June 5, 2009 / 1 Comment

A Radical New Concept

My apologies to all of you regular readers of the ranty blog out there (I think there’s ten of you now). Many deadlines at the magazine these past two weeks, plus apparently I turned old last weekend. These things happen, and I thank you for waiting semi-patiently. Unless something goes horribly wrong, we’ll be back on a regular Thursday schedule for the foreseeable future.

Enough of my lame excuses, though. That’s not what any of us are here for…

So, if you’ve been playing around in the creative fields for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard people talk about concepts. A concept is really just a fancy way of talking about an idea. Alas, it’s now become the standard term in many story-related industries, and you’ll hear far more people talking about concepts than ideas. From a filmmaking point of view, there’s a solid argument to be made that many development people talk about concepts because they don’t have any actual ideas…

But I digress.

Pretty much every story starts with an idea. Stephen King talks about the “What if…” question some writers ask. Hollywood talks about “high concept” ideas where just a few words sum up your whole movie. Not all ideas are good ones, though, and not all ideas work for all types of stories. One problem I’ve seen from many fledgling storytellers is that they don’t understand what kind of idea they have, and this inability to distinguish often leads them down the wrong path.

There are, in my experience, really two kinds of concepts. Unlimited ones and limited ones. You may also have heard them referred to as open and closed stories.

Allow me to explain.

An unlimited concept generally has a very broad scope. The crew of the starship Enterprise is exploring space. The old house up on the hill is haunted. Doctor Who travels through time in his TARDIS. Spider-Man and Batman fight crime to make up for the death of their loved ones. James Bond is a kick-ass secret agent who fights enemies of the British Crown. These ideas are unlimited because you can just keep going and going with them. There are always more idiot college student to wander into the haunted house and more villains to fight Spidey, Batman, Bond, and the Doctor.

However, an unlimited concept is almost never a story. While they can be parts of a story, they tend to be traits for characters or key points about settings. A lot of time when I hear people say “I have a great idea for a story,” they’ve usually come up with an interesting unlimited concept. But there needs to be more to it past that. Which brings us to…

A limited concept. By its very nature, a limited concept can only go so far. It is a bare-bones story, though (more on that below). Richard Kimble wants to find the one-armed man who killed his wife. Robinson Crusoe wants to be rescued from his tropical island, as do the passengers of flight Oceanic 815. Atticus Finch wants to keep his client out of jail, and possibly from a lynch mob. The crew of Voyager wants to find a way across the galaxy and back to the Alpha quadrant.

All of these have straightforward, distinct goals, and once said goal is reached, the story is over. That’s the limiting factor–attaining the specific goal. It doesn’t mean Atticus Finch never tries another case or the Voyager crew doesn’t go into space again, but those would be different stories that have nothing to do with the limited concept we’ve started with.

There are a few common problems with limited concepts. One is when people try to keep pushing the goal away artificially to extend the story (for example, when Dr. Kimble catches the one-armed man only to discover he really needed to find the one-legged man…). Another is when a writer piles on the limited concepts in a single story, creating dozens of goals that need to be achieved. Often this is to make up for a lack of interesting characters or because none of these goals are that challenging. You also see it a lot in genre pieces, where many fledgling writers take the kitchen sink approach to their storyline.

It’s tough for either of these, the unlimited and limited concepts, to work alone. When you can combine these two, though, that’s when you get a solid story. It’s a bit like when I prattled on about horror stories a few months back. You can have a big overall story, but you can still focus on this particular, contained part of it.

–Bond is a kick-ass secret agent (unlimited) who is currently trying to stop the terrorist banker known as LeChiffre (limited).

–The old Marsden Mansion had been haunted for decades (unlimited), and the six people locked inside somehow have to survive until sunrise (limited).

–Batman fights criminals (unlimited) and right now Rhas Al Ghul is threatening to destroy Gotham City with a fear-inducing gas (limited).

Look over all those story ideas you’ve got jotted down (you know you do) and figure out if they’re limited or unlimited. Then figure out which ones work best together. You may have a great short story, screenplay, or novel sitting there, waiting to be noticed. Dissect some of your older work and see what the ideas at the core are.

