November 30, 2017 / 4 Comments

One Of You… Is A Murderer

            Sorry for the blast of posts this week.  Feel free to blame it on my love of storytelling—my own and other peoples.  Or rampant consumerism.  Or on me wanting to pay rent in January.  Any one of these answers is true.
            But now… let’s get back to some plain old writing advice.
            Readers tend to love a good mystery.  It’s kind of like the original VR game, where we get to see all the same clues and evidence as the protagonists and try to piece them together first.  We do it with books. We do it with TV shows.  Hell, there are some fantastic comic books you can do it with.  Alan Moore made a compelling argument once that comics are the perfect medium for mystery stories.
            As writers, let’s be honest.  Mysteries are tough.  They need to be in that perfect sweet spot—not so tough they’re impossible, but not so easy that my reader solves it before my character does (and then my character looks stupid for the next 150 pages for not figuring this out yet).
            Plus, there’s so much to keep track of.  Who saw what.  Where they saw it.  When they saw it.  These are all super-important, because readers hate it when they get to the end of a mystery and find a gaping hole there.  It’s probably the second-most annoying thing I can do when I’m writing a mystery.
            (And now I’ve got you all wondering, don’t I…?)
            At the Writers Coffeehouse a few weeks back, one of our regulars, Hal Bodner, offered a brilliant tip for writing mysteries. It eliminates this issue almost altogether.  Honestly, it’s so clever… it’s the whole point of this little rant.
            If you’ve ever seen or read an older mystery, they almost always have a chapter near the end when our fearless detective (or sleuths or investigators or what have you) bring all the suspects together and walk them through the crime.  They’ll go over the evidence, the clues, the alibis.  They’ll explain what each one means, which ones were red herrings, which ones they immediately discounted, and which ones pointed to…you, Widow Humphries!  Or should we call you, Isabella, the Viscount’s estranged sister!!
            You know this scene, right?  I’ve heard it called the parlor scene, the tea room room speech, the summation gathering, and other titles along those lines.  Hal called it the detective’s speech.  You might still catch it today on shows like Elementary, although it’s often pared down to just the detective and the guilty party.
            So… here’s the tip.
            Write that scene.  Even if my hard-boiled action story doesn’t really call for it, I should spend a day or three and write it out before I get going.  Have my investigator pace the room and point at people and say how he noticed this and saw those and learned about this.  Explain how this theory was discarded and where that idea came from.  And then point that finger right at the guilty party and scream “J’ACCUSE!!
            Or maybe your detective plays it cooler than mine and just stands there with her hands in her trenchcoat.  Maybe she gives a little nod and a faint smile when the murderer gets hauled away. And then she pulls out her flask and crawls deep inside until she can re-bury all those memories about Jenna that this case dragged up again…
            I don’t need to keep this scene, mind you.  Very likely this will just be one of those things I write that doesn’t get used.  Probably best if it isn’t.  Like I mentioned above, it’s kind of an archaic, cliche scene, and on the off chance it shows up it’s really pared down and tight.
            But once I have it written out, I have a mini-outline for how the mystery is revealed in my story.  Literally, who knows what when.  When they met the suspects.  What they see.  When they see it. When they make which connections.  It’s all right there in that speech—what my investigator needs to solve the crime.
            So gather your suspects—yes, even the butler—get them all seated in the parlor, and tell us about the first thing you noticed when you saw the crime scene.
            Next time, I wanted to talk about Luke’s father.
            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.
December 24, 2010 / 3 Comments

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Ahhh, Christmas. Time for family and friends. Eggnog and presents. Gathering around the fireplace and maybe watching a few holiday classics on the tube.

Also a great time for psychopaths, invading aliens, and big explosions.

I should probably explain that last bit.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Then we’ll begin.

In a way, holidays make for great settings because they come pre-packaged for a writer. Much in the same way saying “Angelina” conjures the mental image of a certain actress, I can tell you “the neighborhood is decorated for Christmas,” and I’ve set the stage. Just like that.

Oh, sure, I can go into more detail if I really need to. It might be very important that the Hendersons decorated that small pine on their front lawn and the Applebaums have mistletoe over their front door. And maybe that old Mister King has nothing on his lawn. But I’ve set out all the broad strokes with just six words. Even if the description never went any further, you know what Sawmill Drive or Sunset Boulevard look like. How many pages of writing does that save me?

Major holidays are great shorthand for the time of year and tone of a story. This can help you make the ideas behind your story even more powerful. Is there anything more romantic than meeting your true love on Valentine’s Day? We almost expect serial killers on Halloween. The 4th of July is just brimming with patriotism here in the U.S.

Y’know, it just struck me while writing that… How many countries have “Independence from England” as a national holiday? Dozens, right? And what’s England got? Guy Fawkes Day. They celebrate the day they didn’t let religious extremists take over.


