Tag Archives: writing advice

How James Bond can help you avoid information dumps

skyfallopening
Who is this man? What is he doing? I am intrigued. I must know more.

A disclaimer before we start today:  I know nothing, Jon Snow.  I am offering the following merely as the opinion of a layperson who has not, for the record, published a single book – not as a treatise of indisputable fact.  So it’s entirely possible that the words lying in wait below may be a complete and utter waste of the precious time I’ve requested of you.  But please try to give them some consideration before you sit down to your next draft.  Trust me, I have been there and done that and I want to try to steer you away from the rocky shores I know lie in wait.  Put simply, you need to stop opening your stories with massive information dumps.

Across the Interwebs lies a plethora of sites where authors both experienced and perenially aspiring have posted excerpts of their books – usually the first chapter – for ongoing perusal and feedback.  As a veteran lurker I’ve thumbed through a copious number of them, and as my own interest is in writing fantasy (at least for the time being; I’m not limiting the scope of future projects) those tend to be the ones I zero in on.  And it pains me to point out that a great many fall victim to the curse of the information dump.  The following is my own pastiche, but let me know if any of it rings familiar:

CHAPTER ONE

Prince Xakhar Tazeros, half-dragon Ninth Regent of the Grobulan Confederacy of United Independent Feudal Kingdoms, was seventeenth in line to the throne of Erador.  Erador was one of three countries fighting for dominance of the island of Makteros, the only source of the prized mineral hermulite, which was needed to forge the precious Lion Scimitars that were wielded by the ancient warrior race of Qobari.  The Qobari Order, descended from the first colonists of Zathan, were the finest combatants that had ever walked beneath the twin suns and possessed the secret martial art of sha’Kaj, which allowed them to possess the forms of trees and plants and turn them against their enemies.  One of their most formidable foes was Duchess Zalana, Prince Xakhar’s blood-sister and a sorceress of considerable power, who had long held a grudge against the Qobari and sought to wipe them out.  Zalana drew her magic from the Goddess Ia, matron of darkness and one of the Six Gods of Grobular, along with Gatharsa, Yelene, Mq’mal, Rappan and X’gi.  The Six Gods were worshipped on every continent except the sub-lands of Serkana, whose belief system operated on a belief in the divinity of blades of grass.  Xakhar and Zalana were descendants of the last King of Shocen, who had died in a battle against the Qobari twenty-nine semicycles ago…

Are you still awake?  Hope so, but if you’re not, I’m not surprised.  Granted, this was a bit over the top, but this is the feeling I sometimes get in reading some of these manuscripts-in-progress.  I am in awe – SHEER JAW-DROPPED AWE, I tell you, of the imaginations that can craft these complex worlds that are at once both familiar and alien.  I can’t do it.  I just come up with silly names like Grobular.  But what usually happens is that the writers get so caught up in spilling out these intricate details that they forget to tell a story.  Go back and read that paragraph again and note that nothing happens.  It’s just fact after fact laid out for you with excruciating precision and at no point does the story start moving.  Theoretically, everything I wrote there was important to the telling of the story that is to follow, but rather than introduce this stuff organically, I threw it at you like a bucketload of baseballs.  And there’s nothing there to keep you reading unless you really want to know how the last King of Shocen died (fell off his six-legged zorse into a pit of hungry hoopdehars).

Let’s try this again.

CHAPTER ONE (revised)

Xakhar removed his blood-soaked Lion Scimitar from the face of the dead Makterosian soldier, thinking that while his headache of this morning had not eased, it was certainly preferable to that which his opponent had just suffered.  Xakhar slid the blade back into his scabbard and cast his gaze upward to the angry, swirling clouds which blotted most of the light from the twin suns, the storm the result of the spell cast by his blood-sister.  When they were small they fought over toys or the last slice of dessert; it bemused Xakhar to note that while the scale of their battles had escalated considerably to include thousands of innocent casualties, the stakes had more or less remain unchanged.  Zalana still wanted his toys – the kingdom-shaped ones, naturally – and she was not above using her magic to wipe out anyone who stood between her and the prize she sought.  As he looked skyward, he could see her evil smile in the curve of the clouds, hear her mocking laughter in the thunder, and feel the might of her anger in each crash of lightning.  “Going to be one of those days,” Xakhar said to himself.  He glanced down at the soldier’s bisected face.  “You got off easy.”

