Saturday, January 26, 2008

Tale of Two Train Wrecks

(Lessons from failure, with a brief digression)

C.S. reminded me this week that it's Mardi Gras season again. I know a lot of tourists see the holiday as little more than three B's: Booze, Beads & Boobies. They're right of course, but at the same time, sadly wrong.

Mardi Gras (or Carnival if you like) is a dance of death. It's a final and frenzied revelry before the symbolic death of Lent. (Well, technically, I seem to remember Lent is an extended symbolic suffering before the symbolic 'death' on Good Friday, but that doesn't change Mardi Gras's 'Gather Ye Rosebuds' metaphor.) And yes, we must die before we can be born anew at Easter. Denial. Death. Rebirth. It's a powerful and blood-soaked symbolism.

Of course, now the symbolism has changed, deepened. The city's death was real. Its rebirth is real. Every Mardi Gras since Katrina is a raging cry, a proof of life.

I only lived in New Orleans for a year and a half. I didn't know it then, but that was all the time the city needed to burn itself into my soul.

But I digress. Long story short: I got a bit homesick and rented a pair of New Orleans movies.

Sadly, those movies were The Big Easy and Heaven's Prisoners. Two of the most godawful train wrecks imaginable. Really. Ouch!

So as not to waste a valuable opportunity, I put my Storyteller's hat on as I watched. After all, we can learn as much or more from bad work as from good.

The Big Easy:

About 45 minutes in, I nailed the problem: SLEEPWALKING!!! Just about everyone involved sleepwalked through their patch. The script was okay. It had the mystery, the action sequences, the meet-cute and a little sex. There were the usual twists and reversals and by-the-numbers-surprises in the pacing. It was... okay.

The photography was... nice. In 1988 (or whenever), it wasn't hard to get a beautiful shot in New Orleans. You could shoot some nice stuff without thinking about it. And the DP (director of photography) didn't.

Neither did the director. He did some nice things with blocking (that's how the actors move around the set), but not enough imagination went into camera angle.

And the actors, don't get me started. Almost the entire cast treated their roles as a paid vacation on Bourbon Street. The extras all but waved at the camera and mouthed 'hi mom'.

But you know who shined? Ellen Barkin and John Goodman. Both were relative unknowns at the time, and by God, they got their chance and ripped into their roles with claws and teeth.

Lessons for Storytellers:

a) You can't phone it in.
b) An exotic setting and exciting events aren't enough.
c) A few clever moments aren't enough.
d) It's possible to make powerful work out of a stale plot, if you have the passion and the drive.
e) You CAN'T phone it in!

Heaven's Prisoners:

Almost the exact opposite of The Big Easy. Every frame of film showed a great deal of caring and commitment. The actors all brought their A game, as did the director. And the DP... wow. New Orleans has never looked so good!

So what went wrong?

They tried to be too faithful to James Lee Burke.

Burke's novels are gorgeous, elegiac, poetic and wise. They're everything that film is not. Yeah, the movie caught the steam rising from the streets after a summer rain. It caught the improbable wealth and grinding poverty. It even managed to convey the powerful swirl of self-destructive energies that threaten all of the principals, Dave included.

Sure, they made some changes. Fan favourite Clete Purcel was written out in favour of a now-African American (and more politically correct) Minos Dautrieve. Fair enough. What I seem to remember as a shootout in Algiers ended up somehow as a brawl on a 'speeding' runaway streetcar. (Old joke about the streetcar: if it passes you by, just walk on down to the next stop and catch it there!)

But they tried to keep the wrong stuff. They tried to keep Dave's PTSD dreams. His phone calls from the dead. They tried to stuff JLB's lovely narrative prose into the mouths of characters as dialogue. All of these are sequel. None of them are what film does well.

Lessons for Storytellers:

a) Use your medium. Novels, graphic novels, spoken word and film all have their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Learn them. Use them.

b) Without the right tools, passion just isn't enough.

Sure was a pretty movie, though...

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Groping for Fishhooks

In Lisey's Story, Stephen King talks about story-ideas as bits of colored string, found half-buried in the ground. In his absolutely *brilliant* book Which Lie Did I Tell, by William Goldman describes these idea fragments as 'connectives'.
I call 'em fishhooks.

In the course of any given day we all come across news items, bits of historical trivia, things you see in the street. Some of those items suggest a story. Heck, most of what we see can suggest a story, but some are definitely 'stickier' than others.

