December 13, 2012 / 7 Comments

I Win. I Always Win.

             Minor pop-culture reference for those of you who are good with movie quotes.  And if you are, you’ll see the conflict with today’s little rant…

            Also, a shameless plug.  My book 14 was chosen as best sci-fi novel of the year by, and the publisher’s got the Kindle version on sale right now for just $2.99.  Please check it out and then come back to tell me I’m a talentless hack.
            Speaking of which…
            This is going to be one of those divisive posts, but I think it fits the nature of what I try to do here.  This is one of those perhaps painfully obvious tips a writer needs to follow if they want any measure of success.  And when I say “success” I refer to the age-old definitions of selling your stuff and making money.
            If you want that kind of success, your hero has to win.
           I’m using heroin the gender-blind sense.  If it makes you feel better, feel free to substitute in heroine or protagonist.  I’m not against any of these terms or the characters they attach to, I just think hero is short, quick, and to the point.
            And the hero wins.
            Pretty much always.
            A couple spoilerscoming up, too.  Nature of the beast for this kind of rant, sorry.  You may want to stop here if you’re way behind in your required reading or viewing.
           There’s a belief in some circles that having the hero of the story fail and diesomehow improves the story.  This usually ties back to the twin ideas of art and realism which… well, which I mock here on a regular basis.  It’s the belief that inserting something random and depressing into my story is more “honest” because life is often random and depressing. 
            And as we all know, art imitates life.  Therefore, if I’m imitating life, I must be making art, right?  That’s just simple math.
            As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, this ending sucks.  It sucks because we all inherently know the hero is supposed to win.  The hero is supposed to win because we identify with the hero.  If the hero loses, it means welost.  We’re losers. 
            Believe it or not, this sort of statement doesn’t go over well with most people.
            Now, before people start scribbling the angry comments (although I’m sure at least one person already has), let me finish.  I’m not saying that every book has to end with happy smiles and people rolling around on piles of money in their new castle.  My hero does not need to defeat the lizard men ninjas, save the world, and end up with nymphomaniac/ heiress Reiko Aylesworth in a flying car.
            Keep in mind, the hero doesn’t necessarily need to enjoy winning.  I just said they need to win.  They may be crippled or scarred—physically, emotionally, or both.  If the hero ends up wounded or broken after all they’ve done, really that just makes us identify with them a little more, doesn’t it?  I know if I had to fight a dozen terrorists in the Nakatomi Building in my bare feet, I’d get the crap kicked out of me.
            But I’d still win, of course…

            Heck, it may only be a moral or spiritual victory.  Atticus Finch loses his court case in To Kill A Mockingbird.  At the end of Rocky, our title hero’s battered, bruised, and can barely stand.  And Rocky loses the fight.  The refs rule for Apollo Creed.

            And yet, we all understand that he’s won in the way that really matters.  He’s proven he’s not a loser.  He’s shown that he can go the distance.
            The hero doesn’t even need to survive the story.  There are plenty of characters in books and film who didn’t live to enjoy their victories.  Let me give a few quick examples… 
            If you’ve seen The Professional, you know the end is a fiery bloodbath.  Only one person walks away, and it definitely isn’t Leon.  Stephen King has killed off his heroes in The Dead Zone, The Stand, IT, Desperation, and more.  Reese dies at the end of Terminator, and when Arnold plays a good Terminator in the next two movies he always gets destroyed.  J.K. Rowling has a lot of bodies at her feet by the end of the Harry Potter series, enough so that she almost seems as kill-happy as Joss Whedon, and he’s just legendary for killing his heroes in brutal ways—in comics, television, and film.
            And yet, in all of these examples, the hero wins.  No question about it.  Anyone who’s read or seen any of these stories will tell you the good guys won and the bad guys lost.
            So if I’m going to kill off my hero or if my plot resolves with a massive failure… maybe it’s worth rethinking that.
            Especially if I want to win.
            Next time, I’d like to discuss a common writing problem and the wisdom of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
            Until then, go write.
April 1, 2010 / 2 Comments

Baby Steps

So, as some of you may have picked up along the way, I used to work full-time as a crewperson on various films and television shows. On one level, this sounds very exciting and cool. People like hearing stories about blowing stuff up, getting to film in cool locations, and that Reiko Aylesworth is about fifty times more stunning in person than will ever, ever come across on film. I mean, she is just gorgeous. And funny. And a pool shark. Yes, to some extent, working in the film industry really is that cool.