If your setting lines up with your story, you’ve almost got a theme going there. If your characters are discussing peace on earth while decorating a Christmas tree, good for you. Maybe they’re talking about forgotten promises at New Year’s or being grateful at Thanksgiving. So if you’ve got a story that follows some holiday-centric ideas, it might be worth setting it at said holiday.

That being said there’s also a Clarke’s Law-type issue to consider here. Sometimes the best story to set at a given holiday is, in fact, the worst story for that holiday. For example…

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard me reference screenwriter Shane Black once or thrice. One of the things he’s known for is setting so many of his films at Christmas. Lethal Weapon. The Long Kiss Goodnight. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. All fun movies, all set at Christmas. What’s interesting to note, though, is that not one of them depends on Christmas for any element of their story. Lethal Weapon is a buddy cop film about taking down drug lords. The Long Kiss Goodnight involves an AWOL assassin trying to stop her old employers. Heck, the most Christmassy part of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is Michelle Monaghan walking around for a good chunk of the film in her Naughty Santa costume.

Christopher Moore’s wonderful book The Stupidest Angel is also set at Christmas. It’s got a zombie uprising during the most wonderful time of the year.

There’ve also been one or two Christmas horror movies, and a few Valentine’s Day ones as well. Again, reversing the expectations.

And how many alien invasions has the Doctor stopped on December 25th at this point? Five? Six?

Y’see, Timmy, what works for these films is the contrast between our expectations for this time of year and what the story delivers. Events become a little more extreme when played out against a backdrop that evokes opposing feelings. And if it’s a backdrop you don’t have to spend time describing or explaining… well, that just gives you time to get on with your story.

Next time we’ll be closing in on New Year’s, so I may chat about resolutions. Or looking forward to next year. Maybe both.

Until then, a very Happy Christmas season to you all. Don’t go too crazy with the eggnog– it is loaded with calories.

And go write.

May 15, 2009 / 2 Comments

Geek Stuff

Okay, time for a personal confession.

I am a geek. Long time nerd. I was one of those sci-fi/ fantasy/ comic-book weirdoes long before most of you reading this were born. An outcast all through grade school and high school with only a few equally geeky friends.

I saw Star Wars in the movie theater when it was just Star Wars. None of this tacked-on- “Well, I always planned a trilogy of trilogies”- A New Hope nonsense. I remember when the Doctor turned into a tall guy with curly hair and a scarf, back at a time when you knew Daleks were supposed to be scary but couldn’t quite figure out why. I devoured the tales of Hawk the Slayer, Rom the Spaceknight, and John Carter, the Warlord of Mars. I remember the X-Men when they weren’t cool and Wolverine dressed in bright yellow spandex. Heck, when I learned how to play Dungeons & Dragons it was just two magazine-sized paperbacks with red and blue covers. It was a proud, thrilling moment for me when I first found out I was going to work on a Beastmaster movie (the shame came later).

Alas, sci-fi and fantasy get a bum rap from most folks, and those two genre tags are often seen as a kiss of death by agents, publishers, and studios. Heck, producer Ron Moore went out of his way to keep people from calling Battlestar Galactica sci-fi, despite that glaring network label. Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park was almost never shelved in the sci-fi/ fantasy section. Same with his Eaters of the Dead and all those Harry Potter books.

What years of digesting this stuff have shown me, though, is a lot of bad genre stuff tends to be bad for all the same reasons. Oh, there are some films and books that have found bold and daring ways to be awful no one could’ve possibly thought of (for examples of this, I recommend the novel Einstein’s Bridge and/or the film Women of the Prehistoric Planet), and there are a lot of the same basic problems you’ll see in any story or script, but overall the lethal genre flaws tend to fall into three categories.

One of the biggest mistakes I see in a lot of genre stuff is writers who are trying to make it too amazing. They cram in everything they can think of, every idea they have. It’s a bit like when that one overeager kid got to be the Dungeon Master for the first time and created that dungeon with fifteen platinum dragons and twenty giant purple worms and thirty minotaurs armed with +5 flaming swords and every door had a poison needle trap and… and… and…

I read one sci-fi screenplay a while back that dealt with a character awoken from cryogenic suspension thousands of years in the future, superhuman bio-technology that let people live at an accelerated rate, the different physics reactions this accelerated rate caused, gladiatorial games, social clans, an arms race, interplanetary civil wars, and an ethical debate over cloning. These weren’t just touched on, mind you, but all were essential, key elements in a 100-odd page script.

The problem with writing screenplays or stories like this is your audience has nothing left to latch onto as they’re overwhelmed with everything that’s different. The location is different. The rules are different. The people are different. Motivations are different. The writer may have created the most unique 37th Century world ever, but the audience needs to be able to understand to it now.

