Thursday, March 15, 2018

It’s Not THAT Bad

            I tried a few pop culture references for this week, but none of them seemed to work just right.  They weren’t awful, but that’s the best I can say about them.  They weren’t awful.
            Speaking of which...
            A while back I mentioned an idea called Crap +1.  It’s a viewpoint screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott noticed (and named)--a common way some people approached screenwriting.  It’s a mindset where I look at something absolutely horrible and say “well, my script is better than that.” And that got made, therefore logic and fairness dictate that my script deserves to get made, right?
            I’m betting you’ve probably seen this reasoning applied to books, too, yes?  And publishers?  That garbage book got published, so of course the publishers are going to want to snatch up my slightly-better-than-garbage book.  The bad book prooves I deserve to be published just by existing.
            It doesn’t work that way, of course.  The big problem with the crap+1 theory is that what it really justifies is laziness.  It assumes my work just needs to be “slightly better” to qualify as good.  Which simply isn’t true.  My story might be “better” than an illiterate piece of derivative fan-fic... but that still doesn’t mean my story is any good.
            I’ve found this mindset also pushes a certain degree of entitlement.  The idea that I’m somehow owed an equal form or level or success (logic and fairness, remember?). If that made it, I deserve to make it.   At the end of the day, nobody else’s success has anything to do with my success.  The universe—or a Big Five publisher—is not required to do something for me just because it did it for someone else who I feel is less talented/ less creative/ less determined/meaner/uglier than me.
            It’s an easy trap to fall into.  The crap + 1 mindset.  Try to avoid it.  In all aspects of your life.
            Anyway, it struck me recently that some writers use this sort of logic and justification within their stories, too.  Especially in the darker, grittier tales that some folks like.  A lot of these stories operate under the idea that my character or their actions or the outcomes will be seen as good once we compare them to something worse.  The story has unlikable, awful people as our protagonists or in the cast of supporting characters around them... but that’s okay because there are people in the story who are even more awful and unlikable.
            Think about it.  How often have we seen something where my protagonist is a violent, abusive, racist... but, wow, you should see the bad guy!  My heroine just brutally killed two dozen people, yeah, but that’s not even half as many as her antagonist killed in an earlier scene.  Hell, sometimes that bar is literally as low as “well, he didn’t try to rape any of them... I guess he’s the one we’re rooting for?”
            How ridiculous is this when we stop and think about it?  Yes, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was responsible for more deaths than Charles Manson, but that doesn’t mean Manson was a nice person. Yakko isn’t likable because he’s only cruel to women when he could be cruel to women and children.
            A. Lee Martinez (he of the wonderful Constance Verity books, among others) made an observation once.  Being a good person is more than not being a bad person.  This is fantastically simple and true.  It’s fine to say Wakko’s not a serial killer, but that doesn’t make him a hero.  Or even a good person.  That’s the kind of dating logic “nice” guys use.  “Well, I’m not going to treat her like crap the way some guys would—so why doesn’t she want to go out with me?” 
            I’ve talked about this before when discussing characters, especially my main characters. They need to be likable.  By which I mean, my readers need an actual reason to like them.  A reason that counts as "good" when it’s divorced from any conditionals.  Helping out someone in need.  Showing restraint with power.  Defending and supporting the weak.  These are all inherently good actions that don’t need to be compared to anyone else’s to be good.
            Not being awful is just... that’s the bare-bones minimum.  It should be baseline human existence.  It’s definitely not a quality to cheer about in my main character.
            Along with the crap+1 idea, I think this is also a bit of binary thinking slipping in here.  This character is marginally better than the antagonist, yes, but you know what else they are...?  Not the villain.  So, logically then, they must be the hero, right? I mean, who else can they be in my story?
            And that brings me to one last aspect of all this.  I’ve mentioned before the need for my characters to win.  They can still get hurt, physically or emotionally--even die--but they need to succeed at their goals.  Because my readers identify with the heroes, and they don’t want to identify with people who don’t win because it reflects back on them.
            With this talk of being “slightly better than...,” it’s worth noting that the antagonist losing is not the same thing as the protagonist winning.  They can be connected, but this isn’t always a nice Venn diagram overlap.  If someone else stops the bad guy... that doesn’t mean my hero wins.  If the antagonist somehow fumbles things themselves... that doesn’t mean the good guy succeeded.  And if they villain just gives up and walks away... well... nobody’s really earned a victory parade for that.
            My hero needs to actually be a hero...not just a rung above the villain.  They actually need to win... not just be nearby when the plot is resolved.  And all of this needs to be in my story, which is actually good... not just slightly better than someone else’s.
            Next time... there’s something I’d like to discuss for the first time.
            Until then, go write.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Writing Lessons from ROM

Eight-year old me learned a big lesson about storytelling from this one panel...

