Out of Control

91AA6981-DC0B-41A6-B99C-74EBB2A06649.gif

I was talking to a writer friend of mine about how characters sometimes take on a life of their own. In my experience, sometimes they do things that can help the story. Sometimes they screw shit up. This is where writers come in and reign them fuckers in. But there’s a balance between letting the story flow naturally to wrangling it via Deus ex Machina.

This happened when I was rewriting the ending of my second book. In my first draft, I had killed off a supporting character. Workshopping the book had revealed a lot of weaknesses that I needed to shore up. During my rewrite, I was looking for an opportunity to off this character. But as the new ending progressed, the situation required him to remain alive because I needed someone to complete certain tasks and goals. I could have killed him off, then used a no-named character to fulfill these tasks, but the scene wouldn’t have any emotion. With that I was forced to keep this character alive. After he had completed his tasks, I decided to have him escape death. On an intellectual level, I had already killed off a lot of the supporting characters, so keeping him would be a great way to have some continuity going into the third novel.

An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere —Gustave Flaubert

I’ve written how heavy handedness in storytelling can be a huge problem. Most people can feel that manipulation, which can take them out of the story. And I think writers, including myself, sometimes forget that being a good wordsmith, the mechanics of language, the structure of story only serve to spark the most powerful machine on the planet: our minds.

When we watch musicians, their tools of the trade are their instruments. When reveling in the performances of dancers, actors, singers, and professional wrestlers, we’re admiring the human body as instruments. But as storytellers, our tool is the imagination.

D5B5EE63-44F8-47EA-8C56-5CBB19741CEE.png

Consider the saying: a picture is worth a thousand words.

How many words is the imagination worth? Simply put, enough to spark it.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I started a new writing project. For the past 15 years, I’ve been living in a fantasy world of my own creation. Longer if I consider that I’ve been dipping in and out of it since I was in high school. The challenge is that I have to describe everything that isn’t familiar to this world. That’s part of the reason why fantasy novels tend to be longer than normal fiction.

My new story takes place in San Francisco. And that’s refreshing because I can use words like office and bedroom and car and street without having to fully describe every single detail. I still have to show what’s important, ground the reader in the setting, but a lot of the heavy lifting is done by virtue that I’m using the real world. The challenge for me is giving enough detail to spark the imagination, but not so much that I bog the reader down.

So let’s explore this sentence: She entered her bedroom. If I don’t write another word about the bedroom, the reader will automatically picture their interpretation of a bedroom: bed, side table, armoire, bay window, sex swing...sorry. That’s my version. Putting no details whatsoever can be a mistake, especially if this is the main character’s room, because using the environment can be a great way of showing what this person is like. Is she messy? How expensive is her taste? A plant and it’s health can be used to symbolize the progress of the character arc. I can set the lighting to represent her mood. Pictures can illuminate her interests, passions and loves. These are the kinds of details that readers are likely to want because it helps tell the story without writing on the nose.

Working in a writing group is helpful because I can see where we all fall short in telling our story, or where we do a great job. So much of what we like in art is based on how it makes us feel, which is incredibly subjective. But we as writers are trying to spark the imagination and invoke emotions, all the while making sure the mechanics and structure of our writing are sound without confusing the reader. A small task, wink wink.

My writing group was featured in a podcast, showcasing how we work, answering questions about writing, storytelling.

Story Time

Minutemen. Women don't appreciate them. Maybe hookers do. Turn over is money. Hey. Sometimes men have a dry spell and...oops. Did I do that?

This past weekend I was working with my writing group where we critique each other’s pages. Commercial break: Listen to a hilarious podcast where we talked about our group dynamics and workshopping our books.

One of our authors is writing an urban fantasy. I read an action sequence that took place in the main character's apartment. She's fending for her life and is losing badly. Using her telepathy, she calls for help. Her friend responds, telling her to hold on, and that she was almost at the apartment. For me the tension of that action sequence lost it's hard on. Or maybe I lost my hard on.

