Archive for October, 2009

Halloween and World Fantasy

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Hi! So, as it turns out, being done with a book isn’t really as relaxing as I’d hoped, since I spent the last few weeks too busy with other projects (most of them back-burnered until the book was done, and hence fairly urgent) to really do anything. Such as post on my blog. So yeah.

Anyway, I’m leaving for World Fantasy in just a few hours (I should be in bed, but I’m up writing this JUST FOR YOU). My trip to World Fantasy this year should be pretty cool–I’m on a panel Saturday about monsters, which should be a lot of fun, and I’m participating in a mass signing Friday night featuring all the authors at the con. If you get bored waiting in line to see Garth Nix, drop by and say hi–I’ll have books and shirts to sell, and I’ll be happy to sign anything you want (including Garth Nix’s books, if the line’s too long to have him do it personally).

Since the convention will run over Halloween, I thought it would be appropriate to recommend some Halloween movies to watch this weekend. Most of the movies on my “favorite movie” list from my bio will work for Halloween (such as Jaws, Psycho, and Silence of the Lambs), but here are some of my other favorites:

The Changeling
This is quite simply the best haunted house movie I’ve ever seen–it’s very subtle and spooky, going for real fear instead of gruesome shocks. When it’s time to turn on the fear, though, it doesn’t hold back, and it will leave a couple of images (and voices) engraved in your mind. Very good stuff, and a very good performance by George C. Scott.

This is the movie that relaunched modern horror when it was languishing in the 90’s. It plays with horror traditions brilliantly, making fun of them while simultaneously using them for great effect. It may be a slasher flick, but it’s also one of the smartest horror movies you’ll ever see.

Shaun of the Dead
My favorite zombie movie, and arguably one of my favorite movies from any genre. Shaun of the Dead combines laughs and horror and real human drama more cleverly than any movie I can think of–you think you’re going to see one thing, but by the end you’ll get far, far more.

This little-known movie is incredibly hard to find, so put it on your netflix queue RIGHT NOW because it’s well worth it. This is the debut feature of Billy O’Brien, the excellent director who has optioned the rights to “I Am Not a Serial Killer,” and watching it proved to me how perfect he’d be for the job. He has a talent for taking the most mundane things and making them completely horrifying, just by the way he films them. Highly recommended.

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
I actually haven’t seen the new movie with Johnny Depp, but I have a VHS of the original traveling company with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn, and I watch it every year. It’s a fun musical with great songs, AND it’s a great horror story about a Victorian serial killer, AND it’s a heart-breaking tragedy that gets me every time. The new one may also be good; I don’t know. Try it and see, and let me know.

Shirts Are Now Available

Friday, October 16th, 2009

Put the world at ease with an official “I Am Not a Serial Killer” T-shirt! I’m kind of new at this, so until we until decide on a better/final option, I’m just doing this easy-style with a PayPal button. The price is a cheap $15, plus $5 for shipping; if I end up getting reamed on exorbitant international shipping fees, that will change. The other option is to save on shipping by buying one in person, (at World Fantasy, for example) though I’m not guaranteed to have the size you want on hand when you see me. I’ll be creating a specific “buy stuff” page in the near future with attractive and/or scary photos of real human beings wearing the shirts, but for now you get to look at me again. Sorry.

SK shirt

It’s the perfect gift for you and everyone you know. If you don’t have one, people will wonder.

EDIT: We’ve moved all our shirt purchases to a different system. This old, archived post is, unsurprisingly, no longer active.

Starting from Scratch: Finished!

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

I started the “starting from scratch” blogs back in the summer when I started this new book, placeholderly titled “Strawberry Fields.” I worked pretty hard and wrote several articles about the writing process, from outlining to characterization to writing, and then I took a big break because some other projects got in the way, but now I’m back. Huzzah! And I’m also done, because I just finished the book. Well, the first draft, at least. There will be much more work to do before it’s good enough to publish–before it’s even good enough to show to my agent or editor–but for now I can smile and say it’s done. And since that means I finally have enough headspace to blog about it, I’ll blog about it.

This was a very difficult book to write, not because it hit a particular nerve in my emotionally but because it was very, very different from anything I;ve written before. Part of that came from the fact that this is the first non-John Cleaver book I’ve written since selling I Am Not a Serial Killer, which means it was a book written without a contract, and that made me nervous. Did anyone want this book? Would anyone even like it. Then there’s the fact that the subject matter itself was kind of weird: a man with schizophrenia realizes that some of the monsters he sees are real. I really wanted to convey a sense of fluid reality in my writing, shifting back and forth through various layers of what is and isn’t real, and it turns out that’s a pretty hard thing to do. I’d like to think I did it, but we’ll see what my readers think.

