Monday, October 31, 2011

Making Things Happen in Fiction

I like character driven fiction. While I want interesting things to happen in fiction, I need to feel that those interesting things aren't outside of what the character would do. As a writer, unless you're a hack, achieving both believable characters and a satisfying story is one of your constant challenges.

So how do you ensure that things happen?

1. Create your protagonist carefully
You need to shape your protagonist according to what type of story you're trying to tell. If you make an anxiety-ridden recluse and then require Philip Marlowe style investigative work to move your story along, you're going to have a hard time. Now, that dynamic could make for some really interesting fiction, but understand that that's now what your story is about. It's no longer The Big Sleep but a Monk-type mystery.

2. Create external pressures
Sometimes, you can force your protagonist to do what you need done by presenting them with an alternative they can't abide. You then have a reluctant hero (at least for a time). BIG FAT WARNING: if you do this a lot, you will ruin your story. What's the problem?  A little something called "agency." If your character is constantly being shoved around by external forces, he lacks agency, or the ability to make and enact decisions. While an initial setup often requires a big outside force, the character should then be making decisions and solving problems. They need to act, not just react. Even stories that have protagonists that start out as passive wimps always have them reach a breaking point where they take their lives into their own hands.

But if your story is lagging and you can't get your character from point B to point C, drop a conflict on them and see what happens.

3. Deus ex machine
This is the next step along. Instead of forcing your character to do what you want by getting them to react to something, you don't even have them react: you just solve the problem for them. Stephen King is infamous for this, because he stays true to his characters, but then has to provide a satisfying ending (especially because he writes commercial fiction.) JK Rowling did this big time for at least books 2-4 of Harry Potter (the only ones I read). Through absolutely no planning or decision of his own, Harry Potter reaches into a hat and pulls out the weapon he needs to defeat the enemy, or he aims his wand and his wand has the ability to cancel out the wand of the much more powerful sorcerer, not due to anything he's done, but because the writer needs it to be so. (The writer needed it to be so because 1. for the audience to keep identifying with normal old HP he had to stay normal, not exceptional and 2. in the wand case the threat had to be terrifying for another few books.)

Personally, I'd rather provide an unsatisfying ending than resort to deus ex machine, and because I self-publish, that's totally my choice.

Any other tips for creating fiction in which things happen?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Movie Reviews!

Let's go movies; let's go! *clapclapclap*
Let's go movies; let's go! *clapclapclap*
Links in the titles.

"I didn’t realize the movie was set in the fifties for quite awhile. Mental institutions are always portrayed as being a bit antiquated. I guess that makes them scarier. When Kristen is first given real clothes to wear, and steps out into the common area looking just like Mamie Van Doren in Untamed Youth or Girls Town (without such magnificent proportions), I thought perhaps it was just a stylistic choice by the filmmakers. But The Ward is indeed set in 1958. Nothing about the movie necessitates that it be set in the past, but the effect of the era and recalling that lost genre when everyone feared teen crime is really fun. Kristen pulls off a rough and tumble Mamie very well."

"You can tell they were going for a Jacob’s Ladder feel, with creatures occasionally appearing and people saying horrible things, but then not really. To a degree you wonder what’s going on, except that really you know what’s going on because the filmmakers showed their hand so early. So it’s hard to share that much of Amy’s worry."

"Ghoulies begins with a cult leader attempting to sacrifice an electric baby. That electric baby is his son. It doesn’t go as planned, so they sacrifice someone else instead and the electric baby grows up and the cult-leader father dies and the electric baby inherits the huge mansion on the old land.

"Electric Baby finds the pull of the land working on him. He drops out of college to fix the place up and do weird magic. He has a big party full of 80s stereotypes and summons his first ghoulie. Why? To wander the land invisible to everyone else and do his bidding, though he bids nothing."

(The pic accompanying Chewie's review of Ghoulies is particularly mind-destroyingly cute.)

"Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church is mentioned, as 'suers, not doers.' As a Kansan, I’m ashamed of his antics, and yet still felt some sense of pride that the boil on the ass of my state (mixed in with the Branch Davidians[both sides of that situation]) fueled the rage that resulted in this film."

