April 15, 2021 / 3 Comments

Let’s Talk About Sax

Yes, I went there.

So, more than a few times here, I’ve talked about the need to pare away non-essential things. Characters. Names. Descriptions. Maybe whole chapters. These are all things that start to weigh my manuscript down like concrete blocks as it tries to tread water in my reader’s consciousness. Or something like that.

Maybe a better way to think of them is speed bumps. I might not notice one or two, but hitting four or five in a row is going to get annoying really quick. And hitting one once I get going fast… well, it either means slamming on my brakes or possibly crashing. It’s definitely going to be jarring.

But, as I’ve also tried to say once or thrice before, that doesn’t mean I need to strip everything down to a bare skeleton. There’s nothing wrong with elements that don’t tie directly—or even indirectly—to the plot or story of my manuscript. It’s more about being very careful how and when I deploy them.

And to illustrate this point, I’d like to tell you about Tim Cappello.

Tim Cappello’s a well-known-in-the-industry singer and saxophonist who had regular gigs with Ringo Star, Peter Gabriel, and spent over a decade touring with Tina Turner (he’s in the video for “We Don’t Need Another Hero”). But most of you probably know him for an incredibly tiny background part he had in an ‘80s vampire movie. And just putting those clues together, I bet most of you’ve already figured out who he is. He’s the legendary “Sax Man” from The Lost Boys.

Think about how weird that is, you immediately knowing who I was talking about. The entire concert scene’s maybe two minutes, and it’s super-generous to say he’s on-screen for twenty seconds of that. So running the math real quick (granted, not my strong suit) he’s maybe… one third of one percent of the movie?

And let’s be honest. The Sax Man doesn’t even do anything, plot-wise. He’s just window dressing that makes the beach concert feel a little more ‘80s. The whole scene’s pretty much just an excuse for Michael to gaze across the crowd at Star.

So… why is Cappello such an excellent background character in The Lost Boys? One that we all remember thirty years later? More than we tend to remember one of the members of the vampire gang was Bill from the Bill & Ted movies. No, seriously. Alex Winter is one of the vampires. He’s the one with the denim vest who gets staked in their cave.

Anyway, back on track…

First off, the Sax Man’s not excessive. I mean, okay, yeah he’s an oiled-up bodybuilder singing and doing hard rock saxophone riffs next to a flaming barrel. No denying that. But he’s the lead performer at a nighttime California beach concert in the late ‘80s. He’s not exactly over-the-top in that context. Plus, like I said, not even half a minute of screen time, and that’s broken into five or six shots. We hear him more than we see him, which also helps hint that he’s much more about the background and the setting than the actual story. He doesn’t even have a name. I mean, we all call him “Sax Man,” but apparently the actual credits at the end of the movie call him “Beach Concert Star” and Wikipedia just lists him as “Saxophone Player.”

Also, we kind of get him out of the way early. The beach concert’s just eleven minutes into the movie. We’ve still got 90% of the story to go, and we haven’t even introduced half the characters yet. It’s not like the movie’s bringing things to a halt so we can cut away to the singer at the concert.

Finally… I mean, he’s cool. He’s good-looking guy singing a high-energy song in front of a crowd. He’s having fun, they’re having fun. If I’m going to cut away from my leads and the plot, I want it to be to someone (or something) interesting. And Sax Man is definitely interesting.

So let’s break this down into some rough rules of thumb.

1) I don’t want to spend a lot of time on things that are just colorful set dressing (even if they’re people). As I’ve mentioned before, pages are precious and I only get so many of them. I can spend time on things not related to my plot… but I probably shouldn’t spend a lot of time.

2) I probably want to do it early. Sci-fi and fantasy editors will usually allow a little extra space for worldbuilding, and everyone expects me to set the tone with a few extra descriptions. But by their very nature, these additional details show up early in my story. If I’m doing a lot of worldbuilding in my third act, there’s a good chance something’s gone wrong.

