Let’s start with a question. I’m guessing most of you have read a Sherlock Holmes story or three, yes? Seems like everyone ends up going through the first dozen cases or so at some point in their lives. So let me ask you something about them.

Why did Doctor Watson live with Sherlock Holmes?

No worries if you don’t know. I want to talk about the answer a bit. Truth is, this is a trick question because there’s two very different answers.

One answer is that Watson moved in with Holmes because he’d just returned from abroad (Watson was a retired soldier and battlefield medic, as some of you may know) and, well, he needed to find an apartment in London. A friend put him in contact with Sherlock Holmes, who needed a roommate, and the two found each other agreeable enough and bam, a legendary duo was born.

But…

Watson also moved in with Holmes because Arthur Conan Doyle (still a few years out from being “Sir”) needed a reason to explain why the two of them were always together. Since Watson was going to be narrating these stories, it gave him an excuse to be there when Homes had a third-pipe breakthrough. When Holmes woke up early with a solution, Watson was just in the other room. This meant Doyle didn’t need any odd additional exposition to explain how/why Watson knew things he otherwise wouldn’t be present for. He was an active witness for everything.

Now, I chose this particular example for a reason. There’s a pair of terms that’ve been drifting around for a while– Watsonian and Doylist (or sometimes Doylistic). Essentially, they refer to the different reasons things happen in a story. On one level, they happen because the characters are responding to plot events, making decisions and being active participants in the story. But on another level, things happen because I—the author—have structured and plotted the story in such a way that it passes information to the reader and gets certain specific reactions from said reader.

Let’s pick apart the first few chapters of one my recent books– The Broken Room. I want to talk about meeting Hector and what happens in the bar. And why it happens.

When we meet Hector it’s mid-afternoon and he’s already had a few drinks because he’s a guy with a lot of regrets and guilt he’s trying to forget. He’s chosen this particular dive bar for safety/security reasons, because Hector’s trying very hard to live off the grid, but old habits die hard. Especially when you’ve maybe got good reason to be cautious. When little Natalie walks up and starts talking to him, he’s immediately suspicious of who she is why she’s here because… well, nobody should know him (see all those previous points). When he realizes she’s at least somewhat on the level, and hasn’t eaten in a few days, he orders her some food because he’s a halfway decent guy. And when the men show up to claim her, Hector’s gut reaction is not to trust said guys (again, see above). Then there’s a moment where Hector’s weighing his own desire/ need to stay under the radar against… well, two guys harassing a little girl. And then he beats the crap out of said guys very quickly and efficiently, because that’s how Hector was trained to deal with problems.

All good in-character, in-world stuff, yes?

Now, on my side of things… I began with Hector half-drunk in a dive bar in the middle of the day because it immediately tells you he’s a bit of a burnout. Right there on page one. But there’s also all these little hints about the kind of person he is as we’re giving a description of his average morning and his tactical analysis of the bar. It’s the kind of stuff that makes the reader intrigued about who he is (or was). When Natalie shows up, it’s more analysis, we’re getting a stronger sense of who Hector is and how he views the world. And again—it’s intriguing. We’re immediately understand this guy comes with a lot of backstory. Getting Natalie some food is basically a “save the cat” moment. It’s him doing something decent early on that he didn’t need to do, reinforcing in the reader’s mind that Hector’s a good man. Finally, when the two men in suits show up, it’s Hector’s big moment. Now he’s given a chance to step away and go back to his normal life and instead he’s making an active decision to become part of the plot.

There’s two and a half chapters roughly broken down for you. The Watsonian reason why Hector is doing things. The Doylist reason he’s doing things.

When I’m reading something (or maybe watching something) that’s just not working for me, one thing I ask myself is what is the storyteller trying to do here? What reaction is this chapter/ scene/ interaction/ line supposed to get from me? What information is it trying to get across?

I think it’s important to be able to answer these questions. Last time I talked about how it’s fine to break the rules as long as you have an actual reason for breaking them. This is kind of the same thing. If I want to do a weird structure or have a horrible protagonist or an odd way of doing dialogue, that’s cool. There are a bunch of stories out there that went against the norm and did some amazing things.

But…

There’s also a lot of stories out there that went against the norm and did… well, nothing. They end up being boring, erratic, confusing, or just plain bad. And I think it’s because those storytellers didn’t know why they were doing things. Their only reason was… they wanted to? They saw someone else do it in a book and just decided to do it in their own completely different book. They just… thought it’d be cool because they were doing something different?

Y’see, Timmy, I need to know why my characters are doing things, and their reason for doing things need to make sense, on some level. But this also holds for me as the author, I need to know why I’m doing things with my story. What I’m hoping to accomplish. How I expect my readers will receive this structure, that format, those creative choices.

And like most things in life, if I’m just doing it to be cool… it’s probably not going to be cool.

Next time, tis the season and all, so I thought I’d talk about Leatherface, UberJason, and Frankenstein.

