Posts Tagged With: opinion

The Plot Thickens (if you add some flour)

What do you need to create a plot? That’s the big question isn’t it? Well, here’s your answer: stuff. You need stuff. That was simple. End of blog. You can go about your business now. Wait wait wait… no. That’s cheating. Sorry. Okay. Alright. Someone on the facebook page just said it’s Goal, Motivation, Conflict. Okay. I can agree with that. It’s got a good beat. You can at least shuffle like an injured zombie to it. But is that enough?

I have decreed that it is Plot week on the Nanowrimo group page. Not the official page, mind you. The big unofficial one. The facebook one. So this is mostly for those folks, should they find their way here. If you’re not from the group, though, that’s okay too. Hope you enjoy it. It’s bound to be a rambling incoherent mess.

Okay. Just to start with, i remember when i was a young lad my mom got me a book for my birthday. Not exactly a unique occurrence. But this one was really good. It was The Fiction Writers Handbook, by Hallie and Whit Burnett. I was…. probably 12. It had a section on plot and it started thusly: The king dies. Then the queen dies. Now, according to Hallie and Whit, this right here is the essence of plot. This happened, then that happened. Is the happening the result of the first thing happening? Could be. But either way, everything between those two happenings (whatever you figure out) is your plot.

So you can say Goal, Motivation, Conflict and those certainly help. But, to me, that’s more of the order of character. Your character needs the goal, the motivation, the conflict. The Plot is the media in which those ingredients thicken and become a stew. I mean…. what’s my goal? To not die a horrible flaming death at the hands of the big damned dragon. What’s my motivation? Not dying is pretty good. What’s the conflict? Those big nasty teeth and, you know, the gouts of flame that are scorching my eyebrows off. Yeah. That’s good. But how the hell did i get into the damned dragons lair anyway? What am i doing here? That’s your plot.

Plot is simple. Really. It’s the barest of all possible bones in a story. It’s like a femur or something. And all plots are fairly alike… Mystery: Find the how and the who and bring them to justice. Fantasy: Recover the MacGuffin for the good guys. Sci Fi…. could be anything. Romance: Girl and guy hook up – happily ever after or no? Lit fic: Discover the X within yourself (or don’t and live as an educating wretch) It’s all pretty simple. So why bother?

Well… that’s the BIG BIG BIG damned question. The why bother is the thing that YOU bring to the table. The why is the thing that keeps you moving forward.

So you want to tell a story about dragons. Cool. Everybody loves dragons. Why not? But why you? What is it – inside you – that causes you to want to write about dragons? Find that. It can be almost anything. It can even be ‘dude. i just think dragons are wicked cool.’ That’s fine. But what is it about them that makes them wicked cool to YOU? Let’s take superheros for example: now it’s common knowledge that the superhero is an active character battling for justice in an inactive and occasionally subverted world, right? But what made someone write them to begin with? Probably a feeling of powerlessness in the face of powerful forces that seemed insurmountable. In short. I want Captain America to kick Hitler’s ass because my big brother Jimmy is over there and i’m scared shitless i’m never going to see him again and if Cap does it, Jimmy can come home. X-Men – racially mixed teens expunged from a society that hates and fears them, battle the forces of intolerance.

See? Simple but really damned powerful motivations.

Start from the small bones. The King dies then the queen dies. Then figure out why you care and put the muscle on those bones. In all probability you will start with your own motivation – what things are YOU trying to deal with? The king dies then the queen dies. Is it grief? Are you dealing with grief? Now you might say… i just want to write a really great story with lots of derring do and heroics. Who cares about all that thinky psychologizing stuff. Thousands of books are written just to sell a quick buck. Why can’t i just write one of those. Well, you can. But believe it or not, not caring is way harder than writing something you actually give a shit about. If you give a shit, you will want to know how the story ends. You will want to overcome the obstacles you set out for your Main Character. Because they’re YOUR obstacles too.

So. move forward from the basics and put the bones together with the idea of overcoming those things you need to get past, deal with, overcome. Hell, maybe you can’t. But you can create someone who can and when you do… well that’s the whole point. That’s the writing getting to the next level. That’s giving people the chance to say ‘you know what? I read your book, and the way you got Bobby over the hump of dealing with the death of the king so that he could then go and slay the evil queen? It saved my shit. No lie. I was in a bad place and i read that and i was like ‘i can get off my ass. If little Bobby Peachtree could do it. I can.’

Now that may seem more like thematics. Which i should talk about, but i won’t right now. Ideally you’ll be building your themes concurrent with the plot. But just remember the plot starts simple. Keep it simple. Little girl finds home. Detective finds the bad guy. Good overcomes bad. Then ask questions. Ask LOTS of questions. What is the good? What is the bad? How does good overcome? What is home? Who is the bad guy? How does the detective find him? What clues are left behind? Where do they lead? Plot is a series of this/then. That happens because this happened. Chain them all together and you have your plot.

 

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Categories: Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Have Pen, Will Travel or Get The Heck OUT THERE, Writer!!!

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Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re a writer. Congrats. I can tell by your moleskine notebook and brace of pens, the book crammed under your arm, your messenger bag, your laptop. That’s nice. Oh look, you’ve made your way to the coffee shop. That’s great. Whatcha working on? Huh? Huh? Not going to tell me are you? That’s alright. I get it.

But here’s the thing, writer. There’s a little more to writing than… well… writing. So put that pen away for a second. No, i’m not going to stop bothering you. Put it away and listen for a second. This is important. No really. You’ve got to hear this. Are you listening?

Good.

Get out there.

Look. We’re all better off, as writers, sequestered in our respective monastic cells tapping away our stories and such. It’s one of the reasons we do what we do and love it. But there’s really more out there that you need to experience. You need to travel. You need a vacation.

Well. Duh. Is what you probably just said. But, seriously. There is a huge pile of experiences and stuff that you need to be having to restock the warehouse of ideas. There’s things you need to see, people you need to meet and experiences you must have that will just make those pages sing a little louder, a little more confidently.

