May 24, 2009 / 3 Comments

Putting Babies on Spikes

Again, if you don’t get the title reference—expand your horizons.

So, a phrase you may have heard echoing about now and then is “killing your babies.” It’s just as gruesome as it sounds. Honest. I just heard it from a friend of mine a few weeks ago as he gutted the opening of a script he’s been working on for almost a year. One fellow brought it up when I interviewed him last week about his new film.

Many folk have heard the phrase, but how many understand it?

In every piece of writing, there’s at least one thing the author is extremely proud of. A clever line of dialogue, a character nuance, a dramatic moment or reveal that just could not be any better. We’ve all had them. A place where the language and the creativity and the skill all hit that perfect point where it’s hard to believe we created something this good. I usually fret over them for hours, convinced I must’ve read it somewhere else before and unintentionally copied it. After all, there’s no way I could’ve written something that good…

Perhaps it’s not even necessarily high art, just something the writer’s very fond of. Maybe it’s a clever reference you know a handful of friends will get. A loving tribute to someone special. A sly wink at some other book or movie. Heck, it could even just be something silly and pointless the writer got obsessive about. As a not-so-wise man once said, “the alien love-child stays in no matter what!”

The problem is, while these bits often are very well-done within their own limits, they don’t always work in the larger scope of things. As a writer, your loyalty has to be to the big picture. Not to individual scenes, but to the story as a whole. We’ve all heard awful cases where firefighters have to cut off someone’s leg to save them from a burning wreck. History tells of us brave generals who lost battles so they could win the war.

Y’see, Timmy, what it comes down to is… writers need to make sacrifices sometimes. And the gods of storytelling are ancient, dark gods. So when they call for a sacrifice, they don’t want to see a small tithe or minor inconvenience. They want something big.

They want something you love.

A story…

Submitted for your approval is San Diego Police Officer Andrew Barroll. He was one of the supporting characters in my oft-exampled first attempt at a novel The Suffering Map (now on sale absolutely nowhere). He first appears in a flashback one character has as a uniform officer she met almost a year ago. Halfway through the book he reappears, now a detective assigned to investigate the series of horrifically mutilated corpses that are being discovered around San Diego because of… well, let’s just say it’s part of the story and leave it at that. For the second half of the book, five different plot threads are getting wound tighter and tighter, and Barroll and his partner get closer to discovering who’s committing the brutal murders. He was the good cop. The solid, dedicated, everyman character. The kind of character where you knew he’d just have to get a bigger part to play in a later book.

Alas, the first draft of The Suffering Map was just over 150,000 words. Somewhat huge for a first novel from an unknown, completely uncredited writer. The second draft was even longer. It wasn’t until the third draft that I began to snip those words I thought might be excessive, and it wasn’t until the 4th draft that those cuts were noticeable.

In the fifth draft, a little over 90% of Barroll’s thread of the story vanished.

I remember feeling a dreadful churning in my stomach as I was highlighting and deleting entire chapters out of my first completed novel. A great end-of-the-chapter button vanished. Two carefully thought-out characters ceased to exist altogether. If you worked it out time-wise, probably about eight weeks of writing was deleted over the course of half an hour. Freddy Krueger aspires to be the slasher I was that afternoon. It took a few days of work to patch up the loose ends after the slaughter.

That’s what “killing your babies” means. It means doing things you hate to do. It’s when you’re willing to take huge swaths of your writing, hours and hours of work, and send them to the bin for a tighter, stronger story. You do what needs to be done, even if it means trashing your absolute, favorite part.

Alas, some folks just can’t bring themselves to make these big sacrifices. They can’t bear the thought of omitting the character they based off their high school sweetheart, refuse to admit the story doesn’t need that brilliant monologue on capitalism, and can’t figure out why the beautiful seven page description of a forest brings their story toa crashing halt. Which is a shame, because it’s the only way someone’s writing can get stronger. If you can’t look at your work objectively and see the difference between what needs to be in there and what you want to be in there, you don’t have any chance at improving.

In the end, detective Barroll appeared in one chapter of The Suffering Map. A morgue scene as the body is examined and a gruesome clue is revealed, more for the readers than for the investigators. That’s it.

And, while it pains me to this day, the story is much stronger for it.

Next time, I’d like to talk a little bit about basic concepts.

Until then… get back to writing.

October 6, 2008 / 2 Comments


Some of you engineering types (there may be one or two out there glancing at this) may recognize this little rant’s title. It’s an old, simple rule—Garbage In, Garbage Out.

This rule has been around for centuries in dozens of different forms. You get what you pay for. You are what you eat. People have known for ages that what you put into something has a direct result on what comes out.

