Thursday, November 30, 2017

One Of You... Is A Murderer

            Sorry for the blast of posts this week.  Feel free to blame it on my love of storytelling—my own and other peoples.  Or rampant consumerism.  Or on me wanting to pay rent in January.  Any one of these answers is true.
            But now... let’s get back to some plain old writing advice.
            Readers tend to love a good mystery.  It’s kind of like the original VR game, where we get to see all the same clues and evidence as the protagonists and try to piece them together first.  We do it with books. We do it with TV shows.  Hell, there are some fantastic comic books you can do it with.  Alan Moore made a compelling argument once that comics are the perfect medium for mystery stories.
            But...
            As writers, let’s be honest.  Mysteries are tough.  They need to be in that perfect sweet spot—not so tough they’re impossible, but not so easy that my reader solves it before my character does (and then my character looks stupid for the next 150 pages for not figuring this out yet).
            Plus, there’s so much to keep track of.  Who saw what.  Where they saw it.  When they saw it.  These are all super-important, because readers hate it when they get to the end of a mystery and find a gaping hole there.  It’s probably the second-most annoying thing I can do when I’m writing a mystery.
            (And now I’ve got you all wondering, don’t I...?)
            At the Writers Coffeehouse a few weeks back, one of our regulars, Hal Bodner, offered a brilliant tip for writing mysteries. It eliminates this issue almost altogether.  Honestly, it’s so clever... it’s the whole point of this little rant.
            If you’ve ever seen or read an older mystery, they almost always have a chapter near the end when our fearless detective (or sleuths or investigators or what have you) bring all the suspects together and walk them through the crime.  They’ll go over the evidince, the clues, the alibais.  They’ll explain what each one means, which ones were red herrings, which ones they immediately discounted, and which ones pointed to...you, Widow Humphries!  Or should we call you, Isabella, the Viscount’s estranged sister!!
            You know this scene, right?  I’ve heard it called the parlor scene, the tea room room speech, the summation gathering, and other titles along those lines.  Hal called it the detective's speech.  You might still catch it today on shows like Elementary, although it’s often pared down to just the detective and the guilty party.
            So... here’s the tip.
            Write that scene.  Even if my hard-boiled action story doesn’t really call for it, I should spend a day or three and write it out before I get going.  Have my investigator pace the room and point at people and say how he noticed this and saw those and learned about this.  Explain how this theory was discarded and where that idea came from.  And then point that finger right at the guilty party and scream “J’ACCUSE!!
            Or maybe your detective plays it cooler than mine and just stands there with her hands in her trenchcoat.  Maybe she gives a little nod and a faint smile when the murderer gets hauled away. And then she pulls out her flask and crawls deep inside until she can re-bury all those memories about Jenna that this case dragged up again...
            Anyway...
            I don’t need to keep this scene, mind you.  Very likely this will just be one of those things I write that doesn’t get used.  Probably best if it isn’t.  Like I mentioned above, it’s kind of an archaic, cliche scene, and on the off chance it shows up it’s really pared down and tight.
            But once I have it written out, I have a mini-outline for how the mystery is revealed in my story.  Literally, who knows what when.  When they met the suspects.  What they see.  When they see it. When they make which connections.  It’s all right there in that speech—what my investigator needs to solve the crime.
            So gather your suspects—yes, even the butler—get them all seated in the parlor, and tell us about the first thing you noticed when you saw the crime scene.
            Next time, I wanted to talk about Luke’s father.
            Until then, go write.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Other Awesomer Books

            Monday I posted the usual ego-stroking Cyber-Monday list of my own books and some anthologies I’m in.  Today--as I have in the past--I thought I’d toss out some other books I’ve enjoyed this year that were written by much more talented people than me.  They’re not really in any order, and a few of them aren’t exactly new, but if you’re looking for something for that special somebody (or for yourself), it’s going to be tough to go wrong with any of these... 
            As always, you can prove you’re a morally better person by visiting your local bookstore.  There’s still plenty of time for them to order something for you if they don’t have it in stock.  Plus, some of them have connections and can get you autographed copies and stuff like that...

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire—the short, simple explanation is that this book is about all those kids who find mystic gateways or enchanted wardrobes or interdimensional touchstones, have fantastic adventures... and then eventually end up back in their normal, mundane homes again and having to cope with real life. The best thing I can think to say is that I’m so ridiculously jealous of this book. It’s just magnificent.