And, no. I'm not a minuteman.

During our workshop, I suggested to the author that he remove the telepathic dialogue because it deflates the tension. He said that the main character's friend had already told her that she was coming by at the beginning of the scene. That’s right. He had a really good point.

image.gif

Still, I was bothered because my reaction was so visceral. I wasn't looking at it from a structural point of view. I racked my head. I literally put my head down on the pool table and put the triangle thingy over it. OK. No, I didn't.

A day or two later I came across an article titled: A Quiet Place: Who Are The Monsters? Such a great movie. And the writing kicks ass. Figuratively. Can't see how it would literally. 

The producers of the film discussed at length when to reveal the monster. They feared that they might have shown it too soon. In reality the film doesn't show the alien in full view until the last seven minutes. They wanted to delay showing the monster for as long as they could. Eureka! There was my answer. I figured out why my hard on had deflated. Not during the movie. Nor did I have one in the theater. That would be weird while watching a horror flick. I'm referring to my hard on figuratively.

In the pages that I had read, the character who is coming over was on the way before the action sequence happened. The main character is getting ready in her apartment when her attacker knocks on her door. She opens it, thinking it's her friend. The attacker pounces, and she fights for her life. Even though we know her friend is on the way, we don't know how far away she is. We know her pace wouldn't be urgent because she doesn't know how dire things have become. We don't know how long it'll take for her to arrive. Even if the main character calls for help telepathically, having the rescuer not respond can increase the tension in the reader. We're left wondering: What's happened? Where is her friend? What's taking so long?

Time is such a great tool. Delaying things can extend and heighten tension. Delaying pleasure can make the reader anxious. People love story because of the rollercoaster ride of life, even if we wouldn't want it literally.

Messy People

I finished watching Seven Seconds on Netflix. I Netflixed and chilled by myself, which is pretty sad. And messy. That's one of the things I loved about Seven Seconds. It's very messy. Napkin please. For my tears.

Veena Sud is the series creator and is known from her series The Killing. The Killing was amazing because of the mood it creates. It doesn't resort to bloody grotesque images to shock the viewers because that isn't the goal. The surprising realization for me was that most of the show followed the two lead detectives who were tasked to solve Rosie's murder. Well...duh. Stay with me.

The reason I was surprised was that I felt this sense of dread and darkness throughout the whole series. This came when the rest of the onscreen time was spent focused on the mother and father's reaction to this unimaginable hole that murder leaves. Powerful storytelling. But what punched me in the gut emotionally was how messy their relationship was with their daughter and with each other before Rosie was murdered. This creates complexities because the parents can't resolve old wounds with their dead daughter. So the question becomes can they heal from their albatrosses? Can they heal their relationship with each other?

So why not aim the cameras solely on the victim's friends and family? Wouldn't that make it more powerful? More engaging? Short answer, no.

image.gif

Too much darkness and dread can be too intense. Most viewers would be put off by this. Pretty quickly too. Which is why the show centers around the detectives. And the fact that the show asked "Who killed Rosie Larsen?" gave the audience a mystery to solve, something for their minds to chew on.

Whew! All this is to say that more often than not we see characters, especially supporting ones, that have no backstory. Even if they do, they're bland. Disney stories are like this. Most of the character building is focused on the main players. And that's understandable. Time constraints may limit that. But good characters had lives before showing up to the reader or viewer.

However, with a ten-episode series, a writer can delve into the messy lives and bask in the dreaded details. We resonate with that because all of our lives are messy. This is where Sud shines. She creates characters that have had lives before we see them. They're revealed in a way that helps create plot and arcs to be traversed.

image.jpeg

In Seven Seconds Clare-Hope Ashitey dives into the role of KJ Harper, the lawyer responsible for the case that encompasses the series. It's not enough to have her be an alcoholic. That's cliche. What isn't is how it affects KJ's choices socially and professionally. There's a couple of suggestions that she sleeps with whoever is available. A guy at a karaoke bar. Her detective counterpart. There are many times alcohol threatens her case. She either misses her court appointments, or delves into the deepest darkest part of her so she gives up on the case (and herself, essentially).

