February 7, 2019 / 1 Comment

In Context

            I’m writing up this post as I levitate upside down in my office.  Which—cool thing about this new house—exists in an orbiting satellite that’s only accessible through a teleport array we found in the attic.  Really cuts down on the commute to work, let me tell you…
            Okay, we’ll get back to that.
            I wanted to expand a little bit off something I touched on last week, and that’s the idea of context within a story.  When we talked about it before, I was using it to show how I can’t pull random elements from that story, copy them into my story, and expect them to work the same way
            Quick semi-related question.  What does it mean if I walk up and smack someone?  Full on, five fingers, hard across the face.
            Well, it could mean any number of things.  It could mean they’re a complete jackass.  Or maybe I am.  Maybe they deserved it.  Maybe they’re in shock and I’m trying to bring them around.  We don’t know enough about the circumstances, the background, the existing relationships between me and the person I smacked.
            What if I just walked up and kissed them?  Or slapped their ass.?  Kinda the same thing, right?  We don’t know enough.  Maybe I’m a complete sleaze.  Maybe this is my partner of several years.  Hell, this could mean different things depending on where it happens. Doing it at the office could be extremely inappropriate, but in the locker room this could be a congratulations, and in the bedroom it might be foreplay.
            All of this additional information—the stuff we don’t know in these situations—is the context.  It what makes actions creepy or exciting or exciting in that other way.  As I’ve said before, there can be many different interpretations of the same thing depending on all the other things around it. 
            This becomes extremely important in genre fiction, because one of the big aspects of genre is that we tend to tweak the world a bit.  Maybe superheroes are real.  Or dragons. Or cybernetic implants.  Maybe they’re not just real, they’re common.  Boring, almost.
            For example, take my opening paragraph.  It probably made you smile, because it’s absurd in two or three different ways, right?  Complete nonsense, because we all know how the real world works and I am, no matter how many times I’ve wished otherwise, part of said real world.
            In a genre story, though, all of that could easily be true.  Then it isn’t laughable—it’s setting.  Possibly important plot elements. 
            Charlie Jane Anders made a wonderful observation a while back about how some of her least favorite stories were the ones that got pitched as something like “it’s a world just like ours, except everyone can turn invisible.”  The problem with these stories is that if everyone could turn invisible… well, the world would be completely different.  Views on privacy would’ve changed massively, possibly in different directions depending on how long this power’s been available.  Social views would be different, because anyone might be listening.  Heck, traffic laws would need to be adjusted because what if an invisible three year old wandered into the street?  Technology would be different, because there’d be whole-new priorities in this world.
            And if none of these things have changed… well, that just doesn’t make sense, does it?  Try to think of an aspect of your life that wouldn’t be different if there could be two or three invisible people in the room with you.  Any room.  At any time.
            Context lets me know what is and isn’t possible in this world.  By extension, it lets me know when people’s reactions are appropriate or wildly inappropriate.  If my story doesn’t explain what the limits of my world or characters are–or if I don’t give my readers enough to figure it out—it’s going to limit their investment and immersion in the story.
            For example…
            I watched this movie a while back where a guy hires a live-in maid (occupations and genders may be changed to protect… I don’t know, surely somebody deserves it).  Nothing weird or unusual there, right?  Except when the maid shows up, she’s kind of… well, unnatural.  Pallid, almost gray skin.  Dark circles under the eyes.  Blank stare.  Never speaks.  Tends to move in a kind of slow, lurching way.
            You can kinda see where this is going, right?  Zombie maid.  Clearly.
            But here’s the thing.  Our protagonist and his roommate don’t notice anything unusual about her.  They act like she’s totally normal.  One of them even thinks she’s kinda hot.  Same with other people who stop by.  They all just treat her like… well, the maid.  Or, at the very least, the woman staying at Yakko and Wakko’s place.
            And let me save you an assumption.  This wasn’t a comedy movie.  It bordered on melodramatic horror, really.  Except… nobody was horrified. 
            Well, maybe me…
            So what was going on?
            I watched the whole damned movie and I still don’t know.  Was she a normal woman who just happened to look and act like a zombie for some reason?  Maybe?  But if that was the case, wouldn’t people comment on it?  Since nobody in the movie ever mentions that the new housekeeper looks like one of the walking dead, it seems like this might be, well, a common thing.  In fact, there are two or three scenes where the characters pretty much treat her like an appliance, even putting her in a storeroom at one point.
            But if she wasa zombie maid, shouldn’t that come up?  Heck, even if it’s the most normal thing in this world to have undead people cleaning your home, you think someone would mention it.  And plus… the rest of the time they’re talking to her and acting as if she’s a completely normal person.  Hell, like I mentioned before, the roommate’s even mildly obsessed with “how hot she is” and more than once talks about trying to get her in bed.  Which is a bit odd if she’s supposed to be a zombie.  At least worth a small discussion, yes?