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig – I am super-late to the table with this one, because Wendig’s been writing this series for five years now.  Miriam Black is a foulmouthed alcoholic who’s gifted (or cursed) to immediately know how and when everyone she touches is going to die. After years of dealing with said ability, she’s seen someone’s future death that involves... her.  It’s funny and dark and fantastic and I think there are five of these books now.

Heroine Complex/ Heroine Worship by Sarah Kuhn –superpowers are real. So are superheroes.  The two aren’t always connected.  Oh, demons are real, too, and they can possess all sorts of things.  Evie and Aveda are such crazy-fun -lovable-exciting characters that you’ll devour each book in a day.  I did.

Killing Is My Business by Adam Christopher—I mentioned the first book in this noir-robot-detective series a while back. Adam’s written more of said series.  They’re still amazing, and now there are mysteries-within-the mysteries.  You should read them.

An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King – I got to read an early copy of this and it’s just brilliant.  A dystopian tale set in future-China, where the one child policy has gone... well, just like everyone predicted.  Our four protagonists are trying to form a family while also each hiding an array of personal secrets and deciding who to trust with them.  It’s a fantastic, slow-burn book that reads like the wonderfully twisted love child of The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Love.


Sleeping Giants/ Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel—another one I was late picking up (but got caught up quickly).  A fantastic epistolary tale about the discovery of a giant alien robot and the team that comes together to figure out how they use said robot to defend the Earth.  It’s Contact crossed with Pacific Rim, and if that idea doesn’t excite you we have nothing else to say to each other.
            Good day to you.
            I said good day.

We Are Wormwood by Autumn Christian – a beautifully surreal tale about a young woman growing up with insanity and then... well, descending into it herself with a few nudges from her demon girlfriend.  Christian also has a fantastic collection of creepy/scary/sexy short stories called Ecstatic Inferno that I wolfed down in about a day.  I befriended her on Twitter just so I can constantly prod her to write new stuff for me to read. I'm selfish that way.

Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black—okay, this glorious space opera’s kind of tough to explain, because in the future Earth has shifted over to an entirely new form of technology.  In short, its about a group of people developing new weapons, learning to use them, and learning to be them.  It may take a little bit to get into this one, but it’s sooo worth it.

Revolution –by John Barber and Cullen Bunn—I was a die-hard comic fan for years, but got driven out by the constant (and often substandard) crossover events.  I started reading some of IDW’s “Hasbroverse” books last year and was frustrated when they announced Revolution, their own upcoming crossover event.
            Holy crap.  This was my favorite comic book event in at least twenty years. It begins with a conflict between the GI Joe team and the Autobots which gets disrupted when Rom the Spaceknight shows up and uses his Neutralizer to incinerate General Duke before flying off again. If you were already a fan of IDW’s GI Joe or Transformers books, you can guess how a silver robot showing up and killing the Joes’ CO goes over.  If you’re a fan of Rom you know what this killing implies...  Revolution is honestly suspenseful and dramatic, and has amazingly solid ties to all the books involved.  It’s clearly a crossover that was planned far in advance, and it made me a regular at my comic shop again.

            And anyway, those are some of my favorite things I read this year.  Any one of them would make for a fantastic gift.  And if you’ve got some suggestions of your own, please mention them in the comments down below.
            Tomorrow... regular old writing advice.  Thanks for your patience.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Cyber Monday VI: The Consumering

