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.

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.

A Change in Thinking: Screenplays vs. First Novel

As I’ve said before, I started writing short stories then moved into screenplays. A big reason for the latter was my passion for visual media, and the only reason for the former was lack of patience. I wasn’t able to think about introspection and backstory and all that. Just the main story laid out in a linear fashion. Like a guy relaying a story at the dinner table. In a way, all the short stories I wrote were like describing movies. Treatments, more or less. I’m not a famous screenwriter or anything like that, but I’ve written a bunch, read a bunch, got a Masters degree in screenwriting and I’ve taught screenwriting. The point is that the bulk of my writing experience is in screenwriting. And while writing screenplays, I didn’t just come up with my own idea of how it should be done and operate in a personal vacuum, I studied the process and the method ferociously. I took classes, read books, interviewed professionals, and read successful and unsuccessful examples. Why? Not because I wanted to know how to get famous, but because I didn’t want to look like a rookie. I hate that.

Now that I’m embarking on the Progeny project, I’m doing the same thing for writing long form prose. Studying the form, that is. There’s a lot of crossover between the two mediums in terms of structure, plot development, and character, but the execution of those elements in a longer form has been a challenge thus far.

A screenplay is bare structure. It’s a technical document that lists what you see on screen and what the actors say. That’s it. People who write flowery prose in a screenplay are in the wrong business and the crew will mock them. I was really good at keeping my screenplays dryly technical. The story developed out of imagining what you saw on screen and didn’t tell you exactly what actors did and how they did it. Check out the screenplay for FORGE if you want an example of my style. You don’t have to read the whole thing, just skip to a spot in there and read a page or two. There’s no internal thinking, no elaborate descriptions of dialog or locations. When you read it, you breeze right through it. Just dialog, action, and reaction. If it’s not on the screen, you won’t see it in the screenplay.

That’s pretty obvious stuff to anyone who has read both screenplays and fiction books. Formatting in terms of fonts and layout and margins are a factor, too. The interesting thing for me is that I actually think in screenplay formatting now. Like learning a foreign language, when I write in the novel, I’m translating from how I would have written it in the screenplay form. I find myself writing in looks and actions rather than thoughts and description. I don’t think about the character’s thoughts or how they got to be the way they are. If that weren’t enough, screenplays are written in present tense! “Jim walks to the door and opens it.” The common novel voice is past tense: “Jim walked to the door and opened it.” In this current project, I find myself switching back and forth subconsciously all the time. Like throwing an English word in the middle of my best effort at a French sentence.

Here’s a quick sample of what I’m talking about. (click on the blue words link to see the pdf)

The truth is that I haven’t changed since the very beginning. I struggle with pacing. I want to get to the good parts of the story right away. A great novel will control the pacing carefully. It breathes. There’s fast parts and drawn out parts and overall you feel like you’re along for a ride and not just bombing downhill the whole time. As I write Progeny, I already feel like it’s a movie treatment more than a novel. There’s very little introspection or description or backstory or side notes. I’m not going to worry about that now just so I can get the story framed out from beginning to end. Then I’ll go back and try to flesh it out.

It’s a whole new mode of thinking and I’m doing my best to adapt. Something that helps a lot is reading more novels and watching fewer movies. Some authors, like Neal Stephenson, are all description and history, little dialog, and surprisingly little plot movement in a 1000 page book. Others, like Cormac McCarthy, use so few words it might as well be a long poem. I’m somewhere in between. I’d like to model after someone like China Melville or Henning Mankell. Lean, but atmospheric and patient with the story. Funny that Mankell is translated from Swedish and the books are still so well-written.

I’m slowly getting used to it, but it will be a while before I’m thinking in the right language.