3) If I’m going to use up a paragraph or three describing something… it should probably be something worth describing. Not something mundane, not something we see every day, not the kind of person we see every day. If it’s not something my characters would pay much attention to, why would I force my readers to examine it in detail?

Easy, yes? Three quick rules. They won’t hold in every instance, but they’re probably worth considering in every instance. If I’ve got a random colorful page describing that bus driver or this door frame, and it only kinda-sorta hits one of those guidelines… maybe that page should be used for something else.

Y’know… maybe something related to the story I’m telling.

Next time, I think I’d like to talk with you about creepy clowns, true love, and one of those common geekery movie flaws I see all the time.

Until then, go write.

And hey… you could listen to The Lost Boys soundtrack while you do.

September 11, 2015 / 2 Comments

Come On and Twist A Little Closer Now

            If you don’t get the title reference, I’m afraid you have to leave.  It’s not my choice, you understand.  It’s the law.
            I’ve run into a few folks recently talking about spoilers, usually pertaining to twists.  It’s a little bothersome how many times I’ve seen people say that knowing a twist in advance shouldn’t—and doesn’t—affect their view of a story.  And this is… well, just wrong.  That’s not a matter of opinion.  It’s just flat out wrong.
            So I thought it might be worth discussing some of the finer points of a well-executed twist.
            First, though, let’s define a few terms.
            A mystery is when the main character and the readers are aware that information has been hidden from them, and the story usually involves the search for that unknown fact. At it’s simplest, a mystery is when someone in my story asks a question and then tries to find the answer. 
            Suspense is when there’s an important piece of information my readers know and the characters don’t. The key here is that my characters don’t know that they need to know this vital fact. The woman Yakko is going upstairs with is the murderer.  There’s a bomb under the table.  Dot’s going into a meeting with a bunch of her superiors who all know what she did.  These are common suspense situations.
           A twist is when information is revealed that my characters and the audience didn’t know was being kept from them.  They don’t even suspect those facts are out there, waiting to affect the story.  When a twist appears, it comes from out of nowhere and changes a lot of perceptions for the characters and the audience.  We’ve all been told that Luke Skywalker’s father is dead, so when we learn that Darth Vader is his father, it’s a bombshell that alters our view of everything.
            Assuming we didn’t see all the advertising for the prequels…
            But that’s a different discussion…
            Notice that in most of these, the characters and the readers are in the same position.  Their view of things lines up.  The only time it doesn’t (with suspense) is when the characters are in extreme danger because of what they don’t know, which cranks up the tension for the audience.
            Going off the above definitions, one of the main components of a successful twist is that the reader (or audience) doesn’t know it’s coming.  We can’t be surprised or taken off guard by something we’re expecting, right?  So without that element… well, it’s not a twist anymore.  This moment becomes empty, poorly structured suspense, a missed beat in the structure of my story.
            Personally, this is why I’m so nuts about spoilers.  One small spoiler can rip the heart out of a great reveal and leave it flapping in the wind like an empty shirt on a clothesline.  Rather than identifying with the characters, we’re waiting for them to catch up and shaking our heads at how long it’s taking them.
            Y’see, Timmy, saying a twist should still make sense whether or not I know it’s coming is like saying a defibrillator should still work whether or not it’s got electricity running through it.  We’ve removed a vital element that it needs to function.  A working defibrillator won’t always perform the function it was made to, yeah, but it simply can’t when it’s not even plugged in.
            Now, there are two other things that can make a twist flop.  One is when the information the twist reveals isn’t actually a surprise, or it’s something the reader probably figured out on their own.  If you’re a long-time fan of The Simpsons, you may remember one time when Homer told the Nativity story in church.  And he ended his little sermon with these drama-filled words…
            “And did you know that baby Jesus grew up to be… Jesus?”
            It’s a perfect example of this point.  If I’m two or three steps ahead of the characters and the author, a “reveal” like this borders on comedy.  Which is great if I’m writing comedy, not so good if my book is a techno-thriller.  A twist that tells us something we already know, by definition, isn’t a twist, and it doesn’t matter if the author hasn’t specifically spelled it out or not in the book.  If all my readers figure out who Dr. Acula really is on page two, it’s my own fault when the big twist falls flat.
