Thursday, March 5, 2015

Payoff

I like the show The Walking Dead.  Those who think it's a show about zombies are missing out on the larger memes it hits on - survival, the savagery of human nature in primal form, what's really family, and so on.  The more grand visions associated with it are what makes it work on so many levels.

Unfortunately, there are also things about it I don't like, and the complete and utter misery without relief is the biggest.  While I get the need to have the characters face adversity so there are challenges they can overcome, there's never a payoff that lets you feel good about them and what they're going through.

When a reader or viewer gets emotionally attached to a character, he or she wants the best for that character.  We cheer their triumphs and laments their hardships, but most of us want them to eventually find happiness.  Yes, there are some hardcore fanatics out there who want nothing but despair, but the vast majority of us want that despair to turn into greater victory in the end.

The Walking Dead never quite seems to get there.  Rick Grimes and the others find Hershel's farm as a place of refuge, only to see it overrun by the living dead.  They find some solace in Woodbury...only to discover that the guy who runs it is a psychopathic nut job with a penchant for zombie fights.  They finally make it to Terminus...and they discover that its inhabitants want to place them on the dinner menu.

It's becoming tedious.  Johnny Carson once said that the longer the joke, the bigger the payoff has to be.  The Walking Dead is about to reach the point where no payoff will suffice.  Contrast this with Supernatural, the series about a pair of monster hunters that help protect people from real monsters on our planet.  Yes, Sam and Dean Winchester encounter hardship, like the time Dean got sent to Hell for saving his brother's life, but there's usually some sort of triumph that gives you hope.  There may not yet be an ultimate payoff - likely that'll be saved for the series finale - but you get doses that life isn't meant to be totally shitty.

As writers, we need to keep this in mind.  Our readers will put up with a lot when it comes to what we do to their favorite characters, but they'll only allow it to go so far before they'll put down our stuff.  I have to remember this since my desire to keep things as real as possible lends itself to some terrible stuff.  However, most folks want a "happy ending."  You can do this and maintain fidelity to your story, but you have to focus on it.  If you always go down that dark alley, readers will eventually stop going down it with you.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Punctuation As Body Language

While I love writing stories, the written medium is terrible for many reasons.  The biggest, in my opinion, is that it leaves out the subtleties we get when we're standing next to someone while having a conversation.  We rely on so much more than words to discern meaning - tone of voice, body language, use of hands, etc, all give us larger insight into what the speaker means than a simple litany of nouns, verbs, and modifiers strung together.

However, with writing, so much of this is gone.  A sarcastic and biting comment goes from witty to dorky in an instant, while questioning a concept goes from curiosity to a mean spirited vendetta.  The interpretation of what's on paper is left to the reader rather than the writer, and while using our imagination is one of the greatest aspects of reading, it also allows for a great deal of misinterpretation.

This is where punctuation comes in...and where it sometimes falls apart.  I make no bones about the fact that I believe most people are horrible writers.  One of the things that makes them horrible is the dryness with which they present their ideas.  It often boils down to a rote listing of what they want to get across, but there's no flair or attempt to drive the true meaning home.  After all, the writer knew what he or she meant, so why shouldn't you?

The proper and sometimes imaginative use of punctuation lets us bridge the gap between meaning and intent.  Just now, in the previous sentence, I debated about whether to add commas between proper and and, as well as between imaginative and use.  These pregnant pauses, or lack of them, convey tone of voice and let you hear my words more in my voice, thus leaving less room for misunderstanding.

Other punctuation plays a big part.  Exclamation points help convey excitement.  Dashes and semicolons aid either emphasis or lecturing.  The suspension point of ellipses - the dreaded triple dot - allow us to either convey "blah, blah, blah"...or they help us get across a slight change in meaning and tempo.

Lots of writers seem almost afraid of punctuation.  They use just enough to get by, and no more.  To me, risk taking with punctuation adds spice to our words and lets us get across how we intended to say something, bringing us closer to the real meaning.  It separates okay writing from good writing, and good writing from great writing. 

