Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Bully Balance

            Hey, everyone.  Hope you’re all doing well after the brutal temporal shift out of Daylight Saving time.  It can be pretty rough.
            Speaking of being rough... I wanted to babble on for a couple moments about some rough types we’ve all probably run into at one point or another. And maybe even written about.
            Lots of people—including fictional people—have dealt with bullies.  They are, unfortunately, a constant across all ages, cultures, genders, sexualities, and industries.  There’s a wonderful line in Paranorman--“If you were bigger and more stupid, you’d probably be a bully too.”
            Bullies are kind of common in fiction for two reasons.  The first, the easy one, is because it’s a type of person we can all relate to.  We’ve all had to deal with  that jerk at school, at work, online, or somewhere in our lives.  And every now and then, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not, maybe we’ve even been that person.  It’s an archetype we all know.
            The second reason is that bullies make a great low level antagonist for my protagonist to deal with.  They can drive a subplot or even just be a warm-up for the main plot.  While investigating drug smugglers or human traffickers, it’s not unusual for Jack Reacher to run into an obnoxiously stubborn town sheriff wholikes to throw his weight around.  Countless villains have their lieutenants or top henchmen.  Steve Rogers had an actual bully that followed him from civilian life to boot camp... where said bully got punched out by Agent Carter.
            And that’s kind of what I wanted to talk about.  We all kind of giggle and maybe even cheer a bit when Peggy decks Hodge.  It’s a nice moment, because Hodge is an ass and flat out misogynist. 
            But what if it had gone a little differently...?
            What if Peggy decked him, and then kicked him a few more times in the ribs while he was on the ground?  Then maybe stomped on his hand to break some fingers.  Hell, maybe she stomps on his head.  Kicks him in the teeth.  Breaks his nose or maybe the orbit around his eye.
            This just became a very different scene, didn’t it?  Hodge isn’t getting his just deserts, he’s suddenly become the victim in this scenario.  He punched Steve in an alley, made some crass and sexist remarks... and so Carter mauls him, possibly leaving him crippled?  Heck, does she even know he punched Steve at this point?  She just put this guy in the hospital for being obnoxious to her.
            What if she’d shot him?  One round to the head, right between the eyes.  He smirks and then he’s dead, his brains sprayed out behind him.  Or maybe she goes big—grabs a rifle from a nearby soldier and shreds Hodge’s chest with a dozen bullets.  That’s an ugly way to go, isn’t it?  Broken ribs, punctured organs, equal chance of bleeding out or drowning as your lungs fill up with your own blood...
            We can all agree this is kind of an extreme response. Hodge is an asshat, absolutely, but he doesn’t deserve this level of punishment.  Hell, if anything, we feel a twinge or two of sympathy for him.
            I’ve talked about this effect a few times before.  Something extreme happening to a character can help shape how we feel about them.  If it’s extreme enough, it might even override how we felt about them before.
            For example (flipping things again), what if Hodge was an utterly reprehensible person?  Physically and emotionally abusive to men, women, children, and animals.  Now what’s supposed to be horrible can suddenly becomes great because it’s happening to such a completely sadistic person.
            Seriously, think about it?  How often have you watched a scene of nightmarish violence in a movie and cheered—out loud or internally—because of who it’s happening to?  This isn’t horror, it’s justice.  This person deserves what’s happening to them, and we’re glad we get to read about it (or watch it).
            I’ve talked about this before, too, in regards to killing people, because this is a really common mistake I see in low-end B-movies.  As audience members (or readers), we don’t care when unlikable people die.  In fact, if someone’s aggressively unlikable (sexist, misogynist, racist, alcoholic, hypocritical, deliberately ignorant)...  we may even be kinda happy when they get killed off.  No amount of patting the dog will change our view on this.  And suddenly this death means something very different.  It’s not building tension in the story—it’s releasing it.
            There’s a careful balance that needs to be struck in these situations.  My bully needs to have enough unsavory traits and moments to make them a good antagonist. But if they have too many, it’ll affect how that bad scene gets received by my readers.  Likewise, if the bully isn’t that bad and catches the bad end of some truly horrific things, it’s going to make my readers empathize with them,
            Y’see, Timmy, I need to be aware of what I’m trying to accomplish with moments like this.  It can’t just be violence and/or death—there needs to be a greater purpose to it in my story.  When Carter lashes out at Hodge, do I want the audience to be rooting for Hodge or for Carter?  When Freddy Kruger murders another child, am I going for scares or for laughs?  When Jason Bourne tortures someone for information, should I be cringing or cheering?
            Because what I’m trying to achieve is going to depend on more than just that one moment.
            There’s a bully in my new book, Paradox Bound. His name’s Zeke.  He starts off as a childhood bully, ends up being an adult bully—a bad cop who abuses his position.  Alas, it happens sometimes.  We’ve all seen it, or at least heard of it.  Zeke does a lot of bad things and... well... no spoilers in case you haven’t read it, but bad things end up happening to him.
            This was a really tricky balance to achieve, though.  Y’see, in an earlier draft, we actually see Zeke violently beat a woman.  And my editor’s assistant, pointed out this made it really hard for us to have any sympathy for Zeke.  And because of this, when the bad things happened to him, what I’d hoped would be a very creepy, cringe-worthy moment actually became... well, more of a “serves him right” moment.
            But Zeke needed to be a serious bully in order for other aspects of the story to work.  More than just an annoyance, we needed to believe Zeke could potentially be—on some level—an actual threat.  So there was a lot of back and forth as I tried (with some help from my editor and his assistant) to find a point where Zeke would be unlikable and dangerous... while still not coming across as so unlikable that we’d automatically cheer when something awful happened to him.
            And we found that balance.
            Find your own balance point. Make sure that when that character gets punched or tortured or killed, I’m feeling exactly what you want me to feel.
            And not... something else
            Next time...
            Y’know, nobody’s left a comment here in a while. What should I talk about next time?  Somebody offer a suggestion, just so I know I’m not ranting into the void.
            Until then... go write.

