Sunday, May 26, 2013

On the Make: Nightlife as a Lifeless Sham

On the Make takes a critical look at image management in the nightlife setting. Using Philadelphia as a case study, the book explores the motivations and tactics of various groups to deceive, manipulate and hustle people for various ends. While the book does offer insight into the intrigues of social interaction, the tone drains almost all pleasure from the actors. It leaves you wondering why anyone would engage in the experience at all.

The central idea behind On the Make is that nightlife can be seen as a series of con jobs or hustles. These are designed by the con artist to separate the victim from something valuable by offering them something worthless (or very close to it) in exchange. Club owners create artificial environments and force their employees to engage in false friendship or flirting to separate the patrons from their money. Public relations companies, local media and promoters make up flimsy events and pay celebrities to show up at venues in the hopes of luring the naïve and desperate. Men engage in complex rituals to solicit sexual contact from women and prove their masculinity to men. Women use more complex (and more successful) tactics to counteract lecherous men, acquire drinks and special treatment and pursue their own sexual conquests. Everyone participates in and has knowledge of a thinly veiled façade designed to create and control image. In nightlife, no one and nothing is what it seems.

There is a significant portion of every urban population that avoids the club scene because they see it as "artificial." That group will find a lot of ammunition for their position in this book. Most of the work paints a negative, predatory picture of nightlife culture. It also largely ignores two important facts. First, image management or hustles are not exclusive to nightlife. They are the common mode of conduct in everyday life. The way most of us act at school, work or at home on a daily basis is as much of an act of deceit as anything that happens in nightlife. Avoiding nightlife in an attempt to avoid fake people or because you don't want to put on an act is futile. Those people and that act are part of your everyday life.

The other thing that Mr. Grazian and other nightlife opponents ignore is the cultural components of nightlife that are fundamental to the experience. Even if you eliminate or discount the musical, fashion, and gastronomic contributions of nightlife culture, the social aspect cannot be discounted. The interaction between people for camaraderie, sexuality and self-expression can be exercised in nightlife in ways that are not acceptable in professional or family life. More importantly, the pleasure and release that can come from nightlife culture does not occur in other aspects of life. Nightlife may in fact be an illusion, but it is an illusion that makes reality worthwhile for the people who enjoy it.

Have fun.

How Much Inspiration Do You Need?

My essay last week on plotting vs. spontaneous writing generated a lot of debate online (See Plot vs. Pants). It also raised a deeper question for me about ideas and inspiration; how much inspiration does a writer need to start creating a novel?

In the Beginning
The start of my own creative process is a mental Frankenstein. It could start with from a book, movie or video game (See Bloody Inspiration Film, Graphic Novels and Books).  Then add in something that I haven’t seen that I’d like to create. Throw in a real world issue that catches my eye and season it with my own philosophical perspective. Bake for several days or weeks and presto…I’ve got my inspiration.  

For example, my next novel Smooth Operator is definitely a cobbled together concept. Books like Rain Fall and 100 Bullets inspired the tone and the characters. My own interest in corporate spy companies and new forms of organized crime channeled my focus. The tactics and world view of Robert Greene and Machiavelli rounded out the message to create the Life and Crimes of Warren Baker.

But I don’t start writing a novel with just an idea. I spend some time developing it into a story. I imagine the beginning, the middle and the end (actually, the process works better when I think up the end, the beginning and the middle). I look at the characters, including their motivations, conflicts and resources. I cut the story into acts, the acts into chapters and the chapters into beats. I get a feel for the genre, setting, time period and the duration of the story. If all the idea can remain viable after it goes through that plotting process, then I start writing my novel. If not, it goes into the idea file to be played with at a later date.

Are Six Words Enough?
Writers who plot might recognize some of their own method in the process I described. But what happens if a writer creates by the seat of their pants? Several writers have told me that they follow an idea and start writing to see where the idea takes them. How much of an idea gets them going? Is it a detailed nightmare or a recurring dream?  Is it a photo in a magazine or an overheard conversation? Is it a character imagined over time or a phrase as simple as a woman walks into a bar? I know ideas can’t be measured like pounds of chocolate or gallons of whiskey, but I am intrigued to find out if spontaneous writers have a threshold of inspiration that guides them to creativity.

Can you share your idea to writing process? If so, please feel free to share.

Have fun.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Plotter vs. Pantser: Which Road Did You Choose?

Humans are predisposed to creating "Us vs. Them" dynamics. We divide ourselves according to race, religion, nationality, ideology and dozens of other factors. None of these contrasts matter in the end because we all share a fundamental humanity, except when it comes to writing fiction. That is completely different (insert sarcasm here).

The Two Travelers

I have found two great paradigms in the craft of writing. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. On one side we have the pantser who writes "from the seat of their pants". They begin with an idea and a blank screen. Then they start writing. Their idea and their inspiration lead the way and to a larger extent, the writer follows. There are several well-known proponents of this method. Stephen King and Tom Clancy write in this style and quite a few independent writers I know also support it.

On the other hand, the plotter starts with an idea, but then builds some kind of road map as a guide before writing the manuscript. Some writers call it a plot. Others call it an outline or a script. Robert McKee explored this method in depth in his book Story and I have found that motion picture and graphic novel writers are much more comfortable with the plot method.

In short, a panster is like an archaeologist who "finds" their story as they write it, never completely sure of what they will pull from their subconscious until it’s done. They are like the traveler who takes a trip with the expressed goal of getting "lost" and reveling in the adventure of what they discover.