            The second thing that kills a twist is the flipside of what I just said.  It’s also not a twist if there’s absolutely no way we could’ve suspected it.  Yes, a twist depends on us not knowing something’s coming, but when it arrives it needs to fit with everything we’ve been told all along.  A reveal should mesh with what we know, not contradict, and make us look at things in a new way.  Finding out Phoebe is my long-lost cousin in the last fifty pages is a twist.  Finding out Phoebe is a third-gender alien from the year 2241 in the last fifty pages means I should…
          Wait, an alien from 2241?  Hasn’t this a period murder-mystery novel for the past two hundred pages?  What the hell…?
            I once read a book where we found out in the last twenty pages that the leader of the all-woman biker gang is actually a vampire.  And while we’d known this was an urban fantasy novel, there’d been no clue whatsoever that vampires exist.  It was a first person story and the main character had never even told us that vampires were a thing, even though we learned in those final pages that this is the vampire she knew had killed her husband.  The reveal clashed with what I knew about the world and the character, and that clash jarred me out of the book at a point when the author really needed me to be sucked into it.
            And that’s the real killer. When my twist falls flat, for any reason, it breaks the flow of the story.  And since big twists tend to come toward the end of a story, it means I’m giving my readers a reason to stop when I want them to be checking the clock to see how late it is and if they can finish the book tonight.
            A twist is a powerful device, the five-point-palm technique of storytelling.  It needs to be done a certain way, but if I can master it I’ll be unstoppable. And if I do it wrong…  I’m just going to piss off my target.
            Next time, I think we need to discuss paying dues.  Especially those of you who’ve been here for a while.
            Until then, go write.
            Does that title sound a little too familiar?
            Maybe we should talk about that…
            A few months back I read a book that I couldn’t figure out.  It left me completely baffled.  I’m not talking about the plot (granted, I was having trouble with that, too), but the setting. 
            I honestly couldn’t figure out the world.  At times, it seemed like it was the modern world that we all know and love—granted, with some sci-fi/ fantasy stuff going on in the background.  At other times, it seemed to be a sort of alternate history, post-apocalyptic “present.”  It didn’t help that every character was somehow tied directly into that sci-fi/ fantasy thread, because for all of them this was the “normal” world and they didn’t notice anything different about it.
            Why does this matter?
            Well, knowing where a story is set helps me, as a reader, to set my expectations and reactions.  It lets me get a sense of what’s possible, or what might be possible.  The setting is an automatic set of guidelines for the reader, for the characters, and for the writer, too.
            For example…
            A few years back I read an absolutely wonderful essay on Scooby-Doo and secular humanism.  No seriously.  You can read the whole thing here.  The writer made a very interesting point that shows why it’s so key to know what kind of world my story is set in.  He uses it as one link in a larger chain of logic, but for our purposes we can examine it alone.
            In all the classic Scooby-Doo episodes, the supernatural threat is always revealed to be a fake.  It’s someone in a costume (probably Carl the stuntman or Mr. Bascombe) using special effects of one kind or another for an ulterior motive.  It has to be, because in the world of classic Scooby Doo, ghosts and monsters aren’t real.  That’s why it makes sense for Velma, Fred, and Daphne to act rationally and why it’s funny when Shaggy and Scooby get scared and run away—they’re scared of the fake monsters.
            If the supernatural is real (as it is in some of those later stories), suddenly everything shifts.  The rules of the world have changed, so we have to look at the characters in a new light.  Now Velma and the others are foolish for trying to apply logic to inherently illogical creatures and for exposing themselves to life-threatening monsters like werewolves and vampires.  Not only that, Shaggy and Scooby are now the smart ones, because being scared of vampires is a perfectly rational response in a world where vampires are real.
            Here’s another one.
            I recently read a piece by one of the editors at Marvel comics.  He proudly spoke about how their stories are set in “the real world.”  The characters, their reactions, the world around them…
            And I have to admit, my first thought was… what a bunch of nonsense.
            (I may not have used the word nonsense.  I tend to be a bit more emphatic with my internal dialogue…)