But it’s not enough to just pack your bags and sallie forth. You’ve got to be open to the whole thing too. In the next few blogs i intend to post a few little whys and wherefores on the whole travel thing. Again, they aren’t meant for everyone. They won’t be a ‘do this or else’ list. In fact they’re just going to be a few things here and there that helped me on my most recent travels and stuff i’ve been reflecting on since. Things like what bars you should frequent while out on your travels, What sort of tourist traps should you hit – if any – and which one’s you shouldn’t. Then i’ll key you in to my own little travel log. Or whatever.

But let’s just start here for now. You’ve got to get out there. Find a retreat. Find a conference. Go. Hang out among the locals and get to know people. Be open. Take public transit and most importantly, chat with total strangers. Travel is an opportunity that writers must take. It’s the big golden gate to your brain that doesn’t open nearly enough. When it does amazing stuff pours in. Stuff that can and will color your words and creations more vividly than anything else.

So think of this lame post as an exhortation and an introduction. If you’re interested, just stay tuned for more. I’m hoping – of course – to tell you all about my most recent travel. I’ll be getting into specifics, so it may end up sounding a bit like a travel review type thing but i promise there will be plenty of writery stuff to it as well. And yes, in case you’re wondering, that big ship at the top has something to do with it.

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Intelligence – Is Lacking (a review with spoilers… PLEASE READ THE SPOILERS SO YOU DON’T FEEL OBLIGATED TO WATCH IT!)

Intelligence

Well that was an easy title wasn’t it? Pretty much says it all right there. Peace out Blog readers! *drops mic*

But seriously. I watched this epic piece of garbage last night in my ongoing quest to watch crap TV shows so you don’t have to and let me tell you… it’s a doozy. Let’s start with the basics, shall we? Bear with me. This might take a while…

Intelligence is about a guy who ends up being a high value intelligence operative because someone put a computer chip in his head that allows him to access all sorts of top-secret classified stuff. Sound familiar? Yeah… it did to me too…

Chuck

 

But where Chuck set up its characters right off the bat and had their flaws built-in from the get go Intelligence shows the lie to its name by dropping cookie cutter perfection into the plot. Josh Holloway’s Gabriel doesn’t JUST have a computer in his head. He is a Tier One Former Delta Force operator. And he looks like he just stepped out of an underwear ad. Oh and he’s snarky. What’s his starting character flaw? Something happened to his WIFE! GASP! zzzzzzzzz…. but otherwise the only thing missing about this guy is an animated sparkle to his teeth.

Then we have Megan Ory as Riley Neal. Easy on the eyes. WAY TOO EASY ON THE EYES. Yvonne Strahovsky in Chuck provided the cute… nay beautiful… fantasy to the charming fable whereas Megan is apparently here to be the butt of Gabriel’s dismally ineffective wit. And what sort of a name is Riley Neal anyway? Which committee of power suits concocted that? Where is the percentile table they rolled it up on? I mean COME ON. Who would come up with something like that? It’s tailor built for Megan’s tough, pretty demeanor. It’s like they had the name and poured Megan Ory into it and golly gee willickers, focus group, she fits! Ostensibly her ‘role’ in this travesty of drama is to protect Gabriel because she is a Secret Service agent Specially Trained For Protecting People and SHE has been selected because of her capacity of dealing with ‘difficult’ people. Oh and she’s amazing at her job too… so amazing that she was stabbed four times while protecting the president’s kids and STILL got them to ballet practice on time (an actual line – i’m not kidding). Because apparently she had to do it entirely herself as the Secret Service couldn’t afford back-up that day. Budget cuts you know. Damn that sequester.

In spite of that Ory is the most watchable part of the show. The kid’s got something. I can’t quite put my finger on it but there is something about her that’s waiting in this character. It’s like she believes that this dog of a plot could get better if they threw out the idiot bums who were bong hitting while writing it and is just waiting for that to happen. On the down side though, in terms of last nights ‘plot’ they completely blew it in spectacularly stupid fashion. Not only does she fail to protect her target but ends up being ‘saved’ by him not once, not twice, but THREE FREAKING TIMES during the course of one hour long episode. Way to go Secret Service! Way to go writing team for not just dipping your toe in the waters of feminine stereotypes but jumping in with both feet, wallowing, swimming in it and then drinking the whole pool of it like it was an oasis in the desert.

Finally there is Marg Helgenberger as Lillian Strand. Lillian is essentially the same character Marg played on CSI so… yeah. Just go watch that show. It’s better than this one and she’s better in it. Which should tell you all you need to know if you’ve read my thoughts on the cretinously godawful CSI.

Next let’s go to the plot… Lets not. Someone kidnaps someone…. there are bad guys… they want the chip… you’ve seen it done better on Chuck. Let’s just skip to the end in which the bad guys are predictably vanquished. (with the help of a Chinese Intelligence asset standing in for the Deus Ex Machina in the episode)

So the bad guys are vanquished. Riley Neal karate chops the traitor in their midst in the throat and he goes unconscious. They capture the renegade Chinese agent that kidnapped the scientist. They are all in the same building at this time. They exchange bad Chinese renegade guy to swap for information on Gabriel’s wife (gasp! Snooze) and then we see the evil traitor guy shifting on the couch as the Chinese gal they implanted with a NEW chip wakes up… They are apparently NOT captured…. even though they were in the same building at the time and the last scene we saw them in they were both unconscious. Seriously writers? I mean come on. Honestly… My cats can write better than that. Did you not have this read by your friends? Did you fire your continuity editor due to budget cuts? (damned sequester) or did you rush this crap project to the green light so that you didn’t miss out on the big pile of cash you had coming? No one i know would have made this kind of mistake. NO ONE! People i know who don’t even WRITE wouldn’t make this kind of mistake. People i know who don’t even READ wouldn’t make this mistake.

