December 23, 2020 / 2 Comments

It’s Not Christmas Without…

And here we are, at that wonderful time of year when a young man’s thoughts turn toward… Nakatomi Plaza.

I wanted to do a holiday-ish post, and then (while watching a favorite seasonal movie) it hit me I could address a fierce debate that’s surged up over the past few years. And maybe I could even make it semi-educational. From a writing point of view.

Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?

Now, let’s be honest. If you’ve got strong opinions about this, I’m not going to change your mind. But if you’re somebody who cares a lot about stories (and if you’re reading this, I’d guess there’s a semi-decent chance you are) maybe this week’s little ramble will make you look at Mr. McLane’s late December adventure a little differently. And maybe some other stories, too.

With that disclaimer out of the way… let’s start by talking a bit about the difference between an element and a genre. I’ve mentioned this before, so I won’t go into it too much. Simply put, there are a lot of labels we can slap on both story elements and genres, but the presence of one doesn’t automatically create another. For example, there’s a strong romance element in Bloodshot, the Vin Diesel movie that came out earlier this year. It’s also got a few funny moments. But I don’t think any of you would be surprised to learn Bloodshot isn’t considered a romantic-comedy. Romance, comedy, suspense, mystery, horror, sci-fi… all of these things can be in a story that’s not in that same-named genre.

So let’s talk about Christmas as an element and as a genre.

As an element, Christmas can be a couple things. Easiest is the setting—it’s a specific timeframe that pretty much everyone on Earth knows and can understand to some extent, even if they don’t celebrate the holiday themselves. Also worth noting that Christmas is one of those (if you think about it) rare holidays that has a very fixed date, unlike lots of other that slide around the calendar a bit each year.

Christmas is also in the details and descriptions. Christmas trees, wreaths, presents, garland, lights, a Santa on every corner and a snowman in every yard. These are things I can mention in my story (or show in my movie) and they create an immediate association for people.

It’s also a mood, and a lot of traditions. If I’ve got a story set at Christmas, it’ll probably show up in dialogue. Let’s face it, people interact and talk a little differently in December, no matter which way they feel about any particular holiday. Scrooge is a little nastier. That super-peppy woman at the coffeeshop is almost scarily happy and peppy.

I think there’s a lot of movies and stories out there that get marketed as Christmas tales, but really just have a few random elements tossed in. We could move said movie to Memorial Day weekend or a random bank holiday and nothing notable would change. The romance would have the same meet cute, the comedy would have the same awkward moment at the dinner table, the zombie movie would have the same stupid montage of our protagonist fighting the horde witha baseball bat.

And this would bring us to Christmas the genre. There’s a lot of thoughts on defining genre (I’ve shared some too) but I think one notable thing is how abundant those elements are. Eventually the romance or the comedy becomes a dominant aspect and we think of this story as a romance, a comedy, or maybe a romantic comedy if it’s got both. The horror or sci-fi elements are so intrinsic to the plot my novel would crumble without them.

What marks something as part of the Christmas genre? The setting, absolutely. Sometimes the characters. It’s really hard to do a movie where Santa or Rudolph’s a main character and not have it be a Christmas story. And we see a lot of common themes in the Christmas genre. Joy. Peace. Happiness. Love. Togetherness.

Simple, right?


There’s another aspect to this, and it’s something I hinted at up above and once talked about with (shameless name drop in three… two…) Shane Black. Christmas, maybe more than any other Western holiday, is an amplifier. Everything hits a little harder at this time of year. Romance is great, but Christmas romance is even better. Friendship is wonderful, but being with your friends at Christmas is fantastic. Family squabbles can be funny, but during the holidays they’re even funnier. And, yeah, puppies are great, but have you ever seen CHRISTMAS PUPPIES?!?

(seriously, you just grinned at the thought of Christmas puppies, didn’t you? See?)

And, yeah, this goes the other way. If something’s tense, it’s three times as tense at Christmas (scientifically measured). When something horrible happens, it’s even more horrible because it happened at Christmas. And to touch on a serious issue, depression’s never great, but depression during the holidays is just awful.

So I think it’s fair to say there are stories that may lean heavily toward non-Christmas elements, but the Christmas setting amplifies these stories. It inherently makes them more than they would be without it. Not a coincidence how many Christmas stories involve finding true love or reuniting with your family. And there’s a serious glut of Christmas horror movies. No, seriously. They’ve been a thing for decades.

Now… keeping all that in mind… let’s talk about Die Hard.

Die Hard is loaded with Christmas elements. I mean, 90% of it is set at a Christmas party gone very bad. And it’s a high-end party so decorations are everywhere. Really, look at a lot of these scenes and check out how often there’s a wreath, a garland, a Christmas tree, something. I’d bet half the scenes in this movie have a direct, visual tie to Christmas. And the music! It’s all Christmas music. All of it.

