The Cutting Room Floor

Ugh…streaming video can be a dangerous thing.

In general, since I killed off cable, I watch much less TV…and I (usually) waste less time watching random crap that is of no real interest to me. On the other hand, I also have this nasty tendency to head down rabbit trails of binge-watching…

33B58394-E08D-4DEB-A984-5CECAADC751AI watched Stripes last night. Well, let me amplify that — I watched Stripes for about the 10,000th time. I can — quite literally — quote that entire movie, line by line, from beginning to end. So imagine my surprise when the version I was watching last night started throwing scenes at me that I had never seen before.

Wait…what the fuck?

This is Stripes, for God’s sake…nothing should surprise me about that movie!

I had to back out of the movie at that point and check out just what the hell was happening. I know I should be surprised that someone decided to put out an “extended cut” of a 30-year-old lowbrow comedy, but I’m not. Sadly, nothing about Hollywood’s money-grubbing desperation surprise me anymore…

NO! I am not giving in to that particular squirrel-moment! I have a post I want to write, dammit! This is NOT a Hollywood post, it’s a writing post!

Now, I should probably point out that I am in fact a fan of watching extended cuts and deleted scenes and the like. But I’m a fan of those things for different reasons than the studios and directors actually intend; I watch them not for “more,” but rather to study and learn and understand just why those scenes were not included in the movie in the first place.

Few movies benefit from the re-introduction of deleted scenes. Most, in fact, are made worse. It is that “made worse” that offers valuable insight and instruction for writers: Not every scene works…not every scene should be included.

Look, when we conceive and plan and write a story,* we are usually too damned close to the material to evaluate dispassionately just what scenes — and portions of scenes — work, and which drag the story down.

*I’m talking long-form stories here…100,000+ word novels.

C9143392-2DB6-4518-B184-63924E93FDE4In spite of all the revision and editing passes we do with our stories, that closeness to the story is why we still need good beta-readers. We need outsiders to point out just when a scene belongs on the cutting room floor.

The Stripes Extended Cut reinforced that reality for me. Without exception, the extra scenes I watched added absolutely nothing to the movie. Worse, they took away from it. At the end of that now-two-hour movie, I was less than impressed.

Of course, being a writer, I also took the opportunity to reflect not on the one-and-only shitty experience I’ve had with Stripes, but to focus on trying to evaluate my current scene-list for The Silence That Never Comes.

Somewhere Peaceful to Die, for a separate example, was by no means “long”, but it still held half-a-dozen scene-fragments that were — as was pointed out to me — better removed. But it took someone else to really point out that to me…I was too close to the material to say that to myself.

You can imagine my reaction to that advice to cut them…probably better than I can illustrate it. “But…but…but, this scene is important! It reinforces X about Character Y!”

You know what? That beta-reader/editor was 100% right. After I made the changes, the story did flow better. The cut scenes did drag things down, they did take away from the story itself.

Just like most deleted scenes.

So, for you other writers out there, I’ll offer this homework assignment: pick a handful of your favorite movies, and watch a video (YouTube is your friend on this) showing a roll of scenes deleted from it. Then think about how those scenes would change things, think about why the writers & director originally wanted them, then then why they chose to cut them.

Was the scene with Bill Murray and Harold Ramis dropping acid with Colombian guerillas funny? Kinda. Did it belong in the final version of Stripes? Not a chance in hell.

Look at my “homework assignment” and remember my oft-expressed lesson: writers need to learn from everything.

Argh – I’m Not 12 Hours Late! Wait…Yes I Am… Crap.

I read a post the other day, from someone I like, and it got me to thinking. Now, this person is not a “full-throated” blogger, but rather is an astronomer who throws up a short post every week, on the side. He is also, I should say, a very good communicator of all things astrophysics and science. The guy’s names is Paul Sutter, and you can find his personal website (and blog) here. If you have any interest at all in space and astronomy, by the way, his Ask a Spaceman podcast is pretty much required listening…

57796AA2-AC3A-49F7-AF7B-28A7098A545DThe post that got me thinking was titled “Don’t Go Chasing Audiences.” Now, Sutter approaches his writing — like pretty much everything he does — from his perspective as a scientist and science-communicator, but that post (and especially that title) got my brain going on more than that. Sutter got me to thinking about writing itself…and about who we write for.