Until then, go write.

May 23, 2019 / 1 Comment

Recycling

So, I wanted to blather on about something that seems to come up now and then.  I’m guessing for at least three out of four of you, this is going to seem kinda obvious.  But for that other person… you may really need to hear this.  No matter which direction you’re approaching it from.

I’m a big fan of recycling. Fan’s probably not even the right word. It just seems like a no brainer to me. Why wouldn’t you do it? Why would someone be against it? We recycle our glass and plastic. We compost a lot of our food waste and cardboard and even some old clothes. Yeah, you can compost old clothes.  Weird, I know.

We reuse and repurpose a lot of stuff, too. That comes out of, well, being poor.  Even though I’m on a much better footing these days, financially, I still try to reuse things. We never broke the habit of using those spaghetti sauce mason jars as glasses. Half our Tupperware is take-out containers. And I still look at frozen pizza boxes as potential tanks.

What’s odd, though, is a certain subset of folks who’ll mock you for doing this with your writing.

I’ve brought up many, many times the need to cut manuscripts.  We write so much stuff that gets trimmed away.  Clever bits of descriptions.  Cool dialogue.  Sometimes whole scenes, subplots, or even whole characters. When it comes time to hone and focus that first draft, all these things can fall under the editorial knife.

Now, weird as this may sound—like I said, for most of you this is going to sound bizarre, but—some people think this cut material’s gone for good. It’s been deleted. Even if some record still exists, it’s unusable now. Toxic. Radioactive. It’s somehow been tainted forever.

I think a lot of this comes from people who lean a little too heavily on the art side of writing. Oddly enough… the ones who don’t write that much.  They get a little too focused on the idea and the craft and the ART of it. I put these words together in this way for this story.  I didn’t use them like that or like that, and so pulling them out and putting them somewhere else would just be wrong.  It’s not what I first intended.  It’s not what those phrases were created to do.

If I listen to those folks too much… or maybe if I am one of those folks (it’s okay, admitting it is the first step)… I probably have a somewhat shallow view of recycled material.  Those dialogue exchanges that I cut, or that subplot or character… they’re not going to work anywhere else.  I’m not being artistically honest or something like that.  How could a character crafted for story A possibly work in story B? Dialogue that I’d intended for X just shouldn’t work coming out of Y’s mouth, especially if Y’s in a completely different book.
And if I do try it and it does work… well, that just says something about me, doesn’t it?  I probably don’t know what I’m doing. My writing must be pretty thin and generic if I can just pluck some material from here and drop it in over there.  I’m probably lazy as hell in other aspects of my life, too.

If you happen to be the one out of four who thinks this… sorry.  It just isn’t true.  In any way.  Just in case my tone wasn’t carrying through.

Of course I can repurpose material. Artists have done it throughout history.  We jot down notes for one thing and end up using them for another.  We cut from that and then repurpose it for this.  Exchanges of dialogue. Neat ways to describe something.  Maybe a whole scene of morning-after awkwardness or a supporting character who got nixed for space.

Granted, none of this is going to slide right in without a bit of work and some tweaks.  I’m probably going to have to change a few proper nouns, and possibly a few personal pronouns, too.  Maybe an adjective or three.  That’s just the nature of such things. But it’s still absolutely fine to use it.

And honestly, because it’s older stuff I didn’t use before… I may have improved since I first wrote it (hopefully I have). That was a great bit back then, but y’know, if I just did this it’d be fantastic.  Or maybe he seemed like a good character for back then, but now I realize this should all really be centered around her.

I’ve got a book coming out later this summer/early fall called Terminus(that’s probably what we’re calling it), and it’s got a discussion between two characters I’ve been trying to use for almost eight years now. Seriously. I had to cut it from another book, but it’s got some great character stuff and I’ve always wanted to use it. Terminus finally gave me a great place where it could fit. And, yeah, it needed some adjustment to fit in this story with these characters at this point in the overall story. But it’s still 80-85% the same and I think folks are going to love it when they read it.

Still not convinced? Are you one of those one out of four who’s ready to pop down to the comments and point out I’m one of those lazy hacks who barely qualifies as a real writer?

How about Ray Bradbury? Is he a lazy hack? Most of Fahrenheit 451 is recycled ideas, after all. Bradbury had already used the firemen (the book burning ones) in a bunch of different short stories.  They even show up in The Martian Chronicles.  He’d also done longer stories about book burning and corpse-burning (seriously).  The spider-like Mechanical Hound is from an old short story he’d never finished.  There it‘s a law-enforcement tool used by sheriffs and police. He lifted the entire description, almost word for word, and dropped it into 451, along with some dialogue about it. Heck, the whole book is an expanded version of his short story “The Fireman” which he expanded into a novella and then expanded again into a full book.

And he’s not alone. Lots of writers have files of material they had to cut. And they’re always trying to find that material a new home.