The detective, her partner in crime, not only has to deal with her messiness, but he has a messy past of his own, which resulted in a resentful daughter, revealing his emotional character arc. And this is something that isn't made very clear in a lot of the writing classes that I've taken. Creating messiness for a character is easy. But having it linked so his character arc must resolve it to me is pretty basic. But to know how to do this the writer must know the character traits. How it was taught to me is that a character trait shapes how she sees the world. For example if she's a workaholic, then her whole world revolves around that life. When a guy asks her out on a date, she'll likely deny him in some way, despite the fact that she may be hard up.

So working backward in creating scenes for your character is one way to approach this messiness. Having a character trait, workaholic, that allows you to move her toward the person she should be, appreciating the moment (smellin' da roses), will make it easier on the writer to create scenes. Because the scenes have to push the question: What's more important? Work life? Or life with people, nature, real experiences that changes her soul? I can tell you, living in the San Francisco Bay Area that real experiences are a luxury. In my opinion, that's unfortunate.

Bad Boys

image.gif

The Black Panther leaped into theaters, breaking records from ticket sales to having the highest rating on Rotten Tomatoes for a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. And it proves that a predominantly black cast can sell a film.

I'm a huge fan of Ryan Coogler and have a man crush on Michael B. Jordan. Living close to Oakland, I heard about the incident at Fruitvale Bart Station. Seeing the movie Coogler wrote had an affect on me that I still cannot express in words today.

Going to school in the San Francisco Bay Area has taught me that all peoples are created equal. But this was a very intellectual idea, meaning I had yet to internalize this fact. It wasn't until I had started dating an Egyptian Muslim woman—read: highly conservative—that my eyes and heart were truly open. I had met her Arab friends, traveled with them, laughed and cried about their issues, and I came to know a truth. They want the same things that most hot-blooded Americans want: Happiness, security, friendship, love. They enjoyed great food, loved dancing, found the drink to be intoxicating, and even dove into sex freely. Though, many of them avoided eating bacon.

image.gif

I loved listening to the Arabic language. To me it sounded lyrical. From what little my ex-girlfriend had taught me of her language, I knew it was rich with meaning and depth. I found it amusing that many of the men were named Mohammed. Apparently, so did they. I've come to love what little I've seen of the Middle Eastern culture and yearn to travel there and experience more.

All of this is to say that no matter what background a person comes from, anyone can relate to them if they wish. Whether they're good or bad. Really? Bad? Read: Segue.

One of the rare things that The Black Panther has in a villain is that he's relatable.

I've always talked about rooting a character to a reader. This means that the reader becomes empathetic to the characters, or, for example, they want that character to succeed. And they'll also feel the character's losses when she fails at meeting her goals. In other words, the readers have invested themselves in the story.

One of the biggest complaints about the MCU villains is their motivations. Or lack thereof. Often they want the world's destruction for no real reason. Save one. Magneto.

My writing workshop had pointed this out to me, describing a scene where Magneto was taken away from a concentration camp when he was a child. This demonstrated how humans are cruel, fearing someone who's different. And what better stage than The Holocaust? So Magneto forms his own group of mutants to defend against the coming war against humans.

image.gif

In The Black Panther, the villain Killmonger dealt with his father's death at the hands of his own uncle. Then having to grow up in Oakland where black people, such as Oscar Grant, were either oppressed or killed by the white colonizers must have infected him with deep resentment. He's then highly motivated to force the nation of Wakanda to use their resources and arm the oppressed blacks of the world with advanced weapons.