Usually, two or three unrelated things catch together and give me the germ of a story. I read about a teenager who kills her parents, see a little girl alone in a supermarket, tears brimming in her eyes, and BAM. What if that little girl just killed her *latest* set of parents and is putting on her 'crying orphan' act to get a fresh set?

This sort of thing happens to me several times a day between books. Maybe a couple, three times a week while I'm writing...

So you get this little cluster of fishhooks. As Goldman puts it, you have to ask, "Is this in my wheelhouse?" I've always thought of it as, "Is this my line of country?" Can I tell this story? And can I tell it well enough to spend six months of my life doing so?

In other words, am I hooked? :)

Sometimes, those answers are close enough to yes that I 'sketch' a little - a chapter, maybe two or three. The little girl cries, a concerned soccer mom tries to help. How does the little tyke go home with the woman? Haven't a clue. If I don't find one, we're dead right there. If I do (I'd imagine the little girl could be pretty charming and persuasive - and like many predators, quite adept at choosing her victims), we're on: what happens next?

And how excited am I by what's happening?

To be honest, I'm not excited yet by this premise. So I grope in the darkness for more fishhooks and see what I snag.

How about that little hitch of reluctance I felt before I went to help the girl. Scary-looking single male, talking to a child not his own... the Tiny Dynamo assures me I will be locked up for my altruism, but I still do the right thing. I have faith my pure heart will be recognized. So far it has, but there may be a novel in the day that it's not...

What if the little girl latches onto a guy? Maybe an ex-con who means no harm but will never get a fair shake from larger society? Some big, blocky bastard, more scar tissue than skin. Most people shy away from this monster (I'm thinking Frankestein, with that little girl), but here's this kid, this little kid, looking up at him like she knows, *knows* he'll help her.
He looks back over both shoulders, looks down from his great height and mutters, "Where's your ma?" She looks up at him with those big wet eyes, and what swims behind them looks something like triumph.

Or how about a different kind of woman? ex-con, maybe a recovering addict with a yucky past, sees a bit of herself in that lost kid? Stringy peroxide hair and scarred track marks, prison tattoos and cigarette burns.
She looks at that kid and remembers herself at that age. She scratches a gray welt of scar tissue below her collar bone and knows what waits for a little kid like that, vulnerable and alone.
She bends down, "Where's your mum?" "Heaven." "Sorry. Uh, who's lookin after you?" The kid looks upset and sucks her thumb. Too old for it, but she sucks her thumb and tries to hide her tears. "C'mon, kid, let's get you somethin to eat..."

Either one might have legs.

And yeah, I noticed too that my hero's an outcast. That's a fair-sized fishhook for me. It's a condition I relate to, also quite useful when things get rough in the story. Neither of these two is going to call the cops for ANY reason, and both of them, grown though they are, are orphans themselves. They know (or believe they do, anyway) what happens to the kids nobody cares about, and no way he or she's gonna let that happen to *this* little tyke.

And so on I'd go, hooking from one fishhook to another, chaining them together and inviting the barbs to bite deep when they hit flesh. Some of those hooks might come from my past, some from my basic human empathy (I had a pretty nice childhood, but you can't help feeling for the ones that didn't), some from the news or history books.

As I get deeper in, the hooks will tend to attract each other. My subconscious mulls the big issue: how does a small child (right now I'm thinking 6 to 8) overpower and KILL a full-grown adult? Is she a firebug? A poisoner? What? I'll find myself noticing stuff in the news, catching shreds of conversation in the tattoo shop, whatever. I'll attract the right hook to pull me onto the next part of the story.

Mostly, for me, the writing process is about exploring those hooks: Outcast tries to help. Innocent mask hides a predator. How does this kid keep doing this? Maybe I tattoo a parole officer (or meet her in a supermarket, or eavesdrop on his conversation in a coffee shop, whatever) and get to thinking about the parole board's role in our hero/heroine's life. Or maybe...
One way to look at it is letting the characters fight it all out (this story would be real cat-and-mouse), but while they're doing that, I'm swinging from these damn hooks and looking for more...

Friday, January 18, 2008

Tormented Genuis

These thoughts were inspired by a mighty fine post by Avery DeBow. The nature of creativity and the creative process seems much on my mind these days...

"Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward" - Job 5:7

Which is to say, we all have pain. Or, to quote Michael Stipe, "Everybody hurts." The pain's there. It's always there, for all of us, all the time. Big deal.

Whether or not pain is necessary to the creation of art is an interesting argument. Personally, I'm undecided. Pain may be the single most important ingredient in art, that little speck of dirt that irritates an oyster into pearly goodness. Or art may simply be the lens through which we focus the whole of the human experience, misery and pain caught up in the picture so often because there's simply so much of it...

The idea that an artist must be miserable to create genius is, I think, utterly specious. Pain in your past, sure, but pain in your present? Necessary? Not a chance.

Sure, some artists have created works of genius in states of abject misery. F. Scott Fitzgerald turned out some fabulous writing while slugging it out with Zelda and drinking himself to death. Some of Picasso's best work coincided with the worst moments of the sexual maelstrom of his life. For them, the work was the single firm place they had to stand when the tempest raged.

The work can save you in bad times. When the sparks truly begin to fly upward, you can give yourself to the work and get through. Truth.

But the muse comes easier if your present is stable and content. That smelly, snuffling critter likes to know when and where to find you, and that you'll be ready to follow where it leads, *if* it feels like coming around. Your best work happens when it doesn't have to haul you out of an opium den...

Henry Miller didn't even start to do his best work until his worst days were behind him. Same for Leonardo DaVinci (that whole sodomy trial thing...), Jack Kirby (a rough street kid who invented half of Marvel's superheroes), Chretien de Troyes (a retired soldier before he put his own fresh spin on the Grail cycle), Dean Koontz (whose homelife is a model of stability since his dad can no longer try to kill him), the list goes on...

Or look at James Lee Burke, Stephen King, Ed Gorman and all the rest whose best work happened after they got sober, got stable, got settled.

Worried your pain isn't enough? I used to. How do my piddling little problems stack up against those guys? I mean, I've never been to war, been on trial, I'm not addicted to anything and heaps of people have had *much* worse childhoods.

But then I think about Joyce Carol Oates. Her life is pleasant and orderly life, her childhood ordinary, but when she sits down in that lovely room with the big window and her pen, watch out!

Charles Schulz's single great trauma was that he once loved a girl who didn't love him back, an experience I think it's safe to say, not that uncommon. Hell, as many times as my heart's been broken, I want to accuse him of milking it.

But man, what he did with that one little heartbreak!

My point? Schulz worked through his stuff in a *gorgeous* studio in a *gorgeous* home, with a loving wife and kids around. And as his life got better and better, so did his work.

Whoever you are, whatever's behind you and whatever's coming, know this:

You have what you need. Just use it to create.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Wells, Filled and Otherwise

Shauna posted recently about 'filling the well'. To be honest, it's a term I only started hearing a couple of years ago when I started spending time with writers.

The idea seems to be that creativity is a cool liquid, of which we drink deeply. Sometimes, a project can leave us feeling drained. Times like that, we need to stop drinking and let others' waters replenish our own.

At least, I think that's the idea. It's one of those things folks tend to talk about as though everyone else already knows. I've had to pick the metaphor up on the run.

I get the feeling writers expect to approach their new project with a well filled to the brim with sparkling ideas. With every day's work, the bucket has to dip just that little bit deeper. A few I know fear that one day they 'go to the well' and hear nothing but a dry thunk.

Me, I don't like this metaphor so much. It's so.....


If I have a well of ideas, its a bloody great artesian thing.

I'm a productive guy: I write a novel or two a year. Do maybe a dozen, two dozen paintings. Fill a couple of sketchbooks and occasionally bring a little extra spark to my gentle whoredom in the tattoo studio. I don't lower a bucket and hope to find something. For me, it's about not being knocked down by the spray.

So what do I do to stay creative?

1. Distrust Mood: I had the great good fortune to have the idea of a 'creative mood' drummed out of me early on. Stephen King puts it nicely in this article, where he suggests the muse is most likely to find you if you're already sitting there working.

2. Care for Your Tools: I keep my pencils sharp, my brushes soft, my pens inked, my typewriter oiled and my laptop clean. I also eat pretty well and stay in reasonable shape. I know painters who wouldn't dream of letting paint sludge dry on their brushes, but they do nothing to care for the hand and arm and brain doing the work.

