Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Writing Secrets

Well, they're not exactly "secrets", but they are an absolutely fantastic series of podcasts with lots of good tips for fiction writers. The Secrets is run by published author Michael Stackpole, who's published almost 40 books in the sci-fi and fantasy genre. The podcasts contain the usual writing tips you'd expect, referencing things like spelling, grammar, and story structure. But it also goes further, with great stories culled from Mr. Stackpole's own experience, on things like working habits, market research, and establishing a lasting writing career, if that's your ambition. Check it out, and be sure to listen from the very first episode! I consider myself to be a fairly decent witer, and I've learned something from every single podcast.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Great advice for aspiring writers

Lots of hopeful writers, after reading my stories, have asked me to read and critique their fiction. And my first piece of advice is always the same thing: make sure you've got your English 101 down solid, first. Most of the amateur-written stories I've read on the web are plagued with very basic spelling and grammar errors. But don't take my word for it. Check out this article by an actual publishing editor - a person whose jobs consists of reading manuscript submissions from would-be novelists (scroll down to item number three). She lays out 14 hurdles that a manuscript has to clear before she recommends it for publication. Amazingly, if you can master middle school English and perform basic story telling, you're better than two-thirds of the competition already. If your plot is actually interesting, and you've avoided plagiarism and Mary Sues, then you're up to 98%. It's a great read, and an interesting look at a day in the life of an editor.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Fiction on the Web

The last post got me thinking. I think new technologies like podcasting and podiobooks are very exciting for aspiring artists and writers, because the barrier to publication is removed. Of course, there's one catch - and it's a big one. To paraphrase the movie "Field of Dreams", if you build it, they won't come - at least not automatically, because they might not even be aware that you even exist.
It got me wondering, have any of you read works of fiction elsewhere on the web? For the sake of argument, we won't include fanficiton. What did you think of the experience? Do you have any on-line fiction authors that you would recommend to friends?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Audiobook + Podcast = Podiobook

I've been doing a lot of varied reading lately, from hard-science-fiction ("Spin", by Robert Charles Wilson), light fiction ("Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone", which I finally gave up avoiding and read), to non-fiction ("Confessions of a Street Addict" by Jim Cramer). There are lots of blogs and podcasts I check regularly (such as "Escape Pod", a sci-fi story podcast), and friends at work just told me about a cool new Internet phenomenon called the Podiobook. The idea is simple: authors are promoting themselves by releasing their fiction as spoken word, one chapter at a time, via podcast software. The Internet is just fantastic for stuff like this: it really levels the playing field with the big old-school publishing companies. Go over and take a look at the offerings at the website. You know, it's only a matter of time, probably less than five years, before we see TV shows distributed like this.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Origin Stories Suck

My original character, Drew Nabholtz, popped into my head as an idea for just one story. But before that story was halfway completed, I came to realize that the character had a lot of potential for growth, and I got ten more stories out of him. In a similar way, as I think up Drew’s “re-design”, I don’t see just one story. I see a series of stories, an “arc” of stories if you will, almost as if I were thinking up a full season for a television series. But I’m worried that I’m wandering into a creative trap. It’s all fine and good to come up with a grand master plan for the “Upgrade” universe. But unless the very first story is any good, there’ll never be any chance of the subsequent stories getting written. I know, I know, this is a case of putting the cart before the horse on an astronomical scale. But I’m tackling this thing with the goal of producing a story that’ll be good enough to print up and stock on the shelf at your local Barnes & Noble. Don’t know if that’ll ever happen, but that’s my intent.

I pretty much just wanted to post something before the weekend wrapped up. Partly to vent about how hard a decent origin story can be (it’s practically a cliché on television that “the pilot always sucks”, because so much exposition has to be dished out to the reader/viewer). But also to let you know that I’ve had my follow-up appointment with the neurologist, and he’s given me a clean bill of health. I’m making a full recovery from my contusion; I just won’t be breaking cinder blocks with my head anytime soon.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Light posting for a bit

