January 18, 2013 / 3 Comments

The Magical Mystery Tour

             Yes, the Beatles also gave writing advice.

            Is there nothing they couldn’t do…?
            Back when I was in college, I submitted a story to a magazine.  It was loosely based on the myth of the Wandering Jew, and I’d had a character passing through time at a couple key events in history.  I later incorporated it into my college novel, The Trinity, which none of you have ever read.  For good reason.
            The story was rejected.  Not really a surprise, in retrospect, but the editor did send back a personalized response.  He congratulated me on my language, my characters, my dialogue, and my descriptions.  “However,” he said (paraphrasing a bit), “there isn’t much of a story here.  It’s a really neat magical mystery tour, but that’s it.”
            That term threw me a bit at first.  Wasn’t much of a story?  I’d written about an immortal passing down through the ages.  He was there for the Crucifixion.  The fall of Rome.  Magellan’s voyage around the world.  The Boston Tea Party.  How could this editor say there wasn’t a story?  Well, college-age me grumbled a bit and moved on, but I eventually figured out what that editor was talking about.
            Let me give you a few quick examples…
            (and these are just titles to get the point across—don’t read too much into them)
            Sometimes the tour might be the Non-Stop Laughs Roadshow.  We’ve all read these stories or seen these films, where every single line pushes for another laugh.  There’s never a pause to breathe, not even a moment.  Sight gags, puns, fart jokes, awkward pauses, absurd segues, funny voices.  Characters, plot, tone—nothing matters but getting the next laugh.
            Another version could be Merlin’s Wondrous Mobile Fae Emporium.  Every page has something else magical or supernatural to remind us what a magical and supernatural world this is.  I introduce the reader to ancient gods, spirits, supernatural creatures, and arcane mailmen.  Magical weapons, armor, jewelry, and household utensils.  Everything is magical.  Everything is from the dawn of recorded history. Except maybe the bathmat.
            No, sorry, the bathmat was woven on the loom of Fate with the silk of astral spiders.  But the washcloth is pretty mundane.
            The High-Tech Pan-Galactic Tour is sci-fi for the sake of sci-fi.  Because in the future or alien world that I’ve created, everything is different.  People wear clothes for different reasons.  They have robots that aren’t reallyrobots.  Things are powered in an entirely different way.  Transportation, food, the internet, entertainment… it’s all very alien and unrelatable.  Don’t even ask about sex.  In the future it’s so different you wouldn’t’ believe it.
            We could also call the tour, say, Captain Spaulding’s Traveling Horror Show.  It’s when people die one after another in horrible ways, usually after witnessing the gruesome death of the last poor bastard.  There’s blood and gore and some really nauseating dietary choices and a few nightmarish torture scenes.  Running someone feet-first through a meat grinder is tame compared to what happens in the horror show.
            In my case, it was the Historical Talent Show and Social Mixer.  If my story is set in the 1960s, my character will run into every single person you’ve ever heard of from that decade.  Fidel Castro, Andy Warhol, the Apollo 11 crew, the cast of Star Trek, Ed Sullivan, Harper Lee, Kurt Vonnegut, Kennedy, Nixon, Hendrix, Elvis, and (of course) the Beatles.  Most of them won’t do anything, but they’ll pass through and offer a few words here and there.  Maybe one of them will offer a helpful tip, but odds are they’re just there to get recognized.
            Y’see, Timmy, the mistake I made—one I still see lots of people make—is the assumption that a pile of plot points is the same thing as a story.  This is kind of like saying a pile of lumber is the same thing as a house, or there’s no difference between a palette of oil paints and the Mona Lisa.
            A lot of the time these stories will end up with a very episodic feel to them.  In the case of comedies, it’ll be a constant stream of setup-joke-setup-joke-setup-joke.  In horror stories, it’s victim-death-victim-death-victim-death.  The magical mystery tour almost always feels episodic because I’m using it to show you one thing after another with very little connection between them.  Oh, look, it’s the Crucifixion.  Oh, look, it’s Magellan.  Oh, look, it’s Paul Revere.
            All of these things I’ve listed above are great elements, no question about it.  If they’re not doing anything to advance the plot or the story, though, they’re just distractions.  There’s a point that this kind of thing is rich detail and there’s a point that it’s just padding.  And that’s the kind of detail that just slows down my story.
            Assuming I’ve even got a story.
            Any time you feel the need to drop a detail like this into your manuscript, stop for a minute and think.  This may absolutely be the greatest take on werewolves anyone’s ever put on paper, but if the werewolf’s only in the story to show this take… maybe I should save it for something else.  I may have scribbled the most elaborate death scene ever, but if absolutely nothing changes in the story when I swap out those six pages with “And then Phoebe killed Wakko,” maybe I should reconsider those six pages.
            And if I can just pull them out altogether without changing the story…  Well, I’ve got to wonder what they were doing there in the first place.
            Next time, I want to talk about your but for a little bit.  Especially yours.
            Yours… not quite so much.
            Until then, go write.
March 30, 2012 / 3 Comments

