Category Archives: Writing

Breaking Clichés

I recently got some feedback on a short story from a top editor and of course the piece is going back into the shop to utilize their comments. However one of the compliments I received was on using a clichéd opening that worked in spite of the cliché. The story began with the character waking up.

If you do not write much or do not hangout with writers learning their craft you may not know just how often this opening starts off stories that fail to deliver. It has been theorized that this opening is so prevalent among novice writing because it mirrors the creative process. The writer doesn’t know how to start the story and begin at the start of the day, with their main character coming out of a slumber. This theory is further reinforced if the character awakens to a white room, the white space very reminiscent of the blank white paper in a typewriter. (And that gives you a sense of how old this cliché is.)

In art any rule can broken so when it is right to start a story with this tired trope?

I think the critical question is what woke the character up? The story I got the positive comment on had as a major theme sleeping dreams and in order to get the character as close as possible to their dreams I needed them to start asleep, but that alone would not have been enough to break the cliché. In addition to the theme, the character is awoken by bad news. In others words this was not just any random awakening, there was the commentary on the dream and an immediate obstacle that presented a dramatic need to my character.

If you are tempted to having your story start with the character coming awake my first advice would be, look for another point in the tale with greater dramatic impact, but if you cannot leap past the moment make sure it fits thematically and has dramatic stakes straight away.


A Bonanza of Movies

I must say that looking forward over the next few weeks my troubles appear to be finding enough time to see all the movies I want to see.

Next weekend The Shape of Water opens and I am both a fan of the Universal Gill-Man movies and Del Torro, so this movie if aimed right at me. The week after that of course if the opening of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and I thoroughly enjoyed The Force Awakens so this one is also on my radar. (I also have no doubts that JJ Abrams is a much better fit with Star Wars than he is with Star Trek.)

On Dec 13th I will be joining a bunch of fans for a sold out screening of 1980’s musical fantasy Xanadu. (Now this film is really a bad movie. The script is terrible and apparently was subject to daily rewrites but there is an emotional core that resonates with me making it a personal favorite. See you can love art that is not well executed. All that matters is that it speaks to you.)

Coco has opened and that is a Pixar movie that has really grabbed my interest. In addition to that I admit a more than passing interest in the latest entry in the Saw franchise, Jigsaw, even though I have never seen any movie of that series. (It’s the directors, they are talented and the three previous films the brothers have all worked for me.)

Sadly this is also the time of year when I am working 10 hours a day helping people get the insurance that they want and that leaves limited hours for going out.

Still, no complaints. Life is good and on the 15th my latest short story hits publication on the web so while I am tired I am happy.


Revisiting my Youth

So, as I have mentioned the notion has been bouncing around my head to try my hand a pulp style adventure. I have received some good advice that perhaps I should start with a short story first and then perhaps attempt a novel.

A few weeks ago my sweetie-wife and I was walking near the Antique Row area of Adam’s Avenue in San Diego and as we passed the Adam’s Avenue Bookstore, a treasure horde of used books and my favorite used bookstore in town, I popped inside to see if they had any of the old Doc Savage novels.

They had one: Fear Cay.

I bought it, and bought another book that my sweetie-wife wanted and we headed home. Now when I was a young teenager I discovered the Doc Savage novels shortly after discovering science-fiction in general. These were pulp adventures written in the 30’s about the superhuman hero/adventurer Doc Savage and his team of five fantastic men as they spanned the globe fighting evil. There are more than 180 of these novels and I think I have read maybe twenty, but my memory is one of fun, adventure, and a pseudo-supernatural mystery that always turned out to have a scientific explanation. Really just the sort of thing I am thinking about exploring. Armed with my pulp novel I settled in to read Fear Cay.

Wow. The prose is terrible.

The adventure unfolds pretty much as I remember most of these adventure unfolding, but I had no recollection at all just how clumsy, expository, and plain bad the actual writing was. I have worked my way through this book but I can attest that it was not a smooth and effortless journey, Certainly I do not want to imitate the prose style of something like this, only the atmosphere of grand adventure. I have a short story coming together for my own pulp hero and after I finish work on my novel that will be by next project.

As an aside, apparently writer/Director Shawn Black (Iron Man 3, Lethal Weapon, etc.) if planning on making a live action, period set, Doc Savage movie staring Dwayne Johnson as Doc. That should be interesting.