And then come back here next week, when I shall teach all of you how to dodge bullets. Seriously. Because if you can’t do that… well… you’re not really taking this seriously.

Until then, though, get back to writing.

April 16, 2009 / 4 Comments

How Not To Be Seen

Know what would be nice after the brutal tax season? Well, pretty much anything…

So, what’s the easiest way not to be seen?

Not to stand up.

If you get that joke, points to you. If not… Seriously, expand your horizons…

Anyway, if you’ve been following this rambling, ranty blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably figured out writing is almost never easy (despite what you may see on Castle). It takes a lot of work, and it kind of sucks that when you’re doing your best work as a writer no one’s going to notice.

Allow me to explain.

The best compliment you can ever hope for is someone forgets they’re reading your story. Not in the sense they stop reading for lunch and forget to pick it back up, but in the sense they honestly forget they’re reading a story.

Back when I was playing with my first real attempt at a novel, The Suffering Map, I handed it off to a few folks who I knew could be brutally honest about it. One of these people was my best friend, Marcus. Yes, he’s a friend, but we’ve been friends so long we both have no trouble telling each other when one of has screwed up. Sometimes there’s even some glee to it. And, yes, I freely admit nine times out of ten it’s him pointing out how I’ve screwed up.

Marcus took longer than anyone to get back to me with notes on The Suffering Map, and he finally admitted it was because he kept forgetting he was supposed to be making them. He’d go for dozens of pages without noting any mistakes or jotting down comments.

Silly as it may sound, this was one of the best compliments I’d ever received. It meant Marcus had forgotten he was reading my book and was just getting caught up in the story. The author and the medium fell off to the side and he just got absorbed into the tale of Rob, Sondra, Gulliver, and the Polynecros Transporter. The fact it was his friend’s story became inconsequential.

This is what we should all be shooting for. Our audience would forget they’re reading the latest John or Jane Smith novel or screenplay, perhaps even forget they’re reading a written work altogether, and just let themselves sink into the story. This happens when the audience forgets they’re reading, and the easiest way for that to happen is for them not to see your writing.

It always feels satisfying to avail oneself of an exuberant flourish of words and demonstrate not just the verbosity and vocabulary we’re capable of as proficient wordsmiths (and thesaurus owners), but also the clever intricacies we can interweave between character, plot, and theme. The problem is, every time we make the reader hesitate or pause just for a second, we’re breaking the flow of the story. Whenever the audience becomes overly aware of us, the writer, leaning over their shoulder and saying “hey, check out what I did there,” they’re going to pull back the same way anyone would. If you don’t mind the touchy-feely analogy, it’s an invasion of their personal space.

Think of some of the times you’ve been painfully aware of the author you’re reading. Ahhhh, Stephen King is doing that down-home-folksy-supernatural thing again. Look, Anne Rice is drifting back to her softcore porn roots again. Oh, that’s the same twist Harper Lee used in her last book. Sometimes this works, but more often than not if the audience is pausing to be aware of the author it’s just a chance for them to become aware of the world around them, to register they’re just holding a manuscript and not experiencing a story.

As writers, we should aspire to being invisible. Oh, we want our characters to be seen. We want our dialogue to be heard. We want our action and passion and suspense to leave people breathless. But we are just distractions. Less of us is more of the story.

By the way… if you are actually in possession of any other book by Harper Lee besides To Kill A Mockingbird, you are sitting on a gold mine.

Just saying.

So… some ways not to be seen.

Names. If used in moderation, names are invisible. They’re just shorthand for the mental images we’ve all formed in our heads. If I say Angelina, there’s an immediate link to the actress, just like saying Bob will make your audience think of your character Bob. It’s also worth mentioning that simpler, more common names blend easier than rare or unnatural ones. Tony doesn’t stand out as much as Antonio, Edward is easier on the frontal lobe than Ezekiel, and all they’re nothing compared to Bannakaffalatta.

Moderation is the key, though. If names repeat too often, they start to get cumbersome. Even if the name is something short and simple like Bob, when I see a paragraph about Bob reading Bob’s book shortly before Bob decided it was too hot outside and so Bob went in where it was air conditioned… well, personally at that point I start counting them, which means I’m not reading the story I’m auditing it. This is why we have…

Pronouns. When names start to get too noticeable, we call in the almighty pronoun. Just like names are shorthand for story elements, pronouns are shorthand for those names. When names start to clutter up your writing, they’re there to leap in and shoulder the weight. It’s how Bannakaffalatta becomes he, that mysterious island becomes there, and the Maltese Falcon becomes it.

