Mesh – Writing Young is Tougher Than You Think

Mesh – Writing Young is Tougher Than You Think

One of the most unique challenges of ‘Mesh’ for me is to go back and re-capture what it feels like to be a kid. No joke, when you’re in your forties, writing young is tougher than you think.

Early beta reader drafts included a lot of feedback on how ‘old’ the kids sounded. It didn’t take long for me to understand the truth: I’m not a kid anymore. My perspective has changed, my viewpoints have changed. I approach problems with a different outlook than I did when I was fourteen, and if you aren’t careful, this comes through in your writing.

I was reading this article about modern kids in the California Sun, and the pictures reminded me of me when I was in my teens. It also reminded me that no matter what, kids are still kids. Sure, they have new gadgets, new fashion, new problems and new opportunities compared to me. But, the bottom line is that they’re still smart people, strong people, demonstrating their potential while learning about the world around them.

Roman and Zeke – the main characters of Mesh – do too. When they come to life in Mesh, they will be somewhere in the future. Like these young people, they’ll find themselves deep into adult problems they never dreamed existed, they will also wrestle with challenges no kid should have to deal with. However, like these kids, Roman and Zeke are going to find their way through. They’re going to succeed, they will overcome, and we will be proud of them when that happens.

Capturing that voice, that unique moment in a young person’s life, is hard work for me. Yet, it’s fun work, and with the help of the Mesh community, I know that I will get it right.

Stupid Protagonist Problems

Ever watch a movie where you’re actively rooting for the bad guys to win ten minutes into the film? If you’re into that kind of thing, look no further than Netflix’s new apocalyptic thriller ‘How It Ends,’ released a couple of days ago. Although ambitious and well-shot, ‘How It Ends’ suffers from a fatal disease that I like to call ‘Stupid Protagonist Problems.’ Since we’re in the business of storycraft and storytelling, it makes sense for us to talk about stupid protagonist problems, and how we can avoid them in our own work.

I’m always disappointed when Netflix releases a clunker. I love Netflix. I love sci-fi. Whenever they’re producing indie sci-fi like Tau, Spectre, or Altered Carbon, I’m invested in their success. I want them to work, because their success is subtle black eye for mainstream studios that refuse to take a chance on original stories.

You can imagine, then, how disappointed I was to see ‘How It Ends,’ featuring one of my favorite actors (Theo James from Divergent) stumble so badly. It’s not hard to spot the problems. James’ character makes a number of cringeworthy choices in the first twenty-five minutes that leave you going: “This guy passed the bar exam?” He awshucks his way through disasterous encounters featuring parking-lot hookers, fake cops, and … American Indians? God this guy is dumb. After thirty minutes, the only question I had was: Why hasn’t Forest Whitaker killed this guy already?

Anyway.

The point is that How It Ends suffers from stupid protagonist problems (SPP), which happen when writers don’t ask themselves a very simple, basic question: Would my character really do that? What do we know about our character? Is he smart? Naive? Educated? Ignorant? What kind of choices would they make under these circumstances? Would they be smart choices, or dumb ones?

In ‘How It Ends,’ the protag is a young, successful attorney. Would he be dumb enough to walk straight up to a prostitute, with his disapproving future father-in-law hovering nearby while the world is ending? Probably not. Would he be too dumb to know how to load a gun, but smart enough to follow Forest Whitaker’s instructions during a car chase? The entire movie is rife with the kind of structure problems you learn to avoid in seventh-grade creative writing.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes chracters are going to be dumb (Looking at you, Lennie from Of Mice and Men), sometimes they’re going to make bad choices (any protag in a Shane Black movie), and sometimes they are going to make mistakes (Anakin Skywalker not taking the high ground). That’s basic storytelling. But when characters consistenly make lame choices that leave you scratching your head, that’s just bad storytelling.

Stupid protagonist problems are something you fix after your first writing session. The fact that they survived all through production, post-production, editing, release … that’s just sad. Netflix needs to spend less getting A-list stars and more on copies of ‘The Elements of Style’ by William Strunk, because as ‘How It Ends’ proves, no movie star looks good when the writing is bad.

 

 

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream – RIP, Harlan Ellison

Sad news in sci-fi land. Harlan Ellison has left us. After 84 years of manic, mad whimsy … our Harlequin is no more. John Scalzi has written a touching essay that’s available over at the LA Times and I link it here because I can’t do the man justice, myself. Tim Minear has a hysterical Harlan story over on Facebook.

For all the crazy stories about Ellison, one fact remained crazier – they weren’t stories. He really was a madcap bohemian rebel, determined to annoy, destroy, and disrupt any conventional piece of wisdom he came across. I never met him personally, perhaps this was a good thing. In memoriam, here is Harlan doing an audiobook reading of his famous short story.

Goodnight, you strange beast.

Emotional Authenticity: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day

Emotional Authenticity: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day

I picked up a copy of one of my favorite children’s books at the second-hand book shop here in town. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day was one of my favorite books as a kid. It’s like sunshine for the soul to come back to it now. One of the things that stands out with this book is its emotional authenticity. I didn’t notice it when I was eight, but it’s positively gripping to me now.