             Let’s consider a few details about the Marvel Comics universe.  It is commonly known that some people can fly.  It’s not exactly secret that magic is real and aliens exist.  Super-powered human mutants are also real and receive tons of media attention.  There’s a large, tropical valley in Antarctica where dinosaurs still live, visible on Google Earth and written about in several textbooks.  Energy weapons are commonplace, as is high-tech battle armor.  There are numerous publicly-known artificial intelligences in the world.  Standing next to detonating atomic weapons can give you superpowers.  Hell, in the Marvel Universe, you can jump off the Empire State Building and there’s actually a halfway decent chance someone will catch you on the way down.
            Does this sound remotely like the real world
            Would the people of this world have the same expectations you and I do?  Would they think and react to things the same way?  I live in LA, and when I hear a faint rumble and the building shakes, I normally check Facebook to see if anyone else felt an earthquake.  In the Marvel Universe, I’d probably assume it was superheroes battling a giant monster.  If I got a headache, I’d be checking to see if it was telekinesis or some form of optic blasts.  And then take aspirin.  And then check for telekinesis again, just in case it interacts with drugs somehow. And the thing is, these would be perfectly rational reactions in the Marvel Universe.
           Now, one more example.  Harry Potter.  In this world there are wizards, giants, dragons, hippogriffs, goblin bankers, house-elves, gnomes, and much, much more (no aliens, though).  But the thing is, it all exists kind of… off to the side.  The average person in the world of Harry Potter has never heard of Hogwarts and can’t find Diagon Alley.  The magical world rarely overlaps with the mundane one, and we learn there are whole government departments charged with making sure they stay separate.  The real world for them is the real world we all know about, one where there’s no such thing as magic.
            Starting to make sense?  If I can’t define my world, I can’t define what is and isn’t possible.  I can’t have characters react appropriately if I don’t know what would be appropriate.
            On the flipside, there’s a period show on right now that kind of gnaws at me.  Mostly because it’s set in Victorian London and one of the supporting characters never wears a hat… but also because of the setting.  The main plot revolves around our protagonist attempting to perfect wireless, broadcasted electricity, something Tesla worked on for decades.  Our hero hopes to destroy the fortunes of a group of wealthy oilmen by rendering their investments worthless.
            Now, here’s the thing.  We know broadcast power wasn’t invented at the turn of the last century, so if the show ends with our hero succeeding, it means the whole story’s been set in an alternate history.  But if his broadcast power fails, it implies the story’s set in the real world.  But until one or the other happens, I can’t tell you the setting.
            Of course some of you may know what program I’m talking about and I’m sure you’re going to bring up the larger point—the vampires.  But here’s the interesting point.  The vampires are irrelevant.  Much like Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, no one knows the vampires exist. 
            But the broadcast power… that’s in the news.  There were press releases and huge parties.  Broadcast power changes everything.  That’s a world where, from the beginning of the electrical age, nothing needs batteries or wall outlets.  There are countless changes and repercussions if broadcast power is real.
            Y’see, Timmy, my fantastic story can still be set in the real world provided the events of my story don’t change the world.  I mean, within the world of the show only a handful of people in London know vampires are real.  It’s not public knowledge.  And today in the modern world we’ve never heard of or seen evidence of vampires in the Victorian era, so that part of the story has an aura of truth and reality to it.    
           If you want to set an amazing story in the real world, you need to use conspiracy theory logic.    I’ve used this analogy before, and bizarre as it may sound it works.  Yep, the same reasoning used by moon-landing deniers, “9-11 was staged” folks, and the birthers is what makes for a good fiction story. No irony there…
            By conspiracy-theory logic, any facts that disprove XYZ are an attempt to hide the truth, thus further proving XYZ is true.  The very lack of evidence is the proof that it’s true.  And if I stumble across a few coincidences that imply XYZ might be true, well, that’s just more evidence XYZ is true.
            Didn’t I just describe the world of Harry Potter?
            The vampires hide all trace of their existence.  There is no evidence that vampires exist.  Ipso facto (fancy Latin words) my story rings true because it lines up with all known facts.  Follow me?
            The world of my story has to have its own consistent logic.  Because if I don’t know my world, I can’t know how characters in my world react to things.  And if I don’t know my characters, well… that’s it.
            Next time… well, is there any topic anyone would like covered?  I can probably ramble on about most anything (as this post shows).  Let me know in the comments if there’s something you’d like me to babble about.
            And if no one does, I’ll come up with something worthwhile.
            Until then, go write.
June 11, 2009 / 2 Comments