"I’m imagining Joao Machado reading Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero and thinking, “This doesn’t go far enough.” What you get with The Champagne Club is a pack of spoiled, bored  LA art brats pushing themselves to feel something and in doing so, pushing themselves right over the edge."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Language Matters

Last post, I talked about my sentence-level revision tricks. Some pretty famous writers think that you actually ruin a story by working this way, that you remove your natural voice and boring up your story.

Bullshit.

I guess I could see a self-conscious writer doing this, but if you're a vet with a few hundred thousand words under your belt and if you believe in your own ability, then this isn't a problem. If this is the case, then you take lazy, place-holding phrasing you used because a scene was gushing out of your fingertips and you make it MORE interesting.

Besides, I consciously remove my own voice from a lot of my work because I don't want to have a consistent voice across every piece. I want my characters to have voices. But that's my aesthetic.

The point is, molding your language matters. Yes, story matters, too. But what is a story made of?

Words.

If you want to tell a story without worrying about language, look into filmmaking, where it's at least possible. If you're going to write fiction, then you can't get around using words grouped into sentences, any of which can yank the reader from the story.

So as long as you're not focusing on language to the exclusion of story, you're only going to make your story better by trying to improve the way you use language.

Monday, October 24, 2011

My Top 4 Revision Tips and Tricks

I like revision. I find it fun. Though I think I'm a better storyteller than wordsmith, I enjoying fine-tuning the language. I think it matters.

You can read over a manuscript a million times, but you get diminishing returns, so I've adopted a number of techniques that allow me to view my manuscript differently at different passes. Here are a few of them.

1. Make a couple of "to be" passes
Some people think that any use of "to be" is passive. It's not. Passive means that the sentence has been structured in such a way that it pretty much removes the subject. It's used by slick types to avoid responsibility, and used by scientific types to connote objectivity. Example:
"It was done to prevent catastrophe."
"I did it to prevent catastrophe."

Passive sentence structure isn't great for fiction. But the use of "to be" is more insidious than that. The reason that the use of "to be" should be questioned even when its use isn't passive is that it is pretty much always a case of telling rather than showing.
"He was tall."
"He ducked under the doorway when he entered the room."

In the first sentence, the reader is being told that a character is tall. In the second, they're drawing that conclusion on their own. That discovery makes it seem more authentic. Now, obviously a person being tall doesn't stretch credulity, but the phrasing is also more lively. I don't think "to be" should be entirely avoided, but I don't think it's a bad idea to consciously question every use. So, if your piece is in past tense, use Find to look at every use of "was," then "were." If it's in present, add "am" and "are." It's time consuming, but the end result can be a big improvement.

2. Examine one sentence at a time
It's really easy to get caught up in your own story. Because you understand the context so well, this can lead to fixing problems in your head before you're even aware of them. One way to solve this is to only look at one sentence at a time.

This can be difficult to do without aid. One trick is to highlight a sentence at a time. In Word, you can enable a keyboard shortcut for some hidden commands, but it requires that you let up off the key every time. I prefer to hold the Alt key down as I arrow forward or backward, so I created macros. Instructions for doing both are described here: http://wordribbon.tips.net/T010275_Selecting_Sentences.html

If you go the macro route, you still have to assign keyboard shortcuts to them the same way you would a hidden command.

Going through your manuscript backward one sentence at a time is the ultimate way to avoid immersion in your story, allowing you to focus on language. But a pass going through forward is also a good idea, as it lets you catch problems such as agreement that are much harder to notice going backward.

3. Read your manuscript outside of your word processor
It's amazing how many mistakes slip by when you read the work in the same setting you wrote it: in your word processor. It used to be that to get a fresh view, you had to print your manuscript out. Now you can put it on your e-reader. If you have a kindle, just email the manuscript to youraccount@free.kindle.com and they'll email you an .AZW file back. It's not going to be perfectly formatted, but that's not the point at this stage.

I perform this step late in the process, and I just highlight errors as I go. Once I've gone all the way through, I can do a search on my manuscript in Word for a few words of a phrase and go straight to the problem area.

4. Listen to your manuscript
Because you know what should be on the page, it can be difficult to see what is on the page. Most of these tricks have dealt with seeing your manuscript in a different way, but the ultimate change is to hear your manuscript.

There are some free programs you can use, but I like to use the text-to-speech function of the Kindle. It's the only time I use it, but damn if it isn't the ultimate author's friend. No matter how familiar you are with your story, if you typed "shitted on the ground" when you meant "shifted on the ground," you're going to hear it (yes, that was an OCR problem, but it's hilarious!). When you hear a problem, just pause with the spacebar and highlight the mistake.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Necrotic Tissue: Best of Anthology!