            So, we’re officially in the Christmas season now.  And the marketing people at Crown—who are truly wonderful folks—have dropped certain... hints my way.  Sooooooo, much as I dislike doing this here...
            I have to ask you all to buy stuff.
            I’m so very sorry.  I'll be quick.
            Here’s a few of my books and also some collections and anthologies I’ve got stories in.  Put them on your holiday wish list or get them as gifts for friends and family members.
            And really, go to your local bookstore.  They’re cool and they could use the business. Plus, now you’re not one of those conformists falling for all this Cyber Monday capitalist nonsense.
            Anyway...
            The big thing this year, of course, is Paradox Bound, available in hardcover at all your favorite bookstores.  Also in ebook and a wonderful audiobook read by Ray Porter.  If you haven’t heard me drone on about it yet, it’s got history travel, road trips, creepy bad guys, and a really cool train. F.Paul Wilson compared it to Doctor Who crossed with National Treasure, and I really couldn’t ask for a better description than that.
            I also had a short story collection come out this year—Dead Men Can’t Complain.  It’s a bunch of stories from various anthologies and journals, plus a few original ones.  This one’s an Audible exclusive, and it’s read by Ray Porter and Ralph Lister.
            Many of you are probably here because of the Ex-Heroes series.  Ex-Heroes, Ex-Patriots, Ex-Communication, Ex-Purgatory, and Ex-Isle! All of these are available in a number of formats and a number of languages.
            Early on someone described The Fold as a horror-suspense novel disguised as a sci-fi-mystery, and I’ve been using that ever since.   It’s also loosely connected to another semi-popular book I wrote...  Ray reads the audiobook for this one, too.
            At least a third of you have probably found your way here because of –14— my weird Lovecraftian-sci-fi-urban-horror-mystery novel.  There’s a paperback (although it’s ridiculously hard to find these days), an ebook, and another audiobook narrated by Ray Porter.
            You can pick up The Junkie Quatrain as either an ebook or an audiobook (no paper, sorry).  It’s my attempt at a “fast zombies” tale, a series of interconnected stories I’ve sometimes described as Rashomon meets 28 Days Later
            I also have a ton of short stories out in anthologies right now.  The newest one is MECH: Age of Steel, which features “Projekt: Maria,” a new WWII pulp adventure featuring Carter & Kraft from me (and stories by more talented writers like Jason Hough and M. L. Brennan).  Plus, you can still pick up Kaiju Rising, which contains “Banner of the Bent Cross,” the first Carter & Kraft team-up
            Naughty or Nice is a collection of twisted holiday stories which cover... a lot of genres.  Don’t get it for your nine year old.  Or probably your parents. 
            There’s also The X-Files: Trust No One, edited by the wonderful-in-so-many-ways Jonathan Maberry and with stories from Gini Koch, Tim Lebbon, Heather Graham, and more.  My story here is “The Beast of Little Hill,” a classic Mulder and Scully tale about roadside attractions and fake aliens. 
            Finally, there’s “The Apocrypha of Gamma-202, ” a story about robots and religion, which appeared in Bless Your Mechanical Heart.  You’ll also get some great stories from Seanan McGuire, Ken Scholes, and Lucy Snyder.
            Also, I’ve said it in some other places, but if you’d like to get something autographed for the holidays, get in touch with Dark Delicacies (either by phone or online).  You can place an order with them (they’ll order the book you want if they don’t have it in stock) and tell them what you’d like to have scribbled in it. I stop by the store, personalize those scribbles for you, and they ship the book(s) to you in time for your end-of-year-holiday of choice. Everyone wins.
            And thus ends my shameless Cyber Monday appeal to capitalism.  Again, so very sorry, but please tell the marketing folks you read it.  I’ll also do another list later this week with some great books I’ve read by other, much better authors.  And of course, our usual Thursday blog post about writing.  And please don’t forget my Black Friday offer if you happen to be someone who needs it.
            Please feel free to resume your internet shopping.  Surf responsibly.  Clear your browser history on a regular basis.  
            And don’t click on that—it isn’t really from PayPal.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Black Friday V: The Silent Nightening