Hunger Games

            Sorry I’m running a bit late.  I’m weak from starvation.

            Did I mention I was on a diet?  I can’t complain too much, because I’ve lost seven pounds in two weeks, and it’s actually starting to show in the waist.  Still…  I wouldn’t complain if one of you slipped me some Doritos.
            I’ve used food and cooking before as a metaphor for writing, and I think it’s one that works well.  What counts as good food is largely a matter of individual taste, although most of us can agree on a few key things that make food bad.   There’s also some good parallels between being a chef and being a writer.  Almost all of us can cook, but we recognize that being able to microwave hot dogs doesn’t make me a chef, just like being able to send a text message doesn’t make me a writer.  There’s also books and classes for both, but the only way to improve is to just get in there and do it—again and again and again. 
            Also dieting, like writing, is going to work different ways for different people.  I need to make a set diet and follow the rules strictly, but you might be one of those god-awful people who can eat anything you like.  Sticking to it is agony for me, but maybe you barely notice you’ve changed what you eat.
            This doesn’t mean I can alter my diet to match yours, though.  My girlfriend’s also dieting, so we’re shooting for the same basic goal, but we’re not following exactly the same path to get there.  This is the Golden Rule I mention here now and then, my one bit of guru-istic advice.  What works for me might not work for you, and it definitely won’t work for that other guy.  We all need to find what methods and habits work best for us when it comes to getting to that basic goal
            So, since starting this diet—I mentioned I was on a diet, yes?  And that I would probably be willing to harm two or three of you for some garlic bread?—it’s struck me that there’s another way food and writing are similar, and that’s in how we portion things out.
            All of us develop habits in our writing, and they tend to stick with us until we make a serious attempt to change them.  And just like eating, most of our initial habits are bad ones.  We go for the fun stuff without realizing how bad it is in large quantities.  ActionGoreOne-linersSexMelodrama.
            The next step, though, is when people now take their writing (or eating) to the other extreme.  I think all of us know someone who’s borderline insane about what they eat.  They have to know every ingredient in something, the precise number of calories, the recommended daily allowance of saturated fats, the grams of protein.  Heck, some of them don’t just want to know what’s in their food, they want to know each ingredient’s pedigree.  Was the low-fat cheese made from the milk of grass-fed cows?  Was the grain in this bread mechanically threshed or hand-sifted?  And it is organic grain grown in non-chemically fertilized soils?
            Once I started getting a lot more serious about writing, I tried doing all the outlines and character sketches and charts and index cards.  I made sure every character had an extensive backstory (all of which ended up on the page), every object had an elaborate description (all of which ended up on the page), and every location had an array of smells and sounds and sights that could only come from experience and practiced observation (and they all ended up on the page).  Because I was a serious writer now.  And serious writers take writing seriously.
            Just like this diet—I mentioned I was on a diet, yes?  And that I would gleefully kill half of you for a chocolate chip cookie?—when I started writing I needed to learn what habits were good and which were bad.  What were the things I was doing all the time that were hurting more than helping?  I had to figure out what things are good, which were good in moderation, and which were just plain bad.
            I mentioned a while back that I worked with a personal trainer for a few years.  In his heyday, Jerzy was an Olympic-class weightlifter and went on to  set a world record and even win several awards for bodybuilding.  One of the keys to his success was a ruthless diet that let him get his fat levels down to minimal levels.  To be honest, dangerous levels.  Just before a tournament, Jerzy would often get his body fat below two percent.  He looked phenomenal, but it actually left him very weak because his body had no reserves whatsoever.  It had access to what was in his system right at that moment and not a scrap more.
            So the moment the tournament was over, he’d go out and get the biggest, greasiest cheeseburger he could and eat the whole thing.  Sometimes two of them.  That’s not what you’d normally consider former Olympian-weightlifter food, but Jerzy knew that once he’d reached that heights of success it was imperative that he replenished those fat levels as quickly as possible.  His health depended on it.
            Y’see, Timmy, sometimes the stuff we think of as bad isn’t just good, sometimes we needit.  Because the big secret to eating well—and writing well—isn’t extremes, it’s moderation.  Drama needs to be moderated with comedy.  Comedy needs a bit of seriousness.  Horror needs calm.  Chaos needs structure.  The great stories, the ones we really remember forever, are never all one thing. 
            Harper Lee’sTo Kill A Mockingbird is considered one of the greatest pieces of writing in American literature, an unparalleled drama.  Yet the book has a lot of humor in it as we see events interpreted through the eyes of young Scout, a girl who’s a few years from even touching puberty.  Christopher Moore’s Lambis a comedy about Jesus’ older brother, Biff, which gets very grim and serious at points.  Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life are both coming of age stories with a strong horror element.  For every skin-crawling moment in Stephen King’s IT, there’s a moment of complete twelve year old goofiness.
            Did I mention one of the standard things on this diet is a cheat day?  A lot of the best diets have them, because it’s easier to stomach all the food restrictions if you get a break from them every now and then.  One day a week I’m supposed to indulge.  I get to have Doritos and garlic bread and chocolate chip cookies.  And my body will forgive me for it because I’ve established this isn’t the norm. 
            So nobody has to die for me to get a cookie.
            Not this week, anyway.
            Next week I might be a bit short on time, but I had a capital idea I wanted to share with you.
            Until then, go write.

