November 7, 2014 / 2 Comments

Take It From The Top…

            Musical reference.  If you were ever in band class, you already have an idea what I’m talking about.
            Here’s a quick tip I wanted to toss out for a common problem…
            I think most of us have some project—a novel, a screenplay, a short story—that we really loved at one point, but had to put down.  Maybe it was because of work.  Family stuff could’ve cropped up.  Perhaps circumstances forced us to move on to other things.  It happens.
            Then we go back to it.  Not just to dabble with it over a weekend, but to pick up things where we left off.  And—no surprise—it’s tough to make things work the way they did before the break.
            If you’ve been reading this little pile of rants for a while, you may remember me referencing a novel I started about zombies on the Moon.  I began work on it back in late 2009, but put it aside after a few months because my publisher at the time wanted me to try a mash-up novel.  When I tried to go back to the zombie idea, he’d just bought another “zombies in space” novel and warned me he probably wouldn’t want another one (I ended up writing a book about a creepy apartment building instead).  I even tried to go back to Dead Moon again two years ago, and… well, it was a struggle.  I couldn’t remember how the characters sounded in my head, or where some of the plot points were leading.  I banged my head against it for about three months and then, well, circumstances required I move on again.
            My lovely lady recently had a similar problem.  She tried to finish a first person manuscript that was about 4/5 done, but she hadn’t touched it in about a decade and it was very, very voice-heavy with a very tricky plot.  That last 20% took her months.
            And I made the same mistake again, even after my attempts to get back to the Moon.  One of my most recent books began as a different novel back in 2007.  It was set aside twice (much like Dead Moon), and I’d kind of given up on it.  But then I realized I could salvage a lot of the plot and characters and use them as kind of a spin-off-side-quelto that creepy-apartment story.  Which sounded great on a bunch of levels.
            Except what really happened was that I tried to pick up right where I left off.  I fumbled with it for a long time before I realized I needed to forget X and start writing Y.  And I was 2/3 through Y before it hit me that the whole thing was really just clinging to X again.  I pulled it apart (now with a deadline creeping close) and finally got Z put together.
            Which my editor looked at and immediately caught a bunch of Y stuff.
            Y’see, Timmy, if we’re doing things right, we all keep growing as writers.  We gain experience (some good, some bad).  We learn new things.  We swear never to do certain things ever again. 
            And because of this, we stumble when we try to go back.  It’s kind of like bumping into an old ex and pretending nothing’s changed when… well, a lot has changed.  There’s skewed memories, things we know that we don’t want to, and experiences that make casual conversations kind of awkward.  Because we’ve grown and moved on.  There can still be something there, sure, but it’ll never be what it was back then.
            Final anecdote.  A month or two back I was offered a spot in a high-profile anthology.  My first thought for a story that fit was actually an unproduced script I’d written for a television show back in 2001.  But this was a themed anthology—my story had to fit this theme and these characters.
            So I read through the old script twice to get the story and the beats back in my head.  Then I put it aside.  Didn’t look at it again.  I wrote my first draft in a week (about 12,000 words) and had three more drafts done in the next two and a half weeks.  The editor loved it.
            So, here’s my tip. 
            If I’m going to go back to a half-done project that I haven’t done anything with for a significant amount of time, I might be better off just starting from scratch. Don’t try to save or salvage or repurpose.  Just start over.  This way I’m not fighting with present vs. past experience or voices or plotlines.  I’m just writing
            Sometimes it’s faster to start over on a project than to pick it up after a long time away from it.
            Next time, I’m going to introduce a reader request about characters.
            Until then, go write.
August 4, 2011 / 4 Comments

Simpsons Did It!

A pop culture reference that’s so spot-on it’s not even funny.

Okay, it’s a little funny…

(General Disarray, go get the minions before they get lost…)

One of the big worries with creativity is wondering if you really are being creative. Is that clever new idea of yours something you came up with all on your own, or is it something you unwittingly borrowed from someone else? Maybe you skimmed over the back copy of a paperback in your local neighborhood bookstore or read a few spoiler-filled reviews on Amazon and your brain just filed it away. Worse yet, what if your clever story gets out there and then you discover five other people already had similar ideas. Now you just look like some hack plagiarist.

I’ve been involved in a bunch of discussions about stuff like this in the past few weeks. Has anyone crossed X with Y before? Have you ever seen this element used in that genre? What about that plot but in this setting?

The answer to all of these, alas, is yes.

Some guru-types like to drawl on about how there are only seven stories (or nine, or thirteen, depending on who’s selling what this week). While I think this is an oversimplification, it does point out an obvious truth. Most stories have things in common with other stories. That’s just the way of it. The same type of characters show up. The same situations arise. The same relationships form.

