August 6, 2020 / 1 Comment

The Right Way to Play Doctor…

I’ve wanted to talk about this topic for a while, and I finally figured out a really fun analogy for it. One that’ll be fun for everyone. Or at least, for folks with a certain degree of experience.

So, in this fun little scenario, you’re the patient and someone else is the doctor. Feel free to pick whoever you want as your doctor. The important thing here is their medical degree.

In fact, now I’d like you to imagine the medical school your doctor attended. One where students are never taught what to do when things go wrong. Nobody ever practices clamping off blood vessels. Restarting a heart. They never get quizzed on mystery symptoms or offered practical tips on “how to do this quickly.” At this medical school, every procedure goes exactly as planned every time, no complications at all.

How comfortable would you be with this doctor of yours? Do you really want them operating on you? Heck, does this sound like the best school? This really isn’t a great way to learn, is it?

The thing is, even those of us far removed from the medical field recognize that every patient is unique. There’s going to be a lot of overlaps and commonalities, absolutely—you don’t hear hoofbeats and assume zebras—but we’ve all got our own personal histories and conditions and tendencies and good doctors realize that. We want doctors who can think on their feet a bit and recognize that sometimes there’s a serious need to deviate from the standard procedures. Doctors who have an idea what to do when things go wrong and complications arise.

Which is why medical schools don’t do this. They teach the basics, sure, and show “perfect case” scenarios, but they also show prospective doctors all the ways things can go wrong. Going off one friend who went through med school, that’s most of what they do. They throw problems at students. They want to know how good doctors are at improvising and being creative. Because there’s only so much anyone can learn from clean, flawless examples. Eventually, if I really want to learn how to do stuff, I have to get messy.

Can you guess where I’m going with this?

Writing has a lot of overlaps and commonalities, too, but for the most part each example of writing is even more unique. We’re all individual people at different points of our lives. We’re at different levels of experience, different levels of development, different levels economically, and more. And we’re all writing different books in different ways, dealing with different structures and genres and expectations.

Now it’s not uncommon when we start out to copy writers we like. I’m sure a lot of people reading this made their first tentative steps into writing by copying the genres and styles of writers they enjoyed—successful writers who had published a book, or maybe multiple books. If any of my early writing was still kicking around, I think we’d find a lot of it bore a strong resemblance to Bill Mantlo’s plot structures, dialogue, and pacing… at least until I started reading some of the Doctor Who books Ballentine was reprinting here in the US.

And this is absolutely fine when we’re starting out. It’s one of the most common ways we all learn the basics. We just copy things by experienced artists that we already know work. Things that have already been through the editorial process and don’t have any major flaws or problems.

Because art is such a unique, personal thing, though, all studying and copying good art does is teach us how to be like that particular artist. At some point we need to grow past mimicking other storytellers, and I think this is when bad stuff becomes important. Because if a problem needs to be fixed, I’m going fix it myway. And you’re going to fix it your way. And they’re going to do it theirway.

Thing is, I can’t learn what my way is if I never see any problems. Why would I need to? If everything I see if perfect, nothing needs to change. It’s why, back when I was working in the movie industry, I’d see so many directors come out of film school with lots of aspirations to be the next Scorsesee or Kubrick, but no idea how things actually happened on a working film set.

I’ve talked more than a few times about my weekend B-movie habits. And while the movies are almost always bad, I almost always learn something every weekend. Because I don’t approach them with the view of “let’s make fun of bad movies,” I look at them as “what is this doing wrong and how could I fix it?” Why doesn’t this reveal work? How could this pacing be fixed? What would make this character more interesting and get me invested in their problem?

There’s actually a whole industry for this in Hollywood. Script doctors (whoa, full circle). They’re people who come in, find the problems, and figure out how to fix them. And they get paid a lot, because that’s a very valuable skill.

A skill we can never develop if we never see any problems.

Next time…

I have no idea. Drawing a blank right now. Feel free to throw a suggestion down below, or if you’d like to see some more debate on your topic, drop a suggestion over on a Writers Coffeehouse video on my YouTube channel.

Until then… go write.

And solve some problems.