Watching this develop in the theater, I found myself nodding. That surprised me. I'm against weapons of mass destruction, but having witnessed the many real-life injustices black people have faced, I couldn't disagree with the villain. I completely related to Killmonger's ideals. I smiled as I remarked on how my thinking was well led by the writing of Panther.

I also feel that when a writer roots any character to a reader, or viewer, there has to be an element of truth that we as humans can understand. For example, how can a writer show a schizophrenic character being jostled by the many voices in his head? If I write that the voices sounded like hundreds of ghosts screaming at him, then that might not hit the spot. Most people probably have not had this quaint experience. However, if I show that the voices sounded like his mother screaming, his father yelling, his little brother growling at him at every single moment of the day with no way to shut the door, then that might get closer. Here’s a great line from Magneto in X-Men: First Class (2011) that demonstrates this idea:

"You built these weapons to destroy us. Why? Because you are afraid of our gifts, because we are different. Humanity has always feared that which is different. Well, I am here to tell you, to tell the world, you are right to fear us. We are the future, we are the ones who will inherit this earth, and anyone who stands in our way will suffer the same fate as these men you see before you. Today was meant to be a display of your power, instead I give you a glimpse of the devastation my race can unleash upon yours. Let this be a warning to the world and my mutant brothers and sisters out there, I say this: No more hiding, no more suffering, you have lived in the shadows in shame and fear for too long. Come out, join me, fight together in a brotherhood of our kind. A new tomorrow that starts today."

Query Letters

Query letters are the bane of novelists' existence. I've taken classes, hired writing coaches, and read blogs on how to write a good one. I had one nailed down. I worked on it for like years it seemed. I puffed up my chest and sent about six or seven submission packages. And then...

Nuthin'.

Form rejections.

Silence.

One of the classes I had taken was run by a literary agency. An agent suggested a really cool strategy: send three to five queries out at a time. If no requests for pages are made, then revisit the query letter.

Despite all the help I had sought out, I knew my submission package was failing. What to do?

image.gif

I had stumbled upon a blog called QueryShark. It's written by literary agent Janet Reid with the purpose of helping those like myself on dealing with the bane of our existence. She takes actual letters submitted by unrepresented authors and critiques them without sugarcoating anything. And they can resubmit their queries until they get it right. This is priceless for any author. But there are several caveats to have the honor of getting your letter shredded apart by the shark and displayed for all to see. One is to read the whole blog. Currently, there are thirteen years worth of shredded letters one has to swim through. Some of it gets pretty bloody. And I can tell that a number of authors that had their queries posted hadn't read through the blog because some of the basics such as how to end a query weren't adhered to. That's good for me as those basics are then hammered into my head.

I had read through several years' worth before I came to the realization of how to approach writing the letter. First off, start over. Scrap the old. Begin anew. Using what I had learned so far, I rewrote the whole thing using the basic formula:

image.jpeg

Then I went back to the blog. As I read each critique, I would refine my letter. Sometimes her critique would only change one word in my query. In a space of around 250 words describing your book, one word can change the feel of the whole letter. Other times, a good query gave me insight on how I should show my world, since it's different than Earth. And then there were critiques that didn't help at all. Which was fine. There are a ton of letters to peruse over, and each one can guide an author through the deep waters of query writing. The purpose of this process is to make sure that my letter gets the attention of an agent. Enough so she'll request pages. Because if she does, then I’ll know I'm headed in the right direction.

I think this is the best approach, for me anyways, unless you're highly talented in writing query letters. I admit, this process is tedious, time consuming. And did I mention banal? Isn't that a synonym of tedious? Mmm...maybe. But if I get representation, then it was worth the time and effort. 

Truth be told, reading Janet's blog has deepened my understanding of story. I have applied this knowledge when I critique the pages from my writing group. And the whole purpose of any endeavor is to learn, move forward toward the dream, and hopefully someday realize it.

Don't Alienate Your Readers

Should a writer listen to the readers and craft stories with their expectations? Especially in an established series such as Alien? No. But that was one of the biggest complaints for the new film Alien Covenant. More on that later.