Plus, this setting is a big driver for the plot. John’s out in LA to see his kids and maybe patch things up with his wife. The Christmas party is why there are so many people conveniently in the building after hours to be taken as hostages. The watch she got as a Christmas gift from her boss is a point of contention (and a great Chekhov’s gun). When the FBI wants to shut down power to the building, the main reason there’s a fight is because it would mean shutting off the electricity to ten blocks of LA on Christmas Eve. Hell, John’s last minute surprise for Hans Gruber and his Huey Lewis look-alike pal? Remember how he pulls that off…?

Finally… the amplification factor. Realizing your relationship is collapsing is always bad, but on Christmas Eve? Sweet jebus, that’s a gut punch. Getting taken hostage absolutely sucks, but when it happens at the company Christmas party? And issuing ominous threats to the bad guys is badass, but when you get to tag on Ho-Ho-Ho…? Seriously, it’s one of the most memorable moments in a movie filled with great moments.

And so many of those moments get cranked up five or ten percent higher ‘cause we’re constantly reminded… it’s Christmas.

So… is Die Hard a Christmas movie? I mean, I think it is. And if you want to argue it isn’t then I think there’s a lot of other movies (many of them with Christmas in the title) that we’d have to toss out as well. ‘Cause if we’re saying hitting all these benchmarks doesn’t matter… well…

Look, nobody likes a grinch, okay?

With that, speaking of grinches, I give you one last shameless capitalist reminder that you can give people ebooks as last-minute gifts, and I happen to have a ton of them out there.

I hope this long weekend is wonderful and peaceful for you, no matter who you are, whatever you believe, and whatever you celebrate this season.

And maybe we’ll squeeze in one more chat before 2021.

November 10, 2020

The A2Q Master List

Hey, since I’ve been asked about this a few times now…

When I did the A2Q how-to-write-a-novel thing at the start of the year, it was every other week, and then every week, and trying to find those posts now, in reverse order, can make it a bit troublesome. So here’s a master list of more or less the whole thing. Now I can just point folks here, or you can just save the one bookmark. Y’know, if you felt this was bookmark-worthy.

Part One—The Idea

Part Two—The Plot

Part Three—The Characters

Part Four—The Story

Part Five—The Setting

Part Six—The Theme

Part Seven—The Outline

Part Eight—The First Draft

Part Nine—The Editing

Part Ten—The Criticism

Part Eleven—The Revisions

Part Twelve—The End
For the record, there were some other posts I slapped the A2Q tag on—the supplemental material, if you will—but I didn’t include them here. They’re useful, but most of them were afterthoughts and they’d feel a little jammed in, I think, if I tried to work them in here where they should be. When I someday bind all this into an ebook, I’ll make sure they’re all incorporated from the start.

Next up, rocks. And right after that, I’d like to do one holiday tradition a little early.

Now go write.

June 3, 2020 / 1 Comment

Getting the Message

This post ended up being a bit more timely than I expected.

I wanted to talk a bit about having a message in my work. I’ve touched on this recently when I was talking about theme during the A2Q. I think there’s a bit of a difference between having a message and a theme, and I felt it was worth going over that.

However, with recent events in mind, I want to be clear right up front I’m talking about having a message while writing fiction. Messages exist in the world. A lot of them are good, and a lot of them need to be shouted from the rooftops. Right now, here in the United States, we’re suffering from a lot of chaos because some folks thought ignoring some messages for years would make them go away… and those folks are the ones who really needed to hear them.

But while we’re talking about fiction….

As I’ve mentioned before, theme is the underlying threads that tie plot and story together. It’s connective tissue that helps my book become more unified and complete. As such, it tends to be a subtle thing.

Messages, on the other hand, tend to be thick and clumsy. They can’t be missed or misinterpreted. They’re heavy, beat- you-over-the-head things.  Most of them have never even heard of subtlety, let alone been in the same room with it.

A kinda common thing is people who decide to write a book or screenplay about a message. Not with a message, mind you, but about a message. There’s an important difference there. When I’m more interested in the message than the story, things fall out of balance pretty quick.

Here’s a simple test.  If my story or script has a message in it, at what point did the message come into it?  Did it grow naturally from the idea for a certain character or scene?  Or did this story start with the message, and then get fleshed out with minor things like characters, plot, and dialogue? Is this about telling a story… or pushing an agenda?

Let me give you a few examples.

