Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Curse of the Scarlet Pumpernickel!

As writers, we all know that we have to ramp up the action.  Find new and deadly ways to make life hell for our characters. But sometimes this can actually cause a problem almost as bad as a flat plot.

Today, I present to you the sad case of the Scarlet Pumpernickel. Yes, you read that correctly, Pumpernickel. I'm not refering to the classic play The Scarlet Pimpernel, I'm refering to the not quite as classic (but should be) tale by that great screen writer, Daffy Duck.

In this saga, Daffy, tired of being type cast in only comedic roles, presents his own script-- The Scarlet Pumpernickel.  As he's laying out his story, the producer keeps asking, "Then what happened?"  Each time it pushes Daffy to even more outlandish events that befall him, the hero.  After he's gone through every horrific thing he can think of, and being covered in a mountain of script pages, Daffy finally answers the "And then what happened?" question by answering that "the Scarlet Pumpernickle had no where else to go, except blow his brains out--which he did."

Daffy built himself into such a mess by piling more and more tragdies on his hero, that he had no way out. He just kept going and going until he had to "end it all" to end it all.

I do love Daffy Duck, but I never really want to emulate him.  And sadly, I have read books where, while the character didn't kill themselves at the end, the "then what happened" really got out of control.  In both cases, I stopped reading the books before it got to the end so I never did find out how the authors resolved it (but judging by the books--not well).

What put me off as a reader was the fact that the increasing tension was a sharp angle, instead of a more graduated incline leading to the big bad climax. I really almost felt like the author was next to me saying, "but wait!  it gets worse!"  I never had time to process what had happened. The characters never had time to process what happened. As readers we see and learn so much about how these characters respond to crises, and these authors--and Daffy--took that away. There need to be lulls inbetween the action. Drop in some character development, a bit of the world building, emotional arcs, to remind the reader these are "real" people, not crazed automotons that just race from one bad situation to the next.

From a writer's point of view, racing into the "and then what happened?!" pit causes you to hit the climax without steam.  You've had so much bad stuff happened that nothing you can throw at the reader is going to be enough to make their heart race.

So next time you're looking at ramping up the action, keep Daffy in mind, and ramp things up incrementally and with some good pacing.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

And from order comes chaos

Yeah, yeah, usually it goes the other way around- bringing order out of chaos. As writers we deal with that all the time.  Whether we're a plotter or a pantser we take rough, chaotic ideas and bring them into some sense of understandable order.

Most of the time.

However, there can be some chaos sneaking back in during the serious editing stages.

This most commonly occurs when a scene goes on walk-about.  We write the scene at a specific point in the story, certain things have already happened, others are yet to come.  The scene carries with it a vibe of that part of the story.  More importantly, it is a snapshot of the character and their arc at that point of the story.

Then we decide it belongs somewhere else.  Often that's a good thing--sometimes the scene is awesome, it's just in the wrong spot.  So we cut and paste it, tweak any glaring plot issues, and move on.

But we've just taken a scene from the character on day fifteen and moved it to a point at day one hundred and twenty-five.  Not only do we have to make sure any plot issues are resolved within the scene we just migrated into a time-warp, we have to check out character development.

The easiest example was from a tv show I just saw.  It was clear they ran an episode way out of order even though this show is mostly built of self-contained episodes and isn't really a long arc for most of the plot points.  But it was pretty clear that for one reason or another, a show shot earlier on got aired much later.

How could I tell? The characters.  The development of the characters at that point (previous to our time jumping ep) was more advanced than the mis-placed episode. The wandering episode was still showing far more world building as well as re-hashing things about the main characters that had been established weeks ago.

Books can face the same issue.  If we're not very careful about how we move and adapt EVERYTHING when we relocate a chapter we can end up creating chaos out of order. The reader may not even be able to pin down why things seem off, just that they are. And bam- you just pulled that reader out of your book.

So next time you're slicing and dicing your world, make sure you keep the chaos out.  Look long and hard at who your characters are emotionally and mentally at each section and make sure they match when they move.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Little nasty green invader

 Today I want to look at a problem most of us have…. envy.  This could be a great book we read, an amazing movie, a moving painting, a song that makes you cry, even a picture of a cover model. We think, “why can’t MY book-movie-music-art-appearance-etc be like that!  I am such a failure! Let me go tattoo ‘L’ on my forehead right now!”  