One of the things you’ll be asked — many times — as a writer is “who is your intended audience?” What gender? What age? What demographic? These are important questions, as important as questions about genre and message.  But they’re questions that can also lead you out into the weeds of trying to cater to your targets, rather than writing what you want and intend.

Now, look…I fully realize that there are writers out there — financially successful writers — who focus on specific audiences and create stories tightly targeted to them. Unfortunately, in my experience, the vast majority of those stories are formulaic and simplistic. Honestly…as a teenage boy, I read my share of those shallow, basic stories designed to specifically to cater to my then-demographic.

But, that was then…so what about now? Now, I’m not a teenage reader anymore. I’m a writer. When I look at the question of “who is your audience?” from my perspective today, things look a whole lot different. First off, I will admit to a certain arrogance. Maybe I should call it confidence instead, but it pretty much amounts to the same thing. I’m confident in what I write because I believe in it. I believe in the vision, and in the characters, and in the story itself. I wouldn’t bother to write the damned thing if I didn’t! Oh there are definitely problems with execution that still need work — they’ll always need work! — but those problems don’t extend to the actual stories that I want to tell.

No, the “confident” answer — *cough* arrogant *cough*cough* — is that I am NOT going to go chasing audiences. I’m going to write the best damned story I can — the story I want to write — then I’ll find the right audience for it. And, yes, before you say it — I know there are exceptions. A YA or MG book is very obviously more audience-specific than your basic sci-fi novel.

Then again, according to the current rules & interpretations of the YA sub-genres, the DockRat series could very well fit quite well in there. And yet, through the entire process of imagining and writing, I had absolutely zero thoughts or focus on the specific needs and wants of fifteen-year-olds…

The bottom line for me — and what Paul’s post got me to thinking about — is simple: if your focus is on pleasing your audience, if you think first and foremost about what they want, you will never do full justice to your characters or to your story. You will, in the end, simply be pandering to passing fads*…and that seldom ends well.

F7FC25AF-9F3F-42D8-9935-0C39F4994D96*And, yes, unfortunately…the publishing industry has a tendency to be fad-driven and reactionary. Editors and publishers have a nasty urge to pay more attention to clones of The Last Great Thing than such works truly deserve. Just like so many other areas of life, the publishing world is subject to a depressing amount of groupthink…

Characters With Something to Say

I have to admit, I didn’t pay much attention to the rescue of the Thai kids from that cave. Now, I may be the only person in the US to basically ignore that whole thing, but…well…hell, let’s be honest about this: The whole constant, 24-hour coverage was about nothing more than the same motivation that drives a lot of interest in auto-racing: the prospect of disaster. You know what I mean, the whole “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy.

“Impending Disaster!”

“Doom!”

“The End of the World/Civilization/Mankind!”

It’s all emotion-based coverage designed to elicit sympathy while simultaneously titillating that dark curiosity that makes folks slow down to stare at car accidents…all leavened by a frisson of fear. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my news to be intelligent, well-written/presented, and focused the basics of things likes facts and events. Emotions are for stories, not the news.

All that being said, I read a column today that used that whole cave-rescue drama to make a point that resonated with the needs and truth of storytelling (vice covering the news). That point, to put it succinctly, was a reminder that in order for something to have impact, it must be personalized.

I don’t mean that something must be customized in order to “work,” I mean rather that an issue or event must have a face and an identity in order to truly resonate. And, yes, that concept is, in fact, why reporters and politicians always resort to anecdotes and storytelling, rather than focusing on facts and policies. A bad law or policy doesn’t make much of an impression, but a child who is the victim of that bad law does.

So what the hell does any of that mean to writing and storytelling?

It’s all about characters.

Look, all writers — well, most of us, anyway — have something to say in our stories that goes beyond the story itself. As I’ve said in posts before, a story is not, and does not have to be, about what it is truly about. Does anyone really think Waiting for Godot is actually about waiting?!

But you, as the creator, have to put a face and an identity onto the issues and problems that you are putting into your story. If you want to encompass a message about homelessness, for instance, you have to have a meaningful character to whom homelessness is an impactful reality. Just think about a story that wanted to be about that particular problem, but was focused solely on the feelings and activities of someone who had only ever read about homelessness…

It just doesn’t work.

As the author of the piece I just read asked, why did the Thai boys resonate and become real to us, while the thousands of Rohingya kids suffering and dying are nothing more than numbers and barely-remembered words in a handful of articles? Because the Thai boys had names and faces, they became more real to us, and thus more meaningful and impactful.