            The real problem was that I couldn’t tell how to feel about any of this.  Were the guys being jackasses who objectified their maid—which would imply I shouldn’t like them, right?  Or was this a normal reaction, the way you or I would treat the vacuum cleaner when we weren’t using it?  Was the roommate’s desire to have sex with the maid kinda weird?  Full on creepy?  Hell, maybe even normal?  I don’t understand the world, so I don’t have any context to base these reactions in.
            And just to be utterly, completely clear—there’s nothing wrong with a story about zombie maids.  That’s the basis for a very cool story.  I’d never say otherwise.  Heck, it’s the basis for Fido, a really fun movie.  But if this is the world I’m setting my story in, I need to be clear this is… well, the world my story’s taking place in.
            All that said, it’s really common to start off with a story set in “the real world”  and then it suddenly veers off into the realm of magic, aliens, and/or elder gods.  We’ve all seen it.  If you like hearing about three act structure, this kinda thing is a common way the first act ends.  Again, nothing wrong with this.  Like I said, it’s really common and I bet we’ve all got a favorite story or six that does this.
            Why can they do it?  Well, if you look at these stories, the big reveal that zombie cyborg lizard men are secretly running Wall Street is pretty much always structured as a low-level twist—it doesn’t alter the context, it enhances it.  These reveals force us to look at a lot of earlier story events in a new light.  They don’t actually contradict anything we’ve already seen in those first two or three chapters.  And since they happen early in the story, they’re not asking us to rethink a lot of assumptions or beliefs about these characters or the world they live in.
            There’s also another way to pull off this context shift, and it’s one that you’ve probably seen done a couple times.  I do it in Dead Moon.  Heck, J.K. Rowling copied it from the original Predator.  No seriously.
            Okay, not seriously.
            Just tell them right up front.
            Most people tend to forget, but Predator begins with an alien spaceship doing a fly-by of Earth and launching a landing pod as it zooms past.  That’s the very first shot in the movie.  Seriously.  And then it’s half an hour of Arnold and Shane Black shooting guys in the very real-world jungle before we see another hint of the alien.  Same with Harry Potter.  Sure, there’s all that stuff about Harry’s miserable childhood with the Dursleys, but the first chapter’s all about magic cats and a flying motorcycle.  Rowling all but openly says right up front there’s a magic world the Dursleys are desperately trying to ignore, despite their clear connection to it.
            What this does is establish right up front these are genre worlds, no matter how normal they may seem as we ease into the story.  When they take their sharp turn, it isn’t out of nowhere. It’s just a reminder of what we’ve already been told.
            Y’see, Timmy, without this context, my readers are left in a kind of “anything goes” situation.  Which it makes it really hard to have stakes.  Which means they won’t be able to make any kind of investment in either the plot or the characters.
            And no investment means no reason to keep reading.
            Next week is a double-header for me.  It’s Valentine’s Day and I have a new book coming out.  Have I mentioned Dead Moon?  Two or three times?  Today?  Okay, just checking.
            Anyway, I’m going to be busy on Thursday.  But I’ll probably put something up earlier.  In the spirit of the holiday, I’ve been thinking it’s about time we talked about… you know.
            Until then, go write.
November 3, 2016 / 2 Comments

Democracy In Action!

            On this particular Thursday, it seemed like talking about voting could be an interesting idea.
            One thing I did all the time when I was starting out—well, once I’d become brave enough to show my writing to anyone past my mom—was to get as many opinions as possible.  If I had enough, I’d count them up like votes.  And I would do whatever they said.  If someone—anyone—wanted this line or that element changed, I’d change it.  Or remove it.  Or add in something new.  Anyone else’s thoughts were just as valid as mine.
            This happened to me again about thirteen years ago, just before I started doing this full time.  Slightly different direction, though.  Believe it or not, I ghost-wrote an exercise book.  This woman was very smart and savvy about exercise and the specialized niche she wanted to write toward… not so much about writing and publishing. So she hired me to help her out.  Alas, she kept talking about the book with her friends and fellow fitness professionals, showing them half-finished drafts, and taking everyone’s opinion as scientific fact.  So we rewrote the book again.  And again.  And again.  Not drafts, mind you.  Complete, start-from-scratch rewrites.  I think it went through six or seven major revisions before I had to bow out just for time reasons. And she still didn’t have much more than a first draft of her book.
            It was frustrating, but I couldn’t really fault her.  Like I said, I used to do it, too.  I think most people do when we’re starting out and looking for assurance.
            Really, it makes sense to do it that way. It’s what we’ve all been taught, right?  Democracy in action.  Let people vote on something, go with the majority.