The catch here is to make sure your pronouns are clear, because the moment someone gets confused about who she is, they’ve just stopped being part of your story and started studying the page. A good rule of thumb—after you’ve referred to Angelina as she six or seven times, drop her proper name back in once. It’s been long enough it won’t look repetitive, and it’s a gentle reminder of who she is.

Said. We talked about this just last week, but it’s worth saying again. Said is invisible. No one’s going to count up how many times you use said (except maybe my friend Meredith), but people will start noticing if you constantly respond, retort, or exclaim. If you plan on having several characters pontificate, depose, or ejaculate, don’t be surprised when your audience stops reading to scratch their collective heads or giggle. Usually while they’re pointing right at you.

Vocabulary. We all know what red means, but viridian can make us pause for a moment. Some things glow and some are effulgent. That guy can be hairy or he can be hirsute, which means you might also think of referring to him as an ape or perhaps an anthropoid.

A huge problem I see is writers who can’t figure out what common knowledge is, and argue adjectives like atrementous or glabrous are valid simply because they’re in the dictionary. Pruinose is a real adjective, too, but there’s a reason it doesn’t come up much over drinks. Any word a writer chooses just to draw attention, to prove they don’t need to use a common word, is the wrong word. And the fact that it’s drawing attention means you’ve just been seen again.

So duck behind the bushes, crouch down inside that water barrel, and prepare to write. Once you’re out of sight, that means the audience can only focus their attention on your characters and your story.

Next week… what should you have in common with the people who built the pyramids and the hanging gardens of Babylon? It’s not the lost continent of Atlantis, I’ll tell you that much.

And don’t let me see you until then.

For now, go write.

April 2, 2009 / 2 Comments

What’s In A Name?

Yes, we’ve hit a bold new level here at the ranty blog. People are making requests for me to pontificate about things. Well, one person is. Still, there’s only about seven of you looking at this, so that still puts it up around 14% of the readership giving feedback and asking for specific topics to be covered.

Anyway, by request, let’s talk about nomenclature, as the fancy folk like to call it.

As a wise man once said, all things that men fear have a name. To expand off that, pretty much everything has a name, especially in the world of fiction. Try to write for more than a few pages without naming something and you’ll see how difficult it gets. The unnamed thing may be scary as hell, but it’s also very difficult to write about. So we give names to the things that scare us (even if that name is just ‘It’) and to the characters who fight those things, and even to the people who just stand on the sidelines, oblivious and unaware.

Now, one school of thought is that character names are specific and symbolic things. That a writer has a very specific reason for naming him John and her Elizabeth. They hint at a character’s true nature, or perhaps they’re grim hints at their ultimate fates. Said school is why that character has a Shakespearean name, this one’s named after a philosopher, and that guy’s name is an anagram for “other man.”

I’d also like to take this time to point out the fun of having characters be all-too-aware of their name and what it symbolizes. In the opening of Ex-Heroes, one of the characters laments the fact that his parents hung him with the name George Bailey. If nothing else, in these cases you can assure the audience that you’re well aware of the symbolism-laden name you’ve given your character. Allow me to demonstrate with a quick snippet from a story I’ve been poking at for a while.


Some poor bastards are cursed from the day they arrive in the world. They’re born into a certain family, with a distinguishing feature, or perhaps get hung with a poorly-chosen name, and that’s really it for them. One such poor bastard, submitted for your approval, is Andrew Sleight.

With a name like that, you’d think his life had been planned from the start. On paper, it even reads like the start of a bad novel. Andrew was abandoned and never knew his parents, getting his name from the officer who amused him with shell games and coin tricks until child services arrived on the scene. He slid invisibly through the foster homes and orphanages, and had a brief brush with crime at the age of fifteen which is now sealed away and will not enter this story again. The other six, more recent brushes (more like broad strokes, really) weigh on him quite heavily. Two petty thefts for shoplifting, three larcenies for pickpocketing, and one grand theft auto, which is self-explanatory.