3. Permission to Fail: By definition, every day cannot be our best. That's okay, no big deal. The more we practice our arts, the better we get. The better our 'average' becomes. I find it helpful to accept that today's work might suck, then get on with it.

4. Blood to Brain: Thinking burns glucose. It also requires oxygen, and the clearing of waste products. How does all that happen? Yup, blood flow.

When I feel blocked during a work session, I charge up the old heart. These days I have a heavy bag behind the house, and whaling on it feels great. Before the bag, I'd do pushups or situps. I'm often surprised at how a quick shock of activity like that will clear those blockages.

5. Sidestep: I like to jump around in different media. Even the ones I'm bad at. As long as it gives me a little bit of fun, what's the harm?

In fact, a sidestep was how I started writing in the first place. One of the reasons I started down this road was that I was doing an enormous amount of work-for-hire drawing comics. It was great fun, and I was forced to stretch my art in ways I never would have otherwise tried, but... I missed telling my own stories. Doing two comics at once was so time-consuming it was out of the question, so I sat down and wrote a novel. And another. And....

And lastly, COFFEE: I drink a lot of coffee. A lot.
Even when I'm going down a wrong turn, I get there quickly.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Dead Horses Beaten, Some Not Enough

Just a few dead horses I want to whup on a little before I move on to other topics.

One final word on scene and sequel: to pep those sequels up, add a little sizzle. Don't just finish a scene and have your characters walk through steps 1-4. Here's some free stage-business to put in your tool box:

Talk it out. Disguise the sequel-steps in dialogue. Elmore Leonard uses this a lot, so did Eugene Izzi.

"You okay?"

"What do you think?" Frank rubbed his shoulder. It hurt like hell.

"Buncha guys in Halloween masks just tried to throw you out a window, is what I think."

"Assholes just wanted to scare me, is all. Fuck em."

"Maybe we should cool it awhile," Eddie said.

"You know we can't do that."

"So, we still going ahead with the plan?"

"Nah. Won't work now they're on to us. We need something new..."

The two men smoked in silence. Eddie watched the models on the infomercial pretend to use the abdominator.

Frank stubbed out his cigarette. He had that look in his eye.

"Your sister still work at the DMV?"

See, all the steps, in order! Or you might try...

Telling locale. Like eye-gouging, location is a cheap trick that WORKS. Put your character in a location meant to evoke their inner state and let the reader draw the parallels. Put your heroine in a big empty room, shivering in front of a window as she looks out at the cold dark night. Tell us her husband isn't home yet. When she picks up the scissors and marches into the closet, we'll fill in the blanks.

Sex and Violence. I could have just called this give 'em something else to do, but notice how I got your attention? Let your viewpoint character work through their sequel-steps during moments of intense other-business to keep the reader flipping pages. James Lee Burke uses sex scenes brilliantly for this, and James Ellroy does a bang-up job using violence.

Maybe the best examples are from the worst medium for sequel: the movies. Luke learns Darth Vader is his father in the middle of a swordfight. He feels the pain, sees the truth, loooks at his options (though we're all pretty sure he *won't* pick join me on the Dark Side) and chooses suicide. The near-climax of Grosse Point Blank, John Cusack's expository dialogue with his ex and her father is just sequel-through-dialogue (since it's all about *his* feelings, thoughts, options and decisions), made *extra* distracting with a gunfight!

My last word on sequel: how much you dwell on the emotion, the logic, the various options open is a matter of taste and context. The REALLY IMPORTANT thing is that your character emerges with a new decision about their next action.


Sloppy writing may in fact turn out to be a more serious problem - outright theft.

Now, personally, I don't see the literal transposition of out-of-copyright material as theft: sloppy, lazy and boring maybe, but not theft. The whole point of copyright is that the creator gets a period of time to enjoy the fruits of their labor, *then* that creation passes into the ongoing dialogue that is our popular culture. This helpful video explains it well, and points out how Disney is trying to bollix the whole concept. Ironic, considering uncle Walt built his early empire on out-of-copyright creations like Pinocchio, Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc...

But I digress.

My point was, Edwards may have been too lazy to put her research in her own words, but she wasn't breaking the law. Bad writing is bad, but illegal. This matter with the similarities between Savage Dream and Laughing Boy may be a different story.