Okay, while this is still not the most magnificent prose ever crafted, at least we have some sense of Xakhar as a character, the world he occupies, and the conflict that is likely to form the spine of the story.  We’ve hacked out most of the unnecessary exposition and placed a character in the middle of a tense situation.  And while the setting is still alien, the situation is more understandable on a human level.  Troubled dude with a jealous, possibly insane sister who won’t leave him alone.  This has potential.  It still needs to go through the rewrite oven a few times, but we can work with this.

If you’re writing a detective novel, you can usually get away with the most minimal of introductions to your world.  “It was raining in San Francisco that Thursday afternoon.”  Everyone grasps the setting almost immediately.  Unfortunately, a fantasy or SF author has no such privilege.  The world and the rules must be established early to provide a point of reference that the reader can latch onto.  How do you do that?  Well, less is more.  And this is where 007 can be of assistance.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone on the planet who hasn’t seen at least one James Bond movie.  So I’m guessing that most of you reading this are familiar with the basic Bond structure and the pre-titles teaser sequence, which is usually a huge action setpiece that may or may not relate to the main story.  You can even argue that it takes its inspiration from William Shakespeare, who almost always begins his plays with a scene involving minor characters before getting on with business.  This stylistic invention was, like many things, a creation born of practical necessity – audiences in Elizabethan England would take forever to settle down and pay attention to the stage, so Shakespeare put a bit of fluff at the start to give the rowdy masses a chance to cool it without really missing anything important.  The Bond teaser is meant to grab the audience by the metaphorical balls and reintroduce them to their favorite hero in smashing, not drawn-out, polysyllabic style, and much in the same way as the Bard, doesn’t start laying out the important plot until after the main titles.  So it’s okay if you’re still distracted a bit when things first start up.  After the explosions and the power ballad is when the real story will begin.

My modest suggestion, then, is to “steal from the best” and open with a scene that will introduce a strong character – preferably your protagonist – in a situation where they are forced to do something active instead of idling and recounting the tales of twenty-eight generations of their ancestry.  (Think about it – how realistic is this?  Do we go to work each morning thinking in exacting detail about the sheer scope of our family bloodline?)  The other thing too is that the more of this stuff you hold back in the beginning, the more mystery there will be around your character, the more tantalizing secrets to reveal.  When I was first drafting my novel, I fell into this trap.  I had the heroine tell you in the first chapter exactly who she was, where she came from and why she could do the things that she could.  When I realized as noted above that no one goes around thinking these things about themselves on an average day, I started hacking those parts out, and finding that my leading lady was consequently a lot more interesting – because now you wanted to read on to find the answers.

When you’re world-building, don’t throw it all at us at once, in a blizzard of arcane references and unpronounceable names.  Focus on movement, wants, and action, and sprinkle in details where they are relevant.  Or, to use a cooking metaphor, use them like spices and not the main ingredient.  Come into the story in medias res (in the middle of things, for the non-Latin speakers/non-English majors among us).  And if you can open with a Bond-esque, rip-roaring cracker of a scene, with peril and tension and stuff blowing up, more power to you.  The aim is to hook us, not give us a history lecture.

Verdict, ladies and gentlemen?  Am I on to something here or merely blowing smoke?

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The first (and most important) connection

sunset

I tend to go through phases in what I choose to write about here.  There have been politics phases, James Bond phases, Aaron Sorkin phases, family phases, phases devoted to the craft of writing as I see it.  Lately though I’m finding a lot of what I’m writing is focusing on the idea of connection.  Amanda Palmer’s video from a few weeks ago really slammed the back of my head against the wall.  My piece for Huffington Post Books about Ksenia Anske touched on this idea as well.  Because connection is how we make sense of the world.  We’re a vast palette of individual colors who want to blend together.  Yet there is a critical connection that we often fail to make as we throw our line out into the universe, hoping for the elusive nibble.  In our focus on the potential connections out there, we forget about the connection within – the connection to ourselves, to who we are, what we want, and how we feel.