I know what you're thinking. "Wow, four days without a post, CoyoteLoon's already gotten bored with this thing. What a blog poser." Well, I have a fairly legitimate medical reason. I was playing racquetball with some co-workers on Wednesday over lunch hour. I apparently slipped and cracked my head against the wall. I say "apparently" because I don't remember it happening. Although I continued playing for ninety minutes, my friends gradually realized that I was acting kind of strange, so they drove me to a local hospital. One CAT scan later, the doc told me that I had managed to get a brain contusion - a bruise on my brain. The good news is, I'm up and about and I feel fine, although there's about two hours of my life I have no memory of. I'll probably post again over the weekend. My brain-meats should be unscrambled by then.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Raiders of the Lost MacGuffin

A hero needs a reason to be a hero. What, exactly, do I mean by that? Well, a lot of authors come up with their hero’s character first. They instill their hero with an interesting backstory, complex emotions, distinctive character traits … but then they let him loose into the world, only then realizing that their hero doesn’t actually have anything to do. Sure, he fights bad guys, but he needs a little more motivation than that to fill up a whole story. Enter the classic plot device known as the MacGuffin.

A MacGuffin is just a thing – a goal, a prize – that motivates the characters in a story, but otherwise has little relevance or importance. A classic MacGuffin from the early days of film is the Maltese Falcon. The movie’s actually named after the stodgy statuette, but of course it’s really all about hard-boiled detective Sam Spade and his razor-sharp mind, his grizzled charm, and his investigation of his partner's murder in Film Noir Los Angeles. A more recent example can be found in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The MacGuffin there is the Ark of the Covenant – it’s not really that important to the plot, it’s just something for Indiana Jones to chase after while he’s bull-whipping Nazis and sliding under trucks. The movie is really all about Jones. The ark is just an interchangeable plot device; Indy could have been searching for Cleopatra’s necklace, or Alexander the Great’s library card, and Raiders would have essentially been the same movie. (Yes, I know the Ark killed the Nazis at the end. Work with me here.)

I’ve actually had a bit of the same story problem with Upgrade. Drew was far too passive in my first go of the story's outline, and he needed a heroic goal, a quest for him to accomplish. Then I hit upon a great idea for a MacGuffin this morning while munching my oatmeal, and after some more brainstorming, it really helped solidify the plot. The concept of a MacGuffin sounded a little gimmicky to me at first, but lots of movies and books use ‘em, and hey, they were good enough for Alfred Hitchcock (he popularized the term “MacGuffin”). And the more I thought about my MacGuffin, the more it actually fit into the whole new “universe” of Drew Nabholtz. So for all you aspiring story writers out there, if you have an awesome character made up but can’t figure out what the heck he’s going to do, consider the time-honored pursuit of the MacGuffin. Alfred Hitchcock would approve

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Dreaded, Hideous Blank Page

The biggest difference between writing a totally original story, and writing a fanfiction for an existing show or series, is really obvious when you think about it. In a fanfiction, you’re writing a story using existing characters, places, and motivations. The backstory has already been laid out. The characters don’t need to be introduced; everyone already knows who they are, and how they’re supposed to act. Everyone knows that Harry Potter is a student wizard at Hogwart’s; everyone knows that Kim Possible is a cheerleader who saves the world; everyone knows that the SG-1 team explores the universe using the Stargate to protect Earth from powerful aliens. The most important thing that the fanfiction writer needs to be mindful of is keeping everyone “in character”. A good fanfiction should read like something that would actually happen on the “real” show (that’s a big reason why fanfictions have such negative stigma attached to them – most of them are about unlikely weddings, main character deaths, or author self-insertions). If you think about it, an actual show writer has to follow the same rules. A writer for “Batman” has a “show Bible” to follow; he knows all about Bruce Wayne’s tortured past, his crime-fighting lifestyle, and the murky world of Gotham City.

But when you sit down to write an original piece of fiction, all you have to start with is … the most terrifying thing in the known universe. A blank piece of paper. Void. Abyss. Nothingness. I’ve spent hours staring at a blank Microsoft Word document, like a forest animal staring into a hunter’s spotlight, waiting for the Muse of Literature to flap up and smack me in the back of the head, like Al Pacino with the baseball bat in The Untouchables. Of course, that’s what’s so great about writing fiction – you get to create your own universe. You get to wield godlike creative powers. But you’re also responsible for making sure that everything makes sense, and for making sure that your universe is populated with interesting characters that the reader cares about. There has to be multiple possibilities for potential drama and conflict, and the story itself has to have potential to be entertaining. The unforgivable sin of fiction is a boring, bland, pedestrian story. “James Bond walked out to the front porch, brought in the paper, and sat down with some toast and marmalade to check the cricket scores. His bunion ached; perhaps he’d go into town later and have the doctor check it out. He decided against it, rubbed some salve on his foot, and went to bed. The End.” Yeah, that’ll sell a lot of books.