Y’see, Timmy, yeah, writing is an art. But like every kind of art, the “how I do it” is entirely up to me. My manuscript might be pristine and pure and new. It might make Frankenstein look like somebody with a small appendectomy scar. But honestly, none of that matters. The only thing that matters is the manuscript I have at the end. Does it flow? Are the characters believable?  Is the plot interesting? Does the dialogue ring true?

Then it’s good.  And that’s all that matters.

Next time… okay, to be terribly honest, next time is the day before my birthday. One of those milestone, “we should make note of this” birthdays. What I’m saying is, I’m probably going to be drunk. Which means I’ll end up talking about Godzilla or something.

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.
            Anyway…
            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…
September 14, 2018

A Little Context

            Wow.  A wild week with Dragon Con. And then a just as wild but far less fun week on the floor of the game room when I threw my back out the day after getting home.  Just flopped there between the boxes and the brand-new couch I couldn’t make it up on to…
            But I’m okay now.  Well, much better… 80-85%.
            I’m still in the process of moving into my new place.  Yeah, I’m going to keep talking about this for ages.  And milking it for useful analogies.
            I’m guessing most of you have moved, and you know how it’s not just about that one day.  It’s a whole ongoing process—packing up there and spreading back out here.  I mean, we’re here now, but there are still maybe twenty or thirty boxes scattered through different rooms, and we’ve kinda developed unpacking fatigue.  That’s not even counting the library.
            We’re also discovering that some of our stuff is just… well, bad, now.  Things are in new configurations and combinations and some of them just don’t work.  They look kinda weird or ugly.  Sometimes, they actually don’t function correctly anymore.  This shelf was short enough to fit well below my old office window, but not this one.  Which leaves me with nowhere to put the printer.
            We’ve got a fair amount of stuff that worked there but doesn’t work here.  So it’s probably getting replaced.  Which means more weekends putting furniture together in my future…
            Funny thing is, this related to something I wanted to talk about.
            What a coincidence, right?
            I read a lot of booksand watch a lot of movies.  I take in a lot of storytelling, just on a week-to-week basis.  And a common thing I see is people copying a beat or a character moment or some kind of set-up.
            To be clear, I’m not taking about plagiarism.  While there are some blatant rip-offs out there, and books that try to capitalize off other books, that’s not what I want to talk about here.  Those folks have much bigger issues to deal with than we have time and space to discuss…
            What I’m talking about is when people are using a moment they saw in a previous story and trying to get the same emotional resonance with the reader (or audience) as it did in that other tale.  A key reveal at just the right moment.  A fervent declaration of love (or at least lust).
            And they accomplish this by copying that original story beat as close as they can.
            Remember when the Hulk beat the crap out of Loki in The Avengers?  And then did the exact same thing to Thor in Ragnarok?  Funny as hell both times, right? 
            So now let’s picture an adult man doing that with a baby.  Holding it by one leg, swinging it up over his shoulder, and slamming it face-first into the ground two or three times.  That should be funny, too, right?
            No, of course not.  Hopefully you were all cringing a bit just at the thought of that.  It’d be nightmarish to watch, and for someone to actually think that it’d be funny…?
            Again these shelves worked in my old office, but not my new one.  Everything around them is different.  The windows.  The angles.  The carpet.  The colors.
            How about this one– watching someone undress can be sexy as all hell.  Unbuttoning shirts.  Sliding out of pants.  Maybe just tearing open a coat if you’re both impatient.
            But in a different context, those very same actions can be mundane, annoying, or depressing. Heck, even kinda creepy.
            Yeah, someone doing that exact same little striptease can be creepy as hell.  Because if I’m seeing it from outside the bedroom window, maybe with some leaves in the way, while I hear that rough breathing… Hey, we all know what that handheld POV shot means.  We’ve seen horror movies.  There’s a psychopath out there in the bushes watching that person strip!  They’re probably wearing a weird mask and everything.
            I mean, assuming the director’s not just copying this shot and doesn’t understand what it meant in other films…
            And this may sound like extreme examples—talking about killing babies and stripteases—but it holds for pretty much anything.  Seeing a building collapse can be terrifying.  Or exciting.  Or frustrating.  Heck, if I do demolition for a living it could be boring.

            Y’see, Timmy, the problem with all of these examples is that sometimes people try to copy something they’ve seen in other stories without understanding why it worked in those stories.  Yes it was exciting/scary/titillating/romantic over there, but that was over there in a certain context.  The reaction it created isn’t something inherent to the elements themselves.  It was a result of the combining narrative voice and character development and plot structure that led up to them.

            Think about that striptease again.  Think of all the different ways it could be interpreted by someone.  It depends on when they see it.  Where they’re seeing it from.  How they know the other person.  How that person knows them.
            Think of all the different ways it could be interpreted by an audience.
            And if I can’t think of any other ways… that might be part of the problem, too.
            Next time, I’d like to bounce an idea off you.
            Until then… go write.
            I’m going to IKEA again.  This time for bookshelves.

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