            Hope you all enjoyed your big meal yesterday. And if you didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving... well, I hope it was still a great and peaceful day for you.  Maybe you at least had a day off.
            Anyway, before we all dive into the capitalist nightmare of the day, I’d like to take a moment or three to discuss some personal history and--as I have in a couple other places on past Black Fridays--make an offer to those of you who may need it.
            Over a decade ago, when I chose to become a full time writer, I knew it meant some changes.  I’d been working in the film industry, and even as a non-union crew member, I was getting pretty solid wages.  Not fantastic, but I was living on the lower edge of middle class.  The decision to write full time would mean a pay cut, and I accepted that I’d be living tight for a while.
            It only took about a year and a half for the usual unavoidable expenses to pile up.  Car repairs, a very sick cat, and then the economy crashed so prices went up on a lot of things.  On top of that, the magazine I was writing for gave all its freelancers a 20%  pay cut.  After that, well...  In the space of another year I went from “living tight” to “way under the poverty line.”  And that's considering the poverty line in this country is much lower than it realistically should be.  My bank accounts were always empty (sometimes overdrawn when things processed in a weird order—which meant fees).  My credit cards were maxed out (which was a trigger to the credit card company to raise all my interest rates). I spent way too much time figuring out how each 20%-lower paycheck could be spread across three or four bills.
            My girlfriend and I went through three years like that.  Always stressed. Always sick with despair.  Always waiting for that unavoidable, inevitable expense that’d crush us.  We couldn’t turn the heat on for two winters in a row.  Our phone got shut off.  We went to the library to use the internet, and while we were there we’d steal rolls of toilet paper from the bathroom.  Because we were that poor.
            See, some folks who like to whine about “handouts” or “entitlements,” but the truth is most poor people are just trying desperately to survive with a small degree of dignity.
            Oh, speaking of which--guess what?  The holidays suck for poor people.  It’s just more anxiety.  I hated the holidays.  We could’t afford to give out candy so no Halloween.  Thanksgiving was a few cans from the 99 Cent Store.  Christmas was awful.  We couldn’t even afford cards, let alone presents.  Nothing for my girlfriend or my mom and dad.  Nothing for my brother, sister in law, niece or nephew.  Nothing for my friends.  Being poor at the holidays is like when you forget to get something for that one person at the office party and you kind of squirm for an hour or so.  Except you feel like that for every hour of every day for the entire season.
            All that said... these days I’m in a better position, and I owe a good part of that to all of you.  So if I can help some of you avoid feeling that miserable this holiday season, I’d like to do it.
            If you’re in that same kind of bad place right now, where you can’t afford to give gifts to your family or friends, shoot me a note at the old PeterClines101@yahoo.com address.  I’ve got fifteen or sixteen random books saved away.  I’ll scribble in one and mail it out to you.  I’ll even throw in wrapping paper if you need it.   It’s not much, but it’ll be a present you can give someone so you don’t have to feel low.  You can request a specific book, but I can’t promise anything, sorry (I have what I have).  I’ll send them out for as long as the books last.
            Again, this is only for those of you who need some help getting gifts for others. The people who are pulling unemployment, cutting back on everything, and feeling like crap because they can’t afford gifts for family or friends.  It’s not so you can recommend someone who might like a free book.  You could do that for them—go buy them a book.
            I’m also doing this on the honor system, so if you’re just trying to save some cash or score an autographed book, I won’t be able to stop you.  Just know that you’re a truly awful, selfish person and you’re taking away what might be someone’s brightest moment this season.  And you’ll burn in the pits of hell, if you believe in that sort of thing.  If not,  Krampus will probably feed you to a squale.  Violently.
            So... Happy Holidays.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Not-That-Bad Guys