If you’ve never heard of the book, or if you’re only familiar with the movie, you owe it to yourself to check it out. The synopsis says it all: “From the moment Alexander wakes up, things just go wrong in his way. As he gets up, the chewing gum that was in his mouth the night before ends up in his hair. He trips on the skateboard and drops his sweater in the sink while the water is running. He finds out that it is going to be a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day.”

For a book that’s older than I am, the story holds up remarkably well. In 1972, there weren’t many stories that focused on the non-bucolic parts of a child’s life. In simple, pen-and-ink drawings, Alexander navigates the complex world of breakfast cereal, school, friendship, siblings, dentists and lima beans.

Although this sounds like it might be patronizing, the reality is that it isn’t. The book’s author, Judith Viorst, pulls together simple, powerful truths about the world from a kid’s perspective. Sometimes life sucks, and things go wrong, and it hurts when that happens. Even though the book ends on a quiet note, it hits the right tone: sometimes the best you can do is finish the day and try again tomorrow.

You leave AaTTHNGVBD feeling settled, happy, and understood. You can relate to Alexander, and you can feel like Alexander would understand what it feels like when you have a bad day, too. That level of connection is what makes this book so popular. That’s an important lesson for any author to know: we must relate to our readers if we want our readers to relate to our stories.

Emotional authenticity is one of the tools I need to wield correctly as I polish Mesh. As I noted elsewhere, the story has to capture the readers’ heart. If I don’t do that, then Mesh will die on the vine. This is too important to me, so I’m focused on making Mesh work and using different ideas and writing techniques to bring the story of Roman and his geeky pals to life.

So Alexander, I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to say it, but here’s what I want you to know: I’m sorry you had a bad day. You deserve to have a good day every day, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. But if it does, don’t worry! Things can get better tomorrow. In the meantime, we still love each other.

We would miss you if you went to Australia.

 

Star Wars Fans: Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’

I hate to say I told you so, but … there it is. Star Wars fans – a very small and vocal minority of them – are continuing to push us down a path of self-destruction.

According to this article, ‘The dark side of “Star Wars” fandom recently reared its head when Kelly Marie Tran, the actress who plays Rose Tico in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” was run off Instagram by misogynistic and racist messages from fans who didn’t like her character.’

That’s not the only example. Over the weekend, I found myself in the middle of some Reddit-shaming in /r/scifi. A poor kid, improving his writing skills, had the temerity to ask /r/scifi with help on some science fiction. It doesn’t get any more clear than that: we need help.

Other people have already attempted to put these toxic actors in their place, but the damage is done. Unless a strong community message comes forth, firmly advocating for the inclusion and tolerance we all claim to represent, I fear that the entire science fiction community is at risk.

As you can see in the Steven Colbert clip below, the world is already preparing itself to take out the trash. Angry, racist, and misogynistic speech was not supposed to be a part of science fiction, or geek, but it’s happening. If it doesn’t get better, we might all find ourselves banished to the Phantom Zone.

Colbert makes the joke playful, but it’s a joke with teeth. There isn’t an A-List celebrity out there that’s more into Lord of the Rings than Colbert. He knows geek, he is geek, and unless you like finding yourself called out every night on national TV, it’s time to take a step back. So, please.

Please.

If you happen to be a toxic actor, or if you know one, please take this opportunity. Please take this moment. Please stand up for science fiction. We aren’t supposed to be like this. We aren’t supposed to be known for this. Science fiction rallied together to save Star Trek, in the late 60s. Science fiction rallied to name the first Space Shuttle Enterprise. We have been, and can be, a powerful force for good.

I said it before – let me say it again: “Sooner or later, history will allow us to look back on our time now with some candor and insight. Who do we want to be when we get there? How do we want to remember ourselves? How do we want the elder generation who entrusted this community and genre to us to feel? How do we want the younger generation to see us?”

Please folks – take a step back. We’re better than this. It’s time to show it.

Death Clock – New Microfiction

Death Clock - New Microfiction

Happy Sunday – here is some new microfiction to get you started on your week. I hope you enjoy it, I ended up typing the whole thing out on my mobile phone while I waited for a new writing computer to arrive.

The writing prompt was fairly complex, but the concept is simple. It’s based on that old Internet meme: ‘If you ask him, he can tell you how long you have left to live, but only because he shoots everyone who asks him with a revolver as a joke.’ I hope you enjoy …

Death Clock

Author Nightmares – Write Anyway

Another episode of ‘if you’re an author, this is terrifying’ happened this week. Chuck Palahniuk reports that he’s ‘close to broke’ after his literary agency’s accountant was arrested and charged with embezzlement. This kind of story is a nightmare to me, so I’m trying to explain why I have to write anyway.

I can’t expand on details beyond what’s available in the paper. It just feels compelling to say that a story like this represents my worst nightmare as I move forward with Mesh and other projects.

Look, it’s one thing if you’re crazy about money like Johnny Depp. But for a guy who just wants to tell stories and not go broke in the process, this is frightening. How am I supposed to justify this difficult path toward self-actualization, knowing how many risks are involved?

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