Pop culture reference. First of the year…

Wow. Last week’s little rant must’ve struck a chord with folks. Almost double the usual number of hits. Hopefully it was the right chord.
One term that comes up a lot in gaming is “balance.” It’s important that the rules are fair and equal from all directions. No one player should have an inherent superiority to any other. Advantages in one area should come with disadvantages in another. And the players should have a fair chance against the odds themselves. If there’s only a 1-in-20 chance of this little piece of wargear working, it should be pretty darn impressive that 5% of the time it does.
Another term that comes up a lot in gaming is “broken.” It’s when a set of rules are so far our of balance that no one wants to play in that section of the game or against that particular piece of wargear. It’s just no fun to go into something knowing you’ve got no chance of success, one way or the other.
So, what does this have to do with being a god? More to the case, what does it have to do with writing?
Well, stories need to be balanced, too. We want characters to have a chance at achieving their goals, but we also want them to face a challenge getting there. If the story leans too far one way or the other, it becomes pointless.
If the antagonist is all-powerful, then the hero never has a chance. That’s boring as hell. There might be a few dramatic moments, if the writer really knows what they’re doing, but probably not. How long would you be willing to watch me stand in a field trying to will myself to levitate? We all know it’s not going to happen, so I’m betting not that long.
Keep in mind, the antagonist doesn’t have to be a guy (or gal) in body armor and a black cape. The high school jock, the bank officer, the evil drill sergeant, the abusive boss, even society in general– any of these can be the antagonist. And, again, if there’s no chance whatsoever of beating the antagonist, this story is not going to hold a lot of people’s interest.
I’d also point out that beating the antagonist doesn’t mean defeating them utterly. But as far as this main character is concerned, they have to have a chance to succeed at their particular goals. No chance means no interest.
The flipside of this is also true. If your main character has absolutely no chance of being defeated, that’s not very interesting either. Not many people are going to pay to see Mike Tyson pound on some nine year olds, and I guarantee the ones who do aren’t going for the fight. Would you pay to read a novel that’s all about someone who’s hungry and then they go out to dinner? Want to place any bets on Stephen Hawking solving third grade math homework?
Characters with godlike abilities aren’t interesting because they never get challenged. The reader (or audience) never gets the sense that there’s any sort of danger or threat. In which case, the whole story just became as interesting as me getting a glass of Diet Pepsi.
Consider The Matrix. It turns out Neo is a god, yes, but we only discover this in the last five minutes of the movie. Same with John Murdoch in Dark City. By the time they become all-powerful, the story’s pretty much over and we just get a few hints of what they’re going to do with their newfound godhood. In fact, when The Matrix turned out to be a huge success and they had to make sequel films, one of the first things the Wachowski Brothers did was try to scale back Neo’s abilities and say they were never as great as implied in the first film. Oh, he’s still powerful, yeah, but he’s no god. He’s a bit stronger, he can fly… but that’s about it.