All in all Intelligence is one of the most hackneyed, simplistic, idiotic, stumbling, shitty endeavors produced for the small screen since last years Golden Boy (you can read my review of that hunk of frozen dog shit here) Don’t bother. Tell your friends not to bother. Write to the studios to tell them to send the writers back to grade school so they can learn the basic fundamentals of plot continuity. Tell them it is not okay to hire twelve year olds to write produced scripts. Tell them it isn’t okay to rush something into production so they don’t miss out on the stack of cash. Tell them… just tell them… in a universe in which they are competing with Game of Thrones, Justified and any number of professionally written shows this just smacks of disgusting laziness.

Here’s the Executive Producer: Michael Seitzman

And the show is on CBS on mondays if you really want to torture your eyeballs and your writing soul. I don’t recommend it. In fact…. kill it with fire. Purge it from the memory. Or read a book.

 

 

 

Categories: Mystery, Uncategorized, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

An Experiment in Self-Publishing: pt. 2

No. You don’t get a fricking drawing or a picture of any kind. Nuh uh. Why? Because 135 people have ‘viewed’ my story Cuhlyn’s Tale on Payhip and of them I have sold 6 copies. SIX!!! And 2 of those were to the same people. So they bought it TWICE! Which must mean it’s awesome, right? Guess that shows you. You could have been on the ground floor of something amazing but nooooooo…. YOU chose to sit on the sidelines and see how it all plays out. Didn’t you? Didn’t YOU?

Naw… Just kidding. Sort of. It’s no big deal. It’s a little story anyway. Not something I was looking for – just something that happened along one fine day. So I wrote it. NOW GO BUY IT!

Truth be told the experiment isn’t working all that well. I’ve had a friend in Scotland have some issues with the Payhip site, there was some trouble in the very beginning with Paypal (my fault), and it needed some editing. It has now been edited. Again and resubmitted. According to the site, if you purchase a copy you get it as a Doc file or a epub file. Or both. It’s a little hard to tell. Personally, I really don’t understand the doc file thing. That really shouldn’t even be an option should it? That would enable anyone to purchase, download, alter the heck out of it and resubmit it under their own auspices. Hmmm… I think I’ll have to pull that doc file down before someone with more marketing understanding rips me off.

Also, the same friend in Scotland has mentioned difficulty with the ‘sharing/liking’ of it on FB. She’s not even getting those options on her browser. This is a problem as I have it set right now so that you (yes YOU!!!) get a discount if you share or like it. This amounts to 50% off if you share it. Which seems to work backwards if you ask me. It’s a great idea but maybe the discount should be paid forward? If you buy something and like it enough to recommend it, you can click share or like from the main page and have a discount applied to your next purchase. I mean, who really want’s to go BACK and like something after you’ve read it? Okay. Wait. I do that all the time.

I have to say, though, one thing i do like about it (and dislike about it) is that there is no place to leave comments or reviews. Payhip, as a whole, is very stripped down and no frills. There are no pushes, no marketing slams of ‘if you liked this story, you might like this one that someone with more money has had professionally promoted’. It’s nice because the review thing has become a game. You see it all the time – people begging on the cobbled streets like Dickensian paupers: ‘Please, sir – would you kindly review my vampire novel? I promise it will be no trouble. There’s only one werewolf in it. Honest, sir…’ I know reviews matter. I know i have none. I read reviews all the time, but – as a writer – i tend to review the reviews if you know what i mean. Too many spelling mistakes in a review, loose language use, colloquialisms and it’s as good as a bad review in my opinion. In any case, there is no place to put a review on Payhip, even if you wanted to. There’s no rating system, no genre searching, Really, i’m not sure how you’re supposed to find anything on there.

That said, their percentages are really good. Definitely worth it. And i hope they keep that in place should they choose to expand. They’re also really easy to upload to and the sharing/liking features (when they work) are really easy to use, but as i said i have had at least one friend have difficulty getting them to work.

In any case, the experiment continues. If you would like a short little tale about a barbarian trying to save his little village from slaughter you can find it here. If not, that’s cool too – just leave me tips and pointers on how better to market stories, because i still suck at it.

Categories: Fiction, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Calm Before The Storm – Nano Prep pt. 3

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Listen. Shhhh….

Do you hear that? The Quiet? It’s eerie isn’t it? The cold wind whistles. A crow cries in the distance. A tumbleweed blows by carrying the poems of dashed dreams tied in its desiccated branches. Quiet. Deadly quiet.

I have no pictures of Scapple to share today. No images of the Scrivener set up. My eyes are scanning the distant horizon for that hazy lurking figure. I’m crouched in my trenches. Waiting, Taking deep breaths, hauling in gallons of coffee and dried meat. I’ve got a little fire burning to keep the chill off but there’s a chill buried deeper in my bones that I can’t shake. Will I make it or will that thing stomp me to dust. There’s nothing to do but wait.

Which, of course, isn’t true at all. There’s a ton of shit to do. You’ve got to wave a fond farewell to friends and family. You’ve got to make sure the barricades are well stocked. You’ve got to check your prep again and, seeing as there is still a week to go, you can still prep a lot more. Me? I’m just chilling for now. Tomorrow I do a bit more prep, check the fence and the razor wire but I’m feeling pretty good about my chances because I finished the novel I was working on last week. It’s these little bits of confidence builders that boost the energy for the long haul. Do more of these throughout the year and you’ll be fine. Today I worked on a ton of editing for the other work in progress. Ain’t no moss growing on this rolling stone.

NaNo is just a month of writing, folks. I’ve been going on about what a noble battle it is but the truth is that it’s like Christmas for writers. We throw caution to the wind and dive in feet first. It is the time to be mad. It’s the time for a literary bacchanalia. In the last month I’ve chatted with pantsers who haven’t a clue what they’re going to do. I’ve talked with plotters who have their whole thing laid out to the very last detail. And every variety of literary lunatic in between – some are planning on doing the whole 50,000 in 24 hours, other’s are planning 2 novels of 50,000 and still others are hoping to work through 5 short stories of 10,000 each. It doesn’t matter how you get there. Just get there. Join the party. Throw caution to the wind. Don’t panic. And whatever you do – don’t worry. This isn’t really an epic battle unless it’s an epic battle with yourself and your own torpor or your own resurgent wishes and desires.