Writing can be a purely intellectual exercise; a collection of arguments and supporting evidence, arranged in the most coherent order to maximize the strength of the opinion being presented.  Academia has thrived for thousands of years using this method, and our knowledge and scientific standing have been advanced immeasurably.  But the stories that stay with us through the generations are those that touch the more primal part of our brains; the part that feels.  We have this incredible disconnect, between aspiring to a higher stratum of intelligence while still being governed by passions that are as far from rational as can be imagined.  The best writing, and the writers who make the most lasting connections, are the ones who can tap into these passions and share them in a way that tells complete strangers, “I get it.  I get your pain.  And you’re not alone.”

I’ve been accused of being passionless on more than one occasion.  It’s a defense mechanism; a shield against loss and the pain that comes with it.  There was a story I read once about Julian Lennon, and how John once screamed at him that he hated his laugh, and to this day a laugh from Julian is very rare.  Similarly, emotional extremes are not my thing.  For me the thought of ripping off that bandaid and letting the agony pour through the reopened scar is tremendously intimidating.  Letting it loose publicly is even more frightening.  Yet one looks at what someone like Ksenia Anske is willing to admit to the world and one’s own history seems laughably tame in comparison.  I also consider it in the context of being a new father and not wanting my son to grow up thinking his dad’s a Borg drone.

There is great pain lurking beneath the armor – the pain of a lost father and mother, an adolescence and young adulthood spent wandering, feeling very much alone, not knowing what to make of this thing called life, feeling a sense of drift that persists to this day.  There is anger and regret over very bad choices and their lingering consequences.  There is frustration at the inability to articulate a clear vision of where I’m going and what I want.  This last one is brutal for a writer.  In creating characters you need to be able to define what they want, and how can you do this for a fictional person if you can’t even do it for yourself?  Without wants there is no reason for the journey – there is no story.

Even if I was to never write another word, I still need to connect to my inner self.  It’s very possible that once that connection is firmly established, the desire to write might fade away.  If I am truly satisfied with who I am and the state of my life, then I may stop asking those questions of strangers, stop seeking connection out there in the ether that is the global consciousness.  Stop noticing, as Amanda Palmer says, that this looks like this, because it just won’t matter anymore.  And yet there’s another, more tantalizing possibility – that the other connections will grow deeper, that things will make more sense, that I will be able to articulate a vision of substance, of meaning, of true passion.  I’ll know what I want and I’ll go after it at ludicrous speed, and those who don’t want to come along on the ride can eat my plaid dust.

If you fancy yourself a writer, you have to ask this very important yet somewhat awkward-sounding question of yourself:  Is all of me in this?  Are you writing the story of the sexy female vampire who runs her own shoe store and fends off the advances of a hunky foot-fetishizing merman because you have a deep, abiding need within your soul to spill your soul all over the blank page, or are you doing it because it’s a fun distraction and you’re tickled by the highly unlikely possibility of becoming the next Twilight?  Do you have what it takes to push past being ignored, past the hit statistics on your blog ticking down to zero, past people who greet your latest missives with apathy and indifference?  Is using your voice important enough to you that you can shake off the jealousy that can sometimes spike at the sight of others achieving great success by twists of fate, and say what you want to say anyway?  Fundamentally, are you passionate enough about it that it doesn’t matter if nobody but your significant other ever reads anything you ever write?  Intellectual exercises can be well-written, but they will never move anyone.  They will simply exist in a moment of time and be forgotten.  They will never connect.

Look, there are more than enough writers, both published and not, out there filling servers full of blog posts with advice on how to write, what works and what doesn’t (in their humble opinion, of course) and I don’t want to be that anymore.  The only advice I can offer is this, and it comes from the school of “those who can’t do, teach”:  You will only achieve what you want when you learn how to feel, when you have connected to everything you are.  When everything you do is to its fullest potential, and when you’ve smashed through the self-imposed mental barriers keeping you from experiencing all the joy, wonder and even the sadness that life has to offer.  When you cast off the stupid, pointless, time-wasting shackle of intimidation and become.