Now, in all honesty, I don’t really like or encourage “message stories.” You know the ones I mean, those stories that are personal or political or social “crusades” first, and stories second. But I do like and encourage stories and writers to have something to say. And stories are a great way to do that…through the lens of your characters.

To put it another way — a lot of folks condemned the book and show 13 Reasons Why for “glorying” or “encouraging” teen suicide. I’m not even going to get into just how stupid and short-sighted and plain ignorant are those objections, but instead I will say this: there is absolutely no way to tell a story about the reality of suicide, and what leads up to it, without writing about a suicidal character. That’s it, that’s reality. That particular story works precisely because it is about Hannah, albeit through Clay’s eyes. It works because we care for her, and we understand her…and we feel the pain and devastation of her death.

That, in the end, is what storytelling is all about: emotionally connecting your reader (or listener or watcher) to your characters. That is how you say what it is you want to say. That is how make a story about more than it is about.

We Learn By…Teaching?

One of the weird parts of writing is…well…when people seek you out for advice on writing. I mean, c’mon, I’m a sci-fi (and fantasy) writer — by definition, that means I‘m more than a little nuts. I did, after all, choose to to go into what is, in all honesty, the least lucrative writing field out there.

A key bit of advice came to mind even before I heard my friend’s question…which was not a particularly good idea, all things considered. The advice to skip the sci-fi and fantasy genres, and go instead for soft-core porn and romance, was funny as hell to me but…well…not so much to the other half of the conversation. The sad lesson that poor guy has yet to learn, unfortunately, is that porn and romance pay much better than sci-fi.

Okay, so to the question I actually was asked:

“I have this manuscript I want to submit,” my friend said.

“Tell me about it,” I answered.

“Well, it’s a fantasy story. I have about 300,000 words so far…”

“Stop telling me about it. No, really…just stop now.”

And then an hour long conversation ensued about expected manuscript wordcounts, and the evils of trying to jump outside of those. Honestly, unless your name is Robert Jordan or George R.R. Martin, 300,000 words isn’t going to get your query rejected. Oh no, it won’t get anything so nice and friendly as a form rejection. Nope, that query is going to be stabbed, drowned, hung, burned and shot into the sun by the poor intern or office assistant who is sifting through that morning’s slush pile.

Look…I’m a wordy bastard. Anyone who has read more than a half-dozen or so of my posts knows that particular vice of mine. I like to write…and I like words. I could write 300,000 words about freaking breakfast, for the love of God. I dream of being able to submit a manuscript that large, and of having a chance in hell of not being laughed out of the profession entirely. Until that day comes, however, I will continue to fit within my genre’s accepted wordcount range of 105,000 – 125,000 words.

Honestly…every manuscript I’ve ever written has initially come in “heavy” by roughly 15-20% in terms of expected wordcount. The hard-learned editing process, however, generally sees that manuscript slim down into a more common sense range. For a bit of background with two most recent stories: Somewhere Peaceful to Die is “final” at just over 112,000 words, while the half-finished first draft of The Silence That Never Comes is is already “fat” at roughly 70,000 words…

Okay, so…real world concerns aside, I did explain to my friend the whole agent-querying process, and the frustrating & humbling (humiliating?) nature baked into that whole hideous game. But he was still eager, and still enthusiastic,* so we got into the realities of storytelling…

*Did I forget to mention that he was young? He is. I have socks older than him…

That second half of the conversation was honestly fun. To stand there and talk about how to craft and tweak scenes to make them stronger…about how to make the whole process of characterization and development more natural and more readable…about how to play games with the reader’s expectations and use their emotional investment…

That is what writing is about. That is getting past the bullshit, and into the craft itself.

Honestly, one of the things I firmly believe is that the best way to master something is to teach someone else. Let me put it like this: I’m a hockey player. I’m…well…I’m good. Actually, I’m very good. But it wasn’t until I taught a shooting-clinic for highschool players that I actually broke down exactly how I shoot the puck as hard and accurately as I do. Honestly, I learned as much from doing that as did the kids.

Writing isn’t any different.

Teaching someone about the things to look for the in the revision and editing process makes me better at that process. Teaching/helping someone with the dynamics of plotting…or of characterization…or of working/playing with POV…help me as much, if not more, than those I am I am trying to “teach.”

Shit…two Bachelor’s degrees, at different universities, and now I start to think grad school might not have been a bad idea?

Yep, I’m definitely a writer…