And yet, so few people follow this rule. Many admit it’s true, but think it doesn’t apply to them. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen film producers “save” money by hiring untrained, bottom of the barrel crew members, then get upset because these people are doing untrained, bottom of the barrel work. Worse, then they have the gall to be surprised when it results in a bottom of the barrel film.


Closer to our end of things, I’m stunned how many people who call themselves writers all but brag about the fact that they rarely read– or don’t read at all. I saw one fellow online proudly announce “Real writers don’t have time to read.”

Truth is, real writers have time for almost nothing except reading.

You have to read. You must have input. There is no other way to be a writer. If you don’t take it in, how can you expect to put it out? If you want to be a writer and have to make the choice between a night out with friends, watching the killer NBC Monday night line up, taking in the new Quentin Tarantino flick, or getting caught up on the next Gaunt’s Ghosts book by Dan Abnett, there shouldn’t really be a choice at all.

Your whole body needs to hunger for words.

The sentences of John Steinbeck should be the best steak you’ve ever had, the phrasing of Ray Bradbury like a fine wine. Finish it off with a little King or Gaiman for dessert, and maybe some McCarthy as an aperitif. Classic stories by Burroughs, Lovecraft, or Dickens should be that rare vintage you’ve pulled from the cellar for a special occasion, to be savored on the palate for their unique taste, never to be made again.

Are you looking more at screenwriting? Consider the classic, subtle wordplay of Casablanca or The Day The Earth Stood Still (the original, please). Study the damned clever structure of Scott Frank’s Dead Again or Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Find some scripts by Shane Black (screenwriter of Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and see how much fun they are to read.

Now, there’s another important reason you need to keep reading. No one’s interested in what’s already out there. So your book idea about a little boy discovering he’s a sorcerer is neat, but J.K. Rowling beat you to it. Sorry. Television show about a lawyer getting visions from God? Done. Funny and action-packed film about a millionaire inventor who builds an armored battlesuit to fight injustice? Man, you just don’t get out much, do you…?

You need to read because you need to stay abreast of what’s out there, what people are looking for, and where your work lines up with current trends. A few more examples…

Behold my cool new idea for a series of linked stories about thinking robots. They dream, paint, and run for office. But they can never go bad or run amok, because their neutronic brains are hardwired with three rules that govern all their thoughts actions. I call these Pete’s Three Rules for Why Robots can Never Go Bad or Run Amok.

Behold my cool new idea for a feature film, about a computer programmer who comes to realize everything he knows is essentially a giant video game he’s trapped in. It turns out that in the real world humans are slaves to machines, and some people are actually just other programs interacting with the game. But a group of rebels have found our hero, and teach him how to hack into the game like they do. I call this one Trapped in Evil Marioland! Yes, the exclamation point is part of the title.

Behold my cool new idea for a novel. It’s about an art historian who discovers secret messages left behind by a Renaissance artist, and finds himself in conflict with the group trying to protect those secrets. I call it The Cipher of Michelangelo.

What? All been done you say? Are you sure? I thought they were pretty original… I guess I should’ve read more stuff…

Okay, what about a film where a little kid discovers the girl next door is a vampire? Two friends decide to make a porno movie? A has-been wrestler takes a last chance in the ring despite a heart condition? What about a remake of Omega Man?

Wait, wait… books! An unjustly imprisoned man escapes, takes on a new identity, and swears revenge on the people who framed him? An interdimensional cowboy assembles a team to travel to a dark tower that’s destroying the universe? Two friends in the ‘40s create a wildly popular comic-book character? A meek governess falls in love with her employer, but finds out his crazy wife is held prisoner up in the attic of their secluded home? Dracula squares off against Sherlock Holmes? A young man is sworn to vengeance by the ghost of his recently-deceased father?

Nope. All been done. Every one of them.

This doesn’t mean you can’t try to tell those stories, too. But there better not be any overlap, and yours better knock the ball out of the park. If not, though… don’t be surprised when your manuscript ends up in that large pile on the left and not the small one on the right.

So get off the internet and get back to writing.

Or, at the very least, go read something.

August 14, 2008

Art for Art’s Sake

In these modern days of telecommunications, where everyone has an equal voice that can be heard instantly almost anywhere on the planet (and into high orbit, even), there has arisen an unusual movement in the creative fields. This movement usually takes the form of a high, shrill voice shouting…


A lot of people like to shamelessly use the word art, or some of its poor, bastard stepchildren (creativity, genius, literature, and even more, I’m sure). It’s why they don’t follow any rules of grammar, ignore spelling, and why they brush off anyone who tries to correct them or offer helpful hints.