The other school of thought about names is… well, you don’t do any of that. Just skim the phone listings or the authors of some books on your desk and there you go.

Odd as it may sound with all that I’ve just scribbled down, I’m not really for or against either method. I think having names with subtle layers and meanings behind them can add to a story. I also think it won’t subtract from a solid story if they’re not there. In my experience, there are times having extra meaning behind a name can add a beautiful level of nuance. There are also, however, times you just get tired of being beaten with the symbolism stick and want to get back to the story.

So, anyway, a few clever ways to find names…

Adjectives. Here’s an easy one. Just rattle off a dozen or so words that describe your character. Odds are you’ll hit one that’s close to a name. Think of Mary Shelley– she gave her character who figures out how to beat death the name Victor. George Lucas named his self-interested space pilot Solo. This can also be the chance for some grim irony, as well. In The Incredibles, there’s something subtle and touching about the man who can lift freight trains being forced to spend the rest of his life as Mr. Parr (or par, as in average).

Baby books. I think we’ve all seen those little books at the checkout counter offering diet tips, how to train pets, or common crossword clues. If you look, there’s usually one with a few hundred baby names and what they mean. Browsing through one of these is an easy way to find the perfect name for your character. Priscilla means dutiful. Oscar means “spear of God.” Yoko means determined or ambitious (no, seriously).

Established names. I mentioned poor George Bailey above. I went to school with a girl named Natalie Wood. Alien Nation features the poor Newcomer cop named Samuel Francisco squaring off against alien crime boss Rudyard Kipling. God only knows how many poor kids have been named after presidents. Sometimes it’s perfectly acceptable for a character to have the same name as a famous figure, either because they have similarities or they’re polar opposites. As I said above though, if you’re going to use this one, you have to acknowledge you’re using it in some way.

Make it up. Cheating, you say? James Barrie made up the name of Wendy for the girl who accompanies his most famous creation. Edgar Rice Burroughs made up most of his character names, since so very few of them were either A) human, B) terrestrial, or C) both. In both cases, the important thing is that they sound right. Wendy reminds us of windy, and the “eee” sound is… well, a bit girly. It’s a young, fresh, happy name. Burroughs, on the other hand, used lots of hard consonants in his names. You never forget the peoples of Mars are all tough warrior races.

(Although—for the fantasy and sci-fi folks—I will toss out that if you make up a totally unpronouncable name, you’re going to be breaking the flow of your story. One of my favorite niche genre novels has a character named aM!xitsa, and it should tell you how good the story is that I could make it past that name a few hundred times…)

Again, despite all this stuff, I don’t think a lack of triple-layered names means you’re a bad writer, and it will not kill your manuscript. Catcher in the Rye would not have fallen apart if the main character was Fred Phelps. To Kill A Mockingbird would still be one of my favorite books if the narrator was nicknamed Chief instead of Scout. Odds are we all still would’ve cheered if the hero of Raiders of the Lost Ark was going by the name Irv Smith when he shot that swordsman in the marketplace.

In the end, the most important thing is just to give some thought before you name a character. Not deep thought. Not meaningful thought. But if you want to bring them to life, you’ve got to put something into that choice.

Next week, I’ve been thinking of a few things I wanted to say about having a few things to say.

Until then, get back to writing.

March 28, 2009 / 1 Comment

Kiss Kiss, Boom Boom

      An odd title, I know. Hopefully it’ll make sense by the end.