What we fail to remember is all the work that went to get to those stages.  When we look at our work, we see the mess, the blood, the badly written lines, silly characters, and horrific descriptions.  So of course when we see a finished and polished product we get depressed.

But behind all those wonderful finished products lie weeks, months, possibly years of horrible first drafts, songs that never pulled together, film footage scattered on the ground, and a super model that takes five hours and ten people to look the way she does.

We’re looking at our own cake batter—eggs, flour, sugar and wondering why it doesn’t look like something in a bakery window.

And it gets worse if we show our work to someone who doesn’t have a clue as to the process.  They read our rough draft (or even a “gone through one edit draft” and think we’re fooling ourselves that we can write (or insert your goal/creative endeavor here).  Even if they don’t tell us, we can usually feel it. Thus more depression about our lack of skill and envy for others.

For some reason the vast majority of humans seem to think that everyone else has it better than they do. That everyone else is more talented, creative, skilled, has the perfect family, etc.  Guess what—aside from the numbers being off (the majority thinking they are the “loser/rejected minority”) it’s not true.

No one wakes up able to write a NYT bestselling novel, or an Oscar winning film, or a Grammy winning song- they ALL worked their butts off for it.  You can’t compare your work in progress, or your path in progress, with someone else’s finished product. Yet way too many of us do that very same thing (raising my hand here folks).

This isn’t mentally healthy for a creative process, or any self-improvement process lemme tell you. You know the saying you can’t compare apples to oranges?  Well, this is trying to compare apples to apple pie ala mode made by a master pastry chef. And the outcome is painful and can completely destroy dreams.

So next time you find yourself doing that- take a step or two back and remind yourself that you have NO idea how long it took for that finished product to turn out the way it did.  Then admire the skill, then turn your own skill lose and give it a chance.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Where the hell are you going?!

There's a great quote by Nora Roberts, "If anyone tells you there's a "right" way to write, they are a lying bitch."  Probably one of my favorite writing quotes. Ever.

That being said, I'm starting off 2014 with some advice.  But at no time am I saying this is "THE" way. I'm saying this is my way of looking at things and your mileage may vary. (This is true for all of my blog posts, so just mentally add the above statement to anything you read here in 2014.)

First off, how was your 2013?  I know it was a rough year for some and an amazing year for others.  Some friends of mine had serious personal problems but really had a great publishing year.  That seems to be the way of life.  We win some, we lose some.  The thing is to keep moving when we lose, and enjoy--but also keep moving-- when we win.

I think the biggest "trick" to success is knowing where you're going and how you are going to get there.  In writing, like most things, our final outcome is extremely influenced by outside sources.  Luckily for us this is becoming the age of "indie"power, and if New York isn't calling for your book, you can go Indie and do it yourself.  However, BIG caveat on that "by yourself".  To make sure your book can run with the big boys and girls you really do need a professional editor (or two), professional artist, book layout, marketing...yeah, you get the picture- it's not quite so "Indie" if you are doing it with the goal of building a writing career.

But whichever path you're choosing-- or even if you're into something other than writing--you need a direction. Some folks (me included) just jump into things without a plan.  I did it in college (switched to three different majors thank you very much) and unless I really watch myself, I do it now.  It can be great to just jump in sometimes.  Lots of folks never do anything they want because they won't dive in.  But for the bigger goals, the "this really means something to me" ones- we have to have a direction, plan, focus...SOMETHING.

Let's say I ask you how to get to your favorite restaurant.  You'll probably rattle off directions, a plan for how to get there.  (If you're like me it won't involve street names so much as "turn left at that corner with the big tree"--aka don't ask me for street directions ;)) Well, your plan for your goal has to have some directions too.

If we want something, to be published, to complete a certain number of books, lose weight, get a new job, whatever--we need to know what it is we really want, what our end game target is, and what steps are needed to get there. And while I am all for day dreaming, writing these steps down is probably a good idea.

This year I am going to focus on my writing as a business (no, I'm not quitting my day job, I'm not THAT insane ;)) but I am setting aside time to focus on the business end of it. I am also developing a way to separate the writing Andreas brain from the business Andreas brain, and the editing Andreas brain.  I've found that once I start seriously working on submissions my writing freezes.  So maybe some hats, or special chair covers ( "Ahh!  It's the "business time" seat cushion!") will help with that.

So that's my babbling for the new year- figure what you want and then map out all the steps to get there. Be ready to apply changes as needed...and they will be needed ;).

 What about you?  What are your plans, goals, directions for 2014?