Just got my contributor copies. I gots a little flash in here, "Choices Made Possible by Modern Science." It doesn't look like its for available for sale yet. But when it is, you can order it from here: http://www.necrotictissue.com/

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Shelter by James Everington



I just finished The Shelter by James Everington.

It's very, very good, and you should buy it now.

The protagonist and antagonist are complex and realistic. The horror is subtle and described with such care.

Buy The Shelter, free up an hour and read it at a sitting.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Movie Reviews!

Okay, so here's another solid week where the only thing I post is Friday movie reviews. While I'm proud of sticking with my review-a-day schedule over at Streaming Horror, I'm ashamed of having neglected Pulling Teeth. But I've got a lot of ideas for posts, I'm excited to start talking about fiction again, and I'm going to get back into a solid MWF sched next week. For now, you'll have to settle for movie review excerpts. Links in the titles.



Before long, though, he notices that he can see other things in the baby monitor that he can’t see with his eyes.
That’s such a great scare tactic. Finding a way to represent our limited perceptive ability. The Baby’s Room uses a similar tactic to Shutter to creep you out: by introducing a medium between us and the spirit world. I think this works because it provides a rule set for perception which makes the menace seem more real, less contrived. The ghosts don’t just disappear and reappear willy-nilly. Instead, you watch the ghost through the small, grainy baby monitor. The effect is also one of wearing blinders during a time when you feel that you need maximum sensory input. If you’re alone in a dim room and feeling frightened, you want to keep glancing over your shoulder, wishing you had 360 degree vision. The Baby’s Room found a device to give you that same feeling while sitting on your couch.


Despite the low score on both Netflix and IMDB, I watched The Entrance because of its awesome cover. Look at it over there. Pretty badass, no?
And you know what? Even though that movie-selection strategy seems like a recipe for disappointment, I was pleasantly surprised by The Entrance. It’s an ambitious low-budget film that– despite the cover– aims for psychological scares it can pull off without the big bucks.



Silent Hill opens with Rose, played by Radha Mitchell, running out of a house screaming in search of her adopted daughter Sharon, played by little Jodelle Ferland (I said she already had quite a horror pedigree), who has a habit of trying to sleep walk off cliffs while talking about Silent Hill.
Rose realizes that this habit could be short lived, so she steals off with Sharon in search of a West Virginia ghost town called Silent Hill. Christopher, played by Sean Bean, is against this. He understands that if a child is determined to wander off a cliff, it’s better to let nature take its course and hope you get a better one next time. So he follows after.



The meat of the film takes a tact that many horror fans will find familiar: the modernization of an old monster with new science, or ret-conning, something comic book readers are also very familiar with. A long time ago, people were stupid. So some of the facts they recorded about trolls are accurate, and others are just the stuff of fairy tales. The writers came up with a lot of fun material. It’s not quite enough to make you believe that trolls really wander the mountains of Norway, but it’s fun.
One of the aspects of a troll that’s never explained, though, is also one of the best: the fact that trolls can smell the blood of a Christian man.


But I’m telling you, I wanted to quit.
But I’m telling you, I’m glad I didn’t.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Movie Reviews!

Movie Reviews! Friday has been such an integral part of my blog here that I'm going to post a Friday roundup of my movie reviews over at streaminghorror.net, using what I think are the best snippets. Though sometimes they're not the best snippets, but just the bits that make sense outside the context of the entire review. Anyway, links in the movie titles.

The Dead End poster says, “Read the Signs.” And if you are any sort of horror fan, you will certainly be able to read the signs. You will guess the big twist of the movie at mark 2:41, because it’s very obvious and because the twist is easily the single most over-used twist in horror movies. And because you’ll get the twist, you won’t enjoy the movie, because it doesn’t offer anything else. Not character, or beautiful cinematography, or thrills, or emotional content. It’s all about intriguing you awith what the heck is going on, so when you catch it, you will spend the rest of the film totally bored. And insulted, really, that the filmmakers believed they were really getting you with such a hackneyed, lazy plot device.

At first, They Live seems to be letting the human race off the hook. It’s alien invaders who’ve done all this evil; humans are just victims. By the end, though, much of the blame rests squarely with our “screw you if I’ve got mine” mentality.