On one out of twenty days. Maybe one out of fifteen, depending on the project.

The rest of the time, it’s dull as hell. Honest. No one’s that interested in the long days, the idiots in charge, or the screw up from another department that delayed everything for an hour. In this respect, the film industry isn’t that different from most other jobs, which is why a lot of people’s eyes glaze over when you try to tell them about it.

Which isn’t that surprising, if you think about it. It’s a job. It’s real life. And real life, for the most part, is pretty boring. Even in the movie industry.

Real life meanders. Sometimes it wanders aimlessly. It involves people learning the same lessons everyone else had to learn–or sometimes not learning them and screwing up more. The dialogue in real life sucks. Have you ever read an actual transcription? I do it all the time. Most people sound like idiots, trust me, and I include myself in there. We stutter, we second guess and repeat ourselves.

As such, it’s always baffling when people think they’ve done something amazing by writing a story about real life. With real characters. And real dialogue. In a sense, it’s like bragging about the peanut butter and jelly sandwich you made for lunch. The only thing more embarrassing is when you try to convince people the PB&J is something bold, daring, and new. Check it out. Bread on both sides. You’ll see I spread the peanut butter across the entire surface of the bread rather than leave it as a large glob in the middle. Also notice, please, that the jelly is between the slices of bread– I came up with that bit myself.

(If it helps, picture Chef Gordon Ramsey staring at me with that stunned look he seems to do so often… and then his next five or six words getting bleeped out.)

Let’s stop and consider for a moment. This is an accomplishment? It’s like congratulating someone for getting pregnant at the prom–so many people do it that it’s almost not worth talking about.

Now, one of the earmarks of this type of writing is when a character has an epiphany. A supposedly real world-altering revelation about their life. I say supposedly because most of them are the sort of simple life lessons most people have figured out by age twenty or so. You know, that it’s better to be loved than to be cool. That drugs are bad. That their destructive behavior is hurting the people around them. Those sort of things. While it’d be tough to prove, I can’t help but think a lot of these moments get put in because it’s something the writer experienced and they don’t grasp that everybody has these moments.

My friend Ace has a neat term for this, developed after years and years of reading for different screenplay contests. To quote: “It’s the moment when a baby discovers their own feet. It may be the coolest thing ever in the life of the baby, but for the rest of us it’s pretty dull and mundane.”

When a real character figures out it’s better to enjoy life than spend time at work, they’re discovering their own feet. When someone realizes they should cherish and spend time with the people that matter to them, it’s their own toes they’re staring at. If someone comes to the jaw-dropping conclusion that they’ve messed up a life that was clearly messed up on page one–OH MY GOD! The toes wiggle when I think about wiggling them!!!!

Part of why this rubs people the wrong way is that it’s plain condescending. As I mentioned before, a lot of these lessons are things we figured out in high school, even if maybe we didn’t take them to heart at the time.

Y’see, Timmy, when people talk about something great and say “It’s so real,” they’re making an implied statement. And that statement is (in full) “It’s so real, but I know it actually isn’t. But, wow, if it was real I bet it would be just like this.”

No one likes real life. If they did, there wouldn’t be any market for even the thinnest veneer of escapism. No one would read books or go to the movies. Reality rarely makes good stories, and the few times it does it’s often too outlandish to be believable. Anyone remember me talking about Vesna?

We want quasi-life. We want life +1. We want the good guy to win. We want the villain to get his or her comeuppance. We want the cute couple to overcome obstacles both physical and emotional so they can be together. We want cyborg ninjas from the future programmed by elder gods from the past and million to one odds that pay off and nymphomaniac heiresses who look just like Reiko Aylesworth.

Okay, maybe that last part’s just me…

Of course, that’s also key. We want all that, but we want it to be believable, too. I mean, if the hero beats the cyborg ninjas and beats the odds three times in a row and finds nympho-Reiko… well, that’s just silly.

So, we want life +1–maybe as much as life+3– but it has to be realistic. At least enough that we can believe in it.

