Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Win-Lose Situation

            Okay, believe it or not, I’m actually somewhat ahead on ranty blog posts right now.  Three weeks ahead.  But I want to put it out there again that suggestions and requests are always welcome.  Or just general comments. 
            Without them I’ll just keep blabbing away about whatever comes to mind.
            For example...
             A few weeks back I blabbed on about art, especially the tendency in art stories to make characters as miserable as possible.  That idea bounced around in my head for a while.  The other day it hit another idea, and once they were next to each other I knew how to explain this.
            When we’re starting out as people, and as writers, we tend to look at things in very black and white terms.  Something is positive, or it’s negative.  Good or bad.  That’s it.  The idea of something being mostly good, despite having some bad in it, doesn’t tend to cross the mind as a first choice.  Or that a villain could be anything less than 100% evil.  White hats and black capes, right?
            I can be honest.  I used to do this a lot.  I think most writers do. It’s an experience thing.  None of us ever think we’re doing it—we’re all wise and worldly, after all—but the truth is it’s just a stage the majority of us go through as we’re learning to tell stories.
            If I had to make a guess, I think this is why a lot of these artistic stories tend to be so negative, especially the ones by beginning writers.  The only visible choices are all positive or all negative, and if they were all positive there’d be nothing for anyone to talk about. Soooo...
            The characters in these stories just have awful, pathetic lives.  They have bad jobs for low pay where they’re unappreciated and have horrible bosses.  They hang out with boring friends and have bad relationships and unenthusiastic, unfulfilling sex with barely-adequate partners.
            Sound familiar?
            While this can work on a very simple level, it’s just not a great representation of the real world.  Yes, the world is a messy place, full of compromises and mistakes and a lot of people trying to do the best they can, usually under less than ideal circumstances.  Bad things do happen to good people far too often, and some folks just never seem to get a break.
            There can be a lot of bad, yeah, but there’s also a lot of good.  Friends and family who help out.  Random sympathetic strangers.  Even just sheer luck. Sometimes—maybe just once or twice in our lives—we stumbled across just what we need at the exact moment we need it.
            The simple truth is, life is a mix.  It’s very rarely all good or all bad.  And that holds in fiction, too.  A good story is rarely going to be all of one or the other.  My characters need to succeed (we don’t want to be following losers), but success doesn’t always mean getting the sexy love interest, finding the treasure, or triumphantly winning the battle without physical or mental scars.
            Great example—we’ve all heard the story about the day Oprah gave everyone in her audience a luxury car, right?  Fantastic!  Nothing but positive there, right?
            In the weeks to come, many of these people were begging her to take the cars back.  Seriously.  Did you know you have to pay taxes on big prizes like that?  What do you think the tax is on a $60,000 luxury car?  And do you want to guess at the minimum insurance payments?  The attempt to make all these lives better actually made many of them worse.
            You’ve probably heard similar stories about lottery winners.  At first they’re thrilled to win all that money—who wouldn’t be?  But then you hear stories about how people start to look at them differently and act differently. They’re no longer Yakko from work—they’re Yakko the multi-millionaire. And every time they don’t pick up the tab or don’t chip in or don’t offer to help, the looks change a little more.  Seriously, check it out—a huge number of lottery winners say it ruined their lives.
         Remember that classic story “The Monkey’s Paw,” where no matter what you wish for there’s always a negative twist to it?  Ursula K. LeGuin did the same thing in The Lathe of Heaven, about a man whose dreams shape reality.  And if you’re a Doctor Who fan, you may remember the Game of Rassilon, where those who win shall lose, and those who lose shall win.
            Alas, even with all these examples, it’s not always easy to see this.  Definitely not easy to write it.  Multi-layered success is a challenging thing, and—as I mentioned above—it takes a degree of experience to pull it off.
            Simple experiment. Take your favorite book or movie.  Odds are it’s got a happy ending, right?  At least a mildly-positive one?
            Now—find the bad things.  What did it cost the protagonist to get to that happy ending?  Ruined relationships?  Compromised morals?  Lost job?  Property damage?  Bodily damage?  Maybe even a death or three?  I’m willing to bet there was a price.  Probably even a big one.