            So very sorry I missed last week.  I’ve been trying to get this draft finished before Thanksgiving and last week just kind of sped by before I realized it.  My apologies.
            Also, thanks to all of you who sent me suggestions for topics. I think the rest of the year is filled up kind of nice, but if you happen to be reading this and still have some things you’d like me to blab about, feel free to mention them below.  I’m always up for more writing-related ideas you’d like to hear about.
            On which note...
            Thanksgiving.  A holiday we in the U.S. equally love and dread.  Love because... well, lots of food, friends, and family.  Maybe some booze and a lot of old black and white movies, or football if that’s your thing.  Perhaps a Twilight Zone marathon.  All wonderful things to enjoy on this feast day of thanks.
            Dread because... okay, let’s be honest.  The in-laws are kind of political zealots.  It’s almost impossible to have any discussion with them that doesn’t hit “those crazy liberals” within five minutes.  Your cousin’s significant other, the would-be-chef, is going to have lots to say about the turkey (and the stuffing, and the pie, and the potatoes, and...).   And if Uncle Randy has a third glass of wine (he says it’s just wine, anyway)... well, that’s when all the dark family secrets start coming out.  Some of them are even true.
            Granted, it’s not like these people are actually evil.  They’re not villains.  Okay, yeah, Uncle Randy had a brief stint in jail but that was over parking tickets (he says he was protesting the state government).  And two-thirds of the sentence was reduced to time served.
            But, seriously, they’re not villains.  They’re not what we’d think of as “bad guys.”  They’re just... kind of annoying.  Closer to obstacles than enemies.
            So let’s talk about antagonists for a few minutes.
            I’ve talked before about bad guys and antagonists.  About how my story often needs someone to oppose my hero or heroine, even if that someone is just standing in for a larger, less defined opponent.  An IRS agent can represent the government.  A junior executive can represent big business.  A doctor can represent a debilitating condition or perhaps even death.
            These people aren’t necessarily villains, though.  They may be working—or seem to be working—against my protagonist, but it’s not like they’re up to some nefarious plot.  Oh, sure, they could be, but in most of these examples, they’re probably just people doing their job.  I’m sure pretty sure most IRS agents aren’t gleeful about telling poverty-stricken people they messed up some forms and owe thousands of dollars.  I have a good friend who’s a doctor, and she’s never mentioned getting overly excited about telling people they’re going to need an organ transplant.
            And yet... we still tend to see these people as a challenge to overcome.  Someone we have to beat or prove wrong.
            This isn’t exactly a unique thing.  Having antagonists who are also (on some level) good people is a very common plot device.  Especially once we bring in police, soldiers, doctors, and even government agencies. Yes, even in this day and age.  So my hero has to deal with antagonists that are basically... well, heroes in their own right.
            For example, let’s take a look at a classic antagonist from one of America’s iconic folk tales, one that’s been produced for film and television.
            Captain Gantu from Lilo & Stitch.
            Gantu (voiced by the super-talented Kevin Michael Richardson—seriously, check out this guy’s resume) is the chief antagonist in the movie.  He imprisons Stitch at the beginning of the movie, tried to ship him off to what amounts to eternal exile on an asteroid, and then—after Stitch escapes—Gantu hunts him down to make sure that sentence is carried out.  Although his attitude at this point could loosely be described as... well, it wouldn’t be stretching things a lot to say “dead or alive.”
            But... is Gantu really a villain?  He is Captain Gantu, after all.  He’s risen through the ranks to be an officer of the Galactic Federation, and he’s the right hand man of the Grand Councilwoman.  When he goes after Stitch, it isn’t a personal vendetta—he’s following his leader’s orders to enforce the law.  Stitch is, after all, a fugitive from justice who’s broken even more laws by escaping to Earth.
            So Gantu’s definitely the antagonist of Lilo & Stitch.  And he’s a bit overzealous, yeah.  Maybe even a bit prejudiced against lab-created life forms.  But he’s not exactly a villain.
            Which means... what, as far as we’re concerned?
            Well, first off, this is an empathy issue.  As the writer, I have to be able to see things from Gantu’s (or Uncle Randy’s) point of view.  There has to be more to them than just “opposed to my protagonist,” especially if they’re not a villain... I might want it to be more on the positive side.  Is my antagonist doing this out of a sense of duty—even a misguided one?  Are they a reluctant antagonist?  Maybe it’s a lesser-of-two-evils situation?
            Keep in mind, this doesn’t have to work both ways.  While my readers need to have some empathy for the antagonist in this case, my antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to have any for my hero.  After all, in their eyes, there’s a good chance my hero is “the villain,” and should be treated as such.
            Second is that these antagonists actually need to be good people. If we find out Gantu’s in charge of the Galactic Federation’s concentration camps, or that the in-laws regularly firebomb Planned Parenthood offices and burn crosses on people’s lawns... well, they really are villains, then.  Again, empathy. If they’re going to be good guys then they need to be good guys.  Their actions may be antagonistic towards my hero or heroine, but it should still be clear to my readers they’re decent people at heart.  At the least, they're just trying to do their jobs.
            Also, something related to keep in mind here—something a writer-friend of mine was recently wrestling with.  If my antagonists are secretly good guys, if this is a twist that comes out somewhere in my third act... well, like any good twist, things still have to line up.  It’s going to be hard to reconcile a last minute “we’re actually the good guys” after 300 pages of murdering innocent bystanders and torturing supporting characters.  If I need my readers to misunderstand the antagonist’s earlier actions... they need to be actions that can be misunderstood.  It’s really tough to come back from shouting a bunch of racist, xenophobic slurs at strangers or shooting schoolteachers in the head.
            Y’see, Timmy, all I have to do is make them good people and have a little empathy.  If I have a real conflict, everything else should fall into place.  Or pretty close into place.
            Assuming I have solid characters.  And an actual plot.  And good dialogue. And... you know.
            Happy Thanksgiving, if you’re here in the states.  Hope tomorrow’s a peaceful and pleasant day for you, wherever you are.
            Next time... a great mystery tip.
            Until then, go write.

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 who likes 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.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Metaphorically Speaking