For me, it's certainly a scarier one. At least some of that *may* have been unconscious.
Looking down those lists of similarities, I see a *lot* of poetic imagery. Good, 'sticky' imagery. Now, Edwards may have been sitting with old books, scissors and paste, gleefully assembling the latest tale with maniacal laughter, or Laughing Boy may have made a bigger impression on her than she knew. I know James Lee Burke once described a 'sky like torn plums', an image so powerful and evocative that it sticks with me long after I forgot which book it came from.

Lines like that can make you want to be a writer. On a bad day, they can make you want to give it all up. What they can't do is show up IN YOUR WORK. You have your own voice. It will be informed and influenced by those you admire, but it must be your own.

I think Ms Edwards's life is about to unravel. I foresee a future of lawsuits and disgrace. It's a harsh price to pay for laziness. Harsh, but maybe fair...

Thursday, January 10, 2008

We All Fear Virgina Woolf

My best laugh this morning came from Derek Nikitas's blog, This World Like a Knife. He's an erudite and funny guy, and his thoughts on Virgina Woolf this morning were spot on!

I'll do another, final, post on sequel tomorrow, then on to other topics...

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

An Unnecessary Mess

Right now, the Smart Bitches are tearing through a certain author's works. They found pages and pages of 'marked similarity' between the historical fiction of Cassie Edwards and various dusty volumes of non-fiction published between 1902 and 1937.

The Smart Bitches cry plagarism. Signet Books shouts fair use.

I mutter, "Sloppy writing..."

Historical fiction's tough. It's as tough as science fiction or fantasy world-building, but with the added bonus of other people being able to shout 'Anachronism!' at the top of their lungs if you screw up. Research, accurate research, is soooooo vital!

And since the appeal of historical fiction is the chance to be transported back in time, we the reader know, or at least really really HOPE, the wrtier did her research.

The Bitches' issue with Ms Edwards doesn't seem to be the accuracy of her research. It's that her authorial voice changes when she wants to show that research off. Changes so much, they googled those odd bits. Then googled some more... It becomes clear that the writer's awkward info-dumps (if your readers notice the change in voice, that's awkward) were literally scooped up and dumped from source material to novel.


"Fair use!"

Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. Lazy.

By contrast, yesterday I started 'Why Mermaids Sing' by CS Harris. It's a murder mystery set in Regency England. September 1811, to be exact.

I'm reading with a sort of sense of wonder right now: beautiful language, flowing dialogue, local dialects that actually work, a deft hand with characterization and a cracking good pace. Seriously, this writer belongs on the bestseller lists.

So it should be no surprise that her research and historical texture are spot-on as well. And restrained.

Marvelously restrained. Her characters move through their world without feeling the need to stop every few pages and 'break the fourth wall' explaining it to us. Yes, it took me a few chapters to figure out what a 'tiger' was, but it was worth it. I'm about a quarter of the way through, and not a single info-dump narrative or 'As you know Bob' in sight!

It's a walk along a knife's edge, giving the reader enough information without giving too much. And it's a bloody magic act pulling it off without the seams showing. Mermaids does it, and damned if I can quite see how...

Doing all this research. Ignoring it while you write. Using facts sparingly. And then doing it in a pleasing and entertaining way: it's a lot of heavy lifting. A lot. And as a guy with a lazy side myself (for two years I hired a lawn service rather than mow my own), I can understand the aversion to heavy lifting.

But here's the thing. We love what we do. Otherwise, we'd do something else. And love means doing the heavy lifting.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Sequel and Pace

So, on to the third part (For a change, actually done... third). To recap:

Sequel (as in scene/sequel) is the squidgy bit between your action-packed, conflict-driven scenes.

More than just a slack bit of slow-moving nothing, sequel is where the character reacts to their last setback (and it had *better* be a setback, or the story's over) and decides on their next action. And they had *better* decide to do something else to reach their goal, or the story's once again over.

This reaction/decision process happens in four parts: Emotion. Thought. Options. Decision. You can skip a step, but never, never do them out of order. (When that door slams, FIRST Jane feels shock and loss, THEN she acknowledges that Tom's gone. THEN Jane toys with the idea of going sleeping with his best friend/worst enemy, taking up a useful hobby like a foreign language, moving to a villa in Tuscany or joining a nunnery and forgetting men forever. FINALLY, her decision moves the story forward to the next conflict. You don't have to show every step, but imagine how silly it would be to address them out of order...)