Burning Man Car

NaNo is the festival. It’s the burning man of writing. Come one come all. Put that lampshade on your head and sing sea shanty’s. Dress up like a pirate while you work. And if you find yourself stuck, frustrated, confused, or reaching the end of your rope with whatever you’re working on, take a deep breath and find some way to make it FUN. Has the plot gone completely off the rails? Throw in a gang of super intelligent baboons. Is you’re MC pissing you off with his insufferable judgements about people and things? Stomp him to death with Godzilla. Murder him with a troupe of Bulgarian clowns. Why? Because you CAN! Don’t take it seriously if it doesn’t help you. Don’t set unrealistic goals. Don’t think for a second that you will be writing the next nobel prize-winning novel in 30 days of literary abandon. If you do you’re going to miss out while the rest of us are holding hands in the back yard singing sea shanty’s around the burning pyre of our ambition.

Just write.

Be free and howl at the moon. For 50,000 words you can purchase your freedom from everything. That’s all it takes. 50,000. And really that’s nothing. 1700 a day. You can do that in your sleep. Now I sound like a late night advertisement, but seriously. Or not. It’s true. Oh the places you’ll go – moons to visit, space dragons, faeries with a penchant for playing marbles in the back alleys of Manhattan. Freedom. For just 1700 words a day. burningman Car

But you, dear quivering hopeful writer, must make the choice. Are you going to let that poor shriveled thing inside you starve or are you going to give it one hours worth of sustenance a day? That’s all it takes and you too can have your very own set of banjo minnows, or a new moon, or a fleet of interstellar battleships screaming their way to certain doom.

Save yourself, write a book.

Give in to the howling quiet in your brain. Let it feed you. Be a great god and join us  – the weary and the willing – in one more years worth of the valiant stand against the gloom of all there is. Prepare (or don’t. It makes no bother with me) for we – in one week – shall sally forth and do something pretty damned awesome.

(All purchases of soul freedom are non-refundable. Offer not valid on some systems. Please check with your doctor if Soul Freedom is right for you. May cause bouts of giddiness and in some patients, moments of quiet rage, depression, goofiness, insanity, hysteria. Rare side effects include publication and possible fame and fortune)

Categories: Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Scapple, Aeon Timeline, The NaNo Approacheth and Horror Ensues

Oh dear god here it comes again. You can just see it in the distant haze, shambling along. It’d coming. It lumbers like thunder. It is The NaNo and it comes to destroy time, patience, habitats, and sanity. You’d better run. You’d better hide. Snatch a quick glimpse at its impossibly huge form in the distance. Can you see the sudden bursts of flame erupting from where it’s mouth might be? Run.

November.

It’s not the prospect of November’s weather that sends the chill through me. It’s the gibbering wreck that I’ll become as it approaches and I begin to realize i still don’t have a plot for Meg Brown Number 7. “Oh, just adopt a plot.” they’ll say. Right. That’s like borrowing a rusted fork to battle a dragon. ‘Oh don’t worry. Something will come.’ Oh will it? You’re sure about that?

MB7 scapple pic

So that’s what I’ve got so far. LOOK AT IT! That’s from Scapple. It’s not exactly a new program from the folks over at Literature and Latte – I’ve had it for a while now but I gather it’s new to those poor souls who have a windows based system. The basic idea of it is sort of like a mind map but you can connect anything to anything else and it’s nicely free form. It can also be exported as notes into your Scrivener project. Which is terrific. If I had anything there which, clearly, I don’t. Ideally, there would be lines connecting many of those ideas and things would rapidly spiral out of control as I find connections between everything and everything else. In this case all I have is disconnected elements.

That’s not good.

It should look something like this:

MB6

And even that is just so I have some place to throw stuff when I’m busy losing my mind. As you can see, this is much nicer. You can throw a lasso around a bunch of elements and shift them all around and it will preserve the links you’ve established. You can add things to your heart’s content – well… it is finite and it does expand to the point where everything in your scapple doc is so tiny it looks like a hairball but you can zoom in and scroll around so it all works out.

Of course that helps not at all if you have no story or plot to connect anything to. Which, as you can see up there, I do not. The Great Beast NaNo shambles one awful step forward.

Next we’ll take a look at the project from the perspective of Aeon Timeline where.. I think… I have even less.

MB7timeline

Timeline will… when I have more strength and intelligence… provide a formidable bulwark against the terrible onslaught of the mighty NaNo. right now, on the other hand, it’s like a fence made of toothpicks. There is nothing there. I have even less assembled than I do in Scapple so I’m in real trouble here. That big bastard is coming closer. I’m starting to feel its hot breath wilting the toothpicks of my barricades.

So what do I do? I scratch my head. I think of things I want to talk about – things that are pissing me off and I need to address. This is where the pantsing of writing might happen but it might provide a few pointed sticks of planning, firmly implanted in the mud in front of the barricade.

It goes a little like this: I am unemployed. Hmm… well.. the process of finding a job pisses me off a lot. I hate resumes. Is there something I can do with that? Any way I can make that into a plot? Hmm… Well the frustration of resume sending and the like can make me practically homicidal. Is there a ‘what if’ that pops up when I think of this? Where does that Vampire Character fit in? Do I need to worry about that idiot? Hmmm…

So the salad ingredients are slowly… ever so slowly… getting mixed up into very lethal bombs. When cooked properly i can make them into land mines to slow the assault of the great beast.

What else have I got? I’ve got two victims. Tameka and Eric. Where do they fit in? Does Eric die right away? Does he die before the story starts? Is that how my Minneapolis detectives end up in Los Angeles? Could be. That sort of works. We can live with that. I’ve also got Big Deans Oceanfront Cafe, The Santa Monica Pier, Chez Jays, and well.. it’s freaking hollywood ain’t it? How many weirdos, actors, cops, movers and shakers can I throw in there? Is this a fish out of water story? Or an underdog story or some combination of the above?