Sound tough? It is, believe me. That’s why most people can’t cut it as writers. They don’t have the ability to pull it off or the patience to figure out how to do it.

A lot of them, instead, write these real stories. Gritty, depressing stories. Stories with broken, unlikable character who fail at everything and lead miserable, pathetic lives. That’s art, my friends. The sure sign it’s art–no one wants to pay to see it because they don’t understand it. No, seriously. That’s the definition of art. Just ask any failed artist and odd are they’ll tell you the problem is everyone else, not them.

At the end of the day, if you’ve decided to tell a real story, you’ve just made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You’ve done something that’s common, available everywhere, and didn’t take much effort. It may be the greatest PB&J ever, but it’s still nothing compared to a fairly nice filet mignon. Or even a just-adequate slice of cheesecake. Heck a McDonalds 79-cent hamburger beats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Next week, I’ve got something I’d like you to read.

Until then, go write.

This time, let’s talk about her. The hot chick.

Much as I’d like, this does not mean a whole post devoted to Famke Janssen, Hayden Panettiere, Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway, or Allison Mack. Alas, not even some of the hot chicks I’ve actually met and hung out with, like Eliza Dushku, Catherine Bell, or Reiko Aylesworth (who is one vicious pool shark). However, if any of these names conjure appealing images and thoughts, feel free to hang onto them for the upcoming extended analogy. Or pick someone you may remember from high school or college.

(Heterosexual female readers—my apologies. This analogy is also going to be a bit one sided, and may even seem a bit shallow at points…)

I think most of us at one point or another have known one of those incredibly sexy and alluring women and had hopes and dreams (or lurid fantasies) about ending up with her, yes? After all, how could she fail to see all my interesting qualities? My intelligence, sense of humor, self-assured nature, and casual disregard for fashion trends. I mean if Famke / Allison/ Eliza/ Reiko just got to know me, it would all work out.


Well, probably not. Let’s be honest, a woman like that tends to have her pick of mates, so odd are they’re going to lean towards someone… well, a bit more physically attractive. Not always, but that’s the way to hedge your bets. Likewise, they probably want someone with similar fashion and music tastes. Heaven forbid, there are even those females who are a bit shallow and are going to be looking for someone with money to spend on them.

Now… does this mean all and every lust-able woman is out of reach? Not at all. Everyone’s unique, we all have our funny quirks, and there’s a chance that Hayden has been secretly hoping to meet someone just like you. More hopefully, just like me.

If not, though, it might mean you need to make a few changes in your life. That is, if you’re serious about this connection with Anne. Exercise a lot more. Shower a lot more, too. Get a haircut. Stop buying clothes at Wal-Mart. Listen to something that isn’t ’80’s retro soundtracks. Possibly even get a job you hate that brings in more money.

Then you also have to deal with the fact that, well, lots of people are paying attention to a woman that hot. If you’re at a bar, a party, a club—you don’t think you’re going to be the only person who notices Eliza over there, do you? She’s going to be mobbed by people. Dozens, maybe more. Yes, half of them are way out of her league and don’t have a prayer of connecting with her, but they’re still there, in the way between you and her. And by the time you reach her, you’re going to have to try twice as hard to impress her (without looking like you’re trying hard) because she’s so tired of dealing with all these other folks.

And even after all this—after you get your act together, make changes to yourself and your life, and fight your way through the crowd– Angelina might decide to stay with Brad. Maybe not. You never know with these things. But there’s a decent chance she might.

So… ready for the analogy?

Writing professionally is like going after the hot chick. In this case, Famke is the agent or publisher you hope to win over, and you are your writing. Yes, there’s a good chance that there is an agent or publisher out there that will take your work just as it is with no changes whatsoever… but it’s probably not Famke. Or Catherine. Or Reiko. Or…

If you really want to land that dream agent or get that publisher to notice you, odds are you’re going to have to work at it. You need to be willing to make changes—maybe even ones you don’t like—to make your manuscript into something they want to read instead of just something you felt like writing. You need to stand out amidst hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other writers. Yes, half of them probably have no business being there, but the agent or publisher still has to work through all their stuff to get to yours, and will probably be feeling pretty tired and negative by the time they get there.

Despite everything you’ve seen in the movies, nobody ever gets the hot chick without some effort.