Friday, May 26, 2017

Feet of Clay

            Sorry I’m running late again. I seem to do that a lot, don’t I...?
            I was going to do a whole piece on character building this week (since nobody suggested anything else). But it kind of felt wrong.  We talked about characters at the Writers Coffeehouse this month, and we’re going to talk more next month, and I always feel a little odd addressing Coffeehouse topics here on the blog. Especially close to the same time.
            Yeah, not everyone here goes to the Coffeehouse, but still...  One way or another, it feels kinda cheap.  To me, anyway. It’s just how I’m wired. Like I’m re-using material here or there, giving one group minimal effort.
            But while I was writing out the character piece, I thought of a new angle I wanted to explore.  The more I thought about it, the more I was sure it could be a post all on its own.  A new take on character development.
            So, here’s an easy question I should be able to answer about any of my characters.
            What are they not good at?
            Seriously.  This shouldn’t be hard. Can I name five or six things my character isn’t good at?  No, not ridiculous things like “gene splicing” or “space shuttle repair” or “aboriginal dialects.”  Just name a couple basic things your character isn’t good at.
            Let me make it personal. 
            I’m terrible when it comes to pretty much any kind of sports.  I don’t know players, teams, leagues, anything.  I can name a few New England teams, just because I grew up there, but even then I’d be pretty pathetic.
            I wish I was more musical.  I love music, but have never been good at music, if that makes sense.  Horrible at telling music genres/styles apart, can’t play anything more complicated than a triangle.  Hell, in high school I played bass drum in the marching band, and a couple people can vouch for the fact that I screwed that up sometimes.
            I’m really bad at taking compliments, on any level.  People telling me I have nothing to worry about is pretty much guaranteed to freak me out.  I’ve been a full time writer for ten years, my ninth novel is coming out this year (plus the new collection this week) and I still have a ton of career anxiety.
            Anyway, I could go on and on, but you get the idea, right?  I’m not a perfect person (not by a long shot).  Most people aren’t.
            And, if I’m doing it right, my characters are people too. So there should be things they’re not good at.  They should have bad habits that cause problems.  There should be fields of interest they know nothing about.  Blind spots to political/cultural ideas.  Phobias that mess them up.  You’ve probably heard of these referred to as character flaws.  It doesn’t mean there’s anything blatantly wrong with the character.  It just means they’re... well, human.
            If I’m doing this writing thing really well, these areas where my characters have problems are going to cause specific issues in this story.  Maybe even a few plot points will hinge on them. And my characters are going to have to learn and grow and change to get past these problems.  They’ll have to make an effort to overcome fears, work past prejudices, and maybe figure out new ways of doing things.
            That’s a good thing.  It’s called a character arc.  You’ve probably heard of those, too.
            Now, let me address a couple of quick points, if I may...
            There are those folks who believe, well, more is better.  Their characters don’t have a flaw, they have flaws. And they don’t really have flaws, they have faults.  And I use “faults” in the geologic, California-drops-into-the-Pacific sense.  Yawning, bottomless chasms.  Each character generally has six or seven of these.  Maybe a baker’s dozen.  These people don’t just have feet of clay. They have feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs. hips, groins, and lower abs all made of wet, soft clay. 
            Yes, groins.  There’s no way someone this screwed up doesn’t have a ton of sexual issues.  That’ll come up, too.  Or... maybe it won’t. One out of five...
           Again, this isn’t unrealistic.  I’m willing to bet most of us have known one or two really messed up, annoying people in our lives.  I’ve known a couple.
            As I’ve often said, though—reality isn’t our goal as fiction writers. Think of that messed up person from your own life. How much time did you really want to spend with them? Would you want to read a short story about them? A whole novel? Sit through a two hour movie?
            Y’see, Timmy, there’s nothing wrong with an overly-flawed character, but I need to balance that with the realization that my readers need a reason to like this person. A reason to keep reading.  It doesn’t matter how beautiful or artistic my prose is, the majority of people aren’t going to want to read about an awful character who’s a failure on every possible level.  
            If someone’s going to have serious flaws, they need some serious strengths, too, to counterbalance them.  A grocery clerk who gets blackout drunk every weekend to forget her past isn’t that interesting, but a popular billionaire philanthropist who gets blackout drunk every weekend to forget her past... well, that probably got you thinking of story ideas right there, didn’t it?
            Also, to got to the other extreme, nobody likes the flawless character. Seriously.  I’ve talked before about some of the problems with characters who are never caught off guard or never get scared.  What’s the challenge going to be for someone like that?  If Dot is always ready, always prepared, always calm, and always wins (of course she always wins—how could she lose?)... well, that’s going to get boring really quick.  And unbelievable.  When somebody’s ready for absolutely every contingency—especially when there’s no real reason for them to be—it just gets ridiculous.  Plus, there’s no space for character growth. If I’m already at ten in all categories... what kind of arc can I have?  Where can I go?
            There’s a wonderful line in the first Hellboy movie—“We like people for their qualities, but we love them for their defects.” I think that’s extremely true of fictional characters.  The more well-rounded they are—with strengths and weaknesses—the more we’ll be able to identify with them. And care about them.  And want to read the next book about them.
            Which is what we all really want to happen.
            Next time...
            Okay, look, I’ll be honest.  Next week’s my birthday.  There’s a good chance I’ll be drunk the entire day.  Possibly the night before, too.
            But... if I manage to be sober somewhere in there, maybe I’ll talk a bit about shutting up.
            Until then... go write.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dead Men Can't Complain