As I move Drew Nabholtz from the fanfiction world to his new universe, I realized that his new universe was a pretty empty place. I had come up with a new backstory for him, and a new origin for the “nanobot accident” that makes his life interesting. But a good story needs more than that. A lot more. He needs friends and supporting characters. He needs adversaries; some of whom are villains, some of whom are merely opponents and obstacles. He needs conflict and peril and motivation and an ultimate goal. And it all needs to happen in an interesting, exciting way. I’m sure that other aspiring authors do this in different ways, but I’m doing it by writing an outline. The outline does more than help me flesh out the plot; it helps me identify slow/weak spots in the story. For example, I’m reworking an earlier part of “Upgrade” because I decided that it depended a little too much on raw, stupid coincidence. I don’t want Drew to be a passive character, swept along by events like a piece of dead wood in a swift stream. That’s not a terribly interesting trait to have in a protagonist, anyway. And I’m reworking an “eccentric scientist” character, who doesn’t even have a name yet, but he’s going to become more important. Slowly and surely, the dreaded “blank page” is beginning to fill up. But right now, it feels like I’m painting a mural on the side of a Boeing 747 with a number two brush.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Avast, Ye Scurvy Dogs!

Trim the mainsails and hoist the Jolly Roger ...
It be Talk Like a Pirate Day!!!
So fetch a tankard of grog from the lusty wench behind the bar, ye filthy bilge rats, and leave a comment in yer most fancy Pirate-speak ... or I'll keel-haul the lot of ya!!!
Arrrrrr.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Thoughts on Jake Long, American Dragon

When Jake Long, American Dragon first came out, and I caught the first few episodes, I couldn’t stand it. And I’ll bet you can guess why – Jake’s non-stop stream of gangsta-wannabe urban slang was like fingernails on the chalkboard. A young Asian boy trying to sound like Fifty Cent – it reminded me of the punk on that T-Mobile “Poser Mobile” commercial. And that’s a real shame, because the show has some good things going for it.

The writers created a complex love interest for Jake (by Disney standards), and the first and second seasons have overall story arcs, which is unusual for American cartoons. I like story arcs – it means somebody’s going to the trouble of plotting and forethought. There’s character development, and the show isn’t static; initially Jake’s friends don’t realize he’s a dragon, then they find out, and this changes their relationship as they enter his world of magical adventures. And it’s a fun, rich magical world – with mermaids in the East River, gargoyles on the Empire State Building, ogre rugby in Madison Square Garden. A few of the characters, like Grandpa and (especially) Fu Dog, are loads of fun. A graphic overhaul gives the second season an edgier look and feel. Many fans hate the new look, but I actually prefer it. I thought the first season designs were as bland as tapioca pudding. If you want to check out the artist who did the redesign, you can look at Eric Wight’s blog (check his June 2006 postings). He’s also got some postings of his rejected designs for The Life and Times of Juniper Lee.

But there’s still the matter of Jake’s wickity-wickity-whack dialog. I think what happened was, Jake got gangsta-fied by the suits at Disney before the show ever went to pencil and paper. The Disney executives are very, VERY corporate creatures, and they treat every show as a marketable product, not a creative endeavor. If hip-hop and gangsta is “in”, then they want a character who’s “gangsta”. Story, schmory – does Jake appeal to the target demographic? Does his new hairstyle test well with the 8-12 tween girls’ focus group? I can only imagine the amount of micro-management and PC bull-crap that goes into something like that. It sends shivers down my spine.

You can get a candid look into the creation of the show on the Unofficial AmDrag Blog – maintained by the writers of American Dragon. The writers share some great stories about getting dreaded “notes” from the executives (“make Trixie less black!”, “Jake must wear a helmet when flying!”), and funny dialog that never made it past the censors. Don’t miss the story about Kim Possible saying “smoking looks cool!” They’re also very frank about how they got their ideas for the show. Many people assumed that American Dragon was a rip-off of Danny Phantom or Juniper Lee. It turns out, by the writers’ own admission, it’s more a rip-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer than anything else. Check it out, it’s a great look at what goes into the making of a television cartoon show.