Thus endeth the lesson.  Let me know how you make out.  I will too.

In like a lamb

A perfect metaphor for March 1st, 2012.

Elmore Leonard’s first rule of writing advice is, never open your book with weather.  So with apologies to Mr. Leonard and his learned wisdom, I’m starting off March with a few comments about the state of the climate.  It was not that long ago that I recall temperatures plunging to the minus twenties in the middle of February, jagged sheets of ice coating my apartment windows and blocking the view of the mountains of white beyond.  I’m not going to complain about a more modest than usual February heating bill, but this is ridiculous.  I’ve had to shovel the driveway exactly twice this entire winter.  I missed doing it so much I actually shovelled both my neighbours’ driveways just to get in the extra few minutes of cardio.  My better half’s allergies have been in overdrive all season as it never got cold enough to kill off the mould and spores of autumn rot.  And we did double-takes this morning when birds started chirping outside.  The geese have figured it out – they never flew anywhere this winter.  Think there could possibly be a relation to, well, I don’t know, um, global CO2 emissions being higher than ever before?  Nah, it’s sunspots.  We’re actually in a cooling phase.   It’s just Al Gore, Solyndra and the Islamofascisocialists trying to sell you solar panels.  Think I’ll fill my Hummer with Super-Hi-Grade and then run over a spotted owl.  Suck it, Mother Nature.  FREEDOM!!!

Yep, it’s gonna be one of those days.

I love the Search Engine terms tracker on the WordPress dashboard.  It is genuinely amusing to see how people find me, and I can’t help imagining the tremendous disappointment that must occasionally result.  I’ve been fortunate to get a lot of hits from people who saw The Grey and are looking for references to the “Live and die on this day” quote – that at least relates to something of substance.  I get a few from people searching for My Little Pony, The Verve, Coldplay, other search terms that happen to coincide with some of my random word strings, like “grahams wall of sound”.  But some of these other search engine terms are just plain bizarre.  The one that really made me laugh was “kesha good looking”.  Someone on the hunt for images of Kesha for what I’m certain are nothing less than the purest of purposes ended up here?  Granted some of what I write can hopefully be very thought-provoking, but those are definitely not the thoughts I’m trying to provoke.  Eeeww.  We won’t have none of that ‘ere, mate.  Keep calm and carry on.  Besides, silly rabbit, you should know that “Kesha” and “good looking” are not terms that relate.  Ooh, how catty of me.  Thanks, try the veal.

I wonder what it must feel like to have a voice that other people love to impersonate.  Do they ever listen to themselves and think, “good God, do I really sound like that?”  My own voice is quite unremarkable, so I enjoy dressing it up with different accents whenever the opportunity arises.  The other day I was watching a YouTube clip of Michael Caine doing an impression of himself, or more accurately, Michael Caine doing Peter Sellers doing Michael Caine.  It was all in good fun, of course, but how frustrating must it be that almost everyone you meet will be some wag who thinks he can “do you”?   As I’m certain even ordinary lads from Glasgow or Belfast must roll their eyes at attempts by continentals to affect their unique, history-nurtured tones.  One of the cardinal rules on whatever film set he happened to be working was that no one was allowed to impersonate Sean Connery, which I’m sure didn’t stop them from trying to slur “Missh Moneypenny” behind his back.  That is the problem, naturally – everyone thinks they can mimic Sean Connery and almost no one can pull it off.  The same goes for John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Johnny Carson and most of Rich Little’s repertoire.  Voice actors, I’m told, often start from a celebrity impersonation when they’re working up a new character.  The scratchy warbles of The Simpsons’ Moe the bartender began from what his performer Hank Azaria called a bad Al Pacino impression.  Somehow I doubt anyone will ever be accused of doing a bad Graham Milne impression – except maybe myself.

