March 21, 2024 / 1 Comment

The Magic Bullet

If you’re reading this, it probably won’t come as a shock to you, but… people love stories. Literally, since the start of recorded history. They love reading them. Hearing them. Watching them. They love having their emotions played with and their expectations subverted, and they also love comfortable, familiar tales and they can sink abck . They love made up people and places and event that never happened.

Believe it or not, some people also love telling stories. Pulling people and places and moments out of their head and presenting them to an audience. They love the act of stringing these specific words together in this specific order and knowing it’s going to get that response.

Another thing people love is, well, easy solutions. If there’s a way we can get around doing some work, we’ll usually do it. Yeah, this takes sixteen steps, but is there a way I could do it in fifteen? Or maybe eight? Could I skip over the first dozen steps and maybe just do those last four?

But sometimes we just can’t cut corners. For complexity reasons or safety reasons or just because, look, this is how long it takes to do this. As much as we want ease and simplicity, there are some things in life that take time and effort.

So, with that in mind, let’s talk about the Warren Commission.

A week after the assassination of JFK in 1969, newly sworn-in President Johnson ordered Chief Justice Earl Warren to investigate the killings. Warren assembled a group of congressmen and specialists to gather evidence and quash all the conspiracy theories that were already starting to run wild throughout the country.

The Commission’s final report, alas, didn’t really help calm fears there was a big cover-up going on. One of the more controversial declarations it made was that a single shot caused all of the non-fatal wounds to both President Kennedy and Texas Governor Connally, a shot that changed directions multiple times during its flight. Even more amazing, said bullet was miraculously found on the floor in Connally’s emergency room, having supposedly fallen out of his bloody thigh, completely clean and not even deformed…

The popular term we got from this report, which you’ve probably heard before, was the magic bullet. A small, simple thing which defies every bit of common sense to produce borderline-miraculous results. Some might even say… magical results.

Some folks think to be a successful writer, it’s just a matter of finding a magic bullet. I mean, all these folks talk about spending years trying to “hone their craft” but it can’t actually be that difficult, right? Surely there’s a trick that’ll let me skip to the front of the line—an easy way to bypass all those early, boring stages—and get to the point where people are fighting over my manuscript.

So let’s talk about some of the magic bullets folks spend time looking for..

The magic word
Back when I read contest screenplays for food, a common thing to see was scripts entered into a very niche contest with clearly minor additions to make them fit the requirements of said niche contest. I saw countless stage plays that had a few camera directions sprinkled on them. More than a few token minorities and painted-on sexualities. My favorite, however, had to be the sex comedy that showed up in the pile for a faith-based, prayer-centric screenplay contest, where the protagonist desperately prayed to God oh please, please Lord, let me get this woman out of her clothes!

Storytelling doesn’t work this way, either with audiences or publishers. I can’t expect that using this word or that one (or this phrase or that label) is going to be an instant key to success. I definitely shouldn’t expect that it’ll make people overlook certain other glaring issues my work may have.

The magic genre
Pretty sure since the dawn of storytelling there’ve been folks trying to jump on the hot market bandwagon. Thag gets all the applause for his mammoth-hunting story? Well, Bron have mammoth hunting story, too! Two mammoths! With lasers mounted on skulls!

With the desire to make a sale, some folks try to follow the “hot” markets. Right now young adult science fiction is hot? Guess I’ll write YA sci-fi. Historical romance is hot? Did I mention my YA sci-fi is a time travel story with a historical romance element (mammoths in love)? What’s that? Horror adventure is hot? Guess I better dump the YA and start over

The issue here is timing. Even if I lunge at that hot new genre, there’s simply no way to get a manuscript done, polished, and in front of someone before the trend’s passed. Seriously, none. Especially when you consider most publishers are already working a year or so ahead of the current market.

Worth noting there are folks who write very timely books and they write them very fast, but a lot of them almost inherently don’t have much of a shelf life. They sell really well for a brief window and then usually never again. I need to decide if I’m okay with that. Assuming I even have the ability to do it

Don’t try to follow a market trend. Just write the horror/ romance/ faith-based/ mystery/ sci-fi story you want to tell and make sure it’s the absolute best one anyone’s ever read. That’s what’ll catch people’s attention and make hundreds of others rush to hop on my bandwagon.

