Friday, July 8, 2011

There's only so many hours in the day...

I know the big thing with writers these days is blogs. Some talk about the writing business, some talk about their lives, and some are just plain funny. According to both John Locke and my friend Rob Kroese, author of the hit apocalyptic comedy book Mercury Falls, a successful blog is a fantastic way to connect with people interested in your writing who may actually buy one of your books if the stars align right.

But here's the thing. I've never liked blogging. The main reason is that I don't have time, honestly. Besides working on the projects you do see, I do ghostwriting (and regular writing) on numerous projects you don't see. Pretty much from the moment I get out of bed until the moment I get back into bed, except for food and other bodily functions (and the occasional trip to town for a movie), I'm working. Ask my family. I think they're beginning to suspect my name is actually "Acer" and that I have a really big nametag that glows on one side.

There's only so many hours in the day, frankly, and I choose to spend those hours writing, instead of talking about writing. I really did intend to make a solid go of this blogging thing, but it's just not happening. I do have another blog that I am contributing to regularly, Urban Fantasy News. I created UFN this spring as the expanded successor to the Heroes news site of House Petrelli and will continue to attend conventions and otherwise report on the world of modern speculative fiction.

I'm sorry to say that "The Junk Drawer" has to go. If you have a penetrating need to see what I'm having for dinner or what my office looks like, I'm on Twitter and Facebook, and so are (some of) my projects like Triune (and the next Mason Brothers book, currently underway). Thanks, followers. I hope you understand my decision, and I hope you enjoy my other projects.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Writing Tips: Details, Details

Strangely, one of the moments in Heroes that most stands out in my mind is one line of dialogue spoken by Peter Petrelli explaining how to find where the coffee mugs are in his apartment.

"They're in the cabinet with the water stain that looks like Abraham Lincoln."

That was so completely out of left field, and so specifically weird but charming, that even though it was a total throwaway at the beginning of Season 1, the line has stuck with me all this time. I keep it tucked away in the back of my mind as a fantastic example of how one tiny detail can add depth and realism to an otherwise mundane sentence. When and how did the water leak occur? How accurately does it, in fact, depict our 16th president? What is the cabinet made of that would enable such a stain to form? Why wasn't it repaired? Does the statement amuse the off-screen Simone, to whom he is speaking?

Here's another example: In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indy and Mutt are creeping through a creepy place of creepiness, and there's a little dangly bit of stuff in the scenery that momentarily gets Mutt's attention, startling him slightly. "Oh," Shia Labeouf ad-libs, "it's just a... thing." Then they move on, the moment completely passed over and forgotten. Or is it? That's the one line that my son kept repeating for weeks afterward, and considering the quality of the rest of the movie, it's one of the most genuinely entertaining moments.

Real people have quirks, real places are imperfect, and strange little things arise in real situations. When writing, be sure to sprinkle a few of these oddball things throughout your work, but don't overdo it. If your piece is short, put perhaps one detail of this nature in; if you're writing a novel, you can probably get away with a half dozen. In a comic book I wrote, one character flicked a peanut at another character's head to get his attention, but that was the only truly quirky thing I had anyone do, because the piece was serious, not a comedy. By contrast, nearly every character in every Cohen Brothers film has some weird quirk, lending a comedic air to even the most serious scene. Obviously, the longer and more comedic your project, the more bits of weirdness you can load it up with.

Details, however, don't always have to be comedic or weird to add richness to a character, place, or situation, nor should they be. The bizarre laugh of Amadeus, as brought to film by Tom Hulce, or Dr. Who's impossibly long multicolor scarf, are probably more memorable because they're amusingly strange, but a more serious piece needs to have details that suit the situation. Perhaps a secondary character collects cat skulls. Maybe that bus driver is missing his left thumb. An overgrown wisteria vine could be preventing a screen door from closing completely. None of these things are important to the story you're telling, but they put more meat on the bones and give everything more depth, even if that small detail is mentioned one time in passing.

Exercise 1: Make a list of little incidental details in stories that have stuck with you for years for no apparent reason. These should NOT be important to the story, just quirky little things that add another layer of depth and interest to a scene, character, or conversation. It could be something unexpected hanging from a ceiling, a humorous brand name, a unique article of clothing or piece of jewelry, an unusual religious item, an odd pet, a room that's a weird color, a disturbing collection or something else of that nature. Make a note of why the details stuck with you, and what they added (if anything) to the scene. Also note if the detail seemed forced and/or ended up being more of a distraction than a benefit.