            It’s the Halloween season, so I thought this’d be a good time to tell you about this nightmarish thing I saw once. 
            I mean, it was just hideous.  This thing was like Lucifer and the heat death of the universe had a child together.  And not a wanted child. One of those “we got seriously drunk and shouldn’t’ve done this and it wasn’t even that fun but now I guess we’re parent together” children.  Yeah, there’s no question this thing knew its parents didn’t love each other and only stayed together for it.  You could see it in the eyes.  It had eyes like those island wells Conan used to find in all the old Robert E. Howard adventures.  Conan finds a lost city at the center of the island’s jungle (or at the top of a hill or plateau) and there’s always a big stone plaza with some kind of pool or well, swirling with water or blood or eternal, stygian darkness.  One of those sort of wells
            Its whole body was like that, really.  It was the kind of thing you’d read about in pulp supernatural stories or old horror comics, where the writers would throw together a few adjectives to create something that was just visually repellent on one level or another.  They’d exaggerate this limb or that feature to the point your mind just couldn’t help but register it as unnatural.  Alien, even.
            And the smell!  If you left someone to die alone of exposure on a mountainside, with just enough food and firewood to give them faint hope but not enough to actually keep them alive—the few minutes before life left their body, that’s just what it smelled like.
            Okay, there’s more (believe me, I’ll never forget this thing) but if I don’t stop now we’ll never get to the actual point I wanted to make.
            Every now and then I see a writer so desperate to be artsy, to write “literature,” that they load their work with metaphors and similes.  I mean dozens and dozens and dozens of them.  Why just call something red when we can describe it as the color of blood and roses and UMass sweatshirts, right?
            That last item is kind of a hint where this is going.
            Of course, blood and roses are the obvious choices if I’m going to describe something as red without... y’know, actually saying red.  So some writers feel the need to come up with seriously obscure visuals or tortured similes in order to not go the "obvious" route.  Yeah, you can all guess what color a UMass sweatshirt is because I just lined it up with blood and roses.  But if I told you the sky was the color of a UCLA sweatshirt is that... good?  Bad?  Unnatural?
            This is really similar to—a natural outgrowth of, really—an issue I’ve brought up a few times before.  Some writers go out of their way to find rarely-used, little-known words they can use in their manuscripts.  A few of them go one step further and use these words to create their metaphors.  Or they’ll use such obscure or personal references that the description means nothing.  Telling you the beast had fur the color of my first childhood cat doesn’t really tell you what color its fur is.
            I can still do worse, though.  Remember that nightmarish thing I saw, the one I described up above?  Let me ask you a question.
            Do you have any idea what this thing looks like? 
            Can you describe it at all?  Any specific aspect of it?  Height?  Weight?  Color?  Heck, do you even know if it’s alive or dead? Am I describing a creature or a statue or a really poorly-designed rocking chair?
            Sometimes we get so caught up in evoking a certain image or mood or sensation that we... well, we never actually describe anything.  Our attempt to viscerally describe the horror actually leaves us with a horror-shaped hole on the page.  It’s scary for half a beat, but then we realize there’s not anything there.  It breaks the flow as we have to stop and figure out what something
            In screenwriting, this kind of thing is even more deadly.  Screenwriting’s a really precise form where I need to correctly convey a message to multiple people.  The director, the actors, the prop people, the wardrobe folks. the makeup artists, maybe even a special effects team.  We need to all be on the same page regarding what the demon prince Ognaron looks like.  Because if we’re not, well... our shooting day is going to have a lot of delays.
            Back when I used to do interviews, David S. Goyer told me he got (playfully) chewed out once by Guillermo del Toro for a weak bit of metaphorical description he’d used in a script they were working on.  And then Goyer admitted he was telling me this because he’d done the same thing again—to himself—when he got to direct his own screenplay.
            Now, don’t get me wrong—I freakin’ love a good metaphor.  A clever, descriptive turn of phrase is like a shot of good whiskey. It’s a hard kick that makes me feel all warm and soft in the gut.  It’s not unusual to hear me make a small gasp or sigh after one.
            But...
            Y’know what happens if someone does shot after shot after shot after shot?  I’ll give you a hint—it’s not pleasant.  Yeah, some folks have more tolerance than others, but by the twelfth or thirteenth, well, most people are in a bad place.  Especially if they’ve been doing them one after another.  Too many in a row without something solid in there... that’s a recipe for disaster.
            Y’see, Timmy, like whiskey shots, I don't want to have nothing but metaphors.  They’re fantastic and lovely, but for them to really work I need some solid stuff, too.  Hell, there’s a reason people say to have a lot of bread before a night of drinking.  It’s plain and kinda boring... but it’s a solid foundation that makes the other stuff a lot easier to swallow
            So get out there and celebrate the wild, crazy horror that is Halloween.
            But, y’know, don’t be scared to actually describe it now and then.
            Next time, I’d like to share a bit of advice about something you should always never do.
            Sometimes.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Center of Attention

