October 1, 2020 / 1 Comment

Allow Me to Explain…

 There’s a storytelling idea, sort of a method, I suppose, that I’d been batting around for a while as a possible topic. Something I see crop up enough that it was worth mentioning in that “something else to keep in mind…” way. I decided to add it to my list of topics here and then, in a weird synchronicity, said problem showed up in a TV miniseries I finally got around to watching and a book I was reading (some formats may be changed to protect… you know).

The miniseries I mentioned involved an aggressive computer virus. And it explained how the virus worked. In detail. It used a few specifics and a few generalities, but it spent three whole scenes explaining this virus, the logic behind how it worked and how it selected targets.

The problem was… even as I was watching this, I could see a bunch of holes in the explanation. Holes that were only pulled wider as the story went on. And my computer skills more or less peaked in the very early 00’s. But I still knew enough to know the virus wouldn’t work the way it was described. Couldn’t. If it chose targets this way, why didn’t it go after that or that? If it propagated like that, how had it reached here and here?

For a brief time I was wondering if this was some sort of foreshadowing that there was more to the virus than was being let on. Maybe some sort of AI or a living virus that had been transcribed but then… mutated or something? But no, in the end it was just a computer virus that didn’t make any sense.

Which was doubly annoying because the virus didn’t really need to be explained in this story. The plot was much more about the repercussions of this thing being loose on the web and how it was affecting lives, society, and so on. The explanation slowed things down.

And, yeah, sure—part of this is on me. Any genre story is going to involve a degree of suspension of disbelief. Nobody wants to be the guy picking apart the energy requirements of a lightsaber or arguing how the Hulk can’t be that strong because his muscle/bone density would mean he’d sink into the earth. And as for Mjolnir, look…

Okay, yeah… there are some people out there who love being that guy.

(looking at you, Neil…)

But here’s the thing. I couldn’t’ve picked it apart if the writer hadn’t put so much down in front of me. I wouldn’t’ve had anything to pick apart. I can’t complain about your wardrobe if you never show me your wardrobe. But this writer decided they needed a whole scene (three scenes, really) explaining the computer virus in detail. And the details didn’t match up.

So what does this mean for me if my story needs explanation? I mean, speculative fiction is filled with different forms of technobabble. It’s got FTL drives and magic systems and AI computer viruses and alien life cycles and bringing dinosaurs back with cloning and mutant superheroes and… I mean, I’ve got to explain it all somehow, right?

Maybe? Consider Jurassic Park. How much does Crichton (or Spielberg and Koepp) actually tell us about the process of recreating dinosaurs? No, seriously—what do they tell us? If you look back, it’s actually a pretty bare-bones explanation of what’s a fairly complicated process (especially twenty-five years ago!). In fact, it encourages us to fill in a lot of the blanks ourselves and make it seem more complete.

So here’s a few things to keep in mind as I’m writing out that long explanation…

First, be clear if the story really needs this explanation. Is this what the story’s actually about, or is this a minor element I can handwave away or just skip over? Back to the Future gets away with a ridiculously simple explanation of time travel because it’s not really about the time travel. It’s about actions and consequences, and becoming a better person. Time travel’s just the mechanism that lets it happen. It’s just short of being a MacGuffin. We don’t need that explanation the same way we don’t need to read about someone hitting every step on the staircase, how many keystrokes it took to log into their cloud account, or a list of every item of clothing they put on when they got dressed (in order). The reader will fill it in.

Second, if I decide I really need to explain this at length, it’s got to be solid. I’ve waived the right to say “just trust me, it works” and now I need to make this as rigorous and believable as possible. I need to do my research, double-check my logic, triple-check my numbers, and let it marinate overnight in plain-old common sense. Trust me when I say if I get a fact wrong or use garbage science or make a math mistake… people will let me know. I don’t even have to ask them. Not only that, but…

Third, I need to keep in mind the more something gets explained, the easier it is to punch holes in that explanation. Like in the example I first mentioned. As the characters went into more and more detail about the computer virus, the flaws in that explanation became more and more apparent. How often have we seen the person digging themselves deeper and deeper because they won’t stop talking? It’s soooooo tempting when we’ve done all that sweet, cool research, but I need to figure out how much explanation my story really needs and stop there. I’ve mentioned screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin here onceor thrice, and his idea that we experience stories in our gut, but we analyze them in our head. I never, ever want my explanation to drive people into their heads.