It also requires practice to do it right.  You have to take the time to use it, and you have to be prepared for mistakes.  Find others who are willing to help and see if they can figure out what you meant.  I like to hand out original work with bland punctuation, and then I give out the new version.  The change in tone is fascinating to watch, and sometimes I miss, but that doesn't mean I don't try.  After all, bland rarely excites.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Copyright Paranoia

Ever since I've let people know I'm seriously pursuing a writing career, several folks have approached me for advice on how to break in, as if I'm some kind of expert.  While I appreciate the confidence, I usually remind them that I'm little more than an unpublished writer at present.  However, what I do have is a broader base of knowledge due to the research I've done.  In essence, I'm a great big shortcut.

In the mix of these folks who've sought out my advice for new writers, a handful have approached me with that old writers' paranoia - what will happen if someone steals my idea?

This is a common problem among newbie writers.  We're all convinced that we've stumbled into the next Great American Masterpiece that we're certain if word ever got out, legions of unscrupulous bastards will take our stuff and claim it for their own.  I have a one word answer for this.

Relax.
(Everybody needs to chill out.  Naptime might help with that)
 
First of all, most folks are too busy to go around and take your idea for a story.  Even most writers are too busy for that.  Besides, they have their own (INCREDIBLE!  AWESOME!) stories to write.  Further, those rare people who are unethical enough to try and steal an idea aren't going to go after yours - they're going to find a story that's already sold a gazillion copies and claim they wrote it first.  This has happened to JK Rowling and Stephen King.  In other words, they're doing the reverse of the thing you're most paranoid about by claiming they wrote something before that great bestseller and the novel was stolen from them.
 
Also, you need to keep in mind what's protected and what's not.  The way you write a story is protected, ie - the words and such.  However, you can't copyright an idea.  If that were the case, there'd have been no more vampire stories after Dracula, and God knows the stores are clogged with them.  It's the specifics of the story that makes it protected.
 
You also can't copyright a title.  There are lots of books out there that have the same title.  For that matter, I could write a novel called "War and Peace" right now and try to put it out there, but most intelligent book readers would know the difference.
 
As to the story itself, if you're really that concerned about it, just find a way to document when you wrote it.  That could be as simple as giving a few pages to a friend to read.  Do that, and BAM, you've established a date.  Or you could email it to yourself.  Or you could just screen capture the date on your computer when you saved it.
 
But please do these things only if you're really paranoid about it and doing this will let you sleep better at night.  If you're halfway serious in writing as a career, you've acquired beta-readers anyway, so people know you wrote it and when.
 
Chill out and remember that no one can tell your story better than you can...and most don't want to.  You may think you have a story that will sell millions of copies, but until it catches fire and proves that assertion, no one else will have as much faith in it as you do, no matter how often you're told it's terrific.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Likably Amibiguous?

In the middle of writing my new novel, I've encountered a challenge.  My main character is responsible for saving the human race from extinction and relocating them to a new world to start over after Earth is ravaged by a mindless alien race.  Sounds like the stuff of an epic hero, right?

Um, not quite.

The main character is going to have to do some unsavory things in the name of saving people, and that will include actions and decisions that not everyone will agree with.  The reason for this is that it's necessary in order to maintain as much realism in his decisions and the consequences as possible.  It also provides drama in making people wonder at the cost to our soul of survival in the worst of circumstances.

These things may be great to read about in history books, but details often make people cringe.  Just as many people laugh about a character like Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory but would be horrified to have to deal with him in real life, knowing what's done for results can make folks uncomfortable.  It's one of the reasons the American people rapidly lose the stomach for wars fought in their name - the gory details of reality have a way of making us sick.

The issue, of course, is that I don't want people to root against my character.  His arc is central to the story, so I can't have people so repulsed by him that they want him to fail.  I want them to understand the difficult situation he is in and that there are not always straight right and wrong answers.

