to use a reference to the second season finale of Chuck as the big button on my chapter.  There’s a reason some things stand the test of time, some become cult classics, and others become… well, we don’t know, do we?  And I should never be referencing something no one knows about.
            There isn’t an easy answer for this.  I’d love to list off some rules or just be able to say “8.3 references per 50 pages is acceptable,” but it isn’t that simple.  A lot of this is going to be another empathy issue.  As a writer, I need to have good sense of what’s sticking around and what’s a fleeting trend.  What references will people get in ten years, which ones they’re going to forget in six months, and how blatant these references need to be to get the job done.
            Getting dated is unavoidable.  It is going to happen to my work.  And yours. And hers.  But if we’re smart about it, we can get the most out of it while we can and still make sure that date’s as far off as possible.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about dialogue.  And I’ll probably make a mess of it.

            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.
July 28, 2011 / 3 Comments

Slasher Porn!

No, it’s not what it sounds like, or even pop culture. I’m just trying to boost the hit count a bit. Of course, some of you read this at work, so I probably just got half of you blocked.

So, let’s talk about cutting things up.
I’ve got a lot of slashing to do in my near future. The first draft of my new book is almost done, which means a polish draft and then I start cutting. And there’s going to be a lot to cut. It’s closing in on 140,000 words and around 110,000 is where a trade paperback starts to get a little too heavy. I already know a few sections that are going to vanish, but there’ll have to be more to get this down to fighting weight.
So, there’s a little tip I’ve mentioned here once or thrice. First time I heard it was in Stephen King’s On Writing. He got it from an editor when he was a kid, and still tries to follow it today. It’s not a hard-fast percentage, but it’s a great rule of thumb. I’m sure you remember this one–

Second Draft = First Draft – 10%
Now, by coincidence, I’m also going over layout pages for Ex-Patriots right now. It’s coming out in about two months, and it’s already out as an audiobook. By further lucky coincidence, I actually kept track of some exact numbers for Ex-Patriots as I started to edit it. So let’s go over some of them.
The first full draft of Ex-Patriots was 109,088 words. For me, that’s really the second draft because I tend to fly through the first draft and neaten up in my second draft. It means some stuff gets cut early, some stuff gets tightened up, but some stuff gets added, too.
For example, I lopped out one whole chapter because I realized after the fact it didn’t fit the tone and a couple elements in it were happening a bit too soon in the big scheme of things. It was only half-formed, granted, but I still thought it was well done and I liked it, so I plucked the whole thing out before it even got polished. It’ll probably show up in Ex-Communication. Seventeen months from now you can say “Ah-HAH!” when you read the dinner party chapter. That was 500 words gone before I even start the serious cutting.
So my second draft tends to be tighter and leaner, but still a bit larger overall. Let’s see how much I can cut out of this with just a few passes.
First off, I removed 225 thats in the third draft. Almost a full page of them. For the record, I cut over one thousand thats from The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe. I’ve mentioned that before as a word which is easy to cut. Go through your writing and I’ll bet you’ll find half your uses of that could go away with no problem. Right there, the draft is down to 108, 863 words.
Then I cut 406 words worth of adverbs and adverbial phrases. I’ve mentioned a couple times how easy it is to lose adverbs. It usually forces you into using better words, too.
Next I got rid of useless modifiers. This is a bad habit I developed along the way that a friend (and editor) of mine named Somewhat Syndrome. It’s when I use modifiers as half-strength adverbs and adjectives. It comes up a lot when I have to describe measurements (a bit over a mile, almost two hundred pounds, and so on). I deleted 61 kind ofs, 14 sort ofs, another 61 uses of almost, and a whopping 70 a bits. That’s over 200 more words gone altogether. At this point the manuscript’s down to 108, 251 words.
Then there was some general tightening. I’d go through and look for places where contractions would make the dialogue flow better or excess verbiage had just crept in one way or another. It happens when I think too much, to be honest, and start wondering if sentences are clear or if I’m being specific enough.
For example, what’s the difference between I’ll drive my own car and I’ll drive my car? Not much except for some emphasis, which might already be established with the tone of the moment. Or what about she blinked her eyes open and closed, as if there was some other way to blink and some other part of your body to do it with.
Another 220 words went away during this pass.
So check this out. Remember that great little tip from Mr. King? At this point I’ve cut well over a thousand words, five solid pages of manuscript, and I haven’t even changed anything. I haven’t taken out any dialogue or removed characters or shortened sequences.
Y’see, Timmy, editing isn’t always painful and arbitrary. A lot of the time it’s necessary. And the necessary stuff isn’t that hard to deal with. All those cuts I just mentioned used the Find feature in word, so that’s only a day’s worth of work.
A few other chunks went away later in the editing process. There were a few jokes and ten percenters I’d added that I since admitted weren’t worth the payoff. One scene went away when I realized it made no sense with my revised timeline.
By the end of the third draft of Ex-Patriots, I’d cut over thirty-five hundred words. Not the mathematical ten percent we’re aiming for, but with the cuts and revisions between first and second, I felt pretty good about it.
Of course, you can get the book in a few weeks and tell me if I messed up
Next time… well, I’m open to suggestions. If no one has any, I might rant about spelling again (we’re due). I’ve got one potential idea, but I’m not sure if it’s been done already…
Until then, go write.