Monday, October 27, 2014

On Music

A little while ago I did a blog on what can be learned from studying various kinds of storytelling. It occurs to me, however, that I missed an important medium.

Music and Poetry.

I group these together because one can argue that poetry is musical lyrics without the music. They both employ very similar means for conveying ideas. From here on out I'm going to use the term 'poetry' but I want you to keep in mind that all of it applies to music, too. If you struggle to find poetry that you like, try reading the lyrics to some of your favourite songs. Read them without the music, though. You might even discover something new about your favourite music.

So what makes poetry different from prose - and this is the reason I left it out orginally - is that storytelling in poetry is very different. While there are obvious exceptions (A Visit from Saint Nick, The Owl and The Pussycat, The Illiad,) poetry is generally quite light on narrative. There is a narrative, but poetry tends to focus on very concise, very short narratives and explore them in great depth. You don't go into poetry expecting the same beginning, middle and end of a story that you expect from, say, a novel.

Ode to a Grecian Urn, for example, does not make a big deal of narrative. It's a description of an urn and that is all it wants to be. The Raven, on the other hand, has a far more obvious narrative, but for how long The Raven is, not much happens. The narrator sits and reads, hears a knock, opens a door, talks to a bird and then he dies (spoiler alert.) The sequence of events in poetry tends to be less important than the expression of ideas within that narrative.

Then if that's the case, what does poetry offer us prose writing storytellers?

That's easy. Good prose is often poetic. It's not purple, but it is still poetic. Specifically, when your story slows down, when you want to have those intimate moments with your characters and their environment, when the plot takes a coffee break and you want to dwell on the fine details of the moment, this is when you can best apply the lessons of poetry.

In all of literature, the best use of symbolism, the best metaphors and similes are all found in poetry. The most evocative and emotional writing is found in poetry. That's what poets do. That's their schtick. Poetry is there to be quickly eaten and digested over a long time. Poetry has staying power. It gets in your head and is sticks. You want your story to do the same. A good plot will do that, but so will good prose.

Poetry works because it plays with the odd, abstract ways that people naturally think. We unconciously compare new things to other things and strange things to common things all the time. We think in vague images and metaphors naturally. Poetry expresses thoughts in the weird and natural way that people think. The well trained poet is a master of a variety of literary techniques from the obvious to the subtle.

Prose isn't poetry, of course. If all you want to do is be poetic, go write some poetry. That's cool. But in the world of prose fiction, in short stories and novels, poetry is like spice. What kind of spice? Cinnamon. It is awesome, but it is also potent and a lot is actually dangerous if you try and shove it in your mouth at once. Seriously, don't do that. What you want from poetry is that little bit of flavour that stands out. Not every sentence has to have a metaphor or a carefully constructed rhythm, but when your reader bites down on your prose and finds that little bit of spice, then they will thank you for it. Good prose needs a little bit of poetry from time to time.

So go read some poetry. I suggest The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe. That shit is the bomb.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Where do I begin?

Self-promotion and marketing makes me feel dirty. It's basically been my life this past week and I feel like I need a chemical shower. But hey, such is life. The problem is I don't like giving a pitch, I'd rather have a conversation. I'm not a salesman, I'm a writer.

And I much prefer talking about writing. Which is what I'm going to do to today. Earlier today, somebody asked me where I begin writing. This was a two part question, the first part of which was that dreaded "where do your ideas come from?" question that I hate and am not going to talk about right now.

But the second part of that question - the more practical part of that question - is where do you begin telling your story? The smart arse here says "At the beginning" but that's not at all helpful.

So, instead, consider these five tips on how to begin your story.

1. Begin as late in the story as you can. Let everything unfold off the page as long as you can and still have the story make sense. All the important stuff that comes before chapter 1, the history, the lives your characters led, the way the world fell into darkness, tell that later on in the story. Begin as late in the tale as you possibly can.

2. Begin somewhere interesting. Protip: "interesting" in terms of a narrative is often synonymous with "conflict." Begin with a conflict.

3. The first conflict should swiftly lead to more conflicts the audience should know (or think they know) where the story is going, who the protagonist is, what the central conflict is that drives the book and what the protagonist hopes to accomplish at the end of the story.

4. Those first words matter. If you can make it memorable, make it memorable. If you can make it powerful, make it powerful. If you can make that first sentence grab the reader, make it so.

