Monday, February 25, 2013

Story Satire #3: Action/Thriller

I'm currently staring down the barrel of yet another conference. Yep, just finished at LTUE and I've got another on the agenda. Good thing I'm not presenting! Next week I am going to the big, bad AWP conference in Boston with the intention of becoming a better writer. There's a possibility I may not post next week at this time, as I will be in the throes of packing and traveling, so here's another Story Satire to keep you happy until I can report on Boston.

There is a good market for action and thrillers right now, courtesy of writers like Dan Brown. Here is how to capitalize on the trend without wasting too much energy.

1. Start with a good conspiracy. I don't mean aliens or the John F. Kennedy shooting; pick something less known and less showy. The less people know about your conspiracy, the more you can make up. The best conspiracies are also meaningful to many, many people. If you can make it about history or, better yet, religion, you're doing well. If you can add spies, that will be even better.

2. Create a jaded professional as your main character. Male, female, doesn't matter. This person must be the top of their field, preferably a field that is little-known or doesn't exist, as that will allow you to make up as much as you can and avoid having to research. However, a category that no one completely understands like "black ops agent" or "experimental geneticist" would work as well. This person has lost faith in some way: in God, his/her family, his/her job, etc. He or she has become a cynic. Perhaps the job is all this person has left.

3. Introduce an impossible event. Scientists have discovered/done something that changes life as humanity knows it, historians have uncovered some fact that changes the way America sees itself (Lincoln was a serial killer, for one example). Or, have a figure of importance murdered or kidnapped in a way that is either physically impossible or highly symbolic and thus a way that no one would ever be murdered in real life. Your jaded professional is then summoned to investigate and/or fix the problem.

4. End each chapter with a suspenseful cliff hanger, even if nothing comes of it. Example: "Her heart stopped when she heard the voice on the phone. [CHAPTER BREAK] "Hi, honey," her father said. "Just landed at the airport. We got in early."

5. Introduce the sidekick/love interest. The sidekick/love interest is not to be confused with the sidekick/informant, who will end up dead before the book is two-thirds through. The love interest joins the jaded professional out of obligation, never choice. He or she is sassy and/or irritating at first, but comes to represent everything the JP wishes the world was like. The love interest will need rescuing from a gruesome death by the JP.

6. Here you have two options: shoot-'em-up or intellectual. The shoot-'em-up stars a hit man, spy, assassin, soldier as its hero and is concerned with eliminating all the obstacles between him/her and the target. Prepare to write a lot of action scenes and stock dialogue as the hero shoots a lot of people in the back. ("I always knew I'd get you in the end.")

The intellectual stars a scientist, historian, professor, or academic of some other kind. The goal is figuring out the truth of something. Prepare to write a lot of passages explaining hidden clues or knowledge your readers might not know already. A good way to do this is to have dialogue between 2 experts, saying things like, "As you know..." and "Remember when they told us...".

7. Introduce a creepy antagonist who, at first, we are introduced to as a friend/mentor/colleague of your hero. This person is brilliant but has one quirk, one weakness, that the hero exploits at some point. Your antagonist may also let the hero win, if said antagonist is insane. Insane villains take less development and are easy to manipulate. The villain must also have a minion that we see as the bad guy from the beginning.

8. Leave a trail of bodies. The reader won't understand how serious the matter is unless you show them how many people get killed for knowing too much, whether by your hero's hand or the hand of the antagonist. Never mind how the police would respond to so many deaths or that the bad guy is tipping his hand by killing everyone associated. This is a thriller, and we need a body count. Besides, your bad guy's insane, right? Note: try not to kill random, unnamed characters. The more your readers know about your minor characters, the more they're hearts will break when those characters die. Increase this effect by having the slated-for-death characters mention newborn babies, family members in need, the proximity of retirement or that dream job, or the imminent proposal/marriage to the spouse of their dreams.

9. Have a big reveal at the end. Your hero has killed his or her way to the end, or unraveled the clues. Here we find out who the bad guy is, what the REAL truth is (because the one the hero has been chasing isn't real). Now, the hero and villain must fight. It will be a matched battle, and if your hero and villain are intellectuals, you may have them fight like kung-fu experts and never explain how they came by those skills. The hero will lose, and as the villain is gloating and reveling, the sidekick/love interest (who has not been present) will deliver a final, deciding blow to the bad guy. They will do nothing of note with what has happened, and go recover on vacation together.

10. Writers who try too hard will say that this formula could be saved by varying the characters, the plot lines, and mostly by creating 3-D characters that react like real people and not like stock characters, but that is no concern of yours. It takes too long to create a 3-D hero and anyway, stock characters work just fine. You just need to make sure you choose a conspiracy or issue that is a hot topic right now, so as to sell the most books you can.