            Writing is not a democracy.  I’m a benevolent dictator at best.  An angry god at worst.
            Now, before anyone gets too excited about being a dictator…
            I’m not saying I’ll never, ever listen to other opinions.  I have some great beta readers I really trust.  I have a seriously fantastic editor who’s much, much better at spotting flaws than I am.  It doesn’t mean their opinions or suggestions are always right, but I’d be foolish not to at least look at them and consider them.
            At the end of the day, though… what my story needs is up to me.  I’m the one crafting and telling it. Every line of dialogue, every subtle character nuance, every beautiful piece of imagery, every clever plot twist.  It all comes from me.  If a dozen people think I need to get rid of the wine bottle scene but I think it’s vital and memorable, I get the last say.
            And I needto make that decision.  Opinions are great, but as the dictator the final decision is nobody’s but mine.  If I’m going to put things on hold waiting for a consensus or a clear majority… that just makes me a figurehead.
            This also holds for what I’m writing about.  If I just want to write to entertain myself—that’s great.  If I want to fill my story with in-jokes that only ten people on Earth are going to get, that’s also my choice.  I can deliberately focus my book on neo-con, government-hating survivalists or tree-hugging, socialist liberals—and absolutely nobody can say I’m wrong!  This is mystory.  Mine.
            This doesn’t mean anyone will want to read my story.  Or buy it.  Just because I’m staying true to myself and my vision–only bending where I feel I absolutely must—doesn’t mean my story is going to appeal to anyone else.  And some of those people it may not appeal to are editors.  Under other circumstances, they might be interested and willing to work with me, but if I’m not going to bend at all on that wine bottle scene…  Well, it’s not going to be their fault I didn’t make a sale.
            Plus… Let’s face it, I’m not going to please everyone, no matter what choice I make.  I’ve mentioned before that every story has a limited audience.   Sometimes a very limited one.  That’s the problem with leading—even as a benevolent dictator—the best you can ever hope for is a “greater good” situation.  There will always be people with no interest in the topic or genre, readers who just don’t like it.  Hop over to Amazon and check out well-established American classics like East of Eden or To Kill A Mockingbird.  Look at something newer like The Martian.  Heck, pick your favorite Harry Potter book.  All of these are unquestionably critical and financial successes with, I feel safe saying, hundreds of millions of fans each… but look how many one-star reviews they have.
            Y’see, Timmy, at the end of the day, nobody knows what my story needs but me.  It’s all mine. That’s the art part of it.  There is no democracy.  That’s where I get to be a dictator.
            But once I decide I want to put my writing out there, that I want an audience, that I’d like to get paid… Well, we’re not talking about being a dictator anymore. Now we’re talking about politics. We’re talking about compromises. We’re talking about tweaking my vision to appeal to a greater audience, even when it doesn’t appeal to me quite as much anymore.  Maybe not quite as great a good, but still a “very good” that reaches a lot more people.
            That’s the balancing act.
            Real quick before I wrap up, I’m going to be up in Tacoma, Washington this weekend for the Jet City Comic Show.  If you’re in the area, please stop by, say hi, and tell me how this blog is just a huge waste of time for everyone involved.
            Next time, I want to talk about something cool.
            Until then, go write.
December 18, 2014


            A simple, straightforward title for this week.
            I was talking with my dentist a few weeks back about new television shows (he’s very chill that way) and we brought up… well, I’ll be polite and not mention it by name.  He was interested to see where this show went.  I’d already predicted a bunch of issues it would need to overcome which it instead chose to embrace fully.
            Allow me to explain.
            I’m going to create a series from scratch here (although I’m sure some of you will figure out what I’m referring to pretty quick).  Let’s say I’m doing a show called Young Revolutionaries.  It’s going to be an early-twenties George Washington at university (probably Penn State—that was around then, right?) with early-twenties John Adams and early-twenties Thomas Jefferson and mid-twenties Ben Franklin.  There’s also mid-twenties Martha Dandridge who George has an undeclared love for, her sexy designer friend Betsy, and that creepy mid-twenties kid, Benedict, who just lurks around classrooms a lot eavesdropping on people.
photo: Kat Bardot
            Here’s a few quick episode ideas.  What if George gets in trouble during ROTC (that was around then, right?) for chopping down that cherry tree and is told he’ll never be an officer?  Maybe he even resigns from the Army.  Or maybe Thomas injures his hand in a duel over the honor of foreign exchange student Sally Hemings (that’s more or less correct, right?) and now he may never write anything again.  And Ben can have a small breakdown from exam stress and decide he’s giving up on his science/history/philosophy degree and going to be a baker.  Or what if Martha decides she’s in love with Benedict and decides to marry him.  And when John finds out and tries to stop them from eloping, Benedict shoots him. We could end season one with young John Adams bleeding out in his log cabin.