By contrast, a plotter is closer to an architect who "builds" their story out of models and plans, unwilling to begin construction until they know what the structure will look like. They are the traveler who takes a trip with a map, a GPS, a guidebook and an itinerary of some kind.

I'm not trying to advocate one method over another, because every writer has to find the method and the practice that works with their temperament and lifestyle. I can explain why I plot and how it helps me, in the hopes that this can help you understand your own method better.

The Method to My Madness

All my professional writing has included some kind of plotting. Creating contracts as a lawyer, understanding the development of comics or the production of films all required outlines of various sorts. Now that I publish independently, plotting enhances my structure and my timing.

When I write from a plot I can work from the inside out. I understand how each character relates to the others and how the narrative will flow. I can build each beat within a chapter, each chapter within an act and each act within a story. A script might take three months to a year to write, but when I'm finally ready to write the book the writing goes very fast.

In my wild youth, I tried to write a novel by the seat of my pants. It took me ten years to finish and it was such a hot mess at the end that I tossed the entire thing. By contrast, the plot for my upcoming novel A Taste of Honey took nine months to write. The first draft of the novel itself only took seven months.

My plots save me time in the long run because I avoid writing myself into a place I can't get out of. If the story doesn't work on the plot or pitch level, it can be reworked or abandoned without much time lost. I'd hate to start something and then have to revamp the whole idea after a year or two of writing. It would be worse to write most or all of a story before figuring out that it needs to be chucked. I've got a lot of plots floating around that I can play with at my leisure. When one ripens, I know it’s a project I can actually finish.

The Map Is Not the Journey

Some might think that writing a plot before writing a novel is less organic and more formulaic. That might be true for some writers, but only if they are too rigid with the plot. As I write, it is normal for my characters and situations to deviate from the original script. I don't see that as a problem. It's a natural part of the journey. Just because you have a map doesn't mean you can't take a detour. The plot is still helpful when this happens, because it will show me where I can regain the narrative thread and where previous material needs to be changed to conform to the logic of this new direction.

Creating a plot is writing by the seat of your pants in an efficient, low risk way. I can play with ideas and see where they take me without trying to manage setting, dialogue, grammar, description and sentence flow at the same time. It's like taking a trip and getting lost in a plane rather than on foot.

Being a plotter instead of a panster is not a superior writing method or a guarantee for success. No matter how you write the first draft, a manuscript still needs multiple rounds of editing and polish. But creating a plot can be helpful if it suits you. I don't think I would write any other way.

So how do you write your novels? Please leave a comment and let me know.

Have fun.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Future of Independent Publishing

What will the world of independent publishing look like in 2018?

Fellow author Emily McDaid asked me to look into my crystal ball and come up with an answer to this complex question.

Writers love to speculate, so instead of one answer, I came up with eleven.

Have fun.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sam and Twitch: A Book Review

Real life cops have to deal with a lot of problems: violence, tragedy, bureaucracy and the media are just some of the challenges as is the constant physical, mental and emotional stress. Fictional cops have to deal with all that and they have to contend with assassins, advanced technology, mutants, aliens, supernatural nightmares and the occasional zombie. In the fictional world, cops more often play cannon fodder rather than heroes.

Sam & Twitch are two cops that find themselves in the unenviable position of policing in the world of supernatural phenomenon. Supporting characters in the once popular Spawn universe, these partners start their “Ukadu” story line back on the force after a self-imposed exile. They are on the job less than a day before they are thrown into a simmering mob war, characterized by rampant corruption and an army of shadowy killers. When you throw in their domestic strife and interpersonal friction, you have a story with tension and conflict on every page.

The presentation is very well done. The art style of the book captures both the characters and the mood in a way that supports the dark and twisted tone of the story. The use of shadows and odd camera angles make you feel like you are looking into a world that is in some sort of perpetual nightmare. The dialogue and pacing also work very well. The mix of mystery, tension, drama and action are balanced and all the elements help to drive the story.

The problem with the story lies in the unanswered questions. Ukadu does a good job of setting the tone and telling the “why” events unfold the way they do. It just never stops to explain “how”. The book left me wondering how organized crime figures came into possession of their powerful weapons. It didn’t even attempt to explain who the major antagonist was or how they got that way. Maybe cops in a superhero universe take things like that for granted, but as a reader I felt that unanswered question made the story weaker than it could have been.

If you are a fan of police drama or crime stories you should definitely read Sam and Twitch. If you don’t want to mix your police procedurals with aliens, ninjas and zombies, this might not be your cup of tea.

Have fun.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Do You Really Need to Quit Your Day Job?

When I look at writer’s forums online, I often get the impression that every writer is striving for the day when they can quit their day job and spend the whole day with their craft. I know the feeling. I’d love to wake up around noon, write for a few hours and then meet friends for happy hours that would turn into late night drinking sessions and dancing. It seems like a natural goal to pursue.

But how realistic is it?

I came across this graphic today while I was wasting time on Facebook. I don’t know if it is true or not, but for some reason it made me happy. Maybe it validates all of us who write and work a day job. Maybe it elegantly separates the quality of writing from financial success. Maybe it’s a warning to any of us who think we’re going to get rich just by being good writers.  (See the Other Benefits of Independent Publishing)

I’m sharing this with you because I’m pretty sure you have a day job as you pursue your dreams as a writer. Congratulations. You are in very good company.

Have fun