            This week I wanted to blather for a minute about an unusual character/structure issue that I see come up now and then.  It’s one of those kinda basic ideas that can actually be difficult to spot.  Or explain.  And, to be honest, it’s something I’m dealing with a bit in my current book.
            I’ve talked before about protagonists.  How my main character should be the main focus of the story, the ones we’re spending the most time with.  Secondary characters should be secondary.  Background characters should kinda blur into the background. This all sounds straightforward, right?  I think we all understand this.
            However...
            A mistake I sometimes see is when every other character in the story immediately recognizes this character as the protagonist.  They all stop doing their own, natural thing and start treating the main character as... well, the center of things.  The character stops moving through the plot, and instead the plot begins to revolve around them.
            Let me give you an example...
            A few weekends back, one of my random movies was about a guy (we’ll call him Yakko) who wanted to propose to his girlfriend.  Had the ring and everything.  Thing was, said girlfriend got roped into being in charge of some office team-building thing up in the mountains. She had to cancel their plans for the weekend, unless...  He was an experienced camper/hiker and he had a big SUV—if he wanted to drive they could still kinda spend the weekend together.  Yakko thinks about it, decides sure, he can propose up by the lake, and agrees to help out.
            Thing was... as soon as their group got together and started driving up into the mountains, everyone started to defer to Yakko.  All the office folk who’d never met him before.  That jerk Evan from accounting.  Even his girlfriend, the one who was supposed to be in charge.  Suddenly the protagonist was the boss and nobody questioned it... or even mentioned it.
            This isn’t really surprising, on one level, that writers end up doing this.  If I want my character to be active and do things, they need to be in a position to do things, right?  Their decisions need to count and have an effect on the plot.  There’s a reason most of the Star Trek shows are about command officers and not the enlisted crew.  It’s tough to be active when everything about my position requires me to defer to someone else.
            Of course, the answer to this isn’t for me to have the unconnected boyfriend suddenly become the key figure on the teambuilding trip.  Or for the junior crewman to take command of Deep Space Nine.  Just because someone’s the center of attention in my story doesn’t make them the center of attention in their story.  There’s other stuff going on in the world and structures in place.  The wheels are in motion, as some folks like to say.  I may focus my story on an Army private, but that doesn’t mean suddenly everyone in the military should defer to that private just because she’s the protagonist.  The Army has a whole chain of command that would... well, kinda stop that from happening.
            How often in your own life have you had something to do, something important to say, and people just brushed you off or ignored you or talked over you?  It’s happened to me countless times.  Hell, it just happened yesterday on the phone with the bank.  It’s my life, but for some reason everyone else refuses to treat me as the most important person in it.
            Now, I can already hear people typing frantically in the comments, ready to explain three or seven ways that everyone in the US Armed Forces could end up deferring to a private.  And sure, it could happen.  Anything could happen. That’s the joy of fiction.
            But...
            Y’see, Timmy, if I’m going to do it, that explanation has to be part of my story.  It can’t be something that just happens, that I gloss over.  That’s lazy writing. That’s me writing myself into a corner and then smashing a hole in the wall rather than figuring a way out.
            I’ve talked about a similar idea before—the idea that I’m telling the right story.  It’s a weird idea, I know, but if I’ve set up a situation that requires a lot of stretching of conventional norms... well, I have to explain that stretching.  Why are we all deferring to the boss’s boyfriend?  Who put that crewman in charge of the Defiant?  Why is the general insisting everyone follow the private’s orders?
             Is my main character someone who’s going to be able to navigate my plot?  Is their social status, financial status, employment, or health going to be an unbelievable (or maybe flat up impossible) hindrance to the story I’m trying to tell?  If they aren’t, I’m probably going to need to explain or justify a lot of things.
            Or maybe I’m just focusing on the wrong person.
            In my current project, the main character is the fish out of water.  My ignorant stranger.  She’s the new kid on the job, and this means she’s pretty far down the totem pole.  So... why does she end up in the important meetings once the crisis occurs?  How is she an active person, making decisions that affect the story when there are so many people above her making their own decisions?
            It’s taking a bit of work.  But I’m making it happen.  Hopefully in a believable way.
            Next time, I wanted to talk about the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Time For A Break