Scene (conflict) sets up sequel (reaction/decision) sets up scene, sets up conflict. This cycle continues, pressing your protagonist harder and harder until the story's climax.

And last in the recap, these decisive moments are exactly where the reader emotionally invests in your characters. Skill at handling sequel can make the difference between powerful characters acting in believable ways and books thrown at the wall.

Now, new business!

Sequel is also your greatest tool for controlling pace.

With all their exciting conflict, goals struggled for and denied, scenes move fast. Whether cruel and violent men are plotting the hero's downfall or a smoldering Frenchman just moved in next store, scenes are exciting. They zoom along.

If scenes are the throttle, sequels are the brake. How much or how little you use depends on the pace you want to set, and the difficulty of the plot turns in the racecourse.

Maybe I stretched that metaphor too far. I'll walk it back.

Ever read a book that seemed to fly right through? You whizz from even to event until the last page is turned, close the book and ask yourself, "What was the point?" That's a case of going too light on the sequels.

Or how about a book that seemed to take forever to go not very far at all? You bravely forge through page after page (usually carried by lovely language and not much else), waiting for something to happen. Too much sequel. Waaaayyyyy too much. In real life we may wallow in our reactions and agonize for way too long over our decisions, but try showing that in real time and you lose readers.

Of course, you may win prizes, but that's another story...

How much is too much? How little is too little? To return to my automotive metaphor, picture your story as a mountain road race. You want that pedal to the metal in the straightaways, but you damn well better use the brake on the turns. You might only blip the brake pedal at a bend in the road, or you might have to do a full-on handbrake-assisted bootleg turn to get through a tricky switchback without coming off the road.

One time to get right into the sequel and really grind is on those MAJOR plot turns. I mean the ones that, if the character doesn't choose right, don't just change your story, they end it.

The walls are bleeding. Disembodied voices are telling the family to GET OUT. Why don't they? Short answer: if they do, your story's over in Scene I. Long answer: well, that's where you need to do some real work. Why *don't* they pack right up? I sure would...

From Prince Consort to escaped outlaw in one awful night, we only need short quick checks to stay with Ruenn Maclang's feelings of betrayal and the decision he makes. Later, his decision to seek out his brother gets the time and space it rightly deserves...

The other time you need to dig into your sequel is at the emotional heart of the story. When it's really, REALLY important for us to feel your character's heartbreak, lust, terror, anger, etc., you really need to stop the world for a moment and let that happen. Especially if you're setting up powerful and conflicted choices, and I hope you are.

Dave Robicheaux is such a memorable character precisely *because* of strong sequels. His lifelong struggles with his violent nature are often directly opposed to his loyalty to those he loves. As the blowtorch-sociopaths and shark-souled profiteers smell blood in the water, we're firmly rooted in Dave's conflicts. When his temper gets the better of him, those violent scenes are threaded with a mingled sense of triumph and loss.

Otherwise, he'd be an eighties action movie. Don't believe me? Rent Heaven's Prisoners. Or better yet, don't.

James Lee Burke's sequels also tend to dilate the time in his books. Days, even weeks often pass between scenes, covered in two and three page passages that invest us heavily in the timeless beauty and Arcadian innocence of Dave's world, and the sweet-tinged sorrow of its inevitable loss.

Elmore Leonard uses a shorter timeline. His books often take place over a few days, sometimes even less, and his sequels usually reflect that. Two guys have coffee and shoot the shit, emotional reaction and decision coming out through dialogue. A lonely woman looks around her crappy apartment, and in the time it takes to microwave a Lean Cuisine, decides to steal half a million dollars. Quick pace, but full investment, it's an artful balance.

I shouldn't have mentioned Leonard. A wide variety of subtle tools do a huge amount of work in every passage. One could devote an entire blog just to pulling the tools apart and looking at them. And he's that sort of master makes it look effortless.

One last thought: This scene/sequel construction is just one way to look at your stories. This isn't Newton mechanics, this-way-and-no-other type stuff. It's more a quantum physics particle-wave-and-four-kinds-of-spin-its-state-depends-on-how-you-look-at-it sort of thing.

As always, take what you like and leave the rest... :-)

Monday, January 7, 2008

Sequel Neglected, the actual first part

A Quick Apology: I put the cart in front of the horse a bit yesterday. I didn't give enough space to the whole scene/sequel construction, instead diving right in to the how-to. I'll try to clear this up today...