Threading this needle means showing his human side, as well as him losing some of his humanity, while striving towards a greater goal that will keep us alive.  I began by introducing his family and their death, as well as the effect that had on him.  He is very young, and God knows how losing a wife and young child would affect any of us.  This loss drives him from essentially being a coward - another aspect I hope doesn't drive people from him - to a single-minded vengeance machine, and then to a man who accepts responsibility for saving as many as he can.  Will readers sympathize, or will they see what he is doing as equivocation that is beyond the pale?

Characters drive our stories, and a slip up that turns people against what you're trying to do can be fatal to the narrative.  I hope I've hit the right spot.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Piece Of Me

I think the biggest thing we writers struggle with is writing characters that are so different than we are.  Although extraneous characters can be challenging at times, the hardest ones to write are our main characters, especially if they're so different.

I hate admitting this, but most of my main characters have at least large elements of my own personality.  I can write them so easily because I can relate.

But when I try to stray outside of this motif, I run into trouble.  As an example, I'd originally intended for the main character from Wrongful Death to be a high school girl.  Unfortunately, no matter how hard I wrestled with it, I couldn't pull it off in any way that didn't sound cliché.  In order to get the story on paper, I changed the main character to a high school boy.  I could simply fall back on my own mindset when I was 17, thus making the task much easier.

This challenge applies across the board as I admit I'd be unfamiliar with writing a main character who is a jock, gay, a woman, or Japanese.  Sure, I could do it, but I know that it would come across as fake and full of every stereotype imaginable.  In short, it would be bad writing.

I wonder how much this problem affects other writers.  Does anyone out there encounter this issue?  I'm not talking about secondary characters or villains, since I have little difficulty writing them, but their point of view isn't the driving force behind the narrative.  That's what makes this such a challenge - when we write the main character's point of view, we inevitably view things through his lens.  We hear his thoughts and experience things the way he would experience them.  If we don't know the personality, how are we to make him sound convincing?

Differentiation is something I've strived for in my work - one character is a scientist, one is a historian, one is a high school senior, and so forth - but I feel my own personality coming through most of them.  Is it laziness?  A lack of talent?  Is it really so hard to get out of the box?

What this has done is make me read things a little differently.  I've noticed similarities in the main voices of many authors, so this problem of mine isn't unique.  Can we break away, or are we doomed to tell the same person's story through only a slightly different scenario until the end of time?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Tax Man Cometh

We're entering tax season, and I urge all writers to remember that taxes apply to everyone.  I've often said that writing is a business, and one of the reasons I feel writers choose the traditional publishing path is because they want other people to look after that nasty business stuff.  As an indie writer, it's your business and therefore your responsibility.

Most businesses pay their estimated taxes quarterly.  This avoids an enormous bill at the end of the year, and it's required by law to be within 10% of your end of the year rate.  I get that this all sounds about as exciting as a knitting session, but it's vital if you want to run a successful business as an indie writer rather than a hack job that muddles through a hobby.

The majority of indie writers sell less than 500 copies annually, so it's not as if their tax bill is large.  However, if you have plans of making a living at this, understanding the tax bill is kind of a big deal.  Separate your business accounts from your personal accounts so it makes deductions and write offs easier to explain to the IRS, and spend some time figuring out how to best estimate your taxes(based on your income selling books).  I strongly recommend filing as an S-Corp since it will simplify your taxes(you have to set up an S-Corp in advance), and you file it on your personal returns(although quarterly).

I cannot stress enough not to forget this.  Most writers just want to tell grandiose stories, but you'll be telling those stories from jail if you ignore the IRS.  Anything you sell is subject to their jurisdiction, so as unsexy as it might be, know it and abide by it.

Some will tell me that this post has nothing to do with writing, and those people are what we call "fools."  This is as much a part of what you do as editing.  None of this is easy, and it certainly isn't why we sat down at a computer to tell our stories, but nitnoid things like this are why many writers fail.  If you have at least a working knowledge of this before you begin, you start out ahead of 90% of your peers, and that can mean the world when trying to get off the ground.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Muse - Starts and Stops

She has relapsed.  My Muse, which had been gaining strength in recent weeks, has taken a step backwards.

"Can't you put forth a greater effort?" I implored.