Didn’t really help those sequels, though, did it?
This is, as a note, one of the problems many comic book writers have had with Superman over the years. How do you pose a believable threat to a hero who’s faster and stronger than anyone, and completely invulnerable to boot? A few writers, John Byrne probably chief among them, tried scaling the Kent boy way back, but other writers soon had the dial turned up past eleven again.
(Fun fact– Kryptonite wasn’t created to solve this problem. It was invented by the writers of the Superman radio show when their lead actor came down with laryngitis. They needed a way to explain why Superman didn’t appear in four episodes, so they had a kryptonite meteor hit the Daily Planet building without anyone noticing and end up in the same storage room Clark used to change. Bam–four episodes of the Man of Steel coughing feebly.)
There’s also another downside to nigh-omnipotent characters. Gods are boring as hell. They’re very tough to relate to, and if people can’t relate to characters there’s not going to be much in the story for them to invest in. Good characters have needs and desires and flaws, but godlike powers tend to nullify most of those things. All I need to do is snap my fingers and the Diet Pepsi is here. I didn’t even need to get out of my chair for it.
I read a script a few years back that was about two gods pinwheeling back and forth through history and assuming different identities in different times in an attempt to influence the development of mankind as part of some… I don’t know. A game? A random bet? A function of the universe? It was never made clear, but I can tell you I was bored out of my skull by page ten. If I wasn’t getting paid to read it cover to cover, I would’ve tossed it right then.
When Don Payne wrote his script for Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, he knew there was no way a giant in Teletubby-colored space armor was going to work on screen and come across as a threat. Rather than try to make Galactus relatable (and diminishing him in the process), Don turned the Devourer of Worlds into an inhuman, completely unrelatable thing– a monstrous, nebulous entity–and in doing so he kept the idea that this was something too powerful to imagine. People give Don a lot of crap for that script, but they ignore that he did a ton of stuff right (seriously–this film is loaded with plot elements lifted right out of Stan Lee’s stories).
If you’ve got an insanely powerful character in one of your stories, take another look at her or him. Do they need to be that strong? Wouldn’t they be more interesting with feet of clay? Maybe even a whole leg of clay? Isn’t your story going to be a bit more interesting if success and failure both seem like viable outcomes?
I think it would. But that’s just me.
Next week I’d like to revisit last week’s post and go into another idea from that online conversation.
Until then, go write.
July 2, 2009 / 5 Comments

I… Have… The POWER!!!

As always, if you don’t get the title… your pop-culture kung fu is weak.