September 22, 2017 / 5 Comments

Hitting The Fan

            Running a little late this week. Sorry.
            Truth be told, I don’t have a ton of time so this is going to be a bit short. So’s next week, honestly. Right now I’m trying to do a bunch of pre-publicity stuff for the release of Paradox Bound next week, and next week is… well, four signing events with about five hundred miles between them, plus some other stuff, plus getting ready to go to New York Comic Con..
            I’m going to be busy, okay?
            Plus, I have a bad habit of over-preparing for things. A holdover from being dirt poor.  I just assume everything bad is going to happen and try to cover all my bases.
           Of course, inevitably, the bad thing is something I didn’t plan for. I mean, if I’d planned for it, it wouldn’t be that bad, right?  It might be annoying, a minor obstacle at best, but it’d be tough to think of it as some kind of crisis.
            I wanted to talk today about the moment in a story when things go wrong and our characters suddenly have to depend on their wits to make it through.  They’re in a position they didn’t intend to be in.  I’m a big believer in that moment.  I think it’s what seperates a lot of average-to-good stories from great ones.

           Let’s use a heist as an example.  We’ve all read a good heist story (or at least seen one of the Ocean’s Eleven movies).  In a heist, we usually see our heroes and/or heroines go through lots and lots of planning, working out every detail. They know when the guards change shift, how long the elevators take, how much weight sets off the pressure plates, and more.

            But then—always—something goes wrong.  There’s a new alarm system.  They’ve changed the guard rotation.  There’s a power outage before our power outage—one we’re not in control of!—and Jake doesn’t know!  How’s he going to get out of there?!
            This is the moment we grow to love characters. When they have to think fast to get themselves out of a tricky situation.  When they’ve got to do something they weren’t prepared to do.
            Now, on the flipside of this… there’s a show I’ve been watching, and I really want to like it. It’s got a lot of elements I usually enjoy.  But nothing ever goes wrong for them.  I mean, they’ll hit problems.  Have thing they need to deal with.  Sometimes major adversaries to overcome.
            But again and again, they’d hit a problem, figure out what they needed to do in order to beat it… and that would work.  I need to do this.  I did this.  The end.
            Sounds kind of unsatisfying, doesn’t it?
            Spoilers—it was.
            This all ties back to something I’ve mentioned here before.  When someone’s so over-prepared that nothing’s a challenge, my story is boring.  My characters aren’t being pushed in any way, so it diminishes whatever’s driving the plot.
            Likewise, if my characters barely even need to be prepared and nothing’s a challenge… well, then my story’s still boring,  It might even be more boring.  Because now, no matter what this week’s crisis was, it’s clearly something that takes minimal effort to deal with.
            And let me take a quick minute to clarify something about effort.  Effort doesn’t just mean gritting my teeth and sweating.  If we know the hatch Wakko needs to open weighs three hundred pounds and he heeeeeeeaaaaaves it open, that’s just planning to do something strenuous.  What we’re talking about is when Wakko goes to heave open that three hundred pound hatch… and somebody padlocked it since yesterday when he scouted the place.  And he’s still only got ninety seconds to get it open before the zombie horde reaches us.
            That’s going to take some effort.
            And impress the hell out of my readers when Wakko does it.
            Speaking of readers, hopefully I’ll see some of you next week during my crazy California signing tour.  Or next weekend at NYCC.
            Until then… go write.
            And put some effort into it.
May 27, 2017 / 1 Comment