That's all this week. Remember, this is a satire. Please don't go and write this book; it has already been done a million times. But if you have a good idea for a action/thriller with some real, unique characters, then go for it. Bring something new. Stand out.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Life, the Universe, and Everything 2013

Apologies for the late post. The holiday threw me off. But I have been excited to post this week, because, as I've been very vocal about, this past weekend was Life, the Universe, and Everything science fiction and fantasy symposium. And I was on a panel AND, as it turns out, I had a reading! And here is my report on the weekend.

Thurs., Feb. 14:

Day 1 of LTUE. I woke up early and drove down to the hotel where the symposium was being hosted. The registration line was not so bad, and I was lucky because I got to stand in the fast-moving participant line and get an orange name badge. I have to admit, I felt pretty special, even though it wasn't all that merited. I ran into Daniel, my editor, who told me that they're not going to be able to release my novel as soon as I'd hoped (SIGH), and that they're taking time to get some really great cover art. All I can say is this: I'm way excited to see the cover art when it arrives.

I went to as many classes as I could before I had to leave to go to my own class at BYU, so I didn't take time to eat lunch. I brought snacks (apples, fruit cups, granola bars, Pop-Tarts, etc.) and ate them during the 10 minute turnover between panels. I didn't eat my whole stash before going back to school, so I finished there. I have never been so hungry without realizing I was hungry. The best panel of the day, for me, was one on creating a villain's backstory. The takeaway message: every villain thinks he or she is the hero. I got thinking about my own villains and how they see themselves, and how they got that way. I also enjoyed seeing the costumes people came in, and the T-shirts that said things like, "That's what I'm Tolkien about."

Fri., Feb. 15:

Day 2. As soon as I arrived I ran into Brett, my publisher (not to be confused with my editor) and he discussed my novel with me. It sounds like it's progressing well enough, though he confirmed the later release date. My panel was first thing in the morning at 9 am. I would be discussing The Hunger Games and why it is so popular. So, I thought, since it's the second day of LTUE and so early and not a craft class, no one would come. Not so. The room filled up. I also comforted myself thinking that because I was on the panel, the other panelists would be inexperienced like me. I was joined by a librarian, a military expert, a writer who has written an essay on The Hunger Games and a prolific writer. But, I am glad to say, I didn't embarrass myself, and fit well enough in with the group. Though I felt like quite the underachiever when everyone was introducing themselves.

After my panel I hurried off to class at BYU, and then returned in time to scour the area for parking, park, go inside, decide I didn't trust that spot, and rush back to repark the car somewhere I knew would be safe. And then I got to do my reading. Fortunately, I had told some friends that I had a reading, or there would have been only 2 people in the room. As it was, I had a small group. Want to know what I read? Read it here.

I spent the rest of the day watching panels. Not many, because the day was winding down, but I will say that the Tracy Hickman Pick-A-Path musical about gamers at LTUE was kind of wonderful. A great way to end the day.

Sat., Feb. 16:

Day 3. I got to the hotel early with my bag full of food. Just enough to tide me over, but it would be okay, because that morning I picked up my ticket to the gala banquet that night! I would be able to fill myself there. I spent the whole day going from panel to panel, and while there's not much interesting to report, I learned a lot. I went to panels about writing from the perspective of the opposite gender, panels on worldbuilding, a panel on antiheroes, and panels on the small details you need to know if you're going to create a believable story.

And then I went to the gala. I brought a dress and flats, but it was casual dress, so I was good in my regular clothes. The food was great (especially the chocolate mousse cake), and I got the prime seat, or so I thought. To my right was Cheree Alsop, the winner of the LTUE poetry contest, and to my right was Tracy Hickman himself, the toastmaster of the banquet. He told us how he began writing, and it was great to listen to. And then he gave a speech after the meal on science fiction, fantasy, and the changing world. That speech was the highlight of the evening for me, because in my MFA program I feel like I have to constantly defend writing fantasy and science, the snubbed genre fiction. But after hearing how science fiction inspires tomorrow's technological advances and how fantasy inspires people to be greater, more heroic people, I understand what to say when people talk my genre down. I have always wanted to leave the world changed, and fantasy can do that. I have no shame. And I will write excellent fantasy and science fiction, beautiful stuff that speaks to people. I can combine my passion and my education, and I will.

Anyway, that's my LTUE experience. I had a great time, even if I didn't get too much sleep or food during it. I got a lot of inspiration, however, for my work-in-progress novel. Now I have no excuse not to revise, so I did. A lot. Yesterday. I still have more to do, but now that I really understand my characters and the cultures they come from, it will go smoother.