Fourth, closely related to the last one, is that this sort of explanation is almost always going to be exposition. Yes, even if I try to work it into a conversation or presentation or something like that. As we’ve talked about here a bunch of times, exposition gets boring really fast because so much of it is either things we already know or things we don’t need to know. For our purposes here, there’s a chance the reader doesn’t even want to know. So if I decide I need this explanation in my story, I need to make sure it’s going to be clever and engaging for the reader.

And that’s me explaining how to explain things.

Next time, I’d like to talk about if you should be reading next week’s post.

Until then, go write.

February 26, 2010 / 5 Comments

Finish Him!!

Pop culture reference. It’s been a while.

So, first up, I have to do that awful self-promotion thing. Sorry. If you don’t want to see me stoop to shameless commercialism, skip ahead to the paragraph after next.

Over on the side bar, you’ll notice a new addition. The Amazon link for Ex-Heroes, my new novel which came out earlier this week. It’s a story about superheroes battling the zombie apocalypse. If you’re into that kind of thing, you’ll have a lot of fun. If you’re not, it might change your mind and you’ll still have fun. If nothing else, you’ll be able to go back over the rant blog here and understand some of the references I’ve made to this book over the past year and a half or so. You can also hop over to Facebook and join my fan page to get updates on various writing projects, interviews, and the like.

See? Told you it was shameless.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled rant about writing…

A few years back I got to speak with a writing coach named Drusilla Campbell She tossed out an interesting little statistic–one I think has probably expanded in recent years. According to her, out of every 100 people who call themselves writers, only one of them will ever actually finish a project.

One out of a hundred. That was five years ago. I’d be tempted to say it’s probably closer to one in 200 these days. What, with the number of people starting serial novels on the web and such.

By an astonishing coincidence, the number of people who succeed at writing is a somewhat smaller percentage than that. According to Drusilla, it was one out of ten of those folks who completed a manuscript. I think that number’s probably shrunk a bit, too, but not by any more than the other one’s expanded. Maybe one out of twenty or so. I don’t have any hard numbers to back it up, but I have a couple of really solid hunches and chains-of-logic I can share if anyone really wants to see them.

As I mentioned above, a lot of people have trouble finishing stuff. More than 99% of the people who like to say they’re writers never do. There are a couple different reasons for this.

The most common one, of course, is real life. We meet someone who demands more of our time. Something unexpected comes up. Work wants a little more out of us. Sometimes it’s just impossible to give writing the commitment it needs

Some people use it as a sort of fail-safe excuse. Until I finish it I can’t submit it or show it to anyone, and as long as no one sees my writing it can’t be rejected or criticized. So, consciously or not, some people come up with various excuses never to finish anything.

And then there are the folks who just thought it would be easy to write. I mean, anyone can write a book, right? It’s not like it’s a skill you have to learn or practice. We all learned how in grade school, fer cripes sake. These folks get a few dozen pages in and discover writing isn’t easy and it does take a commitment. Some give up quietly while others fall back on some excuse. Worse, a few of these folks actually do rush out an ending just to have it, and often get angry when this slipshod conclusion gets criticized.

I joke a lot about Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth, but here’s an ugly truth about it. I never finished it. Yeah, it was written on yellow paper and twenty-three pages is still impressive for a third-grader, but in the end it was never completed. Even when I revisited it in seventh grade and added illustrations and a shovelful of Arthurian legends. I also didn’t finish the cliché-filled sci-fi epic Piece of Eternity, a God-awful fantasy thing I’ve been trying to block for years (we’ll chalk that one up to excess hormones at puberty), my Boba Fett fan-fiction novel (long before there was such a term as fan fiction),or even the college novel I’ve mentioned a few times, The Trinity. Not one of them finished.

By an astonishing coincidence–the same one I mentioned above, in fact–not one of them sold.

The first long-form project I ever finished was a script for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine called “Point of Origin.” It got me fifteen minutes in a room with Ron Moore to pitch story ideas, plus repeated invites to come up and pitch other stories at the Star Trek offices.

The first novel I finished was The Suffering Map. It got several requests from agents. Big agents, as people like to call them.