      So, everybody here knows a drama queen, right?
      I know there are two or three international readers here, and maybe they’re called something different across the ocean. Drama queens can be male or female and, as the name implies, they make drama. All the time. It’s what they release instead of the sweat and pheromones the rest of us let off. No matter how simple or mundane the situation, they’ll find a way to complicate it and over-emotionalize it. It’s what they do. I had a drama queen friend once who could make a dozen people going to the movies an operation on par with storming the beaches of Normandy. Operation Desert Shield was child’s play compared with getting all of us out to see the new Lord of the Rings.
      Now, people do behave irrationally sometimes, and we all have a buffer of sorts for it. There’s one time that you’ll accept someone’s insistence this is the worst thing that can ever happen, despite all evidence it’s pretty minor. We’re all decent enough to let a friend have one breakdown or emotional crisis for no real reason. That’s what friends do. Sometimes molehills really do look like mountains. We’ve all been there. If this happens once, it doesn’t make you a drama queen.
      Here’s the thing about these folks, though. The litmus test, if you will. They can pull their business once. That’s it. The second time someone tries to make a production out of a text message, or a trip to the grocery store, or a rumor they heard, you’re going to be taking it with a grain of salt. The third time it’ll be a spoonful of salt. And by the fourth time, you’ll already be focusing past them before the second word.
      Starting to see where we’re going with this?
      Some folks have a bad habit of creating false drama in their writing. They want to keep the reader’s interest, so they throw in something that they know is considered a good element for their chosen genre. Suddenly, for no reason at all, Bob and Cindy kiss passionately. With no warning, Emily starts to freak out over the message she just got. People start shooting at Dan. Out of nowhere, the car blows up. And then Cindy remembers she was molested as a child and starts shrieking at Bob.
      Let me use films as an example. Most folks have seen a movie that’s just loaded with action. Where there are gunfights, explosions, ninjas, and more. Non-stop ninjas, in fact. Cyborg ninjas. From the future. With nuclear self-destruct devices on timers. Short timers. And yet… the movie didn’t hold your attention. Bored you, even.
      On the other hand, maybe you’ve had to sit through an indie film. And by indie I don’t mean independent, I mean indie. That special sub-genre of film that’s grown over the past decade. Indie films usually have a lot of people talking. Or not talking. Maybe staring at walls, old photos, or trees. Staring deeply. Pondering. And all the while, they’re trying to deal with issues. Problems. Things that weigh heavy on their soul. And talking some more. Or screaming. Or crying. Or then Cindy remembers she was molested as a child and starts shrieking at Bob. And that’s not holding your attention either, is it? Bored again, aren’t you.
This is all empty material. It’s false drama. It’s unmotivated action. And like the drama queen we’ve all known, it doesn’t take us too long to start tuning it out.
      This is, for the record, a very, very common first draft problem. Someone comes up with an interesting idea on page 98 and drops it in, ignoring the fact that absolutely nothing in the 97 pages before it even slightly or remotely hint at this idea. It isn’t a bad idea mind you. It just comes out of nowhere, like me suddenly shouting out WHANGDOODLE for no reason. Might be eyecatching and funny once. Maybe. But wouldn’t it be better, and more keeping with the rest of the post, if I made an off-color joke about some of those cyborg ninjas traveling back in time even further and molesting Cindy when she was a child?
      So, the easiest ways to avoid all this emptiness…
      Motivation. If one of your characters is doing something, whether they’re one of the leads or that guy they bump on the street, they should have a reason for doing it. It should be consistent with what we’ve seen them do before. This includes people we don’t see at all, like the people who are setting bombs under cars or loading that song into the jukebox. If there’s no reason for someone to do it, that probably means no one should do it.
      Realism. It doesn’t have to be tied to our real world, but what’s happening in your story should be believable within the reality of your story. Cyborg ninjas are great in Bytestrike VII: Computron’s Revenge. They are not quite as impressive or fitting in To Kill A Mockingbird.
      Coherency. A sci-fi story shouldn’t turn into a gothic romance halfway through. Likewise, a chick-lit story about shopoholics shouldn’t decend into a bloodbath. And hardened soldiers on the battlefront shouldn’t break down in tears because war is so icky and their boots are too tight. If you come up with a neat idea, go back and make it a consistent idea thoughout your writing.
      Relevance. Okay, maybe Cindy was molested by time-travelling cyborg ninjas when she was thirteen. Does that really have anything to do with the story of her trying to save the historic movie theater in her town from demolition? Will it have any effect on that meeting she’s having with the developers and the town council? If not, why are you bringing it up? Yeah, it may be rich character development, but it’s also distracting from your actual story, and that’s what everyone’s here to read.
      So, look back over your manuscript and make sure everything’s actually got something behind it. No empty drama. No empty explosions. Make sure it’s all got some weight to it.
      Next week, by request, a few thoughts on names and what’s in them.
      Until then… go write.