If you’re of a certain age, you may remember a couple books and movies about the evil threat that is Dungeons & Dragons. We’ve all seen so many tales of the horrors of alcoholism and drug addiction. I remember some college writing class stories about innocents being “absorbed” by the industrial military complex only to discover they now had oil for blood (get it? Get it?) Hell, back when I read for screenplay contests, I was once presented with a script about the ghosts of aborted children-who-might-have-been haunting a clinic worker until she leads a crusade against the mustache-twirling, thoroughly evil doctors who ran the clinic.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with my story having a message. Most of the best stories do, on one level or another. Problems arise, however, if I approach things from the wrong end, like some of the folks I just mentioned did.

When a writer starts with the message, everything else tends to get slaved to that singular idea. Characters tend to have awkward or unbelievable motivations because the story isn’t about what these folks would naturally, organically do. All their decisions, actions, and reactions are bent to reinforce the message. So they often come across as puppets that all enforce the idea.

In one of the examples above, no matter what your personal views on religion or gaming are, does anyone seriously think Satan is trying to get to kids through D&D? How is that possibly going to sound believable? All the crap going on in the world right now, and the devil’s big plan to recruit souls is rolling dice? Or reading books about a kid wizard who’s an adequate student at best and really should’ve ended up with Luna Lovegood, as was clearly the original plan.

But that’s besides the point.

Also, when the message dominates my writing, dialogue suffers. Characters spout out a lot of emphatic monologues, and they sound… forced. Insincere. They’re all just serving as a mouthpiece for my views and ideas—strictly for or against with no middle ground. This makes their words become stiff and on the nose. My characters can’t be there just to parrot my viewpoints on different matters. They need to have agency or they’re going to come across as fake.

In some ways, we’ve all encountered this under the name of marketing. And while there are some really fantastic, sincere marketers out there, there are a lot of folks who are just… selling something. And they’re not doing it well.

We’ve all dealt with that, right? That godawful social media account that wants you to be safe at home but more importantly be safe at home eating Fauxritos, now available in sixteen flavors and four textures. Or that person who inserts themselves into every conversation or thread to tell you this is a heartbreaking and important moment in history, and it’s a lot like a moment in their book, which is available right now on Amazon for a sale price of just $3.99…

Y’see, Timmy, my story can have a message, but it can’t be about the message. That’s just a sales pitch. The message needs to serve the story, not the other way around. The story needs to be something my audience can believe in, with characters they can also believe in. We can all feel the insincerity radiating from those message-based books and movies, and it makes our skin crawl. Even if it’s a message we agree with.

And I don’t know about you, but that’s definitely not the message I want my writing to send.

Next time…

Seriously, I have no idea right now if there’ll be a next time. The country’s in a rapid downward spiral. At this rate, I could see everything that spreads subversive messages shut down this time next week. And I went and made message a keyword for this.

It should hopefully go without saying—it shouldn’t need saying… Black Lives Matter.

Please be safe. Wear your masks. Take care of yourselves out there.

Go write.

March 19, 2020 / 2 Comments

A2Q Part Six—Theme

Hey, everybody. Hope you’re all safe and, y’know, not bored out of your mind. Social distancing can be a pain, but it’s better for everyone in the long run.

Time for the A2Q again. Thanks for following along so far. At this point, we’ve talked about plot, story, characters, and setting. I want to go over one last thing before we dive in.

And that thing is theme.

Yeah, you just felt a chill, didn’t you? I think we all have a kinda instinctive revulsion to theme because of high school classes where it was sort of parroted out to us and not really explained. Or explained very poorly.

I’ll also be honest—I almost didn’t include theme in this little series or workshop or whatever we’re calling this. Theme is tough. It can be hard to grasp. It’s also one of those things that sometimes happens even if we’re not thinking about it. Likewise, some folks think about it too much and end up driving their story into the ground.

So… how to explain theme?

Okay, look at it this way. You know how I’ve talked about plot versus story? It’s a topic that’s come up here once or thrice before, and I’ve discussed both of them in earlier parts of the A2Q. Plot is outside your characters, story is inside.

Simply put, in the Venn diagram of plot vs story, theme is where they overlap. It’s the common bond between external and internal that ties things together in my manuscript. If you asked me what my story’s really about, my theme would be the answer that covers the most bases.

F’r example… some of you may have heard of Solomon Kane, an old Robert Howard character who’s been in books, comics, poems, and even a pretty solid live action movie—which is what I’ll talk about here. Kane’s a bloodthirsty pirate who finds out he’s actually damned to hell, repents, and ends up becoming a devout Puritan with a vow of pacifism. Problem is… he keeps finding himself in situations where the good guys really need somebody nightmarishly violent and ruthless on their side. So he has to go back to his old ways to try to stop assorted bandits, warlords, evil sorcerers, and even full-on demons.