            Well, this is overdue.
            So sorry for the long delay.  I’d hoped to get this up before I left for NYCC, but that day turned into the usual rush of dealing with this and that and more of this.  I don’t know why it’s always so frantic. It’s not like I was going to be there for a week or something.  Two nights, but I always pack as if I’m gone for a week anyway. I’ve got stuff for different weather conditions.
            Stuff for downtime.  Some stuff for fans. I’m ridiculously overprepared.
            But let’s take a brief break from that and talk about paragraph breaks.
            Like that weird one I just did up there.
            I’ve mentioned paragraphs here once or twice before.  If sentences are taking a nice bite of the story, paragraphs are three or mouthfuls before having a taste of something else.  I eat some spaghetti, then I have a sip of wine or maybe nibble some garlic bread.  The different tastes and textures work together to make the meal more enjoyable.  If I just had to sit and eat a bowl of spaghetti with nothing to break it up, it’d get kind of monotonous. No matter how much I like spaghetti.
            Hell, at some point, depending on the size of the bowl, I’d probably even start dreading the stuff.
            And that’s what I’m trying to avoid with paragraphs.  I don’t want readers to get bored or intimidated by what they see on the page. I want to break up the text in a way that furthers the story.
            For example, when two people are talking, my attention goes back and forth between them.  Yakko to Wakko.  Someone new talks, and my attention shifts to them.  Perhaps it’s going back and forth, or it could be bouncing between three or four people.
            Think of paragraphs as those moments of attention.  If something shifts my attention away, I should have a new paragraph.  And then maybe it’ll shift back. or perhaps shift to something new, and my attention will follow it there.
            Even if the same character keeps talking, it can get broken into two or more paragraphs. In any long monologue, I should be able to sense the pauses and shifts, the places where our attention moves on to a slightly different aspect of the topic.  Maybe I’m going on about death, with a slight shift into funeral arrangements, my time in Kazakhstan, maybe even thinking ahead to my own end.  Perhaps we’re talking about relationships, and being in love vs. young love vs. older love, and maybe those few times we mistook sex for love, or knew it wasn’t love and didn’t really care at the moment.  In each of these long discussions, it’s easy to see where it could—and should—spin off into a separate paragraph.
            Y’see, Timmy, when I don’t break things up, I end up with a paragraph where it jumps around a lot, nothing’s really described, and it covers a lot of ground.  Sometimes I may do that for a certain effect, yeah, but most of the time... that’s not great storytelling. Of course, the flipside to this is breaking something in the wrong place.
            When I do that, the flow stumbles, because it means I’ve probably broken a point of focus.  Like up at the top, when I broke the second paragraph in the middle of describing the items I was packing.  Or just two sentences back.  I should’ve started the new paragraph on “Of course,” because where I did break it cut off this whole idea I’m trying to explain.
            Which, granted, helped to explain it.
            See—new idea, new break, great flow.
            Breaks also alter the pacing.  Have you ever noticed in a lot of movies and television shows, we get more cuts (jumping from one camera angle to another) as action and tension build?  We jump from Arya to Brienne, back to Arya, to a wide shot, to Sansa watching them duel, then back to Brienne and Arya for that dagger flip... 
            You can feel the energy and the pace right there, just seeing it written out, can’t you?  We understand there’s a lot going on and that all these people are—in their own way—involved in making this complete scene.  Our attention jumps around in one paragraph, but it does it fast because this is a fast-paced scene. 
            See, in prose (unlike film), those breaks would slow down the action.  Notice how the whole Arya--Brienne fight, almost two minutes on film, gets summed up really nicely in there?  When an action scene moves into several paragraphs, it tends to make things drag.  If I take six or seven lines to describe something that happens in one or two seconds, I’m altering the flow and forcing the action to that pace. 
            There may be reasons to do that, sure... but I’d better have a reason if I’m doing it that way.
            There’s also another issue at work here.  As readers, we kind of expect these breaks.  How often have you seen a wall of text in a book or online and just groaned a bit (out loud or internally).  They make that TL;DR reflex twitch in the back of our brains.  It’s because we understand information doesn’t come in giant slabs like that.  A wall of text is someone going on way more than necessary about a single topic. 
           The breaks help us keep things organized, too.  Remember I mentioned the back and forth aspect of watching a conversation?  We tend to follow that in prose, too.  If I have dialogue between Yakko and Dot, we don’t expect that dialogue to share a paragraph.  The breaks help us set the back and forth rhythm in our minds.  And when something disrupts that rhythm, it also breaks the flow.
            And, as I’ve mentioned many times before, breaking the flow of my story can be fatal.
            Because that’s my ultimate goal.  To have my story be smooth and readable. For it to draw people in, not push them away.  You’ll find people who try to tell you the punctuation and formatting of a story don’t matter, that a good story will stand on its own despite those things.  The truth is, though, the way it’s set out is going to have a huge impact on how it’s interpreted by readers.  How easily it flows.  How fast it feels. How accessible it looks. 
            So break things up. Y’know before your readers decide they need a break...
            Next time, I’d like to talk a little more about the center of our attention.
            Until then, go write.