My Take on the Pulps

When I was 12 or 13 I discovered the Doc Savage novels. These were pulp adventures from the 1930s with the lead character Clark ‘Doc’ Savage and his troop is talented men that crisscrossed the globe fighting evil. For a time these were quite popular and a team of writers working under a single name churned out loads of books. There was a 1975 film, but it was lackluster and gathered no attention.

Lately it has been circling my thoughts what would it be like to write one of these pulp adventures set in the here and now? (Or at the very least a parallel here and now.) Now I can see there are people writing pulps today but they are primarily set in the 1930 and that is not what I am thinking about. I also see some novels pushed as having a pulp-like quality but in my opinion that do not quite hit that mark and are distinctly different from theses adventures books.

All of this has prompted me to formulate a set of rule for writing a pulp adventure, should I do this crazy thing.

1) Short. Perhaps it was a function of the costs of paper, or the hellish deadlines these writers worked under, but the classic pulp novel were usually around 50,000 words long and often shorter. (For comparison my military sf novels are around 90 to 100 thousand words.)

2) Third Person Objective. These novels did not get into people’s heads very much. They were plot driven with events sparking the next event in the sequence until the adventure was over.

3) Black and White. Adventures about the struggled between Good and Evil were the bread and butter of the pulps. These were not written with nuance and the villains were not the heroes of their own story.

4) No Crisis of Conscience. The Heroes of pulp adventures, fitting in with the Black and White plots, did not doubt that they were right, and they did not have temptation to do the evil thing or take an immoral short cut.

5) No Evolution of Character. The Heroes, already in their perfected form, did not grow and change due to the course of their adventuring. They ended the story exactly the same person as they went into it.

6) No Quiet Introspective Moments. These are adventures, fights between Good and Evil, not explorations into the protean nature of the human soul. Pulp book did not waste time having characters just thinking and doubting themselves for pages and pages.

7) Do the Right Thing. Heroes not anti-heroes are the name of the game and that means that the lead characters always are moral, both in spirit and in deed. They always do the right thing.

Looking over these rules, I can see writing one of these would be quite a challenge.


Writing is Discovery

When you write you discover. You discover aspects of your characters, you discover nuances to your plot, you discover holes in your world-building, but perhaps the most fascinating things you discover are the thing you uncover about yourself.

Recently as I have been thinking about my writing processes I discovered that I like writing death scenes.

Now that is different from to kill your characters. Sometimes I have little emotional attachment to a character’s death, sometimes there is more connection and a high resistance to disposing of that character but I follow through if it is what the story needs. No, what I am talking about id when it comes time to put the scene down on paper, the actual thought experiment of the death and the killing is fascinating. I have killed villains, secondary characters, and heroes. I have written the scenes from another character’s point of view, from close third person, and even first person. I am working on a ghost story where I follow the character from living to ghost, hence a first person death scene that is not the end of the story.

What is it about the death scenes that I find so interesting?

Well, for one it is pretty much the opposite of that old piece of advice ‘write what you know.’ I haven’t died; I haven’t watched anyone die, so this is an area of pure imagination. It truly is a place to synthesize practical knowledge such as the body’s reaction trauma and blood loss with pure imagination as you apply it to a particular person and situation. Blending the known with the invented is the heart of writing and that is a good death scene.

Another aspect of writing death scenes is that it is a chance to strip everything away from the dying character and have a snapshot of who they are at the end of all things. It is a theory of drama that I think goes back to the ancient Greeks that tragedy strips away all pretenses exposing the true character and there is no greater tragedy to a character than the final moments of their life.

Done poorly a death scene cheapens the piece, making characters feel disposable and that can alienate a reader. Done properly a death scene is revelatory broadening the reader’s understanding of the characters, the plot, and the themes of the work. Do not shy away from killing characters, but make sure you are giving their final moments the attention they and the reader deserve.


Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Now I have yet to achieve the sort of success that prompts this question, but I have friends who have herd it many times and it is the cliché for something creative people get tired of hearing. However I have thought a lot about this question. Not only from a perspective of that someday I hope to have the success that prompts it but also thinking about why it is asked in the first place.