A large part of my success as a journalist is the editors know they can toss me an assignment and I will finish it on time. The fact that I’m a competent writer is a big part of it, too, of course, but a lot of it is just the simple fact that they know an article that gets assigned to me will get done by the deadline.

Y’see, Timmy, the point I’m trying to make is that no one’s going to be interested in a partial manuscript or a script fragment. You have to finish something in order to achieve any sort of success. Unless your name is King, Rowling, or Brown, you will not sell an idea to anyone. Don’t assume it’s any different in Hollywood, no matter what some vehement film professor–or film student– tells you. I keep track of script sales for a living and the last time I remember hearing of someone selling a raw idea was five years ago, when David Koepp sold his idea for the film Ghost Town. In other words, to the best of my considerable knowledge on the subject, the last time anyone at a film studio bought just an idea it was a small, indie film concept that was coming from one of the top ten money-making screenwriters in the world.

In other words, for the purposes of all of us here at the ranty blog, it doesn’t happen. You will not succeed as a writer until you finish something. It doesn’t matter that you did nine-tenths of the work and you know how it’s going to end, people want to see all of it–especially that spectacular finish.

We have to write. And we have to finish what we write. If we don’t, we’ve got nothing.

Next week, if no one suggests a new topic, there are going to be some cuts.

Until then go write.

November 19, 2008 / 3 Comments

Staying Focused

One of the contests I was reading for recently is not anonymous. That means quite often I could see the screenwriter’s name on the script he or she had submitted. And the next script they submitted. And the one after that. And the one after that.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with multiple submissions, but what struck me was how many of these people were consistently just above average. Not enough so that they’d make the next cut, but enough that you could see a seed of actual talent. Alas, none of them bothered to focus or polish that talent—they just pounded out a screenplay and then moved on to their next idea.

On a similar note, I visit a few message boards run by different publishers. It’s not unusual to see people talking about their latest trilogy or the epic series of novels they’ve written over the past year. They haven’t even sold their first book, mind you, but they’re already working on the fourth or fifth sequel.

Now, logic and statistics would seem to tell you that multiple manuscripts means multiple chances to advance. Which would be true if getting a screenplay or story selected was just random chance. Granted, with some of the stuff in theaters and on shelves these days, it’s understandable that people would think random chance was a major factor…

The reality is, out of more than a dozen screenwriters I saw who submitted more than one script to the above-mentioned contest, only one went forward to the next round. And did so with both of his scripts.

One writer out of fourteen (to make it simple) is a little over 7%.

Those are not great odds.

There’s a publishing fact I mentioned a while back, and I personally think it holds with screenwriting as well. Only one out of 100 people who call themselves writers ever finish something. Yep, out of all those folks who are working on a novel or beating out a screenplay on the weekends, only 1% of them will actually produce a completed manuscript.

So if you’ve got the enthusiasm and ability to write over 2000 pages of anything a year, you have a better-than-average shot at making it as a writer. Probably not a Stephen King/ William Goldman/ David Koepp level writer (there’s only room for so many of them), but there’s a definite chance of you being published or produced.

So, here’s a suggestion. Next time you’re thinking of multiple submissions to a magazine, a screenplay contest, or an anthology, stop and count them up. For every additional submission you plan on making, put your favorite manuscript through another draft. Don’t just run it through the spellchecker and call it a draft. Take your time and do it right. Then submit it, move on to the next one, and repeat.

For example, if you were planning to submit four screenplays to a contest (not as unusual as you’d think) take the main one and take it through three more drafts. Look at some of the random hints and tips I’ve posted here over the past few months. Go through your manuscript and tighten up dialogue. Then get some feedback, go through it again, and cut a bunch of those excess words. Maybe triple-check all your spelling line by line or polish your characters on the third time through.

Once you’ve done all that, submit it. Then look at the second script. Well, there are still two more past that, so this one has to go through two more drafts. Tighten. Polish. Feedback. Cut. Check. Submit. Repeat.

Now, I can already hear the low rumble of complaint. How’s the writer supposed to get all this done in time for the contest? Script number four’s never going to make it in time. Heck, there’s a chance script number two won’t even be done in time. Following this advice means most of the other scripts won’t make it into the contest.

That’s right. They probably won’t.