Worse yet, some of these “artistic” folks try to get others to follow their twisted path. They condemn the rules of English and will try to convince you none of “that stuff” is important in your writing. What matters, they insist, is the ART. Nothing matters but the art, and they’re quick to leap on anyone who dares to hint otherwise.

Short story time…

In college, I had a teaching assistant openly mock me because I said I wanted to write stories to entertain people. In front of the entire class he told me if I wasn’t writing words that were intended to change the world I was just wasting everyone’s time. My first assignment (a vampire story) came back with a lot of red ink on it. So did my second one (a tale about a dimensional shortcut cutting across the worst possible dimension). Only my third story gave me a passing grade, because he read a lot of stuff into it that… well, I wasn’t going to say it wasn’t intended. I had a GPA to consider.

Slightly longer story…

A few years after college, but still several years back, I was a full-time carpenter and stagehand at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. The Rep is a small space in downtown (in the basement of a mall, to be honest) and used to help pay the bills by renting out space on one or two of their smaller stages. There were late-night improv teams, experimental theater groups, things like that which could usually only afford one or two performances. One night I was finishing up late and came across the house manager watching some kids doing a theater class project. They had an “audience” up on stage with a video camera while three or four other kids were out in the house trying (emphasis on trying) to build a full-sized scaffolding with 2×4’s and power tools. It was an attempt at “art,” and the house manager and I had a few giggles over it.

A few minutes after I stopped to watch, one of the kids with a Makita drill balanced it wrong on a drywall screw and ended up stabbing himself in the hand near the base of his thumb (almost anyone who’s used a cordless drill can probably identify with this injury, even if none of us have done it since the second or third time the drill was placed in our hands). Well, construction came to a grinding halt, all the students checked out his thumb, and it was decided they would continue.

“See,” I told the house manager. “That’s my problem with modern art.”


“Was he supposed to stab himself with the drill? It fit with what they’re doing. Did we just see an accident or part of the performance?”

She laughed, I laughed, but this offhand comment stuck with me. Y’see, I firmly believe art is not an accidental creation. You can’t throw paint at a wall and call it art. While statistically a million monkeys with a million typewriters can produce the complete works of Shakespeare in a million years, we all really know that many millennia from now it’s still just going to be piles of gibberish and crap. And maybe an Ann Coulter book or two. Art can’t happen by accident.

Which brings me to my second point, which will sound a bit contradictory. Art is always accidental. It is never, ever a deliberate act. The act of creation is deliberate. The artistic merit is not. History has shown this again and again, yet people still like to think they can make “art” and that others are fools for not recognizing it.

Ray Bradbury. William Shakespeare. Frank Capra. H.P. Lovecraft. Charles Dickens. Stephen King. Joss Whedon. Robert Louis Stevenson. When each of these writers and screenwriters started their careers, they were considered populist hacks at best, and at worse… well, critics can come up with some creative terms. Most of them weren’t writing to create art, but to pay rent and cover debts. They just loved to write and that was their main concern. Telling a story and getting a paycheck.

As time went on, however, people looked back and said “Hey, you know this guy really did say something about the human condition!” Did you know every one of these writers now has an entire college course devoted to them? At a number of universities, you can study Joss Whedon and the feminist empowerment of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or modern political undertones of Stephen King. Heck, I even understand there are a few schools where Shakespeare is considered a full major. William Shakespeare—who almost always wrote under a deadline and had to make constant changes to please patrons and actors. Just like the guys who wrote Transformers.

Now, here’s the rub…

Let’s take 100 writers and split them into four even groups. Each one of them publishes a handful of short stories this year. The members of group A are hailed as geniuses in magazines, newspapers, and on the newly-created inter-webbing thing. The others collect a paycheck.


Next year, several folks from group B are asked to contribute their stories to an anthology, while several of A are forgotten. Ten years after that, people are asking whetever happened to those writers from group C. And a decade after that, people are pointing at the D stories as unrecognized classics of the time.

So… who’s the artist?

This is simplified, granted, but it gets the point across. What counts as art changes day by day, generation to generation. I had a college professor once freely admit that the canon of great American literature changes every time someone hits tenure and publishes a new paper, crediting one person while discrediting another. How can your work aspire to a state which changes its definitions almost on a daily basis?

Trying to create art is like trying to hit a mosquito with a laser pointer. Between either end of things, it’s almost impossible. Don’t worry about “art.” Nine times out of ten, I’ve found “art” is an excuse to explain rejection and criticism.

Just write the best story you can.