First of all I do not doubt the earnestness of those asking this oft repeated question. I think that they want to be creative people and looking at someone successful who has produced plentiful ideas and that their own fields seem so fallow it is natural to wonder if there is some process of trick that turns a person creative. It is not those they that there is a single source of ideas, jokes about a PO Box aside, they understand that creativity is process. It is a process that looks mysterious and I believe that they want a little help in getting that process started.

The sad truth is that there is no answer to the question. For each and every creative person there are multitudes of paths to a workable concept. For me there is a commonality to my paths and that is most often my idea start as questions.

Watching an episode of Star Trek (The original series) where they have found yet another duplicate Earth I asked myself what might actually produce a doppelganger of our planet? (Aside from limited budget on your production.) Answering that question became my most recent sale, A Canvas Dark and Deep. I have idea sparked by doing the dishes when a floating lid looked like a strange watercraft and I started asking questions about who would build that and why. What if humanity moved out to the stars but not unified but still yoked to nationalism? That became a series of novels. If there are ghosts why are they so rare when there are so many people? That has spawned a couple stories as I have explored different answers.

If you want to be creative the only suggestion I can give you is ask lots of questions. Particularly you must question that things that every just assumes. Flip things and ask what is the case if the opposite is true instead of what every thinks.


The Physics of Prose

An intuitive sense I get from writing is that prose possesses both inertia and momentum. When a project is conceived, even with a well defined and through outline I have hesitancy in actually starting the piece. Applying butt to chair and fingers to keyboard is always work it seems that the barriers at the start are high and steeper than later in the creation process.

Mind you this applies not just to the me getting started but also to the speed of the writing itself. Particularly with large works like novels at the start the words and scene do not come easily. It is as if the project is large, heavy, and I am trying to push it up a hill. As I get deeper into a project the words come faster and inertia seems to lessen, though it never goes away entirely.

The idea that writing has momentum is related but slightly different. In physics momentum has a vector, that is momentum describe both how much (usually velocity) something is moving and in which direction. Something with a large amount of momentum can be light but moving very fast or very large and moving slowly. Momentum measures how ‘resistant’ a moving object is to changing that vector.

When I near the start of a story for which I have an outline I will refer to that outline often the outline gives me the direction that the story needs to travel. But as I get deeper and deeper into the story I check the outline less and less. At this point the story is moving in its direction, the vector has been set and it fights a change in that. I find it fascinating that the shape of the story tends to confirm with what I laid out in the outline but now instead of checking that document for the next scene that outlines scene simply falls into place organically.

In the end I land where I had predicted, the story wraps up the way I expected and then I have start the process all over again for the next tale.


Real vs. Hypothetical People

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

That quote is often attributed to Soviet dictator and mass murderer Stalin, though it should be noted that the concept vastly predates him and there is scarce documentation that he ever actually said it. Setting aside the question of attribution there is an undeniable truth to the sentiment and it has important relevance to those who craft fiction.

I would argue that the reason the one death is a tragedy and the million are emotionally neutral is not because the numbers involved make it impossible to grasp but because one person we can know, one person can be real to us while a million will always occupy that void space as hypothetical people. People we meet are more real than one we only her about second hand and crowds are less real as people than individuals. So how does this apply to fiction?

You may have a character or characters that you would like the reader or audience to have sympathy for, even if they have done utterly reprehensible things. If they have murdered or abused people you can preserve that ability for the reader to still have sympathy and empathy but keeping their victims in a hypothetical state.

Consider Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Many readers find Gollum’s condition tragic and the character himself quite pitiable even after watching him murder his own cousin for the One Ring, they still can find a great well of sympathy for the twisted, tortured character. However when Gandalf is recounting Gollum’s story to Frodo one detail he mentions slides past many a person, refusing to stick in their memory. Gollum stole infants from cribs and ate them. All is his meals exist as hypothetical babies. We never see him raid the cribs, we never see him bash out their brains as he does with his fish, and we never actually see him feeding. I think if we had there would be very few who could muster sympathy for the evil beast.