Seriously, with the state of the economy, this movie couldn’t be more timely. Except in the reality of They Live, you get the satisfaction of watching a pro-wrestler blow away those responsible with a multitude of small arms.

Commie propaganda at its best.

The next scene takes place in an SUV, with grad students and friends driving into the wilderness, where young people go to get murdered. In this SUV are such thin characters that I can’t even place a descriptor on one of them. Two are students. One is the INCREDIBLYANNOYINGASSHOLE. One is the sensitive male. One is the slutty girl. The other young woman is completely non-descript, and remains so throughout Primal. My guess is that she’s there just to increase your anticipation of seeing a boob.

When a horror franchise reaches its seventh film, you know it’s gonna be a goodie! They’ve worked out all the kinks. They’ve plumbed the depths of theme. They’ve come to understand the source of horror, and with that understanding are able to fully realize their vision.

Okay, now I planned that opening as a joke, but apparently seven really is a lucky number, because several of the biggest horror franchises have had really good seventh installments. I can barely tell the difference between most of the Friday the 13ths, but the seventh had the psychic girl, which was pretty awesome. The seventh Halloween is Halloween H20, and as I’ve already stated, in my opinion it’s the second best of the original Halloween incarnation. The seventh Nightmare on Elm Street is Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which was Craven’s testing ground for the meta-horror concepts he would later use in Scream. It was also very well received critically.

But Revelation is certainly no lucky number 7.

It’s difficult to review a movie like Bikini Girls on Ice, because it’s not like I had any real hopes going into it. Of course, you always hope that a filmmaker with a brilliant sense of irony is going to provide a title that completely belies the genius nature of the film, but when you watch a lot of horror movies, that hope is small and frail, being malnourished.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

I Am Obsessive

I would have been a good computer programmer if I were better at math. I will sit and tweak something endlessly, getting it just right. If something is even a bit wrong, I can't relax.

And that's why streaminghorror.net is complete. I made ads. I added a widget to the sidebar that shows randomly chosen pictures of Chewie every time you load the page. I wrote the mission statement:
When it comes to horror movies, Netflix Instant can seem like the new straight-to-video. Let Alan Ryker, his pughuameranian Chewie, and the occasional guest reviewer do the dirty work for you, digging through the muck on Netflix Instant, Amazon Instant and Hulu to find the hidden horror gems.

As promised, a new review is going up every weekday. I'd really appreciate it if you'd check it out. And if you watch a movie I review, I'd love comments! Tomorrow's review is of Bikini Girls on Ice, which I know you've already seen. Don't lie to me.

So now that the heavy lifting is done and the maintenance is going to be something I do every day anyway– watching a movie and writing a review of it– I can focus again on other things, like revising my two recently finished books.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

StreamingHorror.net


I've been away for awhile, I know. But it's been for a good reason, baby. In the end, it'll only make us stronger.

I did a few things:
1. I finished the first revision pass of Blood Tells True and I don't think it needs much more work.
2. I finished the first draft of The Devil's Assassin and, though I haven't read it yet, I think it might need a lot of work.
3. I created a movie review site called StreamingHorror.net.

I like talking to writers. I like talking about writing topics. I'm going to keep discussing those topics here, along with random things I find interesting and I think there are some readers who are interested in all that. But I've been stressing about it a bit, and now I don't have to, because I have a whole site dedicated to horror fans (movies, though. But crossover, right?). And once it's completely set up, it's not going to require much extra work.

I realized I'm already writing 5 movie reviews a week for my Friday post. I thought, why not focus on horror movies? Specifically, ones that can be found streaming at netflix and on amazon. So the plan is to post a new review 5 days a week, Monday through Friday.

Because Chewie watches these movies with me, he contributes a one-line review at the bottom, in a segment we like to call, "Chewie Says."

I'm not done setting it up by any stretch. I'm not certain I'm going to stick with this theme, because it doesn't offer everything I wanted. We'll see.

Anyway, if you use a feed reader (I use google reader), you can subscribe with this link: http://www.streaminghorror.net/feed/

If you operate through facebook, then like my page, which will supposedly begin receiving automatic updates from my site through NetworkedBlogs, though it's not working yet:
http://www.facebook.com/pages/StreamingHorrornet/274330749253889