Feet of Clay

            Sorry I’m running late again. I seem to do that a lot, don’t I…?
            I was going to do a whole piece on character building this week (since nobody suggested anything else). But it kind of felt wrong.  We talked about characters at the Writers Coffeehouse this month, and we’re going to talk more next month, and I always feel a little odd addressing Coffeehouse topics here on the blog. Especially close to the same time.
            Yeah, not everyone here goes to the Coffeehouse, but still…  One way or another, it feels kinda cheap.  To me, anyway. It’s just how I’m wired. Like I’m re-using material here or there, giving one group minimal effort.
            But while I was writing out the character piece, I thought of a new angle I wanted to explore.  The more I thought about it, the more I was sure it could be a post all on its own.  A new take on character development.
            So, here’s an easy question I should be able to answer about any of my characters.
            What are they not good at?
            Seriously.  This shouldn’t be hard. Can I name five or six things my character isn’t good at?  No, not ridiculous things like “gene splicing” or “space shuttle repair” or “aboriginal dialects.”  Just name a couple basic things your character isn’t good at.
            Let me make it personal. 
            I’m terrible when it comes to pretty much any kind of sports.  I don’t know players, teams, leagues, anything.  I can name a few New England teams, just because I grew up there, but even then I’d be pretty pathetic.
            I wish I was more musical.  I love music, but have never been good at music, if that makes sense.  Horrible at telling music genres/styles apart, can’t play anything more complicated than a triangle.  Hell, in high school I played bass drum in the marching band, and a couple people can vouch for the fact that I screwed thatup sometimes.
            I’m really bad at taking compliments, on any level.  People telling me I have nothing to worry about is pretty much guaranteed to freak me out.  I’ve been a full time writer for ten years, my ninth novel is coming out this year (plus the new collection this week) and I still have a ton of career anxiety.
            Anyway, I could go on and on, but you get the idea, right?  I’m not a perfect person (not by a long shot).  Most people aren’t.
            And, if I’m doing it right, my characters are people too. So there should be things they’re not good at.  They should have bad habits that cause problems.  There should be fields of interest they know nothing about.  Blind spots to political/cultural ideas.  Phobias that mess them up.  You’ve probably heard of these referred to as character flaws.  It doesn’t mean there’s anything blatantly wrong with the character.  It just means they’re… well, human.
            If I’m doing this writing thing really well, these areas where my characters have problems are going to cause specific issues in this story.  Maybe even a few plot points will hinge on them. And my characters are going to have to learn and grow and change to get past these problems.  They’ll have to make an effort to overcome fears, work past prejudices, and maybe figure out new ways of doing things.
            That’s a good thing.  It’s called a character arc.  You’ve probably heard of those, too.
            Now, let me address a couple of quick points, if I may…
            There are those folks who believe, well, more is better.  Their characters don’t have a flaw, they have flaws. And they don’t really have flaws, they have faults.  And I use “faults” in the geologic, California-drops-into-the-Pacific sense.  Yawning, bottomless chasms.  Each character generally has six or seven of these.  Maybe a baker’s dozen.  These people don’t just have feet of clay. They have feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs. hips, groins, and lower abs all made of wet, soft clay. 
            Yes, groins.  There’s no way someone this screwed up doesn’t have a ton of sexual issues.  That’ll come up, too.  Or… maybe it won’t. One out of five…
           Again, this isn’t unrealistic.  I’m willing to bet most of us have known one or two really messed up, annoying people in our lives.  I’ve known a couple.
            As I’ve often said, though—reality isn’t our goal as fiction writers. Think of that messed up person from your own life. How much time did you really want to spend with them? Would you want to read a short story about them? A whole novel? Sit through a two hour movie?
            Y’see, Timmy, there’s nothing wrong with an overly-flawed character, but I need to balance that with the realization that my readers need a reason to like this person. A reason to keep reading.  It doesn’t matter how beautiful or artistic my prose is, the majority of people aren’t going to want to read about an awful character who’s a failure on every possible level.  
            If someone’s going to have serious flaws, they need some serious strengths, too, to counterbalance them.  A grocery clerk who gets blackout drunk every weekend to forget her past isn’t that interesting, but a popular billionaire philanthropist who gets blackout drunk every weekend to forget her past… well, that probably got you thinking of story ideas right there, didn’t it?
            Also, to got to the other extreme, nobody likes the flawless character. Seriously.  I’ve talked before about some of the problems with characters who are never caught off guard or never get scared.  What’s the challenge going to be for someone like that?  If Dot is always ready, always prepared, always calm, and always wins (of course she always wins—how could she lose?)… well, that’s going to get boring really quick.  And unbelievable.  When somebody’s ready for absolutely every contingency—especially when there’s no real reason for them to be—it just gets ridiculous.  Plus, there’s no space for character growth. If I’m already at ten in all categories… what kind of arc can I have?  Where can I go?
            There’s a wonderful line in the first Hellboy movie—“We like people for their qualities, but we love them for their defects.” I think that’s extremely true of fictional characters.  The more well-rounded they are—with strengths and weaknesses—the more we’ll be able to identify with them. And care about them.  And want to read the next book about them.
            Which is what we all really want to happen.
            Next time…
            Okay, look, I’ll be honest.  Next week’s my birthday.  There’s a good chance I’ll be drunk the entire day.  Possibly the night before, too.
            But… if I manage to be sober somewhere in there, maybe I’ll talk a bit about shutting up.
            Until then… go write.