            (Also, I apologize in advance—by putting this out onto the internet there’s a good chance this show just went into development at Fox or the CW.  Hopefully I’ll at least gets a “created by” credit when it premieres next fall).
            So… what do you think of Young Revolutionaries so far?  Sound like a bunch of solid episodes, yes?  Lots of dramatic potential?
            Even if you’re reading this from somewhere in Europe, you’ve probably already spotted a few holes in my story plans.
            It’s tough to build drama when we already know a lot of details about where the story’s going.  I can’t get anxious about whether or not George and Martha get together when I already knowthey get together.  There’s a bit of mild interest how it’s going to happen, sure, but the truth is, because I’m replaying history, this isn’t the first time this has happened.  And things lose our interest when they get repeated.  That’s just the way of the world.  The movie I’m glued to the first time I see it eventually becomes the movie I’ve got on in the background while I’m working on little toy soldiers or something.
            Likewise, it’s hard to build up drama by using incidents that I know are nullified by later events.  George Washington doesn’t just become an officer, he becomes a full general, and me trying to imply this isn’t going to happen is kind of silly.  We know Jefferson’s going to write a ton of stuff.  John Adams isn’t going to die, either.  Heck, he won’t even have any lasting scars or side-effects from that gunshot.  The bullet could’ve just bounced off him for all the effect it actually had on things.
            And bulletproof characters are boring. 
            So let’s think about Young Revolutionaries again.  George Washington won’t catch a bullet.  Ben Franklin definitely won’t.  Neither will Martha.  Or Thomas.  Or Betsy.  Even Sally’s pretty safe.
            What can I really do with this series?  Not much.  It’s pretty much just narrative thumb-twiddling as my plot drags along to the points we all know it’s going to hit. That it has to hit, really, because we all know the story.
           Y’see, Timmy, if my characters can’t be put at risk, it’s tough to give them any sort of interesting challenge.  I can’t have many cool twists to their story if I already know how the story goes and how it ultimately ends.  And it’s tough for my readers to relate to a character who’s going against…well, established character.   There’s just not much for me to do.  It’s very similar to an issue I’ve mentioned a few times before—the characters who are prepared for any and everything.
            This is one of the big reasons I’m against prequels.  Not as some hard-fast rule, but I think it’s extremely rare that they’re worth the effort (either reading them or writing them).  It just tends to be a melodramatic re-hashing of events that ultimately lead… well, right were we knew they were leading all along.
            Now, I’d mentioned this “bulletproof” idea to a friend and he made the point that, well, isn’t this true of almost any series character?  Marvel isn’t going to kill off Iron Man any time soon, and DC probably doesn’t have a Batman obituary waiting in a drawer. Odds are pretty good Jack Reacher’s not taking a bullet in the head anytime soon.  I feel safe saying Kate Beckett won’t be losing an arm in this season’s Castle finale. 
            We all understand these characters have an aura of safety around them, so to speak.  So does this mean allseries characters are bulletproof? Are all these stories destined to be rote melodrama?
            Well, no.  Let’s look at something like, say, The Sixth Gun (one of my personal favorites right now).  Odds are writer Cullen Bunn isn’t going to kill off Drake Sinclair or Becky Montcrief anytime soon.  But it doesn’t mean he won’t and can’t.  None of us know what’s happening in issue fifty.  Or sixty.  Or one hundred.  Even if we can be relatively safe in assuming they’re relatively safe… well, there’s still a chance Bunn could pull a Joss Whedon or J.K. Rowling on us and suddenly kill one of his main characters.  We can feel pretty safe… but we don’t really know for sure.
            And there is a world of possibility in that little gap of certainty
            But if Bunn decides to flash back to what Sinclair was doing five years ago… well, we all know he didn’t die in a gunfight after a poker game.  So hinting that he might is kind of a waste of time.  Same thing if he says he’s moving to Asia and never coming back.  It’s just more thumb-twiddling until we get back to the real story.
            Again, I’m not saying this kind of prequel storytelling can’t work.  But it is very, very difficult to do it well.  A lot tougher than many Hollywood executives seem to think.  And it’s choosing to do an inherently limited idea when I could be doing one where anything could happen.  One that’s moving forward, not treading water.
            Next time…
            Well it had to happen.  Next Thursday is Christmas.  And the Thursday after that is New Year’s.  Some folks believe this only happens every 2342 years, and other folks have looked at a calendar before. 
            Whichever camp you happen to fall in (I don’t judge…much), I probably won’t be posting on either day.  But I’ll probably drop my usual year-end summary here sometime before January.
            Until then, go write.