Monday, February 11, 2013

How to Speak Geek

This week I'm going to Life, the Universe and Everything, not only as an interested guest but as a PANELIST! So happy! I feel accomplished as a writer of YA fantasy, which is great because I feel like nowadays I can use all the validation I can get. Though, I will say, my nonfiction workshop today was very positive and I came out feeling eager to revise. Next week I'll post on my experience at LTUE. I hope I'll have something interesting to say.

As for this week, I've been thinking about geek culture. It's like pop culture, but the emotions run higher. I'm a geek, so I can speak as a native on the subject. Don't know what that subject is yet, but we can explore that together. However, I wouldn't say I'm a big geek. I don't dress up and go to conventions (well, it's not like I'm going to be in costume at LTUE. That's a tasteful writer's conference), I don't spend hours of my day playing video games or D&D, though I don't disrespect those that do, and I can drop a subject when it gets too heated. Yet I do watch the geeky TV shows, read the geeky books, and speak the geeky language.

I am fluent in geek, even if I may keep one foot firmly rooted in reality. I have to; if I lose that grounding, I may fly off into my own fictional world and never come back. But now, you too can learn the language of geekdom! I'm sure you will find this post amusing. If you are not a geek, now you will know how to join those conversations (or end them, as the case may be). If you are, enjoy understanding the references.

So, here's what you should know about different geek fandoms. In consideration of time and space, I'm going to talk about TV shows today. If this turns out to be a popular post, I'll talk about books next time:

Doctor Who (starting with the most complex)
  • The show is about a time-traveling alien called the Doctor, not Doctor Who, who travels through time and space in a blue Police box called the TARDIS. He is the last of his kind, the Time Lords. He travels with a human companion, often a young woman, and gets into lots of alien-related, possibly fatal trouble. When the Doctor is dying, he regenerates, meaning every cell in his body gets replaced. This is when the writers replace the actor and fans have to get used to a new Doctor.
  • Nine, Ten, and Eleven are not just numbers; they are incarnations of the Doctor after his regenerations. Wars are fought online over which is the best (Ten).
  • Captain Jack Harkness flirts with everything. Yes, everything. Animal, plant, mineral.
  •  Rory Williams dies a lot, and is a freaking boss.
  • Donna Noble doesn't remember.
  • Good luck understanding River Song. She understands everything, though. And it's frustrating.
  • "It's bigger on the inside."
  • The DW fandom has developed a lot of phobias. Here's a list of things you can do to your geeky friends to scare the daylights out of them:
    • Knock 4 times on their doors.
    • Tap a pattern of one-two-three-four-pause, one-two-three-four-pause rapidly on any surface.
    • While they're sleeping, draw tally marks on their arms and faces with a black marker.
    • Leave them alone next to a statue of a weeping angel. Especially if the lights are flickering.
  • Steven Moffat is the devil. (also works for fans of BBC's Sherlock . Actually, works better for fans of BBC's Sherlock.
  • Words to know: timey-wimey, TARDIS, Bad Wolf, sonic screwdriver, Shadow Proclamation,  raggedy man, "hello, sweetie".
  • A space western written by Joss Whedon (of The Avengers). In the future, there's a civil war among planets in a galaxy and the Browncoats lose. After the war, Malcolm Reynolds, a Browncoat, takes to robbing and smuggling as a way to live free. He has a crew of awesome people, as well as a couple of fugitives who are running from the Alliance.
  • This show ran for only one season, capped with the movie Serenity. Fans have not, nor will ever, forgive FOX for this.
  • The characters curse in Mandarin.
  • Jayne is a MAN, and a psychotic gun-toting man at that. He has a town that loves him and a stupid-looking (yet awesome) yellow and orange knit hat.
  • River Tam (not to be confused with DW's River Song) is crazy. Literally crazy. But psychic, and very skilled at fighting. She can kill you, with her brain or anything else that happens to be around. She's a teenager.
  • Her brother, Simon, is a doctor and very proper.
  • Lots of good lines in this show. Just look them up. I don't have enough time to write them all.
  • "I am a leaf on the wind. Watch how I soar."
  • "I am a leaf on the wind. Watch how I - "
  • Nothing goes according to plan.
  • Words to know: shiny, gorram, Browncoat, Serenity, Firefly, registered companion, Reaver
 Avatar: The Last Airbender
  • Japanese animation. Takes place in a world with four peoples: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Some people can control, or bend, these elements. The Avatar can bend them all, and has a connection with the spirit world. The Avatar also reincarnates. The Fire Nation attacked the other peoples, and the Avatar disappeared. 100 years later, a brother and sister find the new Avatar, a 12-year-old boy. To save the world, the Avatar, Aang, must master all 4 elements and defeat the Fire Lord. (watch the show's intro)
  • Not a kid's show. Well, it is, but it isn't. Fans find a lot of depth in this show.
  • The movie was a train wreck. Never disagree with this.
  • Katara gets with Aang. Not Zuko, though some people may think the story would have been better if Zutara had happened.
  • Sokka is not a bender. Sokka has a boomerang. He is the comic relief, but also an important character.
  • Uncle Iroh. There are no words to describe the awesome of this character.
  • Bumi is nuts, and a genuis, and nuts. Go with it.
  • "...And DIE!"
  •  A platypus bear is completely normal. A regular bear is not.
  • Azula is crazy and needs to go down.
  • Words to know: Avatar, Appa, Momo, Kiyoshi warriors, Avatar state, White Lotus, badger mole
Sorry for the long post. But now, you are well on your way to understanding the culture and language of TV show geeks. Geek readers, I know these lists don't do the shows justice. If you feel I've missed something vital, please list it in the comments. That way we can be sure to be thorough.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Life's Not Fair and Then You Die