Here’s a random observation for you. When was the last time you met someone who didn’t remind you of someone else? Think about it for a minute. When we were little everything was new and fresh but as we got older we started to see patterns and similarities. A guy I met at a birthday party last weekend reminded me of a guy who lived across the hall from me in college. When I first met her, I thought my girlfriend looked a lot like one of my next-door neighbors. A production assistant I used to work with looks kind of like a sound mixer I know in San Diego. Another one reminded me of my cousin Chrissie crossed with a bit of Angelina Jolie (a very good mix, I have to say).

But those are all first impressions. As I delve deeper, I start to see the uniqueness of each person. The better I got to know them, the more Leo, Colleen, Russ, and Sarah became individuals and those superficial similarities dropped away.

Still, those initial generalities can be a bit bothersome. If there’s something else out there that’s similar to your work, should you worry about it?

Probably not.

Submitted for your approval is The Dueling Machine. It’s a 1969 sci-fi novel by multiple-Hugo-award winner Ben Bova. In the far, far future, a brilliant scientist has created a machine to help reduce hostility. It’s “a combination of electroencephalograph and autocomputer” which lets two or more people connect their minds through the machine and interact in an imaginary dream world that they create inside the machine. The story comes about when someone is killed during one of these “simulated” duels—is it possible that dying in the imaginary world could make someone die in the real world?

Hopefully this premise sounds a bit familiar to you. It should because it’s a big chunk of the plot to The Matrix movies. And The 13th Floor. Also the Lawnmower Man films. Plus there’s a few books like Cybernetic Samurai and Snow Crash and Giant’s Star. And that television show VR5 that was on for a while. And about a hundred Star Trek episodes where people get trapped on the now-deadly holodeck, because the holodeck safety systems are apparently made of cobwebs and wet tissue paper. Heck, you’ve all probably got a dozen more at your fingertips, don’t you?

For the record, there are also dozens of books and movies and television shows featuring vampires in space (one’s actually called The Space Vampires—it was the basis for the movie LifeForce). And zombies in the old west. And new takes on time travel, space travel, politics, Jekyll and Hyde, all that stuff.

Now, this doesn’t mean that most stories copy other stories. We all draw from a lot of the same sources, so our thoughts are going to follow a lot of the same paths. But even on those paths we’re all going to march to the beat of our own drummer, so to speak. We’re also going to dress differently, bring different things with us, ask different people to come along, and we’re all probably heading down that given path for different reasons.

Y’see, Timmy, we put our own stamp on everything we do. If I did a modern version of Dracula and you did a modern version of Dracula, neither of us would end up writing Salem’s Lot, which was Stephen King’s modern version of Dracula. You might stick with Europe, but I’m probably going to set mine in southern California. We’d have our own ideas and notions and way of looking at it, just like Mr. King did.

Now, there’s a downside to this apprehension, too, and it’s kind of similar to the people who won’t write anything because they’re too busy learning how to write. Sometimes we—yes we—get so caught up in worrying if something is original that we grind to a halt trying to prove it isn’t. This desperate need to avoid being a copycat brings things to a dead halt.

True story —I was working on a book a few years back (right before I was inspired to start Ex-Heroes, in fact) called Mouth. As I was typing away, I suddenly came up with the coolest way to explain teleportation ever. I mean, this was Stephen Hawking-level brilliant. It was, if you’ll pardon the phrase, sheer elegance in its simplicity. I typed up a quick scene where Character A explained it this way to Character B, read through it, and realized it was even cleverer than that.

Too clever, in fact, for a guy like me to come up with it. It was too clean. Too perfect.

In a panic, I wracked my brain trying to figure out where I’d heard it before. Because I must’ve seen this somewhere. Online? In a comic book? All I was reading at the time was Amazing Spider-Man and that was all packed full of “Civil War” nonsense. Maybe a television show? What had we gotten from Netflix in the past few months?

I asked my girlfriend to read it. I figured she might recall whatever this source was, because I kept drawing a blank. She went through the chapter, got to the questionable explanation, and loved it. When I asked her where she’d seen it before, she couldn’t remember ever seeing it. After I pressed her for a bit and she re-read it again, she admitted it was vaguely like the explanation of “tessering” in Madeline L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle In Time, but only in that it took what was plainly a very complex idea and boiled it down to an extremely simple explanation.

In other words, it was all mine. But I wasted a week worrying over whether or not I’d copied it.

Do a quick look at your chosen field. Make sure no one’s done something exactly like your idea. Then just write. Your own style and vocabulary and characters will give it a flavor all its own.

Like the Buddha says, don’t sweat the small stuff.

Next time, if I don’t get any suggestions, I may have to fall back on spelling.

Until then, like I just said, go write.