On that note, one of the other reasons that this was hard to write is that my writing group has not been in love with it–I think they like it, or at least parts of it, but they LOVED the John Cleaver books and I got kind of spoiled over the last couple of years. There were parts that I already knew weren’t working, and I expected them to get comments, but there were other parts I thought were pretty good, and I learned in writing group that they were not, in fact, working very well at all. When a comment starts with “This is written really, really well,” I’ve come to know that it’s likely to end with “but it doesn’t go anywhere or make any sense.” I don’t complain about this, of course–I love it. That’s why I have a writing group. But it was an adjustment. The “hard to keep writing” part of the story comes from the fact that I was submitting the story chapter by chapter as I wrote it, and it’s hard to stay focused on chapter 20 when the group gives me so many great ideas about how to fix chapter 10.

The primary problem with the first draft of the book, in my opinion (and I tell you this because we’re such good friends) is pacing; cool stuff happens, and I think it all pays off well in the end (though we’ll have to see if the writing group agrees), but these elements are not established very well in the beginning. This I attribute entirely to my big wacky structure experiment which I pretty much abandoned halfway through, and which you’re all going to laugh at. Are you ready?

I structured it as a fugue.

Literally. I took “The Little Fugue” by Bach, broke it down into it’s various components, analyzed how they worked, and then assigned each theme a plot element overlay. I did this more or less because it sounded cool, and I wanted to see what would happen, and I can never resist overcomplicating anything I set out to do. The verdict of this process is that it can probably work, in some situations, and I think it helped indirectly with certain aspects of the story, but overall it was a wacky disaster. I tried to follow the fugue structure too tightly and ended up with a story that developed too slowly, introduced key elements at weird times, and jumped around in a very, well, schizophrenic way. The result was definitely accurate to the mindset, but not in a way that is easy or enjoyable to read.

The good news is, now that I’m done I can look back and say, “oh, this will be relatively easy to fix.” When I tossed the fugue structure halfway through I looked back over the book and realized that while the fugue idea was not working for the plot, it was working (and very well, I think) for certain themes and images. A main character’s motivations should not hop in and out of place like that, but the things he sees–especially as a schizophrenic–definitely should. Objects that appear in one context will appear in another, with their meaning amplified or reversed. I lot of those elements were already built in to by creaky outline, but I put more focus on them as I continued, and I identified several more that I need to beef up in the first half of the book (for example: social therapy). So it’s going to work out, and I’m pleased with it, and I think that after a solid revision I’ll definitely be able to sell it. We’ll see.

Star Trek, the Matrix, and Story Structure

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

As I recently tweeted, I think that Roleplaying Game supplements have some of the best story structure advice I’ve ever read. Not all of them, obviously–there are plenty of supplements with no narrative advice at all, and some of those that do have narrative advice aren’t automatically brilliant just because they’re game supplements. But on the whole, RPGs are a great source of story advice because the games themselves are based on the idea of storytelling; teaching you how to tell good stories is, in a sense, the very product they’re selling.

I’ve always known this, but it didn’t occur to me until recently just how good some of this RPG advice is, and how much I rely on it. A week or so ago someone asked me what my favorite “story structure” book was, presumably hoping to have some kind of deep conversation about, I don’t know, Robert McKee or Orson Scott Card. I thought about it, determined to give the best answer I could, and realized that the only “structure” book I keep next to my desk is an RPG supplement: the Star Trek Roleplaying Game Narrator’s Guide by Decipher.

I love this book; I should probably put together a workshop or something for a convention. Put simply, it’s a twist on 3-act format with seven specific points: hook, plot turn 1, pinch, midpoint, pinch, plot turn 2, and resolution. You start with the resolution: how do you want this story to end? Let’s consider The Matrix, since we already mentioned it earlier: it’s a story about people trapped in an illusionary reality. We want our story to end with the hero becoming The One (a being capable of overcoming and controlling the illusionary reality) and defeating the bad guys. That’s our resolution; that’s what the entire story needs to lead up to. With that in mind we go back to the beginning and establish the starting point, called the hook: Neo is a gifted hacker, but he’s kind of weak and scared and doesn’t know anything about what’s really going on. That sets up a nice, classic arc, where an everyman hero will learn and grow and become a hero. So far, so good.

The next piece we need is the midpoint: a scene or event that turns the story on its head, and moves the hero from a passive to an active role. This is often a discovery of some kind, and an obvious choice in this instance is the hero’s discovery that he is trapped in an illusionary reality. This moves him out of his initial, ignorant state and pushes him toward his final goal of overcoming the illusion and bending it to his own will.

Now that we have a clear idea of our conflict, we use Plot Turn 1 to introduce it; the purpose of Plot Turn 1 is to get the hero out of his starting point and moving toward the midpoint. In this case we’ll have Morpheus, a man outside the illusion, contact the hero and show him that all is not as it seems. Neo still doesn’t know what’s going on, but he’s trying to figure it out, and that course of action will eventually lead him to the midpoint discovery.