The magic aesthetic
More than a few folks think the secret to success—real, worthy success—is to create art. Actual literature which will be recognized immediately for its inherent worth and my inherent genius. That deep, overwritten sort of art that makes grad students start to feel warm in the middle of intellectual discussions.

This one’s a double edged sword, because a lot of the folks going for this bullet end up taking it in the chest (I believe the gentleman ordered a metaphor, mixed over ice?). It’s my firm belief that attempts to create art usually lead to forced scenes, painful dialogue, and unbelievable characters. Plus, that same art then becomes a blanket excuse to let the writer brush off any comment or criticism their work may get. After all, only the sophisticated and intelligent people are going to understand art. If they don’t understand, it just proves they’re not intelligent and thus not qualified to judge it, right?

As I’ve said many times before—don’t try to create art. I just want to tell the best story I can the best way I can tell it. Let somebody else worry about if it’s high art or if it’s just some pedestrian, pop-culture crap that’s going to sell a million copies and get a movie deal.

The magic message
Close behind the above bullet is the belief a story needs to have a deep, powerful meaning. Every element should be loaded with subtext. Each page should make the audience rethink their beliefs.

While it’s great to have subtext, a writer shouldn’t be fighting to force it into their story. Likewise, if I’ve come up with a clever metaphor which applies to the catchphrase/ scandal/ fashion of the moment, much like the special genre above, odds are that ship will have sailed loooooong before anyone ever sees my work.

If I feel like my work has to have a greater meaning… maybe I should ask myself a few questions. Do I think it does, or am I trying to live up to someone else’s expectations? Will it still be relevant six months from now, or six years from now? Most importantly, does this greater meaning serve my story? Or is my story bending to this greater meaning?

The magic contact
One of the more common magic bullets you’ll see is networking. My writing’s irrelevant compared to knowing the right people who have the right jobs. For a long time it was (incorrectly) touted as the only way to succeed in Hollywood, and I think that belief spilled into prose writing as well. Some folks spend more time hunting down “contacts” than they do working on their writing.

Alas, active networking is dead. Any seminar, website, or app that promises me tons of networking opportunities will not offer a single useful one. I’m a big believer that the best networking only ever really happens by accident, and trying to do it defeats it immediately.

The people I want to make connections with are… well, the people around me. The folks I’m already talking to and hanging out with because I like them. And they like me because I’m not basing these relationships on a personal agenda, just on a shared interest of movies or toys or gardening or games or just weird shared life experiences. They’re the folks I’m more likely to help later on. And they’re going to be more likely to help me.

The magic software
I’ve talked once or thrice before about becoming too reliant on technology. There’s nothing wrong with using a spell-checker to double-check my work, but I shouldn’t be relying on it to actually know how to spell for me. Or to know which word I meant to use. Or to know what that word means vs what I think it means. Because… well, it can’t do that. Any any of that.

Seriously, how often have you had spellcheck tell you something’s wrong just because the word’s not in its vocabulary banks? Maybe it’s just a word that particular dictionary didn’t adapt yet. Maybe it’s an alternate but still widely -accepted spelling.

And now there’s also grammar checkers and style checkers and you may have even heard there are some fancy futuristic lines of code out there that’ll write the whole story for you. But the sad truth is, none of this stuff actually works. No, it doesn’t. They all understand “writing” in the same basic-competency way a second-grader does. They barely understand the rules, and they definitely don’t understand when and how to break the rules. They don’t understand context or subtext or nuance or, yeah, even basic vocabulary.

So anything these systems do for me, I’m pretty much going to have to double and triple check from every angle (if I actually care about it being good). I’ll need to actually know the spelling and the grammar and the style I’m going for, and I’ll need the patience to do it all line by line, rewriting as I go to make sure there’s consistency.

Which really means… I’m doing all the work anyway. So, y’know, maybe I could just cut out that legally/ ethically/ artistically questionable step and just start learning to do this stuff.

Y’see, Timmy, as I’ve mentioned once or thrice, there’s really no trick to writing (the Y’see Timmy means this is or big overall windup, for those of you who are new here). No secret words or key phrases or handshakes you need to know to get past the doorman. It’s just about being willing to put in the time and effort to become better at something. Some folks are. Some folks aren’t. Guess which ones tend to succeed more? Believe me, I say this standing with thirty years of literary garbage swirling in the wind behind me. The most terrible, derivative fanfic. Some truly God-awful sci-fi and fantasy tinged with high school angst and college melodrama. Heck, look back far enough and you’ll see three completely different versions of that long-lost American classic Lizard Men From the Center of the Earth.