Monday, November 6, 2017

NaNoWriMo Tip

            Hey, y’know what I realized over the weekend?  It’s NaNoWriMo!  Who’s trying it this year?
            I’ll be honest. I’ve never tried it myself.  By the time I first heard of it, as it was just starting to gain popularity, I’d already been writing professionally for a year or two.  Might’ve even already been writing full time (non-fiction, but still).  For the past eleven years... well, every month’s been about word count for me.
            That doesn’t mean I don’t have some ideas and thoughts on NaNoWriMo.  In fact, a lot.  At this early point in the month, I have one very firm reassurance, and one solid tip.
            Which I shall share with you now.
            First piece of reassurance.  No matter who you are, I can tell you with absolute certainty, you are not going to sell the manuscript you write this month.  No agent will consider it.  No editor will look at it.  It’s just not going to happen.
             HANG ON!  This isn’t a kick-in-the-gut thing.  This is liberating.  It’s freeing.
            I’m not saying nobody will ever buy this book.  But what we’re doing during this month is a first draft.  A rushed first draft at that.  It’s going to have plot holes and factual errors and typos.  It will, trust me.  It’s a fantastic starting point, but it’s going to need more work after November 30th. No question about it.
            Again, this is a good thing.  Stop worrying about if an agent or editor or your significant other is going to like this. They’re never going to see it.  This draft is for you and you alone. Be selfish.  Go crazy.  This is the “dance like nobody’s watching” part of the process.  Let your creativity run wild, eat nothing but chips, drink nothing but whiskey, run naked in the coffeeshop, and don’t worry about anyone else and what they may think.  They can see the second or third draft, maybe, but not this one. Do what you want to do with it.  Do anything.  Because this is just the first draft.
            Okay, don’t actually run naked in the coffeeshop.  Yeah, I know they smile at you a lot there, but they’re paid to be nice to you.  They don’t want to see that. Especially not in a place that sells food.
            Second thing—the solid tip.
            Write.
            That’s it. Just write.
            I know that sounds kind of flip and arrogant, but stop and think for a moment.  Like we just said, this draft isn’t for anyone else.  We’re not going to worry about spelling, research, current hot genres, book advances, any of that. All that matters for this month is getting words on the page.
            Sooooo... get the words on the page.
            In my first drafts, I change character names halfway through.  I snip off plot threads and remind myself to pull them out later. I snip off some characters halfway through, and then jump to the alternate timeline version of the book where I killed them sixty pages ago (like I now know I should’ve done in the first place).  And I can do all this because this is going to get another draft.
            For now, the most important thing is to just write.  Put words on paper or on the screen or on your arm or your friend’s shirt or whatever medium you’ve decided to work in. Stop trying to filter or rein in your creativity and get it all out.
            So for now...
            Go write.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Always—Maybe—Never