"Can't you?" she replied.  "I was doing well and ready to make a full recovery during your trip, but you got lazy."

That stung...mostly because it had the ring of truth.  I was averaging over a thousand words a day and made plans to write 10,000 over a three day period during a business trip when I slipped up.

Anxious to deflect blame, I stammered, "Y-yeah, well you should been louder in my ear."

"I don't have that strength yet.  Two years ago, I'd have been right there with you, but after being forgotten for so long, I need you to make the effort.  Instead, you felt like you had to see the same Big Bang Theory episodes you've already watched seven times."

I wanted to argue more, but she was right.  My plane ride was six hours of boredom that I broke with the plane's inflight entertainment player.  And all the while, my laptop sat in the overhead bin.  Sure, I could've pointed out that I was in the middle seat on the way to Arizona, but that was just another excuse...the latest in a long line I've used for the last 18 month.

So I pulled up to my computer, adjusting the tightness of the seat as I sat, and hunched over the screen.  "David is starting to build momentum for his resistance group.  Are the people at the farm going to follow him to Ouachitta Lake?"

"Why do they need to go there?" she asked.

"I don't follow," I replied, genuinely perplexed.  "If he's going to create a worldwide movement capable of challenging the aliens' dominance over the planet, he needs people to follow him."

"True, but following doesn't always mean to a new location."  When she saw I still didn't understand, she continued, "He's at a farm that has shelter and food.  It's isolated, and the enemy isn't going to find him there for a while.  Why not build that as an initial base of support?"

I hadn't thought of that.  My plan had always been for him to get into the mountains and start hit and run attacks against Little Rock.

As if reading my thoughts, she said, "The mountains will make it harder for him to get to where he needs to go.  The farm, while off the main road, provides enough for him to get in and out.  Plus, the people at the farm are more likely to participate if they don't have to leave their home."

That made sense, so I belched out another 500 words about David convincing them to take in him and his three companions.  David brought weapons, and Danny provided shelter.  The enemy wasn't as aggressive now that they'd leveled everything around, so they had breathing room.  I wrestled with what to do with the next counterattack, but I knew the farm would provide intriguing possibilities for the rest of the story.

My Muse got up from her bed and brushed back my hair before whispering the next bit of dialogue in my ear.  It was good to have her back, but she still required care.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Fixing Awful Writing

As many of us have, I've written some stuff that is truly terrible.  I think that's just a part of being a writer - we can't put out a masterpiece every time.  Many beginning writers are still growing into their craft, but even Stephen King lays an egg every once in a while.  Still, how many of us have gone back and really rewritten bad stuff?

One would think this is easier to do than what we wrestle with.  After all, how many of us have read a book or watched a movie and thought about how we could've improved on it?  That's the very essence of fan fiction.  If we can do it with someone else's work, why can't we do it with our own?

Maybe we're too close to what we've written.  I know that when I've puked out some horrible piece of writing, I want to put it away and forget about it.  However, perhaps all we need is distance.  The distance of time can give us perspective on how to fix an idea that once so enthralled us that we just had to write about it.

I've spoken many times about how I abandoned my first novelOn Freedom's Wings seemed like a bad Star Trek parody, complete with a Scot being the ship's Chief Engineer.  However, the overall idea - Earth isolating itself from the galaxy in the wake of victory in a centuries long war - still intrigues me.  Since I'm looking for a way to get back into Short Story Friday, maybe rewriting this piece of crap is the way to do it.  I can go back into it and post the results online.  I plan to start doing this beginning in April.

Bad work can be saved.  Many times I've read or watched something that had potential, only to be crushed by poor writing.  If nothing else, it'll give me an opportunity to grow as a writer by taking on this daunting task.  Hopefully y'all will provide me some feedback along the way.  The results should at least be entertaining.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Blog Hit Slowdown

Last year, my blog started hitting its stride.  I was getting, on average, about 500 hits per week beginning in late June, and I arrogantly thought it was only a matter of time before that became a daily occurrence.  Well, my hits and expectations have recently come back to Earth.