5. Those first words actually don't matter a whole lot. This is especially true in your first draft. Remember, you have unlimited retried and opportunities to fix them. But ultimately, good first words are a bonus but they alone won't win your reader's long term affection.

That's all for today class. Remember, Pilgrimage releases in all major ebook stores, on all platforms and in all formats in less than a week. Pre-order it now and you not only get a damned fine book, but you win my eternal gratitude. How's that for a guarantee?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Pilgrimage, Updates, and What I'm Doing Next

Hey! Hey! Hey! Guess what!

Oh snap! Look at that bad boy! And you know what? It's coming out soon! We're just above one week until Pilgrimage is unleashed on the world. My latest book (and it's a good one!) will be coming out on November 1st. That's a global release across all major ebook retailers, so put that in your calendar. Or, if you're like me and you like to do your book reading on the Kindle, then check this out


That, my friends, is a link to Pilgrimage's Amazon store page where you can pre-order the book RIGHT NOW.

And fear not, ye ownders of other ebook readers. You can also preorder for the Kobo, for Barnes & Noble Nook and on iTunes.

And trust me when I say this is a book you'll want to read. What's it about you ask? Here's a blurb.

Roland, an alcoholic living in a hotel, has just drunk the last of his money. He's jobless, friendless, hopeless and about to become homeless. Then he meets Griffith, a young sorcerer on a pilgrimage across northern New South Wales. Griffith's journey might be Roland's only chance at escaping the ghosts of his past. But a cruel and sadistic murderer is hunting Griffith, wielding a magic neither of them can fight. Their only chance for survival, and Roland's only chance for redemption, lies at the end of the pilgrimage, in the little town of Salem - if they can get there before the ghosts of their past don't destroy them.

Pilgrimage is a contemporary fantasy and adventure novel for a general adult audience. An exciting and action packed story, it explores themes of redemption and healing, and the strength we gain from friendships - even unexpected ones.

Not enough for you? Well look, don't take my word for it. The first five chapters are free to read over on my Figment page. <---- Click that bad boy for free samples!

This leads me into my next update which is, as you may have noticed, the blog! I've made a few spiffy changes around here. Most notably is the addition of a subscription feature, found over on the right, under "About The Author." Just plug your e-mail into that and you'll be alerted to when I update.

The other update is some fancy new links up the top of the page, just below the title. Each of those links will take you somewhere cool, like my GoodReads profile, my Figment profile (with free fiction!) and a list of books I have available for purchase. They are all good things and I encourage you to click upon them as often as you like. Go and see the world wide web, my friends!

Wait! Don't do it yet!

I've got one more thing to say. With the release of Pilgrimage - a novel roughly three years in the making - there remains the obvious question of what next? Well, I've always been pretty tight lipped about my projects in the past but today I'm feeling generous. So, I'm going to give you a hint at what is coming.

First of all, Winter City. Have you read it yet? You should! It's awesome and it is still going. We're eight issues into a twelve issue series and I'll be continuing to work on that through to the end. Keep an eye on that, because as we approach the finale, it just gets better and better. Also...

I am writing a sequel to Sorceress' Blood. A lot of people, when reading Sorceress' Blood, speculated that it had been left open for a sequel. Well it's true. A sequel is in the works. It's going to kick all kinds of arse. Without giving too much away, the new protagonist introduced in the sequel is a hell of a lot of fun to write and I am sure she'll be as much fun to read about. But a new protagonist doesn't mean out with the old and both Ashley and Rebecca will be returning as important, lead characters in Sorceress' Blood 2.

After that, I've been kicking around a couple of other ideas for novels. One idea in particular has been occupying my mind space and I'll tell you this much - it's still a modern fantasy adventure, but it's got dragons. Dragons! Everybody loves dragons. But never one to be satisfied with the old tropes of fantasy, the dragons seen in this project will be a little different from what you might expect when you hear somebody talk about dragons.

But before all that, I'm going to take a hiatus from fantasy. You may have seen that earlier this year I wrote a hard boiled detective story... With My Little Pony characters. The hard boiled detective/noir genre is one I've been in love with for a long time. I've tried writing neo-noir and mystery a bunch of times in the past, but it never quite clicked until recently. So I'm going to be writing a couple of short detective novels - novellas, if you want to be technical. I've got two I want to write and I've already begun work on them. It's a real thrill to throw myself into a genre I've both loved and struggled with for a long time.