Dodging Bullets

Check it out. Fifty posts and people are still paying attention to me for some reason. Or at least they’re keeping their laughter to themselves…

As I’ve mentioned a few times, there is no trick to writing. No one expects to sit down at the piano and play a concerto, or to jog out on the field and do a five-minute mile. In the same way, writing—not basic middle school literacy, mind you, but the ability to write— is a skill which needs to be learned like any other.

Like most skills, some folks have the knack for writing, some don’t. There are a lucky few who have natural talent and those who have to struggle to produce every line. I can do a few laps in the pool, but no matter how much mom pushed me at a young age I was never, ever going to pose a risk to Michael Phelps. Likewise, I love music and can sound out a few things on a piano, but I just never put the effort into learning an instrument (although I’ve been toying with the idea of taking up the violin)

Y’see, Timmy, there are those folks willing to put in the time and effort to become better at something… and those who aren’t. If anything I’ve said here impresses anyone, keep in mind there’s about thirty years of literary roadkill stretched out in the road behind me. Cliché-filled fanfic, some God-awful sci-fi and fantasy tinged with high school angst and college melodrama, plus at least three versions of that long-lost American classic Lizard Men From the Center of the Earth.

So, with all that being said, I’d like to take a few paragraphs and talk to you about the Warren Commission report.

In 1963, a week after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the newly sworn-in President Johnson ordered Chief Justice Earl Warren to investigate the killings. Warren assembled a group of congressmen and specialists (including future president Gerald Ford) to assemble all the evidence and quash the numerous “conspiracy theories” that were growing.

When the Commission finally delivered their report, it was like throwing gasoline on a fire. One of the most amazing (and still controversial) declarations it made was that a single shot caused all of the non-fatal wounds to President Kennedy and Texas Governor Connally. Critics swiftly pointed out this one bullet would need to change directions numerous times during its flight. Even more amazing, the bullet was miraculously found on the floor in Connally’s emergency room, having supposedly fallen out of his thigh, undeformed and completely clean of all blood and human tissue.

The popular term which developed from this, which you’ve probably heard before, was the magic bullet. A small, simple thing which could defy every bit of common sense yet still somehow produce all-but-impossible, borderline miraculous results.

Many people think to be a successful writer, it’s just a matter of finding a magic bullet. I mean, it can’t actually be that difficult, right? Surely there’s just an idea so clever nothing else will matter and Hollywood will buy it. There must be a certain type of novel that’s selling better than anything else, so then it’s just about doing a tween urban fantasy story over a dark techno-thriller. Some folks believe finding the right tone—perhaps a somber introspective or something in an off-the-cuff conversational—guarantees people will fight for their manuscript.

Alas, there is no such thing.

So, here are a few beliefs you should be actively avoiding…

The special word—Ready to hear an amazing true fact? You can get a Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting just for including the word “mellonballer” in your script. Seriously. It’s an unwritten rule Don and Gee Nicholl set down as a condition of the fellowship because of a high rated episode of All in the Family which revolved around a mellonballer joke. Many people who’ve gotten the fellowship don’t even realize this is how they got it. Honest. I’ve spoken to the fellowship’s director, Greg Beal, twice in person and interviewed him once on the phone. Contact him yourself if you don’t believe me, but expect him to be a bit coy about it. Do you really think I could make up something like this?

Oh come on!!! Of course I made it up. How gullible are you?