            No, we’re not talking about an M-F-K type game.
            I don’t know. Some of you are very clever and inventive.  Maybe we are...
            Big surprise, I know a lot of writers.  Honestly, I’m still surprised to be accepted into their ranks.  Any time I’m at a signing or a con party, I kind of feel like Jane Goodall quietly being accepted by the gorillas...
            (by which I mean I’m quietly waiting to be mauled)
            However, there’s one writer I don’t have that problem with, and that’s the ever-wonderful Elena Hartwell, author of the Eddie Shoes mystery series.  Elena and I have, we recently realized, known each other for almost a quarter-century.  We met back in our early twenties when we were freelance electricians for various San Diego theaters, and we’ve been friends ever since.
            Yeah, I’m not sure how the math works, either. Met in our early twenties, pretty sure we’re both in our mid-thirties now... Maybe it’s like Reaganomics. In that it doesn't really work.
            Anyway...
            I got to attend a signing event Elena did recently in my neighborhood, and during the talk she mentioned a wonderful rule of thumb when it comes to research.  More to the point, when it comes time to start incorporating that research into my writing.  Tattoo this one on your arm.  Or commit it to memory.  Or maybe just bookmark it...
            For her books, Elena’s talked to a lot of professionals in various branches of law enforcement and other public servants.  And she noticed a lot of their answer to her questions tended to fall into certain groups...

            “We always do this.  No matter what, this is a priority.”
            “Well, you think it’d go that way, but the truth is... well, it’s a little more flexible than a lot of people realize.”
            “That never happens.  There’s a couple different reasons why, but... it just doesn’t.”

            This didn’t really surprise me.  As someone who worked in the film industry for many years, I was very aware of those kind of divisions.  Usually when dealing with people who had a lot of textbook ideas about how the industry worked.  And then having to explain to them, “yeah, here’s how that actually goes.”  Or, far more often, “ha ha ha, no, that never happens...”
            I think most jobs work that way.  There’s stuff that always happens, stuff that never happens, and then there’s that gray area where things aren’t well defined or nobody generally talks about it. The stuff that usually happens or, y’know... it’s not unheard of.
            I talked to a scientist a while back about lab equipment.  What happens to stuff from old experiments or discontinued projects?  And I wanted to hear it from her because—like in the film industry—I was willing to bet there was the official, rulebook way that everyone gets taught, and then there’s... well, the simple reality of it.  And she laughed and told me, yeah, there’s the expected rules, and for some things you follow the rules to the letter with no deviations. But for a lot of stuff... turns out people are a bit less concerned with what happens to that case of old test tubes or the laptop from 2006.
            So, what does all this mean to you, fearless writer?
            When we’re doing research, it’s really tempting to bend the facts to fit the story we want to tell.  We have something we like, reality goes against it... so we just choose to ignore reality.  I mean, that’s what fiction is, right? Just ignoring reality to tell a good story.
            Not exactly.
            When I sit down to do my research—be it books, bugging professionals, or even risking the internet—I should put all the answers into one of three categories.  Always.  Maybe.  Never.

If it’s always true, I need to get it right.
If it’s never true, I shouldn’t have it happen in my story.
If it’s maybe true, in certain cases...  now I can tweak according to what my story needs.

           That’s it.  Simple and quick.
           Y’see, Timmy, doing this will make my story so much stronger, especially if I’m trying to set it in the real world.  Because by doing this, I'm enforcing those real-world rules.  Heck, even if my story’s set in the kaiju-infested dystopia that is 2217, I should be doing this with my facts.  It’s just me staying true to the rules of that world.
            Always. Maybe.  Never.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about bullies.
            Until then... go write.
            Always go write.