            Winning rarely comes without some losses.  Losing isn’t always the end of the world.  And my stories should reflect this.
            Next time... it’s Halloween.  Time to sit around the campfire and tell... well, some kind of scary story.  We’ll figure out what.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Let’s Go Crazy...

            Quiet moment for Prince while you all sing the next line in your head.
            And... moving on.
            It being the Halloween season, I thought it’d be worthwhile to blab on about something I’ve referred to once or thrice here as the insanity defense. Like most times you’ve heard this phrase invoked, it’s a cheap cop-out.  While it’s most noticeable in films and television, you can also find it in books, and in several graphic novels.
            The insanity defense is when our heroes have spent the entire story chasing a killer.  It’s not always a killer, mind you.  Might be a stalker who hoped for the big leagues, weirdo in a clown suit, something like that.  Anyway, they run down clues, have close calls, and spend the whole time trying to make sense, one way or another, of what’s been happening.  And finally, at the end, our mysterious killer is cornered and his secret revealed for all to see...
            Alternately, sometimes certain events or moments just have to happen in my story.  It’s been all plotted out and I need a reason for the characters to do this so that and that can happen a bit later.  I also know I need an in-story motivation for these events, no matter how bizarre or unlikely they are.
            Faced with these challenges, sometimes I might be tempted to fall back on the easiest solution I can. 
            I’ll say the character is insane.
            Now they don’t need a motivation, right?  He or she is just doing this stuff because, well... they’re insane.
            Alas, this is pretty much hands-down the laziest writing I can ever do (not to mention kinda insulting to anyone suffering from actual emotional or mental issues).  All characters need a solid reason to do the things they do, and when I decide to use insanity as a justification for any of my character's actions, abilities, or behaviors, it just shows that I’m too lazy to work out a real motivation.  The plot needs to be driven forward, and there’s no logical reason for this to happen, so I’ll just say someone’s crazy and relieve myself of the need to be logical.  It’s a cheap way to hide my button-pushing.
            Just to be clear, madness in and of itself is not a bad thing (speaking from a character point of view, of course).  The Joker.  Renfield.  Hannibal Lecter.  Calvin “Cal” Zabo.  All of these characters are insane to different extents and are all pretty much magnificent either in print or on the screen. 
            Thing is, the writers behind these characters all realized the key point I’d like to make here.
            The Joker believes he can prove that everyone, at heart, is ruthless and psychotic,  just like him.  Renfield believes eating insects and spiders means he’s eating their life-essence and extending his own.  Hannibal Lecter doesn’t consider himself bound by the standards and taboos of the human race, giving him a cold ruthlessness that sometimes makes the Joker almost look normal.   The writers behind these characters didn’t just fall back on “they’re insane.” Each character has an actual motivation for their actions.
            A few times here I’ve mentioned my fairly awful college novel, The Trinity.  In said book, the antagonist is insane.  As he sees it, in the book of Genesis, God rewarded Abel for sacrificing a sheep but turned his nose up at Cain’s much larger sacrifice of harvested fruits and grains.  When Cain did spill blood later (Abel’s), God “rewarded” him with a mark that said no man would ever be able to lay hands on him.  Based off this, my villain's determined God wants us all to kill as many people as possible.  A twisted interpretation, granted, but see where it's coming from?  He’s not killing people because he’s insane, he’s killing them because, from his point of view, this is what God wants.  We can point at it and say he’s doing Y because he believes X and expects Z as a result.
            There’s an old joke you’ve probably heard that goes like this--one definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over and expecting different results.  But let’s consider that for a moment.  The implication is that Yakko is choosing to repeat a given action (let’s say, shoving baloney into his pants) because it’s his belief that the outcome of this action will be a certain, predictable result--just not the one he’s getting.  He isn’t just shoving sandwich meat down there for no reason.  He has a motive fueled by what he sees as logical expectations.
            Y’see, Timmy, insanity is not a motivation.  It’s the lens the characters are seeing their motivation through.  Madness doesn’t make them irrational, just... differently rational.  To quote another joke, “Just because I’m crazy doesn’t mean I’m stupid.”
