Hey Kids, Do Your Homework!

I started a new idea and have been cranking away on it (intermittently) for a few weeks. I thought the idea was cool, the plot was cooler, and the name was the coolest. Then I thought, wait a second, what if someone else thought of that name? NAAAH! Impossible. But it wouldn’t hurt to take a quick look on Amazon, right?

WHAAAAAAT? Turns out there’s not only one SF book with the same name/concept, but like thirty. I’m still ok because my story is character-based and the world can be changed. But damn, seriously? I thought I was special. Turns out I’m only as special as thirty-something other self-published books. Oh well.

This reminds me of a lesson I learned a few years back. I worked on a movie called Hart’s War. The director’s name was Greg Hoblit (don’t look him up, yet). When the movie was over, he took the whole post sound crew out to dinner and I ended up across from him at the long table. We talked about basketball and he did what he could to convince me he could dunk. I never really bought it. I asked him about Primal Fear because I knew that was his first feature. Like a dummy, I asked how he got that picture. He said, “They brought it to me.” The rest of the conversation went something like this:

Co: That’s cool, how did they line you up with a picture like that?
Greg: From my television work. They thought it was a good fit.
Co: You were in television? Did you work on a series?
Greg: Yes. I created Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue.
Co: Oh. Heh. More wine?

Then the waiter brought his steak covered in mushrooms. The next part of the conversation went like this:

Co: You don’t like mushrooms?
Greg: I f***ing hate mushrooms. I can’t eat them.
Co: What happens when you eat them?
Greg: I die!

Here’s where I took a big risk. I wanted to keep the chit chat going. He had taken the snub from the young guy pretty well, but I could tell there was a little tension as if his face were saying, “who’s this punk who doesn’t know who I am?” I had a few glasses of wine in me so I went for it.

Co: You die?
(he was pretty much shouting at me in the Larkspur Inn, the most expensive restaurant in Marin County, a mecca for expensive restaurants. Yes, people were looking from other tables.)
Greg: Yes! I f***ing die if I eat mushrooms!
Co: Is that what happened last time you ate them?

Dead silence as he stared at me. The rest of the table and half the restaurant was waiting for the response. Swear to God it was right out of a movie. He laughed. Not loud, but it was enough to ease the mood. Then his steak showed up with no mushrooms and we talked about basketball and the actor Marcel Iures who was amazing in this movie that Greg was so disappointed with. The studio had ruined the surprise with the trailer and cut out the best parts of the drama in favor of more courtroom scenes. But Marcel as the evil Nazi was amazing.

Anyway, my original point was that you gotta do your background checks. It’s impossible to know everything and if you move forward with that attitude, you’ll get burned over and over. All reading is research and all research counts.

More stories soon.

The Next Project

I have put Progeny aside and let it stew. Some folks are checking it out for me and while I’m waiting for some feedback, I’m starting the next book. It’s based on a screenplay that I wrote 15 years ago. I’ve always thought it would be a better book or comic book series than a movie, but I found screenwriting a more comfortable format. I think the bare structure of a screenplay is just how I’ve trained myself to think all these years. Part of that is because I’ve come at writing as a filmmaker, but also because I get impatient when writing. I want to say the guy is in the room and here’s what he said so I can get on to the next plot point instead of providing heavy description of the guy and the room. But that’s movies. A picture is worth a thousand words and I’m leaving out 990 of them. So with this next project, I’m going to relax and write as much as possible to reset the habit in my brain.

Here’s something I realized as I’ve been reading: when I read a book I like, I read slowly and when I read something I don’t like, I skim. I read Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and loved it. It has a few mini tells in the middle that give away the ending (granted, I’m cursed with figuring out the endings of jokes, stories, and movies before most), but it was really well put together and fun to read even when I knew how it was going to end. I read it in two days, but that was because I couldn’t put it down. I caught every word and read my favorite parts twice. Before and since, I read some self-published sci fi that wasn’t strong. The pieces were highly reviewed on Amazon and I thought even if the writing isn’t great, the storytelling or ideas might be interesting. I got impatient with them almost immediately. The description was either pointless, predictable, or both. The stories had unnecessary characters or the main character knew too much without being privy to the information. Worst of all, the ideas were gimmicky and everything hinged on a wafer thin concept.

When I first saw The Matrix, I was floored by how many great ideas were packed into the story. I thought even one small element – like deja vu indicates lag in the matrix – could be its own story. You could harvest dozens of movies, books, comics, or games using that one movie as a source. These three or four self-pubbed ebooks I read prove that you couldn’t and shouldn’t. A small idea with no depth isn’t enough to sustain a novel. As a result, I flew through the pages hoping to find some kernel of awesome to make reading these books worth the effort. And didn’t find any.

So herein lies the rub. I believe Progeny reads the way it does because I was impatient with it. The story didn’t have the substance and depth I wanted as a reader. Since I was reading as I was writing, I literally skimmed the writing. I knew the idea was thin and the best part would be the ending so I cranked past all the development and skipped the meat that can make a simple story great. In other posts, I blamed it on my experience as a screenwriter, but now I realize it’s because the quality of writing and the strength of the idea didn’t satisfy my experience as a reader.

This next project will take much longer. I’m determined to write and enjoy the process of reading as I’m putting the words down. I know you’re supposed to always work to get to the end of the story, but I’ll take the slow road this time.

Book Editing: Round One

I finished Progeny about a month ago and let it sit. Last night, I read it from front to back for the first time since I wrote it. Technically I read it when I typed the longhand into Google Docs/Open Office/Word (long story about that), but this was the first time I just sat and read it like an actual book. It’s only 32,000 words so it only took a couple hours, but I gotta say, it was pretty fun. I can’t tell you the first draft of the book is awesome, but it doesn’t totally suck either. It’s shaky starting out, that’s for sure. The first chapter is the weakest by far. The first paragraph is complete garbage (already chopped!). It feels like I couldn’t wait to get to the main story so I just threw some stuff in there. Narrative small talk. But once the story gets rolling, it feels pretty good.

There are some typos, naturally, and a few missing words, but no problems in terms of spelling or grammar. That’s where the typing-after-writing stage really helps out. Makes me read it as I’m typing so I hear it when it sounds wrong. I have a thing about repeated words and I’m able to catch those at that time as well. The real problem is the pacing. I can’t tell if I just blasted through it to get to the end, or if it’s the right length for this story. OR maybe everything I write will be less than 50k words. Who knows? It’s possible that my impatient reading style that has dictated the length of Progeny.

Now I’m making notes and tying up loose ends. There are some ideas that I launched early in the book that never pay off. Reading through it now, I’m like, “Oh yeah. Where was that heading?” Some of these chapters were written a year ago so some of the third layer ideas kind of slipped away in the process. I’m making notes and trying to decide what to develop and what to scrap. Maybe an extra sentence would sew up an idea, but some of those things will need a lot more. Do I work on the more elaborate ones and try to better integrate them at the risk of watering down my favorite parts of the book? Or cut them altogether and risk having a story that lacks depth and dimension? That remains to be seen. We’ll see what the test readers say.

I’ll post the whole book here for free when it’s done. Hopefully by the end of the year.