Exercise 2: Look around your house and notice the imperfections and details that make it a real home. What color are the walls and why? What's the history behind that dent over there? What kind of food is in the cabinets and what does that say about the people that live there? What is the predominant color of clothing in the closet? Are any collections apparent, and what are they? As soon as you start really noticing the small details that make up the real world, you can begin to incorporate them seamlessly into your own writings in a natural way, and bring your characters and situations to life.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Writing How-To: Scriptwriting for Comics

Comic books, like all other forms of popular mass entertainment, need writers too. However, unlike prose, poetry, or even screenplays, the comic book script format is a difficult bug to pin down, because there is no one "right way" to do it.

If you're interested in trying your hand at writing for comics, a good place to start is in your own collection. Take a few issues by a few different writers and publishers, and read them. But don't pay attention to the entertainment value, the costumes, the boobs (okay, maybe the boobs a little, but two minutes and that's all), the weapons, the worldbuilding and how it ties into the rest of the giant story arc it's from. Instead, the things to pay attention to are the dialog, any other text on the page, the number and arrangement of the panels and how one page flows into the next.

Comic books and graphic novels tell a story with words and pictures in a partnership like no other. The writer's job is to make the story clear, concise and compelling, while the artist's job is to arrange these concise bits in a cohesive visual that the reader can follow without getting lost. This working partnership is critical, and sometimes the sad reality is that a writer must let an artist go if there's not a meeting of the minds with a bit of compromise on both sides (and if the artist chronically blows off deadlines). But I digress.

In a comic script in particular, economy of words is essential. If you like to craft 800-page epic novels, scriptwriting may not be for you. That's not a bad thing, it's just not the kind of writing style both comics and screenplays require. Comics rely on word and thought bubbles inside the constraints of art panels, and if you get too wordy, there's no room for the art! Thus, keep your characters' thoughts to a minimum, and what they say to bare essentials, letting the art do its job and be worth the proverbial thousand words. Don't talk about how Superboobs is going to fly to the second moon of Dingus 12 -- show it.

But how do you show it if you're writing? This is where clear communication with your artist comes in. Use plenty of description to help him or her understand what you're going for, but don't over-direct and micromanage. "Panel 1: Josie and the vampire move in for a kiss in the candlelight" is fine. "Panel 1: We see Josie over the shoulder of the vampire, who is in silhouette, the fear in her eyes obvious even as she moves in for a kiss in the light of the candles that fill her bedroom in the background behind her, the moon visible outside her window through the branches of a tree..." is a bit much. Give the artist some elbow room.

Okay, so you're ready to give it a shot and start on that script. But what's the proper format? I highly recommend Panel One: Comic Book Scripts by Top Writers, edited by Nat Gertler. It's a collection of actual scripts in their original formats as written by Neil Gaiman, Greg Rucka, Kevin Smith, Marv Wolfman and others. The great thing about it is that you can flip between them and see that none of the scripts are the same. Like, at all. The only similarities are that it's a writer communicating with an artist in some fashion, and characters say and do things. I know, that doesn't sound like much help, but the beauty of it is that there is no one right way to do this. Unlike screenplays, which have extremely anal-retentive formatting specifics, as long as you can communicate clearly with your artist and editor, it's all good.

That said, I tend to be more on the screenplay format end of things, because it's familiar, and because it's a clean, concise way to get across what I'm trying to tell my artist. I use one page of script per comic page, and on that page is a panel breakdown that describes the scene and includes any words that need to be spoken, thought or put into a caption. Here's an example:

Superboobs Goes to the Moon, Page 1

Panel 1: Superboobs stands on top of a tall building in a heroic pose, looking at the sun set over the city.

        Earth is getting boring. I should go somewhere else.

Panel 2: Superboobs flies upward out of the earth's atmosphere.

Panel 3: Half page, with Superboobs standing on the moon, looking back at earth, moved by the majestic scene before her.

            (thinking to herself)
        Wow. I can see my house from here.

CAPTION: Little did she know, her house could also see her and was plotting her demise.

(End example)

Several things happened here:
- Our heroine used a speech bubble and a thought bubble (there's no air on the moon, kids).
- We used "SFX" (sound effects, usually lettered in a large size by the artist, like THOOM! or KRAK! in a fight scene).
- A short caption box tells the reader a part of the story that Superboobs is unaware of.
- Panels were specified, including a full half page devoted to a lovely artsy view (hopefully) of the earth from the vantage point of the moon.

A word about panel count. I like to use fewer when the action is slow, and more when it's fast-paced. If a couple is making love in a beautiful garden at sunset, it deserves a half page or even a full page so that the reader can relax and take in the view. If somebody is taking down a dozen ninjas single-handed, you want bam-bam-bam pacing and action, and your panels should reflect this. This is where your partnership with your artist really counts, because he or she should be able to recognize what you're trying to do and get creative with layouts, panel shapes, layouts, and so on. Expect, however, that they will probably ignore your actual suggested panels and panel count as scripted, and do what they think tells the story most effectively. But if it's in the original script, at least you have a starting point for negotiations. This is also why you want to see the roughs for approval before any pages are finished.