So, there you have it. A handful of things you shouldn’t be spending time looking for. I mean, seriously, who spends their time trying to get hit by bullets?

Next time (assuming you survived all those bullets) I’d like to talk about baseball and Lindsay Lohan.

Unless you’ve got a better idea…?

Until then, go write.

April 18, 2013 / 3 Comments

Stripped Bare

            First, time for the shameless plug. Ex-Patriots, the second book in the Ex-Heroesseries, gets re-released on Tuesday from Broadway Books with a cool new cover.  It’ll be at bookstores, airports, your local PX… pretty much everywhere.  You can pre-order it over there on the side, or go visit your friendly neighborhood bookstore and ask them to get you a copy.

            Now for a quick tip.  Well, quick compared to last week’s ramblings.
            If you’ve been reading this collection of rants for a while, you’ve probably picked up that I’m a bit of a genre fan.  If you’ve read any of my books, it’s probably very clear.  Sci-fi stories, horror stories, fantasy stories… I love this stuff.
            Of course, a big part of loving something is recognizing the flaws in it.  Let’s be honest—there are a lot of horrible genre stories out there.  A real lot.  Depending on who you talk to, some of them are mine…
            Anyway, it struck me the other day that there’s a simple test for good genre stories.  Can I explain my story—and have it make sense—without any of those genre elements?  For example…
–Without the strange force field, Under the Dome is the story of an isolated town falling apart as different characters make different power grabs.
A Princess of Mars becomes a straightforward fish out of water story if you pull out the sci-fi elements.  John Carter could be anyone dumped in a strange, baffling culture where he doesn’t speak the language.
SuperTroopers is still a solid story about police rivalry and budget cuts even without all the comedy.  With the corrupt cops and drug smugglers, you could almost make it a crime drama.  Or a Romeo & Juliet-style love story.
–If you take the undead out of I Am Legend (any version of it), it’s a desert island story.  It’s one man alone (or sometimes with a dog) trying to balance staying alive with staying sane.
Without magic, the Harry Potter books are the story of an unpopular orphan as he grows up, makes friends, finds his way in life, and learns about the parents he never met.
Ghostbusters without comedy becomes a great sci-fi/ horror story about a Sumerian prophesy come to life.  Strip out the sci-fi/ horror and it’s a comedy about a bunch of guys trying to start a bizarre business who suddenly discover they’ve hit a gold mine and everyone wants to hire them.
IT without the horror is just a group of childhood friends who reunite to solve a puzzle from their childhood.
Pitch Black is the story of shipwreck survivors who find themselves dependant on their somewhat-misjudged prisoner to protect them from dangerous predators.
            Now, I’m not saying this as a jab at these books or movies.  The point is not that these tales can be boiled down to much simpler plots.  It’s that they have underlying plots which have nothing to do with their respective sci-fi/fantasy/horror elements.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I strip out the genre components of my story, I should still have a story.  Some writers depend so much on their genre stuff that they don’t grasp they haven’t actually developed any sort of real plot.  They’ve just got a pile of cool elements that doesn’t really add up to anything.  And if they looked at it without the sci-fi/fantasy/horror elements, they’d see that immediately.
           So, get your story out and start stripping.  Pull off all those layers, take a good look at what’s underneath, and… well, make sure you’ve got something worth looking at.
            Next time…
            Okay, I’m going to be honest.  Next time is a week before this new book is due on my editor’s desk, so I’m not going to be here.  I’ll be busy panicking.
            Week after that, though, I’d like to talk with you about the dreaded Scooby Ambiguity.  And I’ll probably be a day early because Thursday morning I head to Dallas for Texas Frightmare.
            Until then, go write.
April 30, 2011 / 5 Comments

Wizard Needs Food

Extra bonus points if you get that pop-culture reference.