Don't get me wrong - I still average about 150-200 hits per week, but it's disappointing given the momentum I once had.  Therefore, I've spent considerable time thinking about what drove the traffic down, and I've come up with a few explanations.  These aren't lessons only for me, but I hope my fellow bloggers can take these observations to heart and find ways to apply them to their own blog.

First, I stopped writing short stories every week.  Looking back through the traffic, these stories were among the most widely viewed posts.  Even my bad short stories garnered hits.  In late November, I decided to abandon Short Story Friday.  Trying to produce quality work was throwing off my schedule, and I felt that much of what I put out was just plain awful.  I thought that readers would appreciate no longer seeing such drivel online.

That turned out to be a mistake.  Traffic dropped off immediately.  I should have known that folks like going to a writing blog to read stories, but the exhausting pace led me down the primrose path.  I don't know when I will be able to change this, but I'm going to find a way to reintroduce that aspect of the blog.

Second, I'm not commenting as much on other blogs.  Linking in my blog address to those comments brought at least some traffic as people who read what I said grew a little curious and dropped by.  The folks who did that were never going to be regular visitors, but they did increase traffic.  My hectic life has led to less time on the computer, and, thus, to less time on other blogs.  I wish I could find a way to reverse this, but that likely won't happen for several more months.

Speaking of events in several more months, a change in employment this coming summer caused me to delay the release of my first book by a year.  I think this may have given the impression I'm not serious about writing.  Nothing could be further from the truth - I delayed the release precisely because I wanted to give it the time necessary to do it right - but the casual observer could look at this and decide I'm all talk.  That in itself could lead to others seeking satisfaction elsewhere.

Finally, as an addendum to the blog commenting part, I'm not visiting online writing message boards as frequently.  I used to go at least once a week, and I always saw an uptick in traffic when I did.  By not going, I haven't been able to draw in potential readers.

All of this may seem like one big bitch session, but it's really more analysis than anything.  There are some aspects - like short stories and visiting message boards - that I have to find ways to fix.  Other  aspects will be more challenging.  I hope others will look at these things and remember that changes in the face of momentum can have negative affects on your work.  If only one person sees that, my work is successful.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Trademark Name Reminder

Going along with another recent post, I wanted to remind everyone about a reminder on trademarked names.  We all have a tendency to use specific brand names as generic names in our work, and until you go back through what you've written, you can easily overlook such.

I rediscovered this as I was going through Akeldama for what I thought were final edits.  I was already aware that I'd put in a few names, like a restaurant called Philippe The Original and the gun manufacturer Glock, but I didn't catch that I'd included a whole bunch of other brand names that I might've used in everyday conversation without realizing it.

(Incidentally, I received permission from both Philippe's and Glock to use their names)

You can use brand names under the Fair Use Doctrine if they refer to specific things and don't defame the company, but you can't use them generically.  For example, you can say that the cola you ordered is a Coke, but you can't say your characters are drinking coke when it's obviously a substitute term for soda(I'm from the South, and we do that all the time - "What kind of coke would you like?"  "Mountain Dew!").  Also, don't talk about a particular type of car blowing up due to faulty gas tanks or something since that would be seen as defamation, and it could come back to haunt you in court.

In short, get permission for everything - it's the safest approach.

That means you must be prepared for them to deny you permission.  The second chapter of Akeldama originally took place on a large Midwestern college campus, and the school gave me permission...so long as it didn't involve violence.  Well, Chapter 2 is the opening of the first big vampire attack, so I wrote them back to let them know, and they subsequently said I couldn't use the name.  It sucked, but I changed it to a more generic school so that I couldn't be sued for trademark infringement.  Additionally, there's a scene where the main character uses a common household disinfectant to spray on wounds of his torture subject in order to gain information, but the name, although nearly synonymous with this type of spray, was too specific, and a direct link would be seen as defamatory(even though everyone knows this is how it works).

There are a lot of gray areas where you might be able to get away with using a brand name, but it's best not to risk it.  If the name is that vital to your story, get permission first, but be prepared to find a way to use another.  Better to re-write a story than write a legal brief in court.