This leads us right into problem two—when the writer tries to explain all of it. I think most people reading this have seen a story or script that suddenly deviates into exposition. Characters will suddenly spout out a page or three on what the fabled Amulet of Sativa can do once it’s soaked in the blood of an innocent or how space travel works. Worse yet, sometimes this explanation will just pour out between the dialogue as the writer talks directly to his or her audience.

What this leads to is stories that are phenomenally detailed and exotic, but nothing ever actually happens in them. Five pages explaining why the Cawdor hive-gang has hated the Escher hive-gang for the past twenty years is really just five pages of characters sitting around twiddling their thumbs.

And this leads us to big problem number three—when the writer doesn’t explain any of it. Strangers make ominous proclamations. Disturbing photos arrive in the mail. Eerie carvings of strange, vaguely-familiar symbols are found on the wall. And people don’t address or flat-out ignore all these odd things.

A lot of the time, in my experience, this is a desperate attempt to create an aura of mystery and amazement around the characters or events when there really isn’t anything mysterious or amazing there. The writer just watched a lot of episodes of LOST or Fringe or maybe just the Matrix one too many times.

So, how can you beat these problems? How can you prove to editors, agents, and readers that your genre work is true literature and not at all like the feeble attempts of these other fanboy hacks who’ve been encouraged by their geek friends?

(Apologies to all my geek friends—I wasn’t talking about you.)

For that first problem, have a touchstone. Make sure your story has a main character your audience can immediately relate to. A protagonist who hates their job. Somebody lusting after someone they can’t have. Someone who feels like an outsider. Simply put, a person who has a universal need or desire. I’ve mentioned once or thrice that believable characters make for believable stories, and that’s especially true here in the genres. Luke Skywalker was a small-town boy who didn’t want to go into the family business. John Carter was a Civil War veteran from Virginia trying to find a purpose after the war. Ellen Ripley was the second in command of a mining ship who just wanted to get home to her daughter. Once the reader can believe in your characters, they can believe in what’s happening to your characters. This is a large part of Stephen King’s success, that 95% of his stories involve absolutely ordinary people living absolutely ordinary lives. By the time clowns crawl out of the sewers or a wall of mist rolls across the lake, the reader’s already invested in those folks. We believe in the characters, so we have to believe in what’s happening to the characters.

There are two things you can do for the second problem. One is to trim out anything that doesn’t need to be there. You may have the coolest take on vampires ever, but if you’re only including the vampires because you’ve got this cool take, yank them out and have your characters get attacked by bandits. It’s really cool that you’ve created the entire history and art of the nidhar, an ancient short-range weapon consisting of an array of blades that are held one between each finger before releasing them… but couldn’t your character get by with just a throwing knife?

Here’s a helpful example. Isaac Asimov once wrote a clever short story called “Nightfall,” later expanded to a novel of the same name. In the preface, he explains that he uses miles, hours, and years not because his planet is related to Earth, but because he saw no point in overcomplicating the story. If it works for the master…

The other thing you can do is fall back on the ignorant stranger method I’ve mentioned a few times. It’s nifty that taxicabs and busses are all electric and run by robots at this point in the future—but doesn’t Yakko already know that? I mean, he’s from the future, right? Shouldn’t Lord Murrain already know why he sent his henchman, Wakko, off to search the arctic wastes for a year (to search for the legendary Ice Sword)? Why does Wakko need to explain where he’s been? If this material isn’t vital to your story, trim out that paragraph or three of exposition and just trust that your readers are smart enough to understand future taxis are cool and Wakko found that which he sought.

To solve that third issue, make sure you know what you’re keeping secret, and that it really is a secret. Nothing will frustrate your audience more than to struggle and stumble through a whole story and then realize the writer has no intention of revealing the big mystery, or that there really isn’t one. Figure out what the story’s secret is and work backwards, making sure characters are motivated to hide it and/ or smart enough to uncover it.

Here’s a fun little tip I once heard from that nice lady over at A Buck A Page. Your main character should mirror your audience. So if your main character is constantly saying “I don’t understand,” or “What does that mean?” it probably means your audience is, too. Or, worse yet, they already hate your main character for being a $#&%ing idiot and threw your work across the room fifteen pages back. This also gives you a great guideline, though, of when stuff should be revealed. If you’re well into the third act of your tale and the main character still doesn’t have a clue what’s going on… well, I’m sure a few of the readers will keep reading to the end. Three or four of them, at least…

And that’s all I’ve got for you, unless anyone wants to debate Shogun Warriors vs. Micronauts. Hopefully this’ll help get some more good genre stuff out there for eager audiences.

Next time, just for fun, let’s kill a few babies.

Until then, get back to writing.