No release dates or anything like that yet. When they're closer to finished, I'll let you know, but for now, I want to focus on making them the best damned detective novels they can be.

But hey, why are we talking about future books? There's a new book right now!

Monday, October 20, 2014

5 Perfect Moments in Modern Cinema

I like movies. I love movies. Movies are my default activity. If I'm doing nothing else (which is rarely the case) then I'm watching movies.

I watch a lot of bad movies. It's easy to do because most movies are pretty bad. A lot of the films that are not bad are merely average. They're mediocre and safe and bland and that could be argued to be a crime in itself. But I still enjoy watching most bad movies. You know those terrible films they make fun of on Mystery Science Theatre 3000? I watch those sorts of films for fun, without the extra commentary (and sometimes with...) I just love to watch movies and I can enjoy a bad film despite its flaws.

Part of it is that I'm a hopeful movie goer. I am willing to sit through dozens of bad and average and forgetable films because I know that, eventually, I will see something great. Sometimes it will be a whole movie, but sometimes it will just be one moment. That's what this blog is about. I want to share with you five moments in modern cinema that I think are truly perfect. That isn't to say the whole film is great, but in these scenes, absolutely everything went right and they could not be improved.

So I present to you, in no particular order, five perfect moments in modern cinema.

1. You Shall Not Pass

The Lord of the Rings is a series that has helped define all aspects of cinema in the 21st century. My personal favourite is the first installment, The Fellowship of The Ring, but they're all good. Watching this scene, I feel like I'm being kicked in the arse with its epic scope every time. It's just one old man and some CGI but it is nothing less than perfect.

2. The Blue Fight

I had originally intended to put in the fight in the bamboo forest from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, but when I rewatched that scene, I couldn't call it perfect. It's good and I love the whole movie but it wasn't a perfect scene. But then when I thought about comparable fight scenes, my mind went straight to this moment in Hero. The whole film is a great example of how cinema can be just as expressive and powerful as any other art form. The precision that went into creating this fight astounds me and it is so much more than just a fight scene. And some people call martial arts "dancing" as if that's a bad thing...

3. Chew bubblegum and kick ass

The Live is an entertaining movie but it is not great. Your first instinct is probably to write this scene off as silly 80s cheese and I wouldn't tell you you're wrong. But it's silly 80 cheese with a little bit more. Tell me this: How could you improve this scene? Sure, it's not the most artistic or profound, but how would you improve it? Could you make the dialogue any more memorable or any more efficient? Could Roddy Piper's expression be any more on the mark? Could you frame the shots any better, getting in the action and those ever present commands of obedience? Deep down, They Live is an intelligently dark and comic film and all of that shines in this one moment, even if not in the rest of the film.

4. Huey Lewis and The News

Speaking of dark and comic. American Psycho. Wow. This film, much like the book, is a punch in the gut. You can't tear yourself away from it, though you want to, and you feel bad every time it makes you laugh - and it will make you laugh. Like the scene in They Live, this one moment embodies everything the film is trying to do and trying to say and it does it with the kind of subtlety and grace that you rarely see displayed in any medium. Everything from the comment about the newspapers to the selection of music to the way the blood splatters Christian Bale's face is perfect. This is how you use the nature of film to show your audience more than you could ever say with words. Respect.

5. Tears In The Rain

Then again, there's a lot to be said for words, too. There's also perfection to be found in simplicity. Not a lot happens in this moment. It's a just a small monologue but Rutger Hauer proves he is a man with some powerful acting talent in how he delivers it. Even those few glimpses at Harrison Ford reacting, confused and afraid are perfect. This is what can happen with as little as two great actors on set and a camera rolling.

There you have it. By no means an exhausting list and, obviously, not one that goes too far back in time. But I tried to take a few from films you might not immediately think of as "great films" or classics. Of course most of them are great films or at least damn good, but that's not the point. This isn't a list of five "MOST AMAZING FILMS EVER IN THE LAST THIRTY YEARS." This is only to speak to those moments that stand alone, regardless of how the rest of the film is made. These are the times when everything went as right as they could for as little as 66 seconds of film.

Let me know your thoughts and what moments in film you think are perfect.