Ready to give it a try? Then jump in with both feet, because the nice thing about the brevity of the comic book script format is that it's easy to go back and edit and polish your work.

Exercise: Write an eight-page sample script. Think about the visual layout for each page, and what needs to be said or shown in each panel to move the story along. Keep dialog, thoughts and captions to a bare minimum! When you're happy with your script, find an aspiring artist willing to do your sample for fun and a spot in his or her portfolio. Find as many as you can to see how each artist interprets the material differently.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Writing Tips: Not Every Story Needs a Villain

A well-known television writer was recently quoted as saying, "Every story needs a villain." While this is true in many cases, it's not always true. I even tweeted this, and got replies questioning my opinion and asking how you can have an interesting story without a villain. So consider this:

Where is the villain in Inception?

One could split hairs and argue that "any obstacle is a villain," but this is not accurate. Here's the dictionary definition of villain:

Vil-lain - noun:
1. A cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel.
2. A character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot.

Clearly, a villain is an identifiable character, usually considered "evil," who purposefully causes "wickedness," "crime," or otherwise messes with the hero in bad ways. Sylar, of Heroes, or Captain Hook of Peter Pan, are clearly villains. A mountain that thwarts a climber, or a terminal disease that's killing the main character, is not.

Of course, there are huge gray areas when it comes to villains, their motivations, and if they change during the story. In Miyazaki's films, there is rarely a clear villain, and even when you can point at a character such as Yubaba from Spirited Away or Lady Eboshi from Princess Mononoke as being "bad" or "evil," their characters change or become more sympathetic and their actions become more understandable as the viewer learns more about them.

You could say that in O Brother Where Art Thou, the sheriff tracking down the main characters is a villain, especially when he is going to hang them without a trial, but the three men are criminals who have escaped from a chain gang, and he's simply doing his job as sheriff for the most part. You could say it's the cyclops, but he comes and goes throughout the story throwing a wrench into things. Neither of them is the film's Big Bad, because there isn't one.

Naturally, some stories revolve around personal growth and/or change and/or discovery and/or a race against time, and are perfectly satisfying without a villain character. I've already mentioned Inception and there are many, many more, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Flight of the Phoenix, Madagascar, and pretty much every "disease of the week" movie ever made. How many can you think of in your personal library of books and films alone?

While it's certainly true that most stories revolving around a conflict of some kind do have an identifiable villain character, it is not a required element in all stories.

Exercise: Write a short story about a superhero without a villain. It could be his or her origin story, discovering something about his or her powers, romantic troubles related to being a superhero, real-world coping problems, an internal battle with drugs or alcohol, a frightening mutation, waking up with amnesia, or perhaps they use their powers to save people from a disaster. Whatever scenario you come up with, be sure it does not involve a villain, or even mention the existence of one! If the idea of a superhero doesn't grab you, write about someone traveling a great distance and the things they encounter, a personal loss, a star-crossed romance, a lesson learned, a challenge overcome, or something gained that changes the person's life in a big way.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Yesyesyesyesyes I KNOW.

I said I'd blog, then I said I wouldn't blog, now I'm back to blogging.

Well, here's the thing. I keep hearing how blogging is essential to writers and their audience and blah blah. But the problem is I don't know what to write that isn't just me saying crap (LIKE THIS POST) and I don't have time to just say crap because, guess what, I'M WRITING. That, and I had an outlet in Miaverse, where I could post my Writing Tips column and the occasional restaurant review. Miaverse is on hold until further notice, however, so there's nowhere for my Writing Tips column to live, so I'm back here.

I really want to continue my Writing Tips, because people like them, they're useful, they're free advice, and I've got a bajillion column ideas waiting to be done. I also love doing restaurant reviews, but maybe I should put those on Yelp or something, dunno yet. Whatever the case Writing Tips lives on, and will have a new home here in The Junk Drawer.

So yes, I'm blogging. Never say never.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Look ma, I'm doing it!

So I'm caving in and doing a blog. I don't know how frequently I'll post here, but apparently all the cool kids are doing it, so I guess I better put away my Sony Walkman and dust off my Selectric typewriter and say some stuff.

Why did I call this blog "The Junk Drawer?" Because there's all kinds of useful little bits of stuff in there, like cup hooks and string and ice picks, and tools that do stuff that only the person who put them in the drawer knows what they do. This describes my mind perfectly.

What is my current project? This shiny new baby, Triune. It's about three dudes who find out they're angels, and have no clue what they're doing. Kind of like The Greatest American Hero with wings. Cool, huh? I especially like how I managed to fit THREE 1980s references in my blog already, and this is only the first entry. More to come when it's not 12:30 in the morning.