It has been an interesting week. First off, I'm going to be a panelist for "Life, the Universe, and Everything", a science fiction/fantasy writing convention in Utah. It's kind of a big deal, and I'm thrilled. I'm on a panel about why The Hunger Games is so popular. You might see a posting on this subject, after the convention. I'm hoping people come to the panel.

The sneak peek of my novel is still up at TM Publishing's website, though under Past Issues now. Here's a quick link to it, because I like you and because I want people to read my story. In the foreword of the magazine, my editor described my novel as displaying "a stunning, magical America you might wish you could live in." That makes me feel really good. More, perhaps, than I should.

But I might need all the good feelings I can get in the next few days. I'm coming up on some workshops in my poetry and creative nonfiction classes, and am getting frustrated that neither has the same rigidity of fiction. I miss the simplicity of plot lines, character development, and clear prose. Never thought you'd hear that said, huh? If you think analyzing poetry can be tricky, try critiquing it. If you think it's hard to critique it, try writing it, anticipating the critiques of people who know how to write poetry. Nonfiction is easier for me, since it's a work of prose and not poetry, but since one essay is perfectly structured and another is a perfect mess, organizationally, and both are genius works I have no idea what I'm doing.

That's the motto of this semester: I have no idea what I'm doing.

But I don't think it's entirely my fault. I had a class where we talked about avant-garde and postmodern poetry. Basically, if it looks nothing like poetry and makes you sweat to read it, it's considered "inspired" and "brilliant." If it's accessible and pleasing, it's mediocre and outdated. Granted, this is a caricature of current ideas, but I couldn't make it if there was no truth in what I see. I could make a poem out of a string of memes and it would fit right into avant-garde poetry. I'm getting a little sick of shooting in the dark when trying to write good poetry, since I refuse to abide by the rules of what I dislike.

We'll see how I feel about this after my workshop. But this is a problem I ran into when I applied to grad school, and then in most classes I take while I'm here. I think a valid artistic code of conduct is: "I do what I want." However, I keep finding antipathy toward my YA science fiction and fantasy. Apparently it's not artistic enough, it's selling out, and if there's even a chance of my work becoming popular it must mean I'm trying hard enough.

I heard a YA writer speak who also teaches on the university level, and he gets comments from the other professors about how "popular" he is. He said it wasn't a compliment. There is this idea that anything that is well-liked and accessible isn't pushing the limits and thus isn't real art. I struggle with this on both sides; I definitely love a good story where my brain gets a work-out, to the point of condemning other works. On the other hand, I don't write literary fiction, at least, not in the typical way. I think my fantasy can be just as literary as realistic fiction. In any case, it's what I love to do.

If I enjoy my writing, it's not good enough. If I am bored and pained by what I write, it's exactly what postmodernism demands of me. Life's not fair and then you die. Or, in my case, you work hard, receive little validation for your work, and then you graduate.

I believe unfairness is treated in the next life, and I guess this applies to the grad school analogy. After I graduate, I will write what I want. I can write my teenage epic hero tales without penance. I can block out sword fights and hike and go on adventures and call it valid research (the best part of writing!). I was talking to another YA writer, and we decided that it doesn't matter if we get sniffed at for our writing. We can live happily with the knowledge that our books will actually get read and enjoyed by many people.

Take that, postmodernism!