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Step 1: Collect The Underpants

            Whoa!  A relevant pop culture title. First one in ages!
            Okay, there’s an issue that pops up at the Coffeehouse now and then.  Someone sent me a message about it on Facebook a week or three back, too.  And it’s something I’ve kinda had in the back of my mind to mention again.
            It takes a couple different forms, but what this usually boils down to is keeping enthusiasm up for writing.  It’s always fun to start a new project, but then they almost always boil down to... well, work.  And when we think of writing, people don’t like to think about work.  They want passion and muses and wild nights of drunken creativity when the words flow at a rate of two thousand an hour or more.
            But the ugly truth is... it’s often work.  A lot of work.  Suddenly all that excitement of that first step is gone and enthusiasm begins to ebb.  We're not exactly sure what we're supposed to do next.  And we’re only on chapter four!
            So here are a few things I can do to make that first draft a little easier

--Know where I’m going
            Writing a book is kinda like taking a trip.  It’s going to take time.  I’m going to need some skills.  I may need some supplies.  I can plan out every step of the way or I can be a little looser with it, but either way I should probably have some idea where I want to end up.
            Yeah, sure, there’s something wonderful and romantic about saying “wow, I just learned how to drive this weekend—it’s time to explore America’s highways!!”  Just jumping behind the wheel and taking off. No destination, no maps, nothing. Just me and my best woman/man/dog in the passenger seat.  We’ll figure it out as we go!
            Again... sounds wonderful and romantic, but I think we can all guess how a trip like that will really turn out.
            If I’m going to write a book, I should start off with a really rough idea of how it’s going to end.  I don’t need to stick to that ending, but it’s tough to keep moving forward when I don’t know what direction forward is.  So even just a very general endpoint—“Wakko and Dot sell their invention and get rich.”  “Yakko uses his giant Mechbot to stop the aliens”  “Phoebe’s the only one who gets out alive.”—will give me something to aim for.

--Schedule the time
            Okay, I admit... this can be a tough one.  I’m in a lucky position when it comes to writing.  It’s my full-time job, and I make a living at it.  I do it from home.  I don’t have kids.  My girlfriend’s a writer, too, so she needs her own time just as much as I need mine.  Most people aren’t in this position.
            But y’know what?  I wasn’t always, either. I had a full-time journalism job while I wrote Ex-Heroes and Ex-Patriots and my Crusoe mash-up novel. And I haven’t always been in such writer-friendly relationships.
            Heck, I’ll be honest. There were a few romantic relationships in my past where me announcing “I want to write for a while” got a bit of a... negative reaction.  There were rolled eyes, some gentle mocking, even a bit of resentment. And being a younger man who wanted to preserve certain day-to-day aspects of these relationships... I put my writing aside. It was ultimately my choice, and that was the choice I made.  Which is why I didn’t have much writing success in my twenties—writing was a very low priority that I was willing to ignore for other things.
            There’s always going to be other things, so I need to make time for myself to write. An hour before bed,  on the train into work, or a big block on the weekend.  Just like exercise or learning the violin or finally watching Downton Abbey,  writing’s something that’s easy to put off.  It can very quickly become the thing I’ll do next weekend.  So I need to figure out a time and try to stick to it.

--Don’t starve myself
            I know some folks try not to read similar things while they’re working on a project because they don’t want to be influenced.  I think sometimes this leaks out and becomes one of those telephone-game pieces of advice where new writers end up thinking they shouldn’t read anything while they’re writing.  Or watch anything. or listen to anything.  Or talk to other writers.  Or...
            We need input. That’s just common sense.  No input, no output.  I can’t expect to build a lot of muscle if I’m not eating anything.
            Also—and this is, again, just my own opinion—this kind of “starvation” approach can easily turn writing into some sort of punishment.  I’d like to hang with my girlfriend or read a comic or watch the finale of Rebels...but I didn’t write today so I get nothing!  If my method makes me hate writing... maybe I don’t have the best method.
            But again, don’t use feeding appetites as an excuse to put off writing until next weekend.  Don’t fall for the same traps twenty-something year old me did!  Learn from my mistakes!

--Know what I know
            This is also a good time for me to toss out my usual comments about voice and spelling and drafts.  It’s important to learn and develop these things, because it’s easy to lose momentum when I end up second-guessing myself a lot.  If I stop to double-check every four-syllable word or verb tense or read each line of dialogue out loud... it’s going to be easy to lose enthusiasm.  Don’t forget that none of this matters in a first draft.  It’s definitely going to matter—just not right now.  First drafts are big, messy, gap-filled things.  They’re not the point where I should be worried about little stuff. For now, just plow ahead. I’ll get to deal with all that stuff soon enough.

--Just do it
            I know this sounds like crap advice, but sometimes the way to keep writing is just, well... to keep writing.  At the end of the day, sometimes that’s what it comes down to.  I can keep making excuses, let myself get distracted, promise myself to do it later.  Or I can just do it.
            Or maybe ask myself why I keep not doing it.

            So there you go. A few easy ways to keep yourself on track. If you’ve got a favorite of your own, feel free to add it below.
            Anyway... hopefully, next week’s rant will be better than this one.
            Until then, go write.