Plot Turn 2 serves a similar purpose of advancing the hero from the midpoint to the resolution; this usually means that the hero has gained the last vital thing he needs to win, whether it’s an actual object, a bit of information, or a personal decision. In our example story we need our hero to eventually become The One, so we’ll give him an emotional epiphany to show him that the power is inside of him, and all he needs to do is believe. That sounds silly when I phrase it like that, but don’t worry about that: at this stage in the outline, EVERY story idea sounds silly. Once you get it in context, it will work great.

So let’s look at our structure so far:
Neo leads a sad life, trapped in a crappy job but always searching for something more.
Neo is contacted by Morpheus and learns that something weird is going on.
Neo learns from Morpheus that human existence is actually an illusionary prison called the Matrix.
Neo discovers an inner reservoir of power and belief, enabling him to control the Matrix.
Neo uses his power to defeat the bad guys and save the day.

Looks pretty familiar so far, right? We have a solid character arc, exactly reproducing the one they used in the movie, based on nothing more than a clear goal and few logical steps to lead us there. It’s still kind of boring, though, without a lot of conflict, so what we need now are the pinches–points in the story that squeeze everything down and pile on the pressure. The first pinch comes right after Plot Turn 1, when Neo has started to learn about the bad guys controlling the world, so a great next step is to have him be attacked and even captured by those bad guys. A pinch like this serves to drive the story forward by forcing the hero to react, and by proving beyond a doubt that the mysteries he’s started to encounter are all too real. The second pinch comes right after the midpoint, and really makes things look hopeless. Our midpoint has Neo being taught and trained by a mentor, Morpheus, so a great pinch would be to take that mentor away–the bad guys swoop in and capture him. This works perfectly for our story, because not only does it build out of the midpoint, it leads naturally toward Plot Turn 2 by forcing Neo to solve the problem on his own, thus helping him discover his inner power.

Now our story looks a lot more dynamic:
Neo leads a sad life, trapped in a crappy job but always searching for something more.
Neo is contacted by Morpheus and learns that something weird is going on.
Neo is captured by the bad guys and sees that the mysteries are more dangerous than he thought.
Neo learns from Morpheus that human existence is actually an illusion prison called the Matrix.
Morpheus is captured, and Neo is left on his own.
Neo discovers an inner reservoir of power and belief, enabling him to control the Matrix.
Neo uses his power to defeat the bad guys and save the day.

Awesome. Now, obviously this isn’t the entire story of the Matrix, but it is a fantastic outline to start from. A great next step would be to add some try/fail cycles to the resolution: we don’t want the problems to be solved too easily, so we’ll have Neo try and fail a few times before finally believing strongly enough to become The One. In the movie he has three such cycles: he raids the office building and almost gets killed by agents, he faces Agent Smith in the subway and barely escapes with his life, and finally he faces three agents in the apartment hallway and gets mortally wounded. Each cycle brings him closer to where he needs to be at the end, developing his belief and ramping up the tension, thus making the story much more interesting than if he’d just solved it all on the first try.

Another thing this story could use is a subplot or two, and we build those in the same way we build the main plot–start with the resolution and flesh it out from there. We’ll weave these subplots into the main plot, and the scenes where they intersect will become much stronger. For example: one subplot is the betrayal of Cipher; the resolution (the climactic scene we want to build up to) comes when Cipher attacks the group of renegades, giving away their position and killing many of them. We’ll line this up with the main plot’s second pinch–the attack that leaves Neo alone and on the run–giving the scene a stronger angle and a deeper emotion. Another subplot is a romance between Neo and Trinity; the resolution, obviously, is when Trinity finally declares her love for Neo. We’ll line this up so that the resolution comes during the main plot’s second Plot Turn (Neo gains enough belief to become The One), once again adding a deeper emotional weight to the scene; thus Trinity’s belief in Neo, and her love for him, become the keys that help Neo take the final step and become The One.

I love this story system, and I use it all the time. Try it out on a few of your favorite storylines to see how well it works; Star Wars is a fantastic example, because it follows the same archetypal hero structure as the Matrix, but you can use it on anything. You an use it on Pride and Prejudice if you want to; it can adapt to any good story. It might be fun to try it on I Am Not a Serial Killer if you really want to expose the architecture behind my writing. Once you’ve got a good handle on it, apply it to your own writing. I guarantee it will be a huge help in any outline you build.

(Which is a better sign off here: “Live Long and Prosper,” or “There Is No Spoon?” Maybe “May the Force Be With You?” Is there a good catch phrase from Pride and Prejudice? The closest thing from my book is “I Like Your Shirt.” I guess I’ll go with that one.)

Thanks for reading. I like your shirt.