So, last summer a movie came out some of you may have seen called Hancock, written by Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan. Apparently the lead actor was in one or two other films, as well, and had a small fan following that helped a bit at the box office. I got to review it for the CS Weekly newsletter (sign up over there on the right—it’s free), and it’s what first got me thinking about this week’s topic. It came up again a few months ago over lunch with a friend of mine who’s written a few movies (and a television show I know at least one of you loved). And it’s something I had to think about a lot for my forthcoming book, Ex-Heroes.

And I thought it’d be worth bringing up here for two or three of you (almost a full quarter of the ranty blog’s readership).

When you’re playing in the genre realms, you should note there’s a very big difference between a story about a superhero and a story about someone who has superpowers. They’re not the same thing, and trying to cram one into the mold of the other will almost always cause problems.

If you think about it, stories about people with superhuman abilities have been around for thousands of years. Gilgamesh and Hercules both had superpowers. So did Anubis, Icarus, the Green Knight, and yes, even Jesus. In the classics there’s Matthew Maule, Dr. Jekyll, and even arguably the Count of Monte Cristo. There are lots of modern-day stories and films featuring people with superhuman abilities, too. The Dead Zone is about a person with superpowers. So are the Sixth Sense, Scanners, and Unbreakable. Heck, even Luke Skywalker has abilities far beyond those of mortal men (and Wookies).

However… are any of these characters superheroes?

Let’s look at a few side by side examples.

The X-Men comic books and films had characters who could control flames, read minds, and teleport. However, so did Stephen King’s novel Firestarter, Alexander Key’s Escape to Witch Mountain, and Steven Gould’s Jumper.

Spider-Man is a character who gets abilities when his DNA is mixed with an insect (okay, an arachnid) during a science experiment. But this is also what happens in both versions of The Fly. Spider-Man also has strength and agility far beyond that of normal men, just like John Carter of Mars in the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

In the Fantastic Four comics and films, Susan Richards nee Storm can turn invisible, but so could the Greek hero Perseus, Darien Fawkes in the Sci-Fi Channel series The Invisible Man, and John Griffin in its H.G. Wells namesake novel.

Batman is a guy who hides his identity, gears up, and goes out at night to fight crime in order to avenge the loss of his loved ones– just like Charles Bronson in Deathwish.

Now, if I had to nail down what the difference is, I would say that a super hero story is defined by a person who makes a conscious decision to publicly use their powers for the greater good (a wider, broader goal that does not involve them). They aren’t doing it to get even, to save someone close to them, or to show off. Most of them feel morally compelled to use their abilities this way, no matter how crappy it makes other aspects of their lives. Obvious as it may sound—superheroes act heroically.

This public nature also means they deal with public sentiment of one kind or another. Captain America is venerated as a historical figure. Superman is lauded in the press. Batman and Spider-Man receive mixed reviews. The X-Men are openly considered criminals (or were, last time I read their books—they may have Congressional Medals of Honor at this point).

I would also go so far as to say a costume is almost necessary, much in the same way a cowboy needs a hat and a horse. However, I’ll also toss out the proviso that the costume in and of itself does not make a story a superhero story, just as the hat and horse do not automatically make something a western.

The flipside of this is a super powers story. Someone who may have superhuman abilities, but all their motivation is usually personal, and their actions tend to be more behind-the-scenes. I listed a few examples of this above, side by side with their comic book counterparts. In The Dead Zone (the original book/ movie) Johnny is acting for the greater good, but he’s taking very secretive steps. In Jumper, David’s really just interested in saving himself and his girlfriend. Harry Potter is all about hiding your powers and staying apart from the world. And in Hancock, while he is acting publicly, the story itself is really all about his disconnect with humanity, not that he can fly and throw cars around. If you think about it, the story of Hancock works almost exactly the same if he’s just a powerless, homeless vigilante with amnesia.

Also on that flipside, superpowers stories involve street clothes. Even if someone has a “uniform” of some sort (John Constantine almost always dresses the same way) it tends to be boots, tee-shirts, and other things that wouldn’t look that out of place on a city street.