For me I've crafted my story with something real to say about the human condition. Outside input would only muddle that message. Trying to convey my message is hard enough as it is.

This leads me to Alien Covenant directed by Ridley Scott. There appears to be a lot of discontent around the net regarding his latest effort. Scott seemed to have ignored the basic timeline of the Alien universe, logical storytelling, and has fallen to using the worst horror cliches since the Friday the 13th movies. Impossible, you may say. Would a skilled filmmaker and storyteller recycle a shower scene where a couple is making out and both are killed? Hell to the No, you scream at me. Unfortunately, yes he did.

However, most reviewers, both who favored and hated Covenant, didn't comment on the most glaring thing that was missing. I can't blame them, though, as there were a lot of things wrong. A huge indication of what's missing is with the casting of James Franco as the captain of the ill-fated ship. He dies in his hibernating capsule right after most of the crew has awaken. This is not a spoiler because it doesn't do anything except beg the question: Why cast such a named actor if Scott wasn't going to use him beyond the beginning? That's simple. I'm assuming here, of course, but Scott was probably banking on Franco dying to get the audience to care. If that's true, then I don't think it worked. At least not for me.

Scott used that death by having the loyal crew argue with the succeeding captain that they should have some sort of funeral. The new commander denies their request because the ship is falling apart and repairs are needed now. Makes sense to me. Everyone is in a spaceship...in space...where if it falls apart everyone dies. However, the crew gathers below deck anyway and salutes the dead captain as he's shot out into...space.  The filmmaker is hoping the audience will care because the crew was loyal.

The issue is that there are no character traits to separate the many crew members, most of whom end up as cannon fodder. No character traits means no character arcs of any kind. Some of the reviews had touched on this by stating they didn't care that this person or that individual was killed. They may have not known why they didn't care. But it was obvious the writers didn't root the audience to anyone except to use Franco as Franco—not as the captain—breaking the fourth wall, which is the movie screen.

Here's what I think Scott is trying to do:

See this movie star James Franco who's been in everything? You guys like him, right? Well...he dies.

The audience shrugs because they know this is just a movie, and Franco the actor wasn't killed in the making of this film.

At this point the director hasn't pulled the audience into the Alien world. We have yet to suspend our disbelief.

Daniels, played by Katherine Waterston, is his wife—the original captain, not Franco. She cries a lot after his turbulent passing. Again, we don't care. We didn't see them interact as a couple. We don't know who she was. Does she prefer cats or dogs? Something, anything to hook our teeth into.

Now, if the writers had her share a moment with her husband, then it may have opened our hearts and drawn us in:

The ship rumbles, taking on damage. Mother, the computer, wakes the crew. The captain hauls himself from his hibernating capsule. After delegating orders to repair the ship, he pulls Daniels in and gives her a small birthday gift. They had gone into the capsules the day before her birthday, so he was saving this gift for when they woke up after arriving at the destination. The gift is a locket with a picture of them atop the first mountain they had scaled together. She recalls how cold it was that night. And he quips that she didn't complain inside their tent. She looks down at his pants and says that she had to take care of his little friend. He smiles and bites her nose.

On the planet, the crew explores the forest, WEARING SPACESUITS. The captain trips and falls on something sharp, unknowingly infecting himself with an alien virus. The day passes as the mystery grows: Who planted the wheat? Where are all the animals? Why is the captain getting sicker? The crew struggles to find what's wrong, but time runs out. Pain riddles the captain's body. He shakes and screams, giving birth to a xenomorph that rips him apart. Daniels screams, clutching the locket.

OK. Not my best.

Part of writing a story where death is such a prominent and visual aspect is rooting the readers or audience to the characters. Think of it this way: When we hear that someone is killed on the news, we're not really affected by it. We go on our day as if nothing happened. To that person's friends and family, the news hits them like a Mack truck because they're attached to the deceased. And that's the difference. Rooting is important to all stories. But when you begin to kill off characters without getting the readers to care, then they're not gonna care.

