December 30, 2020

The Tally of the Plague Year

Well, here we are. The last post of the year. Finally.

Normally, when I get to the end of the year, it’s a chance to sit down and list off all the stuff I got done over the past twelve months. But wow… here in the USnine of these past twelve months have been pretty awful. Made even worse by the fact that it feels like certain parties/persons in the government really don’t even care if Americans live or die. I understand the UKisn’t much better. Hell, is it even still the UK?

It all combined to make a pretty rough year.

If you didn’t get a lot done this year as a creative person, you’re not alone. We all had a big shift in priorities and schedules, not to mention financial shifts. And just lots and lots of stress. If you weren’t worried about things this year… honestly, I don’t know what to say. For the rest of us, it was just brutal.

I know I got waaaaaaaay less done than I’d wanted this year. Pretty sure I lost the back half of March through early May to doomscrolling as the pandemic found its legs and took off. And then, just as I was getting back on my creative feet, the summer protests kicked into gear—some of them very close to me. And it’s tough to work on weird, entertaining stories when you know just a few miles away people are risking their lives trying to end… well, pretty much a reign of terror.

Okay, this is spiraling into despair, so let’s talk about good things. Because there were some good things. There’s no way you can tell me you didn’t have brief moments of creativity this year.

The big thing for me was The Broken Room. Still not sure about the title, but I’m very happy with the book itself. I started it last year, got the first draft done before, y’know, everything, and then spent the summer cutting and editing. And then my agent had some good thoughts (a few of which had already been gnawing at me) which I’m in the process of implementing now (not right now obviously, but for the past few weeks). If all goes well, you might get to read it next year.

I also wrote a massive outline for what will hopefully be a six book series. Not an ongoing universe or anything, but a large story told, beginning to end, across six books. A hexalogy or sextet, depending on your preference. This is something I wouldn’t’ve even thought about a couple years ago, for a few reasons, and even as it is my agent’s warned me it might be a tough sell. But I’ve been playing with this for a while and it’s finally all come together and… well, hopefully I’ll get to tell you more about the Creatureverse in the near future.

Speaking of things I’ve been playing with for a while… There’s an idea I bounced off an editor about six or seven years ago (over whiskey and apple pie late one night at San Diego Comic-Con), and he pointed out I basically had a well-thought out idea, but not much of a plot, really. Well, about two weeks ago that whole knot just unsnarled in my head. Or got cut in half, depending on how you like to picture tough knots getting dealt with. I ran to my computer and typed out a little over three pages of notes for that. Who knows when I’ll get to it, but when I get the chance I know I can write it.

I also pitched a dream project to a comics editor. I think I’ve got a solid take, but I can also admit (in retrospect) my pitch was pretty weak. I should’ve done a better job figuring out how to pitch things for this particular format and for that particular editor. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll get to try again in a year or four, when the shame of this bad attempt has faded from both our memories.

Oh, and there’s the ranty writing blog itself. Seventy-three posts here, although probably a dozen of those were cartoons or quick notices about new books or something. And a quarter of it past that was all the A2Q series, which hopefully one or two of you found semi-useful.

I also managed to read thirty-one books this year, despite all the doomscrolling. Nowhere near my usual amount but… hey, doomscrolling. As it is, most of these were either for the Last Bookstore’s dystopian book club or blurb books for friends/editors/ my agent. But I might get one more done before New Year’s! Which is also a blurb book.

I read a lot of comics for fun. Shadow Road. Transformers. GI Joe. Vampirella/Red Sonja(which is amazingly good). There’s also a Transformers/Terminatorcrossover book which I’m only two issues into but it’s very clever.

And that’s what I got done this year. A lot of time lost, but I think I used the remainder pretty well. I’m happy with how it all turned out, anyway…

How about you? I don’t think any of us got as much done as we’d wanted, for a bunch of reasons. but hopefully you got something down you’re happy with. A few chapters, a couple of pages, or maybe some notes to work with once everything’s just a little calmer. The important thing isn’t how much you did—it’s that you did it.

Seriously, if you managed to get stuff done in 2020, think what you’ll be able to do when the world’s not on fire.

And hey, speaking of things not being on fire—sorry, quick segue—Georgia residents, I know you’ve been battered with this but please vote in your Senate runoff next week, and please vote for Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. The simplest way to get the government working for you again is simply to remove Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader. And voting for Warnock and Ossoff will do that. Plus, added bonus, it’ll get rid of two incredibly corrupt members of the Senate who’ve blatantly used their positions to enrich themselves. So really it’s a win-win.

I hope all of you have the absolute best New Year’s you can with the state of things right now, and that 2021 brings all of us peace, relief, and maybe a few clever plot lines.

See you again in the future.

Until then, go write.