'Sequel' in this case doesn't mean the second book/movie/episode in the series. There's a particular way of looking at dramatic construction that says a scene is conflict, a sequel is the aftermath that sets up the next conflict/scene.


Polly needs to get to the hospital, a matter of life and death.

Scene: Polly drives to fast in her rush. The car spins out of control. Polly's struggles to stay on the road are conflict.

Because it's early days yet, she's unsuccessful and crashes!

Sequel: Polly is shaken by her brush with disaster. The car is now useless. She thinks of various ways she could get to the hospital.

Because the story isn't over, Polly's decision makes things worse: she decides to get in the van with that friendly man in the trenchcoat. Well, maybe not friendly exactly, but he does keep rubbing his hands together and smiling...

Which will set up the next conflict, Polly in the van with the maniac. Scene creates sequel, creates scene, creates scene/sequel/scene/sequel ad climaxium.

You can write a whole book this way: Dean Koontz's best thrillers follow this pattern relentlessly, and to great effect. His less successful efforts indulge a certain tendency to wander... James Lee Burke and John Connolly use the formula as well, but with a less compressed timeline...

I know a lot of writers consider sequel 'that squidgy bit in between', but treated properly, it's a powerful and multi-purpose tool. One major use is to get the reader sympathizing with the character.

*NOW* go back and read the bits about the four stages of experiencing a sequel. All right, we're back on track! :-)

Now, how you handle your sequels depends on the type of story you're writing.

Literary fiction tends to dwell *heavily* on sequel, often to the detriment of, you know, stuff happening. I recently read a literary novel where over the course of 500 pages, maybe three actual incidents occured. I knew the heck out of the protagonist, though I didn't much care... Next time you read a book that seems to bog down, look at how much time the author is giving to the protagonist's inner workings versus, you know, stuff happening.

Romance, sequels lean heavy on the emotional side. The storyteller there wants you really, *really* feeling the heroine's pain. Crime, on the other hand, tends to run to the thought side: we don't mind that Jack Reacher isn't too emotional about the stuff happening around him. It's part of his charm, and his major strength is his ability think about the evidence.

Suspense tales are heavy on decision. As those heroes and heroines find themselves under more and more pressure, we readers like to *see* the walls closing in. There's nothing better seeing a character make an awful choice but knowing that all the choices are bad. Do it right, and we step inside that dark room with the heroine, defenseless and alone. Do it wrong, and the reader shouts at the page, "Just fuckin' call the cops already!"

Action stories dwell lightly on sequel. Right now I'm reading Wings Over Talera, and the author treats sequel with a deft hand. Short passages in the center of chapters. They have to be in the middle, since every chapter ends in a cliffhanger, so the next chapter has to resolve that one, and so on. But even in the midst of all this rollicking great action, Ruenn is having understandable reactions and making understandable decisions. Which lead to something worse happening.

If the writer handled these crucial passages wrong, we might have a cardboard hero pursuing conflict for its own sake. Or a passive character bobbing like a cork from trouble to trouble - for an action hero, a fate worse than death!

My time's about up, so I'll get to using scene and sequel in your pacing tomorrow.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Sequel Neglected

I've noticed I have a fair few posts about scenes, but I've completely neglected sequels. I can't imagine why. Scene and sequel go together like ham and eggs. Pork and beans. Night and day. Well, you get the drift.

Sequels are important. Vital, in fact. I'll even go so far as to say that a well-written sequel is THE way to get readers to give a damn about your characters.

Basically, scenes are about conflict and events. Sequels are about processing those events. Sequels are the natural follow-up to a scene, so natural that even if you've never heard of the concept, you'll have written at least a few unconsciously.

But that's the road to mastery: the natural and unconscious are brought to the light, taken apart, closely examined and eventually refined until they are eventually unconscious again. Dancing, cooking, fighting or writing, this process is why amateurs look spastic and lost, intermediates look like they're trying and the best make it look seamless, easy and natural.

So on that road, let's turn to the sequel.

Your scenes are where your 'stuff' happens. Your sequels are where we see inside the character, where we buy in or shut down.

Sequel is where you account for *why* your character stays in the damn haunted house. And how they feel about taking down a skyscraper full of terrorists single-handed.