Learning To Write With Clint Eastwood

Wouldn't that be an awesome book? "Learning to Write With Clint Eastwood" is the kind of book I would buy, and then I would buy a second version just to make out with. I don't know how much writing Clint Eastwood actually does (Hollywood screenwriting is, as I understand it, a weird process) but he kicks so much ass just by getting out of bed in the morning that I'm sure a book by him titled "Learning to Write With Clint Eastwood" would be totally worthy of my sloppy, waggly tongue love.

Let's not dwell on that sentence too long.

Sadly, this isn't about a book by Clint Eastwood, this is about Clint Eastwood's direction. Some time ago I watched an interview in which Mr Eastwood described his method for directing. What he does is he has the actors perform a scene, and he makes a list, in his mind, of what (if anything) he needs to change in the scene with his magical director voodoo. Then he instructs the actors to change just one of the things they were doing and has them perform again. Afterwards, he corrects another different thing from his list and has the actors perform again.

He does this until he gets to the end of the list and then, then, he does something you might not expect. He tells the actors to just forget everything he's said and perform the scene without thinking about it.

And that final take is the performance he uses. That last performance, when he's told them to forget everything he's told them, is always the best one.

Now I don't know how you feel about Clint Eastwood's directorial career, but I certainly think his methods are working for him. Clint Eastwood films have this tendency to lean towards what the critics call "Pretty fucking good, actually."

All right, now let's stop talking about movies. Let's talk about writing. Today is a special blog because we're covering two of the things I love the most - movies and writing (but not writing movies.)

Wow is there a lot to remember about writing. Have you seen the list of rules? There are blogs and books and university degrees and weekend classes all dedicated to teaching you how to write and there is a lot to remember. Damn.

Well, I think it's time we started teaching ourselves the way Clint Eastwood directs.

Let's begin at the top. What's the number one rule in writing? Don't be boring. The worst sin your book can commit is being dull. Don't do it.

Now let's write a story. Let's write two. Let's write a short story and a couple of flash fictions. When we write it, we're going to focus on achieving one single goal. The story cannot be boring. Not one single dull moment. That's the only goal. I don't care how messy and screwed up your POV is or if you tell more than you show or if every single character is a ass-kicking, vampire hugging, marathon running, cancer curing mary-sue. It doesn't matter. Just do not be boring.

Got it? Okay. Now let's write some more.

Next up is to kill your passive writing. You have one job with your next story. There will not be a single passive sentence in the whole piece. Not one. Even if the story is boring, even if you use the words "baby blue" to describe every dog, tree and chicken kiev in the whole story. Whatever you write, keep that shit active. Do it a couple more times. You have one task.

Okay, I think by now you have the idea. What we're doing here is focusing on improving the writing one element at a time. Learn what works and why it works. Rehearse the bits you suck at. Don't even think about the rest of it. Just go one thing at a time.

And then forget about it. Don't think about all these little bits you've been practicing and just write. Write. Write. Write.

The idea here is that you do one thing with enough thought and focus and practice that you make it natural. This isn't going to make your first drafts perfect, but it might save you time in editing later.

When I first started writing, I wrote enough passive sentences to build a house. It's taken me a long damn time and a lot of effort to unlearn that habit. That habit died hard. But it did die. Passive voice is no longer my default. When I do write something passive, I catch myself doing it halfway through the sentence. It feels weird to write passive. Through dedicating my practice to one thing, I've corrected a lot of future mistakes before I could make them.

Now we're moving on. Now I've got new deficiencies to work on. And I'm sure you do. And this is a way you can train yourself to stop. Then, when the rehearsal is done and you go on to your magnum opus, you're ready to focus on the big picture. That's what we want. All those little details, all those basics about style and language should be natural for you.

So get to it, friend.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Lee Child and Joe Konrath discussing Amazon and Hatchette

If, unlike me, you're not a little tired of the Amazon v Hachette debate and still want to know which enormous corporation is the evilest, there's a fascinating conversation going on over at Joe Konrath's blog.

Read the exchanges here first and then the next round here.

I've said all I'm going to say on the issue, personally. I think Tree Beard still has it right, from where I'm standing.

But Konrath and Child are writing from two very different places on opposite ends of the spectrum. I won't spoil the details, but it's some of the most intelligent and original discussion going on at the moment. If you're interested in the debate or in the changing world of publishing in general, I recommend you go and read.

Then I recommend you go and do something like write because no matter how the publishing game changes, that's still the first thing you need to do and you have to do it well.