Consider also the fugitive replicants in Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, Blade Runner. Their plight is one that is engineered to create sympathy. They are genetically created slaves, labor, combat, and sexual slavery being their only reason for existence and to make that life ever more tragic it is short, just four years and then death. Of course we want to feel for them when they make a break for freedom and confront the man who forced this terrible life up on in hopes of winning at least a few more years, but again we are comforted by the fact that their escape takes place off-screen and their victims are also safely hypothetical. In the briefing Deckard receives from Bryant we are told that the six ‘jumped a shuttled and killed twenty-three people.’ No more details than that but think about that, six people killed twenty-three. They will not pull that off if the 23 are armed and combatant, but they can if they are civilians on a shuttle flight. Imagine watching the scene as the six replicating slaughter the civilians, perhaps shoving some out the airlock to die of exposure to vacuum. After watching such an emotionally traumatizing scene how much harder would it have been to have sympathy for the replicants?

Let me close this out with a counter example.

For many people it was impossible to get past Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book of the Stephen R. Donaldson’s fantasy trilogy about Thomas Covenant. In the series Covenant is a man suffering leprosy who is magically transported to a fantasy setting know as The Land, and while there is disease is gone, as if he never contracted it. Overpowered by the return of his sexual ability he rapes a woman who had befriended him. (Let’s set aside the whole notion of violent rape as an act driven by sexual desire, that’s another kettle of fish.) Many readers, quite understandably, stopped reading and never returned. Why? The woman was a real character, she was someone we had met, had known, had seen her inherit goodness, and then we rode along in the head of her rapist as she was attacked. In fictional terms she was not hypothetical at all. Had the same events occurred off-screen -not possible with the single POV Donaldson employed – then I think fewer readers would have been turned away. (There are always some who will see past the ‘telling and not showing’ and be repulsed by the recounted events. I have never finished the first book in that series and never viewed Gollum as sympathetic.)

Real versus hypothetical people I think is a very important thing to consider when crafting your narrative.


The More Frightening Cosmology

Last month at the terrific Horrible Imaginings Film Festival at least one film dealt with the familiar subject of a the bad person suffering in limbo or hell but unaware that this was indeed their fate. This is a well known plot done in prose, poem and on the both the big and small screen. For me this presentation prompted a thought about how utterly this is a comforting concept.

If there is a hell or some analog for those who do wanton harm to their fellow humans then there is a moral order to the universe. The existence of such a place means that there is no escape for those who would do evils upon the rest of us. Justice is not a lie we tell ourselves to make life bearable.

However the concept brings with it terrifying prospects. For there to be justice there must also be judgment and that implies not only a judge but also a code to be judged against. Many religions assert that they have unlocked the mystery of the code and the judge but by their very natures the answer must be taken on faith. There can be no proof of their claims, and it is possible no matter how pious your life that your actions violate the code and then hell is not just for those who are clearly evil but those for are mere violators of an unknown code.

So given that which is the more frightening cosmology; one with an alien judge and unknown moral code that may punish people for ceremonial infractions or one in which none of that exists leaving us in a universe without morality or meaning?

I am seriously thinking of tackling these questions in a serious of fantasy/horror stories.


An Additional Theory on Horror

There are plenty of theories as to why someone may enjoy the horror genre, be that in book, movies, or some other media.

There’s the safe-danger theory, which to me sounds like it really comes down to adrenaline thrill. This is much like why you might enjoy roller coasters. It feels dangerous but you are aware that you are safe for the entire experience. To me there is an element of truth to this idea.

There is the related but slightly different cathartic theory. This one posits that people enjoy horror as a way of facing fears in a safe environment and vanquishing them. You might then of it as an immunization theory, we face what scares us in safety the way we face weakened or killed diseases when we get out immunizations. Again, this is not without merit.

While I was watching horror films all weekend long at the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival I thought about the nature of horror cinema and how often those of us who enjoy started it quite young. This prompted an idea that perhaps one of the key elements of horror and why we enjoy it is control.

Children have no control over their lives and even as we progress through adolescence and on into adulthood we never experience full authority over the events to determine our fate. The lack of control is perhaps an essential element of horror. When you are trapped in a haunted house, the bridge is washed out, or there is nothing but the terrible vacuum of space outside you are trapped and isolated but you are also denied the control over your actions that might allow you to flee, Hunted, haunted, or stalked all have strong elements where the control, the power, and the authority over events passes from the character to the antagonists. If the story ends happily the protagonist gains control over their life, if the story has a darker ended then as the audience/reader we are comforted that in our own lives we retain more control that those poor bastards.