Sorry for the delay, too. Working out some final kinks in the new computer.
In my car, in that little bin they all have under the cupholder, is a blue and yellow card. It’s from a board game called Goosebumps, based off the book series by R. L. Stein. Many, many years back, when I was living in another city altogether, I was heading out to work and discovered someone had thrown away said game but missed the dumpster. The wind and backwash from other cars had blown pieces every which way. Plastered to the driver’s side window of my car, right by the door latch, was one of the game cards.

save this to fight
the headless ghost
Not being a fool, I saved it
Seriously, it’s out in my car right now. I kid you not. Yeah, you’re smirking, but we’ll see who’s laughing when that headless ghost shows up.
This is funny for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is a grown man driving around with parts of the Goosebumps game in his car. Plus, we’re all about 99.99% sure a headless ghost isn’t going to show up anytime in the foreseeable future. I didn’t save the card for its spirit-fighting abilities, just because it makes for an interesting conversation piece.
Okay… maybe I saved it just in case…
The card’s also funny because we can probably all agree most magic rings wouldn’t have an inscription that says save this to fight the headless ghost. Heck, in The Lord of the Rings Frodo’s ring was covered with writing, but nowhere did it say wear me to turn invisible and become a megalomaniac. Imagine how silly it would be if a character in a story decided to go hiking one morning, opened the fridge, and there was a raw steak labeled bring this to distract the mountain lion. The only thing more silly, in fact, would be if that character just randomly decided to bring a steak on their hike for no reason. And then a mountain lion showed up.
Wow. Lucky break there.
More than a few times—enough that I feel justified ranting about it—I’ve seen manuscripts or screenplays where characters randomly decide to do something. They’ll decide to go visit Mom’s grave in the country where they haven’t been in years. They’ll toss a first aid kit and some cans of soup in the back seat of their car for no real reason. Or maybe, for no apparent reason, they’ll decide to make a bomb shelter in their back yard.
Lo and behold. Ten pages later it turns out this was precisely the right thing to do. The character’s random, unmotivated decision was the right one to make. That bizarre object they decided to lug around is exactly what they need.

In my opinion, this kind of mentality grows out of videogames. Not the newer, sleeker ones, but the older ones. The game would only have ten or twelve things to pick up, so when you ran across one of them you knew it was going to be important and you grabbed it. This wasn’t really a fault of the games, mind you. It’s just that there wasn’t that much processing power or memory.
No metaphor there…
There’s two problems here, and they kind of build off each other.
First is that once a writer starts falling back on these sort of coincidences it removes any sense of challenge. We can’t be worried when Yakko is facing the living incarnation of the Babylonian goddess-dragon when he has the silver sword of Marduk that was specifically prophesied to kill her. If Dot is given an all-access passkey, getting locked in the sub-basement isn’t that big a deal. When I reveal my villain’s weakness is romantic poetry and a few pages later we learn the hero had a minor in Byron… well, personally I can’t get too invested in that.
Second is that it’s just shoddy writing. Depending on nothing but coincidence to drive the plot forward is like winning a game using loaded dice. I get to say I wrote a book and Wakko gets to say he won the game, but did either of us actually accomplish anything? Did either of us demonstrate any actual skill or ability? Heck, we weren’t even depending on luck. We handed the character A and then constructed a challenge that would be solved with A.
Sounds a lot like cheating, doesn’t it? On a number of levels.
Yes, William Goldman did precisely this in The Princess Bride with the holocaust cloak and the wheelbarrow. But he’s William Goldman and he did it perfectly. And I’ll save you some more effort—Phillip K. Dick already used the idea in a time travel story, and it was already adapted into a passable movie (both named Paycheck). Not to mention the fantastic Doctor Who episode “Blink” with the Weeping Angels. So give up any thought of doing something clever… unless you can do something incredibly clever.
The very nature of good writing is that the characters aren’t going to do everything right and everything is not going to work out for them. People need to face challenges and they need to overcome them.
Because we all know somebody who got everything handed to them in life. Thanks to TMZ and People magazine, we probably know a couple. And how did they turn out? Were they someone you wanted to follow and keep tabs on? Or someone you couldn’t wait to be done with?
Next time I’d like to talk about this world we live in. Most of us, anyway.

Until then, go write.
August 12, 2010 / 3 Comments

Nothing Up My Sleeve…


Looks like I gotta get another hat…

Anyway, back in the day, when there just weren’t as many stories to be told, there was a very common structure to Greek stage plays. Essentially, the characters screwed up. A lot. They’d fail at tasks and get themselves in way over their heads. Just when all seemed lost, the stagehands would lower in “the gods,” one or more actors on a mechanical cloud, and the gods would use their omnipotent magical powers to take care of everything. No harm, no foul. Everybody wins.