Anyway. Whatever is happening here you can see how this stuff is growing the more i am talking about it. The Shambling Beast NaNo is looking just a little worried. It’s thunderous steps are just a little more hesitant as it glares at me with its volkswagon sized, coal-black eyes as I frantically prep my November Defense. I’m still on shaky ground. There’s a lot of work to do. But it’s only 50,000 words. That’s a little less than 2,000 a day. It’s going to be a big fight but I’ve done it before. I know how to handle this.

I ain’t scared ‘a you, NaNo. Bring it, you big ugly bastard.

(Note – if you want to know the sort of horror that NaNo is check out the Don Kenn Gallery – some pretty incredible art work there. Go Buy Some.)

Categories: Mystery, Uncategorized, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Plot Thickens

Alright. Finally… At long last… My words of wisdom on Plot… Are you ready? Here it is. Listen up. Lean in close.

Forget about it.

No. Seriously. That’s it. What? You want more?

 I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.

A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question – Stephen King, On Writing.

Yeah. I figure you’ve probably heard that one before and I’m not one to preach the King gospel but in this case i find it pretty helpful. It seems to me that a lot of writers I experience come up with a plot before anything else. Maybe they have a few characters that are jumping out at them. Maybe they just want to ‘get in the game’. Well I’m all for it but you must have a reason. This is sort of what I was talking about last week. Start with something. In King’s case it was a ‘what if’ and King isn’t the first place I’ve heard about that. I think I’d jump a little further than that though and say ‘why?’ Why do we care what happens to a bunch of trapped idiots in the cabin in the woods? Why do we give a damn about a fantasy kingdom that’s on the verge of being overrun by a horde of evil six-foot hamsters? Who cares? It’s fantasy!

For me, I’ve been starting with the why lately and it feels pretty right.

Plot is just the what happens of the story. Bob walks to the store to buy a stack of elf filters for his new TV. Along the way Bob meets Marion. She tries to bludgeon him with a fish. Bob defeats Marion. None of these things are necessarily in the right order but who cares anyway? Somewhere in Bob’s desire to buy Elf Filters is your answer. Figure out the why. The why of the story is the point of contact between the writer and the writing. Sometime’s it’s the only point of contact. You need to answer why the kingdom is important to you or no one else will care either and they won’t give a rats ass whether or not your pectorally endowed, sword-swinging, no neck bruiser can save it or not. They won’t care HOW the dude saves it either so you’ve just spent a great deal of time spinning a plot founded on nothing.

So start with what’s important to you. What pisses you off enough that you want to fight against it? What do you desperately want to save? Poetry does this very well. It snatches little moments from life and the mind and heart of the author and focuses on them, expands them and leaves the reader with them to play in the fields of the writers little moment of thought or experience. But how does it work in the life of a fiction writer? Well…

Lets’ take Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later i heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieve’s word for dictionary. A few years later i went to Personville and learned better.

It’s got to be one of the bleakest hero tales ever. Nothing in this festering rat hole of a town is worth saving. There is no earthly reason for the Op to do his job and ‘clean up the town’ and because no one cares if he does the reader shouldn’t either. But we do. Hammett creates a vacuous world of assholes who are in desperate need of getting their proverbial clocks cleaned, why? Because it is precisely their lack of humanity that we start to care about. They’re perfectly willing to destroy anything and everyone to lay complete claim to a place so worthless even the rats have abandoned it. The Op is our avenging angel. Sure, he ain’t grand, he ain’t pretty, and sure we might prefer the guy with the gleaming white teeth and the white hat but we know from the first page that if anyone can do the job it’s our guy. We also know that if we dropped a guy with brilliant white teeth and a fine white hat into Poisonville he’d be swiss cheese before his foot left the stirrups of his horse.

The plot, such as it is, is the complex way he gets the job done in this incredibly hostile and completely antagonistic environment. The why, really, is because such a place as Poisonville is an affront to the humanity in us. We can’t, in good conscience, suffer such a place to live. Isn’t it interesting how he starts it off with the REAL name of the town, Personville and instantly warps it to what it’s become – Poisonville. That’s the why. But, just to be a literary critic about it, let’s take that one step further and say that Hammett redeems Poisonville as a stand-in for the world Hammett himself lives in. He writes it because he needs his Op to save the world that no one in his own experience gives a crap about. He, like the Op, demands that someone steps to the plate and bring this crappy old world out of the dark, compassionless wasteland that it’s become.

Your plot will grow – organically – from the seed of the why. Find that seed and plant it. Everything else is sort of gravy. It becomes much easier. Honestly.

I mean that’s what Comic books have been from the beginning of time – and excuse to find power in a world way too big for us. Superman kicks the crap out of Hitler. Spiderman has superpowers in the face of a miserable high school life. The X-Men show that different ‘races’ can get along and when they do they’re sort of awesome, empowering.

I’m not saying you need to throw the plot out. Maybe it was brilliant and you had all these really cool set-pieces lined up. That’s great. Cheers. But think about it this way: in all probability King started conceiving of a great ghost story – The Shining. We know he stayed in the haunted Stanley Hotel and that was the inspiration. He probably heard tales of the Donner Party and probably saw all the markers along the road to the hotel where unlucky snow plow drivers lost their lives. He probably saw the roadway carved into a deep trench where the snow was still deep – even in April. All of these things are great inspirations to shuddering horror and will, by themselves, form the basic elements to what will become one of the scariest books and movies ever. But what really makes this sing is the relationship between Danny and his Father. Child abuse. But it’s not that simple, of course. King could have made Jack an irredeemable monster but isn’t it more horrifying that he ISN’T? That he decays, that he’s literally out of control and that we get to be inside his head as he spirals out of control. In some sick way King makes us want him to be redeemed.