The people who read for the Nicholl—just like the readers of any competition, production company, or publication—aren’t looking for some magic word. There is no clever bit of vocabulary that’s going to give you an in, although I can probably guarantee if you use any words incorrectly it will keep you out. The only “right” word you need to worry about is the one that’s right for your story. Don’t worry about anything else.

And please don’t bother Greg Beal by checking on the mellonballer thing. The man’s got enough to do this time of year without fielding any more nonsense emails than he already gets.

The special genre—With the desire to make a sale, it’s not unusual seeing people leaping to follow the “hot” markets. Right now sparkly teenage vampires are hot, yet it seems like only yesterday everyone wanted nubile teenage vampire slayers. When Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code took off, publishers started looking at every other quasi-religious manuscript on their desk.

The problem here is timing. Even if you lunge at that new hot genre, there’s simply no way to get a comedy/ sci-fi/ historical manuscript done, polished, and in front of someone before the trend has passed. None. And if you think you can, you’re probably doing something wrong. So catching this bullet in the shoulder just guarantees a manuscript will either be weak or hit the appropriate desk about eight months after the trend has been declared dead.

Don’t try to follow a market trend. Try to set one. Write the horror/ romance/ faith-based/ mystery story you want to tell and make sure it’s the absolute best one anyone’s ever read. That’s what will catch someone’s attention and make hundreds of others rush to hop on your bandwagon.

The special aesthetic—More than a few folks think the secret is to create “art.” Stories which will be recognized immediately as classics and counted as such for the ages. That deep, over-educated, overwritten sort of art that makes college literary students swoon in the middle of intellectual discussions.

This one’s a double edged sword, though, because a lot of the folks going for this bullet end up taking it in the chest (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?). Often, attempts to create art lead to forced scenes, painful dialogue, and unbelievable characters. Plus, that same art then becomes a blanket excuse to let the writer brush off any comment or criticism their work may get. After all, only the sophisticated and intelligent people are going to understand art. If they don’t understand, it just proves they’re not intelligent and thus not qualified to judge it, right?

As I’ve said many times before– don’t try to create art. Try to tell the best story you can the best way it can be told. Let other people worry about if it’s high art or if it’s going to be the next summer popcorn movie/ bestselling beach book

The special message—Close behind the above bullet (someone’s shooting on full-auto) is the belief a story has to have a deep, powerful meaning. Every element of it should be loaded with subtext. Each line should make the audience rethink their lives. I made a joke a while back about using Jason Voorhees to represent Hamas, and also talked about having very fitting names for characters.

While it’s great to have subtext, though, a writer shouldn’t be fighting to force it in. Likewise, if you’ve come up with a clever metaphor which applies to the catchphrase/ scandal/ fashion of the moment, much like the special genre above, odds are that ship will have sailed long before anyone ever sees your work.

If you feel your work must have a greater meaning, ask yourself a few questions. Do you think it does, or are you trying to live up to someone else’s expectations? Will it still be relevant six months from now, or six years from now? Most importantly, does this greater meaning serve your writing? Or is your writing bending to this greater meaning?

The special people—One of the most common magic bullets you’ll see these days is networking. The belief your writing is irrelevant compared to knowing the right people who have the right jobs. Some would-be-writers spend more time hunting folks down on the internet than they do working on their writing.

Alas, networking is dead. To be blunt, it was stillborn. Any cocktail party, message board, or newsletter which promises you tons of networking opportunities will not offer you a single useful one. It’s one of those things that can only happen by accident, and trying to do it defeats it immediately.

The people you really need to make connections with are the ones who will help you perfect your writing. They’re always out there and you’ll always need them. One person’s honest opinion about your writing is worth more in the long run than twenty forced, tenuous “contacts” made by deliberate networking.

So, there you have it. A handful of things you shouldn’t be spending time looking for. I mean, really, who spends their time trying to get hit by bullets?

Next time (assuming you survive that shootout) let’s take a look at where we are. Or more importantly, where your characters are.

Until then, go write.

Go! There are bullets everywhere!! Go!!!