If you didn’t already know, the name of this mechanical cloud was the deus ex machina (god from a machine). The term is still used today, although it doesn’t have the lofty implications it used to. It’s when a solution to a problem drops out of the sky.

Or, in this case, drops out of the sacred orb of Shen’nikarruan.

With the cinematic success of Lord of the Rings and the overall success of Harry Potter, fantasy is a hot genre again. Mix in a little softcore horror like Twilight and a lot of folks are probably tempted to write in that sexy-dark-mystic sort of style. Even a lot of people who’ve never had any interest in this sort of story before. Which is a shame because a writer really needs to be familiar in whatever genre they decide to write in.

A common problem beginning writers make–especially genre writers– is to fall back on magic to solve their problems. Characters get into a load of trouble, back themselves into a corner, square off against nigh-impossible odds, but are saved at the last moment as they all lay hands on the sacred orb. It doesn’t matter how world-spanning or universe-threatening the problem is, when the pure-of-heart grab that big emerald sphere it’s all going to go away and make life so much better for the good people.

For the record, it’s not just mystic orbs. The offenders also include–

–magic wands

–mystic swords

–enchanted rings, necklaces, or bracelets

–tiger-repelling rocks

–artifact X which must be returned to/ retrieved from the temple of Y

Now, before any other genre writers reading this start feeling smug, let me remind you of Clarke’s Law. You’ve probably heard some variation on it before. Any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. A writer may call it the Technotron 9000 and explain it harnesses neutrinos to bend quantum fields, but for all intents and purposes it’s just another mystic orb.

This all goes back to something I’ve ranted about many times before. No one wants to read about a problem that solves itself. They want to read about characters who solve problems, preferably the characters they’ve been following for most of your manuscript. Lord of the Rings does not end with god-like mystic flames destroying the one true ring when the heroes reach the end of their journey. No, it ends with one character all-but driven mad from the burden of carrying it and another one who was driven mad by the ring accidentally destroying it because of his obsession to possess it again. Likewise, Harry Potter never beats his final challenge with magic but just through his sheer determination to do the right thing.

Y’see, Timmy, in good stories the sacred orb of Shen’nikarruan isn’t a solution, it’s just a MacGuffin. For those not familiar with the term, Alfred Hitchcock coined it to describe things that motivate plot and story without actually interacting with them. The Maltese Falcon (in the book and movie of the same name) is a classic MacGuffin. It’s what motivates almost every character in the story, but the legendary statue itself never even appears.

Now, as I often point out, this isn’t to say a magical plot device will never work. If you think about it, Raiders of the Lost Ark has God step out of a box at the last minute to kick some Nazi ass (and save Indy and Marion). Take a moment, however, and think of how many other things in that movie have to work perfectly in order for that ending to work. It’s a level of storytelling most of us–myself included–never have a prayer of reaching.

Which actually brings me to a potentially touchy angle, but one I feel obliged to point out. So if you’re easily offended, you may want to stop reading now…

There is a nice little niche market of faith-based films these days, and a few well-paying contests as well. In these stories, it’s completely acceptable to have prayers answered and problems solved by divine intervention. Heck, it’s almost expected in some of these markets. The Lord steps in to cure diseases, cast out evil spirits, and sometimes even make a personal appearance. At the very least, he’ll send down one of the archangels to help that nice woman who couldn’t pay her mortgage to the evil capitalist developer.

The thing is, despite the previous example of Raiders, “God saves the day” really isn’t an acceptable conclusion to a story. In those niche markets it’s fantastic, but for every other audience it’s just as much a cop-out as the magic orb or the Technotron 9000. The characters aren’t solving problems or doing anything active. In fact, they tend to be innately passive while they wait for the big guy to solve things for them. Which makes sense, because these faith-based stories usually aren’t about the characters, they’re about a religious message the writers are trying to get across.

Again, nothing wrong with having magic, uber-technology, or even divine intervention. But this isn’t ancient Greece. These days, it has to be about character first.

(I had no idea how I was going to end this, and then the archangel Beleth pointed out that I could just bring it back around to the opening idea…)

Next time, I’m going to drop names and prattle on about the time I talked with Hawkins from Predator about storytelling. Yeah, the skinny guy with the glasses. Him.

Until then, go write something.