My point is, draw the audience in, give us a chance to suspend our disbelief, root us to at least one character, and slap us with tragedy. Badda-bing-badda-bang. 

Hey Baby...

Babies. You can grow them. Julienne them. Boil them. Bake them. Sauté them. Juice them into a healthy drink. Or eat them raw. There are a myriad of things you can do with baby carrots. But I don't wanna lead you astray. Let's talk about babies, the human kind.

My last relationship ended because I wasn't sure I wanted to raise a child, let alone have a child. I told my then girlfriend that I leaned heavily on the side of not spreading my genetic material. Unless we're talking about a pearl necklace, in which case lie down and enjoy. As most women know, men do not have the best aim, so the pearls may come in different sizes.

We had many long discussions about children, whether I cared if she raised her Muslim—I didn't—whether I cared if she taught her Arabic—I didn't—whether I wanted her to learn Cantonese—sure but I wouldn't be the one to teach that language. About the only thing we agreed on was that my ex should fulfill her need to become a mother and that I shouldn't hold her back. So here we are.

I spoke to my office wife about children at length. But her perspective about not having children is much different than mine. Her biggest concerns were:

  1. Why bring children into this world?
  2. Why ruin your happiness?

Her first point referred to events like 9/11, terrorism, the death that befalls around us.

We as humans are capable of the most horrible of things, defining what a true monster really is. Spanish Inquisition anyone? The Holocaust. However, we can also create the most beautiful things this world has ever seen. Life it seems is just as common as death. As I have written, everything is in the world, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It is what we choose to see that colors our reality in that moment.

Which leads us to her second point: Children lay waste to happiness. My office wife had talked to a few couples who have children. Some looked unusually unhappy. Some were divorced. Never had she mentioned knowing any couples with children who were happy. And that's the issue. She's colored her lenses so all she noticed were couples with severe issues and linked them with children.

When I write articles about my experiences with people, such as my encounter with this delightful idiot, people may think he's like this all the time. And that's not true. He's not often delightful. I'm sure he has his moments, few and far between as they may be. But I've colored my own lenses having only hung out with him a handful of times and not liking him all that much.

Now, I'm a chill dude. But I'm not chill all the time. Sometimes I get lost in my own thoughts and overthink, complain, whine, cry, and get fuckin' pissed off. I imagine parents are similar. They're people also. Sometimes they look tired because they are tired. Sometimes they're over joyed because their child said Mommy or Daddy for the first time, or composed his first symphony like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. You know. Appreciate that small things.

The other day I was talking to my girl friend, friend that is girl. Well, she's a woman. Woman friend. She told me that her friend's boyfriend had broken up with her and stated the reason was she hadn't measure up to what he wanted physically, looks wise. I've seen pictures of this woman. In one word she's gawd dayem stunningly hawt and scrumptious. But that's not the issue. The issue lies with the blind feller. Maybe he doesn't feel a connection. Maybe he likes big breasted bodacious blondes. Who knows. So it is with parents divorcing. It's never the children.

When I wrote my book, I knew that war between factions, provinces in this case, was really the background to what the real story was about, a father and mother dealing with the death of their child. The war was like a catalyst or a magnifying glass that flares the issues within and between the characters.

Again, I imagine children to be like this. Raising kids ain't easy. There's a reason It takes a village is a well known saying. So it's not surprising that issues may bubble up to the surface in the insane chaos of a job called child rearing. But it's never the children's fault when it comes to divorce.

To me deciding to have or not to have kid(s) is extremely personal. Influence from societal norms, married friends with children and family pressure should not weigh in on that pivotal choice. My office wife doesn't want to have kids. But she shouldn't blame it on factors that our outside of herself. It's a personal choice and no explanation either way is needed.