Handle your sequels wrong, and Elinor Dashwood may come off as a wimp. Scarlett O'Hara is just another coniving gold digger. Jack Reacher, John Rain and James Bond all become just so many violent murderers.

Handle them right, and you just may create characters who are memorable, powerful and immortal.

No pressure, right? :-)

After an exciting event, people react. The reaction may take place over years or the space of a single heartbeat, but it *will* take place in a reliable sequence:

1. Feelings
2. Thoughts
3. Options
4. Choice

When I was sixteen, a young man pulled a gun on me.

1. The sight of the weapon engendered an intense limbic reaction, which is a fncy way of saying a sudden and visceral sensation of 'Holy shit!'

2. Fast on the heels of the emotion of fear was thought: The gun was still in his waistband, it had a good couple of feet to travel before the barrel would point at me. Which thought led to...

3. Options. I could have tried to outrun a bullet. I could have stuck my hands up and relied on an armed asshole's mercy. I suppose I might have negotiated, but I honestly wasn't that on top of things back then. Instead, I made a different (4.) choice: I charged in and fought.

By the numbers, and all in the space it takes one fool to call another one a motherfucker.

About ten years later, a young woman I loved wanted an open relationship.

1. I felt hurt and jealous, oddly betrayed and even more inexplicably lustful.

2. I tried to rationally deny my jealousy. After all, she wanted to keep seeing me, and she sure didn't mind me seeing her friends. And her friends were, um, attractive as well. What was monogamy anyway but an antiquated social construct intended to gaurantee a father's loyalty to progeny definitely his own? Yeah, my thoughts were stupid...

3. I really did look at my options. Breaking up with her was tempting as hell. So was trying to make the open thing work, especially when she was breathing on my neck...

4. I made a choice. Later, I changed my mind and left town.

Depending on how the writer handled that material, I could be the hero or the villain. Hopefully, my subsequent actions would make sense.

The night she told me was a scene (and man, was that a scene!), the next few months were the sequel. Depending on how I'd try to write that story, the next scene might be the first night I was alone and she was with someone else, or the last morning we were together before I left town. It all depends on....


Scene and sequel are the beating heart of your story. Scene is the throttle, sequel the brake. And when it comes to controlling pace, sequel is the more powerful tool.

I'm running on too long, so I'll return to sequel tomorrow, this time with the focus on using it as a pacing tool...
OOps, one last thought: Unlike real life (I'm actually pretty happy with my decision to fight that kid), the choice your fictional character makes MUST make things worth. The phrase I use when I'm writing is 'Into the Lion's Mouth.' Your characters make things harder and more complicated until they're pressed so tight the story, well, climaxes.
That's kind of related to pacing, and I'll try to cover both tomorrow. Otherwise, I guess I'm in for a three-parter...

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Hard Resolution

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.” — Henry David Thoreau

"Move with purpose. The world will meet you, or at least get out of your way." -- Steve Malley

Tis the season for new year's resolutions.

All around our Western Civilization, gym memberships are swelling. It's hard to find a chair this month in Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and all those other diet programs. Online dating sites are doing a booming business.

In a couple of weeks, maybe a month, most of those new faces will be gone. We used to see it all the time in the martial arts gyms of my youth. Every January, and every time a new action movie came out, the new folks piled in, most of them six week wonders.

Kate has a list of her new things in her life, and they've been happening. Candy has four well-thought resolutions. Charles, only one (but it's a goodie - cut down on the computer games). Timothy Hallinan has a beauty of a list for any writer.

I don't make New Year's resolutions. For some reason, my off-beat life makes them impractical. Instead, I make my resolutions for the next twelve months in October.

This year I don't have any new ones. I'm too busy with year three of an old resolution: Move from comics into prose.

That meant my life needed to change. I finished out my comics commitments and did not take on new ones. I work fifteen hours a week in the tattoo shop, a compromise that gives me money enough for books and time enough to write.

And I do write. I write and I read and I study this strange craft. I'm in for a long haul.

The best things in life don't give instant gratification. Being in shape is great: sweating in the gym sucks, especially those sore first few weeks. No matter what Beyonce's doing with maple syrup, weight loss needs to be gradual to endure. Loving and being loved is awesome, but it's work, every day. I didn't expect life as a writer to be an exception.

I suspect that's where the six-week wonders go wrong. At the end of the day, it's easier to chase the quick fix pleasure than to hunker down for the bigger reward.