But he’s a friggin’ Child Abusing Asshole!

The power of why.

Do you see how the ‘what if’ can grow out of the why? Why am I writing this? Because I care about child abuse and I want to see the little kid win. But what if the father – the abuser – isn’t a terrifically obvious monster? What if I sort of make him like-able? What if the kid is a little creepy? What if the mom, who only wants to protect her boy, is the one on the outside of the relationship? Now what if I stick them all in a haunted hotel in the winter? Bam. Just looking at that gives me shivers. And what happens? In the end, of course, Jack redeems himself and saves his son by… gulp…refusing to kill him. Ick. Wow. That’s some sick shit right there. But there’s your plot in a nutshell, isn’t it? With that little nugget of why at the center.

So forget about plot. Don’t even worry about it. If you don’t have a reason to write the story to begin with you don’t have a plot. You don’t have a story.

Categories: Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Right writing

You’ve probably popped in here to get my long-awaited words of wisdom on plot. Yeah, sorry to disappoint but that post has been delayed yet again. Just think how insightful it will be when I actually do get around to it though! Nope. This one is about getting it right. That’s pretty much the be-all-end-all of what you’re writing. Write right. Hemingway once said something about it. His idea when he sat down to his little moleskine notebooks was to write one true sentence. Tim O’Brien took that theme a little further in his section on war stories in The Things They Carried. Buddhism has hammered it into maxims that I am constantly forgetting: right speech, right thought, and then I lose track.

Write right.

I know what you’re probably going to say: “But, dude. I write about vampires and stuff.” I don’t care. Get it right. You can’t possibly tell me that your four hundred year old bloodsucker is perfectly fine with taking his senior year over again for the three hundredth time. That’s the trick.

Now here’s the extra crispy corollary to that trick: You Will Fail. Actually You Must Fail. One of the most charming and amazing thing about reading Hemingway, to me anyway, was how his characters failed so beautifully. If you’ve read A Moveable Feast it isn’t too hard to see how Hem himself failed gloriously. It takes an amazing amount of talent to wrap your most painful failure between two covers and publish it posthumously. What a jerk. Failure, after all, is its own amazing truth. It’s right, in other words.

Now, not content to stick completely to one topic I’ll tell you why this is so important. See, I spent a good long time farting around with my writing: plonking out little stories where and when they’d strike me. I was sort of aimless. Y’know? Just putting words on the page, whipping up some characters with some stuff and throwing them in a blender and seeing what came out. It wasn’t a lot of fun, actually, but it was writing and that enabled me to call myself A Writer. Yes. In caps. Just like that. A Writer can scribble away for hours in coffee shops. A Writer has an opinion on books that you must listen to because he’s A Writer.

Uh huh.

The thing is, I kind of cracked my mind a few years ago and after that just cranking out any old story wasn’t good enough. I wanted to write the stories that I actually felt and frankly I wasn’t really feeling any of them. I could make it look like I did and – just to polish my own beret – some of them were pretty good. So once I got my head back together I started working on stuff again. At first it was simple little stuff. The Short Man. Just a little story about a detective trying to find a killer. But it fit. And it fit well. It might not have been terrific but it fit well. And it was a hint of something that was… yep you guessed it. Right.

Now I’m not saying that it was true. In fact, I really didn’t know shit about writing mysteries. Truth be told I still don’t. I really don’t think anybody does. Mysteries are messy, which is why writers are constantly reinventing them and why defense attorneys are still so mighty popular. You put a guy on the floor with holes in him. How did he get that way? Yep. Sounds simple enough and for some writers that’s where it stops. Intrepid hero finds the bad guy and saves the day. But it’s never that simple as any attorney – prosecuting or defense will tell you. Heck it’s not that simple for a detective. Stand yourself in front of a witness who has every reason in the world to tell you what happened to the dead guy and have them lie to you. You know they’re lying. Why in god’s name are they lying? And that’s just one aspect of an investigation, right?

Well that’s what I mean by getting it right.

After a while with my detective I realized that I could make this thing sing. Maybe you don’t see it if you’ve read them, but – again being honest here – I don’t care. I feel it. I can see the potential and I want to get it better, why? Well it’s simple. But before I get to that let me hop back one more little step to explain something else about me.

I tend to yell at the tv a lot. And the radio in my car. Which I foolishly keep on the news. That should tell you something about the dire state of musical radio in Milwaukee that I’d rather listen to the news. One of the things I yell most often (a running theme of my rants of which my cats are avid listeners) is that none of it is actually helpful. In fact, it’s the opposite of helpful. Which is hurtful. Thanks. I know. I’m getting to that. And lately I’ve been feeling that way about fiction and TV too. I grew up in a time where… well… they created characters like Magnum, Indiana Jones, Han Solo. We were outside until dark when we could be and hated rainy days because it meant being forced to play boardgames with your brother or *Gasp* share your toys with them. Which meant sharing your world. Yikes. The Horror. I know you’ve heard all this claptrap halcyon days shit before. I won’t bore you with it. But my point is that it was – hell – it is good to look at guys like Magnum, who always tried to do the right thing, and want to be that guy some day.

We now live in a world that loves to believe its much more complicated. Somehow we’ve come to believe that we’re deeper, wiser, more intricate. Fact is, it’s the same world but we’re sorely lacking in folks to help guide us through it. That, I believe, is what makes us think it’s a lot more complicated. It makes us feel better that our problems are bigger than us. We’re helpless little waifs in a dangerous, wolf infested world. But it’s really a damned lie. It’s the same world only more people are out there shouting wolf all over the place and keeping our heads spinning. Yes. There are wolves. There always are but it’s getting a little hard these days to tell a wolf from a poodle and while you’re waiting for some gibbering head to tell you which is which your sheep are all gone.