So we can say the theme of Solomon Kane (the movie) is “fighting evil,” or maybe a better way to say it would be “fighting against the darkness.” Kane is constantly battling evil in the world, in all its many forms. But he’s also battling the evil within himself, trying to redeem himself and not fall back into old habits and attitudes.

Of course, it’s easy to identify themes in things that already exist. Trying to make them from scratch, to weave them into this story I’ve been planning… that’s a lot tougher. I mean, this is serious writing stuff now.

But it really isn’t. Honestly, I think one of the reasons we all kinda fear theme is because it’s been made into this sort of literary boogeyman—this thing that looms over the story , and also over the author. What themes is the writer trying to explore? Does this book have a simplistic, common theme? Should we discuss the novel’s theme? At length?

Deep breath. It’s not that bad. Really. In fact, it’s a lot easier than your sixth grade English teacher made it seem.

(yeah , that’s right Mrs. Goodell—I’m calling you out)

Here’s a couple things I think we should keep in mind while we’re talking about theme.

First, at this early stage, it’s okay to only have a general idea what my theme—or themes—are going to be in this book. It shouldn’t be too hard to come up with one or two. Just look at a lot of the elements we’ve been gathering up so far and see what the connections are between them.

In fact, doing this as an exercise can be kind of a test. Or maybe an early warning system. I might have a bunch of really cool elements, but if I can’t find any connections between any of them… well, that means I’ve got a bunch of unconnected elements. Which is, y’know, sort of the opposite of a book. So I might want to reconsider some things.

Second, I should be aware my manuscript might have multiple themes. Not a problem. I mentioned before that there may be multiple stories within my book, so it only stands to reason they’d all intersect the plot in slightly different places on that Venn diagram.

Look at Solomon Kane again. It has the theme of fighting against darkness, but there’s a good argument to be made that it also involves the theme of redemption. It’s an active plot element as Kane tries to make up for his past, and it’s also a story element as he realizes that A) he needs to redeem himself to save his soul and 2) his redemption may need to take a more aggressive form then normal. And that plot-story overlap is a theme, so… hey, there it is.

Third is kinda the flipside of that first one.  Again, just my opinion, but… don’t worry about theme too much right now. Definitely have it in mind. Don’t willfully ignore it. But also don’t stress over it. Just write your first draft. Worry about balancing the plot and story you want to write. When I put a lot of advance work into my theme, I run the risk of structuring things to the theme. The plot and story stop being neck and neck out front and the theme becomes the priority. Which is when my theme starts turning into more of a message. And messages can get awkward and heavy-handed really fast.

Again, just my personal opinion, your mileage may vary.

Once that first draft’s done, guess what? The manuscript exists now. And it’s easy to identify themes in things that already exist, remember? I can look back over my first draft and I’ll probably see a theme or three poking out.

Now, again, I don’t like to do too much beforehand, but… let’s look at our werewolf book.

I can probably guess survival is going to be a major theme in the book, or perhaps “what are we willing to do to survive.” After all our main character, Phoebe, hunts werewolves for a living. And her little sister Luna is a werewolf, a fact she’s trying to hide from Phoebe and their lodge on the off chance they, y’know, kill her. And there’s also survival in the larger sense, that both of them have been doing a lot of things to try to hold their lives together, as individuals and as a little family. And we’re probably going to find out that the lodge is thinking about what they’ll do to survive, too—in the sense of both humanity’s ongoing struggle against werewolves but also the lodge itself as an institution.

Phoebe and Luna are also both going to be dealing with the idea of family a lot. It’s a motivation for them and a regular thing they’re dealing with—something they’re acting on that’s also acting on them. There’s also this family legacy hanging over them, and the fact they the two of them are the broken remains of a family since their parents’ death.

Which leads me to one last possible theme. The idea of moving on with your life, of getting past things. Both of my main characters want their lives to progress—Luna wants to head off to college and Phoebe wants to get her own life back on track. As I’ve mentioned before, Phoebe’s struggling with a lot of repressed resentment, too. And they’re also going to need to get past a lot of the baggage and preconception their parents left them with if they’re going to deal with Luna’s ahem condition and how it affects both of them.

Again, though… I’m not going to worry about this too much up front. I’m just making the observations now for the A2Q. I’m probably going to worry more about plot and story on my first draft, and later I may come back, look at these early thoughts, and see how they may shape later drafts.

And if you want to think more about these things now, that’s cool, too. As I’ve often said, we all have our own way of working, and what works for me may not work for you. The important thing, for now, is just to be aware of it and have it in that pile of ingredients in your mind before we start cooking.

Speaking of which… it’s probably time we start arranging all these ingredients and get ready to start cooking. So that’s what we’ll do next time. Yeah, next time—let’s just go straight to the next part of the A2Q (unless somebody has serious objections and wants to see something else first)

Until then… go write.