So what are my goals for this month?  Thirty-one days of possibility lie ahead, full of opportunity for both triumph and tragedy.  Gonna try to keep blogging as close to daily as I can, have a new screenplay to start working on, and, because I find that putting it out there publicly is a good way to motivate myself, I’m going to begin sending out my long-gestating novel to agents and publishers.  Hopefully the response will be as promising as that which has greeted my musings here.  If all goes well, maybe, by the 31st, I will, like the lion, have a good reason to roar.  Stay tuned!

Going home again (or not)

Catching up on my James Bond gossip today, as I am wont, I came across a snippet of an article about how Pierce Brosnan doesn’t like to watch his Bond movies.  This is not an uncommon stance among actors.  In fact I can’t think of a single actor I’ve ever heard of claiming that he or she enjoys checking out their old stuff.  Maybe it’s a stock reply because they think that otherwise they’ll come off as immodest.  But it’s probably genuine.  I can recall attending sci-fi conventions and being surprised, at least at the early ones, that the actors knew far less about the work they’d appeared in than the fans in the audience.  How could they not know?  They were in it, for Pete’s sake, they must have watched it a thousand times too!  Of course they should be aware that you can’t fire the phasers by pushing the seventh button on the display panel, it’s the eighth button.  Sheesh.  (Cue the Simpsons nerd saying “I hope someone got fired for that blunder.”)  So I read this article about Brosnan and I’m reminded of the post I wrote defending George Lucas’ right to tinker with his creation.  It’s an interesting contrast between the artist who abandons his work without a second thought and the one who obsesses over getting it right for years on end.  The spectrum of writers must be of the same diverse breadth.  Look back, or move ever forward without the mirror?

George Harrison wrote in the liner notes of the 2000 CD reissue of his 1971 triple album All Things Must Pass that he had to resist the temptation to remix every song.  As I’ve admitted previously, I’m a tinkerer when it comes to my words.  I edit and re-edit, deleting and shifting words around in pursuit of the perfect sentence.  It’s probably not the best way to flex one’s writing muscles – not nearly as productive as simply letting go and watching the words pour out.  That is the notion behind NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, what those of us who can’t grow mustaches well do in lieu of Movember), in that you are not permitted to go back and edit until you have completed the month’s worth of writing (and finished a first draft to boot).  But frankly, there are days where I just don’t have it in me to create much new stuff, and editing is a stopgap way to keep the juices trickling, if not flowing.  I’m aware of the school of thought that says that on days like that you should force yourself to write anyway.  Perhaps that’s true.  That is one of the reasons I find blogging refreshing.  Something can be written spontaneously about the events of the day, completed and sent off into the void with little thought to looking back and changing things around.  It is another step towards pure creation.

But is there value in going back?  I’m of the opinion that there is, despite some seeing it as narcissistic navel-gazing.  For one thing, given that all writers are tremendously insecure and at our core, believe that we suck and no one will ever read us (admit it!), it’s healthy to revisit something that you wrote that really shone.  Somewhere amidst the hundreds and thousands of words of triteness and crap that will never voyage beyond your hard drive, the gems are lurking.  You can probably imagine such a passage off the top of your head.  A few dozen words scribbled or typed late one night in the midst of a short story or unfinished, Proustian behemoth of a postmodernist novel that just for one moment, scraped against the door of greatness.  And then you remind yourself, on your worst, most doubting day, that yeah, you can do this.  You’ve done it before, you’ll do it again.  Or, you look back to remind yourself of how much better you’ve become.  How you’ve abandoned your overreliance on adverbs and polysyllabic words and found your clarion voice.  It’s the evolution of you, the honing of the mark you are going to make on the literary canon, a blade sharpened and polished one paragraph at a time.

Pierce Brosnan may not want to watch his old movies anymore.  But I’m happy to take a stroll through the memories of old works whenever it suits me.  Because at the risk of hauling out one of those trite expressions that as a maturing writer I should never, ever use, you can’t know where you’re going until you understand where you’ve been.  And every so often, you have to glance at the map again.