And that’s where I pull this long segue back to writing. I figured I could do it right. Right by me and right by the world I wanted to help make by writing. I wanted good people. I wanted people who worked hard to be good, honest, right, true. Sure Meg’s a smarmy wise-cracking detective but I know there is some part of her that believes in the good she’s doing. But that’s not to say she’s a starry-eyed upholder of the red white and blue. No, she’s seen far too much for that, and so have we, but that doesn’t give us the permission to be exhausted by it. That’s what I mean about right. Write right. Write true and keep in mind the world you want to create, a world you may feel is slipping by the wayside. Meg’s my avatar to hold back the crap i yell at on the TV.

So that’s what I’m doing and some folks are going to say ‘that’s not realistic. Realistic is gritty, dirty, putting a jaundiced eye on the ugly things in the world and not flinching.’ I say that’s bullshit. People flinch. They should flinch. They should turn away from the awful things in the world. Witness doesn’t mean staring vacantly at the terrible. It means being human – being affected. It means you didn’t want to see but you did and now you’re just a little bit haunted by it. I’m not interested in being presented with the realistic on a silver platter. What sort of horrible platter is that anyway? ‘here folks, it’s a yummy four course dinner of pain and suffering, get used to it because tomorrow you get more of the same until you insist it’s steak tartar.’ Screw that. Resist the awful. But be right and true.

Now I’m not saying ‘go forth, minion writers and create an army of captain america’s to fight the demons that plague us.’ Nope. I guess I mean: unless you’re ready and able to stand over a slaughterhouse without batting an eyelash don’t pretend that the slaughter is just okey-dokey, or that ‘hey, this is really going to be an awesome motivator for my main character’. Unless you’re willing to chat with the devil and shake his hand don’t pretend you are. Write what you feel and make it true. If it pisses you off enough to yell at your television, put that into your characters, your plot, your settings but work really hard to be true to them too. Seek that authenticity if you can. If you write about firefighters get out there and talk to some. If you write about soldiers, find some. If you write about housewives, etc. Take whatever they tell you and put it through your own experiences. How do YOU feel about this or that. That’s what I’ve been preaching about with the seminar’s I’ve written about and the TV Shows i bitch about.

Think about why you’re writing. Ooh. There’s another eightfold path thing! Right action. If you’re motivated by adoring fans and people being dazzled by your riches and awesomeness please try to think deeper about what you’re doing. You are creating worlds. You’re creating readers. You’re creating the taste by which you’ll be enjoyed. Someone famous said that. Byron maybe?

Shelley once said ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. Sad thing about that is we’re doing about a good a job of it as the actual legislators of the world.

If you ask yourself the question ‘why am I writing this’ and the answer is ‘cuz buff dudes with swords are cool’. Try again. You can still have fun but make it matter. Trust me: its way better when it actually matters. It’s even more fun.

Oh yeah, and Fail – but make it worth failing at.

Categories: Deep Thoughts, Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

People in Glass Houses – Should Get Used To Replacing Windows.

I didn’t watch the state of the union. There. I said it. There is nothing new about my not watching the state of the union but frankly these days i feel like i am in the minority for not imbibing the nectar of futility from the box of shiny colors just so that i have something to bitch or complain about the next day. And yet here i am, bitching about it anyway because it isn’t about the speech itself anymore it’s about our reaction to it.

I don’t know. It seems to me that twenty years ago there might have been many more people who couldn’t care less about a yearly speech which interrupts our regularly scheduled escapist time for a ‘serious’ lecture about the dubious state of the American Empire. Maybe this is because we are universally conscious of being in an uncertain time. Maybe we’re all worried and quaking in our respective shoes. I hear a lot of that these days, not so much the expressed thought or concern, but more the ‘sky is falling’ catastrophic pronouncements that come from almost every point of the compass except the ridiculous advertising for products.

Its a time of great change. But even that isn’t quite right. A great change, should you understand a little about history, was had after the ends of World War One and Two where each involved nation struggled hard to come to grips with gigantic new realities. This, in comparison, is a small ripple of change. Yeah. We’re worried about the economy. What’s not to worry about? We’re worried about our ego on the world stage. And for some reason we continue to want to believe that the rest of the nations of the earth haven’t called our number a long long time ago. We’re worried about debt, china, india, rich, poor, morality, ethics, etc.

In short the ‘civilized’ nations of the western empire have finally read the tea leaves laid forth and have taken their augury for fact. We’re all neurotic messes – characters in a Woody Allen play set on the national stage.

Relax.

I didn’t watch the State of the Union because i’m not interested. I didn’t watch it because it’s not interesting. It has occurred to me, recently, that politics is a bumbling nightmare of a theatre. If it is an expression of Woody Allen then all the characters are in clown makeup or blackface. They are caricatures of humanity and their lines are delivered with all the skill of performance of a bad Sci-Fi movie. I didn’t watch the State of the Union for the same reason i avoid most political statements made in the public – because it’s like a random word generator or one of those old Play-doh molds. If i have the political party of the speaker i already know what is going to be said. It’s so rote by now that everything should simply have it’s own shaped mold just to avoid having to listen to it over and over and over again: Red moons for Republicans, Green Stars for Democrats, Blue Dots for Tea Partiers, whatever. That way, instead of listening to someone’s skewed and perverse interpretation of reality we will simply have a television screen filled with that shape for the duration of the speech which will allow us to go about our daily lives actually doing things.

Because, honestly, we can all talk and fret and wring our hands in worry and consternation about the sorry state of things, we can wonder when the next shoe will drop, we can obsess about the respect and adoration our national ego is getting on the world stage or we can actually try to work, for each other, and do the absolute best we can for one another. Really we can’t do both.

I am not interested in interpretations of reality. I am interested in reality. It’s pretty cool. There are stars and gardens and rabbits and there are problems that need to be solved. There are people who have ideas on how to solve those problems. There are people who have plans, goals, are building things, are inspired to fix the things that are broken. And then there are those who simply want to complain and moan and nitpick those people and say that their ideas are stupid and they should just keep their (insert political pejorative here) ideas to themselves.