The point here is to focus your efforts. You don’t want to submit a double- handful of rough drafts. Quantity is not the key here, quality is. You want to put out a single, polished, meticulousy-revised manuscript that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt cannot be improved. If you had the time to submit four mediocre, second-draft scripts, what you’re really saying is you have time to submit one phenomenal one.

So go write. Write a lot. Just try to focus some of that writing.

March 19, 2007 / 1 Comment

The Basics

People talk a lot about ways to help move your career forward, especially here in Hollywood. There are hints and tips about networking and getting produced and strategies for finding your agent and finding your audience. Yet somehow, amidst all this, they often overlook one of the most basic, elemental components of our craft.

The writing.

How many times have you turned on the television or dropped your ten bucks at a theatre, and found yourself shaking your head afterwards. “Who in their right mind thought this was a good idea? How does stuff like this get made??”

Well, first thing– someone finished the script for it.

Allow me to fall back on a little publishing fact, which I’m relatively sure applies to the film industry as well. Barely one percent of the people who call themselves “novelists” even finish their first novel. We’re not even talking about sales yet, mind you. This is simply getting a whole novel written down on paper. I was at the San Diego State Writer’s conference a few years ago, and watched as a man walked out in an angry huff when he was told no agent would even talk to him until he had a completed novel.

Y’see, it doesn’t matter how many hints and tips and strategies you follow. If you don’t have a completed, polished script in your hand, you can’t make a sale.

Ahhhh, I see the hands already. You there, in the back? Why, yes, yes he did. Just last summer, Creative Screenwriting magazine wrote about how David Koepp pitched the idea for his story Ghost Town to Dream Works and Universal for a very tidy two million dollars.

So, let’s have another show of hands. How many people reading this are David Koepp?

Ahhh, I see only two hands now. One is a screenwriter in New York with over twenty produced film credits, more than a half dozen of them being major box office blockbusters. The other is the marketing exec from my job, Danny, who suffered a head injury assembling the new office furniture and now has problems telling pictures and mirrors apart.

Want a better example? Something a little closer to our (and yes, I am saying our) level? My friend Eric works on a series for the Hallmark Channel. He and his wife had tried writing an episode for the show, but were told the company had a deal with the existing writing team. However, when time began to run short and the writing team wasn’t coming up with anything, the producers pulled out Eric’s script again. His completed, ready-to-go script. And now my friend and his wife are produced screenwriters, just like that.

You see, for those of us (and, again, I am saying us) without a solid resume to lean on, sales depend on actual writing. To be blunt, no one is going to trust us. I may have the greatest story idea of all time locked up in my head, but until it’s written out it’s no different than the worst, most cliché-ridden idea ever, because I’m the only person who can see it. This is why we have to write. Above all other things, we must get coherent words on paper in an established, industry format.

We must write!

Now, let’s look at the opposing example. My downstairs neighbor (I call her the Vamp, not because of her sexiness, but because she’s very pale, has prominent canine teeth, and is rarely seen during the day) found out I was a writer and showed up at my door one day asking for tips on getting a sale. She wanted to know about agents, advances, selling rights, and so on. I answered all of them, and then told her that the thing she really needed to do was actually write out the youth-oriented fantasy she had in mind (starring a character based on a younger version of herself).

“Oh, well the writing’s the easy part, right?”

“Ummmm… Not really.”

“Well, I know how to write, and I know my story. How hard can it be?”

“Cool. Let me know when you’re done. I’d love to read it.”

I ran into the Vamp in the hall one night a month or two later (coincidentally, right about the time Eric told me Hallmark was re-considering his script) and casually asked how the writing was going. She hadn’t started it yet, but was still sure her clever idea would go over very well and earn her fame and fortune.

It’s been said before that if you write two pages a day, at the end of a year you’ll have a novel. By the same token, if you write two pages a day (giving up a night or three here or there), in just two months you’ll have a very solid first draft of a screenplay.

That’s all. A mere two pages a day. That could be as little as four hundred words. Not even half of this column.

That’s the commitment you need to make to yourself if you want to be writer. Your first goal must be to take that rough idea in your head, that amazing story, and put it down on a page. Type it, scribble it, scrawl it, dictate it, do whatever it takes.

Until you have done this, nothing else matters.