February 1, 2019 / 1 Comment

Trying Too Hard

            Running a day late. Sorry about that. 
            So, I kinda wanted to revisit an idea I’ve talked about once or thrice.  But I’m going to come at it from a new angle, so don’t worry—you might still get something out of it.
            I’m guessing four out of five of you reading this probably dabble in what often gets called “genre fiction.”  It’s when we can slap a quick, easy label on a manuscript.  Sci-fi.  Fantasy.  Romance. Horror.  And there’s sub-genres and sub-sub genres and the labels can just get more and more specific.
            I’m also sure everybody here wants to write the best stuff they can.  I hope you do, anyway. The coolest sci-fi, the most heart-warming romance, the creepiest, gnaw-at-your-mind horror.  That’s the goal, right?
            When I started telling longer stories, it was my goal.  I tried to make everything cool.  I tried to have all those moments that made people gasp with excitement and terror.  I tried to make my story like the other stories I’d seen that did these things.
            But I had a couple of invisible issues, so to speak.  Problems I didn’t even know I was dealing with.  And a lot of them burned down to experience.
            Firstoff… well, I was really new at this.  In every sense.  Some of you may remember me saying that I got my first rejection when I was eleven.  And at that point about 90% of my intake was comic books and old Doctor Who episodes, with the occasional Star Wars novel here or there.  And, in the big scheme of things, I hadn’t even read a lot of those.  So a lot of the stuff I thought was bold and clever was actually cliché, well used tropes.  It was just that I’d never seen them before.
            For example, one of my favorite comics as a kid was ROM.  But it wasn’t until much later that I realized ROM was pretty much just Bill Mantlo doing his own version of The Invaders, which was really Larry Cohen doing his own version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which was Hollywood doing their own version of the storyfrom same-named novel.  And there’s nothing wrong with any of that… except my assumption that the elements in ROMwere completely new and never seen before.
            Secondwas me trying to do all this cool stuff in my own writing.  There wasn’t anything wrong with the individual ideas, just that I was trying to do them at my clumsy, inexperienced level.  Trying to be cool.  Trying to be scary.
            For example, again, y’know that bit in every other horror movie when something bursts out from around the corner or behind the curtain, and it just turns out to be a cat or Wakko playing a stupid prank?  We generally call that a cheap shot.  Cheap shots aren’t scary—they’re the storyteller trying to be scary.  It’s me ignoring whatever’s going on in the actual story to toss a cat in your lap.   Another one that comes up a lot—especially in films—is nudity  Some people think throwing in random nudity is hot or sexy.  But just as often it can be creepy, demeaning, or just… weird
            When we toss in random, unconnected elements like this, we’re doing it to try and create an effect, not for the sake of the story itself.  It doesn’t matter how the cat got there or why it decided to leap randomly out after sitting quietly or why Phoebe decided walking through a cobweb meant she should take her shirt off while she was exploring the cellar.  It’s all just a storyteller trying to get a reaction, and how they get it is kind of irrelevant.  The ends justifying the means, as some folks might say.
            Which is, in my mind, kinda crappy storytelling.
            Some of you know that I like watching bad movies on the weekend and live-tweeting big (often easily-avoidable) story problems that come up.  A while back I watched one, a horror movie, which had tons of scary elements in it.  Tons of them.  The problem was, it was just tons of scary elements from other stories and movies, all just crammed in an attempt to make things scary without any thought to the characters, the scene, or the story as a whole.  It almost felt like horror movie mad libs, where the filmmakers just said “Okay, we need a scary thing.  And another scary thing.  And another scary thing.  And…”
            There’s two issues with doing this.  One kinda connects to this “trying” aspect and the other is its own thing –I’ll get to it in a moment.  The other one is something I’ve talked about before.  I can’t take something that’s funny/cool/scary/sexy in another story, shove it into mine, and expect it’s automatically going to get the same effect.  Especially when the elements on either side of it are also random things from other sources.  An element can be really disturbing in your story but absurdly funny in mine.  There are tons of YouTube videos that prove this point—splicing together two elements from different films and creating an entirely new, different effect.

            And this brings us to the other aspect of the “many scary things” problem, which is also the third overall issue when I start cramming stuff into my story.  It’s also another one that I’ve mentioned a couple times before.  A bunch of story points is not the same thing as a story.  I can have a hundred cool fantasy elements in my manuscript, but that doesn’t mean I’ve told a cool fantasy story.  A few dozen sexy, romantic moments don’t mean I’ve written a good romance.  And the biggest pile of cheap shots and scary beats don’t add up to a solid horror story.

            When I just start cramming these things in, I’m breaking up whatever coherent story I might actually have.  It’s becoming that random bunch of story points that don’t add up to anything.  I need to be adding things that serve a purpose within the story, not just in what I want the story to do in some vague, overall way.  I want things to be sexy and romantic, sure, but in service to the story, not just to be five seconds of sexy or thirty seconds of romance.
            This is a tough thing to grasp, I know.  How can trying to put more action in an action story not be a good thing?  How can more scary things in a horror story not be good?  But this is one of those little, subtle lessons that lets us go from being adequate writers to really good writers.  Some folks like to fall back on “the end justifies the means,” but this ignores the fact that whatever means I use are going to  determine the kind of ending I actually get.  And if my means are just random, haphazard elements…
            Well, what kind of end will that give me?
            Do I want something that’s trying to be a cool sci-fi novel?  Or do I just want to write a cool sci-fi novel?  Y’see, Timmy, I can incorporate almost anything and everything I want into my story.  But I need to actually incorporate it and not leave it sitting alongside.  Because I don’t want a pile of elements—I want a pyramid.  A perfect structure that’ll awe people for ages after they’ve seen it.
            Here’s a quick reminder that my new book, Dead Moon, is out exclusively from Audible in just two weeks time.  Believe me when I say there will be more reminders in the weeks to come.
            Next time, I think I’d like to expand on something I touched on here today…
            Until then, go write…
March 13, 2018

Writing Lessons from ROM

Eight-year old me learned a big lesson about storytelling from this one panel…

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.