Let’s put it this way. In a Woody Allen movie you would have the main character sitting on a bench staring at a pile of wood, dressed in carpenters gear with a hammer in his hands. A plan for building a house lies nearby. But Woody doesn’t move. He sits and he stares at the spot where the house is going to be: “Who bought these nails? These can’t be the right kind of nails. I don’t think they’re pointy enough. I might hurt myself if i try to pound those nails. Yeesh. Isn’t there a softer hammer i could use? Who can understand these plans? Is that a wall i’m supposed to build? What if a bear comes and tries to take down this wall, i mean if i’m building it it’s not going to stand up to a bear. Nah. It’s better if i call someone else to build this.”

I don’t need to hear it. If i wanted that i could listen to my own ego which will provide ample opportunities and misgivings about doing anything.

We’re all responsible for each other on this earth. If i spend too much time whining about the injustice of something being broken it never gets fixed. If i spend too much time bitching about the dismal quality of education, no one gets educated. If i spend too much time worrying about the nails, the plans, the wood, the foundation, etc. the house doesn’t get built. So maybe, in the future, we could show all of our representatives where we, as human beings, stand and simply not listen when they think they have something to say. Maybe we should demand that they speak only that which is actually useful to the project of all of us building a better house.

So there you go. I didn’t watch. I’m not going to feel bad about it and i’m not going to engage in the garbage political abuse that is floating out there right now on all the media websites like some noxious cloud. But i will apologize to my small collection of readers for not being very puckish lately. I’ll work on that. I promise.

Lightening up as we speak!

Categories: Deep Thoughts | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

The Quest for Unemployment

I am probably not in the proper mindset to be writing a blog on the art of being unemployed. But then again, perhaps the rage, frustration, and nearly comical quixotic-ness of the whole thing is exactly what i should be writing about. I don’t know. Let’s just say when i get into a furious snit over the mind-boggling stupidity of it all i just have to take a few moments and write my way through it before things start getting broken or becoming airborne and seeing as it is physically impossible to launch websites or job postings from a catapult while tied to a Buick, it might be a good idea to at least TRY to write through it.

So as you probably have surmised from many of my other scribblings, i fancy myself a fairly capable and talented writer. For reasons that cannot be adequately explained in a small amount of time, i have never been able to pursue a career in following my talent on a professional level at the expense of the pitiful amount of shrapnel i have been able to glean from working at my ‘real’ job. It’s absurd really, but the fact of the matter is that the eleven dollars an hour that i have choked down like regurgitated offerings from the proffered beaks of my employers has been a necessity because the alternative is an unpaid internship somewhere – which i can’t afford.

Well, as so often happens in my unchosen line of work, i am once again unemployed. For fear of incriminating myself i will not relay what employment i did not chose to toil in for 12 years – as it seems these are the only jobs i am even remotely qualified for and i would actually like to be employed again.

But that brings me to my point. I have just found a job posting that i would like to apply for. So i started doing just that. It’s for a copywriting job in Redwood City working for EA Games. This sounds absolutely perfect even though i don’t know much about copywriting. I mean, i’m a pretty talented writer as you can obviously see, i enjoy playing video games, i would really like a discount on the upcoming Mass Effect 3, i have interest, drive, talent, untapped skill, and generally a positive outlook on things.

But here’s the problem. For almost every job you CAN apply for out there there is a different method of applying for it and each method of applying for it is designed by evil goblins from outer space whose only qualification is to cause the greatest amount of psychological damage to any soul who dares apply. The website which i was supposed to go through to apply for this rare gem of a job is a huge waste of space (and if you’re wondering so you can avoid it like the brain plague that it is it’s caljobs.com – the website that is supposed to help provide jobs to californians, which i am not one but in this day and age and given the drain of Wisconsin’s jobs it helps to cast a very, very wide net.) It doesn’t work. You cannot upload a resume much less look for the particular position that was advertised. They require you to fill out ‘their’ resume which barely qualifies as a Burger King application, and then their forms and fields allow so little information that you are forced to abbreviate whatever experience you might have as if you are writing a tweet.

This is not the only problem with job searching. Every job site, job board, posting, what have you generally has their own particularly sadistic method of applying which will eat your time and your mind for absolutely no result. On average you will revise and rewrite your resume for about two to three hours EVERY time you find a posting that is suitable at which point you will rapidly become aware that the courtesy expected is entirely on your side. The prospective employer is in no way obligated to give you even the meager hope of a cursory response to your submission.

And finally there is the tiresome issue of job specificity. As an example i will happily hyperbolically concoct a scenario of a job posting:

Pooptech Publications Inc. is looking for an experienced wordsmith with 2-4 years of experience in articles relating to animal fecal matter. Please provide samples of your writing. We are interested in Bovine Fecal Matter, and Equine Fecal Matter specifically, though Canine and Porcine is also acceptable.

If you do not have 2-4 years of experience writing quality award winning articles about Bovine Fecal Matter please do not apply.

Do not contact, call, write, or submit an application on this site. Go to etc. etc. etc. and fill out our thirty page, proprietary application, upload twelve writing samples, submit yourself to a drug test, take our psychological battery questionnaire and then wait for the rest of forever for us to possibly, maybe, someday, contact you if and when we feel like it.

If we contact you it in no way obligates us to speak with you, nor does it preclude the possibility of an interview.

Now, of course this is fantasy but it isn’t all that far off. Go look. I’ll wait. Better yet, see if you can withstand three hours of job searching, including sending out a resume.

In short. If you are wondering why we have so many employment issues, or unemployment issues in this country it’s simple. We don’t know how to adequately use the people we have, we don’t know how to find the people we need, and the people who are capable for our employment can’t find us. That and the economy is a nonsensical train-wreck run by bumbling, idiot greed, infused hobgoblins who would much prefer finding intelligent job candidates in far off lands so that they can regurgitate morsels of western wealth into their beaks while ensuring that their bellies remain full on the offal of the rotting carcass of the middle class.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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