I also think a lot of this difference has to do with the setting for these stories. More often than not, a superpowers story has a very realistic setting. Aside from a very limited, few beings, there’s almost nothing to distinguish it from the real, day-to-day world we hear about each weeknight from Charlie Gibson and ABC News.

By contrast, look at the settings for some of our well-known superheroes. Spider-Man is a common sight swinging through his version of New York, a place where the Fantastic Four and Avengers have very public office buildings and the existence of aliens—several types of aliens– is a well-documented fact. Superman’s a known alien, too. Hellboy’s an actual demon (arguably the Antichrist) who’s gone straight and publicly works for the U.S. government.

Once you can tell them apart, I think one of the immediate problems with pushing a superpowers story into a superhero mold is the silliness factor. When someone puts on a costume in a real world setting, it suddenly feels like the writer isn’t taking things seriously. Check out a little indie film called Sidekick. It has a few flaws, but once the hero pulls on a costume in the third act (in the middle of rescuing his would-be girlfriend from a mentally unbalanced kidnapper) the audience just can’t forgive it. What would people have thought if the film version of Firestarter ended with little Drew Barrymore pulling on red tights and a cape to go fight evil as Firegirl or some such?

(Please keep in mind before answering, we’re talking about a nine-year old Drew Barrymore in spandex, not grown-up Drew. Perverts.)

You get similar issues going the other way. While the problems Peter Parker deals with because of his powers are interesting, when someone picks up the latest Amazing Spider-Man they want to see him pull on the webbed suit and fight the Lizard. Too much melodrama in street clothes with Aunt May and J. Jonah Jameson just starts to get dull (as Marvel’s sales figures over the past few years can attest to). There’s a reason the folks who read the daily Spidey strips in the newspaper also tended to skip Mark Trail and Mary Worth. People who read superhero stories aren’t looking for stark realism.

As a fun aside, some of you may remember an experiment Marvel tried years back called the New Universe. They were comics about real people in the real world who developed superpowers and reacted… well, realistically. Many of them tried to hide their new abilities, several tried to get rid of them, and more than a few were corrupted by these powers. The whole line sold horribly (so much so that I became a regular contributor to one of the letter columns with no effort) and was cancelled after barely two years—the end of which involved several attempts to turn the characters into true superheroes.

I’ve also noticed that superpowers stories tend to brush over the origin with a simple “this is the way it is,” sort of explanation. In both Jumper and the Harry Potter books, we’re just told that this is the way the world has always been. Some folks get the teleport gene. Some can do magic (why some can and some can’t is never explained, but it also seems to be genetic in J.K.’s books, too). Also superpowers stories, if they have to give an origin, tend to lean toward the hard sciences, making it as believable as possible.

With superheroes, though, the origin is almost a standard. A writer can also get away with somewhat sillier, non-scientific origin stories. The Flash was struck by lightning. More than a few characters have gotten superpowers from blood transfusions (including one of my own). Radiation is a common source of superhuman abilities, too, despite what we learned in seventh grade science. Remember how the Hulk got his powers? No, not the recent version—the original version. Mild-mannered Bruce Banner was near the prototype gamma bomb when it was detonated and received a massive dose of radiation. Yes, a mere 45 years ago, Stan Lee wrote a story where someone got their powers by standing next to a nuclear bomb when it went off. Yet here we are today and that is still the accepted origin of the Incredible Hulk (although they’ve oh-so-casually moved him a bit further from ground zero).

One last, related note– the abilities in superpowers stories tend to be a bit more plausible and limited. Jean Gray of the X-Men can alter matter on a molecular level with her telekinetic abilities, but Tony and Tia Castaway need the mental crutch of a harmonica just to move around a hat rack with a raincoat on it. In fact, the only two superpower stories I can think of where someone has overwhelming powers would be the film Dark City and Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven.

Wow, have I rattled on about this or what? I’m sure you’ve all got other stuff you need to go do. Like writing stuff.

Next time… well, next time I think we finally need to talk about some of these issues with your mother.

But until then, go write.