            Now, there is still a place for that sort of mindless madman (or madwoman) gibbering in the corner, lurking in the attic, or chopping up attractive teens at the old summer camp. But we’re probably going to talk about that in two weeks, as we get closer to Halloween.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about the Game of Rassilon.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Procrasti Nation

            You remember the Procrasti from Deep Space Nine, right? They were that race from the Gamma Quadrant that was going to come through the wormhole someday...
            Geek joke.
            I saw a thing floating around Twitter a month or three back, one of those clickbaity “this article EXPLODES one of the biggest myths about writing...”  And that myth was that writers need to write every day. Which, granted, the vast majority of professional writers—myself included—will all tell you to do if you want to do this for a living.  But according to this little piece, that’s complete nonsense.  If I only write once a week, good for me.  If I need to wait for inspiration, that’s fine.  What’s important is that I'm writing at a rate that’s comfortable for me.
            Now, in all fairness to the article, I’ve said similar things here.  If you can only write on Sundays, standing on your head while wearing that “enhancing” corset you bought at the ren faire last year, but you always write 15,000 words in a session... well,  congratulations.  It’s a damned weird system, but it works for you.  So what if you don’t write the other six days of the week.  Fifteen thousand words a week is fantastic.  I know some pros who don’t hit those numbers consistently. Hell, I usually don’t hit those numbers.
            If I’m only cinching myself into the corset once every two or three weeks, and only writing a hundred words when I do... there’s a chance I just may not be taking this whole writing thing that seriously.
            And there’s nothing wrong with that in a larger sense.  If I just want to scribble blog posts or fan fic as the mood strikes me, that’s fine. I know a few people who write as more of a therapy thing, some who do it for fun, and one who did it as a sort of... well, she’d been single for a while.  Let’s leave it at that.
            Again, no big deal if that’s how I approach it.  To fall back on an analogy I’ve used once or thrice, not everybody who cooks needs to be a chef.  Or wants to be.  I love cooking, playing around with spices, trying new things with pizzas or pasta... but I’m never going to be a chef.  I’m fine with that.  I’m just doing this to have some fun on the weekends.
            But... if I wanted to be a chef, to actually get paid for cooking, I’m probably going to have to put some work into it. And that means doing it more often than when the mood strikes me.  It means sometimes I’d need to stay home and cook rather than going out with friends. 
            And, yeah, sometimes that work can mean other things. It can mean reading cookbooks. Or watching cooking videos on YouTube.  Maybe even eating out sometimes.
            But in the end... it means I’m going to be cooking.  A lot.  There’s really no other way to do it.
            Same with writing.  If I want to make money off this storytelling thing—if I want to do it for a living—I’m going to have to write. A lot.  On a fairly regular, consistent basis.
            I wrote my first three novels and a good-sized novella while I was working full time as an entertainment journalist. And reading scripts on the side.  So I was often doing four or five thousand words a week to put food on the table and pay rent, then staying in the chair to do another six or seven thousand on the stuff that I wanted to be paying rent with.
            Hell, I know two full-time, professional writers (about to be three) who had babies this year.  Little, squishy new-humans who pretty much need constant attention (granted, I’ve never had one myself, so that’s just conjecture on my part).  And those three are all still writing.
            It’s fine to tell myself that I’m waiting for the muse.  Or that I’m reading a how-to book about crafting the perfect first sentence.  Or that playing Dawn of War III is going to be a vital part of my creative process.  We all have our own methods when it comes to writing. Like that corset.
            But there is also a point that... well, I’m just not writing.
            Again, depending on what I want out of this, that may be fine.  If I only post on my blog once a month... so what?  If I just write slash-fic when I’m bored, hey, it passes the time.  If this is just a hobby that I do every couple of weeks... awesome.
            If I keep telling you how much I want to be a chef, though... wouldn’t it be weird if I only cooked one or two meals a week?  Or two or three times a month? 
            I mean, that just doesn’t make much sense, right?
            Next time, I want to talk about something crazy.
            Until then, go write.
            Oh!  And if you’re in the Los Angeles area, this Sunday is the Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies in Burbank.  Noon to three, open to writers of all levels.  It’s completely free—no sign up or anything, just stop by and pull up a chair.
            Okay... now go write.