            Yep, it’s another shameless self-promotion post.  Two in three weeks.  I’m very sorry.
            Today my first short story collection is out exclusively from Audible.com.  Dead Men Can’t Complain is a bunch of short stories I’ve had published in various places over the years, plus three all-new ones that have never been seen (or heard) before. Most of them are stand-alones, although you may find hints to a few things I’ve written in the past (or may be planning for the future).  It’s got zombies, ancient horrors, modern comedy, time travel, some more zombies, lizard men, superheroes, and even a romantic ending or two!
            You can pick it up using your Audible credits (if you’re a member) or straight through Amazon.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Mystery vs. Mystery

           I was talking with someone a few weeks back about mysteries.  To be honest, she talked. I just got kind of confused.  In fact the more she talked, the more I was baffled.  Her thoughts on mystery were just... well, I couldn’t figure out where she’d gotten them from.
            And then I realized the problem was that she wasn’t talking about mysteries.  Well, she was.  She’d just confused mystery with mystery, and then mixed them up a bit.  It’s a completely understandable mistake.
            It isn’t?
            Okay, then...
            I’ve talked here a few times about mystery, suspense, romance, and comedy.  I’ve also done a few posts about mystery, suspense, romance, and comedy.  And maybe it’s worth clarifying that, because it’d be bad if someone was working on a mystery and tried to follow all the guidelines I’ve tossed down about mysteries.
            Totally confused yet?
            Excellent.
            When I’m talking about mystery versus mystery, I’m talking about a genre versus a literary device.  If it helps, think of sci-fi versus a twist.  It’s a lot clearer that way, yes?
            When I talk about mystery and mystery, I’m talking about two things with very different rules.  We have mystery, the genre, which has some solid guidelines about word count, page length, setting, and so on.  Then there’s mystery, the device I use within my story, where one or more characters are searching for information that’s been hidden from them.  The rules for one aren’t the rules for the other, and if I get them confused, it’s going to cause problems.
             Consider romance. I’ve talked about my world-famous, patent-pending Rules of Love (TM) a few times here, and also about avoiding the common traps of romantic triangles.  My book, The Fold, has a definite romance element that follows these guidelines.
            But... it isn’t a romance novel.  That’s a very different animal.
            Let’s go a little bigger.  I’m going to guess a fair number of you reading this saw Doctor Strange, yes?  Maybe in theaters, maybe through Netflix, maybe you splurged for the 3-D collector's edition BluRay or something.  There were some funny moments in that movie, right?  Usually pertaining to Strange’s complete fish-out-of-water situation when he starts learning sorcery.  There was also that sort of unrequited love angle between him and Christine, never lining up in quite the right way even though it’s clear they both care about each other.
            So... is Doctor Strange a rom-com?  It’s got romance.  It’s got comedy.  That’s pretty much the definition of a rom-com, right?
            No, of course not.
            Y’see, Timmy, we recognize there’s more to a genre than just containing a literary device of the same name.  Suspense does not equal suspense, some comedy does not make this a comedy, and the presence of a mystery doesn’t mean my story’s a mystery. And if I get confused about this—if I start mistaking the rules of one for the rules of another (or maybe even mixing and matching like those last few socks on laundry day)—then this is going to cause problems on the writing side and on the business side.
            Now, sure—you wouldn’t make that mistake. You’re clever and you’ve been at this a while now.  But I see this kind of thing happen a lot, especially when people are trying to force a story into a genre where it doesn’t really belong.  A lot of folks do it in an attempt to get someone to read their work. “Someone” might be an agent, an editor, or even just a general audience.  If mysteries are really hot right now, I might be tempted to fudge the description of my story a bit and play up that element—even if said story is nothing like a mystery.
            I believe I’ve mentioned how rarely it goes well when I tell someone they’re getting X and they end up with a few hundred pages of Y, right?
            Genre. Devices. I need to remember which is which. Cause if I don’t, I’m either going to mess up my story... or I’m going to mess up selling my story.
            Speaking of selling stories—another shameless moment. Dead Men Can’t Complain, my first short story collection, comes out as an Audible exclusive next week.  It’s got creepy stuff, exciting stuff, funny stuff, and some never seen (or heard) before stuff.  Check it out.
            Next time, I think I may talk a little bit about dialogue. Or maybe character-building.  If you have a preference—or a different request—let me know.
            For now... go write.